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Welcome to Issue Two of Wicked World: the alternative travel magazine that dares to be different. Unrestricted by commercial considerations, we remain free to challenge, question, and tell the truth about the business of international travel. We’re not here to sell expensive guided tours, round-the-world gap year tickets, or travel insurance, but exist primarily to provide a platform for the kind of honest, alternative and irreverent travel writing that wouldn’t normally find a home in more mainstream publications. In Issue Two you will find articles on: the walled Muslim city of Harar in Eastern Ethiopia; the Sultan of Sulu and the disastrous recent invasion of Sabah in Borneo; frenzied voodoo ceremonies in Benin; the sculpture of Iran’s Ahad Hosseini; the strange religious cult of Caodai in Vietnam; Thailand’s spirit tattoos; the sacred city of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka; rapidly changing Cuba; and the punk rock scene in Penang, Malaysia.

CONTENTS 6 | Hard as the Heart of Harar Down an Out in Ethiopia’s Holy City 12 | Penang’s Punk Rock Mecca The Revolution is Alive and Well at Soundmaker 16 | Caodai Calling The Religious Cult of Caodai in Vietnam 24 | Cuba Photography Before it’s too Late 31 | Sacred Skin Thailand’s Spirit Tattoos 38 | The Sultan of Sulu The Mouse that Roared 42 | The Dark Art of Ahad Hosseini Iran’s Greatest Sculptor 46 | The Sacred City Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka 50 | Dancing with the Dead Voodoo Rituals in Benin, West Africa WWW.WICKEDWORLD.NET Contact: or

Front Page: Harar, Ethiopia


Marco has travelled extensively and lived in Italy, the United States, China, Australia and Malaysia. He started vagabonding as a punk rock guitarist in Europe and North America, hitting the most famous and infamous stages across the two continents. Since 2009 he’s been based in Southeast Asia as a writer, hardcore punk musician and researcher. He has a weekly column at Rolf Pott’s Vagabonding, has written about overland Asian travel and extreme music in Asia for a variety of international publications, and blogs at Marco’s first pulp novel Nazi Goreng explores the underbelly of Malaysian international drug trade and displaced youth, and was published by Monsoon Books Singapore in October 2013.

documentary screenplays, most notably The Most Secret Place on Earth, a feature on the CIA’s covert war in 1960s Laos. In his spare time, Tom travels and plays punk rock

paperback and an eBook via his web site at TOM COOTE

Tom’s first book Tearing up the Silk Road JOHN M EDWARDS was published John has travelled worldwide extensively by Garnet and written for Publishing in publications all August, 2012. over the world. Since then, he has completed another He recently won full length travel book called Voodoo, five NATJA Slave’s and White Man’s Graves: West (North American Africa and the End of Days. He has Travel Journalists Association) travelled independently in well over Awards, two TANEC (Transitions a hundred countries and regularly Abroad Narrative Essay Contest) updates his site at Awards, and three Solas Awards sponsored by Travelers’ Tales). He ET LAING lives in New York City’s “Hell’s E T Laing works Kitchen” and is editor-in-chief of the mainly in aid upcoming annual Rotten Vacations. to developing countries and CHERRY BRIGGS when it dawned Cherry worked as on him that it had a Biology teacher taken him to at TOM VATER in Oxfordshire least 70 countries Tom Vater is until the cold, it seemed a dereliction of duty not to a writer and grey skies got write about them. The book Fakirs, publisher the better of her Feluccas and Femmes Fatales – his working and she went in second after a philosophical novel predominantly in search of warmer called An Amoral Philosopher – is travel Asia. He is the co- climes. Being a keen cyclist she got reportage as a by-product of travel to owner of Crime on her bike and cycled around Asia work in countries that are mainly well Wave Press, a until she finally settled in Sri Lanka. off the tourist trail. Hong Kong based English language Much as she loved the island however, crime fiction imprint. her feet soon became itchy and she AROON THEWCHATTURAT He has published two novels, The now lives high up in the Andes in Aroon is a Devil’s Road to Kathmandu, currently Bogota, Colombia. The Teardrop Island photojournalist available in English and Spanish, (Summersdale, 2013) is her first book. based in and The Cambodian Book of the Dead, Thailand. She has released by Crime Wave Press in JAMES MICHAEL DORSEY mostly worked in Asia and world wide in July 2013 by James Michael South and South Exhibit A. Dorsey is East Asia since His third novel, The Man with the an explorer, 2004 and is the Golden Mind, will be out with Exhibit author and co-author of four illustrated books. A in 2014. photographer. Aroon won an Emmy for her He has published several nonHe has travelled production work for CBS News 60 fiction books, including the highly extensively Minutes on the 2004 Tsunami. acclaimed Sacred Skin (with his wife, and regularly Aroon has also illustrated numerous photographer Aroon Thaewchatturat) contributes articles to wildlife and travel guides for Moon Guides in the and the more recent Burmese Light travel magazines from all over the US and Reise Know How in Germany. with photographer Hans Kemp. world. His first book Tears, Fear Her recent and best seller photobook Tom is the co-author of several and Adventure is available both as a is Sacred Skin Thailand’s Spirit Tattoos. 4 I Wicked World I Issue Two

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hard as the

heart of


Down and Out in Ethiopia’s Holy City

Words & Photos Tom Coote


uck bitches, get money, fuck bitches, get money, fuck bitches, get money’ half drawled, half chanted Notorious B.I.G over a relentless hip hop beat. Through the smoke filling the room, from a small fire lit to perform a traditional coffee drinking ceremony, I could just about make out his face amongst a montage of gangsta rappers on a slightly torn poster hanging above their proudest possessions: a television, a hifi and a fridge. All bought for the family by Sharif ’s sixteen year old brother’s ‘guardian’. His brother would regularly accompany the middle aged German on trips abroad, whenever he took time off from his management position at the

nearby beer factory. Although Harar is often heralded as Islam’s fourth most holy city it is far from dry. It is also far from being Islam’s fourth most holy city. Even more readily available than alcohol is qat (pronounced ‘chat’) the local drug of choice. Very few people seem to agree on what it is supposed to do: some seem to class it as a mild stimulant while others chew it for relaxation and the sense of goodwill it supposedly promotes. A few sensitive souls will even find themselves drawn into a timeless tirade of dream like hallucinations. For others, like me, it doesn’t seem to do anything. I had been Issue Two I Wicked World I7

stuffing my mouth with the foul tasting leaves for what seemed like hours, and all I was feeling was a mild sense of discomfort from lying around on the pillow strewn floor for too long. ‘Fuck bitches, get money, fuck bitches, get money, fuck bitches, get money’ droned on the dead rapper. At first I thought that he was just encouraging us all to procreate and grow rich (perhaps he sensed that he didn’t have long in this world and ought to make the most of it). But then I began to suspect that it was more an assertion of his priorities: in other words, don’t worry about women, just concentrate on acquiring wealth. It seemed a strange chant to be repeated within a Muslim city, where the acquisition of wives was so intrinsically linked to both wealth and status. I had bought a small bush’s worth of qat from one of the lines of head scarved old women, squatted down in front of piles of foliage thrown across the filthy cobble stoned streets. It looked kind of 8 I Wicked World I Issue Two

dirty but Sharif assured me that it had been washed. As the brown toothed old woman gathered up bunches of the leaves, she sprinkled a cup of water over them, vigorously shaking them out before cramming them in to a clear plastic bag. This qat wasn’t the cheapest kind - made up of poor quality

“Even more readily available than alcohol, is qat, the local drug of choice”

strictly forbidden, such as Saudi Arabia, huge amounts of money can be made in smuggling by those willing to risk the death penalty). ‘Fuck bitches, get money, fuck bitches, get money, fuck bitches, get money’ chanted the chubby MC. I still wasn’t sure if he was encouraging us to have plenty of sex, while we still could, or letting us know of the dangers of distraction. I don’t suppose it matters. He’s dead now, anyway. All I knew was that I was bored of munching through bulging cheeks full of bitter leaves, and that their magical properties had failed to materialise.

Sharif had latched on to me as soon as leaves and leftovers - that the wild eyed I stepped out of the bus and into the chaos. It was dark and I had no idea addicts had to make do with, but cost only a fraction of the really good stuff. where I was. I wouldn’t have normally have agreed to taking on a guide Even a small bag of the highest quality qat can cost hundreds of dollars. In fact, but he had helped get my battered backpack down from the roof, led me the farming of qat can be so profitable, that food production is often neglected through the shit strewn streets to the budget Tewedros Hotel, and found if favour of the cultivation of this still me sustenance at the Fresh Touch legal drug (in countries where it is

eatery. We met the next morning, over breakfast, and he shepherded me on through the sloping cobbled streets and four great gates of the sixteenth century walled city. We edged between burka clad women, with whatever they could scrape together for sale sprawled out across the streets; feigned interest at museum’s full of old plates; gazed at a selection of Harar’s supposed ninetynine crumbling mosques (as many as the names for God); and made the obligatory visit to the house of the former poet and arms dealer Arthur Rimbaud (he had actually died in 1891 from a gangrenous leg infection, years before the house had even been built). Carefully stepping around piles of donkey shit, we followed in the footsteps of the nineteenth century explorer Richard Burton. He had arrived in Harar in 1854, cunningly disguised as a Muslim traveller, as he was under the impression - or at least liked to perpetuate the myth - that any visiting Infidel would be immediately put to death. Having quickly been

adopted by the Emir - who must have found him hilarious - Burton was pleasantly surprised to find that ‘both sexes are celebrated for laxity of morals’. I wandered around in shorts and sandals, thankfully being guarded from unwanted attention by the possessive and protective Sharif (a

“A small bag of the highest quality qat can often cost hundreds of dollars” genuine Western tourist is a fine thing to ensnare and not to be shared with just anyone). Sharif pointed out an attractive young Harari woman with a halo of fuzzy hair and unusually new, clean and colourful clothes. ‘She is a bitch’ he said. It turned out that she had an English boyfriend who came from Somalia to Harar once

a month to fuck women and drink beer. If Sharif had managed to catch himself an English girlfriend, then he would have been a hero. Having fully circled and traversed the old walled city, Sharif led me down the banks of a stream towards the dilapidated Italian colonial house that his extended family inhabits. Having cautiously stepped around piles of goat droppings scattered through a gate house’s ruins, we emerged in to a Garden of Eden. Amongst the well watered fruits and vegetables, stood huge glowing sunflowers, reaching up towards their namesake. The restoration of these old, Italian walled gardens had, of course, been financed by the young boys ‘guardian’. From this lush, sun drenched oasis of fertility, I was led though to the old house’s very best room (the one with the TV, the hi-fi and the fridge). I left my battered sandals lying by the front door, and was encouraged to make myself comfortable amongst Issue Two I Wicked World I9

the cushions. As word soon spread of my newly acquired bag of qat, friends and neighbours soon arrived offering greetings and taking huge handfuls of leaves to fill their bulging cheeks. They all seemed far better at relaxing that I was. It bothered them that I couldn’t just stay still. I had to keep moving. On the trail to the hyenas, we met a stocky American called Eric. He had meant to be visiting the spectacular volcanic plains of Danikil, in the north of Ethiopia, two weeks previously, but had fallen to a fever. Of the group that left without him, five were shot dead by Eritrean gunmen, three were kidnapped, and two others were seriously injured when they jumped over a cliff to try and escape. Eric was feeling less poorly now and was keen to feed raw meat to the wild hyenas drawn into Harar as darkness descends. Not far from the city’s substantial but crumbling walls, in a small encroachment of dusty bush land, two rusting taxis shone their headlights

out on to a mangy looking pack of red eyed hyenas. We joined the other camera wielding tourists from the taxis, unleashing volleys of flashes on to the unconcerned beasts. They cared little for our presence, only lusting for the strips of raw flesh, gifted to them by the legendary hyena-man. As he sates their hunger for carrion, they in turn serve the people of Harar by tearing apart those possessed by bad jinn (or evil spirits). It is generally agreed that every now and again they will make a mistake and eat a good one. As both the hyenas and the tourists grew more confident, the hyena-man beckoned me over. He gave me a stick to place between my teeth and then skewered the end with a fly blown hunk of meat. I kneeled down in the sand and held out my flesh as an offering to the largest of the beasts. He looked straight in to my eyes for a few seconds and then snatched the meat from my mouth. That night I would grow to be grateful

for the close proximity of my crowded bathroom’s sink and toilet - my body could, at least, purge itself from both ends simultaneously. I struggled to rise at eight in the morning to let Sharif know that I wouldn’t be joining him on our day trip after all and then went back to bed until two in the afternoon. When I eventually rose to consume just Pepsi and a few stale biscuits, the manager seemed concerned: ‘my advice, young man, don’t drink too much’. The next day I spent another eleven hours in bed before showering in a trickle of freezing cold water. I needed to be back in Addis Ababa for the next day, so the manager helped me buy a bus ticket for early the following morning. Still not feeling hungry but knowing I should eat something, I settled for an avocado shake so thick that the spoon stood up straight in it. I forced down as much of the sweet green sludge as I could. Just down from the Tewedros Hotel, I met Sharif again, sitting outside a bar with a DJ friend. The previous evening Sharif had been stabbed in the face at a local night club. Apparently there was nothing they could do as his attacker was very rich and had just paid off the police. I agreed to pay for the drinks but drew the line at giving him even more money ‘for the hospital bills’. He had already blown all the money I had given him on drink. Apparently he only found a tourist to ‘guide’ about once every two months. The next morning I had to get up at 3:50 to be on time for the only proper bus of the day. Everything I had struggled to eat, the day before, I threw up within minutes of rising. At the opposite end to the sink, it was just muddy water. After waiting on the pavement in the dark for over an hour, I was eventually told that the bus had been cancelled as they hadn’t sold enough tickets. As the sun began to slowly rise, a stranger took pity on me and crammed me into an absurdly crowded minivan that was, at least, heading in the right direction. It would be a very long day. •

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Issue Two I Wicked World I11


s much as loud guitars and bleached hairstyles may seem alien to Northwestern Malaysian island Penang, a burgeoning alternative scene radiates from Soundmaker: one last place where the revolution keeps churning distorted guitar riffs, uncaring of the punk-and-metal pet peeve developed over the last 10 years by Malaysian authorities. Targeted as main cause for loosened sexual mores, drug use and alleged “Devil worship” among the youth, extreme music intermittently flashed Malaysian headlines from 2001, suffering a final blow when National Fatwa Council banned black metal music in January 2006. The police raided rock shows and malls in search of “Satanists” fans that, according to ex premier Mahatir, “practiced animal sacrifices and destroyed religious texts including the Koran”. Censors scrutinized rock bands looking for the Devil’s imprint, and leading international acts such as Megadeth and Mayhem were forbidden to play Malaysia during their Asian tours. Rock was definitely shot down in flames. Let Soundmaker be your introduction to Hell, hardcore punk style. Cigarette smoke thickens as you throw a token to the spikyhaired punk rock Charon, and when the gates of Hades open, the dominant darkness is dispersed by a small stage glaring with neon lights. Dozens of little souls are slam dancing against each other, running in a furious circular mosh pit. A few fallen angels get trampled under army boot clad hoofs. Some other Lucifer flies spread eagle from the platform-stage, jumping over a band of young guitar gangsters. A barely essential PA is the machine gun they use to spray the walls with their sonic three-chord bullets. Just before Lucifer hits the ground headfirst, a forest of limbs shakes him up and down guiding the unholy flight. 12 I Wicked World I Issue Two

The revolution is alive and well at So a live venue-cum-recording studio rig

Meanwhile, the Gods of Noise preach their punk-trashy-chainsaw gospel, spinning these skinny hardcore kids like a lawnmower would do with freshly cut grass. To them, as AC/DC puts it, “Hell ain’t a bad place to be”. “We needed a venue to keep the bands going, a space with freedom for any music, and a recording studio as we couldn’t afford to pay for one.” says Cole Yew, 31, hyperactive musician, producer and one among the three Soundmaker’s shareholders. “Wai Kong, Kash and I run the space in a ‘socialist’ way: we have equal say and we put any decision to vote.”


tarted 7 years ago, the club developed into a powerhouse of punk, metal, thrash and alternative rock showcase resisting a strict 12 am noise curfew by having almost fortnightly weekend matinee shows. Attracted by the powers of rock and roll, hundreds of young Malaysian punks


oundmaker ght in the heart of Georgetown...


penang’S nk rock mecca

and rockers flock to Soundmaker. “No other place has regular punk gigs in Penang” says Dzul, longhaired Malay ‘Lucifer’ in charge of record distribution Kandar Mosh. No police calls from the neighboring coffee shops? “They don’t care about the noise as long as we keep buying drinks from them… easy thing, as Soundmaker has no bar!” remarks Dzul emptying a cold beer.


appreciate extreme music.” Edd Lewis, Eurasian of Portuguese descent and ‘guitar gangster’ of thrashcore band Weotskam, is convinced that everyone has a right to enjoy good music, regardless of ethnicity. “At Soundmaker, there is no supreme race or religion to bow or praise”, he says. Human resources manager by day, he moonlights rehearsing for his band’s upcoming debut album. “In Malaysia, you may be lucky enough to live comfortably by playing mainstream music,” he says “but in a punk band, one still has to work day jobs to pay the bills”

ontrarily to the authorities’ beliefs, there is no time for pagan worship here: Malay, Chinese and Indian youth use this club to blend together into a peaceful alternative “sound making”. Ethnic tensions related to the country’s dominant Malay group’s protective privileges are put aside, choked in beer, and killed off by Penang’s punk rock prime punk rock’s haraam pounding beat. venue does not differ from any other youth center or punk club “People from all races come to in the West. However, in the support the bands, whose anti racist surrounding conservative islandmessages are well portrayed to the town environment, Soundmaker’s crowds.” continues Yew. “Although existence constitutes a much the dominant core is Malay, the needed alternative. “They have number of Chinese and Indians been supporting the local art scene is increasing… they are still too for years now” continues Edd, influenced by mainstream pop to who dislikes the local clubs where

“people don’t go to enjoy the music, but to spend on alcohol and act posh.” From Soundmaker’s mixing board, Yew shares similar views: “Unlike other mainstream Penang clubs, we support punk, thrash and extreme metal bands… we are the only venue they can freely play on the island.” Soundmaker does not only rocks local: it has already hosted many courageous Western punk bands who have risked their finances touring the faraway Southeast Asian lands. Its crowds and PA earned a cult status among the Malaysian hardcore punk scene. “The only other real punk club in Malaysia is Rumah Api in Kuala Lumpur, a long way down south” says Bryan, a sweaty ‘little soul’ recovering from an intense moshpit session. Penang’s punk rock Hell has to be taken seriously. Make a trip to Soundmaker and see for yourself. The whirlwind of human limbs is just a step away behind those closed doors, the punk music’s echo an increasing brain-drilling tornado… do you fancy a spin? • 14 I Wicked World I Issue Two




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Caodai Calling Victor Hugo in Vietnam

Words John M. Edwards Photos Jennifer Harmon Issue Two I Wicked World I17

A traveler to an architectural oddity in Tay Ninh, Vietnam, tunes in to the otherworldy call of a wacky bizarro cult


t really didn’t make sense. There in front of me, outside the smudged bus window, was “The Great Divine Temple” at Tay Ninh, Vietnam—a whacked-out EPCOTy architectural hallucination resembling Gaudi on opium—and I didn’t really want to go inside. The idea of occult cults creeped me out. Er, would they try to abduct and brainwash me? I had come all the way to Vietnam to investigate a weird supernatural religion called Caodaism, an attempt to fuse the ideal faith, “a universal religion,” from a potboiled spiritual pho centered on Spiritism (which swept the Americas in the 19th century with its occult séances, tarot cards and crystal balls, as well as popularizing the German practice of Christmas trees inside the house) and just about every other religion on the planet. You name it. But what really attracted me was that their adherents whimsically and wisely worshipped Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as a saint! Also venerated are Sun Yat-Sen, the leader of the Chinese Revolution of 1911; Trang Trinh, a Vietnamese poet and prophet; Shakespeare; Joan of Arc; Descartes; Lenin; and Pasteur. How cool is that? Talk about a “cult of personalities.” Way wacko! But the cult sounded at least playful and rococo enough to intrigue me into traveling to a former enemy nation that I was not too keen on visiting. I still

imaginatively associated Vietnam with The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, and Apocalypse Now (also, alas, Hamburger Hill, one of the messiest war films ever made). I don’t think any of these films would go over well with the communist authorities; but a British traveler on my bus, bursting with laughter, swore he saw Rambo, dubbed into Vietnamese, on a longhaul bus between Dalat and Saigon.


kay, the Caodais. So this is what I’ve got so far. Here’s the skinny. A bunch of crazy dong tu (mediums) contact the spirit world, querying, say, Charlie Chaplin in his “talkie phase,” via séances—utilizing the usual abracadabra bric-abrac of Ouija boards (the popular game), table tapping (a table jiggled which taps out letters), and corbeilles à bec (long radiating sticks attached to pens). This is the Caodai Calling. Collect. They also use “pneumotographie,” where a blank card is sealed in an envelope and hung above an altar. When opened, the paper purportedly has a message on it: “Having a great time. Wish you were here!” Postcards from the edge of the grave. Tay Ninh, less than 60 miles northwest of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is an unlikely locus for the headquarters of a major religion, the third largest in Vietnam after Buddhism and Catholicism. Bordered by Cambodia on three sides, Tibet-like Tay Ninh is an

almost island of upheaval in a commie country giving babysteps capitalism a go. Our bus passed a scowling teen wearing a Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt peddling Pepsis on a roadside stand, as well as a “picturesque” old coot doffing one of the ubiquitous conical hats and plowing rice paddies with his water buffaloes. More serious, along this road was the site of the famous wartime photo of a young running girl scorched by napalm. Caodai, which means “high palace,” refers to the supreme palace where the Supreme Being dwells (Heaven) and God Himself. But the “palace” rising before us seemed a daring departure from reality. As we got off the autobus and whistled at the Great Divine Temple, the scene became real Indochine, with a sea of lithe bicyclists draped in white ao dais on their way to attend one of four daily religious ceremonies. We had come to join them. Featured in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, the temple, built between 1933 to 1955, is a favorite stopping point for Saigon’s Sinh Café bus tours. Mostly yellow on the outside, with red roofs, the temple is built on nine levels representing a Stairway to Heaven. It is 140 meters long and 40 meters high, with four towers. According to my Lonely Planet guide, it is a mix of “a French cathedral, a Chinese pagoda, the Tiger Balm Gardens, and Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum.”

“Victor Hugo (1802-1885), who verily resembled “The Most Interesting

Man in the World” from the Dos Equis commercials and is worshipped as a “saint” by the Caodai cult of Indochina (Vietnam), is France’s favorite fabulist.” 18 I Wicked World I Issue Two

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But I think Graham Greene described it best : “Christ and Buddha looking down from the roof of the Cathedral on a Walt Disney fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in Technicolor.” But still: “This is it?” a Vietnam vet named Bill from Brooklyn groused.

clouds. Beneath the dome was a blue globe, representing the Earth, with the supreme symbol of the Caodais painted on it: the “Divine Eye,” which bears a suspicious resemblance to the eye in a pyramid featured on the back of U.S. dollar bills. I stared at the Eye and waited for one of us to blink.

I think Graham Greene described it best : “Christ and Buddha looking down from the roof of the Cathedral on a Walt Disney fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in Technicolor.” “Yeah, I thought it would be more, I don’t know,” a Canadian girl with long black Alanis Morisette hair and a scent of patchouli dittoed. “It is very yellow,” I stuck up weakly. It wasn’t until we shucked off our shoes and stepped inside that the architecture revealed itself in its full glory. Immediately, I noticed a cool mural of Saint Victor Hugo and other luminaries writing out the psychic slogans “God and Humanity” and “Love and Justice.” Shuffling along a colonnaded hall and sanctuary, I felt like I was literally entering a delusion, since I was slightly buzzing from my antimalarial Larium. All of a sudden, my eyes were alit by an image like deranged kamikazee mosquitoes upon some windows with arabesques of intertwined flowers and vines bordering uncanny eyes in triangles. By the altar—dressed up with offerings of flowers, fruit, wine, tea, candles, and incense (plus a lamp symbolizing Eternal Light)—was a snaking spiral staircase which seemed to be hissing “Don’t tread on me!” Most evocative, up above on the domed ceiling was painted a night sky, divided into nine parts, filled with Van Goghy stars and 20 I Wicked World I Issue Two

With his faithful wife Adele, Hugo - an “Orientalist” of the Edward Said mold, an occultist practitioner of Spiritism (séances, crystal balls, tarot cards), and probably a Freemason to boot--was thirty when he moved into a cabinet-ofcuriosity “crib,” a 17th-century hotel particulier known as the Hotel Rohan-Guernenée, securing a second-floor 280-square-foot set of rooms perfect for a prized poet. Which also proved a perfect place to stash valuable artwork from Asia.

The impressive but petite museum (inaugurated in 1903) is a “recreation” by his eeling like a backpacking Quasimodo with my Jansport doting grandchildren of the writer/statesman’s preferred daypack in place of a hump, habitat, consisting of a shotgun I wandered around and stepped antechamber leading through the straight into the pages of an “Chinoisserie Salon” (including unpublished novel. A painting “Indochinese” objets d’arts) and of a bearded man captured my “Medieval Dining Room” to attention. “Hugo’s Bedroom,” where he died at the ripened unpasteurized age Victor Hugo (1802-1885), who of 83, with pen in hand but well verily resembled “The Most Interesting Man in the World” from past his predicted expiration date, in 1885. His funeral procession at the Dos Equis commercials and the Arc de Triomphe was attended is worshipped as a “saint” by the Caodai cult of Indochina (Vietnam), by over 2 million people and 10,000 “flics” in riot gear! Many of the is France’s favorite fabulist. His mourners were multitudinous Viet best-known novels, Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), starring the Hunchback Kieuw (overseas Vietnamese). bellringer Quasimodo and the Hugo once said, “To die is nothing; Gypsy seductress Esmeralda, but it is terrible not to live.” Wise as well as Les Misérables (1862), words for someone whose stiff highlighted by Jean Valjean and corpse is buried along with his better known as “Les Miz” to corpus in the historic Pantheon, Broadway musical ogs, firmly next to the sleeping vampires entrenched Hugo in the Romantic Period. “If a writer wrote merely for Voltaire and Rousseau. his time,” Hugo once aphorized, “I However, one man who was not a would have to break my pen and fan of Les Misérables (now a movie throw it away!” tie-in) was “Uncle Ho” (Ho Chi


“What on my first two visits has seemed gay and bizarre (was) now like a game that had gone on too long.” --Graham Greene, on Vietnam’s Caodai cult.

Issue Two I Wicked World I21

Minh) who worked as a “plongeur” (dishwasher) before he became the leader of war-torn Vietnam. His preserved waxy effigy can be ogled in Hanoi. Which is about as exciting as suffering through a too-long Broadway musical, before escaping midway to raid the salad bar at Applebee’s. Now, where was I again? “You are welcome, Mr. America,” jokes one of the white-robed priests with a Shangri-la smile. He had the easy manner and confident smile of one used to dealing with tourists. The elaborately garbed priest, whom I dub “Les Miz,” is old enough to have witnessed the horrors of the Vietnam War, but didn’t seem the type to hold a grudge. Probably for good reasons. The Caodais were never exactly neutral. In fact, despite their prohibition against harming people or animals, they had their own renegade armies, beginning in 1943 as a response to Japanese invaders. In the Franco-Viet Minh War, the Caodai Army, made up of some 25,000 troops, supported the French, and specialized in making mortar tubes out of auto exhaust pipes. During the Vietnam war they were staunch SVA, fighting on the side of the Americans. In 1975, when NVA troops overran the U.S.backed South Vietnam, Caodaism was violently repressed and banned by the Viet Cong, who confiscated the church’s lands. There were the usual stageshow executions. But behind the scenes Caodaism continued, with its prayer meetings and séance rituals, surviving even a series of brutal cross-border raids by the genocidal Khmer Rouge. I pulled out a dollar bill and showed Les Miz our own version of The Eye, possibly a Masonic symbol, itself maybe derived from eyes on Buddhist stupas. The Mizter examined the bill with great interest and nodded approvingly. 22 I Wicked World I Issue Two

His asterix eyes focused on the hidden footnotes inherent in the symbol itself. After an eternity, his concentrated prune pout relaxed into the palimpsest of a smile. “It was nice meeting you. Now I must go.” He wanders off, still smiling but looking a little shaken.

in places inhabited by Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese).

Positioning ourselves on the balcony to view the ceremony, we watched the red, yellow, and white robed faithful wearing conical floppy hats pile in. Men came in from the right, women from the left, making their way in a mincing ounded in 1926 by the French- Mozart-like minuet to kneel before educated Vietnamese mystic the altar. In the back a group of Ngo Minh Chieu, the Caodais musicians played atonal tunes and claim the “All-Seeing Eye” was first chanted hypnotically. It sounded seen on the island of Phu Quoc in a little like a group of approvingly 1919. God, or Caodai, appeared and purring Siamese cats cuddling, said, “The eye is the principal of the then rutting. What what? I almost heart from which comes a source of fell asleep. Oddly, the faithful are light. Light is the spirit. The spirit not permitted to be photographed, itself is God.” Then on Christmas except during ceremonies. After the Eve, 1925, Caodai reintroduced ceremony we walked to the autobus under a sky with a ghastly pewter pall and a vague threat of rain.


“Founded in 1926 by the French-educated Vietnamese mystic Ngo Minh Chieu, the Caodais claim the “AllSeeing Eye” was first seen on the island of Phu Quoc in 1919.”

himself rather grandiloquently (and cryptically) as “Jade Emporer, alias Caodai, Immortal, His Honor to the eldest Boddhisattva, the Venerable Saint, Religious Master of the Southern Quarter.” The starryeyed Le Van Trung (the first Caodai pope) and his posse presented their “declaration” to the French governor of Cochinchina in 1926, and Caodaism was officially born. By the 1950s, one in eight South Vietnamese were Caodais, carving a sort of feudal state in Tay Ninh Province and the Mekong Delta, filled with thanh that (holy houses). Today there are over 8 million Caodais in Vietnam (roughly the population of Sweden), plus some 30,000 members scattered across the world like chess pieces, usually

“So what do you think?” I asked Bill from Brooklyn. “I think it’s a crock,” he responded. But I wasn’t so sure. As the bus departed, I stared out through the streaming strands of rain at all the Vietnamese faithful getting on their bicycles. Then, too good to be true, I saw a Vietnamese guy with thick Elvis sideburns and a “Thriller” bomber jacket kickstarting his moped and showing off popping wheelies. Way out here in otherworldly Tay Ninh, we were a long way away from Graceland and the Never Never Land Ranch (both certainly as showy as the Caodai Temple), but with all these cuckoo cultists capering around like Psychic Friends Network stars, maybe it is not quite as far as we might think. Stuck in the psychic grooves of my gray matter were the words of the Caodai Bard, William Shakespeare, “There are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy.” Apropros of nothing at all, I resolved to never ever return to Vietnam. •

“Tearing up the Silk Road is a book that deftly avoids romanticising the Silk Road and instead gives a realistic, sometimes harsh, appraisal of the countries passed through. Travellers too, will appreciate the intense focus on the nuts and bolts of travelling through the region ... It’s Coote’s account of the ideological battle between the East and the West in the region that adds depth to the book. He notes that the real clash is between the few who have much and the masses demanding more.” Wanderlust Magazine “ The author writes with a wonderful depth and precision so as to engross you in his journey, providing adventure with a unique and revealing perspective for life along the silk road.” Bare Essentials Magazine “If you’ve ever had the urge to chuck in your day job, step outside your comfort zone and strap yourself in for a rugged cultural journey, this is for you.” Get Lost Magazine “ An entertaining read that will inspire greater interest in the region.”

Open Central Asia Magazine

Out now through Garnet Publishing

cuba Before it’s too late... W o r d s & P h o t o s To m C o o t e


Everybody keeps saying that you should visit Cuba now before Fidel Castro dies and everything changes. Everybody has been saying that for the last twenty or thirty years but it does now really look as if this is going to happen. Being in poor health, Fidel has already handed much of the power over to his younger brother, Raul, and restrictions on Cubans travelling abroad have recently been loosened. Perhaps more significantly, the government is also now allowing the private sale of houses, opening up communist Cuba to a potential storm of free market forces. Most visitors to Cuba go on all exclusive package holidays to high end resorts. If they are feeling adventurous, then they might go on an expensive day trip to Havana or Trinidad. Although previously discouraged, it is actually safe and easy - if not particularly cheap - to travel around the country independently.

one to get in to Cuba. It’s probably easiest to just do it online at www. (for UK residents it’s £15 + around a £10 admin charge). You are always expected to book the first 3 nights of accommodation in advance but I doubt if anybody checks. However, it would probably make more sense for most visitors to book it anyway though one of the guest house’s web sites and also to possibly arrange for a lift from the airport (there is no decent public transport from the airport and it would be cheaper and more reliable than booking a taxi from the airport itself). To start with, I would recommend booking the first 3 nights in Havana at www.

equivalent to a US dollar). You can often buy cheap street and cafeteria food using the local national peso and you’ll need it for local bus and ferry fares - but you won’t be able to use it for much else (we changed around $10 into the local currency and hardly managed to use any of it).

Getting Around

Most independent traveller’s start off using the air conditioned Viazul coaches to get around the country but soon realise that it can be cheaper and more convenient to share taxis. Whenever you walk up to a Viazul booking office, you will be approached by touts, promising to take you door to door, at the time you would like, for the same price as the often inconveniently scheduled Accommodation & Food national coaches. There are no international hostels in Cuba and proper hotels are expensive, so almost all independent travellers stay in the guest rooms that many Cubans rent out to visitors. They generally charge around $20 to $30 a night for the room - so it works out much cheaper to share - plus Getting There another $4 or so for a big breakfast. It is important to shop around for Most also offer several course flights and will probably work out evening meals for between $8 and cheaper if you book several months $10 (usually better value than you ahead. Some of the cheapest flights available are leftovers on charters run would get in a budget restaurant). for package holidays but these often All of these must be paid for in Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs are fly directly in to resort areas where pronounced ‘cooks’ and are roughly there is no cheap accommodation available - it is actually illegal for the residents of Varadero to rent out rooms in their houses to tourists and it can be difficult and expensive to escape these tourist enclaves. As you will also need to book the first few nights of accommodation in advance, in order to be granted a tourist card, then it will usually make more sense to book a slightly more expensive direct flight in to Havana.


They don’t call it a visa, they call it a tourist card, but you’ll need

cuba photogr

Clockwise from top left: D Sculpture; Reflections from M Photo Shoot; Sundown in Trinidad; Chatting over Laun

Previous Pages: Trinidad, Mau San Cristobel Cathedral in Ha

Next Page: Trinid

raphy gallery

Downtown Havana; Modern Modern Art Museum; Fashion Havana; Slave Dolls from ndry; Cemetery Gravestones.

usoleum in Havana Cemetery, avana, Trinidad Town Square

dad Town Square.

T h a i l a n d ’ s S p i r i t T att o o s

SacreD SKIN Words: Tom Vater Pictures: Aroon Thaewchatturat



he man is running straight at me, his face contorted into a thousand agonies. His bare, heavily tattooed chest gleams with sweat. He screams at the sky, he vomits anger, but he’s rushing directly ahead. He salutes unknown devils, his voice a hysterical siren. He turns on the spot and performs wild body contortions that render his face the color of blood. He rolls in a puddle. He’s bleeding from his left ear. His eyes are blood-shot, his tongue flops from his mouth. Suddenly, he pushes his chest out. The most prominent tattoo on his glistening torso, a t i g e r , appears to strain a w a y from its owner in an attempt to jump into the crowd and devour the gathered disciples. The man begins to run again, this time towards the bronze statue of Luang Pho Poen in the front yard of Wat Bang Phra, a Buddhist temple and a major center of Thailand’s sacred tattoo tradition.


oday, Wat Bang Phra celebrates Wai Kru, or Teacher’s Day, in honor of the temple’s tattoo masters, a decades-old tradition started by former abbot Luang Pho Poen. A phalanx of army privates patrols the front of the stage. As the man races forward, head-butting into the soldiers, they grab and lift him off the ground. It takes five men to restrain him. He shakes madly and screams, not at them, but at the world. A soldier gently massages the possessed man’s earlobes. Seconds later, he snaps out of his violent trance and becomes one of us again. Humbly, he puts his hands together and bows towards Luang Pho Poen’s statue. The tiger is back in its cage. Sacred tattoos, called sak yant in Thailand, have been around Southeast Asia for centuries and are said to bestow protection from accidents, misfortunes and crime. Young women have themselves tattooed with love charms to attract better partners, while adolescent males seek the protective power of their yant in fights with rival youth gangs. For most though, the tattoos serve as reminders to follow a moral code endorsing positive behavior.


hen a tattoo master applies a sak yant, he also establishes a set of rules that his tattooed disciples are expected to follow for the rest of their lives, usually starting with Buddhism’s first five precepts. Failure to observe the guru’s instructions causes the sak yant to lose their power.

legs and throats it’s all abstract, trippy and brutally crude. Yet there is more to this than the written word. It goes deeper. The sak yant devotees come in reverence and the monks and tattoo masters etch images of archaic sacred pillars and fearsome animals onto their skins. The Indian monkey god Hanuman makes an appearance, as do tigers, dragons, birds, snakes, lizards, hermits and eels. Indian mythology, Buddhism, Brahmanism, animism and common superstition make for a colorful hotchpotch of religious ideas embedded into skin, which may challenge the more formalised approach to celebrating the spiritual life and occasionally enrages Buddhist conservatives.

Every day, young men and women gather in temples and countless tattoo masters’ studios around the country to get inked: Tens of thousands of teenagers, motorcycle and taxi drivers, construction workers, night club bouncers, street vendors, factory employees, boxers and working girls – an entire strata of Thai society – are having a second, magical skin applied. Foreigners are not immune either. Even Angelina Jolie has been But the world of the sak yant exists checking in to Thailand for tattoo through such a bizarre clash of sessions. circumstances, of faith and history, of order and chaos, of seekers Thailand’s sacred tattoos are a visual and charlatans, of humility and feast. The ancient Khmer writing machismo, that it has a life all of its system used for the magic spells own and is unlikely looks like a language from a lost world and stretches from the lucid to the illegible, from the poetic into the anarchic. On backs and chests it looks like text, the instructions to fade any mysterious and obscure. On hands, time soon. The origins of the sak yant lie to the west of Thailand in India. Yantra is a Sanskrit word derived from yam, which means control or restraint, and tra, which means freedom or liberation. In Hinduism, a yantra is understood to be an instrument or a geometric, mystical diagram which contains these opposing forces – restraint and freedom, as well as magical powers: a tool intended to help focus the mind. Yantras, which Hindus paint, carve or etch on paper, precious stones, woods, cloths and metals, come in many shapes and sizes and corresponding meanings – a circular yantra represents the energy of water , a square represents earth, while a triangular

When a tattoo a sak yant, he al

set of rules tha

disciples are expe

for the rest o one represents the cosmic energies of fire. Besides geometric and largely abstract patterns, yantra also contain sacred symbols and objects like the lotus flower, the şaţkoņa (similar to Star of David) and the swastika. A yantra is far more than a drawing or a pattern though - it is perceived as a conduit for cosmic energies, effective only if accompanied by incantations, meditation

and trances, and a visualization of a mantra, a prayer. Even today, sadhus and sannyasis (Hindu holymen) in India use yantras as part of their pujas (prayers). As visualized patterns with sacred meanings, the yantras are also related to the Buddhist mandalas. Yantras have been used in India for thousands of years. They probably found their way into Southeast Asia in the 3rd or 4th century – as a consequence of

o master applies

lso establishes a

at his tattooed

ected to follow

of their lives growing maritime trade between China and India and the movement of Brahmins and their philosophies into the city states of the region. Archeological digs in two of these – Funan and Chenla – two early state-like communities in today’s Cambodia and Vietnam show the earliest traces of an Indian presence in Southeast Asia.

in the 13th century, reports that the king had a piece of iron grafted under his skin, “…so that any thrust of knife or spear could do him no harm.” Angkor’s state religion changed several times, from Hinduism to Buddhism and back. Eventually, Theravada Buddhism became the practiced faith of the Khmer Empire and subsequently Cambodia. To this day, yant (called yoan in Khmer) remain popular in Cambodia, especially amongst soldiers and policemen who wear the sacred tattoos for protection against both spiritual and physical attacks.

The Angkor Empire spread across today’s Cambodia from the 9th century onwards, eventually becoming the region’s most powerful kingdom During the five hundred until its

collapse some six hundred years later. Hinduism and Brahmanism were amongst the philosophical and religious building blocks of this most prolific Southeast Asian state.


included in the tattoo.

Some researchers dismiss the hypothesis that the yant arrived in Thailand from Cambodia and suggest that Brahmin priests entered Thailand in the 3rd century, at a time when Ashoka, a Buddhist year reign of the Angkor kings, the Khmer Empire ruler in India, threatened Hindu was repeatedly attacked by its dominance. neighbors. The plunder the Siamese took away may well have become Brahmins, who form India’s highest an inadvertent cultural exchange caste and as such, are able to program and perhaps the yant commune directly with the gods, traveled westwards, along with certainly played an important role many other traditions, where they as religious advisors in the early became established – especially in city states of the Mon Dvaravati the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya (14th culture, which bloomed along to 18th century). Siamese soldiers the Chao Phraya River in today’s wore jackets covered in yant, but as central Thailand from the 7th to these were often lost in battle, they the 10th century, and in the later, more powerful Thai kingdoms began wearing the yant as tattoos. of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya. In Other sources suggest that military southern Thailand, city states with spies in Siam had their heads tattooed strong Hindu influences began with secret code. When the spy or forming in the 6th century and messenger reached his destination, became study centers for people he would shave his head to reveal wishing to learn Pali, an Indo-Aryan the message. Because his mission language from India.

t is said that the soldiers of the Khmer Empire used yant amulets and tattooed yant onto their chests to protect them in battle against the neighboring Cham and Siamese. Chou Ta-Kuan, a Chinese diplomat who resided at the Angkor court was dangerous, a mantra would be


o this day, Thailand’s royal family employs nine Brahmin priests as officials of the Royal Ceremonial Affairs Division, charged with

conducting ancient royal rituals.

amongst the lower social strata of the kingdom, the yant remain revered As yant became more popular in and sought after. Southeast Asia, local elements were added to the original Hindu designs, n the 21st century, the sacred drawn from indigenous animism, tattoos have become a political shamanism and Buddhism, some and social talking point, traditions perhaps originating with illustrating the deep fault lines the tribes in northern Thailand and that run through Thai society. The Burma, such as the Shan. disenfranchised wear their tattoos like a badge of honor, a secret code The route of yant migration might of community, while the privileged explain the language of the kata, the recoil in horror and call for the incantations and prayers that make a practice to be banned. yant effective. The power of the yant does not rest in the tattoo – on its In 2003, a group of eleven young own, it is just a tattoo, but with the boys, aged between nine and secret blessings of the tattoo master, twelve, went to see a monk in the yant is activated and the wearer northeastern Thailand and asked is bound to follow a set of rules to be tattooed. The boys believed, stipulated by his master, to receive after watching Thai movies and continuing protection, good luck or soaps, that the tattoos would turn power from it. them into invincible supermen. The monk promptly covered their backs In today’s Thailand, a country caught with sacred spells and images. The on the threshold between a feudal parents went to the police and the past and a globalised future, and local media turned the story into a not knowing which way to small firestorm. The parents were turn, the sak yant have a as concerned about their children’s employment prospects, checkered reputation future and wearers face as about the possibility that the some discrimination. boys might try and challenge the Many ordinary Thai alleged protective powers of the people, especially tattoos and endanger their lives members of the with risky wagers. But the police country’s small filed no charges – after all, the boys but vocal middle had gone to the monastery of their class, disapprove of own volition, and the monk had not the sacred tattoos, demanded money for his services. ridiculing them he case illustrates the curious as superstition position of the sak yant in Thai and branding the society. The yant, for many sak yant as part of the perceived non-wearers, indicates an element backwardness of of danger in the wearer. Anyone Thailand’s rural wearing a yant is assumed to be shady. population.



What’s more, sak yant are often associated with gangsters, hit men, sex workers, small time criminals, boy racers, street kids and vocational school students. Yet,

Tales of heroics connected to the tattoos are legion. One follower, a student from a vocational school, described in vivid detail how he had been in a firefight with students from another school the previous day. His ‘enemies’, he told me, had shot at him several times. His trousers were riddled with bullet holes, but he

did not suffer so much as a scratch. Others – not many, but some – are law students, municipal employees or soldiers. Men who apply for jobs with the military or the police will be refused if they have sak yant. Yet once they have joined up, many of them get tattooed with little fear of rebuke from their employers. Either way, the wearer is supposed to follow the rules passed to him by his master for the sacred tattoos to work, which are strict enough to curtail any gangster’s lifestyle. A fascinating contradiction emerges: the sak yant appear to be the calling card for bad guys, but many bad guys actually become good guys once they acquire a sacred tattoo. Sak yant devotees told me again and again about their criminal, violent and tragic pasts that turned into better futures, once they received their sak yant.


ather than encouraging lawlessness or individualism, the tattoos are in fact tools to regulate and pacify some of the most volatile members of Thai society. The loss of traditional values that the more conservative factions of society bemoan, (often the same people who would like to see the sacred tattoos disappear), is slowed by the continued popularity of the sak yant. In a country where every child is told in school that one should do well, but not so well as to embarrass the next person, the sak yant at once excludes and integrates, damns and rehabilitates: a perfect example of the opposing forces that shape the kingdom’s social matrix. Visit a tattoo master or tattooing monk in Thailand and one thing is immediately apparent – most devotees are young and there’s no indication

that the sacred tattoos are losing any of their appeal. Sak yant will continue to remain an essential tool of expression – both communal and individual – for decades to come in Thailand. As for superstition and faith in the 21st century – to this day, our established religions peddle the most outlandish truths to their followers. In this context, the belief that a 2,000-year-old, mystical diagram etched onto human skin

About the book: Sacred Skin is the first English language book about Thailand’s spirit tattoos and has received more than 30 glowing reviews in publications ranging from TIME Magazine, El Mundo, Die Zeit, Courier International, CNN to many tattoo blogs. The book has been subject of two TV documentaries and continues to be a bestseller in Southeast Asia. might protect its wearer is hardly exotic. The majority of people in Thailand are Buddhist, but the Thai people have preserved a religious flexibility that forbids easy categorizing and the concept of a single religious truth. Thailand’s sak yant are as much a manifestation of this open mindset as they are tools of social control. Perhaps the sak yant tell us that life is full of contradictions not meant to be resolved. People will always do bad things and rules will always be broken, but as one master pointed out, the sacred tattoos are silent and powerful reminders of a righteous path that all of us, whether we wear yant or not, should

aspire to follow. •

The Sultan of Sulu In Search of a Mouse that Roared


t first nobody noticed when the first two hundred of the 1600 Filipinos that are now - in June 2013 - hiding in the forests of Eastern Malaysia landed in their high speed motor boats. They had come at night and slipped silently into the dense oil palm plantations that line the coast. They were heavily armed for their mission – which was to liberate the state of Sabah in the name of the sultan of Sulu, an island in the neighbouring Philippines. But a few weeks later I got a telephone call to say a planned visit to Sabah would be too dangerous, and I should delay by a month. The Filipinos’ claim dates back to 1878, when the Sultan of Sulu, who had been given Sabah as a present by the allpowerful Sultan of Brunei, decided to lease it out. The lease was granted to two men, an Austrian and a Briton, who later sold it on to the British North Borneo Company who in turn passed it on to the Malaysian Government. But 135 years after the original lease was signed, the rent remains the same, at $1700 a year for 44,000 square miles. So it is perhaps unsurprising that the current Sultan is reasserting his claim

Words E T Laing 38 I Wicked World I Issue Two

to Sabah as his ancestral birthright. Another reason is that he has fallen on hard times. A former disk jockey and dancer on the southern Philippine island of Jolo, he now lives in a seedy pink two-storied building in a run down government-built resettlement area for Muslim refugees just south of Manila. There the sultan, also known as Mr Kiram, gets financial assistance from a government charity for weekly dialysis for failed kidneys. He looks older than his 74 years and his speech was slurred when he told Philippine reporters that the Sulu sultanate, which dates back to the 1400s, existed years before the Philippine republic and Malaysia. One of his daughters works in a call centre and another, the Princess of Sulu, explained to the reporters that “When I was a child, I thought ‘princess’ was just my name because when you’re a child, your idea of being a princess is one with a crown, a palace, a carriage,” and despite her royal title she never had any of them.


he invaders laid low for a few weeks in the tiny villages along the coast. They were probably welcomed there by at least a few of the thousands of Philippine immigrants who have settled in Sabah because life is easier

Issue Two I Wicked World I39

than in their own country, and have lived there peaceably enough with the Malaysians - although a Chinese woman I was travelling with said they dragged the standards of their neighbourhoods down and left a lot of plastic bottles lying around.

and the occasional crowing of a cockerel in the distance disturbing the silence. I bided my time until there was a gap in the conversation.

Then on March 1st the rag tag Sultan’s army attacked the police. About a dozen were killed on both sides and there were reports of beheadings and mutilations. The Malaysian army was sent down and the invaders then asked for a ceasefire. The government said forget it; we want unconditional surrender. The Filipinos refused and the Malaysian military went in and killed fifty of them. The British Foreign Office advised all British citizens to leave the region as soon as possible.

The reaction was tepid “Oh, that … well … nothing much happened up here,” said the port manager. “All the action was further to the south.”


e arrived a month afterwards, to work on a project that meant travelling down the whole of the coast that had been invaded. The FCO was still saying, as they always do, that Britons should leave, but the locals said that it was all over … And our first stop was at Sandakan, a sleepy town about 100 miles north of the fighting.


alaysia is high on the list of the world’s tropical paradises, its countryside rich with orchids, cannas and hibiscus, its markets swollen with breadfruit, papaya, mangosteens, rambutans and jackfruit. Its vegetation is nourished to a lush green by torrential rains, and a humid heat on the coast that penetrates deep into the bones. The smell of the tropics – a sensual cocktail of the fragrance of orchids and frangipani; the stench of drains and rotting undergrowth; the sickly sweet, decaying, cellulosic exhalations of durian; the everyday odours of sweat and sex; and the rich cooking smells of coriander and garlic - is at first mildly repulsive. But later it becomes addictive and deeply relaxing. And our first lunchtime in Sandakan found us – there were six of us working on the ports with the local staff – in a timber floored fish restaurant looking down over a placid bay. The air was still, with only the hum of hovering insects

40 I Wicked World I Issue Two

“So, what was like here when the fighting was on?” I asked.

“It is perhaps unsurprising that the current Sultan is reasserting his claim to Sabah as his ancestral birthright.” “What is happening here, though” added a local girl, sounding aggrieved, “is that the foreigners have stopped coming to see our orang-utans. The tourist trade had taken a dive, la.” In Sabah they say “la” after everything they want to emphasise. I never found out precisely what it meant. None of them seemed excited by the events on their doorstep, and we went on to talk of other things. “You’ll find out all about it down at Lahad Datu when you get there.”


ut at Lahad Datu, we found the locals equally relaxed. I spoke to an attractive Kadazan girl a with large red rose tattooed just below her knee “Well,” she said, “I was there that week and found the streets empty and most of the shops closed because the Chinese had been buying up all the food. Then when we went for our favourite fish head curry at the local restaurant it took over an hour to make; and when it came it was uneatable. It turned out that the cook had taken fright and run away that night to hide outside the town.” “That was all?” “Oh, the hotels and cafes were full of the military, although they looked too fat and weighed down by their equipment to chase anyone. But maybe they didn’t

need to be fit…the invaders seemed less than formidable. A friend had spotted them through binoculars, and had been surprised to see that they were not young firebrands. They were mostly old.” But that was all. And despite newspaper reports that a leaders of the Filipino invaders was in Lahad Datu that very day, the town square looked relaxed after lunch. Waiting there for a car, we amused ourselves by counting the number of Malay words on signs whose spelling echoed the pronunciation of the old British colonials - the “teksis” the ladies took to their “kelabs” in the 1930s when black tie was still worn for evening visits to the cinema; and the “bas” stops. Earlier we had seen the “Kastoms” offices down at the port. Taking the road to the south, I sat in the back of the combi van and thought of the rules I had been told by the wife of a journalist to remember if you are captured. First, arrange for a negotiator; second make sure the negotiator knows nothing; third, avoid any involvement by the Foreign Office; and, fourth, avoid any involvement of your family. Food for thought as we drove through the palm oil forests. But the road blocks and the sandbags we had been told we would find, had gone

“They were poor: mostly retired soldiers in their fifties, sitting there in the Philippines drinking beer. “


ur final stop was at Tawau on the southern border with Indonesia. But all we saw were Malaysian army patrol jeeps being landed at the port.


ack in the capital, Kota Kinabalu, sitting in a café on my last day, I got into conversation with a wiry man with a weathered face at the next table. “Where are you from?” he asked. “London.”

“Ah.” He looked pleased but instead of asking about our football teams he said “What are you doing here, working or holiday?” “Work, I said, and what do you do?” “Oh, I’m retired … but I was a policeman” “Ah-hah! Are you checking up on me?” I made it plain that I was being humorous. “No, not at all,” he laughed, “although maybe it comes naturally to me without thinking.” I recalled that it was the police, not the army, that the invaders had first engaged. And this man must have been high up, as it was not a cheap café. I told him about my journey down the coast. “ So, was it all a storm in a teacup?” I asked “Oh, no, it was big trouble for the government and they went in hard. At first a lot of us thought it might have been a plot to destabilise the government before the elections in May”. The local newspapers were full of nothing else that month. “But why did the Filipinos come?” I asked. “They must have known they could be killed.” “They were poor: mostly retired soldiers in their fifties, sitting there in the Philippines drinking beer. Then they were offered a few hundred dollars, and land. And maybe they thought some of the local Filipinos would join them.” Put that way it seemed so sad, these poor deluded souls landing on that beautiful coastline in their twilight years, to face an almost certain death miles from home. I tapped my head, implying that they must have been insane. Maybe I sounded a little patronising. And he trumped me. “Was it so different” he asked with a theatrically mischievous smile, “from your Falklands?” •

Issue Two I Wicked World I41

The Dark Art of

Ahad Hosseini Iran’s Greatest living sculptor

Words & Photos

Tom Coote

Almost next door to the Blue Mosque in Iran’s former capital of Tabriz, is the Azarbaijan Museum. The exhibits on the top two floors featured all the usual old pots, coins and one-armed statues, but down in the basement I found something far more interesting: the ‘Misery of the World’ sculptures by Ahad Hosseini. These fearsome bronze masterpieces radiate a power and intensity that seems entirely alien within the confines of a small provincial museum. The twelve episodes that make up the collection are entitled ‘Ignorance’, ‘War’, ‘Chains of Misery’, ‘The Miserable’, ‘Hunger’, ‘Political Prisoner’, ‘A Crystal Ball’, ‘Population Growth’, ‘Racial Discrimination’, ‘Five Monsters of Death’, ‘Anxiety’ and ‘Autumn of Life’. Each of these striking metal constructions exude a depth of darkness and despair that can only be found in the kind of great art that dares to reach through to the underworld and illuminate. Hosseini believes that ‘all our misfortune is from our ignorance’ and seems almost morally obliged to lead us on towards greater knowledge and understanding. At the same time, he seems to acknowledge that this same creative force has often only led to greater misery, hunger and anxiety: ‘people are scared of the world they have made with their own hands’. Having filled my mind with Hosseini’s apocalyptic visions of a world of misery, I emerged from the neon-lit, but darknessfilled, basement and walked into the museum’s cafeteria for a nice cup of tea. I couldn’t be bothered with the gift shop.

46 I Wicked World I Issue Two

The Sacred City Cherry Briggs finds more than just the past in the sacred city of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka


walked along the narrow winding road from the hotel towards the Sacred City at the heart of Anuradhapura. The quiet lanes and ruined monuments that had been so peaceful in the mellow evening light had been transformed into a brightly coloured chaos of people and vehicles, burning under the bright morning sun. The grass verges of the lanes had disappeared under a tangled jam of parked tuk-tuks, vans and the battered intercity buses that had carried pilgrims through the night from distant parts of the island to observe the Poya under the city’s ancient bodhi tree. The pilgrims were all dressed in white; the women swathed in white saris, the little girls in frilly white frocks, and the men in white shirts and plain white cotton sarongs. Some of the pilgrims were already weaving their way towards the temples through the vehicles, whilst others sat in groups on picnic rugs under the trees. As far as I could see in every direction the landscape was dotted with moving white figures, all heading towards the broad white dome of the Ruwanweli Dagoba, which dominated the horizon. I joined the throngs of pilgrims and together we fought our way through the crowds of hawkers, who were haranguing and pestering anyone and everyone with small wooden elephants, corn on the cob, ice cream, soft drinks and plastic whistles, to the ‘Sacred Precinct’. A number of the

pilgrims had decided to take a shortcut and little old ladies were trying to throw themselves over the wall that surrounded the dagoba, whilst others tried to squeeze their frail bodies through impossibly small gaps between the iron girders of the closed gates.


took my shoes off and, pushed along by a wave of white clad devotees, moved through the entrance and up a flight of stone steps, to the sprawling stone platform from which the large white dome rose into the cloudless blue sky. Men and women sat together on blankets in groups with their eyes collectively raised to its spire. Some were holding small leaflets and chanting gently in unison whilst others were sitting in silent contemplation. The dagoba was about 300 m in circumference and dotted around its base were small stone shrines holding statues of the Buddha. Smaller statues of the Buddha sat in little glass cases, smiling down at the devotees. The pilgrims circled the dome, carrying baskets of fruit and bunches of purple lotus flowers, which they placed at the feet of the Buddha, before putting their palms together and touching their hands to their foreheads.


sat down in the shade and watched the stream of pilgrims come and go. A group of Buddhist monks in orange robes

“Inoka and I had both bought bunches of purple lotus flowers from one of the stalls on the road ... the flowers would soon fade, she said, and this represented the impermanence of all worldly things.”

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climbed up the steps and started to weave their way through the groups of pilgrims, who dropped to the ground at their feet and touched their heads to the floor, like Muslims facing Mecca. Further around the dome, a man in brickred cotton pyjamas, with a ponytail of grey, matted hair, was giving an impassioned sermon to a group of wizened old ladies, who gazed passively through him into the distance.

which had been draped with bunting made from pieces of striped red, blue, yellow, white and orange silk, in the design of the Buddhist flag. The pilgrims were sitting under the branches of the tree, looking up at the sky through the fragile leaves. Inoka and I had both bought bunches of purple lotus flowers from one of the stalls on the road and she showed me how to snap off the stems before we placed them on an altar under the branches. The flowers would soon fade, she said, and this represented the left and joined the long procession of pilgrims moving impermanence of all worldly things. along the paved walkway to the We sat down with the pilgrims in the sunny courtyard, and Inoka city’s sacred bodhi tree. They were closed her eyes and gently began to barefoot, with their shoes tucked murmur. She ran her hands through under their arms, the families walking hand in hand, smiling and the sandy ground and slowly sifted the grains of sand through chattering happily. I fell into step alongside a dumpy Sri Lankan girl, her fingers. She turned her palms who had a long plait of fuzzy black over and showed me the sand that hair that hung down over her round was caught under her fingernails. According to an old Buddhist bottom and swung against the parable, the grains of sand caught backs of her thighs as she walked. under one’s fingernails represent Like me she was on her own and the few lucky beings who are was looking for someone to talk to. She was a local Buddhist girl called reincarnated as humans, whereas Inoka and her large, sad eyes, were all the grains of sand in the rest of so dark that they were almost black. the world represent the beings who ‘Aren’t you lonely?’ she asked me, are reincarnated as lower forms when I told her that I was travelling of life. An old lady came and sat alone without a husband. ‘Aren’t down next to us and, removing a you scared?’ prosthetic leg, laid it in front of her and started to massage her swollen er husband worked in amputated limb. Trincomalee on the east coast and was often away. he sun was high in the sky She didn’t feel safe on her own. when we left the Sacred ‘The men here, they are bad,’ she Precinct and Inoka insisted said. ‘I don’t like being on my own. on buying us both a king coconut They look at you and sometimes from one of the hawkers. We sat they shout and follow you.’ I knew on the grass under a tree and she exactly what she meant; I was often continued to tell me about her life. stared and shouted at by Sri Lankan She was much older than I had men on the streets, but had always thought, her soft pudgy features assumed that I was particularly showing almost no signs of her targeted because of my pale skin. forty years, and, unusually for a married woman of her age, she he ancient bodhi tree, with its didn’t have any children. She sprawling, gnarled branches spoke about her husband, who she proudly said does not drink and and golden, heart-shaped spend all their money on alcohol leaves, stood at the centre of a like many of her friends’ husbands. courtyard, surrounded by a white He spent many months away from wall topped with gold railings,



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home, however, and she often felt lonely. She made what little money she could by teaching traditional Sinhalese dancing to children at a local dance school, but was desperate to leave Sri Lanka. Like many Sri Lankans I had spoken to, she was convinced that the world beyond the island was a utopia that had the capacity to make her infinitely happier. When she was young her mother had spent many years away from home, working as a maid for an English family in Dubai. ‘Can you get me a visa for England?’ she asked. ‘I could come and work as a maid in your father’s house.’ I tried to explain that we didn’t have maids any more in England and, unfortunately for her, the British government was doing everything it could to keep foreigners out of the country. I could see that she thought I was lying. We talked for the rest of the afternoon and, as the sun fell from the sky, her loneliness became more palpable. Her father had died from diabetes, the most common disease in Sri Lanka, and her brother had been shut away in a psychiatric hospital far away in Unawatuna, a small coastal town on the southwest coast. She had a sister, who lived close by, but her brother-inlaw was an abusive drunk and Inoka tried to avoid spending much time with them. She asked me whether husbands in England were all drunks and whether they beat their wives, as she claimed many did on the island. She had a low opinion of men, but it was fatalistic and disappointed, not the angered bitterness I would have expected. We left the ruins together at dusk and said goodbye at a parting of two narrow lanes. When she asked for my phone number, she began to cry. Sometimes I still get phone calls from Inoka, late at night, asking if I am going to go back to Anuradhapura. • This is an extract from The Teardrop Island (Summersdale, 2013) by Cherry Briggs.

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n i n e B n i d a e D e h T h t i w g Dancin Text and Pictures

by James Michael Dorsey


had never been confronted by a dead man before, and have to admit at the moment we came face to face I was more concerned with getting the shot than my own demise.

from the movie, “Ghost,� the spirits were now on their way to collect my soul. The young apprentice who should have shielded me had frozen and just stood there, his mouth agape, unable to comprehend why an outsider would be sought out for Without warning a swirling dervish this. of Egun rushed in my direction stopping only at the final second, It took a few seconds before I perhaps unnerved since I did heard the utter silence, and from not scream and flee as the other the corner of my eye I saw an villagers do at such a moment. I older man, swathed in purple and was absorbed in taking photos and holding a staff that announced his stood my ground, never thinking position within the hierarchy of for a moment that my life was in the mambos jump to his feet and peril, but as the dancer put on the begin issuing orders to others. brakes, his long robes kept coming, flowing over me like an ocean A man rushed to my side, holding wave and an audible collective what looked like a wand in his hand gasp went through the crowd. and proceeded to wave it over my body much like a hand held metal I had been touched by the living detector at an airport. As he did dead, and to the audience, like a scene this his eyes were rolled back in 50 I Wicked World I Issue Two

his head and he appeared to be in a state of trance, mumbling incantations. Just like that I had gone from spectator to victim. The muse had called me to the tiny village of Cove’ in Benin, Africa, where I had been told I might witness an Egun Gun dance, (Pronounced Egoon Goon) one of the more esoteric of all voodoo events. It is this dance more than any other ceremony that merges the living with the dead, but I, being counted among the living, had not planned on merging before it happened.


oodoo is a word that frightens most people, mainly because it is misunderstood. It conjures up images of zombies, black magic, and dolls with pins stuck in them, and while that does

play a role in the overall milieu, living to navigate among the dead there is much more to it than that. without being totally drawn into that void. While they believe the It is in fact, an established reli- deceased are constantly among us, gion whose oral histories can be they also believe a living person can traced back 6,000 years to Benin, enter the twilight world for brief where it is still the official religion periods if under careful guidance, of the country, and an estimated and of course depending on the

calls if things get out of hand, as I was about to find out. The Egun Gun are a secret society of men who spend most of their adult life learning an archaic set of rituals, prayers, and ceremonial traditions, that include their own private language and dances. They spend great amounts of time creating surreal looking outfits that hide not only their true identity, but emphasize the fact that the wearer is in a special place and not of this world.


hey are so secretive that fellow tribal members do not know who is a member or not, and that days before a ceremony an Egun Gun dancer secrets his homemade ceremonial costume in the woods and makes excuses to disappear so no one will know where he is going and no one will ask why. During this time he

60% of all West African inhabitants personal power of practice it in one form or another. the metaphysical traveler. The witch The origins of black magic voodoo go doctor or shaman back some 300 years when the black are nothing more kings of Africa hunted their own peo- than spiritual guides ple, selling them to white slavers. In who facilitate the hulls of slave ships the evolution c o m m u n i c a t i o n of dark voodoo took root as the only between those means of fighting back. By the time who have gone these ships reached the Caribbe- before and those an, a benign belief system had been who still occupy distorted into a monster that grew the material world. and spread in its’ new homeland. The ceremony is o the adherents of presided over by a traditional African voodoo council of griots, or there is no difference mambos as they are between the waking world known locally; there and that of spirits, they are the same, are usually several co-existing in what a westerner in attendance, but might call a parallel universe. The the uninitiated will living and the dead are in constant not know who they communion, aiding each other just are. They are secret as they did in physical life. It is masters of ceremothe job of the mambo, or griot, the ny, making sure West African version of a priest, to all goes according oversee this union, to guide it using to plan, and ready established traditions that allow the to make judgment


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prepares himself through fasting and prayer. Even more fascinating is the fact that once the ritual begins, he becomes the living dead. The Egun dance is tradition and religious rite simultaneously, as much theater as ceremony, part Kabuki and part melodrama, but deadly serious.


nce in costume and mask the dancer is no longer a member of the material world. He enters a trance like state, becoming a conduit for a deceased relative to enter his body. When this is achieved the dancer will begin to gyrate and contort in ways not normally doable in a waking state. The idea is that the dancer mimics all he has seen from his fellow tribesmen during the period since the last dance, showing the spirit inside him what everyone has done lately. This in turn allows the spirit to know who has been good or bad and who needs to be punished or rewarded. Ancestors, who are never far away, are the keepers and arbitrators of how their families should live and this

transported into the spirit world. To assure no physical contact is made, young apprentices accompany each dancer using a long bamboo rod which they use to poke those they think are too close, imposing themselves between the dancer and the crowd, and apparently immune to the lethal contact due to their station. As a guest I had a young boy at my side for just this reason who failed in his task.

Now, I was in effect, receiving an exorcism, and a local man who spoke English came forward to explain to me that the wand the mambo was using was the femur of a lion, killed by a warrior with a spear, thus infusing it with power sufficient to ward off my imminent departure from this earth. It was inlaid with several dozen cowry a common o the adherents of traditional African shells, adornment used voodoo there is no difference between throughout Africa, representing the waking world and that of spirits, fertility because of they are the same, co-existing in what a their resemblance to a vagina thus westerner might call a parallel universe... were an affirmation of life and a strong dance is their periodic checkup. But deterrent to my current dilemma. being spirits, benign or not, they all hold a “terribelita� that once I was told to stand still as the bone unleashed could wreak havoc if not was passed over my body, drawproperly controlled by ceremony. ing the evil spirits from inside and corralling them inside the shell With their elaborately colored openings, pulling them out and costumes and flowing robes, the passing them into the ether where Egun Gun twirl and jump, jerk and they were harmlessly dispersed swoon, then randomly pick a person to seek another venue to invade. from the gathered crowd, directed from the spirit within, and race I believe there is power in voodoo, headlong at them, adding drama to but for it to have dominion, the the moment and also panic because practitioner must also have belief in it is believed that if the dancer it, and while I am open to esoteric touches you, your physical body will beliefs more than most people, I soon wither and die and you will be had no fear for my life in spite of


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what was happening. I have my own religious convictions, thus rendering it impotent against me, but I also understand the collective power of belief, and I was surrounded by a crowd of adherents who were firmly convinced that I was in imminent danger, so out of respect for them, I continued my role in the ceremony. After all, how many people get to experience a real live voodoo exorcism? When he finished, the mambo dropped the lion bone, saying he could no longer hold it because its soul was too heavy, and he himself appeared physically spent, staggering back to join his compatriots on the arm of a young assistant. Only then did the head mambo retake his seat. It was explained that I had been turned free by the spirits that had entered my body, and that I must have a great power since I was still alive where one of the local villagers could not have survived such an invasion, in fact, had it been one of them, the mambo would not have even tried to intervene. They themselves would be able to return during the next dance, just not in a living body. It was also explained that a cleansing ceremony would be performed later to restore the lion bone to its original condition as a talisman of power before it could re-instate the authority of its owner. To the assembled crowd, I had spent a few seconds suspended between the two worlds and so had gained a

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new status. It sounded like one of those stories of people close to death describing a white light at the end of a tunnel and then being drawn back to the present although I had no such experience. It was imposed upon me by those watching the ceremony.At this point the villagers were gathering around me, touching me, grabbing my hands. Most were smiling but a few shed tears as my experience had apparently elevated me to a spiritual state I was not aware of, and had given me great face with the community.


n Africa, children often bow to an elder for a blessing, bestowed by the simple touch of ones palm laid flat on the crown of the head. Several mothers brought their infants to me for this blessing, now instilled with new meaning by my supposed conquest of the evil. I had originally intended to stay a couple days to observe these ceremonies, and had I decided to do so I no doubt would have been treated as an honored guest, but that did not seem right for something that was imposed on me and I had not earned. I had experienced more in one day than most people learn in a lifetime. With great humility I bid my farewell to all, profusely thanking the mambos for saving me great suffering, and walked through an admiring crowd, shaking hands all the way to my vehicle. I heard the word griot muttered by several people and realized they now meant me. Never would I have expected the experience I had that day, prompted by a simple photo shoot, and knew that few outsiders would ever be drawn into the secret world of voodoo in such a manner. In Africa, events are always stories, stories soon become myth, and myth often becomes a legend. Perhaps one day I will be sitting at a campfire in West Africa and hear the story of the white mambo who entered the spirit world and returned.•

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The first book by

James Michael Dorsey an explorer, award winning author, and photographer who has traveled extensively in 44 countries. His principle interest is documenting remote cultures in Africa and Asia.

Tears, Fear & Adventure is available on line from most major booksellers. Issue Two I Wicked World I55

Future Features The World Through Graphic Novels: Persepolis, Pyongyang and Palestine • Shillong: Tribal Rock City • Paradise with Side Effects • Kurdistan: A Nation Emerges • Global Street Art • Walls: Travels Along the Barricades • Morocco: The Last Storytellers • How to Disappear

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Wicked World Issue Two  

Alternative Travel Digital Magazine: Travel, Dark Arts and the Global Underground

Wicked World Issue Two  

Alternative Travel Digital Magazine: Travel, Dark Arts and the Global Underground