Monday, 14 September 2015

Deep vs broad travel

Travel broadens the mind, they say.

But I'm more interested in whether it deepens it.

It's easy to travel 'broad'. To keep travelling, to add country after country to the ticked off list, to "do the circuit". I was going to do that in Laos: Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Phonsavan, Champaner, the islands. It got cut short by a traffic accident which destroyed a small area of me, and more annoyingly (though less painfully) my camera, necessitating a trip back to Bangkok...

But I digress. That's travelling widely, and fast. At its worst, it becomes "If it's Tuesday this must be Paris." At its best, it gives an appreciation of different cultures and landscapes, contrasted, compared, tasted and savoured. If you spend a week in France, and move on to Italy, you quickly get a feeling for the different national characters. Or if you spend a few days in Venice, a few days in Florence, a day each in Siena and (say) Viterbo, and three or four days in Rome, you get a feeling for the very different periods of Italian history, and the different forms of art and architecture, though maybe not for regional cuisine or landscape.

Travelling deep is more difficult, particularly for people who have only two or three weeks to fit travel into their year. (I'm always amazed by affluent retired people who still stick to the format of the once a year, three week holiday. Why not set off on a real exploration?) But it can be done, and perhaps it should be done every so often.

Travelling deep is, for instance, just deciding to stay put in a small town for a week, or two, or four.  Get to know people. Walk around. Find the small places no one visits, or wander out into the fields. It helps, in fact, if you have a bit of work to do, so that if you have to stay in the whole morning and do a bit of technical writing or fire off a couple of emails, it automatically limits your ambitions.

When you first travel to a country you spend your time getting your bearings. For instance in Thailand, you get a feeling for how a temple is laid out; the outside wall, the ordination hall, the prayer hall; the way the roofs are stacked, the kind of ornament you see (mother of pearl, or lacquer, in red-and-gold or black-and-gold), the sort of chedis that you see, the way the monastic day is scheduled. And that's quite different, for instance, from the way a Burmese pagoda is often organised, with one very large chedi at the centre, and the other buildings laid out in a square or a ring around it.

But when you travel deep, you start feeling the difference between temples that at first would have looked quite similar to you. You feel the differences in atmosphere - the reclining Buddha of Wat Pho is elegant and sqweet and mystical, the Buddha at Wat Kalanayamit is impressive and crammed into a temple far too small for him, the passageways of the Loha Prasat are strangely severe and resonant. You start getting little obsessions - I ended up adoring the little Chinese grey stone sculptures that turned up in Bangkok as ballast in Chinese ships, but struck a chord with the Thai sensibility (or perhaps Thais are just too economical to waste things), and trying to track down more and more of them.

At some point, of course, travelling deep becomes a permanent second home. A year in Provence becomes half a lifetime in Provence, if you let it. But then, that's not really travelling, any more.

Travelling broad gives us writers like Bill Bryson or Paul Theroux or Isabella Bird.

Travelling deep gives us writers like Norman Douglas or Freya Stark or Alexandre David-Neel.

Patrick Leigh-Fermor seems to be both, at the same time.

I travel deep in Bangkok, now. Every time I pass through, I find a new place to go. Last time I was there, I visited a little flute-making workshop in Thonburi and bought myself a rather lovely flute in beautifully figured hardwood - and got given refreshment, and a lift on the back of a motorbike to Wat Kalayamanit. I've bought stationery and hunted down old pens in Chinatown's stores and flea markets, I've visited the delightful little museum of Suan Pakkad, where delicate lacquered pavilions shelter in the shadow of skyscrapers and automatons play out scenes from the Ramayana; I've chatted to the Marine Department pier worker who told me about the Englishman who was the first head of department, and about Princess Sirindhorn whose birthday he was celebrating, and who showed me pictures of his travels around the country, while I waited for a much delayed boat; I've found tiny Chinese temples, and helped feed the turtles at Wat Prayoon with a little girl on her seventh birthday. I've also explored the Korean and Japanese restaurants of Banglamphu and Siam - you may be in Bangkok but you don't have to stay in Thailand, culinarily speaking.

I haven't yet got round to the Emerald Buddha or the Royal Palace. There's time.

And that's the thing about traveling deep. It does take time. And I haven't always got time. I'm hoping to head to South America next year and even though I hope I'll be able to spend a bit of extra time in some places if I like them a lot, I'm going to be striking out on some long journeys, because with the exception of Colombia, it's all new to me, and I want to get an idea of the length and breadth and size and spirit of that half-continent. There is a place for travelling broad.

It's just nice being able to choose.

In search of the perfect ice cream

Proust had his madeleine. I had a wonderful amarena gelato.

It sat in its dish with four dark, evil cherries in their liqueur. White ice cream rippled with the nearly black cherry syrup.

In the mouth, the cream was cut with alcoholic sharpness, the sweetness of syrup countered by the sourness of the cherries. It was a delight.

I started remembering all the great ice creams I've had on my travels.

The Turks make great ice cream. There was a salon near the pier on Buyuk Ada, one of the Princes' Islands, which served up visne (sour cherry) and chestnut ice creams; wonderful on one of those hot and golden summer afternoons.

Is it something to do with islands? There were great ice creams on Paros, too - and I remember a lovely gelateria on the Isola Tiberina, the little island in the middle of Rome.

Sometimes, in my memories, the ice cream glows in brighter colours than the rest of the memory. Of one stay in Siena, I remember the chants of the Palio winners - I'd arrived too late to catch the race - and the landlady's collection of owls, and a wonderful gelateria close to the main piazza, where I ate gelato stuffed with candied fruit that seemed almost an ice cream version of the famous panforte.

In a little town in Brittany I found a boulangerie which served up home made ice creams, including one with caramel salted with the local sel de Guerande I'd seen being raked from the salt pans earlier that day. Salt and caramel is a typical French flavour - the salt doesn't contradict but rather seems to sharpen and intensify the sweetness, and there's always a slightly buttery taste and feel to the concoction.

Then there are ice cream concoctions. I have no idea how Hello To The Queen got its memorable and rather odd name, but the mixture of bananas, chocolate and cream together with crumbled biscuits is always munchworthy and seems typical of backpacker India; I've never found it elsewhere. No one's even sure where it came from: a lot of people tell you it's Israeli, but Israelis say not, and it's not English, either.

Iceland has ice cream - which it should, given its name (and the ready availability of ice), though on a typical day as the rain lashes the grey Reyjavik streets you're not expecting a queue at the Valdis ice cream parlour. But a queue is what you'll find, none the less. And some weird ice creams: "Turkish pepper" is a favourite - licorice flavoured with pepper, threateningly off-black in colour, reminding me of some of the less inviting geological features I'd seen on my hikes around Iceland. Berries are at a premium, too - blueberries, crowberries, bilberries, are all popular.

Strange, though: almost everywhere else in the world I've had wonderful ice creams. But South-East Asia seems rather deprived. There's the occasional rather nice coconut ice cream, but for the most part, it's cakes that get the Thais, Laos, and Burmese going. I wonder why?

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Don't use Opodo

I am a total6 idiot.

I've used Opodo to book a flight from Bangkok to Yangon.

The flight goes at 1700 today. It's 914 here in Bangkok. And the flight is still "on reservation" and Opodo will confirm "within 48 hours", so they may charge my credit card after the flight has actually gone. And, unbelievably, they don't have 24/7 customer service. Customer service in the UK opens after the flight closes.?I have already wasted stupid amounts of time getting myself fixed after a motorbike accident. Now this.

Frankly I never thought I'd say this, but I just want to go home.

And don't use Opodo. Because trawling the web, I find I'm not the only one.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

How not to get bored at the airport

When you travel on a budget, you sometimes put up with suboptimal travel arrangements to save a bit of money. Quite often, I end up taking a flight at some stupid hour, like 4 in the morning, which means I'm going to have to put in most of the night at the airport, or with a ridiculously long layover - 12 or 15 hours between flights - but which isn't quite long enough to get out of the airport and actually see anything.

So, what to do in the airport when you are bored as heck?

  • Do your research before you go. Most airports have pretty decent information on facilities available on the web. You can also find useful stuff on where you can sleep at airports (at some, like Athens, you can't: at others, like Doha, there are rooms full of recliners to get a few z's) if you arrive, as I did once, at two in the morning and take off again at five-thirty. I always look for stationery stores and fountain pen retailers; I can always spend half an hour or so in any Montblanc concession and I'm overjoyed if there's a high end pen shop in an Asian airport (for some reason you always find the best stuff out there and not in Europe).
  • Look for the airport magazine when you get there. It's not always great reading (though sometimes it can be interesting), but often will have extra information. Some airlines also leave their magazines out in the lounges, and though some are deeply tedious bits of corporate promo, others are well worth reading (I particularly like Vueling's magazine with its fascinating city features and infographics).
  • Some airports have fascinating exhibits. Did you know there's actually an art gallery at Charles de Gaulle? It's free (as long as you're checked in) in Satellite 4. There's a Rijksmuseum offshoot at Schiphol, too, and my favourite, in the departures hall at Ibiza, a vast selection of model aeroplanes. Many airports have interesting temporary exhibitions - I found some gorgeous photos from a landscape competition in Doha, for instance, and a flower exhibit in Bangkok.
  • Sometimes the architecture can be worth seeing. Madrid airport's curved roofs and swooping support struts are amazing - light-wells give interesting shadows and the patterns and textures are a real delight for any photographer; it's my favourite so far.
  • Many airports have an observation deck if you're interested in planes, or simply fancy watching them take off and land as a relaxing exercise that's a bit more interesting than sitting in a chair watching nothing. There's a handy list on the Airfare Watchdog blog. The deck also usually gives you the best view you'll get from the airport of the surrounding landscape.
  • Investigate local culture. While most airport retail outlets are either touristy and trashy, or relentlessly global in their branding, you can usually find one or two real local outlets. For instance, in Bogota domestic airport I found a bar selling the products of the Bogota Beer Company - an outstanding small brewer with some really characterful beers - while in Schiphol Dutch beers helped me while away a couple of hours between flights. In Bangkok airport I found a little Thai cafe selling sticky rice and mango, admittedly at a stiff mark-up. In Delhi, alas, the only local culture in evidence was a plethora of rather useless bureaucracy...
  • Ride the transit system between terminals. You probably won't see much, but it's a change of scene.
  • Walk! If you've been on one flight and are about to go on another, you're doing yourself a favour and reducing your chances of getting DVT. Plus, you've got nearly zero luggage, so why not go wandering? Airports are full of long corridors that you can march along from one end to the other. (Pick one that's not full of people waiting for flights, though.)
  • If there's free internet, you've got it made! But check the rules - there may be limits on connection time. If there are, plan your access times carefully and download as much as possible to read offline.
  • Check the flight board. That sounds tedious, but it can actually be quite interesting seeing where flights go to from the airport you're in, particularly if it's not your home airport. At Calcutta Airport I first noticed how many Indian airports had regular flights - Bagdogra, for instance, which I'd never heard of before.
If you know you're going to have a long layover, it's worth seeing whether you can exit the airport and visit the city instead. For instance Doha now offers visitors a relatively cheap and easy visa for a short visit. Make sure, if you want to do this, that you check with your airline first.

You *can* always pay money to use a first class lounge. But then that rather destroys the point of accepting that longer layover to save a bit of money, doesn't it?

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Travelling back at home... and playing 'Happy Families'

I've only just got round to editing my photos from last summer's trip in France. It's almost as good as travelling there all over again, looking at the photos (at least the good ones).

But a particularly interesting thing happened when I couldn't quite remember a certain motto, that of the Bishop of Comminges, Jean de Mauleon, who was responsible for the marvellous Renaissance woodwork in the choir of his cathedral, and (I think) the lovely stained glass. Was it amor omnia vincit, or amor omnia tecum, or omnis amor tecum? Something like that...

I typed into Google: jean mauleon omnis amor. And what I got was this:

Glorious Renaissance framing. Lovely fresh colours. And naked ladeez.

Well, it's the story of Bathsheba. King David sees her bathing and one thing leads to another... (I think that may be David leaning out of the window in the white gable end in the background.) So there is Scriptural precedent for this naughty picture, but none the less, Jean de Mauleon was pushing the boundaries with this illumination, I think. Not what we expect of a prelate of the Church.

Right opposite is a page with a lovely floral border, and at the bottom, a monogram OAT - omnis amor tecum - which is why I'd stumbled on this illumination.

The book is in the Walters Art Collection, in Baltimore, Maryland. So if I want to see
 Jean de Mauleon's book, as well as his woodwork, I'll have to think about a trip to the States.

I have actually matched works of art up like this before. For instance, a long time ago I visited the Cloisters art museum in New York. It gets it name from the fact that in the days when you could stroll around Europe buying up pretty much damn well anything, someone decided to buy the cloister of the monastery at Saint Guilhem le Desert and have it shipped to New York. (Four other cloisters also got shipped over, but I haven't tracked down their origins.)

Much, much later I walked the Via Tolosana from Arles to Toulouse, as part of the pilgrim way to Santiago de Compostela, and was thrilled to find I'd arrived at Saint Guilhem le Desert. It's a charming village, full of running water, springs, little streams in paved water channels, and low stone-built houses; the sun was hot, the lady at a roadside stall had given me a few over-ripe apricots as I'd passed that afternoon, and the juice that trickled down my face as I bit into them was nicely warm. It was a lovely place anyway, but my joy was increased by the feeling that I'd finally fit together those two long separated parts of a locket, the church and its lost cloister.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

The invisible wall

So many places have an invisible wall. You can't see it, it's not mapped in any book, no one can tell you where it is, but it's there. It's definitely there. And knowing about it can make your life as a traveller so much more interesting.

In Bangkok, I stay on Khao San Road. It's the tourist epicentre; full of tall skinny Germans with dreadlocks, Argentinian road warriors wearing elephant-print harem pants, drunken Mancs on a night out. And also full of budget hotels, which are, generally, pretty clean and pretty reasonable to deal with, which is why I stay there. But it's touristy, and tasteful it ain't.

But it's surrounded by an invisible wall. If you walk a few blocks in any direction you will find it; or rather, you will pass through this permeable membrane, and find yourself in another Bangkok entirely.

Wat Chana Songkram is a minute's walk from Khao San Road. Here, at seven in the morning, old men come to sit in the aisles of the temple and read their newspapers. Thai women cook in the open-air kitchen, preparing the monks' breakfasts, each plate identically turned out with a curled fish, a dollop of rice, vegetables, and clingfilm over the top.

Heading north to the market streets I found, instead of pancakes and cornflakes, banana fritters being served up in newspaper cones for breakfast. In the narrow lanes behind the tourist streets there are kitchens, just a shelf with a chopping board and a gas ring working from gas bottles tucked away underneath, where the chefs have to dodge little boys on bikes and smart suited ladies going to the office as well as their own waiters, always on the run.

Head further north, past the boat station and over the next khlong, and you're in a quiet neighbourhood of old houses, and schools, and one of the white-fronted houses hides a music school where students learn the Thai dulcimer and the rippling sound of hammers hitting brass strings shimmers through the neighbourhood.

A chubby middle aged woman brings her aged mother to the temple; mother is still wearing slippers. A Buddhist priest on his alms round shoves his bowl at me, and bursts out laughing when I'm not sure what to do.


Rothenburg ob der Tauber is one of those places that was always goig to be ruined by tourism. It's a small town, not much to it, easily swamped. It's on the 'Romantic Road', which means charabangs and tour groups and no one staying longer than two hours. It has an altarpiece by Tilman Riemenschneider (in fact, it has two), an artist who combined great skill and delicacy in woodcarving with a strikingly dramatic late Gothic sensibility; it has a double bridge over the river, the original town walls with their gates, unspoiled old houses.The main street is a scrum; tour groups marching behind their leaders from coach to church, from church to coach, selfie-taking en route, schnell, schnell, don't miss the tour, don't miss the bus.

Yet strangely, as soon as I got off the main road, I was on my own. A crisp, bright day, the snow lying virgin in the back gardens of the town; I got up on to the walls, and suddenly there was that soft silence you get when the snow absorbs all sound, except for the bok-bok-bok of a couple of chickens in a back yard and a dog that barked at me four or five times and then gave up. There were apple trees in back yards, branches black against the snow. There were views of red roofs and dark spires and half timber and stone, all the textures of the town. It takes a good hour or more to walk round, and in that time I saw three or four people.

It was a shock when I walked down a narrow, lonely alley, and came out at the end of it into the crowded press of bodies on the main street, and the noise, the yelling, the talking, the mobile phones, the trampling feet. 

Two worlds, meeting at a junction.

There are invisible walls in many museums and cathedrals, too. True, there are 'keep out' notices and chapels that are roped off, but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about individual rooms in the British Museum which people don't bother with, because they're up too many stairs and don't have any of the big highlights in and don't have anything to do with ancient Egypt (because, let's face it, mummies are what people go for). The side chapels in Notre Dame cathedral with interesting tomb slabs and sculptures, but which are almost always deserted.

It's less and less easy these days to find 'unspoiled' or uncrowded places. But if you're alert to the existence of that invisible wall, you can sometimes find them in the most unpromising places.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Sparse culture vs rich culture

One of the things I most love about Ladakh is its sparse culture, the slenderness of its means.

Take the village economy. There are three trees, only three: the willow, the poplar, the apricot. The poplar for building. The willow for the roof, for hurdles, for sticks. The apricot for fruit.

There is one crop. Barley.

There are two toilets. Ladakhi toilets come in pairs; one for use this year, one for last year. At the end of its year fermenting, the compost is turned out in the fields, and the last year toilet becomes next year's.

This is sparse culture. It's not just the difficulty of the climate that makes it so; it's the predominance of a single religion, a single devotion (mahayana Buddhism has many deities but in all Ladakhi temples you see the same few - Green Tara, White Tara, Padmasambhava, Maitreya), a single way of life. (Though Leh is something of an exception: I met a number of local Sikhs, and stayed with a Muslim family, and in summer, anyway, the town is as much Kashmiri as it is Ladakhi.)

Music has only five instruments: the drum, cymbal, bell, the shawm and trumpet. Most music is sung: the ploughing song, the chant. A contrast to the richness of Varanasi, where bansuri, sitar, tabla, shehnai, violin and shruti box vary and ornament the two hundred different ragas, and the streets are full of diverse musics.

Iceland also has a sparse culture at its heart. Rich in stories - the Icelanders are great storytellers - but sparing in its food, for instance, sparing in the seasonality of its life, sparing in the lack of ancient history - though it has the oldest continually used Parliament site in the world, Iceland has hardly any buildings more than two hundred years old. Even its rifts, its mountains and its islands are recent, and not just in geological terms: Thingvellir subsided in the eighteenth century, so what you see now is not what the Vikings saw when they held their first parliament there, and the island of Surtsey is a mere half-century old.

The wonderful thing about Iceland, though, is that a sparse culture allows originality and eccentricity to develop easily. A ridiculously high number of Icelanders write and publish books. Bjork and Sigur Ros are just the tip of a huge Icelandic music iceberg. There are no traditions to hold you back.

Rich cultures, on the other hand, surround you with an amniotic soup of tradition, of culture, of music, of difference. This was the type of culture Shakespeare lived in - a mixup of Bible learning, classical myth and history, chivalrous romance, medieval devotion, modern science. While it's possible to maintain that the creator of Shylock probably never met a Jew - they had been barred from England for centuries - there was a Moroccan ambassador at the English court, and Elizabethan adventurers had reached Persia (Shirley), Surat (Coryat) and even Norwich (Will Kempe).

I was thinking of that today reading an article in the Guardian about Ethiopian music. With "80 ethnic groups and 40 native instruments" this is a rich culture - add to that modern tech and western musical beats, and you have something very massive and very rich.

Saturday, 3 January 2015


Prayer flags at Pemayangtse, Sikkim
Western culture is all about making things permanent. We create monuments. We carve in stone, in Carrara marble. We build in brick and stone. Medieval masons built cathedrals that would last till Judgment Day. 

Buddhism on the other hand is about impermanence. All things change, perpetually. There is no 'I', there is no God, there is no-thing. Accepting that truth, the Buddhist can go through life unworried and serene. I'm hungry: it will pass. I'm ill: it will pass. I'm angry: it will pass.

Architecture, therefore, means a different thing in a Buddhist culture, and the religion expresses itself in ways that enshrine impermanence.

Prayer flags are left to decay; they tear and shred in the Himalayan winds, the fabric rots and crumbles.

Mud brick returns to earth. The stone buildings of Ladakh often seem as if they are returning to the mountain, or never left it; walls that sag, stones that fall from the dry-stone wall on to the path.

In Japan, the culture celebrates impermanence; viewing the cherry blossom, which is so beautiful because it lasts such a short time; the cult of wabi-sabi, the authenticity which comes with age and use - urushi lacquer that has worn thin, that shows the layers underneath, that develops depth as it ages and is handled.

There are temples of immemorial age, and which, even so, are barely two decades old, because they are rebuilt every twenty years, on the same design. What is new and what is old, in a world of impermanence, flows together and is confused.

(It's intriguing that the values of impermanence - the spontaneous, the limited-validity, the pop-up - are now being re-evaluated in architecture and town planning. We've had too many statement buildings, too many blocks of granite, glass and chrome. In reaction to this, the small-scale, the economic, the limited duration, have come to seem more attractive. But the philosophical underpinnings of Buddhism aren't there: this is more about Schumacher's 'small is beautiful', about self-help, grass-roots, anti-corporatism.)

So travelling in Buddhist cultures, I've found it's not just the forms of religion and its architecture that differ - stupas instead of steeples, butter lamps instead of candles. The whole intention of the architecture is different - the whole intention of the culture is different. You can look at a wheel and see a means of going somewhere very fast; or you can look at a wheel, and see a prayer made captive.