Angkor Wat

I started today by visiting Angkor Wat. What an honour to be here visiting this amazing citadel. I was really pinching myself today.

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Angkor Wat is just the largest of a whole complex of temples that I am looking forward to exploring in the next few days.

Ankwar Wat immediately impresses with its size. I dont think photos do it justice. And it also feels very tranquil and peaceful. Little shrines dot the buildings and they are tended by monks. It is nice that it still has a living presence. It does make it feel more alive and vibrant.

I sat, meditated and reflected in a few different locations. The scale of tbe place is so vast that even though there are many tourists I could easily find empty buildings. The coolness inside was deeply refreshing on such a hot day.

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Ankwor Wat was originally  built by the great Khmer King Suryavaraman ii in the twelfth century, probably as his mausoleum. Originally a Hindu temple devoted to Vishnu, it became Buddhist in the thirteenth century. It was greatly restored by the other great Khmer King, Javaraman ii. He restord after it was sacked by the Chams, the great rival of the Khmer. He raised an army and drove them out in the thirteenth century. It seems that it became Buddhist around this time also as the religious orientation of the Khmer people changed from Hindu to Buddhist. It is the worlds largest religious monument sitting on a site of 400 acres. It is sorrounded by an incredible moate 190 meters wide also putting anything comparable in Europe firmly in the shade.

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It has also been more or less continually inhabited by monks since the 16th century.

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There are some lovely carving here also

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There was a really lovely atmosphere pervading the place. I could feel the tranquility seeping into me. The soundscapes were lovely too with forest sorrounding the temple, sometimes some chanting and today there was even a brass band ! Ill leave you with there sounds

And some pictures of monkeys! Why not?

 

 

“The past is the past and it’s here to stay”

The above lines from a Nick Cave song have been haunting my mind all day. Here in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I have visited both the Tuol Sleng museum of genocidal crimes and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek also 15km from Phnom Penh. This is not the place for a detailed historical reprisal of that terrible time in the 1970’s when the Khmer Rouge dominated Cambodia effectively turning the country into a giant penal colony causing the deaths of 2 million people amongst a population of 16 million.

It is a story of a communism revolution led by psychopathic, brutal leadership set amidst the destabilising Vietnam war which radicalised much of the population. The colonial background of the country as well as, strangely, royalist sympathy on the part of the Khmer Rouge added to a complex, combustible mix. But why did it become so bloody ?

The loss of morality echoes  Nazi Germany,  Stalinist Russia or Maoist China. Why did the twentieth century produce such horrors? Of course technology plays a part in enabling such atrocities but there is also an appaling moral failure.

Dosteovsky, the great Russian novelist, presaged this. He writes primarily about how people justify crimes to themselves especially when timeless spiritual truths are called into question, usually amongst educated elites who consider themselves too sophisticated for such truths. His novels show this on a personal level, particularly Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamozov. The 20th century bares out this prophecy on a societal level.

The trip to Tuol Sleng was informative and moving. A former high school it became a murderous prison camp during the Khmer Rouge era. Thousands died here along with millions in the country as a whole. It is impossible to take it in. It’s impossible to put it in context. It’s brutal, it’s murdurous. It’s children with machine guns. It’s mass evacuation of the cities. It’s forced labour and torture.

 

In the afternoon I went to the killing fields of Choeung Ek. It was also very moving. This was where people were murdered and buried as quickly as possible, hundreds in a day. The killing tree is the saddest monument I have ever seen. I dont have the heart to go into it here nor did I have the heart to take a pictureof it or even to stand and look. I walked past it. I took few photos here. I had little desire to. I simply walked around feeling every step of the way.

I had concerns about engaging in disaster tourism before today but I have no concerns now. Everything was very well done, with heart and sincerety and it is so good we take the time to reflect on evil and how it can invade society.

At the end of my time in Tuol Sleng I attended some beautiful chanting. Ill leave you with that

National museum of Cambodia, Wat Ounalom and The Royal Palace

I woke early today and put my trip back on track. By which I simply mean that I accomplished my plans for the day. I went to the national museum and the royal palace. In between I purchased some books and spent many hours in bars and cafes taking an epic amount of time over coffees, teas, water snd meals.

I very much enjoyed the museum which features art from the golden khmer age right through to the present. Naturally it consists mostly of Buddhas, carved out of wood or stone. Indeed parts of rhe museum are more like a temple with offerings to the Buddha being made and “guardians” attending to them.


I must say this was entirely to my liking and added greatly to both the liviliness and beauty of the place. The courtyard too was exceptionally peaceful and felt like a much needed refuge from both the heat and the cacaphony of the street. I sat there in a peaceful stupor drinking in the tranquil morning atmosphere.20171204_085723.jpg

After the museum I went to Wat Ounalom and stopped into the temple. The monks were warm and welcoming and spoke a little English. I meditated a little in the temple just as they were having their mid day meal. It was lovely to hear their affable, happy conversations as I meditated. I am wary of projecting too much onto these monks however. I know little of their lives.

As a solo traveller I am very much at the mercy of books to keep me company and purchased some new books in a gorgeous book store just outside the monastery of Wat Ounalom. I added Steinbecks Of mice and men and Orwells Burmese days to my collection.

I have just completed Herman Hesses Sidartha and am nearing the end of Eamon Kelly’s book Irelands master storyteller. The latter deserves its own blog posting here which Ill get around to shortly but I will mention that it is a wonderful travel campanion full of humor and insight.

After lunch I went to the royal palace and had a wander around. It was a beautiful tranquil space with many beautiful buildings mixing royal symbolism and adornments with Buddhism. I imagine that after the viscious persecution of Buddhism under the Khmer Rouge the easy marriage between royalty and Buddhism is a soothing reminder of a timeless order for the average Cambodian. But I am only speculating as an outsider of course. As soon as I start speaking of “the average Cambodian ” or ” the man in the street” I have almost certainly ceased to say anything usefull and am drifting into cliche and stereotype. Here are some photos and some music I heard there also performed in the courtyard.

Alan Coakley is a Travel Director with Trafalgar tours based in Ireland.


Day 2 in Phnom Penh

I slept late due to jet lag this morning and my late start upset my plans for the day. Finding the museum and royal palace closed for lunch by the time I was up and about I ended up acceding to one of the many tuk tuk drivers offering lifts around the city.


Having initially agreed to a spin to Wat Phnom and the monkey temple on the far side of the Mekong, I ended up also going to Koh dak or silk island. The whole afternoon took over 3 hours and I was pretty exhausted by the end of it and ready for dinner and a rest. Although mildly irritated not to have gone yet to the museums or palace, I did see alot of Phnom Penh today.

The first temple, Wat Phnom, was very attractive and teeming with ceremonies, chanting and tourists.

And here is an audio of the music from the temple. Very soothing and calm

The monkey temple was nice also and not too heavy with tourists although I did have kids trying to beg money from me which of course is dis-spiriting and  sad.

From there I got the ferry over to Koh dak or silk island as its known. Here I got to see some of the cottage industries and some of the farming and village life too.

As we passed my guide pointed out the China town on the distance across the Mekong. A gleaming modern construction it sat in stark contrast with the Muslim fiahing village on this side of the river.20171203_052607.jpg

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This is one of the fishing boats directly above. My guide advises me they are predominantly Muslim and that they live on the boats.

Onwards then to Koh dak or silk island. It was nice to see village life but the pressure to buy was strong. This was a world apart from the main city with farming and cottage industry predominating. It was nice to see it but I was exhausted by the end of it. I eat a delicious curry and returned to my book and then the hostel. But the begging children and the desparate pressure to purchase on the island linger in my mind.

Alan Coakley is a Travel Director with Trafalgar tours based in Ireland.


Travels in Cambodia . Day 1

So I started this blog with the intension of writting about all things Irish but it feels good to write here about my foreign trips too.

I therefore present what I can only call an outsiders guide to Cambodia.


My intension really is to share. Its that simple. I will try and avoid cliche and keep it personal and honest.

I was alternately nervous and excited about the trip. Ive dreamed of coming to south east asia ever since I started practicing Buddhist meditation 17 years ago. You must be wondering why I waited so long. It seems every second person has been here but for me somehow it never happened. As I settled into fatherhood and career it never felt like the right time. I must credit Tom Ferris the writer, podcaster and blogger for shaking up my mind about what is possible in the midst of lifes demands and responsibilities. Like many of my generation my work is largely day to day and job to job as both a teacher and tour guide but rather then cursing this state of affairs I am going to view it as an oppertunity.

So here I am.

It is simply wonderful to be here. Stuff is happening everwhere. The rocky footpaths are jammed with food stalls, barbers, mechanics, carvers. Anything and everything jostling together. Tuk tuk drivers constantly looking for work. Its a grind, Im not blind. But everyone is so good natured, if clearly snowed in with the demands of a hard life.

Making.Ends.Meet.

And then there are the monks and the beautiful monasteries. Like lights they move around in their saffron robes. My heart is happy when I see them. The monasteries and temples are by far the most beautiful buildings and stick out as sincere human refuges amidst the cacophanous 21st century mess we are catching ourselves up in.  Children are playing around them. I sat in a temple amidst a few teenage monks while the kids kicked a ball outside. Birds were singing within the temple. I could hear cocks crowing somewhere in the grounds. The city din receded to a gentle hum. My mind was gentle and peaceful. I could have been in the middle ages.

It helped that my phone was in the repair shop all day getting unblocked. Practicalities intruded on my mind then after leaving the temple. I was anxious about not having my phone. Would it be fixed? Was I being overcharged.? The muddiness of life that we love.

By the evening my phone was finally fixed. I heard the monks chanting on my home. Heart lifted and mind reacquinted with my mental internet candy.

So onwards and upwards…tomorrow is another day. And a day at my leisure….may it change me and seap into my bones…

Lots of love, Alan

Alan Coakley is a Travel Director with Trafalgar Tours based in Ireland.


Album Review: Liam O Connor, The Loom

This is Liam O Connor’s first solo album and more then confirms his place amongst the elite of Irish fiddle players. The playing is joyful, fresh, innovative and considered. A Dublin born musician, he follows in the musical footsteps of fellow Dublin fiddle players, Paddy and Seamus Glackin, Sean Keane and especially Tommy Potts who clearly influence his style. The playing is exceptionally dynamic and tending towards the virtuosic without ever parting with the tradition.
The influence of Tommy Potts is evident in many of the tunes and indeed, the title track was one of Potts’s favourites. Potts, of course, was famously innovative, a musical magpie who robbed from jazz, classical and pop music and greatly enriched the emotional and melodic possibilities of traditional music.

O Connor doesn’t quite follow him into the moody brilliance and emotional turbulence that makes Potts one of the most interesting artists of 20th century Ireland but the character of his playing, the way he grabs the tune with both hands and adds his melodic inventions and innovations is heavily influenced by Potts. If I may be glib, he sounds like Potts in good mood.

The sheer joy in his playing is refreshing and his technical mastery of the violin, his clear bright tone, is always evident but is always sensitive to the melodic rendering and rhythmic subtlety inherent in the music.

The opening track, a set of three reels, opens with the Tarbolten which is given a strange and slightly surreal rendition with drone accompaniment from strings that references Sibelius’s violin concerto in D minor. The tune itself is played in the unusual and slightly surreal key of G minor. All very fresh. The second tune is credited to Imelda Roland and is a thoroughly gorgeous composition. The switch to G major is a beautiful modulation. The finishing tune, Master Crowleys, is a tune much associated with Potts and gives a magical end to a stand out set.

The jigs that follow, Miss Thornton’s and The Coolelan Jig are given a contrasting lyrical, light treatment. Repeal of the union follows and is another Potts classic.

Track five features two of my favourite hornpipes, Galway bay and The few Bob (which is surely amongst my favourite tune titles too!). Both are given a lovely, considered treatment here.

Easter Snow, the next track, is a well known slow air. Although, a technically accomplished rendition, I was a little unconvinced by it. It lacked a certain spaciousness and plantiveness that I seek in slow air playing. Molly from Limerick and nine pints of knavery follow and are nice jigs in major keys with an ebullient, jaunty feel.

Small by nature, is a jig composed in memory of Martin Small who died tragically in a car crash. The tune is suitably plaintive and the melody is very special. A Liam O Connor composition.

Two well known reels follow, the High Road to Galway and The Graftspey. The High Road to Galway is a lovely tune but for some reason, I dislike the Graftspey as a tune. There is no good reason for these likes and dislikes sometimes and certainly nothing to fault Liam O Connor on here. A joyful, virtuosic performance.

Another favourite hornpipe of mine, The Rights of Man follows along with another Liam O Connor composition The Rights of Women, composed in honour of the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Great composition.

Two hop jigs follow, The Buncranna Boy and The loom. The loom is a Potts composition. Hop jigs are strange creatures with an usual 3/8 rhythm and Potts jig is a melodically exhilarating jaunt through the staccato like rhythm of the hop jig. It is wonderful music.

An intricate version of the Bucks of Oranmore, one of the most commonly played tunes, and O Dowd’s reel, another tune much associated with Potts, bring us to another slow air, The Wild Geese, which recalls the tumult of the 17th century. Again, I felt the tune could have been more spacious and plaintive but no faulting O Connor’s mastery of the violin.

A stunning album overall, that gives a bright, cheerful and rich take on many common and uncommon tunes. O Connor is at his best in joyful, extrovert tunes and can clearly compose beautiful plaintive melodies also. The slow airs didn’t quite do it for me emotionally, but there is never any doubting the technical brilliance and dynamism at his playing. A brilliant solo debut overall.

Rush out and buy it !
from liamoconnor.ie

 

Blarney Castle

Blarney castle with its famous Blarney stone is high on the agenda for most tourists. The thing to do is to climb to the top of the castle where you lean into the machicolation ( gap between floor opening at top of castle through which oil or projectiles could be hurled at attackers) and kiss the Blarney stone. Kissing the stone itself is supposed to bestow eloquence and persuasiveness and the very word “blarney” now means to waffle aimlessly.


The origin of this dates lies in the 16th century when queen Elizabeth the first sent the duke of Leicester to seize the the stone from the McCarthys who were the Gaelic lords in possession  of the castle at the time.  As the Gaels were firmly defeated at the time and were unable to mount a military defense the best the head of the McCarthy clan could do was stall the queens emissary with excuses and promises etc.  When the queen received the reports from the duke she dismissed the talk of the McCarthy elder as “Blarney”.

The stone itself as a dazzling array of origin stories associated with it including (brace yourself), that it was the famous lia fail stone on which Kings were crowned, that it was taken during the crusades of the middle ages, that it was a gift from Robert de Bruce as a gift to the McCarthys following his help in sending men to assist in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 and another tale tells that it is made from the same material rock as that at Stonehenge. The University of Glascow put a dampener on all this “blarney” however when they analysed the rock and found it was made of local limestone in 2014. Ah well.

The grounds of the castle are beautiful and relaxing and contain many interesting plants and includes a poison garden which features mandrake, wolfsbain, ricin, opium and cannabis. The latter are of course illegal in Ireland which goes to show that there is one law for the rich.

The castle is still in private ownership and it has to be said that the castle does not appear to have been refurbished to any extent beyond the minimum required to meet  health and safety, although the gardens are immaculately maintained. On a rainy day , lines of tourists are exposed to the wind and rain as they queue to kiss the iconic stone.

There can be long queues to kiss the stone and if you want to avoid the queues my advice is to go early. This is very much part of the tourist trail and most tourists arrive after travelling from Kilarney in the morning. This means it gets busy from 11/11:30 each morning. If you can get there before then, there is a much better chance that you will not be caught up in large queues. While it can be fun, especially for teenagers, there are often queues and it does make you feel very consciously like a tourist. If there is a cruise ship in town then my advice is to stay away from the castle as the line is prohibitively long. Keep a close eye http://www.portofcork.ie for the cruise ship schedule.

Whatever about the castle though, the gardens are gorgeous, interesting, relaxing and  well maintained.

Entry is 13/5Euro and there is ample parking just opposite in the Blarney Castle hotel and Blarney Woolen Mills car park. The Blarney Woolen Mills shop is very popular with tourists and has really excellent products for reasonably good value. It is a wonderful place to buy Irish clothes and the perfect place to pick up a quality souvenir.

So my advice, if you go, go early and take time to enjoy the grounds as well as the castle.

Alan Coakley is a Travel Director with Trafalgar Tours based in Ireland.


How Catholic is Ireland today ?


It certainly is a current issue at the heart of our zeitgeist at present. Switch on a radio this week or have a look at our newspapers and they are full of shrill arguments in the media about abortion rights and about church ownership of schools and hospitals.

This is because, by  a curious coincidence, in the same week that the citizens assembly recommended amending the constitution (which requires a referendum)  to allow for the parliament to legislate for abortion provision in Irish hospitals, a huge controversy has blown up regarding the baffling decision to gift a hospital to the sisters of charity because the hospital is to be built on their lands.

It seems official Ireland is still happy to keep church and state solidly intertwined. The general population has moved on however. Nothing illustrated this better then the public vote to legalise same sex marriage in 2015. It wasn’t , of course, the first country to do so, but it was the first country to do so by public vote and the 76% in favour was a stunning endorsement of a liberal policy change.

None of which is necessarily bad news for Irish Catholicism. We still have the highest mass attendance in Europe with 46% attending weekly and 65% attending monthly. We still listen to the church, we just don’t always agree.

The church is also still a huge part of family and community life in Ireland. Just this week, I brought my daughter to a preparatory mass for her communion later in the month. It was a very pleasant experience and the gentleness of the service was striking. Although I don’t attend mass regularly, I was very happy for my daughter to share in the spiritual experience of prayer, community and eventually communion. In these materialistic and superficial days, I hope that it can provide  a spiritual grounding in a religious tradition. As someone, who is not a practicing Catholic but is happy to acknowledge the role of tradition and spirituality I suspect that I am pretty representative of my generation.

We are slowly but surely coming to the point where religion can have its role as a spiritual servant of the people who want it and not the master of our institutions. But we are not there yet !


Flute meeting, Cruinniú na Flúit

If you are looking for some genuine good craic and great music this weekend April 20-22nd, you can’t go wrong with the flute meeting (Cruinniú na Flúit) in Ballyvourney.  This festival has become an annual event and draws flute players (and other musicians) from all over Ireland and indeed the world.

Ballyvourney is a small village in West Cork where Irish is still spoken, although it has to be added that it is only occasionally now that Irish is heard there. The festival is concentrated in only three venues, The Mills bar, The Abbey hotel and the Ionad Cultura (cultural center) . This helps to create a friendly and intimate atmosphere.

This is a great time to go to a traditional music festival. The crowds are not as large as at summer festivals and the atmosphere is just that bit more laid back. These sort of small festivals with a strong line-up of musicians are often the best ones to visit either as a musician, or listener.

The concert on Saturday night features the groups Dingle fife and drum  band and locha  Bhogaigh and the flautist Ciaran Fitzgerald. Ciaran Fitzgerald is a phenomenal flute player and well worth seeing in a concert setting but the groups are not unmissable.  Bear in mind that there will be tremendous music in the Mills and the Abbey hotel also. The final concert on Saturday night will no doubt feature the tutors and should be very enjoyable also if you want to see a concert and enjoy great music in a lovely setting.

My advice is to approach the festival in a relaxed way. The nature of these things is that the best music can break out at any point informally in the pubs and half the fun is trying to be in the right place at the right time. If the pubs are a bit crowded in the evening you can go the concert and enjoy the music in a more spacious setting.

Accomodation in Ballyvourney will be booked out by now, so my advice is to stay in Killarney or Macroom which lie within a 30 minute drive of Ballyvourney. Staying in Killarney offers the oppertunity to mix the festival with some enjoyment of the beautiful sorroundings of that town and for the non musician this is probably the ideal combination.

Giant’s Causeway


Perched on the North Eastern edge of Ireland, if you travel through the loyalist towns with their Union Jack flags, lies one of my favourite spots in the country, the giants causeway.
The causeway is a strange looking series of hexagonal basalt column’s that extend a few hundred meters into the ocean. There they sit and have sat for up to 40 million years, withstanding the ocean’s daily assaults and the ice sheets that come along every few thousand years or so. If rocks have spirits it must seem to them that  the ice-age comes every five minutes or so.
I will tell you where these strange hexagonal rocks came from but the Gaelic myth associated with the causeway is much more fun and I’ll start with that. The story concerns two giants ( with giant sized ego’s! ). On the Irish side of the Irish sea is the mythical giant Fionn MacCumhal. On the Scottish side of the Irish sea is the giant Benandonner. The two get into a ferocious argument and start to threaten each other. Eventually an enraged Fionn decides to settle the argument once and for all. He starts to pick up rocks and hurl them into the ocean to create a path across the sea so that he can cross to challenge Benandonner. When he gets to Scotland however, he realises his mistake as Benandonner is much larger than him. He hightails it back to Ireland and tells his wife, Oonagh, about the trouble he has made for himself. Luckily he has married a clever woman and she invents a plan to save him. She disguises Fionn as a baby and when Benandonner comes looking for Fionn, Oonagh lets on that the infant is their son. When Benandonner sees the size of the baby, he is shocked at the size of the baby and thinks to himself that the father must be a fearsome prospect indeed. He himself then runs back to Scotland as fast as he can and for good measure destroys most of the pathway after him, leaving only the few hundred meters of causeway that are visible today off the coast of Belfast.
The scientific explanation is actually simpler ! The rocks were formed in volcanic activity from 50-60 million years ago. The molten lava formed a lava bed and as it cooled it contracted into the hexagonal vertical structures we see today.

The causeway itself is accessible via a beautiful coastal walk of about 30 minutes from the car park and buses run also which only cost 1£.  If you are able do the walk. It really is a very pleasant stroll and is not demanding. I absolutely love clambering over the  irregular rocks. I always get a giddy thrill from their surreal aspect, jutting out as they are into the ocean. Their black shiny surface sitting in a stony defiance against the ocean is so emblematic of the Ulster spirit !

There is a visitor center at the causeway which documents the scientific explanation and how it was arrived it by geologists in the 19th century and there is also a beautiful video installation which chronicles the mythological explanation beautifully. It is well worth a visit but a bit pricey at 10.50£ adult and 5.25£ for a child, with discounts available for groups and families. Also the shops, cafe and toilet facilities are all located inside the visitor center, which you must pay to access.  There are free toilets in the carpark but these are not as pleasant as the ones in the visitor center.  Note that the causeway itself is entirely free.
Important note on Admission and parking:  The National Trust operate the Causeway and charge per adult using the facilities. Visitor center and admission is charged together. This means that if you drive to the visitor center carpark you will be charged 10.50£ /adult for parking and entry to the visitor center.
But be aware that admission to the Causeway itself is totally free. You can either park at the railway carpark (6£/day) or park in the nearby town of  Bushmills and get a bus to and from  the Causeway.
For families, I’m going to recommend that unless you are very cost conscious,  that you go ahead and pay for parking and admittance to the visitor center. It is a much more pleasant experience to enjoy the cliffs at your leisure and have access to the visitor center afterwards for bathroom facilities, coffee and, of course, education !.  Family tickets are available for 22.50£.
If you area  party of adults and are not interested in the visitor center then it makes sense to park for 6£ in the railway park, use the toilet facilities in the nearby hotel and walk to the causeway.
Private coach tours are available from Dublin, Belfast and Derry. From Dublin travel time is over three hours each way so you will be on the bus for much of the day. From Belfast or Derry, I would argue that the Causeway is an absolute must.

Alan is a Travel director with Trafalgar Tours based in Ireland.