Published: August 4th 2012July 4th 2012
July 4 - Departure day(s) and the dancing air-hostesses
What point of one’s travel is it the norm start the accounts in a travelogue ? Whatever the convention may be, I am compelled to recount mine from the time I left my house in Bangalore, India for the airport. The scheduled departure of my Bangkok Airways flight out of Bangalore was 0135 hours on July 5 2012. Given the travel time to the airport from my house and the regulatory 2.5 hour early check-in, I had to leave my house at 9 pm on the 4th of July. The trip to the airport and the check-in itself were uneventful. The flight to Bangkok was on time and I completed the usual boarding procedures in practice at Bengaluru International Airport and settled in my assigned seat. Next to me were a young, recently married couple, perhaps heading to their honeymoon in Thailand. As we settled in and moist scented towelettes were distributed, the TV monitors flipped open. I paid no attention to it, as is the habit. I was debating whether they would feed us and at what times, considering that it was 2 am. However, what played on TV instantly caught my attention. It was an airport tarmac with a shiny Bangkok Airways Airbus A3xx jet and several primly uniformed air-hostesses breaking into song and dance, singing praises of ‘Asia’s boutique airline’, a la Bollywood style. I wondered if they had cast their employees for this song and dance gig or whether they had a professional dance crew. The airplane taking me to Bangkok was called ‘Hiroshima’, an ominous name. The airport in Bangkok (Suvarnabhumi International Airport -- literally translating to ‘Land of gold’, which makes one question, in hindsight, the Spaniards' nautical abilities in their quest for El Dorado) is new and swanky. However, either the airport infrastructure or the arrangements that the airline might have had with the airport meant that we had to be bussed to the terminal and then bussed back. The flight’s arrival in Bangkok was on time. However the time to ply the passengers to the terminal took so much time out of the 65 minute layover I had for my connection to Phnom Penh, that I had to rush to the departure gate. A ground staff holding out a sheet of paper with my name and flight on it was waiting for me at the top of the escalator. She sent me on towards the departure gate. I rushed to it, walking on the moving walkways to double up the speed. I finally made it to the gate, as it turned out, with time to spare, since the departure was delayed a bit. And I was not surprised to find myself boarding ‘Hiroshima’ again. I had a faint premonition that I might board the same airplane. It did seem silly that I had to be bussed back to the plane that I was just bussed away from. I was finally on my way to Phnom Penh.
© Vikram Krishnamurthy
July 5 - “You want lady ?”
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a lone man visiting certain foreign lands must be in want of a woman. I will get to the significance of this very fungible opening by Jane Austen in a short while. I do not want to disrupt the temporal linearity of my narration.Arrival in Phnom Penh was non-eventful. But I should mention that the airport is tiny. It reminded me of the old airport in Bangalore. However, it serves the traffic demands imposed on it well and also makes it a breeze to get through. When the flight touched down there was just another commercial airline flight, a Thai airways' commuter. Apart from that there were a few white colored (UN?) cargo and commuter airplanes, and helicopters parked farther on the airfield.Getting out, and the seeing the outside made it look and feel even tinier. It reminded me of the area outside the Nizamuddin Railway Station in Delhi, but a lot less crowded and cleaner than the latter. I ignored the kiosk selling taxi cab rides to the city center (at an advertised rate of $7) and made my way to the tuk-tuk dispatcher. The tuk-tuk ride also was priced at $7. I might have been able to haggle, but I was keen on getting to my hotel. So I hopped on to it and left the airport. For a long way, I could see other tuk-tuks plying fellow passengers from the Hiroshima. Only near the city center did the tuk-tuks’ paths became divergent, heading to their tentatively anointed destinations.The path was one main road for most of the way, heading east on Confederation de la Russie, then a right turn onto Street 51 (a.k.a Rue Pasteur, the southern part of which undoubtedly seemed like the affluent part of the city, housing expats, diplomats and with various UN agencies’ offices), and a final turn onto Street 178 where Frangipani Fine Arts hotel is situated, and which was where I was headed. The hotel itself is nestled in the mixed commercial, residential part of the city and is surrounded by houses and building with store fronts. The wide pedestrian walkway across the street is lined with street food vendors, serving up deep fried delicacies. Going by the crowds gathered there in the evenings it seemed like a popular place. Upon arrival, and just as I set one foot out of the tuk-tuk, I was greeted by another tuk-tuk driver offering his services during my stay. I had a brief chat with him (in English, of course) and was ushered in by the hotel security guard along a narrow, but well appointed alleyway, with hanging tropical plants and wooden archways with decorative lamps. This is a boutique hotel and seemed to match the expectations set by my flight here on a boutique airline. A glass of mango juice and a hot towel awaited me in the reception while the check-in procedures were completed. The ground floor has the reception, a few guest rooms and a restaurant with a breakfast area, lounge and a mini art gallery. It is called 'Frangipani Fine Arts Hotel' for a reason. A block away is the Royal Fine Arts University, and the street is lined with frangipani (plumeria) trees. The breakfast area has a relatively large water feature with lots of aquatic plants and goldfish swimming around. Several rattan chairs and tables with bright blue upholstery comprises the dining furniture.
Frangipani Fine Arts Hotel [© Vikram Krishnamurthy]
I headed up to my room, lead by Ms. Pham. I had forgotten that I had indicated 2 people (expecting my brother to join me on this trip). She noticed the room had 2 beds and was confused and apologetic. She said she could have the other bed removed if I wished. I said it didn't matter. Before leaving, she also mentioned that the hotel rules did not permit me to have anyone else stay in the room. I acknowledged and assured her that the only others allowed in the room would be herself and her housekeeping colleagues as part of their official duties. The room was large and well lit by an array of lights. It did have a large window but facing another room and the only light from it was a dull sky-light. The bathroom was large too, with a wooden sink, which I presumed was well sealed with some really reliable water resistant sealants. I showered and got ready to set out. My itinerary for the day included the National Museum and the Royal Palace, both of which were walking distance from Frangipani. As expected the tuk-tuk driver I met upon entry was waiting there, eager to ply me to the Killing Fields. I had to explain that my day's itinerary did not include that. I walked a few steps and at the end of the block was the Latin Quarter (a bar-restaurant), playing spanish music. I felt a need to rehydrate. And stopped by the fresh coconut seller near the Latin Quarter. The coconut water was very refreshing. The tuk-tuk driver ran up and tried to tell me it cost $2. But I had noticed another local woman pay $1. So I told him that, paid a dollar and walked. And yes, the US dollar is a currency as much in circulation as the Cambodian riel. The ATMs dispense US dollars and riels. Spiritual semen The National Museum is reachable from Street 178. Along the way I was solicited by several other tuk-tuks and cyclos. The parts of the street in proximity to the Royal Fine Arts University are lined with stores selling various art works. Sculptures of the Buddha, large wooden elephants, paintings and the like. One can see the family members working - polishing sculptures, sanding wood and engaged in activities related to creating or recreating works of art for sale.I reached the museum, the entrance to which accessed by turning off of St. 178. It is a large red building in the Khmer architectural style. The relatively small grounds comprise a garden with a few statues. The wide path along the length of the building's inside is an unfinished muddy patch, with gardening and construction work underway. A set of wide stairs lead to a large set of doors which forms the entrance and exit of the museum. As I stepped in I could feel the heat and humidity. And it was amplified when I saw a couple of girls on their way out drenched in sweat, sitting on a bench in front of a large fan, trying to cool off. The museum has a large inner quadrangle, with the enclosed spaces along the edges. It is open and airy. The halls are lined with glass cases filled with bronze statues and sandstone sculptures from the Angkor and pre-Angkor periods. The styles are very similar to South Indian sculptures of the same period. The inscriptions are in Sanskrit and Khmer (the script for which seems like a snapshot in time of the Pallava script). I could not read the Sanskrit script and would not have known it was Sanskrit, if not for the descriptions. It was a stylized calligraphic form. An extremely large bust of the reclining Vishnu caught my attention. It was so big that it occupied most of the corner connecting the L-shaped hallways. I walked on and was given a jasmine garland strung on a popsicle stick, and was instructed to offer it to the Buddha (with optional monetary offerings for the blessings). It was at this point that I was addressed by this bald frenchman. He was accompanied by a north-African woman also french. He conferred with about the expected thing to do here, since he declared that he did not believe in or subscribe to it and asked what I was going to do. I did not want to carry the jasmine popsicle around. So I placed it in a vase in front of the Buddha statue. We walked along, making progress covering the length of the hall. The frenchman commented that the sculptures of the Buddha, the Khmer kings and various demigods are rendered with faces that exude pleasantness and calmness. I agreed with his remark and added that it was nice to see them whole. I was thinking about similar sculptures in museums in India that are mostly remnants, defaced and damaged by marauding muslim armies, which replaced them with their own unique architectural masterpieces.
The National Museum [© Vikram Krishnamurthy]
Our next stop was a 2 feet statue of Ganesha. It was here that the conversation turned to semen. He pointed at the proboscis and said he did not know what it was called in english. I replied “trunk”. He then went on, "I ave read that Ganesha ad the trunk attached so that ee could mastrubate, with iss deeck, you know. It ees true?". I thought that that was an interesting interpretation, then knotted my brows trying to come up with a response to this. He noticed my pause and filled it with "It is of course a very spiritual semen, that enters the trunk. A spiritual release…" I held back my laughter. At this point his companion too was a bit fuddled and was looking to me to steer the conversation to an end. I then narrated the story I had heard growing up (which did involve spilling of body fluids, but by way of decapitation, not mastrubation). While one cannot ascertain which interpretation is correct, one can certainly glean the interpretive leanings of various cultures. Where one culture blissfully accepts a version in which the narration relates a gory incident of a little boy's head being chopped off, another is titillated by a version which involves a sexual release.Photography is not permitted inside the museum. I continued on, weaving my way through the various sculptures. The quadrangle provided a good photographic respite. It had four square lotus ponds with various fish and birds flitting about among the plumeria, hibiscus and heliconia. I walked about the quadrangle, resting a bit on the benches in the shade. After spending about a hour, I too was grateful for the bench and fan placed before the exit. I rested there for a bit, consulted the map for my next stop - the Royal Palace.The Royal Palace is functional and portions of it are occupied by the reigning royal family. It is a publicized fact that it is subject to be closed to the public on special occasions. It turned out that today was one such day. I had no prior knowledge of this, nor did the tuk-tuk driver who sought to take me to the Killing Fields and assured that he'd bring me back in time for the afternoon opening which is between 2 and 5 pm. I went around the palace, on the sidewalk along the tall palace compound wall. It was close to 3 pm and my last meal was a breakfast on the airplane to Phnom Penh, my second that morning. So I gave up my palace entry quest and looked for a place to eat. I came across 'Impressions' and swanky Starbucks or Costas like eatery with Wi-Fi. The air-conditioning was refreshing. I ordered a Khmer fried chicken lunch and started to download my favorite NPR podcasts.After this I completed the loop around the palace and came back to where I started trying to figure out where to head next. The one positive aspect of the palace being closed to the public was that the main road along the entrance was closed to traffic. This, I thought would provide ample freedom to photograph the well lit main street and the grand entrance. I wanted to get back to the riverside promenade (Sisowath Quay) by evening for more photographing opportunities. My quandary was resolved when a tuk-tuk driver offered to take me around the main sights and Central Market for an hour long outing. I was dropped back at the hotel. I used the couple of hours to relax a bit since I was sleep deprived. First long exposures in Phnom Penh At 6 pm I set out to the riverside. This time, with my new tripod. My first stop was the park area in front of the National Museum. This provided nice elevation perspective. The sky was cloud filled. There was also a mild teaser of a rain shower, not anywhere close to a tropical downpour. As it got dark, I headed across another park to Sisowath Quay, which is a very wide road, lined by an even wider promenade with a row of lamps and an embankment to prevent the rising Tonle Sap and Mekong waters. The rivers starts to flood in August, I was told by my tuk-tuk driver. There was a good 30 feet deep embankment to hold it in. The other side of Sisowath Quay is lined with hotels, cafes and restaurants with street side seating. The corners where the east-west streets intersect Sisowath Quay are very busy with wrap around restaurant seating on the sidewalk, tuk-tuks and street food vendors along the road off the kerb.My tripod mounted camera was hauled up and down the promenade. I spent a great deal of time on the parts which directly was opposite the park and palace grand entrance. This provided me a good motion and light tracing by the incessant traffic on the road and the static lamps strewn at several places in the park and the lighting near the palace entrance. I experimented various long time exposures, going up to 13 seconds. And was lucky to catch the Blue Hour. Just after sunset when the sky is a deep blue. I must have spent over 2 hours walking up and down the promenade, staying close to the line of sight of the palace. After this I was tired and headed to River Side restaurant for dinner. Sipping Angkor lager, I was going over the day's events and activities. And I decided that I should write a blog.
Sisowath Quay and the palace entrance [© Vikram Krishnamurthy]
Finishing dinner and spending a few moments to pack up my camera and tripod, I got up to leave. As is the norm, I was approached by a nearby tuk-tuk driver who seemed to be monitoring the comings and goings into the restaurant. He customarily asked if I neede a tuk-tuk. I said no. The he came closer to me and whispered “You want lady ?”. As far as I can remember this is the third time I have been solicited by a pimp or prostitute. The first was when I was 15 years old, as I was leaving a big book-store in the older part of Bangalore. The second was by a prospective ‘lady’ herself, in Madrid when Rachana and I took a short cut side alley from Gran Via to Puerta del Sol. She saw that I was not alone, giggled a “lo siento” and moved on. Anyway, coming back to Phnom Penh, I again said no. All of this was witnessed by a younger tuk-tuk driver. He probably surmised that the lone man in question turned away a prospective fun night with human company, he must certainly be seeking intoxicating inhalants. So he approached me and whispered “You want marijuana?”. And seeing no excitement from my side, he volunteered to explain that it was for smoking. I walked on and headed to Frangipani, inspired to type out the day’s incidents.