Clearing Customs and a Stateside Shaman

After a long flight and a short, restless sleep, my flight out of São Paulo touched down in Miami. Although it wouldn’t be my final destination for the day, it was my first stop on my return to the United States of America, which meant it was the place where I would have to clear customs before continuing on my way. Despite having done nothing wrong and having absolutely nothing to hide, going through customs, especially in the US, always made me feel a little uneasy, as though there could potentially be something wrong that I didn’t know about. It had been a bit nicer when I’d done the US pre-customs in the airport in Dublin, I’m not sure why, but this was the first time I would be clearing US customs in a US airport (coming back from Canada via train, customs had been a little stern but on the whole nothing to really worry about). Luckily it was pretty early in the morning when we landed in Miami – around 7am – so there wasn’t an awful lot of queuing or anything. Yet when I lugged my bag onto the X-ray machine, of course they decided it was worth pulling aside and taking a look at.

“Good morning, sir” the man said in a voice that was a little too chipper for that hour of the morning, for me. “This your bag here? You packed it yourself?”
“Yes, it’s my bag, and yes, I did.” I answered, half of me still asleep and half of me just a little on edge from being in customs.
“Do you have any liquids in this bag?”
“Ah, well, yeah… I mean, there’s a bottle of bourbon I bought from duty free stuffed in there somewhere.” It’d been a good price, and I knew it was completely within the regulations.
“What about down here?” he asked, looking back to the x-ray image before pointing to the bottom of my bag.
“Oh, there’s nothing in there except some shoes and my toiletries. So there’s a few creams and yeah, I guess liquids and stuff there too.”
“Would you mind if we take a look?”
I opened the bag to reveal some shoes, a belt, and my little black bag toiletries.
“Can we please take a look inside that bag?” I resisted the urge to roll my eyes and groan, but he barely waited for a response before pulling open the zippers and poking his fingers around my toothpaste, my moisturisers, my sunscreen, my condoms… I mean, I didn’t have anything incriminating to hide, but it was a little uncomfortable to have him rifling through probably the most personal part of my luggage. The only thing worse would have been, I don’t know, going through my dirty underwear or something.

Eventually he was satisfied that I was nothing but an innocent traveller, so once again I was on my way. I had to catch a monorail within the airport just to get the terminal from where my next flight would be departing, and once I was there I grabbed some breakfast and readjusted to the pleasant realisation that I was in an English-speaking country again. The layover in Miami was less than two hours, but by the time I got out of customs there wasn’t even that much of a wait before I was boarding again and onto my next destination: a kooky and mysterious port in the south-west of the country.

When I’d been booking my flights back to the US from Brazil with my mother and travel agent over the phone, my mother had asked which city I wanted to fly back into.
“Just back to New York?”
“No!” I remember saying at once. I was suddenly taking two whole weeks out of my original plan and flying down to Brazil, so I needed to move further west if I was going to catch up and eventually be in California for my flight off the mainland. I also knew that I wanted to be back in the US by the 31st of October to make sure I was in the country for Halloween. As an Australian, I’d never really properly celebrated Halloween, at least not in the way the Americans do it, so I was determined to be there for it. When brainstorming cities and places of where to actually spend it though, most people had suggested the bigger coastal cities. I knew that I would have already left the east coast by then though, and with a few months left of travelling afterwards, it seemed too soon to be heading to the west coast for Halloween. When I scanned the map for more centrally located cities, I couldn’t believe that I had completely overlooked it until then. So when she asked me where I wanted to fly back to after two weeks in Brazial, arriving the day before Halloween, I knew exactly where I needed to go.
“New Orleans! I want to fly back to New Orleans!”

***

When I’d met up with my dad in New York, he’d surprised me with a birthday gift. Well, not so much as a gift as an offer. It was the night before the both of us were flying out of New York, so we were talking about future plans, and where I’d be going in Brazil, and then beyond that.
“And where are you staying when you come back to the states? You’re going to… New Orleans, I think your mother said?”
“Yep, New Orleans,” I confirmed. “I haven’t figured out where I’m staying there though, I usually sort all of that out a little closer to the day.”
“Well… if you’d like – just so that you have somewhere to go when you land – if you like, your mother and I would be happy to pay for a few nights in a hotel. Consider it a birthday present. Would you like that?”
After the continual months of Couchsurfing and crashing at hostels, I don’t think my father quite realised how much I would, in fact, like that. I thanked him with a big hug, and he told me to email my mother to sort out a booking.

Jump forward two weeks and I was loading my bags into a hotel shuttle bus at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, the sunshine beating down on me and the air thick and humid. There were a plethora of different accents around me, and as we drove into the centre of town our driver gave us a warm welcome and a little commentary on the passing scenery. Luckily, the Royal Hotel New Orleans was the first stop on the shuttle route, and that happened to be where I was staying. As the shuttle rounded the corners and puttered down the streets, I suppose the first thing I noticed about New Orleans was that it didn’t really look like an American city. In fact, parts of it seemed distinctly European. A little bit of later research would inform me that this is was because we were in the French Quarter, the oldest neighbourhood and, for many, the cultural capital and the obvious touristic focus of the city. There weren’t as many two storey houses and big green lawns as there were cute little layered terrace houses, wrought iron fences, and beautiful, historic architecture. My hotel was no exception, and as I was shown the way to my room I was led through a gorgeous courtyard that made me feel like I was staying in some kind of sanctuary villa.

The courtyard in my hotel in New Orleans.

The courtyard in my hotel in New Orleans.

The first thing I did when I arrived was take a nap. There isn’t a lot of change in the time zones when flying from South America to North America, but it’s still a long flight, and I hadn’t had the best sleep during any of it. It also felt quite odd to be in a hotel for once, with my own room, a nice big bed and a private bathroom. There was no weird small talk between travellers like there is when you arrive at a hostel, and I didn’t have anyone to introduce themselves or offer to show me around, as is what usually happens when you first arrive with a Couchsurfing host. I obviously don’t mind doing any of that, but for once none of that was happening, so I took a few hours to rest, recuperate, and recover from the long haul travel.

While I hadn’t needed to find a Couchsurfing host to stay with when I first arrived, I was only staying in the hotel for a couple of nights, and I’d had a feeling I’d want to be in New Orleans for a little bit longer than that. So I had done a bit of browsing through potential hosts and gotten in touch with a few, asking if they’d be interested in meeting me when I arrived and potentially hosting me when my time in the hotel was over. And that’s how I came into contact with Brett. He was a self-described shaman, though given the mystical nature of the town and New Orleans being the home of voodoo within the US, that wasn’t at all surprising. I consider myself pretty open-minded and curious when it comes to spiritual or supernatural things, and where I come there isn’t anything quite like the presence that voodoo and magic have in New Orleans. All I knew is that I didn’t want to be one of those tourists who goes to New Orleans and does nothing but party on Bourbon Street – without exception, every single profile on Couchsurfing had said that they were not interested in those kinds of people, who were clearly just looking for a free room on a boozy vacation. In my messages I’d described my situation to Brett, as well as hinting that I was curious about his shamanism, and so we’d arranged to meet that afternoon after I was feeling recovered from my flight.

Brett lived just north of the French Quarter, and an easy walking distance from my hotel, so in the afternoon I headed over to introduce myself. He was a nice guy, probably in his mid-40s with a grey head of hair. He wasn’t a native to New Orleans, but had been a resident for a long time and it was his home, so we chatted and he told me a bit more about the city, some of the local geography and history. He  also gave me a few tips of good places to eat and drink around the Quarter, as well as warning me to be keeps my wits about me when walking at night.
“It’s not that it’s unsafe, but… it’s not completely safe. It’s a strange town, things can happen, just be prepared for situations.”
And then we got talking about the shamanism. Out of respect for the practice, I’m going to try and explain it fully because I didn’t really understand it. The bottom line is that shamans work with spirits and by doing so, reach altered states of consciousness through transcendental energies, which may or may not allow them to achieve certain supernatural things. He offered a demonstration, and even now I’m not 100% sure what he was supposed to be demonstrating. Maybe my heart wasn’t in it, or I was just too tired and jet lagged from the flights, but it didn’t really feel like any more than an intense guided meditation. Which, don’t get me wrong, can still feel deeply spiritual. But it wasn’t really a new sensation for me. It wasn’t exactly magical.

To be honest, I felt a little skeptical after the whole thing, and while Brett had been a nice guy, I didn’t feel like I needed to hang out with him anymore. It had been an interesting experience, at least, and I actually did feel a bit more relaxed after what had essentially been a meditation session. However, the night was young, and New Orleans still had many more surprises and adventures in store for me.

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The Churches of Old Town Zürich

When I wasn’t exploring the great outdoors with Robin in Zürich, I took time out of the busy, active lifestyle to do a little bit of sightseeing. The city centre of Zürich itself wasn’t exactly huge, or full of iconic landmarks, but simply wandering around the charming little streets and up the cobblestone footpaths was a pleasure in itself, appreciating the quaint and classical beauty that the city maintained.

A cute little Swiss street that is obviously very proud to be a Swiss street.

A cute little Swiss street that is obviously very proud to be a Swiss street.

Gedenkbrunnen für Bürgermeister Stüssi, or Stüssi's Fountain, which I accidentally stumbled across in my roaming.

Gedenkbrunnen für Bürgermeister Stüssi, or Stüssi’s Fountain, which I accidentally stumbled across in my roaming.

The most notable sights worth seeing in Zürich were probably the small handful of churches located in the city centre. While I had sworn I was done with churches after my trek through the Vatican City in Rome, these Swiss churches couldn’t be more different from the St Peters Basilica in Italy. They were a fraction of the size, modestly squeezed in between all the surrounding buildings, though the classical design suggested that the holy buildings had been there much longer than their neighbouring structures. The first of the three main churches in Zürich that I passed is called Grossmünster, which translates into “great minister”. It is located along the banks of the River Limmat and served as a monastery church when it was first inaugurated some 800 years ago. The Romanesque architecture was impressive from the outside from where I admired it, but it was a beautiful day outside, and I just wasn’t in the mood for trailing through another church museum.

The grand Grossmünster.

The grand Grossmünster.

So on I moved across the Limmat, where the other two main churches were situated – next was St Peterskirche, or St Peters church. The structure itself was significantly smaller than Grossmünster, and it was in the midst of a sea of buildings to the point where I couldn’t actually find the building itself. However, the main feature of St Peterskirche rose above the sea of buildings so that it could be seen from a great distance – the clock tower. Again, I wasn’t particularly interesting in seeing the inside of yet another church, and the main feature was best viewed from a distance anyway. “The clock on that steeple is the largest clock face in Europe,” Umer had said to to me as we’d breezed through the city on my first afternoon in Zürich. It has a diameter of 8.7 metres, but I hadn’t previously managed to capture any photographs of the impressive clock, so I took a few snapshots before moving on to the third and final church.

The clock tower of St Peters church.

The clock tower of St Peters church.

Fraumünster was the only church in Zürich that I actually went inside, but in retrospect I’m glad that I had made the time to take a quick peek. The English translation is “women’s minister” and the church, which is built directly across the Limmat from Grossmünster, was built on the remains of a former abbey. From the outside, Fraumünster doesn’t seem particularly impressive. However, once you set foot inside the cool and quiet halls, you quickly realise that it’s the inside perspective and the view from within that truly matters in these sacred rooms. I’m talking, of course, about the stained glass windows. From the outside on a bright sunny day they look incredibly unremarkable: black holes leading into the depths of the church. But from the inside, that sun streaming in lights up the coloured panes of glass to produce something beautiful, mystical, and even a little breathtaking. I reiterate that I’m not exactly religious and have no affinity with the Christian faith, especially after the disillusionment that came with my visit to the Vatican, but something about being in Fraumünster recaptured my sense of mysticism.

Fraumünster, looking deceptively plain from the outside.

Fraumünster, looking deceptively plain from the outside.

Back in my days at university I took quite a variety of sociology courses, one of them being a class titled the Sociology of Religion. In the first lecture, our teacher read us a metaphor about religion being like a stained glass window. You can study a religion from the outside – the rituals, the doctrine, the history, the beliefs – but the real meaning of a religion requires an understanding that one can only get from being inside of the fold, and being a part of that religion. Perhaps thats why, whenever I step into any of these beautiful churches far and wide across this continent, I get that superstitious sense that I just can’t quite put my finger on. Until you’re ready to fully accept it and be a part of it, maybe you’ll never be able to truly understand what it means to be part of a religion. I doubt that I ever will fully know what that is like, but for the meantime I was definitely understanding the stained glass window metaphor first hand. I tried to take a couple of photos, but the quality of my camera did absolutely no justice to the images I was seeing in front of me. Not for the first time, I took it as a sign that some things we experience in this world as just so significant to ourselves as individuals, that attempting to share them with others would simply fail to have the same effect on them as it did on us. So I momentarily lost myself there, in the cold stone chambers of Fraumünster, before saying a silent prayer – to who, I’m still not sure – and exited back out into the sunshine.

***

After my church sightseeing and soulful contemplation, I lightened the mood of my day with a stroll through the sunshine by the lake. This was before the afternoon of slacklining with Robin, so I hadn’t been swimming in the lake or river at that point. I found a seat on a bench and read my book for most of the afternoon, but I did come across a huge diving platform from which people were jumping off, and plunging into the depths of the crystal clear water. I considered doing it myself, but at that stage I wasn’t exactly feeling 100% healthy – I was still feeling a little under the weather, and recovering from the effects of prolonged partying in Madrid during Pride. I knew I would  inevitably be getting wet when I went slacklining over the river, but I didn’t want to wait around in wet clothes for the rest of the afternoon, so instead I contented myself with watching others jump off the huge platform and into the water.

The huge structure that had been set up in the lake, from which people were jumping off into the water.

The huge structure that had been set up in the lake, from which people were jumping off into the water.

There is one thing that I found shocking about Switzerland, even though it wasn’t exactly unexpected, and that was the cost of living. I had been warned about it, but it still hit me like a slap in the face. I wasn’t even paying for my accommodation, but my time spent in Zürich was fairly limited simply due to the fact that I didn’t have the budget to do very much. Even eating was a ridiculously pricey affair. I went to get lunch from what seemed to be a relatively cheap sausage stand – they love their wurst in Switzerland – and ended up paying around 6 francs for a simple sausage and a small piece of bread. I felt like that would have almost bought me a meal in any other country, but from what I had seen of the rest of Zürich, I had basically stumbled across a bargain. I considered it a blessing in disguise that I wasn’t feeling too well during my time in Zürich, because it meant that I didn’t have the desire to go out and investigate many of the bars or nightclubs – something that I just didn’t have the funding to do there. Robin and I visited a bar or two and sampled some delicious Swiss beer, made in various microbreweries around the country, but for the most part Switzerland was a continuation of my much needed down time. My pride tour down western Europe had really gotten the better of me.

One of the Swiss beers I shared with Robin.

One of the Swiss beers I shared with Robin.

***

Eventually necessity required me to move on from Zürich – there were a handful of other destinations I still had to hit before my Eurail pass expired, and I just couldn’t afford to stay in Switzerland any longer. So on my final morning I packed up my bags, thanked Robin for his hospitality, for introducing me to the world of slacklining, and inspiring me to be that little bit more physically active in my life. Then it was onto the station for another train, another country, and another city on on my ‘greatest hits’ tour of Europe.

Smells Good: A pit stop in Cologne

The end goal was to reach Paris. However, all the direct express trains were completely booked, and it was quite a long distance to cover via the slower, less direct trains. So keeping that in mind, I picked a geographical midpoint to make a one night stopover on my way to the City of Lights. And that’s how I found myself in the west German city of Köln, or Cologne in English.

Tim, an ex-lover and good friend of mine back in Sydney, had spent six months studying abroad and living in Cologne, so I had dropped him a line and asked him what there was to do in Cologne, and what sights were worth visiting. “Even if you don’t spend a night in Cologne,” he had replied, “It’s worth getting off the train just to see the cathedral. It’s right outside the train station – you could literally step outside, have a look around, then jump on another train.” The Dom – which I would later learn is the second largest church in Europe, after the one in the Vatican – was the pride and joy of the city of Cologne, and Tim assured me it was the only really must see attraction. “It’s can be a pretty fun city though. Have a little explore if you get the chance.”

***

When I arrived in Cologne in the early evening, I headed straight to my hostel – booked ahead the previous evening at Ralf’s – and crashed for a little while. Visiting hours at the Dom had finished for the day, so if I wanted to go inside I would have to check it out before I left in the morning. But after a brief chat with some English travellers in my dorm, a quick power nap and a much needed shower, I set out to wander the street a little bit. I’d been told by Simon and some of the other Berlin housemates that many people actually considered Cologne to be the gay capital of Germany, so I felt it somewhat mandatory to at least go out and do a little exploring. Cologne was very different to Berlin – it felt distinctly more… German. Despite having all the well-known German landmarks, Berlin is still quite an international, cosmopolitan city, and I noticed that feature even more when I visited Cologne, which looked like an older, slightly more traditional city. The streets were damp from rain, but they were very clean – a tribute to stereotypical German efficiency, I suppose. I believe they had also recently celebrated gay pride in Cologne too – either that, or there is always a rainbow flag flying outside one of the main government buildings.

The Cologne Cathedral, The Dom, the evening I arrived in Cologne.

The Cologne Cathedral, The Dom, the evening I arrived in Cologne.

However limp it appears in the lack of wind, that's still a rainbow flag!

However limp it appears in the lack of wind, that’s still a rainbow flag!

I was heading towards Hohenzollernring, what I believed to be a main nightlife street if my research skills and Google could be trusted, but I knew it as soon as I hit it. I emerged from the quite, dimly lit roads to a strip lined with shops, restaurants, clubs and bars. I headed towards Loom, the closest gay bar I had read about, but upon arrival discovered that it was more of a nightclub than a bar. In addition to that, it was a White Party – the club was divided into two floors: one for the exclusive admittance of those dressed in white, and one for unrestricted access. I stood out the front for a few minutes, pondering on whether it would be worth it. The thought of being inside a packed nightclub made me realise for the first time just how tired I still was, so I ended up skipping the club and continued wandering down the street. I’d well and truly given up on my goal I had once had of trying to experience the nightlife in every city I visited – there can be too much of a good thing, and I had since learnt that I would need to pick my battles when it came to that mission.

I did, however, descend some mysterious steps into one venue, which turned out to be full of salsa dancers. It was the last thing I had expected to find in a city in Germany, but I hung around and watched some of the dancers do their thing. It reminded me of when I used to take ballroom dancing classes back when I was in high school, and seeing all these people having such a good time reaffirmed by belief that when I eventually got home, I needed to get some hobbies. But for the rest of the night, I contented myself to getting some takeaway KFC and wandering back to the hostel to pass out in my dorm.

***

The following morning I woke up relatively early to head back to the station to book my train ticket to Paris, since the office that sold them had been closed when I arrived in Cologne the previous evening. However, I encountered more difficulties: all the direct trains had no available spaces for Eurail pass holders, and the only way I could get on that train was if I purchased a full priced first class ticket. Assuring the sales woman that that was not an option, I asked if there were any alternative routes I could take. After a bit of searching, she found two trains that could get me to Paris that day, with a connection in Brussels, Belgium. It seemed like my best and only option, so I booked the tickets and returned to the hostel to organise some last minute accommodation in Paris.

The train didn’t leave Cologne until noon, so I used the remainder of my morning to see the famed cathedral, the Dom. It was truly a towering masterpiece, so huge that I had to keep backing up and backing up until I was eventually able to capture the whole thing in a single photograph. The ancient Gothic architecture was exquisite, despite some scaffolding to disrupt the otherwise picturesque sight, but as with any church it was the insides that were the most impressive. Beautiful stained glass windows glittered in the sunlight pouring in from outside, and towering ceilings and long halls created a vast space that subdued all who entered into a respectful silence. Despite having no real affinity with Roman Catholicism, Christianity or organised religion in general, I still can’t help but be in awe of these kinds of places, and feel a sense of the spirituality they once harvested in times gone by. The churches all throughout Europe look nothing like most of the ones in Australia, which are usually fairly modern and quite plain looking at best. The Cologne Cathedral is indisputably a work of art. Even though hundreds of tourists pour through the doors of the church, it still remains an active place or service and worship – though I can’t help but think that a church that has a fully stocked gift shop has turned into a bit of a sellout somewhere along the way.

The Dom, featuring scaffolding.

The Dom, featuring scaffolding.

The echoing main chamber of the cathedral.

The echoing main chamber of the cathedral.

Stained glass window inside the cathedral.

Stained glass window inside the cathedral.

More impressive glass artwork in the cathedrals windows.

More impressive glass artwork in the cathedrals windows.

Shrine inside the cathedral, where worshippers can light candles of prayer.

Shrine inside the cathedral, where worshippers can light candles of prayer.

I wandered through the church for a while, observing some of the alters and statues, and by the time I was done it was time to check out of the hostel and catch my train to Brussels.

Sacred Sunrise: Angkor Wat

The streets of Siem Reap were almost deserted – it could have been a ghost town if it weren’t for the few other tuk tuks and the occasional motorbike that puttered along on the road beside us. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes as dawn unfolded around the small Cambodian town – as I’ve mentioned before, early mornings and I make strange bedfellows, and I have no clear recollection of the last time I was getting out of bed at dawn. I peered through the thin light around us, and watched as the streets fell away to be replaced by dense woodlands and rainforest. I was on my way to the temples of Angkor Wat, to see what is regarded by many as one of the most beautiful sunrises in the world.

***

Yet my Angkor Wat experience had started the previous afternoon. After crawling off my overnight bus from Sihanoukville, I stumbled into a tuk tuk and asked to be taken to a cheap hostel. After being shown the dingy and humid dorm rooms, I caved in to the sales pitch of the hostel owners and checked into a private room – after the weekend I’d had, a comfortable bed, a private bathroom and a place to wash my underwear proved to be irresistible. Treat yourself, I told myself, and collapsed onto the bed to the catch up on the sleep that I had not managed to acquire during my overnight transit. I’d managed to strike an arrangement with my tuk tuk driver to be my guide through the major temples of Angkor Wat, so he told me he would come back this afternoon to take me up there to see the sunset. Unfortunately, he’d failed to mention that to be allowed inside any of the sacred buildings, you need to have the standard respectful clothing. In other words, attire that covers your shoulders and knees. I should have known better – it’s been the same with all the temples and palaces that I’ve visited throughout South East Asia. But my momentary lapse in judgement allowed me to rock up to the temple that is famous for its view of the sunset, only to be advised I wouldn’t be allowed to climb to the top due to the singlet I was wearing. I kicked myself for not realising this before I set out from the hotel, and then took a few photos of the view that I could see.

The ruin which has a beautiful view of the sunset, which I was not able to enter.

The ruin which has a beautiful view of the sunset, which I was not able to enter.

View of Angkor Wat from the base of the sunset ruins.

View of Angkor Wat from the base of the sunset ruins.

I was about to ask to go back to Siem Reap, but my tuk tuk driver said that I’d still be able to walk across the bridge that crossed the moat that surrounds the main Angkor Wat temple, all the way up to the main gate, so I decided to make the most of the sunset and check it out. The temple is really quite a fascinating structure, and it looked beautiful bathed in the light of the setting sun. I wandered up to see now far I would be allowed in. However, what I didn’t realise is that the temples technically close at five o’clock, and at this point it was almost six. Despite there being lots of people around, there were no guards or staff checking for tickets. As a result, my wandering found me quite deep inside some of the main chambers before I realised that I was well within the areas that required one to be ‘respectfully dressed’. But I’d come this far, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take a few photos of the temple when it wasn’t completely flooded with tourists. I took a few photos of the mystical place, made a silent apology through prayer to anyone I may have offended, and quickly scampered out of the temple and back to my tuk tuk.

Angkor Wat in the light of the sunset.

Angkor Wat in the light of the sunset.

Inside the main Angkor Wat temples.

Inside the main Angkor Wat temples.

One of the entrances into the main temple.

One of the entrances into the main temple.

***

Flash forward to the next morning, and I am stepping out of the same tuk tuk in the same location, into a throng of people who are all making their way across the moat into Angkor Wat. Like cattle we plodded through the gates and into the inner compound, where there were already hundreds of people claiming their positions and setting up their cameras, keenly anticipating the rising sun. I found my own spot amongst the crowd and readied my camera for the moment the sun broke from behind the horizon and cast the temple into a silhouette. It was clear to see why the sunrise was such a popular event – the reflection in the pool within the grounds was simply stunning, and the temple took on an even greater air of majesty with sun burning brightly in the background. However, I couldn’t help but feel as though the experience was detracted somewhat by the extreme presence of tourism. It felt as though this structure, originally built as a famous and majestic Hindu palace, has been reduced to a holiday snap, a postcard, or simply just another checked box on a list of things to do in South East Asia. While I was still able to admire the view, the sense of mysticism and spirituality that I had while exploring the inner chambers yesterday had been successfully drained by the amount of photo taking going on around me.

Reflection of the sunrise on the Angkor Wat pool.

Reflection of the sunrise on the Angkor Wat pool.

The throng of tourists crowding around the pool in anticipation.

The throng of tourists crowding around the pool in anticipation.

Sunrise over Angkor Wat.

Sunrise over Angkor Wat.

Standing in one of the entrances to the inner chambers.

Standing in one of the entrances to the inner chambers.

Sunrise selfies at Angkor Wat.

Sunrise selfies at Angkor Wat.

***

However, Angkor Wat is only one temple in what is actually a huge collection of relics and ruins scattered throughout a huge area. The entrance into the domain of these temples is about four kilometres from the town of Siem Reap, and once you pass the main temple you reach Angkor Thom, four times the size of Angkor Wat and not so much a temple as it is an ancient enclosed city, full of its own collection of ruined temples, the largest and most impressive of which is Bayon. My tuk tuk driver dropped me off there, and allowed me to explore the smaller ruins spread out within the walls of Angkor Thom. It was here, wandering through the rainforest and getting lost inside the deserted temples, that I really felt the awe and wonder that comes with the history behind these epic structures. While Angkor Wat was originally built as a Hindu palace, Bayon and the rest of Angkor Thom were Buddhist monuments. I still struggle to get my head around the specifics of the history, a tale riddled with kings, conversions and a host of sects within the two religions, even after a later visit to the Angkor National Museum, but for the moment I was happy to just wander through and explore the ancient wonderland.

Bayon temple inside Angkor Thom.

Bayon temple inside Angkor Thom.

Inside one of the smaller ruins.

Inside one of the smaller ruins.

A building colloquially known at the Elephant Temple.

A building colloquially known at the Elephant Temple.

The steep steps of Ta Keo.

The steep steps of Ta Keo.

Part of the temple featured in Tomb Raider.

Part of the temple featured in Tomb Raider.

Myself with the 'Tomb Raider tree'.

Myself with the ‘Tomb Raider tree’.

***

My tuk tuk taxied me between the rest of the temple highlights, including an unfinished temple called Ta Keo, which lacked the detail of some of the other temples but whose steep staircases provided me with my daily exercise, and a dilapidated compound which I believe was called Ta Prohm, which contained several areas that were the location for the filming of Tomb Raider. Many of the temples were in poor condition, with parts of them closed off to the public due to reconstructions that were underway, but they were nevertheless an impressive sight. I was told by my mother that most people allow three days to see the temples. In Bangkok, Brendon had said one day was enough to see the best bits, unless you were truly mad about temples. In the end it wasn’t even midday before I decided to wrap things up at Angkor Wat. Between my afternoon visit, and having been awake since before sunrise, I had grown exhausted, and I also felt like I had seen quite a lot of what the area had to offer. Of course, there were more temples, but as my time in South East Asia was drawing to a close, I decided I had seen enough temples in the past six weeks.

Having said that, the temples of Angkor Wat really are something entirely different and special. It might have been checking off another box on the list of things to do in South East Asia, but it was definitely more than that. It’s an ancient and marvellous wonder, and one of the few things in this part of the world that could unquestionably be classified as a must see.

***

NB: While I tried my best to learn the history of the temples that I visited, it was long and complicated, and I can’t guarantee that everything I’ve said is correct, especially regarding what these temples were used for in previous ancient cultures. For more reliable facts on these things, please continue your research elsewhere

The Travel Bug

One of the big tourist destinations that you just have to see (or so I’d been told) when you are in Bangkok is the Grand Palace and the Royal Monastery of the Emerald Buddha. Even if temples aren’t really your thing, this one is so spectacular that its supposedly the one everyone has to see. But having studied mediation under the guidance of a Buddhist nun during my last few years of high school, I would definitely say I have an interest, or at least curiosity, in Eastern spirituality, and a certain sense of awe for their places of worship. So after seeing having seen some of the party destinations that are frequented by tourists, I decided I would begin this week by exploring some of the more traditional cultural attractions that Bangkok has to offer.

The Grand Palace is located towards the west of central Bangkok, on the eastern side of the Chao Phraya River. Since the palace is the official residence of the Thai royal family, the inside is not open to the public, but the monastery compound that houses various shrines, temples and monuments is usually considered the main attraction anyway. The temple that houses Emerald Buddha, while being a popular sight-seeing spot among tourists, is also still a frequently used place of worship for both the Thai royal family and local commoners. Therefore, respectful and modest clothing is required before tourists are allowed to enter the compound within which the temple is located. This means no exposed shoulders or knees, no singlets or shorts, so I made sure I packed my jeans into my backpack to change into once I got there. The midday sun was scorching and the heat and humidity had basically drenched my whole upper torso before I’d even made it inside the gates, so actually wearing long pants the whole day was definitely not a valid option.

Once inside, it was easy to see why this place was considered a “must see” destination – the intricacy of the beautiful and delicate designs is absolutely breath-taking.

The beautiful hand painted murals that line the outer perimeter of the temple compound.

The beautiful hand painted murals that line the outer perimeter of the temple compound.

The murals depict the story from an epic poem in Thai mythology.

The murals depict the story from an epic poem in Thai mythology.

The cloisters that run along the inside perimeter of the compound are decorated with exquisite hand painted murals that depict the storyline in a famous epic poem from Thai mythology. Princes and princesses, armies of soldiers, monkeys, demons, giants, gods, temples, palaces – the detail is incredible and the work is flawless. Much of the subjects within the murals are laced with gold, and the walls glow and shine, beautiful and incredible works of art. Within the rest of the compound there are dozens of other structures the are wondrous to behold, with glass, jewels, gold leaf, mother of pearl, and a score of other materials decorating them in a way that lets them command the reverence they deserve, as such sacred and holy monuments. Some of my favourites were the golden statues of the mythical creatures that were half animal and half celestial beings, crafted with the finest, most precise detail, glowing magnificently in the sunlight.

One of the golden statues of a creature from Thai mythology.

One of the golden statues of a creature from Thai mythology.

Phra Sri Ratana Chedi - one of the shrines covered in gold mosaic

Phra Sri Ratana Chedi – one of the shrines covered in gold mosaic

Myself standing in front of Prasat Phra Thep Bidon, the Royal Pantheon

Myself standing in front of Prasat Phra Thep Bidon, the Royal Pantheon

The highlight of the compound, however, is the Royal Chapel of the Emerald Buddha. Built on consecrated ground, all who enter the area are required to remove their shoes. I slipped off my sneakers, ascended the stairs onto the outer platform, and entered into the temple. The walls were vast and tall, decorated with beautiful murals similar to ones on the outer walls, depicting scenes from the life of Buddha, as well as other concepts of Thai mythology. Though it is the shrine in the centre of the room that truly captures your attention. Mounted high atop the shrine, on a golden throne made of gilded-carved wood, is the tiny Emerald Buddha, actually crafted from green jade. He is sitting in a stance of peaceful and relaxed mediation. The statue is hard to make out at first, such a small idol atop such an extravagant display, but the sight of the entire shrine is impressive, golden and glittering amongst the glow of they prayer candles, and for me it did feel like quite a spiritual experience. Perhaps it was because you cannot take photos inside the main temple, so being there really feels as though you are witnessing something truly special. I made my way past the standing tourists the where the prayer-goers were situated, and kneeled among them while I gazed up in awe at the shimmering golden shrine. It had been quite a while since I’d practiced mediation on a regular basis, so I sat there amongst the prayer and worship, absorbing the sacred presence within the temple and taking a moment to reflect on my own personal spirituality.

View from outside the temple of the Emerald Buddha.

View from outside the temple of the Emerald Buddha.

Myself  in front of the Grand Palace.

Myself in front of the Grand Palace.

The guards are apparently favourites for taking photos outside the palace.

The guards are apparently favourites for taking photos outside the palace.

Some marching guards that passed me on my way out of the palace grounds.

Some marching guards that passed me on my way out of the palace grounds.

After spending some time within the temple, I emerged to continue the rest of my tour around the grounds of the Grand Palace. However, after wandering around in the sun for a couple of hours, I’d become quite exhausted, and so decided to make my way home. After wandering the streets looking for a taxi, and now avoiding basically every tuk tuk I encountered, I finally found a taxi rank for motorbikes. They asked me where I was going and named a price – it wasn’t too dissimilar from what I’d paid in the taxi in the way over that morning, so I accepted. Motorbikes also had the advantage of being able to weave in and out of places that cars and tuk tuks are unable to, making them a convenient choice for peak hour traffic. Knowing that my mother would possibly have a field day when she heard eventually heard about this, I climbed onto the back of the motorbike and we took off into the street.

Monument that serves as a roundabout near the palace - taken before I was on the motorbike!

Monument that serves as a roundabout near the palace – taken before I was on the motorbike!

It was such an exhilarating rush. Sitting with my arms pressed heavily into the sides of my driver, we weaved in and out of traffic, between lanes, cutting in front of cars and tuk tuks, zooming through the streets among the pack of other motorcycles. The wind was flying through my hair, as the driver was the only one who had a helmet, and while I know that’s incredibly dangerous, I had a weird sense of absolute trust in this driver and his knowledge of the roads. I’d had some other locals say that driving in Bangkok isn’t scary or unsafe at all, and that only driving out in the more regional areas is something they hate or refuse to do, with city driving being considered relatively safe. I hadn’t believed them at first, but as I zoomed through the open air and soaked up the scenery as we weaved between vehicles, I think I finally understood what they meant. The city almost operates like a well-oiled machine – except in the traffic jams, where a little oil mightn’t go astray – or a living organism, where no matter how hectic or chaotic the environment may seem, everything is aware of and in sync with everything else. I’ve yet to see a single accident on the roads of Bangkok – plenty of what we would call “near misses” back home, but sometimes it feels as though the drivers of Bangkok know their roads so well that they can intentionally come so close with a much lower risk of accident. A tight-knit, well-oiled machine.

Towards the end of our trip, my driver even mounted the footpath and weaved between pedestrians to get me on the right side of the road and home as quickly as possible. When I paid the driver and slipped off the back of the motorbike, he smiled at me and placed a hand on my chest, and waited a moment before chuckling to himself. I must have had a rather puzzled look, because he proceeded to mimic the action on himself, then beat his chest a coupe of times with the palm of his hand. He repeated action on my chest, and then I realised what he was trying to communicate – my heartbeat. Placing my own hand on my chest, I felt it pulsing at a ridiculous speed that I hadn’t even noticed myself. Perhaps I was still a little high from the adrenaline of soaring down the tiny streets and open roads alike on the back of that motorbike, but it wasn’t until he drove off that I realised just how much of a thrill the simple trip home had been, and how much I had really enjoyed it.

It was a short walk home from where I’d alighted the motorbike, and I skipped off down the street with a new spring in my step. For perhaps the first time during this trip I finally felt like a traveler – not just a tourist, running around trying to see the cities greatest hits, but a real traveler just taking pleasure in the simple activities and cultural quirks that my new temporary home has to offer. I’d had a few difficulties getting used to being on the road and settling into my new, inconsistent lifestyle, but it was only a matter time before the travel bug finally kicked it, and I’m now more eager than ever to see not just the rest of this sprawling city, but to keep moving and behold the wonders that this country, this continent, and indeed this world, has to offer.