LEMONGRASS

Bangkok, 20 August 2015

One of the things I always do when I go to a new country is to inspect the vegetable section of the local markets or supermarkets, to see what fruits and vegetables they have on display which I have never seen before, and then I try to figure out how the locals eat them. I also play this game with fish, where one can see interesting variations around the world. I normally don’t bother with meats, since there is much less variety here. Chicken, pork, and beef probably cover more than 95% of all meat products sold over the counter. Throw in a few other fowl, like turkey and goose, and you’re probably up at 99%. I’ve never seen meat aisles where you can buy camel or llama or hamster or dog (although I was once in a place where I could have bought kangaroo).

In any event, I played the game when we arrived here in Thailand, and one of the things that immediately jumped out from the vegetable aisles was lemongrass – it’s not a vegetable really, more a spice, but it tends to sit alongside the vegetables, so that’s where I saw it.

lemongrass bunch

Anyone who has lived in Thailand for more than a couple of months will quickly realize that lemongrass plays an important role in Thai cuisine. I’ve mentioned in a previous post one Thai dish in which lemongrass plays a not unimportant role, Tom Yum soup.

tom yum soup

There are other Thai soups which have lemongrass in their recipe, lemongrass coconut noodle soup for instance.

Coconut Lemongrass Noodle Soup

It also finds its place in the green and yellow curries which are omnipresent in Thailand and which Thais will eat with various meats and vegetables. Here they are accompanying chicken.

chicken green currychicken yellow curry

Lemongrass also plays an important role in various sauces, in this case as a coconut and lemongrass sauce accompanying mussels.

mussels in coconut and lemongrass sauce

In truth, it is not only in Thai cuisine that lemongrass finds a role. It is common to much South-East Asian cuisine. In Viet Nam, for instance, in pork meatballs the meat is mixed with lemongrass and other herbs.

Vietnamese Lemongrass Pork Meatballs

Or there is Indonesia’s beef rendang, where beef is cooked slowly in a mix of spices which includes lemongrass.

Indonesian beef-rendang

In Cambodia, there’s the national spice-mix paste called Kroeung, which almost always includes lemongrass, and which is used in many dishes, for instance in the fish-based Amok trey

cambodian fish amok trey

For Laos, I cite stuffed lemongrass, the one dish where lemongrass plays a star role.

Laotian stuffed lemongrass

Myanmar gives us as one among many examples Mont Di soup, from Rakhine state

Myanmar Mon Di soup

And let’s not forget the Philippines, from which I’ll cite Lechon Cebu. Lechon, a national dish, is a whole roasted pig. Among its many regional variations there is Cebus’s, where the pig is stuffed with a mix of spices and herbs which includes lemongrass.

Philippine lechon cebu

This enthusiasm for lemongrass is not surprising really. The two forms of the plant which are edible, C. citratus and C. flexuosus, both have their tap root buried deep in this part of the world. Anyway, it’s super for me because I have a great fondness for lemongrass. This affection goes back a long way; I first came across the plant some 50 years ago, as a ten, eleven year-old child. It was in Cameroon, in West Africa. My father had moved there after his stint in Eritrea. One afternoon, at tea time at someone else’s place, I was served this delicious pale yellow infusion, which smelled and tasted softly lemon-like.

lemongrass infusion

After I’d oohed and aahed about it for a bit, I was shown the plant, a rather spiky big grass

Lemongrass Plant

whose leaves gave off this wonderful lemon scent when you rubbed them between your fingers.

I did not consume lemongrass in any other form while in Cameroon, nor did I ever consume it any other way until I came to Thailand. In fact, an exhaustive search on the internet has led me to conclude that nowhere between Cameroon and S-E Asia does any traditional cuisine include lemongrass (I stress traditional cuisine; with the globalization of cuisines many people are now trying S-E Asian recipes, either straight or fusing it with their own cuisines). Everywhere in the world, there is much enthusiasm to consume lemongrass but only in the form of infusions. I had high hopes to find traces of lemongrass in the Berber regions of North Africa, where their traditional form of cooking, the tajine, is very much a form of stewing, which is quite close to the way lemongrass is used in this part of the world.

tajine

But no, I found no trace of cooking with lemongrass in the shadow of the Atlas Mountains. Not even in India have I found any trace of lemongrass being used in traditional cuisine, even though the subcontinent shares many culinary traits with S-E Asia – curries being the obvious one

south indian curry

and even though the lemongrass plant grows well there (to the extent that C. citratus is known as West Indian lemongrass while C. flexuosus is known as East Indian lemongrass).

I was somewhat astonished by this finding, but also rather disappointed – I had been looking forward to showing pictures of yummy dishes from around the world in which lemongrass plays a role. My first thought was that the consumption of lemongrass infusions the world over was a result of colonialism. In this narrative (a favourite word these days among the chattering classes), Europeans would have discovered the lemongrass infusion (I suspect in India, given the name we Europeans gave the plant)

english lady drinking tea in India

and carried the plant off around the world and hooked our colonial subjects on the drink (the plant’s anti-mosquito properties may also have helped in this diffusion; more on this in a minute).

english lady serving west indians tea

(OK, my pictures show the imbibing of the even more famous herbal infusion, tea, but the general process would have been the same.)

This tidy narrative of mine got a rude shock, however, when I picked up another, insistent, narrative on the internet, which held that already 3,000 years ago the Ancient Egyptians, and through them later the Ancient Greeks and Romans, were familiar with the plant. And there was a big difference. The Egyptians did not eat it, they used it for incense mixes. Incense was big business in Egypt (as it was indeed in all ancient religions). We have here, for instance, Ramses I burning incense as a ritual offering

Rmases I burning incense

and what the Pharaoh did, every man, woman, and probably child, did the length of the country (the country did not have much breadth).

If the Egyptians used lemongrass for incense, I suspect they also used it for their perfumes and perfumed oils. After all, this is also how lemongrass is used today, especially by our friends the aromatherapists.

lemongrass oilI couldn’t find an Egyptian mural showing someone using oils or perfumes, so instead I throw in a picture of ladies using cosmetics more generally.

ancient egyptians using cosmetics

But now the question is, if the Ancient Egyptians were indeed using lemongrass, how did they get it from its place of origin, S-E Asia? I have to think that the answer lies in the spice trade, which was already flourishing in the time of the Pharaohs. Spices like cinnamon and cassia were finding their way to Egypt from Sri Lanka, so it takes no great leap of the imagination to think that lemongrass and other spices were being picked up in S-E Asia and shipped westwards, eventually coming up the Red Sea.

egyptian ship

My personal view is that contrary to many spices, where the product and never the plant was shipped (the plant being treated almost like a state secret), the live plant also eventually made its way to Egypt, perhaps overland through India and Iran, along the Fertile Crescent, and then down into Egypt (and from there I would guess eventually along the coast of North Africa). I say this, because lemongrass has another very valuable use, one which I alluded to earlier, and that is as a deterrent to mosquitoes. The little buggers don’t seem to like the odour given off by the plant, and a strategy still in common use today is to plant lemongrass around a house to keep them away.

lemongrass with mosquito

Where does that leave us? Well, with a gigantic culinary opportunity. The S-E Asian countries should plunge in and promote the use of lemongrass in cooking everywhere where the plant is now growing, which is just about anywhere where there is no frost (the plant is not frost hardy). I’ll be happy to help out, throwing lemongrass into anything I find cooking.

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Lemongrass bunch: http://www.ashlyns.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/shutterstock_107826104.jpg (in http://www.ashlyns.co.uk/shop/lemongrass-bunch/)
Tom yum soup: http://greenpawpaw.efe.com.vn/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/ctg-amb-128.jpg (in http://greenpawpawthai.com.au/menu/)
Coconut lemongrass noodle soup: http://www.lafujimama.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/Bowl-of-Coconut-Lemongrass-Somen-Noodle-Soup.jpg (in http://www.lafujimama.com/2010/09/coconut-lemongrass-somen-noodle-soup/)
Chicken green curry: http://sushibeveren.com/online/image/cache/catalog/05.%20kip-500×500.jpg (in http://sushibeveren.com/online/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=90)
Chicken yellow curry: http://rachelcooksthai.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/yellow-curry-5.jpg (in http://www.rachelcooksthai.com/yellow-curry-with-chicken-and-potato/)
Mussels in a coconut and lemongrass soup: http://www.taste.com.au/images/recipes/nb/2010/09/25589_l.jpg (in http://www.taste.com.au/recipes/25589/mussels+in+coconut+and+lemongrass+broth)
Vietnamese meatballs with lemongrass: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-Asn6_ojGAY4/UxzHHvW1oAI/AAAAAAAABLQ/XGg1oUmlMf8/s1600/Vietnamese+Lemongrass+Pork+Meatballs.JPG (in http://alwaysinthekitchen.blogspot.com/2014/03/vietnamese-inspired-lemongrass-pork.html)
Indonesian beef rending: http://cdn.noshon.it/wp-content/uploads/2012-10-17-r-beef-rendang.jpg (in http://noshon.it/recipes/beef-rendang/)
Cambodian Amok Trey: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-nWM9m8GUofk/U6r1rqzgBMI/AAAAAAAAPH8/TBOl0hNPnXA/s1600/cambodian+fish+amok+trey+8.jpg (in http://wendyinkk.blogspot.com/2014/06/amok-trey-cambodian-fish-mousse-aff.html)
Laotian stuffed lemongrass: https://gallivance.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/stuffed-lemongrass.jpg (in http://gallivance.net/2012/11/10/a-global-gumbo-ethnic-food-adventures/stuffed-lemongrass/)
Myanmar Mont Di soup: http://www.hsaba.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/12/rakhine_moti.jpg (in http://www.hsaba.com/recipes/rakhine-moti)
Philippine Lechon Cebu: http://tenminutes.ph/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Cebu-Ayers-Lechon-Order-Online-Manila-Shipping-Contact.jpg (in http://ww90.trafficads10.com/)
Lemongrass infusion: 5240254223_8f0879e852_z.jpg (in https://farm6.staticflickr.com)
Lemongrass plant: http://www.herbalteasonline.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Lemongrass-Plant.jpg (in http://www.herbalteasonline.com/lemongrass-tea.php)
Tajine: http://blog.zingarate.com/wanderlustt/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/tajine.png (in http://acquisto.acquea.com/s/tajine)
South Indian curry: http://www.chillimix.com/images/stories/easygallery/resized/0/1212337046_meen%20khatta.jpg (in http://www.chillimix.com/indian-recipe/fish-and-sea-food/meen-khatta.html)
English lady drinking tea in India: http://media.npr.org/assets/img/2015/04/07/vv1190_custom-2fb3f28e67d8197b7555bed3a80833675d5ff748-s900-c85.jpg (in http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/04/07/396664685/tea-tuesdays-how-tea-sugar-reshaped-the-british-empire)
English lady serving West Indians tea: http://cache3.asset-cache.net/gc/3228476-21st-september-1944-west-indian-ats-volunteers-gettyimages.jpg?v=1&c=IWSAsset&k=2&d=v9WwiBskt0bjdeMIS%2fO97bO7qBvmTdPLrPrzxlLhIMyq9QGXYV1QZzXet54z3qgP (in http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/west-indian-ats-volunteers-being-served-tea-at-the-colonial-news-photo/3228476)
Ramses I burning incense: http://cache1.asset-cache.net/gc/112187026-egyptian-antiquities-pharaoh-ramesses-i-gettyimages.jpg?v=1&c=IWSAsset&k=2&d=bGR6JCu8pZbf%2b2sqs4ajC3pr1O6j4GFGzEmSgJKUFx%2fwR1Oa4nADTEaQuSTwZMs0 (in http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/illustration/egyptian-antiquities-pharaoh-ramesses-i-burning-incense-stock-graphic/112187026)
Lemongrass oil: http://38.media.tumblr.com/c2faea8d8070dc30761b84931745bdbe/tumblr_inline_nifdirPvOm1snpbkm.jpg (in http://blog.massagetablesnow.com/page/3)
Egyptian ladies using cosmetics: http://www.notorious-mag.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/ladies.jpg (in http://www.notorious-mag.com/2015/08/05/beauty-tips-ancient-egypt/)
Egyptian ship: http://cache3.asset-cache.net/gc/98952627-mural-painting-depicting-scene-of-carriage-of-gettyimages.jpg?v=1&c=IWSAsset&k=2&d=0njLr93epyP%2fp14uTH5hjWyeKg7%2bNmMNGiew1vRXySmP3uh4n3I9GzP5Xf2kYAzW (in http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/photo/mural-painting-depicting-scene-of-carriage-high-res-stock-photography/98952627)
Lemongrass with mosquito: http://www.jewanda-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/98a5997abe901c1f53505e529852c4d7.jpg (in http://www.jewanda-magazine.com/2015/08/lifestyle-10-moyens-naturels-pour-eloigner-les-moustiques/)

MY SPIRIT HOUSE

Bangkok, 15 February, 2015

Anyone who has been in Thailand for more than half an hour begins to notice that every building, residential, commercial, governmental, whatever it happens to be, has one or more doll-like houses standing outside it in some corner of the property. To be very visible to one and all, they are set either on a tall pillar or on four somewhat smaller stilts. These, for instance, are the two which grace a corner of the parking lot at our apartment block.
spirit houses-general view-1
spirit house big

spirit house small

And if, finally rendered curious by constantly coming across them, one decides to have a closer look, you will find that they hold little figurines – old people, dancers, horses, elephants, cars, sometimes a Buddha. This, for instance, is a catalogue of what the bigger of our apartment block’s two little houses contains.

spirit house big-horses
spirit house big-elephants
They will often have votive offerings of food and drink as well as burning incense sticks set out in front of them along with fresh flowers

spirit houses-flowers and incense

many of them will have flower garlands draped over them

spirit house big-garland

and – at night – candles are set out or strings of lights turned on to light them up.

spirit house big-night

Quite charming. In fact, when my wife and I came to Bangkok for the first time some seven years ago, we were quite taken by these little houses and considered buying a DIY kit of one, to put up on the landing in front of the door of our then-apartment in Vienna, to house a small ivory Buddha which I had bought a few years before in Sri Lanka. But it was really too bulky, so we abandoned the idea.

But actually, why are these little houses there in the first place? I should have asked myself that the first time I saw them, before seriously considering putting one in front of my door.

A little bit of reading has informed me these houses are put up to propitiate the spirits of the land. This is a core belief of animism, that spirits reside in all the material manifestations of this world – the land, its streams, rivers, lakes, waterfalls, its trees and other plants, all animals, everything really, even man-made objects like bridges. Animism has deep, deep roots in Thailand – actually, in the whole of South-East Asia, from Myanmar down to Indonesia and across to the Philippines; the tradition of spirit houses, for instance, is found throughout the region apart possibly from the Philippines. The arrival of more rational, complex, sophisticated religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, or Christianity (or ethical systems like Confucianism in Vietnam), did not make the earlier animistic beliefs disappear, although I’m sure the leaders of these new religions tried hard to stamp them out (and at least in Thailand are still trying to, according to what I’ve read) or to absorb them (which is certainly what Buddhism has tried to do).

The sad thing is that these spirits are not nice beings. The purpose of those cute little houses is actually to make sure that the spirits of the land don’t get mad at you because you’re using their land and decide to burn down your house or give you a heart attack or bring Lord knows what other calamity down on your head. So in the house you’ll put figurines of servants to tend to the local land spirit’s every whim,  you’ll put figurines of dancing girls (geishas might be a better descriptor) to keep him happy, you’ll put horses and elephants (and cars for the more sophisticated urbanized spirits) to make sure he can go for a ride whenever he gets bored of sitting at home and watching the dancing girls gyrate, you’ll give him food and drink to make sure he doesn’t go hungry … Reading all this, it occurs to me that these spirits are really just like the mafia in Sicily: if you don’t pay this man the requested pizzo, or protection money
mafia-man

then unfortunately this will happen to your shop.
burning shop
So, these pretty little houses are actually the reflection of a deep existential fear, that all around you are naughty, nasty little spirits who will hurt you if you’re not nice to them. These reflections moved me to dip into “The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion” by the Scotsman James George Frazer.
Golden_Bough
The book, first published in 1890 and republished several times thereafter, attempts to define the shared elements of religious beliefs, discussing fertility rites, human sacrifice, the “dying god”, the “scapegoat”, and many other symbols and practices. Its thesis is that old religions were fertility cults that revolved around the worship and periodic sacrifice of a sacred king (among other places, his ideas take a central role in T.S. Elliot’s poem, “The Wasteland”, which I have had cause to mention 100 posts ago and which was the reason why I originally read “The Golden Bough”). I’m sure modern anthropologists would dispute Frazer’s basic thesis, but in writing the book Frazer collected accounts from around the world of magical, animistic beliefs, which are fascinating in themselves. Here are three excerpts which he cites from other sources on the belief in spirits in South-East Asia.

“Thus the life of the Thay seems regulated down to its smallest details by custom founded on his belief in the spirits. Spirits perpetually watch him, ready to punish for his negligences, and he is afraid. Fear is for him not only the beginning of wisdom, it is the whole of his wisdom. Love has only a very moderate place in it. Even the respect in which he holds his dead, and the honours which he pays them on various occasions, seem to be dominated by a superstitious fear. It seems that the sacrifices which he offers to them aim rather at averting from himself the evils which he dreads than at honouring worthily the memory of his deceased kinsfolk and at paying them the tribute of his affection and gratitude.”

“Independently of the demons who are in hell, the Siamese recognize another sort of devils diffused in the air: they call them phi; they are, they say, the demons who do harm to men and who appear sometimes in horrible shapes. They put down to these malign spirits all the calamities which happen in this world. If the mother has lost a child, it is the phi who has done the ill turn; if a sick man is given over, it is a phi that is at the bottom of it. To appease him, they invoke him and make him offerings which they hang in desert places.”

“The desire to propitiate the good spirits and exorcise the bad ones is the prevailing influence upon the life of the Laotians. With phis to the right of him, to the left of him, in front of him, behind him, all round him, his mind is haunted with a perpetual desire to make terms with them, and to ensure the assistance of the great Buddha, so that he may preserve both body and soul from the hands of the spirit.”

The first two excerpts, written in 1907 and 1831 respectively, come from books written by French missionaries, the third from a book written by an Englishman in 1884. The first two no doubt had religious axes to grind, wishing to show how the Thai (Siamese being the old name for the Thai) were poor, benighted folk in need of Christian redemption. But even accounting for a certain amount of exaggeration, the picture which these excerpts paint is bleak indeed: a constant, haunting fear at every step.

Of course, before we shake our heads and smile and take another sip of our coffee, we should remind ourselves (as Frazer reminds us in his book) that Europe, just to take my part of the world, was also the home of naughty, nasty little spirits. Anyone like me who had to suffer through Latin and Greek in their education will remember the Roman and Greek nymphs who haunted the sacred groves and streams, and who had to be propitiated. And what about all those leprechauns, and trolls, and sprites, and ogres, who populate children’s books and popular stories? Remember Rumplestiltskin, that nasty little imp who saves the miller’s daughter from the wrath of the king by spinning straw into gold for her, but on condition that she give him her first-born child?
rumplestiltskin
Or that “shrewd and knavish sprite” Puck in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, who at the behest of his master Oberon, King of the fairies, wreaks mayhem in the Athenian woods?
puck

Or the ogre in Jack and the Beanstalk, who on sensing that little Jack is hiding in his house, intones

“Fee-fi-fo-fum!
I smell the blood of an Englishman,
Be he alive, or be he dead,
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.”
ogre jack and the beanstalk

Even Tinkerbell in Disney’s sucrose version of “Peter Pan” is not a particularly nice person.
tinkerbell
I suppose Christianity managed to reduce the strength of animistic beliefs in Europe – I won’t say stamp out, because otherwise we wouldn’t have the children’s stories – but only to replace them by another existential fear, that of suffering in hell for ever and ever.
hell
Luckily, science has come to the rescue and driven out all the religious claptrap. There is no supernatural world, it tells us, only the natural world around us. And with that, all those spirits disappear in a flash.

But now that I know all this, would I still buy a spirit house kit to assemble on the landing in front of my apartment door in Europe? Do I want to be seen, if only to myself, to believe in naughty, nasty spirits? After giving some thought to the matter, I have concluded that yes, I would, but for a very different reason. One of the houses whose photo I give at the beginning of the post is the house of the ancestral spirits of the place, the spirits – or ghosts I suppose – of the people who lived there before you. In fact this house contains figurines of old people.
spirit house small-old people
Unfortunately, these spirits also require propitiation in Thailand, since they too can turn nasty (jeez louise, what a world view!). But I would use the house differently. I would use it to house the memory of my parents and my wife’s parents. For my parents, I would have a very tall figurine stand in for my father and a very small figurine for my mother, for that indeed is how they were; one of my abiding memories of them is the two dancing together, he very tall, she very small, slowly circling the dance floor. For my wife’s parents, I would have a large figurine stand in for my mother-in-law, for she was indeed of a stout disposition. For my father-in-law, I’m not sure, I hardly knew him. I’ve mentioned before his fondness for wearing a Basque beret, so perhaps a figurine of a man with such a beret would do? But I would leave this for my wife to decide. And I would move the house into the apartment, so that their memory could be with us, rather than left out in the dark like the dog. I feel that this would be a better way of remembering them, of keeping their memory alive, than going on infrequent visits to the graveyard, and a useful complement to looking at old photos and reminiscing. And I would hope that one day my children would also have a spirit house to which they could add little figurines of us once that day arrives. As it surely will.

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Spirit houses: my pictures
Mafia man: https://solo3d.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/mafia-man-by-siamak-roshani-1.jpg (in https://solo3d.wordpress.com/scenes/portraits/mafia-man/)
Burning shop: http://www.newsbiscuit.com/images/845.jpg (in http://www.newsbiscuit.com/2007/09/05/fire-brigade-turned-up-late-to-burning-pizza-shop-as-satirical-statement/)
“The Golden Bough” cover: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-KNKUm2qVFeo/URmCSeqWMuI/AAAAAAAAMKQ/YNPwXF5oY7s/s1600/The_Golden_Bough.jpg (in http://38is.blogspot.com/2013_02_01_archive.html)
Rumplestitskin: http://www.artsycraftsy.com/goble/wg_rumplestiltskin.jpg (in http://www.artsycraftsy.com/goble/goble_rumplestiltskin.html)
Puck: http://images.fineartamerica.com/images-medium-large/a-midsummer-nights-dream-ht-green.jpg (in http://fineartamerica.com/featured/a-midsummer-nights-dream-ht-green.html)
Ogre in Jack and the Beanstalk: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4c/Jack_and_the_Beanstalk_Giant_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_17034.jpg (in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_and_the_Beanstalk)
Tinkerbell: http://cdn.hellogiggles.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/22/Walt-Disney-Screencaps-Peter-Pan-Wendy-Darling-Tinker-Bell-walt-disney-characters-34385876-4326-3237.jpg (in http://hellogiggles.com/real-life-disney-romance/walt-disney-screencaps-peter-pan-wendy-darling-tinker-bell-walt-disney-characters-34385876-4326-3237)
Hell: https://36.media.tumblr.com/20721aba85e8475adb529816d4e40a10/tumblr_n1kmegRkqx1qm5yeno1_500.jpg (in https://www.tumblr.com/search/art%20history%20hell)

FOUR FACES

Bangkok, 5 December 2014

I’ve just come back from a trip to Phnom Penh. My wife accompanied me, so for a couple of days, while I was doing the official rounds and meeting the official people, she was nosing around the city enjoying herself. She regaled me every evening with her discoveries, making me green with jealousy. But we had decided that I would take a day off at the end of my official rounds and spend a long weekend together being tourists, so I told myself to be patient and bide my time. On Friday, Andy (not his real name, but tour guides in this part of the world will often adopt a Western name to make it easier for us dumb Westerners), Andy as I say, was waiting for for us at the door of the hotel with his tuk-tuk

image

in which he swept us off (well, “swept off” may be exaggerated, given the venerable speed at which tuk-tuks go) for a visit to Oudong, Cambodia’s capital prior to Phnom Penh. After puttering across the flat plain surrounding Phnom Penh for a while, we finally sighted in the distance the phnom (“hill” in Khmer) which had been the centre of Oudong.
image
After some more puttering, we arrived at the base of this hill, and were immediately surrounded by a cloud of boys shouting greetings, asking us where we came from, and directing us to the loo (after nearly two hours of puttering, we were both more than ready to answer calls of nature).

Following this pit stop, we made for the steps which would carry us to the top of the phnom. We huffed and we puffed slowly up the steps – all 509 of themimage
accompanied by a charming little boy, one of the cloud, who went by the name of Monette. His English was approximate, but he used it bravely to explain to us the sights we passed, the first of which was some exceedingly cheeky monkeys who hung around the steps like a pack of bad boys, ready to snatch lotus flowers from the unwary passer-by and snack on their stamens (or do I mean their pistils?)

image

One did just that to a group of young women in front of us, who came running back down the stairs screaming and clutching at each other. I moved forward bravely towards the insolent monkey as he sat on the steps munching the stamens (or do I mean pistils?). He looked me in the eye, and calmly walked off into the surrounding bushes holding his booty and showing me his bum. I mustered as much of my dignity as I could and Carried On.

With one final heaving huff and one further ragged puff, we staggered to the top. With the excuse of admiring the view

image
we took a break. But soon we turned around and took in the first of five stupas which crown the hill.

image

After walking around it, we wended our way along the crest, from one stupa to the next, with Monette scampering along and giving us fractured, splintered explanations, until we got to the last, a stupa with four faces.

image

Well! This was a pleasant discovery! Those four faces staring benevolently out to the four cardinal points were intriguing indeed.

image

I must confess, my first – wholly irreverent – thought was that they reminded me of Thomas the Tank Engine of my youth.

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But then another memory floated to the surface, from several years ago when my wife and I visited Angkor Wat, several hundred kilometers upriver from where we were currently standing, on the edges of Tonle Sap lake: Prasat Bayon, the shrine to Mahayana Buddhism, the temple of the 200 faces of Lokesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. Yes, this must have been the model of the stupa before me.

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Ah, what a lovely, lovely temple is Prasat Bayon! The bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas smiling at you wherever you stand, wherever you look. A thousand rays of compassion sweeping us visitors and what had been the surrounding city.

But King Jayavarman VII, who built the temple and who replaced the Khmers’ state religion of Hinduism with Mahayana Buddhism (and whose face, many think, was the model of the bodhisattvas at Prasat Bayon)

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merely copied from a previous model for his design, that of Brahma, the Hindu god of creation. Brahma is very often represented with four heads, each reading one of the four Vedas. Temples dedicated to him are rare, but there was one close to Angkor Wat, on Phnom Bok. The quadruple-headed bust below, from that temple, is now in the Musée Guimet in Paris, no doubt “taken in for its protection” (or do I mean filched?) by the-then French colonial masters.

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There is also a regionally famous Brahma-derived statue here in Bangkok, down the road (as it were) from where we live: Phra Phrom (a Thai rendition of Brahma).

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He is considered the deity of good fortune and protection. Since he has a solid following among the Chinese of Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and knowing the proclivity of the Chinese to gamble, I rather suspect that Brahma has gone from being the god of creation to the god of gamblers. How the mighty have fallen …

And on this melancholy note, it was time to leave my reveries and move on. My wife and I made our way back down the hill, at the bottom of which we gave Monette 10 dollars for his services, enjoining him to use it for his schooling (he had informed us that he was going to a paying school) but fearing that it might end up instead in the pockets of his “minders”. We picked our way past the rubbish left by previous visitors and a monkey snacking on the boiled rice thrown away by one of them, we climbed into Andy’s tuk-tuk, and we puttered our way back to Phnom Penh.

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Andy’ tuk-tuk: https://www.facebook.com/AndyFriendlyTukTukPhnomPenh/photos/pcb.290625764427281/290625417760649/?type=1&theater (in https://www.facebook.com/AndyFriendlyTukTukPhnomPenh)
Oudong from a distance: http://static.panoramio.com/photos/large/32298005.jpg (in http://www.panoramio.com/m/photo/32298005)
Stairs at Oudong: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2825/10724616273_e3e9cf04b7_z.jpg (in http://iwandered.net/2013/11/07/day-trip-to-oudong-cambodia/)
Monkey: https://c2.staticflickr.com/8/7420/8993459951_7619376cd4_b.jpg (in https://www.flickr.com/photos/kamimura4401/8993459951/)
View from the top: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-Yk57J-xzt4Y/UFLx1bIbIrI/AAAAAAAABPA/Mdq0Z5_DBuM/s1600/Oudong6.png (in http://www.camtravel.info/2012/09/oudong-mountain-cambodia.html#.VIB9hGIaySM)
First stupa: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/30/Sanchak_Mony_Chedei.jpg (in http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oudong)
Stupa with faces: https://c2.staticflickr.com/4/3018/3087092115_26ee767788_b.jpg (in https://www.flickr.com/photos/zapata_k/3087092115/)
Stupa with faces – close up: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-aAJEmmCf6h8/Um5lWw9rdxI/AAAAAAAAxbg/FBPq3MXQ0_U/s1600/23+Close+Up+of+Four-faced+Top+Cambodia+Oudong+Temple+Cycling-358.jpg (in http://jotarofootsteps.blogspot.com/2013/10/sites-oudong-temple-cambodia.html)
Thomas the tank engine: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-KiFNIBZmqPI/TxKoxis-FrI/AAAAAAAAAJY/sVCzG4VTLd0/s1600/ThomastheTankEngine.jpg (in http://latestnewsfromtpandt.blogspot.com/2012/01/thomas-tank-engine-review.html)
Bayon temple-1: http://www.rickmann-uk.com/wp-content/uploads/Bayon-three-faces.jpg (in http://www.rickmann-uk.com/index.php/2007/06/05/angkor-temples-cambodia/)
Bayon temple-2: http://jcinnamonphotography.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/bayon-temple-faces-2.jpg (in http://jcinnamonphotography.wordpress.com)
Bayon temple-3: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayon#/image/File:Das_Lächeln_von_Angkor.jpg (in http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayon)
King Jayavarman VII: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayon#/image/File:JayavarmanVII.jpg (in http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayon)
Brahma: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brahma#/image/File:Brahma_Musée_Guimet_1197_1.jpg (in http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brahma#Temples)
Phra Phrom: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brahma#/image/File:Thai_4_Buddies.jpg (in http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brahma#Temples)

FULL MOON

Beijing, 25 February 2013

Yesterday started with my wife finally remembering a song that had been chasing around in her head all night: “September”, by Earth, Wind and Fire, whom we see here in concert:

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This is a song from “our” generation; it came out in 1978. My wife tracked down a version of it on the web and promptly played it for the rest of the day. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a great song – a feel-good song, my wife calls it – but after you’ve sung along with the refrain

Ba de ya – say do you remember
Ba de ya – dancing in September
Ba de ya – never was a cloudy day

for the fifth time, it begins to pall – at least for me. But not my wife. Mercifully, she had to turn it off when we went to bed, but then the fireworks, which had been grumbling along all day,

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began to build up to their final roar for midnight.

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Because, for those of you who do not closely follow matters Chinese, yesterday was the Lantern Festival, the last day of the Chinese new year celebrations, whose end is traditionally celebrated with an orgy of fireworks.

At one moment during the evening I slipped out to the local 7-11 to buy a bottle of our favourite wine (a Spanish tempranillo – but I digress). Coming back, I looked up and glimpsed through the clouds what all this sound and fury was all about: the full moon.

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Because the Chinese new year is really a lunar festival. It starts on the second new moon after the winter solstice and ends 15 days later at the full moon. I had picked up the new moon – or newish moon; it had already waxed a few days – in Luang Prabang.

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And now I was seeing the full moon, shining serenely down on all this silliness.

A full moon is a beautiful thing. It certainly has caught the attention of many poets. A short search on the web brought to light at least 100 poems about the moon by well-known poets; Lord knows how many have been written by bad poets. But the poem which always comes to my mind when I see a full moon is not actually about the moon. I need to explain. One night in Vienna, I woke up and was enchanted by the brilliant nearly full moon pouring its white light into the bedroom. Two nights later, I was in Cambodia on the shore of the Mekong River. Looking up, I saw the full moon and thought to myself “This same moon will be shining down on my wife and children in a few hours” and found that thought immensely comforting. Now for the poem, which is by the Welsh poet Alun Lewis. He wrote it during the Second World War, when he was far away in India, in the city of Poona.

Last night I did not fight for sleep
But lay awake from midnight while the world
Turned its slow features to the moving deep
Of darkness, till I knew that you were furled,

Beloved, in the same dark watch as I.
And sixty degrees of longitude beside
Vanished as though a swan in ecstasy
Had spanned the distance from your sleeping side.

And like to swan or moon the whole of Wales
Glided within the parish of my care:
I saw the green tide leap on Cardigan,
Your red yacht riding like a legend there.

And the great mountains Dafydd and Llewelyn,
Plynlimmon, Cader Idris and Eryri
Threshing the darkness back from head and fin,
And also the small nameless mining valley

Whose slopes are scratched with streets and sprawling graves
Dark in the lap of firwoods and great boulders
Where you lay waiting, listening to the waves
My hot hands touched your white despondent shoulders

And then ten thousand miles of daylight grew
Between us, and I heard the wild daws crake
In India’s starving throat; whereat I knew
That Time upon the heart can break
But love survives the venom of the snake.

When I read the poem for the first time, I was reminded of that night in Vienna with its full moon. And now, when I’m far away from home and see the moon, I think of this poem and of my wife.

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Earth Wind and Fire concert: http://sharelike.me/image/pics/EarthWindandFireconcertPics1ApCC7Md5iwM.jpg
Fireworks-1: http://cdn.ph.upi.com/sv/em/upi/UPI-16811361735171/2013/1/9eb14390c758aeb27fd87349de4d55bc/China-celebrate-Lunar-New-Year.jpg
Fireworks-2: http://findlaydonnan.files.wordpress.com/2009/03/fireworks-to-celebrate-the-chinese-new-year-light-up-the-sky-above-beijing-china-on-january-26-2009-chinese-welcomed-the-arrival-of-the-year-of-the-ox-with-raucous-celebrations-on-sun.jpg?w=497&h=283
Full moon: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-gY39tpbGmzg/TnLTHVEnSyI/AAAAAAAABaM/R2kBI2LddYg/s1600/Moon_Lantern_Festival.jpg
New moon Luang Prabang: my photo