We get it. You’ve seen it all already. On those posters, fliers, brochures, facebook ads and friends’ profile pics: the screaming, freefalling, sometimes cleavage-heavy adrenaline portraits of the young and daring tandem skydiver, plummeting through the air at 200km/h strapped to some tattooed weekend-base-jumper with a maniac grin plastered across his Oakley-sporting face.
If hanging around drop zones for the last 5 months has taught us anything (and it’s taught us WAY more than we could have possibly imagined), it’s this: Yes, that backpacker-thrill-face is part of our daily subjects as we cling to our cameras whilst trying to not get hit by landing humans on the beach. However, as with the added knowledge about the sky, the clouds, the physics of parachuting and the aviation industry in general, we were surprised by the people we met who we’d never expect to be in any way connected to what is perceived to be such an ‘extreme’ sport. Filmmaking gives you amazing access to people’s experience, ideas and worlds, and here are our top 5 surprises:
1) Don – the unintentional expert
Don is a tandem master with over 9600 jumps to his name. “It all started back in the 80s, I had just got divorced and was looking for a new social group”. He was introduced by a friend and as he really enjoyed hanging out with everyone at the drop zone, he ended up jumping. It actually took Don 20 jumps to start enjoying himself properly.
After years of experience and training, Don gained his tandem qualification in 1991. In his typically calm, collected and approachable manner, he explains that he loves taking people flying, and especially enjoys tandems with paraplegic passengers or people with cerebral palsy. “You’re up there in the air with them, and there’s nothing for your legs to do, so letting your passenger fly a parachute around feeling weightless and free is just amazing”.
Don also teaches the AFF (accelerated free fall) course to people who want to learn to fly on their own. “It’s rewarding to the max to see people I taught flying on their own and having fun or challenging themselves in competitions”. We ask him if this is day job. “Oh, no, this is how I spend my weekends. I’m a postman during the week!”
2) Alan – the birthday boy
There seems to be a popular belief that skydiving is the realm of 20-something year old people without a real job. We must admit that we were a little surprised ourselves to learn that, unlike driving your car without regular tests, the upper age limit for skydiving is non existent. We first met Alan as he was assisted off the landing area as he had difficulty walking. “I’ve always wanted to skydive, but my wife wouldn’t let me!” he laughs out in a brash Aussie twang. “Well, unfortunately she died before I was 80, so on my 80th I booked in to skydive. I’ve treated myself on my birthday every year since!”
Alan has difficulty walking, but so long as you can lift your legs up for the landing, you can go skydiving without any special equipment, yes, even if you’re in your 90s or above (and it’s been done!). “We had three elderly ladies booked in Cairns”, Hannah who organizes front of office explains, “and as they all put down the same address, I thought they lived together. Turns out it was the address of their nursing home. They had a fabulous time up in the air and wouldn’t stop telling me all about it whilst they waited for their photos.”
3) Allie – the fast rider
Allie is probably the most likely out of all our unlikely people because she does things that you would expect from a skydiver, and at that, one thing in particular: Allie races motorbikes. What is completely unexpected is how humble she is about her amazing achievements on the racecourse and in the sky. “Many of my skydiving colleagues would never ride a sports bike, because it’s ‘too dangerous’” she smiles knowingly. “I’m the ground safety officer here and make sure everyone lands nice and safely after jumping out of the plane. So I absolutely agree with them. Looking at the statistics, you’re more likely to get hurt driving in your own car to the drop zone than falling out of a plane.”
Her knowing smile holds another story though, as Allie is afraid of flying. “It used to be awful, I’d have to take a Qantas flight here or a Jetstar flight there and whilst everyone was sitting around chatting about the coffee being terrible or zoning into the in-flight entertainment, I was clinging to my seat, sweaty palmed.” Most people think the riskiest part is outside the plane, but everyone we know in skydiving is much happier once they leave the plane. “Those things are way more scary than jumping out. I used to take my parachute on as hand luggage so I knew that if anything happened, I’d be fine in mid air”. Allie successfully manages her nervousness when flying these days but it gives her valuable insight into what first-timers feel like and how to re-assure them. “It’s not about being fearless, it’s about feeling it but helping yourself to do it anyway. You’ve got to go out there and enjoy life.”
4) Sammy – the wiz-kid
“There’s lots that determines your coolness-factor at school. One of them’s your pencil case. Another is your mum’s restraint level when you just don’t want a cuddle. I totally nailed it. I jumped out of a plane.” Sammy isn’t 18. He isn’t 16 with parental consent either. Sammy did his first skydive at 13, one year older than Australia’s 12+ age limit. Surprised? Well, in New Zealand, so long as you can get strapped in, you can fly, no matter how young you are.
“It’s like when you’re in bed, and you’re having a dream that you’re falling, and you wake up with a jolt, BUT IT DOESN’T STOP” he explains mystically to his older sisters. “I was a bit nervous, not about the plane, cause it was going to be my first flight ever anyway so I thought I’m gonna love it. But going on this bus full of adults I don’t know to get to the airport was a bit daunting. But Dave my tandem master explained everything really clearly and then kept on joking about stuff so we ended up sniggering all the way.” Sammy’s mum was also a little bit nervous but the knowledge each rig contains a main and backup parachute as well as a computer that deploys the chute automatically at a certain altitude was reassuring. “He had such a good time, it was all worth it. Someone’s got a new fridge photo to put up and show off.”
5) Greg – the aviator supreme
You’d be surprised to not find a pilot at a skydiving gig. These mystical creatures, shrouded in starched shirts, mirrored aviators and banter only air traffic control pretends to understand, are often the only clean-shaven face in sight of a plane’s petrol docking station. You may have had the privilege of catching a glimpse of a pilot walking through the VIP lane at airport security or flicking switches and checking charts with the co-pilot through the crack of the nearly-closed cockpit door as the stewardess opposite you motions to you to take your seat at the back in row 29 and refrain from holding up the queue any longer.
But when you’re cramming 17 people into a small plane with two seats and a Perspex shutter instead of a door, things get cosy and you have the chance to get a good look at a real-life pilot. Greg as been flying since 2011 and completed his training for skydiving piloting 2 years ago. He’s flown a lot of different types of planes in all sorts of environments, but flying parachutists requires quite a unique combination of skill and experience. “Unlike a normal flight, everyone’s really excited to be there. You have to get up to altitude as fast as you can and then maintain a track, altitude and air speed whilst losing about 1400kg out of the door in the space of about 50 seconds.”
Camera fliers make things really interesting for Greg as they cling to the outside of the plane creating a lot of drag until they suddenly drop off at the same time as two other people. “You have to compensate with the plane, which is fine with 1 camera flier but when there are fun jumpers involved, we’ll have up to 13 people hanging on to the outside of the plane.” All this experience means that when you apply for jobs with a commercial airliner, having worked as a skydive pilot is great on your CV as you’ll have honed your skills to keep a plane steady and secure as well as being awesome at takeoffs and landings. “In a normal situation, you may do 3 or 4 takeoff and landing combinations a day. When you’re working in skydiving, you’re doing 10 to 20 a day, which means you get really, really good.”
When the door of the plane opens, it gets a bit scary, we say. “You don’t need to be fearless, just skilled, and the physics involved are amazingly supportive. One pilot I work with is scared of heights, but he loves flying once he gets to a certain altitude, so he just deals with his fear and he’s fine. He’s applying for a major airline at the moment and he’s a fantastic pilot so will do very well. It’s when you see beyond your physical reaction to the possibilities life holds that you really start to enjoy yourself.”
Over the Christmas break, after enjoying the big city lights of Melbourne, a group of us headed to Northern Queensland for an experiment. Is everyone’s home someone else’s dream destination?
“Townsville. Super boring. Why would anyone want to visit. Trust me, I know, I grew up here.
Townsville really doesn’t have much to offer. A big army base has dominated the town’s demographic makeup ever since I can remember. Being a teenager was hard – you kept on being muscled out of bars by rowdy army guys and getting to know girls that didn’t go to your school was next to impossible. The scenery is ok, but being much drier than Mission or Airlie Beach, and with much less stuff to do, there’s a reason the tourists tend to drive straight through.
When we touched down I was super-excited to see my family and the few friends that had stayed, but to be honest, destination-wise, I would have spent my money on going somewhere else. Remember, I know this place inside out.
We went to the Billabong sanctuary to watch animals I can see in my mum’s back yard. Roos are constantly at the side of the road, ‘cause they’re stupid and get hit by cars. Cockatoos and galahs trash stuff. Koalas sleep all day. So at the sanctuary, you can hold one. It still sleeps. The crocs are a little bit more exciting, but also one of the main reasons I can’t swim in the sea. Bummer.
Maggie Island is one of my favourite places. It was fun to go, but it’s just my back yard. Why would anyone want to go there? Yeah the beaches are nice and stuff, but you could go to Bali? Or spend Christmas somewhere that actually LOOKS like Christmas. Like Munich, or Frankfurt! Also, Magnetic Island’s not THAT exciting unless you hung out there as a kid and now that I’m an adult I’m not that sure it should be recommended. Just like that moment your brother laughed so hard milk came out of his nose. It was really funny at the time, I swear. We had dinner with one of my mum’s friends, which was super-tasty. But again, if you could go to the Taj Mahal, who wants to hang out with my mum’s friends?
We actually left Townsville to drive to Mission Beach, which is just up the road, but a REAL tourist destination. They have skydivers there, and one of us went, which was pretty awesome. The drive was lovely, we stopped off at the giant gumboot in Tully, Frosty Mango and Crystal Creek on the way back, but I won’t go into great detail cause it’s really not that exciting. So there you go. 6 days in my hometown. Really nothing special.”
“I’m not going to lie. I was a bit dubious when it was suggested that we take the week I have after Christmas to go visit somewhere rather off the tourist trail. We could have gone to Cairns, or Airlie Beach, which I’d seen advertised many times in the Lonely Planet, Tourism Australia brochures and on the Internet. But this was going to be something different. We were flying to Townsville.
Coming from a cold and wet Frankfurt to spend Christmas in hot and sunny Australia was a real treat. All the seafood and pool parties and cycling trips to the beach – it didn’t feel Christmassy at all. We were exploring this world completely new to us, where wearing a Santa hat surfing really is a thing. Now that we’d flown to the North end of the country, it was going to get even more exotic. I spotted a huge flock of brightly coloured parakeets swing through the air above the airport arrivals lounge. It may sounds strange, but arriving somewhere that has a huge “careful about the crocs” poster in the foyer gave me this real sense of adventure.
And adventure it was – we headed to the Billabong Sanctuary that has actual, real, live wombats! I’d never seen one in my life! It was incredible! And all the birds, the cockatoos even said ‘hello!’. All these animals I’d seen photos of, but never actually seen up close, in real life, suddenly weren’t made up creatures on a piece of paper anymore. They were there – living and breathing and squawking and shuffling around, cage-free and there for the petting. And we’re not talking boring rabbits or badgers or deer… I never even knew that something called and Echidna existed! I even got to hold a small koala, it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done. You simply can’t imagine how soft and springy and dense their fur is.
We were staying with family of friends and you can’t imagine my surprise when I saw wild wallabies jumping around in the back garden. We could even feed them! I was over the moon. But there was more to come. We took the ferry to Magnetic Island and spent the day exploring. Wild koalas, beautiful empty bays with aquamarine water, flocks of parakeets flashing between rainforest trees… we had to swim in a stinger net but clambering up huge rocks to watch the ocean was just magical. I loved the warmth of the water here, and how it was so easygoing – we ended up being the only people in the bay so we just left our stuff and went for a walk along the sand. We certainly built up an appetite as we were invited to dinner with a friend of the family. It was simply delicious, and so good to hang out with a real local who was interested in me and where I come from, and showed me the difference between 5 (!!) sorts of mangos. We chatted for hours and hours, it was wonderful.
Our final big outing was to drive to Mission Beach, 3 hours up the coast. I can’t remember the last time I drove for 3 hours without stopping off; it’s such a long way to drive in one go. Mission Beach was beautiful, especially from above, as it had been arranged for me to go skydiving. I could not believe my luck that I can do these kinds of things. I’m so incredibly grateful. Most of my friends just stay where they are, but here I was, hanging 5000ft in the air with a parachute and a wonderfully entertaining tandem master. Seeing the coastline stretch as far as the eye could see below me, and the rainforest on one side and Great Barrier Reef on the other was just amazing.
The drive home was even better than the drive up. We stopped off at the biggest wellington boot I’ve ever seen – you can even climb it, what a hoot! Then we bought some fresh local prawns – the lady in the shop was completely mental, but really well meaning. She was saying all these things I couldn’t understand because her accent was so thick, and she shouted a lot, but it was hilarious – you just can’t make this stuff up. Neither can you plan or pay for this kind of real local experience, and the setting in which we ate the prawns was amazing. Up in the rainforest, a stream rolls over these huge boulders creating little pools and slides and even really deep bits you can dive into. As it was the weekend, families came with their kids and friends (via delicious ice cream shop Frosty Mango!) and just brought lunch, hung out and swam in the stream. Some of the kids even caught wild crayfish. I would have never found this place if it wasn’t for our local’s knowledge, and I feel really privileged to have been somewhere that very few tourists know is there.
Looking back, I had such a great time in Townsville. It was every day life for some, but to me everything was so exotic and exciting. I mean, wild parrots in your back garden? How much more holiday-like does it get? Words can’t describe it, you’re just going to have to go to Queensland.”
If we’ve learned anything from our little experiment, it is to not underestimate how interesting your own surroundings can be for someone from a different background. We all had a fantastic time, but here lies the secret: just because you think it’s normal, doesn’t mean the rest of the world thinks the same. Just because it’s ‘ugly’ or ‘boring’ or ‘every day’ doesn’t mean others won’t be amazed by your ‘edgy’ or ‘incredibly relaxing’ or ‘so different from where I live’ surroundings. People have different ideas about what they find inspiring, they travel all over the world to beachside holiday resorts, or icy landscapes, or North Korea, or Kazakhstan or Kenya. Or even Frankfurt. It’s often the things you take for granted that outsiders pick up on and find fascinating. What? Everyone sticks to the queuing system? Huh? You eat cold meats and cheese for breakfast? OMG! You have actual, real SNOW in your garden?!?
So if you can’t get away, and are stuck at home, in your boring surroundings, remember that someone else is dreaming of seeing the cool English pub down the road, or your sash windows, or your heated toilet seat. Invite someone to check out what makes your place ‘normal’ and see how they point out things and laugh about stuff you never thought anyone would notice. See your own surroundings with new eyes. You never know, inspiration might just be around the corner.
Guest blog post by the wonderful Tracy Brown.
Chased by uniformed, badge wearing officers by torchlight… down dark alleys and laneways and out onto the night streets of cities… lugging a bag of spray cans and concealing your identity with a balaclava…. The traditional life of a street artist is not generally seen as glamorous. I mean, ok perhaps Banksy makes it work… just look at him… oh no, that’s right, you can’t… And why? Because he knows he would be in deep shit if anyone ever saw him. That’s the problem with tagging your art, they catch you red handed at one wall, they can track your little trail all over town. But I doubt he’s ever been fined, and probably never will be. Why? Because people LIKE IT. We like art, we like our walls exploding with colour and creative political statements that drive a message home, and nowhere have we seen more love for street art than Perth in WA.
Western Australia got the message a while back, their youth were leaving – in droves. Perth as a city was renowned for cultivating brilliant minds, but suffered a mass exodus once the university degree was in the travel pouch. They were sending budding entrepreneurs with innovative ideas into the waiting arms of other states and bigger cities, where they also found street culture and vibrant communities. Perth said “We want you back!” and the crew at FORM, stepped up. PUBLIC was born, and communities rejoiced!
You can position yourself in Perth city’s Wolf Lane and observe travellers mouths drop. They will stand transfixed by the mind-boggling amount of hours, litres of paint (ahh .. this year alone that would be an easy 4,245 litres, plus a lazy 2,406 aerosol cans), creative genius and pure vision it would have taken to create such inspirational work. As you traverse the city and regional areas throughout the state, you will see Giant Octopuses (hey, what’s the correct plural for an eight legged sea creature… I should really look that up), towering Big Bad Wolves and teeny tiny mice murals, and colour – SO MUCH COLOUR!
60 artists took part in the creation of 70 walls this year, and international street artists are clambering to get a spot on the next round in 2016. Competition is fierce. People are talking, and the youth are not so keen to leave a progressive, culturally aware and inclusive region. A place where their contributions are valued and they feel part of their community. Creative spaces breed positive mindsets, the energy attracts young travelers who feel welcome in a city that embraces art and culture.
Does the “legal” street artist feel as though they can still be taken seriously if what they are creating is sanctioned and **GASP – PAID FOR? Nope, not a typo – PAID, with real-to-goodness CASH. Yes, unsurprisingly, yes they do. Local businesses (as in Penang – check out the Rat & Dragon frontline report) are claiming economic growth from increased foot traffic and trendy coffee shops and eateries are sprouting next to Grasshoppers the size of Godzilla. Bland alleyways have become friendlier places for pedestrians. Professionally designed artwork gives a desirable ambience where once you would be afraid to set foot. Working alongside local councils also ensures that relationships between artists, businesses and the general community are fostered in a direction that benefits everyone involved.
Breaking free of the city, just an hour and a half outside of Perth, you will see what the community of Northam has decided is it’s best attraction. PUBLIC’s largest murals for 2015 by PHLEGM & HENSE.. 36 wheat silos covered in paint by the world’s best.
(Film by Peacock Visuals, with kind permission of Form)
Hense: “Painting the grain silos in Northam, Australia was amazing. I’d say it’s one of the most interesting structures and projects I’ve worked on thus far.”
From the world’s first collaborative, legal murals on the remains of the Berlin Wall in 1989, people have collectively seen how art brings communities together. It fosters hope, ambition and spirit. Perth is bursting with youth, life and … that little something extra that you just can’t quite put your finger on. But don’t take my word for it, be inspired and come find it for yourself.
You can find out more by following FORM / PUBLIC, and go ahead, like them on facebook and twitter.
The last two months have been the first in 2 years of Rat & Dragon we’ve spent in one place. Shacked up in our little cabin on the NSW coast, 5 hours drive from the nearest Apple Store, our world view has gone from regularly covering thousands of travel miles capturing this planets wonders on film, to working, living, sleeping and breathing the same 300m x 300m square day in day out. Our Rat’s rural work has taken her out of camp a few times, but the furthest has been 10 minutes down the road to Red Rock, where she’s helping construct Loka’s riverside camp, by definition in the middle of nowhere.
The last two months have nevertheless been some one of the most tumultuous times in our recent history. We had just competed our cinematographic journey through Stray’s entire Southeast Asia network, hard drives and minds jam packed with 5 countries worth of wonders. Our Mighty Australia road trip was on the brink of being published and we found ourselves on opposite sides of the planet as Rat continued her stint in construction and Dragon flew the flag high in corporate London. Returning to Oz Dragon got his teeth into overhauling Mojo’s entire video marketing portfolio, aided by the occasional dip in the tantalisingly close ocean.
With our heads for the first time in what would resemble a ‘normal routine’ (we have access to our own fridge!!), the crazy digital nomad lifestyle got mingled up with the office worker’s concept of sitting still in the same chair day in day out, for 10 hours at a time, face in a screen, mind oblivious to body. Chasing all those deadlines all at once, forgetting to eat lunch. Then one of our Dragon’s oldest friends did what he’d always done best. With complete disregard for what society expects, he shook things up in a big way. Unfortunately it was not a happy occasion, as 5 years after being diagnosed with a brain tumour, battling through cancer treatment and building up his life after nearly losing everything, Sir Chafe-a lot (as he was called by his friends) passed away unexpectedly in his sleep.
Through the mist of disbelief and the intensely emotional process of bringing friends up to speed with funeral arrangements, we found ourselves in a mindset, which was both draining and elating at the same time. Where our brains had previously been overpowering our bodies in order to pool all resources into a) just getting through this heavy day shovelling gravel on site or b) getting as much editing done as possible before collapsing into bed, Chaffie’s death pulled us away from the little ant hill we’d had our head stuck in to the view an elephant on a mountain would enjoy on a sunny Friday afternoon. Deadlines were still very important, getting days on site ticked off and films uploaded was still happening big time, but the perspective this slap in the face by life itself supplied, expanded our minds that they could suddenly fit all this other stuff in it in parallel. We saw our beautiful surroundings, took notice of the strangely wonderful people and creatures around us and felt like we’d just dipped in to visit some far away country.
Most people go travelling to get out of their normal lives for a bit, to stretch their emotional muscle, to get their focus out of a single end-of-month-target spreadsheet by experiencing different people’s attitudes, food, sleeping arrangements and outlooks on the world. Going to exotic places opens your mind, puts your own life into perspective and allows you to experience wonder. Especially in poorer countries, travellers tend to enjoy the lack of rules and regulations that usually govern their lives. How exciting is it being allowed to sit on the roof of that truck whilst it’s driving through the North Burmese Landscape – you’d never get to do that in Australia. How awesome was that bamboo raft our truck used to cross that raging river on the way to that secret cliff jump that would be totally fenced off in the UK. Man, we drank this homemade whiskey with that incredible food a little old lady made sitting in the gutter. No Food Standards Agency to mess with our authentic experience. Safety laws in our own countries are there for a very good reason, so why do we get such a kick out of exploring somewhere that doesn’t have them? Why are people drawn to Bungee Jumping, Skydiving, Shark Cage diving, fast motorbikes and tripping out on Ayahuasca in the middle of the snake and piranha filled Amazon rainforest? Some may say these thrill seekers have a death wish. But is it actually the opposite?
If what we are seeking when going off to the other side of the world engaging in activities that would shock your Health & Safety officer is expanding our mind and thus to ‘live more fully’, then paradoxically, we live more by living a little bit more dangerously sometimes. One of our Rat’s university friends was hit by a car whilst crossing a bustling suburban London street at 2pm on a sunny day. The little green man had been green for her, but an impatient driver had taken a small risk drivers take every day. She was hit on the head, died on the spot, but as an organ donor saved 8 people’s lives. One of the first things our Rat did was get her motorcycle license. This tragic accident in such ordinary circumstances had brought home our own mortality, and rather than make us more scared of what could happen in our lives, made us stop faffing and go for it. Motorbikes are dangerous things, but if you could die anyway, why not do the things you love? Less like a death wish, more like a LIFE wish.
It’s a very western notion, that if we can only put ageing and death out of our minds, we will live happy, successful lives. In Bhutan, people make themselves aware of their own mortality 5 times a day, which helps them live happier lives. “Everything that kills me, makes me feel alive,” sing One Republic in ‘Couting Stars’. In a way, confronting yourself with the fact that nothing is certain can be very liberating, and recognizing the genuine emotion that ties us together in the wake of someone leaving us is a re-affirmation of the human spirit. So we hope you take our experience from the last few weeks on board and pick up something you’ve been putting off. Go on, get that ticket and lose yourself to end up seeing yourself a little bit better.
We’re not usually one to dabble with mysticism, the occult or superstition. We have had to deal with quite a fair share of “yeah man, don’t worry, your bus will arrive at around mid day” prompting a 4 hour wait at the side of the road. But on the whole, we like to know that the bus we booked does actually exist. “Jah will provide” doesn’t work well when you’re running a business and Jah has obviously never heard of a functioning internet connection. However, there was something about our recent trip to Myanmar that tickled our fancy. Not that it applied to us any more than our very Chinese “lucky match” in our company name (in fact, it did less so), but by the way Myanmar’s 8-day week completely and utterly dominates people’s lives. If you’re not that into star signs, then see this as a quirky piece of anthropology. If you are into star signs, well, then put down that Heat Magazine, sister, ‘cause in Myanmar it gets really interesting.
Whilst around 90% of people in Myanmar follow Theravada Buddhism, that believes karma is the main source of influence in a person’s life, most Burmese Buddhists are strong believers of the Hindi Brahman idea that astrology determines your fate in life, love, business, school, travel and knitting competitions. They divide the week into 8 days (yes, 8! we’ll explain…) and each day is assigned a planet, a direction, an animal sign and interestingly the first letter of a name (more on that later). This all seems relatively straightforward until we look at our schedule. Where does this extra day come from? Well, our wonderful guide Kay explained in the car as we sped through busy Yangon: “Wednesday afternoon is it’s own day called Yarhu. It’s not considered as a significant day of week and not printed in calendars.” It seems the sun doesn’t take that much notice either. No spontaneous mid-day setting and rising going on here. And as if that wasn’t complicated enough, traditional western zodiac applies as well as 27 lunar stages (one for each day of the lunar month, which is 27.3 days long). Cosmo, eat your heart out.
Rat & Dragon. If you’ve read our first ever blog post, you’ll know where we got the inspiration for our name. Luckily for us, the Chinese Zodiac combination of our birth years is one of the strongest out there. We don’t mind either way, but the positive vibe our combination emits has been quite an asset when we’ve been doing projects in Asia. Now we find out that we have yet another animal to add to the mix. Our Dragon, being born on a Sunday, is now also a garuda (a mythical bird-man creature) and our Saturday’s Rat, well, ironically, she’s also a dragon. If you’re Monday, you’re a tiger, Tuesday’s a lion (possibility of ligers here, Napoleon), Wednesday morning a tusked elephant, Wednesday afternoon a tuskless elephant, Thursday’s a rat and Friday’s… well…. Friday’s a guinea pig.
For good measure, there’s also an animal called a Ketu, that’s made up of the antlers of a deer, the tusks and trunk of an elephant, the mane of a lion, the body of a naga serpent/dragon and the tail of a fish. It sits and watches over all the other animals, but has no astronomical necessity. It does happen to fit quite nicely in the middle of this handy diagram, as well as be aligned with the animist ‘Ceremony of the nine Gods’, that is usually held in Myanmar when someone in your household is ill or doesn’t want to go to gym class. Complete coincidence we’re sure.
A handy diagram
Then there are the directions. When you look closely at Burmese Pagodas, you’ll find each one has 8 cardinal points. Look up your direction, find it and light some incense. You may (as many Burmese) have recently visited an astrologer, fortune-teller or Buddhist monk in preparation for your upcoming major life event of buying a car, or deciding what colour to paint your house. The astrologer/hippy/monk may have determined you are under the evil influence of another sign that must first be appeased. Go light some incense at that sign too. The planetary posts of Saturn (Saturday’s dragon) and Rahu (Wednesday afternoon’s tuskless elephant) are usually more crowded, as they are notoriously mischievous planets and greatly feared.
Compared by some to a westerner’s trip to a councillor, your mental well-being will be nourished as you do good deeds like meditating, offering flowers and incense, donating money and striking the big bells around the pagoda to share the merit you have gained by living with your fellow creatures great and small on the thirty-one planes of existence. We’d love to go into these planes, but one blog post can only be so long. Secondly, as you’re meditating away, you are wooing your birth-day’s corresponding guardian spirit, or appeasing the spirit dominating you with bad luck. Pour some cups of water (equivalent to your age, if you are systematically inclined), on the planetary post concerned. After these rituals, Kay assures us, we feel better and go home in a happier frame of mind. Burmese people work very hard, many live in poverty and some in appalling conditions. In this case, not having the western outlook of blaming yourself for your circumstances, but knowing you’ll be looked after if you perform very simple and set rituals is a way of keeping going in the face of adversity. It’s way cheaper than Harley Street Shrinks Ltd. and there’s practical things you can do to improve your Karma, like being nice to strangers. In addition, there’s the very Burmese concept of ‘Cetana’, being nice for the sake of being nice, for which the only acceptable payment is gratitude. Maybe this is why we were so enchanted with this country.
Apart from various vague characteristics attributed to birth-days (Monday = jealous, Tuesday = honest, Wednesday morning = short tempered but soon calm again, Wednesday afternoon = the same but more intense, Thursday = mild, Friday = talkative, Saturday = hot tempered, Sunday = miserly), which we couldn’t confirm personally (we are all of these, any days of the week), there was a final massive influence of this belief system on Burmese people. When a child is born, an astrologer will create a Zar Tar, an inscribed palm leaf book, declaring the child’s astrological calculations of the location of stars and the sun, as well as the date and time of birth and, most importantly, the fresh-baked sprog’s name. And this is the really cool part. Not only is the day of your birth vitally important when working out your love life, your possible success in a maths test and the luck you’ll have with your new scooter. But how do you find out if you and your partner’s astrological pre-determination are compatible? Is your first question on a date not “so what do you do?” but “so what day did you pop into this world”? Luckily, there’s a quick way to tell, as the week-day you were born on determines your name.
Unlike pretty much most parts of the rest of the world, Burmese don’t have surnames. Nope. None. Nada. Niete. Nasdarovie. Burmese naming is done via, you guessed it, astrology. Monday’s names start with K, HK, G and Ng (such as Khin or Khine). Tuesdays with Sa and Za (San or Zaw), Wednesday’s with Ya, Ra, La and Wa (Yamin or Rarzar), Thursday’s with Pa, Hpa, Ba and Ma (Myo, Poe or Ba), Friday’s with Tha and Ha (Thiha, Thura or Han), Saturday’s with T, Ht, D and Na (Tun, Htoo, Dwae or Nandar) and Sundays with vowels (such as Aye, Ei or Oo). Our guide Kay was a Monday child. Our nice receptionist Thet Wai was born on Friday. Going by this system, our Dragon and Rat should have been born on a Tuesday.
This makes it way easier to determine a good match, providing your love isn’t lying to you on Myanmarlove.com. The unusual naming system means that children have names that can bear no relation to their parent’s names. They are usually made up of one, two, three or even four syllables, with one syllable names (Ba, Mya, Hla) found in some older people but generally outdated and impractical in a nation of 53 million inhabitants. Middle aged people generally hold two syllable names (Zaw Moe, K
It’s Nottingham, 2007, and our Rat’s at uni. One of her much cooler housemates’ boyfriends is banging on about some Cambodian Surf Party a kid in the block was having last night. It sounds like another one of those ketamine fuelled, retro-novelty vegan crunk nights. The hipsters were in incubation, bringing a wave of obscure vinyl-kitsch in their wake, and with our Rat and pals being of the more breakbeat-inclined ilk, no one is paying much attention.
Fast-forward to 2013, a beach in Thailand. “These buckets are ace”, says hot-bod Nick. “Where should we head next? I hear Cambodia is totally intense, man,” replies Toby, his brand-new ‘sexy man discount’ bamboo tattoo gleaming in the sunset. “You can shoot a cow with a bazooka”. Nick stirs his Samsong & Coke. “Yeah, I heard Phnom Penh’s pretty happening right now. Like, for travellers, not tourists, ya know?” “Yah, totes”…. *slurp*. Aside from the usual war and genocide history, Nick and Toby find themselves in for a treat, when they hit the big city lights of Cambodia’s capital city 3 months and roughly 800 buckets later. Our Rat shares a 6-hour train ride with them, discovering an actually genuinely interesting bunch of dudes behind the Gap Yah facade. She also realizes, that she’s gonna have to retrospectively give credit to her otherwise obnoxious involuntary housemate. Turns out, the Cambodian rock scene is something pretty special.
Rewind to the 1950s. Southeast Asia has its ancient cultural routes on display all over the place, whilst each region is heavily entwined in it’s own political struggles against ex-colonial powers as well as the big players of the 20th century. Europe and America are bracing themselves after decades of armed conflict. Re-building after WW2 and learning to deal with the challenges of modern life and technological innovation (microwaves!), the focus of most people is placed firmly in the west. But at the height of the Cold War, Princes and Princesses, CIA and KGB, foreign schooled rich-kids and radio-obsessed poor kids, diplomats and degenerates were all dancing to a new beat in a far away kingdom.
Cambodia in the 1950s had one of the most vibrant and advanced music scenes in the whole of Asia. Phnom Penh’s dance halls were raving with Big Band music and the cities’ foreign-schooled elite brought back the newest records by Perry Como, Pat Boone and Frank Sinatra when returning during summer breaks from university in Paris. Even the rats were sneaking in through the back entrance to catch a soiree of Petticoats & Dreamboats. King Sihanouk’s rule was fraught with poverty and political repression, but creativity and artistic expression were widely encouraged and supported. Whilst playing dangerous political hot potato, breaking ties with the USA, hosting a visit from Jackie Kennedy, allowing North Vietnam to build bases and relying on the good will of China (yah, good luck with that one), the King found time to play the saxophone, piano and clarinet as well as composing and often performing songs in English, French and Khmer, with his wife Norodom Monineath.
The 60s and 70s saw the Cambodian popular music scene explode with it’s own version of rock n roll as rich-kid bedrooms as well as rural homes blared with the music filling the airwaves from GI radio, stationed just across the border during the Vietnam War (1962-1975). Kids all over the place were coming up with their own versions, mixing Khmer lyrics, microtonal singing, Farfisa organs and rocky guitar solos with the sounds of The Beatles, Jimmy Hendrix, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, CCR and The Doors. Combining Elvis and Frank Sinatra in one Cambodian swoon-inducing persona, Sin Sisamoth is still considered the greatest Cambodian Singer of all time. Here’s a direct Sin-Elvis comparison (Elvis sings second). Ros Sereysothea, Cambodia’s answer to Janis Joplin, was named “The Golden Voice of the Royal Capital” by King Sihanouk himself. If you’re into Jefferson Airplane, you’ve got to give this a listen. It’s pretty wonderful. Pan Ron is another famous name who joined the creative powerhouse of Cambodia’s musical triumphs of the 60s and 70s, publishing an impressive amount of vinyl, from romantic ballads to psychedelic surf-pop with a hint of afro-cuban influence from artist like Santana.
As well as music, film was big on the agenda. King Sihanouk was into making feature films. How does he find the time, you ask? Well, he was kind of a big deal. He inevitably won the annual Cambodian Film festival he organized. Think of it as the good old days when Schumacher always won the Formula 1, but who came 2nd and 3rd was the really interesting bit, as the festival gave voice to other Cambodian film makers on a regular basis. “What? Modernity in the unenlightened East?” we hear the cynics amongst you cry out. We’re not for a moment suggesting that Cambodia’s adoption of western music and art themes is some sort of quaint colonial imitation. Cultures all over the world inspire each other, but the rate at which rock and roll was released in the west and adapted, with an incredibly short time lag, into Cambodian popular music is exceptional.
And just as quick as a track was transformed from a Liverpool vinyl press to a popular Cambodian dance track, it all ended abruptly with the rise in power of the Khmer Rouge. You can read up on the details of the horrors of the Cambodian Genocide between 1975 and 1979, but for this post’s purposes, it suffices to say that this incredible creative scene was obliterated completely with the targeting of intellectuals, artists, ‘decadent’ western influencers and the killing of over 2 million Cambodians. Famous faces found it impossible to hide, but some backing vocalists, drummers, guitar and bass players managed to pass themselves off as peasants and some survived the hard labour.
What little of this once unstoppable scene was left after the Khmer Rouge was traumatised and stripped of its identity. The assembly of the 2014 documentary on Cambodian Rock & Roll “Don’t think I’ve forgotten” is little short of a miracle, as most footage, photography and music recordings from the era were destroyed to save people’s lives from Pol Pot’s state police. Nevertheless, some brave souls hung on to fragments of the time, despite the danger. The re-building of Cambodia’s rock culture and abundance of gigs in modern-day Phnom Penh are easy to take for granted, but are a true testament to Cambodia’s cultural spirit that survived near destruction to become so incredibly vibrant today.
So, you want to get your teeth into some Surf Rock? Hell, yeah you do! If you’re a start-way-back-from-the-beginning kind of girl or guy, check out the Rough Guide to Psychedelic Cambodia compilation album. or Parallel Lines’ Cambodia Rocks. For something more contemporary, listen to the epic sounds of Khmer singer Srey Channthy and her Aussie Band lead by Julien Poulson as she sings “Whisky Cambodia”. It almost fits into the Suckerpunch soundtrack, and just check out that digeridoo. Now hear her band The Cambodian Space Project not taking themselves too seriously in “Have Visa No Have Rice”. LA-Cambodia collaborative band Dengue Fever also rips it up with psychedelic tunes to accompany your next acid trip (or Asda trip if you’re not into drugs).
Somewhat reminiscent of living the expat dream finally-being-in-a-band-here-when-people-at-home-would-have-laughed-or-beaten-me-up, Leicester born rapper Gobshite (you do it to yourself, bro) is making his name in Phnom Penh. Whatever your taste, his teaming up with local rapper Chally Dang (aka Prolyfik) and Srey Leak is creating an interesting mix of old Khmer styles and modern urban arts, which may be the accessible middle way for teenage inner-city Brits to explore more of Cambodia’s musical culture.
And just at the right time, as Cambodian contemporary art is spreading through Phnom Pen’s galleries such as Meta House, The Java Café & The Bophana Centre and hits the world stage in New York. Rity Panh of the Bophana Centre received Cambodia’s first ever Academy Award nomination in 2014 for the animation “The Missing Picture”, whilst the Insitut Francais du Cambodge runs an urban art festival showcasing work by Lisa Mam, Peap Tar and Fonki, who spend their time painting awesome stuff on bars, advertising, restaurants and hotels, rivalling Ernest Zacharevic’s world-famous work in Penang. International ‘graffiti tourists’ such as the UK based ‘world domination’ group, come, paint and leave, reflecting graffiti as the art of the lower class, who don’t have the money for high-brow gallery work, but steal cans and paint guerrilla style where their finished work can’t be ignored. Paradoxically, this ‘art by the poor’ model doesn’t sit well with Cambodian Buddhism, as stealing is out of the question and kids need people like Benjamin Pecquer, Cambodia’s country manager for Skatistan, to allow them to use his HQ as a canvass. Norodom Blv also has pretty good graffiti, check our Lee Bo’s “Global Street Art” web archive next time you’re planning a trip to the capital.
All in all, Cambodia has a hell of a lot to offer and its unique positioning that encourages art and musical crossover has created some surprisingly awesome stuff. So next time you feel like throwing a little hippy revival soiree with your unenlightened mates, make them actually listen to some Cambodian Surf Rock. Our Rat would have had her pointy ears opened to a whole world of wonder back in 2007’s draughty, pot-noodle filled kitchen, and would have been telling Nick and Toby all about her amazing discoveries on the way to Aranyaprathet, instead of the other way round. On that note, you should definitely read the short guide on shit to say to backpackers. And get your mits on some Cambodian Space Project vinyl, apart from being awesome, it might even qualify to make you a bit of a hipster.