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Category Archives: Movies

Travels with Pavel: 19-22 February 2005

Three days at Sihanoukville on the coast of the Gulf of Thailand with waters as warm as “dog’s urine” to quote Pavel. All I did was sleep late and venture to the beach only after 5:30 in the evening when the sun had lost much of its heat – I didn’t think that I particularly needed the tan.

The Road to Damascus is exactly 50 years old in its 1955 edition and a beautiful book of discovery, of clarity, and one to which I know I shall return given my own addled understanding of religion, and battles with faith and unbelief. I am worth so much more than the birds of the sky, as the saying goes but altogether too much like a crab washed ashore by the sea onto some slippery rock clinging on precariously until the next wave comes and pulls it back into the foaming chaos.

It’s our last day together in Cambodia – Pavel is taking the bus from Sihanoukville to the Thai border while I am going back to the capital to take the flight back. What is worse, its Pavel’s birthday tomorrow – of all the days, it had to be his birthday, I’ve been silently cursing the travel restrictions on Indians for several days now.

Anyway, there’s no keeping a Czech beer-lover down, so we decided to celebrate by having Happy Pizza, served by a cheerful 12-year old named Marra, whose mother worked in Phnom Penh, while he helped Johnny.

Now Happy Pizza is a local specialty we’ve been saving for the last. This time though we’re not as poor as we were with the spiders. Pavel and I had a pizza each laced with marijuana to go with our beers and the fantastic sunset in front of us. 5 minutes, 15 minutes, half an hour – it didn’t seem like the marijuana was having much of an effect on either of us and we decided to sit down to a screening of Van Helsig that had just begun at one of the beachside places. It was being screened on a white sheet stretched between two poles stuck in the sand. The patrons of the shack sat in front of the screen but pretty soon there was a bigger audience of shameless tourists and locals sitting behind the screen. Of course, they were only followed the lead set by a certain Indo-Czech duo.

The movie is a combination of all the various monster legends of European literature – the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Frankenstein, Werewolf and Dracula – and together with some crazy mix of this stuff as shown on screen plus the ‘left-handed’ crossing of himself by Van Helsig, this is absolutely a strange movie to watch when you’ve just had Happy Pizza – though I daresay, people might have felt that way about the movie even otherwise. In any case, being stoned sort of increased the charms of the movie, several notches

If watching Van Helsig, wasn’t quite the ideal way to tell how high we were, we realized soon enough as we made our way back after the movie. Splashing through the waves, I found that I could not help smiling all the time at something or the other and once I had laughed, my face remained fixed in at full stretch for the longest time. Even when Pavel was heading out quite a fair distance into the sea, all I could do was laugh myself silly while somewhere in the back of my head, I was screaming at the top of my lungs, “come back, you clown, or you’ll drown and I can’t swim!!”

We made it back to our guesthouse and decided to pay our US$12 for the three nights, since we were leaving the next day. According to Pavel, I did the paying normally enough. According to me, I was watching myself outside of my own body, slapping down the dollars on the counter with a scowl and scaring the hell out of the chaps at the reception at the same time.

In the morning when I saw Pavel off at about 7, I was still reeling. It took a long shower, and a walk through Sihanoukville with my rucksack and lunch to bring me back to some semblance of level-headedness. Back in Phnom Penh, I did not mind the long walk through Preah Monivong Boulevard back to our last guesthouse at Boeng Kak, either. And for once, I didn’t lose my way.

Travels with Pavel: 15 February 2005

I wonder how they let me into Cambodia by land. The Thai embassy in Phnom Penh – actually the guard at the counter who wouldn’t even let me in to the main building – said that unless I was resident in Cambodia, I could not get a tourist visa to return to Thailand overland. As an Indian, I could only get a visa on arrival at the airport. I had to fly back to Thailand, as the official at the Indian embassy had told me. Pavel, of course, could walk on his hands or pole vault across for all the Thais cared. So that’s another lot of US dollars that I would have to spend to keep the Indian flag flying high in Taipei instead of in prison in Phnom Penh.

Gandhi and Me in Phnom Penh

Pavel came up with the idea of arriving exactly on the 24th at Bangkok so that I wouldn’t have to pay visa fees and proceed directly to the transit area and fly to Taipei. With my talent for attracting trouble, I’m likely to end getting lost again and with a 2-hour window to boarding my flight to Taipei, I knew I was likely to do everything within my power to cut things as fine as possible. Just the way it’s always been with me.

We are also extremely short of money. If the present situation does not call for a lot of prayers from the believer in the team, I don’t know what does. Are things as bad as they look? Or is it all just perfect?

Watching the Tom Hanks starrer, The Terminal about things that can go wrong with visas and at airports – Pavel had very considerately asked the guesthouse manager to screen it for my exclusive benefit – it was hard to miss the fact that in the end, it was only the Indian (Gupta, in this case) that got socked.

Travels with Pavel: 13-14 February 2005

At the village of Kampi on the way to Kratie, the Mekong came into view with the setting sun reflected in its slow waters – a sight for tired minds and bodies beyond the point of feeling any discomfort. We were on the return leg from Banlung  and the hot, dusty, bone-jarring ride cooped up this time in the inside of a Toyota Land Cruiser instead of bouncing around on the tailgate of a pick-up was infinitely more dreary than any of our trips so far. Unlike the trip into Banlung in the cool evening air, we were left more dead than alive at the end of it. There was a boy barely into his teens, I think, and Man Friday to the driver, who was perched on the top with our luggage and a standing moto. How he survived the ride is a mystery to me. Pavel, meanwhile was a sight to see, caked in dust at the back – and so I guess, was I.

The boat ride we wanted from Kratie to Phnom Penh didn’t exist. It went only up to Kampong Cham and cost US$5 to US$8 per person, depending on who you spoke with and we were seriously short of money. So we settled for a 10,000Riel big-bed room at Star 2 Guest House – the half a dollar extra was for the TV that came with the room. Pavel helpfully pulled out the plug in a bid to convince the mercenary proprietress to keep the rent to US$2. No such luck! So I went to sleep watching Zee Music.

Earlier just when we thought we were likely to starve for the night, we found food, meat and rice – a little of both – for 700Riel each. Tickets to Phnom Penh by bus – the last two seats for US$5 each – finished off the last of our American currency. Talk about a well-planned trip – I’ve become too used to riding my luck.

The morning of Valentine’s Day was not much fun at the back of the 7:15 bus for Phnom Penh. It was cramped even for me and I can only imagine Pavel’ discomfort. The high point of our trip was that with 500Riel (we were now into three figures in Cambodian currency), Pavel and me shared a fried spider – finally! Once we plucked up the courage to do it, we were left regretting we didn’t have enough money to have a spider each to ourself. The spider was quite tasty really. With another 500Riel we bought three appams with sugar, coconut rinds, etc, etc, whatever you call it back in Kerala, tasted just like home. This country really is a lot like home, right down to the music videos.

2330hours

I am really hopeless as far as my sense of direction goes. That or I simply don’t pay attention to where I’m going. As soon as I have 20 metres clear in front of me, I start dreaming, I miss turns, forget all about time. And I was supposed to meet Pavel in a nearby Internet cafe, but I ended up way, way off from my destination. I finally hired a cycle rickshaw – City of Ghosts style – me in front, cyclist at the back. The few times I’ve had the experience with the cycle-rickshaw wallahs in Delhi, I’ve never even attempted to bargain with them. I feel terribly guilty of being transported around literally by the sweat and toil of another human being – I usually walk if I can help it. This time thought, given our own straitened circumstances, I negotiated the price down to 300Riel. Wasn’t really necessary. I ended up paying the US$1 the guy asked for, the guy was sweating in the heat and he asked with a smile close to desperation.  Not much chance of me leaving any kids of mine a decent inheritance, I guess.

Saw Team America at our guesthouse – talk about taking the freedom of expression, too far! But funny movie all the same.

Travels with Pavel: 9 February 2005

The bus to Kratie advertised as leaving at 10:30 in the morning, left at 10:20. Fortunately, we’d gotten to the bust station early ourselves. On the way we took in Kompong Cham’s small-scale celebrations in town for the New Year of the Rooster – dragon dances in front of each house or shop and children throwing fire-crackers at each other.

It was more of the same flat landscapes for much of the route, except this time we caught sight of rubber and tobacco plantations as well. Getting to Kratie and finding the mini-bus to Stung Treng full, we braced for the first “real” ride of the entire trip. So far every long distance trip had been inside a/c buses donated by South Korea or whoever. Now we would have a nearly 10-hour long trip on the back of a pick-up truck, sitting on an open tailgate.

There were about 20 souls in the back of the pick-up including a Frenchman named Laurent Jeanneau with whom we sat at the tailgate for the entire bumpy, dusty road. After a while, we were reduced to 16 people including three small boys. The Khmer farmers kept up a steady chatter through most of the trip commenting on Pavel’s one-glass shades that he’d managed to break before the trip had even begun.

The ride was exhilarating as far as I was concerned, the first time I truly felt alive, lurching about at the back, having a few close calls in the beginning. During a particularly murderous stretch after dinner break, I often had my butt floating up to a foot above our tarpaulin covered seat. Or maybe it was just the driver driving faster after a good meal… and in the dark. Pavel and I had been on empty stomachs throughout except for a baguette each for breakfast. But I loved the trip and was glad to have done it before this route was black-topped and a/c buses (from South Korea, naturally) came to dominate.

Laurent was an interesting guy, a professional musician – electronic music was his specialty (listen) – he’d recorded tribal music from all parts of the world, including India. He was returning to Cambodia after some nine months following an earlier nine-month stint in Ratnakiri. He spoke Khmer and was returning to take a local tribal artist to perform in France. We spoke quite a lot of the politics, history and societies of the peoples of the region of which he was extremely well-informed.

Finally at about 11 in the night, we landed up in a Banlung that had gone to sleep but still produced two moto drivers out of nowhere. In the event we just walked to a smart little place nearby that offered a striking contrast to the Bopear. Banlung Guest House offered a TV and attached bath plus dusty white sheets at US$5 for doubles. It was two in the morning before I fell asleep – there was Michael Corleone carrying out his first hits, Santino getting killed at the checkpoint and Michael marrying a beautiful Sicilian only to have her blown up in a car bomb. The music of The Godfather (listen) is just so hauntingly beautiful, apt in a strange sort of way for the inky darkness and night sounds outside our windows.

Travels with Pavel: 6 February 2005

In a dusty corner of Phnom Penh, along a street where a rather elaborate function with lots of security personnel and Buddhist chanting was going on was the huge sign that announced “Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crime” or S-21. Also at the corner stood “Tuol Sleng Internet” and almost bang opposite the barbed wire walls of the museum along an unpaved track, the “Tuol Sleng Guest House.”

Pavel didn’t want to see the inside of the museum. I did. And at the end of it, I wondered what I’d gained. In about 40 minutes, I’d lost all the pleasantness I’d associated with Cambodia – the grandeur of the Angkor Wat and the temples around it paled into insignificance, nothingness, the beautiful paintings on the roof of the Throne Hall in the Royal Palace, the thousands of silver tiles of the Silver Pagoda and its priceless Buddhas, all nothing, nothing against the recounting of the evil, that I’d just seen.

It was children, teenagers that carried out the tortures of grown men and women in S-21 during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Children and teenagers, who were employed to engage in cruel and barbaric torture in the service of the state. Evil, somehow is too short a word to describe this.

Duch, the chief of S-21 is depicted in a smiling pose in his photograph at the entrance to S-21, as also are some of the child perpetrators of the crimes. And in the photographs of the victims with numbers pinned to their clothes, and in one case, on to his bare chest, a variety of expressions – of powerlessness of disbelief. The face crumples up and it is hard to stop the tears from flowing, it is hard to pretend any longer that you are brave. And yet, amidst the sheer terror, also stood out expressions of defiance. Men can despite everything die with dignity no matter the manner of their death.

Pavel told me that when his sister, went to Auschwitz, apart from the facts on view, the weeping of the Jewish visitors made it all the more terrible an experience. At S-21itself, the photographs, the interrogation chambers, the cells with their instruments of torture on display, the skulls piled up in showcases were not in any way more bearable for the lack of weeping visitors. In a tropical climate, the chill of that place seemed to seep into my very bones, to constrict my breathing. The guidebooks uniformly call the people of Cambodia “warm hearted” and indeed, they were. Where does evil come from then?

And the graffiti on the wall under a staircase in one of the building blocks says it all: “This is socialism”, “Don’t forget Abu Ghraib…”, “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children” by Bobby Sands who died on a hunger strike in a British prison to which somebody had written not very complementarily about the IRA. And “Blair, Bush. Bollocks!”

The world goes round and round, Khmer Rouge, IRA, Bosnia, Rwanda, Abu Ghraib. Who learns anything at all? The movie, “The Killing Fields” is a must-watch for every tourist in Cambodia. We too watched it later in the evening.

To the Lao embassy tomorrow. The travel agencies won’t help procure visas for Indians, Nepalis, Pakistanis and Afghans among a few others unless they produce flight tickets. I’d already asked Pavel yesterday, “Who the fuck gives a damn about Laos, anyway?” My Indian pride is pricked, Pavel can obtain a visa and enter the country overland. What MEA fuck-up produced this “respect” for Indians, I wonder? And funnily enough among the photos outside the Lao embassy we passed by today is one of former Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and company meeting with their Laos counterparts. Mekong-Ganga Initiative, my foot! We’ll see about this tomorrow.

Travels with Pavel: 4 February 2005

“I’m not so dangerous!” said the pretty young thing to me. I was trying to recover my wits after just crashing into two of her compatriots also pretty, also young. The two had just taken off on their motorcycle without looking and were now sprawled on the ground in the middle of the bustling Old Market. And me, poor me with my rickety bicycle, stranger in a strange land, expecting to get lynched. In the event, I escaped with just some sweet sarcasm and several shy smiles aimed at me (yes really… … Coz, I’m tellin’ you so, that’s why). I’ve been in a lot worse and Pavel the Philosopher seemed now to have completely recovered from his own near-death experience with his cycle a couple of days ago.

The Roluos group of the earliest Angkor temples – Preah Ko, Bakong and Lolei – are in pretty much good shape considering their age. Also interesting was the script on the doors in these temples which had many characters that looked similar to those in Tamil or Malayalam. But otherwise, the Thai script much simpler looking than the Khmer script, looks more like Oriya or Sinhala or even modern Hebrew.

The trip to Phnom Krohm was special too, the temple overlooking the fantastic Tonle Sap – the flow changes direction twice a year! – in the far distance is a beautiful spot, so much quieter than the other tourist hangouts. Pavel and me were also treated to some palm toddy or panna kallu as we say in Malayalam – red ants and all – was a lot less stronger and a more sweeter than I’d imagined.

On the way it was beer and soya milk in hammocks at a roadside place, where Pavel expounded on the merits of Czech beer and the art of beer drinking – “Americans can’t drink beer” he declared. And a beer fact – Pilsner is from Pilsen in the Czech Republic (but naturally) – all Czech beers are Pilsners ergo, its good stuff. Yes, sir.

Soon we shifted to the subject of films and how he and his sister used to visit Karlovy-Vary. The style of the festival sounds very much like that at JNU. Now every Mallu worth his salt knows about Karlovy-Vary and the ‘art film’ – it sort of runs in our blood you know. And Mallus being Mallus, we can take it to an extreme. Inside every Mallu, in fact, is a romantic waiting to turn into a tragic hero, a lemming waiting to jump off a cliff, by making a completely unwatchable and commercially catastrophic ‘art movie.’

Finally got my Cambodia souvenir T-shirts at the Old Market and  tried Shabu Shabu style food for the first time at a roadside restaurant. Also happened to chance upon the Taipei Overseas Peace Service (TOPS) office in the late evening. Nice Taiwanese residents that we were, we went in to ask about the work of the place promptly sending the place into a tizzy. The one Taiwanese volunteer there was out but there was a really nice lady in charge and it sounded like they’re doing pretty good work too.

Add Angkor Wat to Kuttanad and it’d look like Siem Reap I guess.

Travels with Pavel: 31 January 2005

The Chris de Burgh song is not bad but this was something else! The lady in question, spiky-haired and with the winningest smile, almost pushed us into her bus leaving for the Damnoa Saduah Floating Market. Thailand has men bus-drivers and women bus conductors. The red outfit, I later learned was simply their uniform, though they also have long-skirt versions of it. Now, the relationship between driver and conductor it appears is like everywhere else – extremely chatty – the driver’s gotta stay awake – I guess driving as they do at under 30km/hr can be quite soporific. This despite the big wide roads and in good condition mostly – catch an Indian driver driving slowly despite narrow roads, in bad condition mostly. Bangkok’s tuk-tuk drivers by contrast seemed to be on a different diet from their bus-driving counterparts.

We finally saw what a floating market was all about. We reached rather late, about 10ish but there was still action on. The canals, the coconut groves, reminded me a lot of Kuttanad, my Mom’s place in Kerala. I miss home. Quite a place though DS. Built around the canals with their numerous boats plying their wares, are large markets selling all the regular touristy stuff from T-shirts to hats to postcards. Floating markets maybe but solidly grounded in commerce.

Damnoa Saduah Floating Market

Pavel and I carried on to Kanchanaburi – it occurred to me pretty late that at my old school, Our Own English High School in Fujairah, UAE, I was in charge of playing the cassette with the soundtrack from David Lean’s movie “Bridge on the River Kwai” for morning assembly. Dragged an extremely reluctant Pavel along, saw the new bridge built on the site of the old one, touched the waters of the River Khwae, and took a few snaps on Pavel’s crazy Praktika. It was a strange feeling to be reminded of half a lifetime ago and to think that the moment just happened almost without planning. Story of my life, nothing’s ever planned. Or the plans go kaput in short order.

Bridge on the River Kwai

The Burma Railway or the Death Railway as it was known is a testament to the way history is written in this day and age – hopefully something that is also changing even as I write. It is the 10,000-odd white Allied prisoners who died that are the focus of public memory rather than the 100,000 conscripted labour from Thailand and neighbouring countries. And yes, Indian soldiers too, died here. I doubt that any were whistling merry tunes.