Pasar Kranggan, Yogyakarta

8 12 2013

A visit to any Southeast Asian town or city is never complete without the experience of  a wet or traditional market. The market is often where the colour and life of a city can best be captured and I often enjoy a walk through one as I did on a recent trip to Yogyakarta in Central Java. One of the markets in Yogyakarta which does deserve a visit is Pasar Kranggan which can be found just down Jalan Pangeran Diponegoro from Tugu Yogyakarta (Yogyakarta Monument).

JeromeLim 277A7660

JeromeLim 277A7664

JeromeLim 277A7742

JeromeLim 277A7738

JeromeLim 277A7732

JeromeLim 277A7731

JeromeLim 277A7714

JeromeLim 277A7709

JeromeLim 277A7707

JeromeLim 277A7705

JeromeLim 277A7700

JeromeLim 277A7699

JeromeLim 277A7696

JeromeLim 277A7692

JeromeLim 277A7682

JeromeLim 277A7676

JeromeLim 277A7668

JeromeLim 277A7665

Globalisation in an ancient world

23 10 2013

The colours of Globalisation as seen in an ancient world – the Nepali city of Bhaktapur which dates back to the 9th Century. The city with its old squares and buildings is one which does otherwise take one far away from the modern world. It is also where an ancient festival, that of the Bisket Jatra, is celebrated every Nepali New Year in a way it might have been celebrated centuries before.

JeromeLim IMG_1460

Growing up too soon in Bangkok?

17 09 2013

A very young child “minding” a food stall at a market found along the busy Asok Montri Road (photograph taken in October 2011).

JeromeLim IMG_6486s

Life’s a Boracay Beach

8 08 2013

What to get beachy about on Boracay

It’s been almost three weeks since I got back from a truly enjoyable escapade with nine other bloggers to the resort island of Boracay in the Philippines. The island, set in a picture perfect world surrounded by gorgeously beautiful emerald blue waters, is one which has left a huge impression on me. It is also one which I certainly count as one in my list of magical places I have been fortunate enough to visit, and one which should really be in anyone’s bucket list of must-visit places in one’s lifetime.

A great to be for a beach bum - lying flat on a paraw..

A great to be for a beach bum – lying flat on a paraw..

Life's a beach on Boracay - any time of the day.

Life’s a beach on Boracay – any time of the day.

Sunrise at Bulabog Beach.

Sunrise at Bulabog Beach.

Of the many experiences the island does offer, it is probably the beach that is first and foremost on the mind of anyone who has made a visit. The beaches on Boracay come to live in many different ways throughout the day – and night and visiting them has awakened that long dormant beach bum in me.

Sunset at White Beach.

Sunset at White Beach.

The beach which should probably be mention first has to be White Beach. Four kilometres of the finest white sand, it is has been described as the “Mother of All Beaches”. The beach which is divided into three boat stations, is perhaps an obvious choice to base oneself, being where the “action” on Boracay is centred around, including the nightlife Boracay is also well known for. White Beach is also where much shopping and beachside entertainment and dining is to be found and is certainly the place to be as well as a place to be seen at. Facing west, the beach is also an obvious place to catch the sunsets Boracay is famous for from.

Lots of beach side entertainment can be found at White Beach.

Lots of beach side entertainment can be found at White Beach.

White Beach Boracay - where mcuh of the action takes place.

White Beach – the mother of all Boracay beaches, seen at Boat Station 2..

Dancing to the sea breeze at Seabreeze, the beach side cafe of the Boracay Regency.

Dancing to the sea breeze at Seabreeze, the beach side cafe of the Boracay Regency.

Lots of dining options at Boat Station 2.

Lots of dining options at White Beach.

Catch of the day.

Catch of the day.

The numerical order of boat stations the beach is sub-divided into does also provide an indication of the regard with which each section is held. The top end of the beach is where Boat Station 1 can be found. It is the most exclusive and also widest part of the beach where some of the more upscale resorts which spill directly out to the beach are – including the very exclusive Discovery Shores, which we were to visit on our last evening there.

White Beach at Boat Station 1 by night.

White Beach at Boat Station 1 by night.

The very exclusive Discovery Shores at Boat Station 1.

The very exclusive Discovery Shores at Boat Station 1.

A fire dancer performing at Discovery Shores.

A fire dancer performing at Discovery Shores.

The nighttime view from Discovery Shores.

The nighttime view from Discovery Shores.

The top section is also where the much celebrated Jonah’s Fruitshake and Snack Bar can be found – a must visit for any one in Boracay with a craving for milkshakes packed with real fruit – and if you like, a shot of additional flavouring taking the form of rum!

Jonah's - an institution of sorts in Boracay.

Jonah’s – an institution of sorts in Boracay.

Fruit-full milkshakes - served in a bottle.

Fruit-full milkshakes – served in a bottle.

The section where we did find ourselves at was at Boat Station 2. This is where there is a mix of accommodation types including the Boracay Regency where we stayed at, and the Boracay Mandarin we were dined at and visited on the third evening. Station 2 is also where most of the beach side action is to be found, and where D’Mall – a favourite tourist shopping spot can be found. D’Mall is also where the Hobbit House, with its rather interesting crew of “hobbits” – pint sized staff, can be found.

The stairway to heaven - from the beachside Boracay Regency to the beach at Boat Station 2.

The stairway to heaven – from the beachside Boracay Regency to the beach at Boat Station 2.

A ferris wheel at D'Mall.

A ferris wheel at D’Mall.

A sandwich shop at D'Mall.

A sandwich shop at D’Mall.

Christina doing her souvenir shopping at D'Mall.

Christina did her souvenir shopping at D’Mall.

As did Atsuko.

As did Atsuko.

The nightlife scene at Boat Station 2.

The nightlife scene at Boat Station 2.

Some of the gang shopping by the beachside at Boat Station 2.

Some of the gang shopping by the beachside at Boat Station 2.

Having fun in the rain at Boat Station 2.

Having fun in the rain at Boat Station 2.

Hobbit House at D'Mall.

Hobbit House at D’Mall.

By the beach side at Boat Station 2.

By the beach side at Boat Station 2.

The southernmost section of White Beach, or Boat Station 3, is said to have the most relaxed of atmospheres – and again where a mix of both budget as well as luxury accommodation can be found. It is also where the beach is gaily decorated by the blue and white sails of the paraws – the double outrigger boats of the Visayas – the group of islands surrounding the Visayan Sea of which Boracay and Panay belongs to. It is from station 3 that the paraw cruises depart – an excellent way to spend a late afternoon.

White Beach at Boat Station 3.

White Beach at Boat Station 3.

Another view of the Boat Station 3.

Another view of the Boat Station 3.

Paraw Cruising from Boat Station 3.

Paraw Cruising from Boat Station 3.

While White Beach does perhaps have the finest of sands and is an excellent place to have a dip in the sea in or sip a cocktail by the beach under a parasol at, it can get rather crowded and if you do want to look for a nice quiet but publicly accessible beach which takes you away from it all and on which you can feel that you are indeed in paradise, than Puka Beach has to be it. Much about the beach can be found in my previous post – in which I thought it deserved mention as being one of two of my favourite spots on the island.

Puka Beach.

Puka Beach.

If it is privacy and exclusivity you are looking for, the island does also offer the visitor a choice several very exclusive resorts, all with private and exclusive beaches. Two which come to mind are the Fairways and Bluewater Resort and the Shangri-la Boracay. The former is where Paradise Cove (the other favourite spot I previously mentioned) as well as two exclusive coves are located and where it is possible to ride a segway or mount a horse to have a feel of one of its wonderful beaches. It is also possible to have a ride on a glass bottomed boat on Paradise Cove to have a top down view into its crystal clear waters. The natural platform beneath the rock arch found at Paradise Cove is also one which the Shangri-la has been permitted to land its guests on.

Paradise Cove.

Paradise Cove.

On the segway on the beach at Fairways and Bluewater Resort.

Catherine on the segway on the beach at Fairways and Bluewater Resort.

Atsuko horsing around at Fairways and Bluewater.

Atsuko horsing around at Fairways and Bluewater.

The Boracay Shangri-la on the northwest of the island around the corner from Puka Beach is has got to be the place to stay at – if you are looking in the ultimate in privacy and exclusivity with its many private villas, some arranged on the hill slope offering simply stunning views of the Tablas Strait. It has a very exclusive stretch of its own beach, Bayungan Beach, but if one is putting up in one of the three private villas we did get to see, who then needs a private beach?

The beach at Shangri-la Boracay.

The exclusive beach at Boracay Shangri-la.

Besides the beaches already mentioned, there were a few more I did see. Two we did see as part of an island hopping boat ride were the ones at Crystal Cove Island and Tambisaan Beach where we were to have lunch at. Another was east facing Bulabog Beach, less attractive as a beach goes compared to White Beach or Puka Beach, but off which much of the sea sports and activities Boracay is also famous for, does take place. The sports one can participate in include kite boarding and windsurfing – best done from November to April. With a reef fround offshore, it is in the protected waters off Bulabog Beach where some of the recommended activities associated with Boracay such as helmet diving, snorkelling and on-water sports can be done (I will devote another post to the on and in-water activities we did do).

Tambisaan Beach.

Tambisaan Beach.

The gang at Bulabog.

The gang at Bulabog.

What's on offer at Bulabog.

What’s on offer at Bulabog.

Water activities off Bulabog Beach include Helmet Diving ...

Water activities off Bulabog Beach include Helmet Diving …

And riding on a Banana Boat.

And riding on a Banana Boat.

Bulabog, across the island at its narrowest point from White Beach’s Station 2, is also where the 7Stones Boracay Suites – probably my choice of where to stay, is to be found at. It was where we did have lunch at on the second full day in Boracay (the third on our itinerary), at the 7th Note Café – best known for its barbecues – where we did have the best meal during our stay in Boracay at. Why it would be a choice of where to stay for me is its location – which is close enough to the action, but yet far away enough from the hustle and bustle of White Beach – and perhaps the small size of the resort. And if it is the fine sand beach I want to head to, White Beach is only a short tricycle taxi ride away – which does make it “more fun in the Philippines”.

Bulabog Beach near 7Stones Suites.

Bulabog Beach near 7Stones Suites.

A tricycle taxi.

A tricycle taxi.

7Stones Suites at Bulabog Beach.

7Stones Suites at Bulabog Beach.

Bulabog Beach.

Boats at Bulabog Beach.

The trip to Boracay was made possible by Tigerair Philippines and the Philippine Department of Tourism. Tigerair now flies direct to Kalibo Airport – for more information on flights to Kalibo, do visit


Getting there:

Location information:

This is a repost of my post on Boracay Island Escapade.

A sunrise I have a lasting impression of

12 07 2013

I have enjoyed catching the sunrise ever since I watch my first, one that was over the South China Sea from Kemaman along the East Coast of Malaysia, back in the early 1970s. It was across that same sea – and the ocean beyond it, that I was to catch on of which I also have a lasting impression of – a rather spectacular one in a faraway place I would prior to that, never dreamt of going to. That sunrise was one which greeted my arrival, one January morning in 1985, into the port of Corinto on the Pacific coast of Nicaragua – the gorgeously colours of the lightening sky revealing the volcanic silhouettes tracing the part of the Ring of Fire that runs along the west coast of the country on the isthmus which connects the two large American continents with the Volcán San Cristóbal, which at 1745 metres, is the highest volcano in Nicaragua, standing out.

Sunrise over the Volcán San Cristóbal as seen from the Pacific Ocean, December 1984

Sunrise over the Volcán San Cristóbal as seen from the Pacific Ocean, December 1984

The country was then still fresh from a revolution which freed it from the U.S. supported Samoza regime – the bullet holes that riddled the walls of many of its towns and village, decorated by the symbols of revolution, did seem like they had been made only yesterday. The country was brought to the brink by the effects of a stranglehold placed by the United States which cut-off access to finance as well as to a market where the bulk of the country’s produce were traditionally exported to. What did give hope was that not all in the free world did go along with the actions of the U.S. government – their European allies refusal to participate in the sanctions was to provide the hope which the sunrise was to perhaps symbolise.

The swastika at the tenth mile

9 07 2013

One very distinct memory from a childhood of many wonderful moments to remember is of the red swastika at Somapah Village. The village was one I had many encounters with in the late 1960s and very early 1970s, stopping by or passing through it on the many journeys we made to Mata Ikan at the other end of Somapah Road where a favourite holdiay destination for my family – the Mata Ikan Government Holiday Bungalows was located.

A photograph of the old Red Swastika School along Somapah Road (source: Red Swastika School's website).

The red swastika along Somapah Road (source: Red Swastika School’s website).

The swastika belonged to the Red Swastika School, just down the road from the main part of the village. It adorned the simple single storey zinc-roofed  school building, rising above it over the entrance and never failed to catch my attention from my vantage in the back seat of the car – a symbol I would always associate with the now lost village. The memories I do have of the village and the school are largely contained in a post I had put up at the end of 2010 on the village:  Memories of the lost world that was Somapah Village. What motivated me to touch on this again is a few old photographs of the school, apparently taken during a school sports day in the 1970s, sent by a reader Mr. Alvin Lee, which follows.



The school traces its history back to the founding of the Wan Tzu School by the World Red Swastika Society at the village in 1951, built to serve residents of the rural community in the Changi 10th Mile area where Somapah Village was located and provided free education to them. Sometime in the 1950s, the name of the school was changed to the Red Swastika School – a name now well respected for its academic achievements.  Its enrollment was to grow quickly, from 300 at its starting, it had by the end of its first decade a population of some 1000 students who were accommodated in its 12 classrooms over two sessions. With the days of the village coming to an end in the 1980s the school moved to new premises in Bedok North Avenue 3 in 1981 where it still operates today.



The Great Buddha in a citadel of peace

2 07 2013

One of the amazing sights in Nara (known as Heijo-kyo or the citadel of peace), a UNESCO World Heritage Site which served as the capital of Japan from 710 to 784, must be the Great Buddha (Daibutsu) and the Great Buddha Hall (大仏殿) or Daibutsuden that houses it. The hall, measuring some 57 metres long, 50 metres wide and 48 metres high, is reputedly the world’s largest wooden building. The giant Buddha statue, measuring some 15 metres tall in the seated position, the hall houses is also said to be the world’s largest bronze Buddha image – which weighing some 500 tonnes, is thought that it consumed a substantial part of the country’s bronze production over the years it took to build it, leaving the country almost bankrupt.

The Great Buddha Hall, Daibutsuden seen from across the Kagami-ike pond.

The Great Buddha Hall, Daibutsuden seen from across the Kagami-ike pond.

The Great Buddha Hall, Daibutsuden, of the Todaiji.

The Daibutsuden which is within the Todaiji complex is reputedly the world’s largest wooden building.

The main gate into the compound housing the Daibutsuden.

The main gate into the compound housing the Daibutsuden.

The hall and the Buddha – an image of Vairocana, revered by the Kegon sect of Buddhism, serves as the main focal point of the Todaiji Temple complex, which dates back to 752. The wooden structure of the current hall, dates back to a fire induced rebuilding effort in 1688 to 1709, which saw it built to a scale of two-thirds of the 87 metre wide orginal hall (which had already been rebuilt twice previously). The current hall features a seven-bay wooden structure which encloses the 15 metre giant bronze 500 tonne statue, as well as two large images of bosatsu or bodhisattva flanking it – an addition made during the last rebuilding. The giant statue has itself been reconstructed several times – its head has been recast following fires and earthquakes. Its current head dates back to 1692.

The scale of the giant Buddha can be seen against several suited businessmen attending a ceremony being conducted on a platform below it.

The scale of the giant Buddha can be seen against several suited businessmen attending a ceremony being conducted on a platform below it.

The Buddha is flanked by two Bosatsu, added in 1709.

The Buddha is flanked by two Bosatsu, added in 1709. The Kokuzo Basatsu is found to the Great Buddha’s right.

The design of the hall, the scale of which will have any visitor in awe, features a wooden beam and bracketing structure which is thought to have been done by craftsmen from China.  It is also possible to pass around the Great Buddha, in turn thought to be the work of craftsmen from Korea. To the rear of the hall, a wooden model provides a glimpse of the original Daibutsuden. There are also two statues of heavenly guardians from the Edo Period, Koumokuten and Tamoten. Another interesting find is a pillar with a hole at the bottom of it – popular belief has it that anyone who can squeeze through the hole will attain Enlightenment or Nirvana.

Koumokuten, one of two heavenly guards from the Edo period found in the hall.

Koumokuten, one of two heavenly guardians from the Edo period found in the hall.

A view from the entrance to the Great Buddha Hall.

A view from the entrance to the Great Buddha Hall.

A child squeezes through a pillar behind the Great Buddha. Popular belief has it that anyone who can squeeze through the hole will attain Nirvana.

A child squeezes through a pillar behind the Great Buddha. Popular belief has it that anyone who can squeeze through the hole will attain Nirvana.

The hall, during my visit, did see a steady flow of visitors, both young and old, most stopping to ritually purify themselves with fresh water outside the hall. By the entrance to the hall on the outside, is a rather interesting wooden statue - that of Pindola Bharadvaja or Binzuru, a disciple of Buddha. In Japan, it is a belief that anyone ill rubbing the part of an image of Binzuru corresponding to the part of the body where the ailment is, followed by rubbing the same part on their own body after, will be cured of the ailment.

Water and water ladles for purification - a must when entering the temple.

Water and water ladles for purification – a must when entering a shrine or temple.

Joss sticks at the entrance to the hall.

Joss sticks at the entrance to the hall.

A school group visiting the hall.

Members of a school group visiting the hall.

A student visitor heading towards the exit.

A student visitor heading towards the exit.

A close-up of one of the massive wooden doors of the hall.

A close-up of one of the massive wooden doors of the hall.

A wooden statue of Pindola Bharadvaja or Binzuru, a disciple of Buddha. The belief in Japan is that anyone ill rubbing the part  of an image of Binzuru corresponding to the part of the body where the ailment is and rubbing the same part on their own body after, will be cured.

A wooden statue of Pindola Bharadvaja or Binzuru, a disciple of Buddha. The belief in Japan is that anyone ill rubbing the part of an image of Binzuru corresponding to the part of the body where the ailment is and rubbing the same part on their own body after, will be cured.

The grounds of the Daibutsuden seen during Autumn.

The grounds of the Daibutsuden seen during Autumn.

Another view of the Daibutsuden from across its grounds.

Another view of the Daibutsuden from across its grounds.

More information on the Todaiji and the Daibutsuden, as well as on the UNESCO World Heritage listing can be found at the following sites:


28 06 2013

A photograph of a group of elderly pilgrims on the final part of their ascent up a long and steep staircase to the Nigatsu-dō (二月堂) sub-complex on the slopes of Wakakusa-yama (若草山). The Nigatsu-dō is part of the Tōdai-ji (東大寺) temple complex, a UNESCO World Heritage site located in Nara – the imperial capital of Japan during the Nara Period. The Nigatsu-dō, which translates into “The Hall of the Second Month” dates back to 752, although most of what we see today was rebuilt from 1667 to 1669 after a fire destroyed the temple. For the less religious, the climb up to the Nigatsu-dō is well worth the effort – from a terrace of the main temple, one gets a breathtaking view of the Yamato Inland Plain.


A different sea of red last autumn

16 06 2013

Visiting the former Japanese Imperial capital of Kyoto last year to catch the sea of red and gold the city draws many to it each autumn for, I took the opportunity to see a different sea of red and gold – that of the amazing sight of thousands of red torii gates, which in the golden glow of the bright autumn sunshine does take on an almost golden sheen at the Fushimi Inari Shrine. The shrine is possibly one of the most visited shrines there and is popular not just with the locals – many businessmen and students visit at the start of the day before heading to the office or to school, but also with many visitors intent on catching one of the most frequently photographed sights in the city – the tunnel formed by the numerous closely spaced torii gates arranged one after the other.

The shrine is popular with many in Kyoto. Many businessmen and students visit it before heading to the office or to school.

The shrine is popular with many in Kyoto. Many businessmen and students visit it before heading to the office or to school.

The torii gates are each inscribed with the donor’s names – mostly businesses seeking the blessings of Inari – the Shinto deity of rice and fertility (also representing abundance and wealth), arranged along pathways that lead up an incline to the top of Mount Inari. The shirne also sees an interesting practice – children visit the shrine during a festival in November in the year they turn 3, 5 and 7. Besides this there are also many interesting discoveries along the way to the top of the mount – including the many images of the fox, messengers of Inari, which is hard not to miss. It is however for the amazing sight that the red torii gates do provide that makes Fushimi Inari a must visit when in Kyoto.

A poster depicting the practice in which children visit the shrine in the year they turn 3, 5 and 7.

A poster depicting the practice in which children visit the shrine in the year they turn 3, 5 and 7.

Views around Fushimi Inari:


















The golden glow of the Golden Land

6 05 2013

Suvarnabhumi Airport is probably one the the few airports in the world to which I don’t mind getting in early to catch a flight out. Besides the array of quite affordable food that is available at the terminal building, there is also the wonderful architecture of the terminal building to marvel at, particularly when the westward facing end of Concourse F catches the light of the setting sun. Bathed in the glow of sunset, the concourse of the airport, the name of which in Sanskrit translates to “Golden Land”,  does literally turn into a golden visual treat. The terminal building was designed by German born American architect Helmut Jahn and was completed in September 2006.



After dinner conversations

4 05 2013

And yes, nobody really talks to each other anymore …

277A0277b9.13 pm 29 April 2013, Chonburi City, Thailand

Monoscapes: Mount Balwang

8 04 2013

The landscape at the top of Mount Balwang, Yongpyong, South Korea in winter. The peak at 1458 metres above sea level is accessible via cable-car from Yongpyong. The mountain is part of the Baekdudaegan mountain range which runs down almost the length of the Korean Peninsula.


Autumn in Kyoto

22 11 2012

What is undoubtedly one of the best places in Asia to catch the autumn colours is the former imperial capital of Japan, Kyoto. The backdrop that the mountains, rivers, streams that surround the city which is blessed with beautifully landscaped gardens and magnificent temple complexes, provides for a magnificent setting to view the brilliant mix of red and gold that colour the city each autumn, and it is just to view the colours that thousands from far and wide descend on the city every November. The best time to see the colours is during the second half of November and I was perhaps a little too early to catch the peak of the change of colours, I did however manage to see some rather spectacular views of the autumn colours in and around the city.

November’s a busy time in and around Kyoto when many from far and wide flock to the former imperial capital just to catch koyo (紅葉)- the autumn coloured foliage.

Grounds of the Tenryu-ji Temple (天龍寺) in the Arashiyama (嵐山) area.

Garden (南芳院) near the Tenryu-ji (天龍寺).

View provided by a boat ride along the Hozugawa (保津川) or Hozu River from Kameoka (亀岡市) to Arashiyama (嵐山).

Another view of the Hozugawa (保津川).

Higashiyama (東山区).

Higashiyama (東山区) outside Ginkakuji (銀閣寺), the Silver Pavilion

Ginkakuji (銀閣寺) ,the Silver Pavilion.

A view through the window at Ginkakuji (銀閣寺) ,the Silver Pavilion.

Ginkakuji (銀閣寺) ,the Silver Pavilion with koyo and susuki (Japanese pampas grass).

Grounds of the Ginkakuji (銀閣寺) ,the Silver Pavilion.

A view of Ginkakuji (銀閣寺) ,the Silver Pavilion, from the hills in the grounds.

Another view of Ginkakuji (銀閣寺) ,the Silver Pavilion, from the hills in the grounds.

An autumn leaf falls at Ginkakuji (銀閣寺) ,the Silver Pavilion.

Along the Philosopher’s Walk (哲学の道).

Another view of the Philosopher’s Walk (哲学の道).

Otani-hombyo (大谷本廟) the mausoleum of Shinran Shonin, the founder of Jodo Shinshu (Shin Buddhism).

The Main Hall of the Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temple was established in 778. Most of the current buildings were constructed between 1631 to 1633.

Autumn evening illuminations at Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺). Many temples in Kyoto are illuminated during the autumn tourist season.

The grounds of Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺) with the three-storey pagoda.

Another part of the Kiyomizu-dera’s (清水寺) grounds.

Eikando (永観堂) Temple night illuminations.

Useful Links:

Viewing of Autumn Foliage in Japanese Culture
Kyoto Walks (JNTO)
The Philosopher’s Walk (
Sagano / Arashiyama (JNTO)
Higashiyama (JNTO)
Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion)
Tenryu-ji Temple (Japanese)
Eikando Temple
Otani-Hombyo (Japanese)
Hozugawa River Boat Ride

A walk through Japan’s largest cemetery

20 11 2012

Despite having an aversion to resting places of the dead, I found myself enjoying walks through a couple of cemeteries on a recent visit that I made to Japan with a few friends. One did have the distinction of being the largest cemetery in the country. Located on Mount Koya (高野山 Koya-san) in Wakayama Prefecture (和歌山県), that cemetery does not just contain an estimated 200,000 graves, but a site which is sacred to the Shingon School of Buddhism, being where the mausoleum of the sect’s founder, Kukai or Kobo-Daishi, is located and where he is said to lie in eternal meditation. The cemetery, together with the mausoleum at the end of a 2 kilometre walk through the cemetery is in fact a pilgrimage site for Shingon Buddhism, one of the mainstream schools of Buddhism in Japan. It part of the larger Koyasan area which again makes up part of the “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range” which was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.

A stream, the Tamagawa, marks the boundary of separating the inner sanctuary, Okunoin, the most sacred section where Gobyo, the mausoleum of Kobo Dashi or Kukai, the founder of the Japanese Shingon sect of Buddhism on Koyasan, lies.

Set in what does seem like an enchanted forest of ancient towering cedar trees, the cemetery is one of the must visit sites in the Koyasan area, which lies at the heart of Shingon Buddhism, having been where Kukai established his monastery in the 9th century – the 900m altitude valley was said to have been chosen as a retreat as its layout resembled a eight petal lotus flower with it being surrounded by eight peaks. At its height during the Edo period, it is thought that there were some 2,000 temples in Koyasan, of which only 123 exist today.

A night time view of Ichino-hashi which marks the entrance to the cemetery.

The walk through the cemetery starts with the crossing of Ichino-hashi (一の橋), a bridge which marks the entrance to the sacred site. From the bridge, a pleasant 2 kilometre walk through the air of calm provided by the cedar trees which line the well paved cobblestone path surrounded by the ordered disorder of the cemetery’s moss covered gravestones, is what it takes to reach Okunoin (奥の院). Okunoin is the inner sanctuary where Gobyo (御廟), the mausoleum of Kūkai is located and where lights of a thousand years are said to burn in some of the 10,000 lanterns found in the Toro-do (燈籠堂) or Lantern Hall which stands in front of Gobyo.

An area close to the entrance to the cemetery.

The tree-lined path through the cemetery.

The walk, does provide for many fascinating discoveries – if one has the time to look for them. There are the graves of many religious leaders, feudal lords, military commanders and more recent ones where business leaders find rest – some which do go back to 12th century. There also are several other interesting finds – one that will not be hard to locate would be the Sugatami-no-ido (姿見の井戸) or the Well of Reflections. Found immediately after the second bridge, Nakano-hashi (中の橋), legend has it that if one looks into the well and does not see his or her reflection, death will come to that person within three years.

Nakano-hashi, the second bridge.

A shrine where the statue of Asekaki Jizo (Sweating Jizo), a bodhisattva who takes the place of others in suffering, is found. To its right is the Sugatami-no-ido, the Well of Reflections.

Sugatami-no-ido, the Well of Reflections.

Moss covered gravestones.

There are also several others discoveries to be made beyond the Nakano-hashi. These include the Zenni-jochi (禅尼上智碑) – a 90 cm memorial to a Buddhist nun. It is said that one would be able to hear the cries in hell by placing one’s ear on the stone. Another one which would not be missed is a memorial to soldiers who perished in North Borneo during the second world war. That is immediately identifiable from the three flags – that of Japan, Malaysia and Australia, which hang on a flag pole at the memorial.

Memorial to soldiers who perished during the second world war in North Borneo.

A shrine in the woods.

It is not long before one comes to the Gobyo-bashi (御廟橋), the bridge over the Tamagawa – the stream which separates the most sacred inner sanctuary, Okunoin, from the rest of the cemetery. Looking beyond the bridge, the Toro-do is seen at the end of the path up a flight of steps. It is with the sacred waters of the Tamagawa that pilgrims, many dressed in white robes, cleanse themselves before entering the sanctuary. The inner sanctuary is also where the Miroku-ishi (弥勒石) or Miroku stone can be found – a short distance from the bridge. It is said that the stone feels light to the good and heavy to the sinful.

Okunoin’s Toro-do as seen from Gobyo-bashi.

Pilgrims crossing the Gobyo-bashi.

Votive tablets placed in the Tamagawa.

Crossing the Gobyo-bashi, after which photography is not permitted, one does feel a sense of inner peace. This is heightened stepping into the Toro-do where the chanting of the rows of saffron robed monks somehow adds to the peaceful atmosphere. Having found a semblance of the peace that many seek in making a pilgrimage to Okunoin, it was then time to head back. The walk towards Ichino-hashi, made longer than it might have been by the shower of hail and by the biting wind, was in no way less enjoyable (although my companions would probably disagree with me) than the walk in to Okunoin. As we cross over the Ichino-hashi we see more heading into the cemetery – the cemetery does in all probability draw a substantial portion of the 1.2 million visitors that come to Mount Koya annually, many on a spiritual journey, and some like us, just to discover the peace and beauty that only a cemetery such as this is able offer.

The cemetery also has several interesting statues.

Stone lamps line many of the paths through the cemetery.

The cemetery by night – stone lamps light the paths up.

A ‘dressed’ Jizo statue.

Another ‘dressed’ Jizo.

A grave.

Getting there:

Mount Koya (高野山 Koya-san) is quite easily accessible from Osaka via the Nankai Electric Railway’s Koya Line. Trains leave regularly from Osaka’s Namba Station and all it takes is an hour and a half by express train to Gokurakubashi, 5 minutes by funicular up to Koyasan. From Kōyasan, there are public buses to Ichino-bashi. A round trip ticket that includes the train, funicular and a two day bus ticket can be purchased at Osaka Namba station for ¥2780.

Visitors to Mount Koya have the option of a unique experience an overnight stay at one of 53 temples, such as the Shojoshin-in Temple which is just by the Ichino-hashi which my friends and I put up at. Included in the cost of accommodation is two vegetarian meals (breakfast and dinner). More information on this can be found at Japanese Guest Houses.

Resources on Koyasan / Okunoin:

Koyasan Shingon Buddhism
Kukai / Kobo-Daishi
Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range (UNESCO)
Okunoin (奥の院), the inner sanctuary
Gobyo (御廟), the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi
Toro-do (燈籠堂) or Lantern Hall
Nankai Electric Railway Koya Line
Koyasan/Gokurakubashi Station information
Nankai Electric Railway Guide on Koyasan

An uncoloured exploration of an unfamiliar place

2 09 2012

I found myself in a place I had previously not ventured to, the area centered around Sukhumvit Road where it passes through Chonburi, at the end of last week. As with any new place I was glad to have the opportunity to wander around unfamiliar streets with a camera, spending an hour or so I had before having dinner, in an uncoloured exploration that I felt would best capture the essence of what certainly are very colourful streets.

The view out the window this morning

31 08 2012

It is always a wonderful thing to be able to wake up to a magical sunrise as the one I got up to this morning in a world other than one I am familiar with …

Faces from a forgotten place

3 07 2012

This post features a selection of photographs intended to capture part of what had made the much loved Tanjong Pagar Railway Station what it was just prior to its closure, one to celebrate the many faces that provided the station with its heart and soul. The faces are ones that would be familiar, and are not just of the people who were part of the fabric the station, but also of the many that came and went and of the sights and sounds that gave the station its unique flavour, a flavour that, despite the conservation of the building as a National Monument, will fade as memories fade. The photographs are the same ones which were presented during a sharing session at the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station open house held on the afternoon of 1st July 2012 – the first anniversary of the handover of the station and the railway land to the Singapore government. The open house was held as part of the Rail Corridor Open Day and also included guided walks around Bukit Timah Railway Station.

While the building, now gazetted as a National Monument still stands, it is the memory of what had made the station what it was – the familiar sights, the people that came and went, and most of all the people who were very much a part of the fabric of the station that will with time fade.

Tanjong Pagar Railway Station as it was is a place that always will be dear to me. I have many fond memories of the station from my previous encounters, encounters that go back to the earliest days of my life. Then, it was the food stalls that magically appeared in the evenings at a car park the lights of which dimly illuminate the station’s grand façade and its four triumphal figures. That was in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was after the latter half of the 1970s that the station would become a feature in my Chinese New Year reunion dinners – my aunt who hosted the dinners moved to a flat in Spottiswoode Park just by the station and reunion dinners would not be the same without the accompaniment of the sounds of whistles and of the noisy diesel locomotives from the station. The 1990s brought me my many encounters with the station through which I made numerous trips up to the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur and back – journeys that would forever be etched in my memory. These encounters with the station, and the memorable journeys I made through it, I have attempted to capture through a series of blog posts which many of you might have already read. However if they are of interest, the posts can be found through the page “Journeys through Tanjong Pagar“.

Once familiar sights

A car belonging to the Malayan Railway, KTM, parked in front of the building.

The main hall as it looked at eye level in its latter days – a Tourism Malaysia hut was placed right in the middle of the hall.

The ticket counter in quieter days – well before the madness of the last two months descended on the station.

Waiting to buy a ticket often required some patience.

Especially when the ticketing system is down – that in my experience often happened.

Another sign one might encounter ….

We were always reminded that we had to pay not the equivalent in the local currency for the price of a ticket but one unit of the local currency for every unit of the weaker Ringgit.

And when you did finally get your hands on the ticket, you could find a seat in the main hall to pass your time away …

… which provides many opportunities for people watching …

… or as I often do, have a cup of teh tarik at the platform – a popular spot for watching the coming and going of not just the trains and the locomotives.

Access to the departure platform was through a gate that would only be opened about half an hour prior to the scheduled departure of the trains to facilitate immigration clearance. On the commuter services on which seating is not assigned, passengers would often crowd at the gate prior to departure, ready to make a dash first for the Immigration counters. After clearing Immigration and Customs, the same thing would happen at a barrier which when opened will see a mad rush of passengers to the train carriages.

Tickets would be checked and punched at the departure gate.

From which one would proceed to the immigration counters.

With the shift of Singapore’s CIQ to Woodlands in mid 1998 and the Malaysian authorities maintaining their Immigration and Customs counters at the station, passengers would effectively enter Malaysia before leaving Singapore.

Passengers boarding the last luxury E&O train to depart from Tanjong Pagar posing next to Malaysian Immigration booths.

The last E&O train to depart at the platform.

Returning home, one of the first things that would greet you (post mid 1998) as you walked to the end of the platform was the barrier before you got into the public area. Prior to the move of the SIngapore CIQ, you would first have to pass through Singapore Immigration, Customs and a narrow passage through a fenced area where K9 unit dogs would sniff passengers for smuggled narcotics.

The next thing one would encounter would be the canteen / coffee shop at which one could stop to have a meal or a drink prior to leaving. I often picked up my breakfast from the canteen after coming in on the overnight train from KL.

The canteen would also be a great place to wait for returning members of the family and friends.

It was also a wonderful place to catch up with friends over a cup of tea ….

.. or to have dinner with the family.

It would be common to see passengers with large pieces of luggage leaving the station.

The station had a hotel which closed in the 1980s. Towards the end of its life, it hosted a hostel with dormitory type double bunk bed accommodation which offered a cheap place to spend the night or even take a short rest – this closed in late 2010.

Trying to get a taxi home was always a challenge as many taxi drivers did not like to wait at the station as trains arrival times were unpredictable.

Once familiar faces

One of the first faces one would encounter driving to the station’s car park.

And if one needed to use the rest room.

One that you might have seen at the Habib Railway Book Store and Money Changer, Mr Syed Ahmad.

Mr Syed’s nephew – ‘Nazir’ would probably have been seen more frequently.

The hardworking last Station Master at Tanjong Pagar – En. Ayub.

A very helpful ticketing clerk, En. Azmi, who was posted to the station on 1st July 1990. He completed a full 21 years at the station when it ceased operations on 30th June 2011.

A few more of the familiar faces (and less familiar ones) …

Mr Mahmoodul Hasan who ran the two canteens in the station before its closure.

Some of those who assisted him at the drinks counter and the popular Ramly Burger stand.

One of the ladies from the food stall at the corner of M Hasan 2.

One of the stall assistants at the platform.

The chapati man at M Hasan 2.

One who is always ready with a smile – the Satay stall’s assistant at M Hasan 2.

And last of all one that should not be forgotten – one of the many cats the station was home to.

A journey to the north of Spain: Bilbao and the Casco Viejo

22 06 2012

2011 was an especially eventful year for me. As well as being caught up in the events that surrounded the last days of the Malayan railway through Singapore, I also had the opportunity to expand my experiences in exploring four different parts of the world, three of which I had visited for the first time. One, a journey to the north of Spain, was partly paid for through a stroke of good fortune – winning a Zuji blogger engagement effort for which I was generously rewarded.

The village of La Riera in the Picos de Europa in the Asturias. I made a journey last October to the north of Spain, a land of diverse cultures and landscapes.

I have long held a fascination for Spain, particularly its far north, fuelled by impressions I developed over the course of my childhood. I had known of the unique culture of the Basque country through my interactions with members of the Basque community here and read many tales of an ancient pilgrimage route, el Camino de Santiago or the Way of St. James. I also learnt that the northern coastline that stretched from the Basque country in the west to Galicia in the east, was one of diverse landscapes and cultures and of delectable gastronomic offerings – a region that I also knew to be one of immense natural beauty from the limited television coverage of one of the great European cycling races, the Vuelta a España.

Flying over and into an area I have long held a fascination for – the northern region of Spain.

The north of Spain is where an ancient westward pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela – el Camino de Santiago or the Way of St. James cuts through.

Thatch-roofed huts or pallozas in the village of O Cebreiro, Galicia, in the North of Spain.

The sun drenched hills at O Cebreiro a pilgrim village in Galicia close to its border with León.

It was with much anticipation that I started my journey, armed with a guidebook, as well as several guides and maps that I picked up from the very helpful Spanish Tourism Board’s office in Liat Towers, late on a Friday evening in mid October. The final leg of that journey to my entry point into the region, the Basque city of Bilbao, was via a connecting flight from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport and one that was truly magical – setting the tone perhaps for the magic of the rest of the trip. The drama of the colours of a wondrous sunrise that the flight took-off into, was one that was only surpassed by the sight out of the window that accompanied the descent into Bilbao, a heavenly sight as the flight first descended over and then in between the exposed peaks of the cloud shrouded mountains that surround the Basque city.

The dramatic sunrise over the tarmac of Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport.

Taking off into a magical sunrise.

The magic of the descent into Bilbao Airport.

The sight of two of Bilbao’s icons, ones that perhaps define modern Bilbao – the very distinct Puente de la Salve and the very recognisable Guggenheim Bilbao, greeted my arrival to the city. It was to the calm of a Saturday morning that was bathed in the brilliant sunshine that was to accompany me on much of my journey that I alighted from the airport bus. In no time I found myself in the hotel and after freshening up and a short nap, I was ready to head out into the balmy autumn day.

It was the sight of two of Bilbao’s modern icons that greeted my entry into the city.

Bilbao first impressions – the view as I stepped off the bus ….

Bilbao first impressions – Plaza Moyua.

Bilbao first impressions – seemed like I had eyes on me – lamps on a building’s façade.

With a day at my disposal before three of my travelling companions were to join me, I decided spend it taking a leisurely stroll to the historic Casco Viejo – the old town. Lying across the Río Nervión from the new town where I was putting up in, what seems like a labyrinth of streets that is the old town, is actually seven parallel streets – the Zazpikaleak or Las Siete Calles that date back to the 14th Century, intersected by several others. The maze of streets, some with names that reflect the traditional trades that once would have been found on them, is certainly worth losing oneself in, coming to life as the pre-siesta crowd fill the cafés and restaurants, spilling onto the streets.

What seems like a labyrinth of narrow streets, the Casco Viejo – the old town is actually arranged around seven medieval streets – the Zazpikaleak or Las Siete Calles, that run somewhat parallel to each other.

A view through the shadows cast on a street in the Casco Viejo.

The streets of the Casco Viejo come alive in the pre and post Siesta hours.

The back of the Teatro Arriaga, Bilbao’s opera house at the edge of the Casco Viejo. The Neo-baroque style theatre was designed by architect Joaquín Rucoba in 1890.

The ‘del Perro’ (dog’s fountain) dating from the early 19th Century – named because three lion-heads at the end of its water pipes resemble the heads of dogs.

Through the calles, one will also find several attractions including works of religious architecture, which speak of a time when all was dedicated to the greater glory of God. One which towers over the Casco Viejo is the very grand Gothic cathedral – the Catedral de Santiago situated at one corner of the Plazuela Santiago which itself dates back to the 14th Century and features a Neo-Gothic façade dating from the 19th Century which is the work of Severino de Achúcarro. Another wonderful piece of religious architecture is a church that lies on the fringe of the old town – the Iglesia San Nicolás de Bari, an 18th Century Baroque church laid on an octagonal plan. Its façade features the coat of arms of Bilbao.

Plazuela Santiago.

Catedral de Santiago (Cathedral of St. James)

Seeing the light inside the cathedral – a street lamp seen through a reflection on a glass panel shines over the sanctuary.

The façade of the Iglesia de San Nicolás de Bari, dedicated to the parton saint of sailors. The coat of arms of Bilbao can be seen above the door.

A visit to the city would of course not be complete without stumbling into the Café Iruña or indulging in some tapas – or pintxos as they are known as in the Basque country. I did just that on my way back from my initial exploration of the Casco Viejo, attracted by its charming Mudéjar tiled interior and the healthy crowd as I passed by the Jardines de Albia. The café I was to discover is an institution of sorts in the city and dates back to 1903. After a glass of cerveza and some delicious pintxos, it was back to the hotel for a much-needed rest and to plot my next adventure in a city that I certainly was glad to find myself in.

No trip to Bilbao would be complete with indulging in some pintxos (and cerveza).

The charming Mudéjar tiled interior of the Café Iruña.

A walk down a street of contrasts and contradictions

10 01 2012

Bangkok is a city that I never seem to tire of. The opportunity to wander through its ever so lively streets is something I always find hard to resist. The streets offer a wealth of opportunity for photography and for people watching, and where there I never fail to find something that does catch my eye. The streets, particularly of the new Bangkok, are also one where the contrasts and contradictions that is Bangkok becomes very apparent. It is on the streets where traditional street trades thrive next to the towering blocks of offices and glittering shopping malls, where McDonalds and Starbucks have become as much a part of the landscape as the pushcarts that once dominated the streets, and where a flow of Hijab clad women can be seen streaming past symbols of a trade Bangkok is all too well known for.

A walk or even being stuck in traffic allows a peek into the world of contrasts and contradictions that is Bangkok.

An interesting stretch with a wealth of contrasts and contradictions is a two and a half kilometre one in new Bangkok that I recently took a stroll through from the much venerated Erawan Shrine at the corner of Ratchadamri and Phloen Chit Roads, to first of a series of the many Sois that turn off Sukhumvit Road – lanes that are always waiting to be discovered. It is a walk that I had done almost three decades ago, one that sans the shade provided by the Bangkok Skytrain’s elevated track and the towering blocks that have since sprouted up seemed to be down a very different avenue. What is apparent today are the open arms with which the city and its people, still rich in tradition, have welcomed the new world with – with the unmistakable signs of Christmas dressing up much of the new world I could see in the lead up to what is a western festival.

Signs of the times. A close-up of a Christmas tree at one of the many new malls along the stretch with symbols perhaps of what Christmas has become all about in much of the Asia that has chosen to embrace it.

A group of high school students outside one of the newest shopping malls along Sukhumvit Road, Terminal 21, seen through Christmas and New Year decorations. As with much of the world - the new world finds ready acceptance with the young.

A young daughter of a street food vendor enjoys a meal from a food vendor of the new world, as her mother prepares to welcome her first customers of the day.

The draw of street fare is still there despite the arrival of the new fare found in more comfortable premises.

Grilled fish on display at a street food stall. Street food does still have its place, being a choice for many for its affordability even as McDonalds and air-conditioned foodcourts have set themselves firmly in place.

Despite the new clothes that now adorn the area, the worn out clothes that it wore when I first walked down the street is still very visible. For some reason, the clinical new world is one that seems to hold the grimy old world in a tight embrace, taking it with it on the journey into the new world that is to come. There is no doubt that Bangkok, more than any other South-East Asian capital, has ample room in its quest for modernity for the traditions it was built upon, both religious and cultural. Despite the signs of a Christian feast all around – the city is still one where its traditional religious observances and practices are very much intertwined with daily life. The Erawan Shrine at the start of the walk is one where this can be observed as steady streams of devotees to Phra Phrom kneeling to make offerings in the incense filled air at each of the Hindu deity’s four faces outnumber the flow of gawking tourists the shrine also attracts.

A steady stream of devotees make offerings through the day at the Erawan Shrine.

Resident dancers at rest at the Erawan Shrine. The dancers are engaged by devotees to Phra Phrom who have had their prayers answered.

A performance by the resident dancers of the Erawan Shrine.

Further down Phloen Chit Road, at the junction with Wireless or Witthayu Road, is a marker of a previous world that refuses to go away. One that takes us back to when much of the area was owned by Bangkok’s foremost real estate developer, Nai Lert. Resembling what many have referred to as a stone cannon stuck in the ground, a somewhat ungainly looking stump is the surviving one of six that Nai Lert had used to mark the boundaries of the land he owned (based on information at the British Embassy’s website) – part of which he sold to the British Government which had its embassy there until it was sold not too long ago to have a new shopping mall built. The marker now looks out-of-place in the shadows of the glass and steel that now threatens to engulf it.

The surviving "upturned cannon" that served as a marker to the boundaries of Nai Lert's property.

A set of flyovers appear towards the end of Phloen Chit Road – those of an Expressway doesn’t seem to have eased the crunch on the road that the flyovers now cast a huge shadow over. It is just beyond this that a railway level crossing marks where Phloen Chit Road ends and Sukhumvit Road begins. What greets the eye as one looks down the tracks is a scene typical of the railway lines in this part of the world – and one that reminds us of a Bangkok that the modernisation of the city hasn’t been able to shake off.

The new shopping malls sit side-by-side with the Bangkok that was more once more commonly seen. Food stalls squatting along the railway tracks where Ploen Chit Road meets Sukhumvit Road.

The many Sois off Sukhumvit Road that soon come up are a wonderful world to explore and where many more of Bangkok’s contradictions await discovery. Wandering through the lowest of the odd-numbered Sois, you would be forgiven for thinking that you’ve taken a wrong turn and ended up on the streets of the Middle East. Stepping back out into the main streets, one quickly realises that one’s feet are firmly planted in the City of Angels as one is quickly reminded of that side of Bangkok that the city is unfortunately infamous for.

The many Sois off Sukhumvit Road also offers many a tuk-tuk driver an opportunity to escape from Bangkok's traffic.

Besides Starbucks, the is a choice of the many watering holes for something a little stronger.

The short walk through the contrast the different worlds soon takes me to one of the latest developments on the stretch – Terminal 21 – one that promises to take the shopper on a retail journey to places far and wide. For me, it wasn’t the new mall which took me on a journey, but that two and a half kilometre walk that preceded my visit to the mall. It was a journey that perhaps started with a walk down from the docks of Klong Toey some three decades before and one that I still am taking through time, through space and through the many contrasts and contradictions of the fast changing world that I find in a city and in a part of that city that has never ceased to fascinate me.

Rambutans at a street vendor's stall off Sukhumvit Road. Beside the tourist oriented street vendors along Sukhumvit Road, there are many others that colour the streets which still cater to the local population.

Haggling with a street vegetable vendor.

The streets also offer many opportunities for people watching - a young lady in a contemplative mood seen through the maze of street food vendors.

A popcorn vendor pushing his cart down the sidewalk.

Pushing a different cart - a street vendor (smiling) helps an unfortunate motorist along Sukhumvit Road.

A dough fritter vendor at work.

Cobbler, cobbler, mend my shoe. A shopper seeks help from a sidewalk cobbler for a broken heel.

A shelter for that which provide shelter. Parasols of a street vendor rest resting against a telephone booth.

A column of motorcylists facing a very lengthy wait at a major intersection supporting themselves with the help of the kerb.

An ancient world in new Hanoi

8 01 2012

Seemingly far removed from the commotion of Hanoi’s busy streets, lies a sanctuary of serenity – one that takes one away to a Hanoi of a thousand years ago. Built first to venerate the great Chinese sage Confucius, the Van Mieu or Temple of Literature, dates back to an era in which the city that it finds around it was founded, and is a wonderfully preserved work of architecture and one that serves as icon of Hanoi’s cultural heritage and a beautiful representation of Confucian inspired architecture that has survived to this day. The Van Mieu has also greater cultural significance to Hanoi and to Vietnam, being the site of the country’s first university – it is within its grounds, not long after it was built in 1070 that a centre of learning was established in 1076 – one that served to educate the elites for a system of public administration that was greatly influenced by Vietnam’s neighbours to the north and one that functioned for some seven centuries.

The Temple of Literature offers an escape from the crowded streets of Hanoi to a beautiful ancient centre of learning.

The Van Mieu complex we find today is one that has been built over a long period and is laid out around five courtyards, each with an ornamental portal serving as an entrance. Stepping through the first, the Van Mieu Gate, even with the buzz of the weekend’s crowd that was there, the tranquillity of the Van Mieu soon overcomes you as the dissonance of the busy streets left behind quickly fades away. The crowd – flocks of pretty ladies – fresh graduates from the city’s newer universities dressed in the traditional Ao Dai behind the layers of less traditional outerwear on what was a chilly winter’s day, seemed to blend into the well manicured gardens of the first courtyard and beyond the second gate in the second courtyard.

The Van Mieu Gate which is the main entrance to the Temple of Literature complex.

The well manicured first courtyard as seen through the second gate.

At the end of the second – the third gate, Khue Van Cac or the Constellation of Literature – a much more recent addition built in 1805 is one that is hard not to notice with an upper level where four radiating suns can be seen facing the four cardinal points of the compass. Through this gate, one is confronted by what seems like a huge reflecting pool – Thien Quang Tinh or the Well of Heavenly Clarity, flanked one both sides by open sided buildings that house 82 surviving stone stelae (out of the original 112), set on pedestals of giant stone tortoises – that of those conferred with Doctorates during the 15th to the 18th centuries.

The Constellation of Literature (Khue Van Cac). The third gate leading into the third courtyard where the Well of Heavenly Clarity is located.

A lady in an Ao Dai poses at a side portal into the third courtyard.

The Well of Heavenly Clarity in the third courtyard.

Some of the 82 surviving stone stelae of scholars who passed the examinations at the Temple of Literature.

The part of the complex where Confucius is venerated lies beyond the fourth gate, one that is flanked by two stone warriors. It is at the end of the courtyard where the Temple of Confucius is found. The two incense filled buildings are ones that house the Altar of Confucius, in the Bai Duong – the open sided House of Ceremonies where the Altar of Confucius at which the Emperor and Mandarins are said to have make offerings at, and in the red lacquered building behind the Bai Duong. Behind the red of the wooden panels that line the second building that the statues of the Great Sage and his four main disciples are found.

A stone warrior stands guard at the gateway into the fourth courtyard.

The fourth courtyard with the Temple of Confucius.

Reflection of the Temple of Confucius in a pail of water.

Wooden wall panels on the Temple of Confucius.

View through the Temple of Confucius.

Wall and door panels on the Temple of Confucius.

Temple of Confucius.

Statue of Confucius in the Temple of Confucius.

Inside the Temple of Confucius.

Beyond the Temple of Confucius, the fifth and last of the courtyards where the Quoc Tu Giam – the academy was located. The original buildings were destroyed by French bombing during the 1940s and much of what can be seen today is a reconstruction carried out in 2000. In the main building at the end of the courtyard, the altars to three of the Ly Dynasty emperors are found. On either side of the buildings, there is also a huge drum and a huge brass bell housed in two pavilion like structures – popular spots for those seeking a photo opportunity.

Altar to one of the Ly Dynasty Emperors in the reconstructed Quoc Tu Giam - the National Academy which was established in 1076 to educate Mandarins.

In the two hours I spent exploring the Van Mieu, it did feel as if I had lost myself in that ancient world that it had emerged from. Stepping back into the world that Hanoi has now become, I felt first a realisation and then a sense of wonderment of what I had just emerged from – a significant piece of the history of the country that I was visiting, one of a beauty and elegance that is a joy to behold, and one that goes far back to a time long before the country I am from was even put on the map.

Shadow and light - inside the Quoc Tu Giam.

A view through a screen towards the fifth courtyard.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,155 other followers

%d bloggers like this: