Friday, 16 November 2018

Profound Devotion: The Festival of Thaipusam in Malaysia

This article from my first visit to Malaysia appeared in The West Australian newspaper in 2009, but never went online: so here it is. I was hosted on that trip by Tourism Malaysia.

The sensual immersion is incredible.

Sight: thousands of devotees walking in procession toward the Batu Caves north of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Sound: Insistent drumming, mixed with amplified Tamil-language music.

Smell: Smoke from incense and tobacco drifting through the air.

The Batu Caves sit within a rocky outcrop that rises dramatically from the flat land surrounding it. It’s an impressive craggy mass, but more impressive yet is the crowd heading toward it to commemorate the annual Hindu festival of Thaipusam.

I’ve arrived here before dawn to avoid the heavy traffic that will envelop the site once the sun rises; but even at 6am the road that leads to the caves is thronging with people.

Weaving my way slowly through the crowd, I find myself on the path of the pilgrims walking to the shrine located high up within the caves. Past me trickle lines of men and women in orange robes, carrying pots of milk on their heads.

Then men appear bearing huge decorated frames resting on their shoulders - colourful canopies decked out with feathers, tassels and statues of the Hindu god Murugan.

These kavadi are extraordinarily elaborate; one even has a mobile generator connected to lights upon its exterior, being pushed along by a friend of the devotee beneath it.

And Murugan is the focus of this spiritual event, a god particularly revered by Malaysia’s Tamil community. Every year during Thaipusam, they carry milk to his shrine, or bear a decorated kavadi as a greater offering. Some devotees are thanking the god for a past prayer that has been answered; others are hoping for help in the year ahead.

Although Thaipusam originated in India and is still celebrated there, the Batu Caves celebration is one of the most spectacular, with up to a million devotees making the journey up the stairs set into the spectacular mountain that houses the deity’s shrine.

The devotees are watched by tens of thousands of spectators, and there’s a carnival atmosphere among the diverse stalls and tents lining the route, selling everything from spiritual memorabilia to mobile phone plans.

The generosity of the day is also called upon by charities, including a mobile blood donation centre among the stalls.

The most striking act of devotion is the piercing of the skin by skewers, inserted through the tongue or cheeks. Some even have hooks inserted through the skin on their backs, held taut by supporters walking behind them.

The degree of pain represents the worshipper’s devotion to the god, though those with spikes through their flesh are often coaxed into a trance state which lessens the impact of the pain.

It’s intriguing to watch the faces of those in a trance - one man with hooks in his back is rolling his eyes and tongue dreamily as a holy man speaks to him, walking backwards ahead of the devotee. For someone from a completely different cultural background, immersed within the crowd, the sight is overwhelming and fascinating at the same time.

As I’m moving along with the masses, following the generator-lit kavadi and taking photos, I pause next to a group of young men who are dancing to the incessant beat of the music which accompanies the procession. One of them peels away to shake my hand and ask me where I’m from.

“What do you think of all this?” he asks, eyes sparkling, as he bounces on the ground with enthusiasm.

“It’s amazing!” I reply, quite truthfully - I’m feeling unexpectedly awed by the sensory overload. Satisfied, he shakes my hand again and rejoins his friends.

The loud music keeps playing, and as I wait to reinsert myself within the procession, my left foot starts tapping out an involuntary little dance.

My new acquaintance notices this and points it out to a friend, and they both laugh. It’s a good-natured chuckle, in keeping with the joyous mood of the occasion.

Along the way I chat with several more onlookers, and supporters of the devotees. The supporters accompany their friends and family members, and ensure their safety if they should be overcome by their burdens on their way to the shrine.

It’s an inclusive, energetic event, completely lacking the solemnity I associate with Western religions, and people are enthused by the all-encompassing sounds, sights and crowds. There’s something intensely stimulating about the controlled chaos of the procession, a ritualised abandonment of daily routines and inhibitions.

By the time we reach the foot of the 272 steps which lead up to the shrine, dawn is breaking. I peel off, walking past a vast mound of coconuts to find a seat at a refreshment stall.

Sitting with an iced tea, I watch the growing stream of pilgrims move onward and upwards, past the enormous statue of Murugan that towers alongside the steps.

Music is playing loudly, smoke is billowing from a nearby shrine, and a flock of birds is flying across the sky above the crowd.

It’s an invigorating atmosphere: a potent blend of aroma, sound, colour, motion and human vibrancy that reaches deeper than the rational mind, intensely moving in both its passion and the good humour of the crowds which have come to share in it.

Thaipusam takes place upon the full moon in the Tamil month of Thai (January or February each year). Thaipusam will provisionally fall on 21 January in 2019.

Friday, 9 November 2018

Užupis: The Improbable Republic Within Lithuania

This article from my 2008 visit to Lithuania appeared in Sydney's Sunday Telegraph newspaper, but is no longer online: so here it is, lightly revised for your enjoyment. Užupis forever!

A dog has the right to be a dog.

I’m standing on a quiet side street in Vilnius, Lithuania, looking at this point on a 41-point document displayed on a large mirrored sign. Other unlikely sentences assert that “Everyone has the right to make mistakes”, “Everyone has the right to be idle”, and “Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation.”

It’s an unconventional list; but nothing is conventional in the district of Užupis. The document is the self-proclaimed constitution of this bohemian enclave, whose resident artists declared independence from Lithuania in 1997.

The prequel to this artistic revolt happened in the early 1990s, after Lithuania had achieved independence from the Soviet Union. A group of artists declared that the time for political statues was over - and commissioned a statue of musician Frank Zappa as a quirky symbol of freedom.

The dynamic bust, bearing Zappa’s distinctive features and flowing long hair, still stands atop a pillar on the western side of Vilnius’ historic Old Town.

Fresh from this triumph, it didn’t take the artistic community long to declare Užupis independent. But this isn’t a Russia versus Ukraine situation. The Republic has an honorary president, no standing armed forces, and a commitment only to art.

When you learn that its national day is April 1st, you can see why the Lithuanian government casts an indulgently amused eye over Užupis, seeing its “independence” as a great tourist attraction.

Not far from the constitution wall is the Angel of Užupis, another impressive statue. It’s the most well-known symbol of Užupis, and it’s easy to see why. As I turn the corner and catch my first sight of the angel, I can’t help but smile. He’s perfect.

Not too big, not too small, he stands on a column high above the pedestrians, emphasising his lofty detachment. Facing toward the downhill slope, trumpet raised high, hair swept back as if blown by the wind, the Angel seems to embody the pride of this reborn district, and is frankly inspiring.

Stepping across the street, I enter Prie Angelo, a cafe facing the plaza. Its name and decor seem a tribute to the Angel - or, in fact, all angels. The pale, old-fashioned interior with its bare floorboards and deep-set windows is decorated with a variety of heavenly spirits in the shape of candleholders, vases, and busts poking straight out of the walls.

As angels watch over me and sunlight softly illuminates the space, I struggle to believe Užupis was once a dangerous, dilapidated district of the USSR.

However, proof is at hand. Following small side streets off the plaza, occasionally ducking through arches into residential buildings’ courtyards, It becomes clear that Užupis is still a work in progress. Some of the courtyards are in a terrible state - crumbling stonework, rusted railings, rubbish strewn around. In another, I see an old car up on blocks, missing its tyres.

Then I stick my head into the gallery of the Vilnius Potters’ Guild. I’m not sure it’s somewhere I should be - piles of newspaper-wrapped objects are being packed into boxes, and it looks like I’d be underfoot.

But a woman ushers me in, explaining that they’re preparing for a medieval fair, and encourages me to look at their work. The pieces I can view have a rustic simplicity, a smooth but organic look that’s very appealing.

I head uphill away from the Angel, into the heart of Užupis. It’s only when I reach the restaurant Tores, and step through to its backyard terrace, that I realise how high I’ve risen above the city. Lunch is a pizza and a stein of Švyturys, a pale golden beer which packs a fair punch.

Beneath the terrace, the hill drops away dramatically toward the river, and across the valley is a fine view of Vilnius’ Old Town: a beautiful collection of red-tiled roofs and baroque church spires.

Walking back down to the river, I spot yet another statue down an alley to my right. At least, I think it’s a statue. On closer inspection, it turns out to be a indeterminate shape on a pedestal, wrapped and taped within black plastic. Very arty.

Passing the object, I arrive at a gallery called the Užupis Art Incubator. It’s the essence of a bohemian artists’ community, housed in decaying riverside buildings covered in a jumble of colourful paintings of outlandish figures.

Beyond it is a fantasy land of painted trees and more open-air artwork. Overlooking the water are a young couple, funkily dressed and talking quietly - either discussing postmodern art trends, or slowly shaking off the effects of a late night.

Approaching the attractive small iron bridge that crosses the river, I find myself unable to finish my Užupis adventure just yet; I’ve become attached to its quirky charm.

So I seat myself at an outside bench at Užupio Kavine, a pub overlooking the shallow, swift-flowing water, and nurse another beer.

Within the stone retaining wall which forms the opposite riverbank, there’s a statue of a mermaid seated inside an alcove, gazing longingly across to Užupis. I meet her gaze, then glance up to the busy roadway in the “real world” beyond the artistic republic.

I have to go back there, but... not yet. As the green-and-white Užupis flag flutters gently from the pub’s wall, I sip my beer and smile at the light-hearted absurdity of the place.

Friday, 2 November 2018

Review: Ibis Ambassador Seoul Dongdaemun, South Korea

On this trip I was hosted by the Korea Tourism Organisation and Accor Hotels.

It's no secret that I'm a fan of the Ibis brand of hotels. Pitched at a budget level, their rooms are generally compact but utterly familiar. They're simple and perfectly functional for someone on a business trip, as I usually am when I travel.

On my recent Seoul trip I checked into the Ibis at Dongdaemun. It's a neighbourhood peppered with tourist hotels, and would be fairly nondescript if not for the marvellous Dongdaemun Design Plaza at its heart:

This spectacular complex, centred on a silver spaceship-like building designed by Zaha Hadid, is a hub of the design arts. It contains everything from large-scale exhibitions to the work of individual local designers, and is a worthy flagship of Seoul's identity as a UNESCO City of Design.

The Ibis is a short walk from the DDP, and also close to an underground station of the very useful Seoul Metro.

As for the hotel itself, it was much what I expected. My room on the 20th storey had the familiar Ibis beds and desk...

... as well as a functional open-plan bathroom nook and a shower. I'm always happy when I don't have to deal with a shower that's slung over a bathtub with a clammy billowing shower curtain, so this set-up suited me fine.

Even better, the windows could be opened! Unopenable windows are one of my pet peeves at hotels. As the weather in Seoul was pleasant by night, I enjoyed being able to get some fresh air rather than having to sleep in dry air-conditioned chill. Decent view, too.

There was a simple bar on the ground floor which was unappealing, but downstairs below street level was a pleasant restaurant. The breakfast buffet was simpler than the average hotel - boiled eggs instead of scrambled, for example - though filling enough and attractively laid out:

An Ibis hotel usually has a entertainment area with a distinctive character that belies its chain identity. A London Ibis I stayed in had a funky ground floor bar for example, while another Seoul Ibis had a cool cafe.

Where was it here? On the roof. I took the lift up to the 21st floor with the draft beer which was my complimentary welcome drink, and found a relaxed space with tables, chairs... and a kitchen herb garden:

On my last night in Seoul, I sipped my beer and enjoyed the view.

Just the Facts:
Ibis Ambassador Seoul Dongdaemun
359 Dongho ro, Jung gu, Seoul, South Korea
Phone: +82 2 2160 8888
Rates: Rooms from A$79 per night.