31 Jan 2016

Knights Templar

I am not a religious person. I do not care for the ethereal. I refuse to pay the admission so many churches in Europe dare to charge visitors. And yet I have flown half-way around the globe and purchased a three day visitor pass to explore a cluster of temples. What just happened?

For one thing, the buildings in question were not associated with the global organization headquartered in Rome. Also, they are located in a far-away land that I had long been meaning to visit. They are significant and beautiful enough to be featured on the UNESCO world heritage list.  And instead of haggard bodies hanging from crosses, they are populated with smiling gods and topless celestial dancers. Clearly, a pilgrimage was overdue.

Upon arrival in Cambodia, it quickly became clear that others had heeded the call, too. For better or worse, the town of Siem Reap is on track to host over 5 million tourists this year, with large Chinese and Korean tour groups surpassing western shoe-string backpackers and French colonial nostalgists.

This mass influx inevitably brings with it a degree of tackiness, as evidenced by a few sleazy pubs and massage parlors in downtown Siem Reap, and a clutch of hawkers outside the main attractions. But it remains less pushy and garish an environment than the nether parts of Thailand, not to mention the gift shops in the cathedrals of Europe. We were offered neither a splinter of a dead saint's bones nor a live teen girl.

Nudity remained strictly confined to the apsaras, the bare-breasted nymphs carved into the sandstone walls of Angkor's temples. Despite having had to withstand the tropical elements for a thousand years, many of the intricate details and spectacular architectural features remain visible. Bas-reliefs tell the stories of victorious battles and everyday life of the ancient Khmer, while the grandeur of the structures speaks to the power and progressiveness of their builders. Over the centuries, some temples even switched back and forth between Hinduism and Buddhism, or served both concurrently. That, too, seems enlightened.

The 20th century saw ample archaeological and restoration work, notwithstanding the very troubling track record of the most recent, Pot-headed Khmer Empire. Its demise ushered in the time of mass tourism. But there remain chances to get away from it all: Seeking solitude, we coaxed our guide and tuk-tuk driver into taking us to a more remote, unspoilt and half overgrown temple, which we had all to ourselves. It was there, scrambling over fallen stone slabs, peering into ancient relief galleries and admiring massive banyan trees growing through crumbling temple walls, that the explorer's epiphany set in.

This was a truly magical place - in an Indiana Jones kind of way. Or, rather more appropriate given the busty apsaras, in Tomb Raider fashion. Watch, don't touch the signs in churches used to say. Even I can believe in that: I'm getting the DVD now.

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16 Jan 2016

Transient

"It could be Rotterdam or anywhere", sang The Beautiful South. In the case of airport hotels, that is definitely the case.
While airports are inherently places of transit, the gaggle of hotels that cluster around the hubs try to create a sense of locality, because or despite the fact that they are mere providers of a commodity. Nobody chooses to go on vacation at an airport hotel. At best, people book them in advance of a scheduled overnight connection somewhere, like I did this past night. Or they are being used before a very early or after a very late flight, when no other locations can be reached on the same day. But more often than not, people end up in these forlorn rooms because things went wrong: Flights got cancelled, a connection was missed, weather wreaked havoc on the original travel plans.

Which means that typically, people at an airport hotel would rather not be there. As I sat down in the lobby lounge cum restaurant cum bar of my temporary residence in the middle of the industrial wasteland surrounding JFK airport last night, I found myself amidst a motely crew of freighter pilots, French tourists, travelling salesmen and a Kuwaiti family with mountains of luggage. None of them really wanted to be there - a sentiment I shared at the very latest after ordering the inevitable Caesar Salad from the completely uninspiring dinner menu.

Despite their grandiose names (Residence Inn, aloft, Four Points, or the particularly catchy Home2 Suites), the hotels are carbon copies of each other: Functional and bland rooms, a completely predictable restaurant, a tacky bar for stranded souls, and a 24/7 gym, from where treadmills make you feel guilty for having taken that cookie at check-in. The only thing that varies is the schedule of the shuttle bus back to the airport and thus, civilization. Some generic prints of landmarks on the walls are the one reminder of the metropolis near which one has bedded down for the night.

Most of the time, the establishments are in some no-mans land between freeway ramps, fuel tanks, rental car parking lots and self-storage depots, with jets roaring overhead. Perhaps this is why harmonious-sounding brands like "Garden Inn" and "Courtyard" are so popular.

If there is something positive to be said about airport hotels, it is that their sterile comforts far surpass the alternative, sleeping in airports. And that they are usually but a roadhouse en route to other, more alluring destinations. As, indeed, was the case last night, for I am about to be airlifted to my happy place,  and the marvels that wait beyond. With prospects like these, even the most bland of inns can claim Sweet Dreams. Guaranteed.

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