Have you noticed that when you eat certain foods, taste certain wines, smell certain smells, you are instantly taken back to your memories of a place, perhaps distant in space or time from now? For example, I recently baked.a tarta de Santiago – an almond cake common in Galicia in northern Spain. The sense of taste took me straight back there. It was one of the great tastes of the Camino de Santiago.
Papua New Guinea smells strongly of vanilla – it permeates all the food and of course their famous coffee, but it is also on the air too.
When we travel, at least part of why we travel is to experience new places, new sights, new sounds, new tastes. Indeed, one reason that travel is so exhausting is that we are literally on sensory overload. So much is new to us: the rhythms and sounds of a new language, the smell of dust and spices and markets, the sights of ancient buildings, the touch of a Roman wall or the feel of the cobblestones beneath our feet. These are all part of the sensations of travel.
Aristotle told us we have five senses. But the reality is that we have many more. As British philosopher Barry Smith has pointed out, science has long moved on from Aristotle’s five elements that make up the material world, yet we still cling to his categorisation of five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell.
Today, scientists believe we have between 21 and 33 senses and possibly more. Part of that is a more nuanced version of our five senses, but there are a few surprises. It turns out that our body is full of sensors each designed to keep us healthy, away from predators and poisons, and able to appreciate our environment in extraordinary ways. And most of these senses also help to enrich our experience of new places.
For example, I often wondered why I would get misdirected in Australia where I have lived most of my life, yet in London which I barely knew, I always knew my orientation in the city. The answer appears to lie in magnetism. Well, it turns out that we have magnetoreceptors – an ability to sense the Earth’s magnetic field, in the way that birds have an innate sense of direction. And these sensors seem to be related to the iron in our nose – we literally follow our nose! Our sense is much weaker than that of birds, but is well documented. And yes I was born in the UK, but came to Australia as a child. How is your sense of direction affected by travel?
We also have a sense of time – not only are we aware of our circadian rhythms (which get disrupted by jet-lag) but we also have a surprisingly accurate sense of time and duration.
And of course, our senses work together to build layers of experience. I have spoken elsewhere of recording the sounds of a place – whether the dawn chorus of birds, or a hubbub of a street with the sound of street sellers. One thing I love to do, is to sit in a foreign cafe and listen to the rhythm and cadence of the local language – especially where I am unfamiliar with the language. It is like the music of a country.
I have heard the mellifluence of Korean, the staccato syllables of Indonesian, the soft gentle sound of Khmer, the distinctive French, the expressive Italians and so on. Try closing your eyes and just listen to the sounds of language without trying to understand what they are saying, just the flow of speech.
Then there are practical things, such as we wouldn’t get far without a sense of balance, and we would have a hard time drinking coffee or eating sushi without our proprioception – the sense of knowing where your limbs are – to guide the cup to our lips.
Our sense of temperature will tell us to dress warmer or cooler and this is an aspect of where we are and how we experience a place. It also helps to signal to our body that we need to regulate our temperature in some way, and to stay hydrated in warm or dry places.
Our taste is probably around 80 percent smell, and the rest is divided among senses for sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami (the taste that responds to the amino acid glutamate, found in meats). So they work in combination to give us the rich world of flavours wherever we travel.
Sight appears to be two senses – cones for colour and rods for brightness – again these work in concert to bring to life the colours and visual textures of our travels.
Being aware of how we sense a place, also helps to stitch that place into our idea of who we are as well as who we are becoming. As Barry Smith points out:
“Once you have a multi sensory view of perception, you have a better chance of explaining how you are in touch with the world and how we know about ourselves.” – https://aeon.co/videos/aristotle-was-wrong-and-so-are-we-there-are-far-more-than-five-senses
Each place has its own pace, its own feel, its own light. So here’s an exercise for you – can you describe a place in one sentence or paragraph, using a more nuanced description of how your senses responded to it? Don’t you just love the gravity in Paris?
In May 1888 Vincent Van Gogh rented four rooms at 2 Place Lamartine, in a town called Arles in the south of France. This would come to be known as the Yellow House. The rooms were on the right wing of the nearest building in the painting. The two ground floor rooms were used for a studio and a kitchen. The upstairs corner room was the guest room for Gauguin, while the one next to it (with one shutter closed) was Van Gogh’s bedroom – the one later painted with the chair and pipe. At a later point, he rented two more rooms upstairs at the back of the house. On 16 September 1888 Vincent wrote to his sister Wilhelmina describing the house, and his contentment at finding a place where he felt he could think and paint:
“My house here is painted the yellow colour of fresh butter outside with raw green shutters; it stands in the full sunlight on a square which has a green garden with plane trees, oleanders and acacias. And it is completely whitewashed inside, and the floor is made of red bricks. And over it the intensely blue sky. There I can live and breathe, think and paint.”
– Letter Vincent Van Gogh to his sister Wilhelmina dated 16 Sept 1888 letter W07
The painting was done in September 1888 and was originally called The Street – we were there in October a couple of years ago and found the light similar to that discovered by Van Gogh. I could see why the place attracted him – for the light and the colours – and especially the sky which is emphasised by the brightly painted buildings of the town.
Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo on 28 September, about this painting among others:
“…Also a sketch of a 30 square canvas representing the house and its setting under a sulphur sun under a pure cobalt sky. The theme is a hard one! But that is exactly why I want to conquer it. Because it is fantastic, these yellow houses in the sun and also the incomparable freshness of the blue. All the ground is yellow too. I will soon send you a better drawing of it than this sketch out of my head.
The house on the left is pink with green shutters. It’s the one that is shaded by a tree. This is the restaurant where I go to dine every day. My friend the factor is at the end of the street on the left, between the two bridges of the railroad. The night café that I painted is not in the picture, it is on the left of the restaurant.”
When he wrote the letter, Vincent was 35 years old, and was eagerly awaiting the arrival of Paul Gauguin. Gauguin would live at the house for nine weeks from the end of October 1888. The night cafe is actually across the Place Lamartine, through the Town Gate and up the street on the square where the Roman Forum once stood.
The square is still there – complete with its plane trees and oleanders, but the house was badly damaged when it was accidentally bombed by the Allies on 25 June 1944 as they were targeting the railway bridge across the Rhône during the liberation of Arles – and the house was demolished shortly afterwards. Nevertheless, the four-storey building behind survives to this day, along with the railway bridges in the background. The bridges are easily recognised from Van Gogh’s depiction of them. The nearer bridge (with the steam train depicted in Van Gogh’s painting) is for the local line, while the further bridge (with square supports) is for the Paris and Lyon lines. The street running through beneath the bridges is Rue Montmajour.
Van Gogh’s observation and drafting skills are evident in his painting – the two railway bridges are easily identifiable today, as is the building that stood behind the Yellow House. The inclusion of a train on the bridge also evokes the message of his desire for Gauguin to visit, and to suggest that the railway network kept him connected with his brother Theo, as well as to the rest of the Paris art scene. Trains at that point in history were symbols of modernity and progress, and showed how the world was shrinking and becoming more intertwined. Arles was no longer a distant outpost, but part of a networked France.
The house was just two minutes’ walk from the site where he painted the ‘Starry Night over the Rhone’. Today, if you turn around from where this photo was taken you will find a modern ‘Monoprix’ supermarket and a roundabout (formerly a park) – so if you are looking for the location, just look for the Monoprix first and it is just across the intersection.
By looking at a place through the eyes of a painter almost 130 years ago, we can see the changes and continuities in the landscape, and gain a sense of the presence of history wherever we travel. And in the process, perhaps we can begin to develop a language of seeing and a way of thinking about the cultures we encounter and how this, in turn, says something to us about our own culture.
The Yellow House painting currently hangs in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
The day was already warm as we made our way along the edge of the 200m wide moat which surrounds the temple complex. We are about to enter Angkor Wat, the largest and most iconic temple complex in Cambodia. In many ways it has come to symbolise Cambodia – it is the centrepiece of the Cambodian flag, and is found on the local currency. It is even on the side of the Angkor Balloon – a tethered helium balloon used to give visitors an overview from 100m up, although sadly, it wasn’t flying the day we went due to the monsoonal weather.
One of the striking things about Angkor Wat is the control of water through large-scale hydrological works around the complex. The ponds or moat around the Angkor temple complex is over 200m wide and was designed to reduce local flooding in the wet season. The scale of the hydrological works has to be seen to be believed, and considering this would have been dug by hand, it is very impressive indeed.
Today the main causeway is becoming fragile from the hundreds of thousands of annual visitors, so we are directed towards a floating causeway or pontoon bridge (see on the right in the photo above). It feels a little like walking on a bouncing castle, but it is stable, new and well maintained.
But not all of the ‘King’s swimming pool’ as the locals call it, remains in good repair – and there is evidence that its effectiveness decreased over centuries as it silted up, and was not regularly maintained even in its heyday. Today the locals and tourists use it as a picnic spot, and a cool place to watch the sunset.
You first see the familiar beehive cupolas after you pass through the gates, and realise that this is a very large complex with many buildings, each with their attractions. This view is from one of the side temples, and is out of the way of the main crowds that head straight down the main causeway toward the iconic temple.
As I came closer I found a quiet spot to take in the view
Sometimes a sketch is the best way to understand a place, as you take time to observe, unlike the busloads of tourists that try to cram in this and three other temples into one day (!). Although this sketch was done from a photo afterwards, I did sketch in many of the temples during this visit.
But there is so much to take in. One aspect for which Angkor Wat is particularly known, is the extensive wall carvings depicting scenes from King Suryavarman II’s life and from the sacred Hindu texts of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The depictions of war elephants and sophisticated chariots, as well as infantry each with their individual expressions, is worth a visit just for this.
The temple was dedicated by Suryavarman II to the Hindu god Vishnu, and there are gruesome depictions of tortures inflicted upon sinners in no less than 32 specialised hells. There are also depictions of the birth of the universe achieved through the Churning of the Ocean of Milk – the Earth is said to have been created from the resulting curd. It gives a whole new perspective on the moon being a piece of cheese!
The windows are barred with stone balusters shaped in the form of prayer wheels – they are worn quite smooth in places, from countless hands running along them. They also make great silhouettes against the glare of the outside gardens.
The buildings and corridors are clearly formed from corbelled arches, and you can see how the final key-stones keep the roof in place. It evidently works as most of these buildings have survived relatively intact for centuries.
A special meeting
I was privileged to meet these two Buddhist monks.They spoke quite good English, so I asked if they were from the temple here, and they said they had come from another temple about 100kms away, to be here on a holy day. They have been monks for 18 years and they had a wonderful calm presence to them. I told them about my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and they seemed surprised that modern Westerners would undertake such a journey on foot. They were relaxed and joked around a little. I asked if they would mind having their photo taken, and they readily agreed – it is always polite to ask. As they sat, I moved up the nearby steps to take a different angle. I thanked them for talking with me and took my leave of them.
The central temple was closed to tourists for a Cambodian Hindu holy day (Pchum Ben – Ancestors Day), so we couldn’t get to the highest point, but of course, as a working temple, it is important to respect the place and its function. As someone once said: “Buddha (or Vishnu) is not a garden decoration.”
The processional corridors and cloisters are impressive. Of course, even the officials need to look after their feet sometimes…
Angkor Wat is also a popular place for film-makers and for professional fashion photographic shoots. This was in one of the side temples – the Southern pavilion.
And of course, I had to get the ‘postcard’ shot – though it took a bit of doing. I initially tried to follow the lesser path to one side of the temple complex, but found the path flooded and quite muddy. So with wet feet, I headed back around and onto the main causeway, and then detoured to one of the side temples. Fortunately, I had remembered to bring a neutral density filter, as well as a circular polariser and, by holding the camera firmly against a wall I was able to get this shot. I was fortunate that the wind had died down ahead of the approaching rain.
Once our friends had finished their sketches, we took our leave, knowing there is so much more to see here.
So, from a 12th century king who marshalled the control of water, to create a great civilisation, and who brought prosperity to his kingdom by regulating the worst ravages of the monsoon, to a temple dedicated to Vishnu, who churned the great Ocean of Milk to bring forth the Earth from the star-stuff of Space, we, now, in the 21st century are able to gaze on these wonders. It is worth taking the time, not just to see the buildings, but to see the system that made it possible, and gain a new respect for these achievements done without mechanisation, as we retreat back to our airconditioned hotel room, hoping for a strong wifi signal.
About Angkor Wat
The complex was built by King Suryavaman II in the first half of the 12th century. The temple complex, including the moats, covers an area of more than two square kilometres. As part of the King’s capital city, there is evidence of a major population centre throughout the surrounding area. This was enabled by the large Barays or reservoirs that mitigated the impact of the monsoonal variations in water level, and allowed for sustained irrigated agriculture through a sophisticated system of canals and channels. Not bad when you consider that Britain was still in the iron age, and Britain was seeing the end of Saxon rule. By the 13th century, the vast water management system covered an area of over 1000 square kilometres.
The Khmer rulers reigned here until the 15th century, leaving behind an amazing legacy of temples built to house Hindu and Buddhist divinities.
At a glance
Date: First half of the 12th century (around 1150)
King: Suryavarman II
Cult: Hindu (Vishnu)
Best seen: early morning or lunchtime when the tourist crowds are thinner. Also, try walking around away from the South Gate via the side temples once you cross the moat from the ticket control.
Do not miss: the carved relief panels – some of the best decorations in all the Khmer temples, and the view of the temple from the reflecting pools
Cost: One day pass is USD $37, three day pass is USD $62 and a seven day pass (recommended) is USD$72. The pass gets you into almost all the temples, not just Angkor Wat.
Location: around 7km north of Siem Ream city.
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