It takes just over 4 hours to get to Riga by bus from Vilnius. It is a gentle journey from inland to the shore brushing the belly button of Europe as we pass near the continent’s geographic midpoint.
The Lux Express is a comfortable coach. I settle cozily next to an empty seat and a coffee machine that unfailingly dribbles ten percolations of free black brew. Outside the bus window the scenery is monotonous and sleep-inducing. It is day two of my flu.
Straight, sunlit highways run silently along expansive fields with a lone stone barn, horse, or truck showing occasional signs of farm life.
As the sun descends I catch sight of an iron bridge with a girder of five steel arches over an imposing river – the Daugava or Dvina which flows to the sea here from Russia. We have just reached Riga. The bus steers into a parking lot beside a moat with early evening views of warehouses and a yellow Stalinist skyscraper.
Riga is the biggest, most industrial, and least medieval-looking of the Baltic capitals.
Despite damage done to it by two world wars and scars from the soviet era makeover, Riga by the Gulf is still by any standard a stunning head turner.
Its streets, moods and buildings recall the city’s days as a northern seafaring citadel of thin fog-piercing spires and spirited playful German art nouveau architecture voguishly termed Jugendstil.
In all but a few short decades of its nearly one thousand years history Riga was a city inside other people’s empires, a great Latvian seaport ruled in succession by outsiders.
From the very beginning German merchants, monks and medieval knights came and ran Riga, terming themselves the Livonian Brothers of the Sword. After the Teutonic Knights came the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which ruled Riga for a period of time, followed by almost a century under the Swedish Crown when Riga became the largest city in Sweden.
Of all the legacies bequeathed by its many foreign masters, it is that of Russia that is most tangible, recent and a constant source of friction and unease.
The giant next door neighbour left behind not only houses, statues and cooking style but also its people. Today half of Riga’s population of 700,000 is Russian by race or mother tongue rousing the city’s cosmopolitan air and feminine allure.
All images and text copyright Kerk Boon Leng October 2015
Sitting on the Baltic Sea with their backs to Russia and eyes toward Northern Europe is a group of three small, highly sophisticated countries that a generation ago was unwillingly part of the Soviet Union. They are called the Baltic States or simply the Baltics. Of the trio, Lithuania is the largest, most beautiful and zaniest.
The locals call their country Lietuva, a land of large sand spit, flat fields and forests inhabited by 2.8 million mainly tall, fair-haired people who speak an ancient Indo-Aryan language that astonishingly resembles Sanskrit.
Its inland, Central European location and long links with Poland sets Lithuania apart from its fellow Baltics.
Unlike Latvia and Estonia ( both mainly Lutheran states), Lithuania is Catholic in spirit and appearance as testamented by the many southern-styled Baroque buildings punctuating the white, pretty and swirling skyline of its capital Vilnius.
Lithuania was Europe’s last official pagan nation. Its thick forests of pine and spruce provided cover for its medieval traders, artisans and peasants hiding from Teutonic missionaries and knights with swords who came to force a foreign faith upon them.
Lithuania finally became Christian on 14 August 1385 when Grand Duke Jogaila accepted Poland’s packaged proposal to convert to catholicism and become its king.
Despite their country’s conversion many Lithuanians kept their indigenous religion up until perhaps the 16th century and even beyond. A German writer in 1775 remarked this about the Lithuanians:
“This is the most superstitious nation among all Christians. They are so persistent that no measures bring desired fruits”.
Traces of this ethnic belief remain and have been revived in a contemporary ritualistic form called Romuva.
In common with other polytheistic faiths like Hinduism and Taoism, the basic tenet of Romuva is the sanctity of nature and respect for all living things.
A prayer recorded in 1938 contains the following verses:
Those who today kill animals with delight will tomorrow drink human blood. The more hunters live in Lithuania, the further fortune and a happy life escapes us.
That I may not fell a single tree without holy need; that I may not step on a blooming field; that I may always plant trees.
That I may love and respect Bread. If a crumb should accidentally fall, I will lift it, kiss it and apologise. If we all respect Bread, there will be no starvation or hardship. “
All words and images copyright Kerk Boon Leng 2015
I can’t say I know what a hip and radical city looks like but in my first hour in Berlin I saw a lad swing from the arm of a socialist statue, two male lovers kiss on Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse and an above average density of beards, bikes and baby-strollers.
For all its edgy energy, Berlin is an austere and absorbing place with a pre-eminent but painful past. It is a metropolis that reeks of memories and reminders of defeat, division, dissent and death on a scale unmatched by any other in modern history.
The city began around 800 years ago as two trading towns built on flat, sandy and infertile land on opposite sides of the River Spree. It was a frontier place inhabited by people who spoke Slavic languages akin to Polish. Due to migration from other parts of Europe especially from the German lands to the west the region grew gradually “German”. The area was ruled by a succession of kings of the Hohenzollern dynasty who enlarged their territorial possessions by conquest and marriage to become in 1701 a Kingdom they named Prussia.
Despite its prominent and pivotal presence in Europe (in fact if not in form), Germany only became a country in 1871 when Prussia finally defeated France and united the German states under one empire. Berlin the Prussian capital became the capital of Germany.
Berlin goose-stepped into the 20th century with a potent mix of ambition and self-doubt. It wanted to become a world city and harboured hopes of rivalling London’s imperial status and Paris in its culture and sophistication.
As the capital of Germany under Hitler known as the Third Reich, Berlin experienced the horror of World War Two at first hand. Targeted by sustained Allied bombing and full scale Soviet ground offensive in 1945 the city suffered the largest non-military loss of life of any city of Western and Central Europe with an estimated 200,000 civilian death toll. It also became in the final days of the war the municipal grounds for the largest rape, humiliation, and sexual torture in history of up to 100,000 women in Berlin by rampaging soldiers of the Russian Red Army.
Berlin pulls and surprises because it is not the kind of place one would normally expect of the capital city of Europe’s most successful, disciplined and systematic country.
I suspect that Berlin’s greatest attribute and appeal lie in its ability to be a city about everything and anything at different times in the course of its tumultuous history. It has swung the full human pendulum back and forth a few times in the past.
Berlin under the Prussian King Frederick the Great, developed into a social laboratory for both German Enlightenment as well as despotic militarism. The city later turned itself into the intolerant, racist and slavishly obedient capital under the Nazis. The Cold War separated the city into two parts and divided its people between those who became ardent supporters of American capitalism and those who believed vehemently in communism by making the German Democratic Republic the most loyal in the Soviet Bloc.
This year Berliners (and their fellow Germans) shocked Europe and the rest of the world with their hipster humanity in accepting into the country a million Arab, African and Afghan migrants resting such decision on just a simple belief that a country as rich as theirs should and could do so.
All images and photographs Copyright Kerk Boon Leng October 2015
Except to intrepid travellers, Phnom Penh and having a good time don’t come readily together. This medium-sized capital of a small South East Asian nation, which claim to fame is a magnificent cluster of ruins and faces of Buddha peering out of jungles and rice fields embedded with unexploded landmines and human skulls, is in reality Asia’s most free and openly tolerant city.
Amazing, because no country in Asia has endured so much physical and psychological abuse as Cambodia.
According to recently released data, the US Forces during the American Indochina war dropped 2,756,941 tons of bombs on Cambodia- almost a third more than the entire Allied bombs used in World War II making Cambodia the most heavily-bombed country in history.
Then, exactly forty years and a fortnight ago, Communist troops drove out the US-backed government of Prime Minister Lon Nol forcing him to flee into exile in Hawaii. The band of ragtag peasant soldiers led by an ex-teacher from a local French school named Saloth Sar, known to the world after 1976 as Pol Pot, took over Phnom Penh and within hours emptied it of people by ordering everyone out to the countryside where they were to face exploitation, cruel beatings and death.
In less than four years of rule by Pol Pot and his followers called Khmer Rouge, the regime overworked, starved, tortured and executed to death a quarter of Cambodia’s population. The Khmer Rouge wanted to create a socialist Utopia. In their mad experiments of horror and paranoia they laid waste to the entire country and literally set Cambodia back to ‘Year Zero’ by abolishing money, markets, schooling, religion and private ownership.
Things did not exactly turn rosy when the Vietnamese Army invaded in 1979 getting rid of Pol Pot. Fighting continued between the Vietnamese installed government of People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK later rebranded in 1989 as State of Cambodia to attract a wider international appeal) and the China-backed Khmer Rouge who retreated to territories along the Thai border.
Other groups such as the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (KPNLF) and FUNCIPEC under Prince Sihanouk soon joined in the fray creating a four-corner fight.
By the time Peace Agreements were signed in Paris on 23 October 1991 hundreds of thousand of Cambodians had been displaced in refugee camps in Thailand and tens of thousands killed by the civil war.
The Paris Agreements created the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) to temporarily run Cambodia. UNTAC with a 22,000 strong multinational civilian and military peacekeeping force drawn from 45 countries was given the mandate to disarm and de-mobilize the four Cambodian armed factions and to prepare the country for elections which eventually took place in May 1993.
Today Phnom Penh has come a long way from its previous incarnations as a French colonial gem in 1920s, independence-era model city in the 1950’s, Khmer Rouge Ghost city in the 1970’s and UN-NGO cowboy town of the 1990s.
In its freewheeling and anything goes spirit, Phnom Penh is now peerless in this part of the world, perhaps reminiscent of Macau or Hong Kong in its mid colonial heyday or Malaya during the tin rush. With its high number of entrepreneurs and emigres from Asia and beyond, a magnificent river frontage, excellent Chinese restaurants and budding coffee culture, Phnom Penh is ready to take on its larger, richer but socially and politically shackled regional rivals.
As proof, Cambodia is already growing faster than China, India,Indonesia and Malaysia.
All words and images Copyright Kerk Boon Leng April 2015
“Uncle! Many mutton!” Muralee exclaims from behind the wheels of our rented Innova, mustering the English he picked up as a municipal cleaner in Singapore. I awake from my front seat doze to focus blearily on a herd of grazing goats hurried along the roadside by a tall thin man with a long stick.
Muralee stops the car. I get off with my camera. Goats in the blinding afternoon sun make good foreground subjects against the featureless scenery that typifies much of Tamil Nadu – scrub forest, dusty fields and thirsty palms. We have left the hill town of Palani and are now deep in India’s spiritual South.
Being among these bearded four legged creatures is auspicious and culturally comforting. I am smitten by conscience for abandoning family and friends on the second day of the Chinese New Year of the Goat for a Hindu pilgrimage to India.
The desire for this trip was born more than a few years ago when I made a call to my late friend and guide Logan for his help in planning it. He asked for my horoscope to prepare an astrological chart to work out the right temple to go to for the prayers. Sadly, Logan passed away before our trip details were discussed and finalised. I make this trip now to pay belated obeisance to Murugan -the God of the Tamils, in his home temples located in the plains, hill and shore of Tamil Nadu and in memory of Logan.
Tamil Nadu -the land of the Tamils, is vintage Vedic India in so many ways.Here Hinduism has managed to still keep many of its traditions, lexicons and amazing temples. Separated from the racial and religious cauldron of the northern plains by monsoonal seas and the Deccan plateau, the land of the Tamils developed its own kingdoms, culture and customs, safe and far away from the pathway of muslim invaders and conquerors.
Today together with the rest of South India, Tamil Nadu is the domain of the Dravidian people. Smaller, darker brown and speaking melodic tongue-twisting languages, Dravidians have been “Indians” for far longer than the Indo-Aryan northerners whose ancestors only began settling in India around 3500 years ago. Tamil civilisation is one of mankind’s oldest. It is the world’s only surviving classical civilisation, one that has continued in almost its original form unchanged since the age of ancient Greeks and Romans.
Making a pilgrimage through the temples and holy shrines of Tamil Nadu is for me a deeply meaningful experience and a privilege. It is also the closest thing to time travel in the 21st century.
We reached Lungesti on a steely grey morning after a short ride from Barlad on the local train. Alex promised his mum and dad who had stayed over in their weekend farm we would spend the day helping them with grape picking.
Alex’s family on his mother’s side comes from this village. Tincuta, Alex’s mother, was born and raised here until she moved to the city to work and marry. Some of their relatives still lived in this rural settlement of around 3,000 people surrounded by timeless but unspectacular countryside.
This is the part of Romania called Moldavia (culturally and historically similar to Moldova the country on the other side of the Prut – the river that marks the international boundary between the two). It is the region that produces a third of Romania’s wines.
Our pre-planned day of labour turned out to be one of mostly leisure, laughter and home made liqueur.
The gentle but persistent rain kept us away from the vines after our lunch of boiled delta fish dipped in horseradish sauce, soup with herbs, cabbage salad and pig brain omelette eaten with mamaliga.
Instead of picking fruits I walked with Alex to a house of a relative over the hill at the back to help strengthen family bonds and drink more distilled spirits.
I dodged fried dough sellers, shoeshiners and swarms of scooters before perching myself on a low plastic stool for a tall glass of ca phe da. Hanoi’s old city still gives me a child in a toyshop adrenaline rush like no other urban site in Asia except maybe night time in Tokyo’s Shibuya and Kolkata at any hour.
Hanoi’s ancient mercantile quarter is an evocative place to wander around. It is half Paris meet Canton in the Tropics; half Communist meets Capitalist and wholly mad on a Saturday night with chock-full of humanity pouring into its narrow streets as if fleeing an advancing molten lava after a soccer game.
The old city area of Hanoi is I think the last place remaining in the world to see a classical oriental city that is little changed from the past century and miraculously undamaged by the Vietnam/American War 40 years ago. Its labyrinthine streets of narrow shops are interspersed with temples and sectionalised by guilds and trades. Here one can still see and hear the sights and sounds of street traders, vendors on bicycles and on foot carrying on poles their wares in woven baskets and pavement of people slurping hot rice noodles and drinking coffee dolloped with condensed milk.
Hanoi is by the standards of emerging Asia a beautiful and atmospheric city. It is situated on the watery banks of the Red River about 100 km from its mouth at the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam’s North. It is a locality steep in history with records of human settlements in and around the present city going back at least 3,000 years.
In 1010 the first Vietnamese king of the Ly Dynasty moved his base here . He named his new capital city Thang Long or Ascending Dragon. Hanoi is still poetically known by this name to this day.
Although Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam for most of the country’s existence as a political entity, it was for over a thousand years up until the 10 th century, along with most of northern Vietnam, ruled on and off and marginally as part of China.
If Bucharest were located anywhere in the world but Europe, I am sure planeloads of people would travel all the way there to see it and find reasons to describe it as interesting, grand and maybe beautiful.
Many would no doubt delight in its hectares of parklands and lakes and architecture that is an eclectic mix of styles, madness and concrete.
But Bucharest belongs these days in Europe. As a poor new member of an elite club in a continent brimming with magnificent historic cities, it is seldom given the respect and praise it deserves.
In fact, Romanians have grown used to their capital city being from time to time mistaken for a famous Hungarian city further up the Danube and overlooked by tourists eagerly rushing to Transylvania to see Dracula and his doubtful castle.
Most tourists spend hardly any time in Bucharest fearing that the city is destitute, dangerous or too drab a place to linger.
Quite remarkable for a people with a not so distant memory of deprivation, schizophrenia and collective trauma, Romanians especially the citizens of Bucharest are an honest, hardy and heartwarming lot with a noticeable fondness for large canines.
Bucharest’s love affair with animals especially dogs may be linked to the city’s legendary founding by a shepherd named Bucur. The city’s streets had a reputation for its stray dogs that made rare front news for biting their victim occasionally to death. Even so, all the dogs I saw there were happy hounds either tugging on a leash or busy retrieving a stick in the park.
Bucharest ( population 2 million ) is the biggest city in the formerly communist part of Europe, an area roughly between Berlin and Istanbul, known at one time as the Eastern Bloc.
In greatness size matters but what makes Bucharest a great European metropolis is its raw spirit and authentic atmosphere.
It is self-deprecating but hopeful. It is a real place where people have faces, food tastes like it should and young people eloquently share their views with total strangers in flawless English. It is a city that doesn’t see the need to put on any make up for visitors.
For this reason Bucharest is less a city to sightsee than one to fall seriously in love with and to return to even during its cold snowy winters.
A few hours of sleep after we arrived by train in Barlad we put on old overalls and went with Alex’s parents to Priponesti. It is a village 24 km to the south west where the family keeps a small vineyard for both commerce and consumption. It was wine harvesting time. The mainly white and some red grapes must be hand picked before rain, cold and frost arrive later in the month.
Intriguingly, one of the top tourist attractions in Moldova is not a place inside Moldova.
Transnistria or the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, is a confetti strip of Russian-speaking territory on the left side of the Dniester River that declared itself independent in 1992 after fighting a brief but bloody war to break off from Moldova.
No country has so far recognized Transnistria as a sovereign nation, not even Russia which underwrites the territory’s de facto status by protecting it with its army and supplying it with money and free gas.
Today all visitors (even Moldovans) need to have a passport and fill out a simple form at the border to get into Transnistria. No entry stamp or visa is needed nor given as under international law and treaties, Transnistria does not exist.
Even so, the country has its own currency, president, army and a fiery flag.
Although the country occupies the region in Moldova where historically factories and industries are located, it now survives mainly by selling cognac, smuggling and on Russia’s goodwill.
Transnistria’s existence as a political terra nullius surrounded by unfriendly neighbours has allowed organised crime to flourish within its borders.
Many Moldavians blame Transnistrians for the bad publicity their country is getting overseas. They say that most of the smuggling of weapons and women people say are coming out of Moldova happen in fact in Transnistria.
On their part, Transnistrians (almost in equal numbers Russians, Ukrainians and ethnic Moldavians), are aghast at the prospect of being swallowed up by Romania as part of Moldova and have clung on to the security and nostalgia of the old soviet system. They held a referendum in 2006 in which they voted overwhelmingly (98%) to join Russia.
Not having visited Russia before and excited to visit what I had read on the Internet is the world’s last slice of the USSR, I half-expected to find in the capital Tiraspol, matryoshka-like matrons forming queues to buy bread, goose-stepping soldiers in huge grey public squares and rusting hammer and sickle signs everywhere.
Instead when Eugeniu drove me across from Chisinau in a red rented Chinese-made sedan on a warm and sunny afternoon a month ago, I found a surprisingly pleasant and ordinary place. Tiraspol looked to me, a spic, span and spacious place perhaps more like a New Zealand town on Boxing Day than the capital of a renegade Soviet-styled republic