We have lift-off, NASA – A Human Adventure opens today

19 11 2016

Space exploration, fuelled by the cold war rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, made significant progress in the 1950s and 1960s. As a child of the 1960s, I was caught up in its excitement of it and especially of its most significant outcome – the landing of the first man on the moon in July 1969. The space programmes that led to the landing had itself generated huge interest during the decade. It was a space exploration flavoured decade in many ways and I took great satisfaction in rocket shaped ice-lollies, ice-cream packed in a Mercury spacecraft inspired container and on getting my hands on moon-landing inspired action transfer sets. For a child it seemed a most exciting of times; times that certainly came back to me visiting a preview of NASA – A Human Adventure, which opens today (19 November 2016) at the ArtScience Museum.


A Mercury Spacecraft, the first US manned spacecraft.


The exhibition, which is arranged around five galleries, takes visitors into a fascinating journey through space exploration and starts with the dreams humankind had long had of venturing into the unknown. There is an amazing collection of over 200 artefacts on display, several of which have flown in space, connected with both the Soviet and the NASA efforts. There also is get a chance to get up close to several training modules and full or large scale reconstructions of space craft including one of the Space Shuttle’s front section in which the flight deck and the mid-deck – where the crew eats, sleeps and works, complete with a vacuum toilet.


The first gallery – which tells us all about the Dreamers.


A re-creation of the Space Shuttle’s Flight Deck.

The Space Race, prompted by the Cold War rivalry between the Soviet Union and the US, is well documented in the second gallery, Go Fever. The intense rivalry provided much impetus for the rapid progress made by both countries in  space exploration and resulted in the first manned flights and the eventual moon landing. A model of Sputnik, the first satellite, which started the Space Race in earnest is on display. The early lead that the Soviets took is also seen in several rarely seen Soviet space artefacts and in a remembrance of the first human in space, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.


A model of Sputnik – the very first artificial satellite, launched by the Soviet Union. The reflection on it is that of Go Fever, the second gallery.


The Soviet Space programme put the first man in Space – Yuri Gagarin, who is remembered in Go Fever.


Soviet space programme artefacts – including a briefcase carried by Yuri Gagarin into space.

The exhibition has three other galleries, Pioneers, Endurance and Innovation – tracing the evolution of rocket technology, how the challenges of space travel were overcome and how ground breaking technologies have been created through the programme. There is also a rather interesting art installation, The Indonesia Space Science Society by Indonesian artist, Venzha Christ that includes a 3 metre sculpture and invites visitors to listen to space.


A scale-model of the very long Saturn V rocket.


The Jupiter nose cone – launched into space and recovered from the sea – the experimental nose cone was a crucial step in development of re-entry vehicles – necessary for manned space flights.


Titan I LR-87 rocket engine.


The installation by Venzha Christ.

A highlight of the exhibition is the G-Force Astronaut Trainer ride, which simulates the flight of the 1961 Liberty Bell 7 with forces of up to 2G. The ride takes up to four and costs $6 on weekdays (Mondays to Thursdays) and $9 during the weekends.


The G-Force Astronaut Trainer Ride.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the ArtScience Museum is also running the Art and Science of Space season. Several programmes are lined up including an Insights Tour during the opening weekend, given by Jukka Nurminen – an avid aeronautics enthusiast and the producer and curator of the exhibition. Two sessions will be held at 11.30am  lasting an hour on 19 and 20 Nov, which will be complimentary to ticket holders but limited to 25 per session (stickers will be given out 5 minutes before the tour begins). There are also public guided tours on 25 Nov at 3-4pm and on 27 Nov at 11.30am-12.30pm. A series of workshops will also be held. The exhibition runs until 19 March 2017 and more information on it, its programmes and ticketing can be found at the exhibition’s website.


Jukka Nurminen, Producer and Curator of the exhibition.

More exhibits:




A Soviet lunar vehicle.


Apollo Lunar Roving Vehicle.


Moon rock collection case, bags, a glove and a boot.



An Apollo survival kit.


Command compartment of a Gemini Spacecraft.


A command module.


Apollo Command Module.


Space Shuttle front section.


An actual unused leg for the Apollo lunar landing module


Film shot by Apollo astronauts.


A Hasselblad camera of the type used for lunar operations.


TV camera of type used for lunar operations.


Lithium hydroxide canister for removing carbon dioxide. This featured in the Apollo 13 near tragedy that left the Command Module with limited electricity supply. To save power in the Command Module that was crucial for reentry, the Lunar Module was kept attached as a “lifeboat”. The Lunar Module did not have sufficient LiOH canisters and ground engineers very quickly found a way make join the rectangular canisters from the Command Module to the cylindrical canisters of the Lunar Module.


An flight computer – which weighed about 100 kg.


A photograph of the Apollo Lunar Module.


A replica of the module with the triangular window seen in the photograph above.


An actual Command Module parachute for descent back to earth – notice the burns from reentry on it.


A heavily built Command Module front hatch.


Models of Hubble and the ISS.


9-11 14 years on

11 09 2015

While we in Singapore are distracted this 11 September by the first General Election since Lee Kuan Yew passed on, the United States and much of the World will be remembering a day 14 years ago that must not be forgotten.

The sun rises on a new Manhattan skyline.

The sun rises on a new Manhattan skyline (seen from Hoboken, New Jersey).

14 years on, the United States and New York City seems to have since assumed a air of normalcy, at least from what I saw of the city in April. Having been the worst of the  cities in the U.S. to be hit by the savage acts of terrorism on 11 September 2001, it does seems well on the road to recovery – even if the events are indelibly etched into the psyche of every New Yorker. Ground Zero is today being regenerated and represents the resilience of the American spirit and much like a phoenix that has risen from the ashes, a new and taller structure has risen, One World Trade Center. That now stands as the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.

Lower Manhattan in 1989 with the Twin Towers which were brought down by two aircraft on September 11 2001.

Lower Manhattan in 1989 with the Twin Towers which were brought down by two aircraft on September 11 2001.

Lower Manhattan today with One World Trade Center standing tall.

Lower Manhattan today with One World Trade Center standing tall.

Rebuilding the World Trade Center

Ground Zero in April, as seen from the yard of St. Paul's Chapel.

Ground Zero in April, as seen from the yard of St. Paul’s Chapel.

Work to complete One World Trade Center.

Work to complete One World Trade Center.

Another look at One WTC.

Another look at One WTC.

Another structure coming up at Ground Zero.

Cranes working on another structure coming up at Ground Zero.

Remembering 9-11

A thousand origami paper cranes folded by school children in Japan. The cranes relate to the story of Sadako Sasaki and the 1000 origami paper cranes.

A thousand origami paper cranes folded by school children in Japan. The cranes relate to the story of Sadako Sasaki and the 1000 origami paper cranes.

The Bell of Hope by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Mayor of London on the first anniversary of 9/11. Cast by the same company that made the Liberty Bell, it stands in the yard of St. Paul's Chapel near Ground Zero.

The Bell of Hope by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Mayor of London on the first anniversary of 9/11. Cast by the same company that made the Liberty Bell, it stands in the yard of St. Paul’s Chapel near Ground Zero.

An altar to the victims inside St. Paul's Chapel.

An altar to the victims inside St. Paul’s Chapel.

Another memorial inside St. Paul's Chapel.

Another memorial inside St. Paul’s Chapel.


A cross forged from material found in the rubble.

A cross forged from material found in the rubble.

The interior of St. Paul's.

The interior of St. Paul’s.

One of two reflecting pools each positioned where the North and South Tower once stood as part of the National September 11 Memorial.

One of two reflecting pools each positioned where the North and South Tower once stood as part of the National September 11 Memorial.




Drunk and dancing on a Friday morning

19 05 2013

Coming from a somewhat sedate Singapore where, despite its rich multi-cultural make-up, religious and cultural celebrations are generally calm and controlled affairs, finding myself caught in one of the many colourful street celebrations that take place in the countries around is always an experience to remember. I was in Macau recently to catch not just one, but two of the larger celebrations that takes place on the streets of the former Portuguese colony around the month of May. The first, perhaps more of a calm and contemplative affair, the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, takes place on 13 May every year. The second is celebrated with a drunken frenzy on the streets. That, the feast of the Drunken Dragon, takes place every year on the 8th day of the 4th Chinese lunar month which fell on 17 May this year.

The feast of the Drunken Dragon is celebrated with a drunken frenzy on the streets of Macau.

The feast of the Drunken Dragon is celebrated with a drunken frenzy on the streets of Macau.

The Drunken Dragon Festival is definitely a spectacle for photographers.

The Drunken Dragon Festival is definitely a spectacle for photographers.

The festival, Tchoi Long Chit (醉龍節 or 醉龙节) – as it is spelled in Cantonese in Macau, would have its roots in neighbouring Zhongshan, Guangdong Province where it is thought to have been celebrated since the Song Dynasty and may have been celebrated in Macau since the reign of Emperor Kangxi during the Qing Dynasty based on information at the website of the Macau Government Tourist Office (MGTO) and is described in the following manner:

… a very strange festival if compared with the other major Chinese festivals. It dates from the misty past from the Kangxi Kingdom of the Qing Dynasty. Praying to the Buddha for help against a disastrous plague, villagers were carrying his statue when suddenly a giant python leaped out of the river on to the bank, blocking the way. A Buddhist monk slashed at the monster, cutting it into three pieces which were tossed into the river. 

The pieces writhed about and then, amid a great wind and thunder, they flew up into the sky. Miraculously, the people recovered from the plague and the turf which has been stained with the creature’s blood proved to be unusually fertile. Believing that they had been saved by a divine dragon, the people carved its image and at the annual festival when the Buddha is bathed they drank wildly and danced with the dragon.

The fishermen associations organize this festival, which start in the morning in the Kuan Tai Temple near S. Domingos Market (near Senado Square), where men perform a drunken dance with wooden heads and tails of a dragon. Then, they go on the direction of the Inner Harbour and pay a visit some shops and piers on the waterfront. At each stop they drink wine until they are not able to go on. All the participants and observers end the day with a great dinner.

Participants arriving at the Sam Kai Vui Kun Temple, the starting point of the street celebration.

Participants arriving at the Sam Kai Vui Kun Temple, the starting point of the street celebration.

Participants gather at the temple at around 8 in the morning.

Participants gather at the Kuan Tai Temple near Senado Square at around 8 in the morning.

Wooden head and tail sections of dragons lie in wait at the Kuan Tai Temple.

Wooden head and tail sections of dragons lie in wait at the Kuan Tai Temple.

A monk blessing offerings at the Kuan Tai Temple.

A monk blessing offerings at the Kuan Tai Temple.

The celebration in Macau of the “strange” festival sees participants start with prayers and blessings at the Sam Kai Vui Kun or Kuan Tai Temple – about half an hour before a ceremony proper is held in a tent in Senado Square at 9 am. It is at the temple where participants collect the two dragon pieces in pairs – at which many are already visibly intoxicated, downing cans of beer and blowing mouthfuls of the liquid into the air – making for a spectacle best observed up close as both observers and jostling photographers (and their equipment) risk getting a splashing from the alcohol laden spray and mist that is propelled into the air.

The celebrations are best observed close-up but be prepared to jostle with the frenzy of photographers eager to capture the best shots at the risk of getting their equipment wet and sticky.

The celebrations are best observed close-up but be prepared to jostle with the frenzy of photographers eager to capture the best shots at the risk of getting their equipment wet and sticky.

Prayers are also offered.

Prayers are also offered.

Participants collecting the dragon pieces.

Participants collecting the dragon pieces.

The participants and their dragons seek blessings at the temple.

The participants and their dragons seek blessings at the temple.

A participant offering a joss stick.

A participant offering a joss stick.

Participants downing cans of beer outside the Kuan Tai Temple.

Participants downing cans of beer outside the Kuan Tai Temple.

And spray mouthfuls of it into the air.

And spray mouthfuls of it into the air.

The ceremony in Senado Square is one at which the participants are introduced before lion dance lions have their eyes dotted to bring them to life after which the participants perform a dance ritual in a prelude to the drunken journey through the streets.

Participants being introduced during the ceremony.

Participants being introduced during the ceremony.

An introduction being made.

An introduction being made.

Red cloth is tied to the dragons.

Red cloth is tied to the dragons.

Lion dance lions await the eye-dotting ceremony which brings them to life.

Lion dance lions await the eye-dotting ceremony which brings them to life.

The eye-dotting ceremony.

The eye-dotting ceremony.

A jar of wine and wooden dragons for the ritual dance before the participants set off.

A jar of wine and wooden dragons for the ritual dance before the participants set off.

Participants performing a dance ritual.

Participants performing a dance ritual …

... before setting off ...

… before setting off …

At this point, the participants seem to already have difficulty keeping upright – that however does not stop them from getting organised before the journey through the cobblestone streets begins, the younger ones – some boys, lead the procession in a martial art inspired dance, wooden dragons in hand. Even on the move, the action does not stop – the men continue to down jars of wine, spraying some of the contents of the jars into the air. As they make their way, occasionally taking a wrong turn, they stop at shops where offerings placed on stools are left at the entrances, moving the dragons in a way that made it appear that they were greedily devouring what was left on the stools. The dragons enter the shops before continuing on their way – a dancing lion dance takes the place vacated as firecrackers are lit as those in the crowd put their hands over their ears in anticipation.

Even in a state of drunkennesssome organising has to be done.

Even in a state of drunkennesssome organising has to be done.

The participants set off ...

The participants set off …

A drummer accompanies the participants.

A drummer accompanies the participants.

The procession of participants in martial art inspired dance makes its way through the narrow streets off Senado Square.

The procession of participants in martial art inspired dance makes its way through the narrow streets off Senado Square.


Stopping along at shops along the way outside which offerings are made.

Stopping along at shops along the way outside which offerings are made.






A lion dance follows the participants.

A lion dance follows the participants.

I follow for a distance, reeking of not just of the sticky alcoholic residue a deposit of which was left on my skin, clothes and equipment but also of the mix of perspiration and rain which fell earlier that I was completely drenched in. After some three quarters of an hour running after the drunken men I decided to break away. Despite the sticky mess my equipment and I were in, I would have most willingly continued if it wasn’t for a gluttony motivated bus ride I wanted to make to Fernando’s in Hac Sa Beach in Coloane – after which the Tam Kong Festival celebrations in Coloane Village beckoned. The very unique way in which the festival is celebrated must count as one of my more memorable experiences and one which I certainly am thankful to have remained sober enough to have been able to observe.



Mixed with the crowd of curious tourists and photographers are many locals who line the streets to observe the procession.

Mixed with the crowd of curious tourists and photographers are many locals who line the streets to observe the procession.

Information on the festival and its origins:

Drunken Dance (about the origins of the festival in Zhongshan)

Feast of Drunken Dragon (China Central Television – CCTV video report)

MGTO Calendar of Events

The Feast of Our Lady of Fatima in Macau

16 05 2013

The thirteenth of May marks the Roman Catholic feast of Our Lady of Fatima and is the day in 1917 when the Virgin Mary made the first of her six appearances to three children in a remote village north of Lisbon near Fátima. Widely commemorated especially by churches in the Portuguese tradition, the feast is also one in which we see the rich Portuguese heritage of Macau being celebrated. Although followers of a religion introduced by its former masters number only 5% of the total population in the one-time Portuguese territory, it is very much one which cannot escape the eye in Macau, with not just its many beautiful churches and religious buildings  in clear sight, but also in the many ways in which the faith manifests itself.

The feast of Our Lady of Fatima is one way in which the Portuguese heritage of Macau is celebrated.

The feast of Our Lady of Fatima is one way in which the Portuguese heritage of Macau is celebrated.

The congregation streaming out of St. Dominic's Church in Senado Square during the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima.

The congregation streaming out of St. Dominic’s Church in Senado Square during the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima.

The Bishop of Macau, José Lai, celebrates mass at St. Dominic's Church before the procession.

The Bishop of Macau, José Lai, celebrates mass at St. Dominic’s Church before the procession.

The feast in Macau is an important date in the Special Administrative Region’s calendar of religious celebrations. The commemoration of the feast day in Macau involves a huge religious procession in which an image of the Our Lady of Fatima is carried followed by many devotees who are not just from the local community but also many who come from far and wide.

Our Lady of Fatima watches over the faithful in St. Dominic's Church during mass.

Our Lady of Fatima watches over the faithful in St. Dominic’s Church during mass.

One of the flower girls who lays the path taken by the procession with rose petals.

One of the flower girls who lays the path taken by the procession with rose petals.

The procession starts inside St. Dominic's Church.

The procession starts inside St. Dominic’s Church.

The commemoration which starts with the celebration of mass at St. Dominic’s Church in Senado Square, sees the famous square turn into a sea of people and candlelight as thousands of Catholics follow a statue of the Virgin, placed on a bed of roses, as it is carried on a two and a half kilometre route from St. Dominic’s to the Church of Our Lady of Penha. The procession, during which the Rosary is recited and hymns sung, makes its way from the square through narrow streets by the square up to the Cathedral. From the Cathedral, it turns down to the Avenida da Praia Grande on which it makes its way south before turning west to the Avenida da Republica. The final third of the route involves an uphill climb up the steep road to Penha Hill on which Our Lady of Penha chapel is perched.

The start of the procession.

The start of the procession.

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The procession making its way through Senado Square.

The procession making its way through Senado Square.

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The procession is a moving experience for anyone attending and ends with a Benediction which is held at the entrance of the Church of Our Lady of Penha. Following this the congregation streams into the church to receive a rose which comes from the bed of roses the statue of Our Lady is carried on.

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The statue being brought into Our Lady of Penha Church.

The statue being brought into Our Lady of Penha Church.

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Benediction takes place outside Our Lady of Penha Church.

Benediction takes place outside Our Lady of Penha Church.

The congregation making their way into the church.

The congregation making their way into the church.

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Inside the church the members of the congregation are presented with a rose from the bed of roses the image of Our Lady is carried on..

Inside the church the members of the congregation are presented with a rose from the bed of roses the image of Our Lady is carried on..

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Three children who were selected to represent  Lúcia, Jacinta and Francisco, the three children Our Lady appeared to having a photograph taken.

Three children who were selected to represent Lúcia, Jacinta and Francisco, the three children Our Lady appeared to having a photograph taken.

Dances in Macau’s night sky

17 09 2012

Fireworks have to be one of the best gifts that the Middle Kingdom has given us. A show does always seem to bring out a celebratory mood on any occasion – even when there is no occasion … the explosive burst of colours is in itself a celebration. I for one have long held a fascination for fireworks since my youthful days watching them from the window of my flat in Toa Payoh. And now in my second childhood (perhaps third or fourth), displays still captivate me and I often chase them whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Fireworks displays never fail to put audiences in a celebratory mood.

I found myself not having to chase one of my more recent encounters … being a participant on a trip to Macau that I had the good fortune of being on. The trip, sponsored and hosted by the Macau Government Tourist Office (MGTO), coincided with the annual celebration of fireworks – the Macau International Fireworks Display Contest, which this year is in its 24th edition. That it was hosted by the MGTO, also meant that the group I was in, were able to watch the pyrotechnic displays from a comfortable position and unobstructed position in a reserved area at the Macau Tower Outdoor Plaza.

The judges for the contest seated at the Outdoor Plaza.

Entertainment at the Outdoor Plaza in between the two displays.

This year’s edition of the Macau International Fireworks Display Contest sees 10 teams attempting to outdo each other in painting the night sky over the Pearl River Estuary between the Macau Peninsula and Taipa Island, each in a choreographed show of pyrotechnic bursts accompanied by music. Taking place over a period of some five weeks from September to early October, the 24th Macau International Fireworks Display Contest sees the displays of two teams on each of the Saturdays in September, and that of the last two on 1 October, China’s National Day, in a contest that sees the participation of teams from Korea; Thailand; Taiwan, China; United States; Portugal; France; Japan; Australia; Italy and Mainland China. This annual contest is supported and sponsored by the MGTO with a subsidy given to the participating teams for fireworks. This year sees the participation of teams from France and Italy for the first time, and boasts several well-established names in pyrotechnic displays including the Australian company which was responsible for the fireworks during the opening and closing of Sydney 2000.

Four of the bloggers in the group: (from L to R) Valyn, Joey, Chun See and Yiwei.

After a short ceremony at the Outdoor Plaza, the contest got underway. Featuring two teams on opening evening, the Korean team represented by Woori Fireworks Inc and the team from Thailand, Thailand Fireworks, the audience which also included guests to a BBQ Dinner Buffet which is served to coincide with fireworks nights, was treated to two wondrous 14 minute long shows which saw the colourful bursts dancing to music the teams had specially selected for their respective shows. The displays by the two teams were certainly well planned and choreographed and despite not having a remote release for it, I decided to attempt using the Lumix DMC-GF5 camera that Panasonic had kindly provided for our use during the trip to capture some stills of the displays using the self-timer, the results of which are seen in the sequences of photographs below. The sequence by the Korean team was a little more dynamic and alternated between large and small bursts and capturing them did prove quite a challenge, whereas the Thai display I thought had prettier and subtler combinations of fireworks with lengthier pauses in between – which presented another set of challenges, particularly in anticipating when the bursts would start.

On the way back to the hotel … the bloggers, and even the bus, were in an exuberant and colourful mood!

Although exhausted from what was a very long day (plus the fact that I only got two hours of sleep due to packing at the very last minute for the trip), I must say that enjoyed watching and trying to photograph the two displays, the likes of which I have only got to see up close and unobstructed on very few occasions before … an occasion that will certainly long be remembered …

Performance by Woori Fireworks Inc of Korea

Performance by Thailand Fireworks

The visit to Macau was made possible by the kind sponsorship of MGTO, flights have been sponsored by Tiger Airways with check-in baggage allowances included. The visit to the Macau Tower for the 24th Macau International Fireworks Display Contest was also made possible by Macau Tower.

All photographs of fireworks in this post were taken using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF5 camera.

Useful links:

Macau Government Tourist Office
Tiger Airways
Macau Tower
24th Macau International Fireworks Display Contest

Note: this is a repost of my post on the omy.sg My Macau Experience 2012 site which sees 10 bloggers share experiences of their visit to Macau. Readers will get a chance to vote for their favourite My Macau Experience 2012 blogger and stand a chance to win $1000 worth of Macau travel vouchers. Voting starts on 28 September 2012 and details can be found at the My Macau Experience 2012 Voting page.

Step into a world of wizards, spells and strange creatures

3 06 2012

Knowing how fanatical fans of Harry Potter can be, many would have looked forward to yesterday’s opening of Harry Potter: The Exhibition at the ArtScience Museum. The exhibition, making its debut in Asia, is one that gives visitors not just a firsthand look at hundreds of costumes and props that were actually used on set for the series of Harry Potter films, but an experience of Harry Potter’s world – the exhibits are placed in immersive themed settings inspired by Hogwarts locations that transports the visitor right into them. I had a glance at all this – even though I would not say I am a fan, on Friday – before the exhibition actually opened … I was among a group, who were provided with an exclusive tour of it organised by the kind folks of the ArtScience Museum for a select group that included a group of fans and several lifestyle bloggers. That not only allowed me to see the exhibition before the crowds descended on it, I also had the privilege of hearing all about the exhibition straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak – the exhibition’s creator, Mr Eddie Newquist, led the tour – with the enthusiasm of an excited child showing off a prized toy I must say. Accompanying Mr Newquist was the ArtScience Museum’s Executive Director, Mr Nick Dixon.

My introduction to the world of Harry Potter at the ArtScience Museum.

The tour was preceded by a briefing and Q&A session during which we were introduced to Mr Newquist and Mr Dixon. There was also a surprise in store especially for the fans present – two very popular members of the cast, identical twins James and Oliver Phelps, who played the Weasley Twins – Fred and George, made an appearance and were kind enough not only to take questions, but also pose for photographs with the lucky fans present.

The identical twin pair of James and Oliver Phelps who played the Weasley twins in the Harry Potter films are in town for the opening of Harry Potter: The Exhibition at the ArtScience Museum.

Mr Dixon (extreme left) with the Phelps twins and Mr Newquist.

Wizard wannabe, host Dominic Lau, waving an imaginary wand ….

The tour soon followed. We headed down to the B2 level of the museum where the entire floor has been devoted to the exhibition. Stepping through into the exhibition, it is the Sorting Hat that the visitor encounters – that put the few who volunteered in their places (the hat places entrants to Hogwarts – the school of wizardry in which Harry is enrolled in and where his adventures centre around, in one of the school’s four houses). We next walked into a mist. And, as a figure with a lamp beckoned us through, the shape of a locomotive becomes visible – that of the Hogwarts Express. That, signalled the commencement of the journey into a magical fantasy world of wizards, spells and strange creatures … a world that until now, only existed to me on the movie screens.

Harry, Ron and Hermione beckoning the visitor into the passageway that leads to the entrance …

I soon found myself totally absorbed in Harry’s world, surrounded by not just its paraphernalia, but also by the places we would have found them in: the Gryffindor common room, Hogwarts classrooms, the Forbidden Forest and the Great Hall … It would certainly be a thrill for many to get up close to many familiar items which include in the Gryffindor Boys’ Dormitory, Harry Porter’s and Ron Weasley’s bunk beds, their trunks, costumes, wands … Harry’s ‘personal’ items here include his acceptance letter into Hogwarts, the Marauder’s Map and the pair of glasses that he wore …

Harry Potter™ and Ron Weasley™ costumes and artifacts that appeared throughout the Harry Potter films © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Harry Potter’s eyeglasses, Hogwarts™ acceptance letter, the Marauder’s Map and his wand © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

There are many opportunities along the way for interaction with some of the exhibits – pull a Mandrake from its pot in the Herbology vignette, toss a Quaffle in the Quidditch area, and tour Hagrid’s hut – where one can have a feel of sitting in Hagrid’s armchair. I found Hagrid’s hut particularly enchanting, and in it was easy to imagine that I was in the fantasy world expecting Hagrid to walk through at any moment.

Recreation of Hagrid’s hut © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Costumes worn during a Quidditch™ match © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Pull your own Mandrake in the Herbology vignette © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

There is also an opportunity to come face-to-face with many of the magical creatures in the Forbidden Forest like Buckbeak the Hippogriff, a Hungarian Horntail dragon, centaurs, and a giant Acromantula. The Buckbeak prop we were told was a study model that could nod to allow the cast to get acquainted with the creature – most of the footage involving Buckbeak used was generated through computer animation. The study model we were also informed has tens of thousands of feathers that were actually put in by hand.

Buckbeak™ the Hippogriff as seen in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban™ © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

A trip to Harry Potter’s world would of course not be complete without a walk on the dark side in the Dark Forces gallery … where Voldemort and his death eaters await … Six of Voldermort’s Horcruxes – including, for the first time in the exhibition, Nagini, his serpent and Tom Riddle’s diary can also be found here. There is also that chance for the visitor to hear Voldemort’s spine-chilling voice calling out to them, if they find themselves in the right spot when in the dark side …

Harry Potter: The Exhibition, is created by Global Experience Specialists, Inc. (GES) in partnership with Warner Bros. Consumer Products, will be displayed at ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands from 2 June 2012 through 30 September 2012. For tickets and more information, visit www.marinabaysands.com/artsciencemuseum. Exhibition specific information can be found at ArtScience Museum’s Harry Potter: The Exhibition webpage.

Hundreds of screaming girls and a show of hands

25 05 2012

I was at Clarke Quay last evening to catch some wonderful independent acts perform live on stage at the first day of the 3-day Music Matters Live event. It being K-Pop Night Out, hundreds of screaming girls holding placards and iPads coloured the scene around the Main Stage. Among the performances that I caught were indie-folk duo Minor Soul from Hong Kong – who are produced by Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, Natasha Duarte from Australia who was performing for the first time outside of Australia, and K-Pop’s Rhythm King and seven member BTOB.

Indie-folk duo Minor Soul who are produced by the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart.

Natasha Duarte from Australia.

Guitarist for Natasha Duarte.


Rhythmking Fans.


There were hundreds of screaming girls!

There was a show of hands in more ways than one!


Music Matters 2012: A Diverse Live Experience

The show will be kick-started on the main stage by a hip hop showcase from Korea on May 24. Drunken Tiger, a pioneer of the genre, will be performing alongside the ‘Queen of Soul’ t Yoon Mi Rae. They will be accompanied by heavyweights such as the hot idol group M.I.B, rapper and hip hop prince J’Kyun and DJ Clazzi of the experimental genre-defying project Clazziquai. One half of dynamic hip hop duo 2wins, Rhythmking will also be appearing as well as BTOB, an energetic vocal group with seven members and a massive fanbase.

Aussie BBQ will be held at Beer Market on May 25 and will feature some of Australia’s best talents. Epic stadium rockers Pandorum, rising alternative rock band This Sanctuary and the classically trained singer-songwriter Kate Miller Heidke. Canada will also have a strong presence in Music Matters Live. Following last year’s arrival of Simple Plan on Singapore’s shores, Canadian Blast will be held at Cuba Libre featuring soulful singer and acoustic performer Peter Katz, alien surf rockers Hill & The Sky Heroes, rapper Manafest and USS, one of Canada’s top indie rock acts.

Singapore will also be well represented. Inch Chua, who has performed at massive festivals such as SXSW, will be featured. The local line-up also includes The Great Spy Experiment, who quite recently rocked the stage at Singapore Day in New York City and The Auditory Effect, a band whose music is a dynamic fusion of high energy, style and groovy beats.

All performances will be held at the main stage at Clarke Quay, Beer Market, China One, Crazy Elephant, Cuba Libre, Forbidden City by Indochine, Shuffle and The Arena. Gigs start at 7:30pm and end at 2am. For updates on the gig schedule, visit http://www.facebook.com/MusicMattersLive.

This music festival aims to showcase to Singapore and the region many of today’s greatest breakthrough bands, irrespective of national and cultural differences. Access to most acts will be free, encouraging attendees to open their minds to a journey of musical discovery. No one will be left out as all the line-up for the main stage will be broadcast live over Youtube for the first time, making the audience limitless.

Aside from the themed nights on the main stage, expect standout performances from festival favourite Midnight Youth (NZ), indie-folk twosome Minor Soul (HK) who are produced by the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, post-punk act Aftermiles (Indonesia) and many, many more.

Music Matters Live is just one segment of All That Matters, a convention and platform for discussion on music, technology and media. The programme is filled with talks by esteemed members of these industries including Bob Ezrin, the legendary producer who has worked with the likes of Pink Floyd on their landmark album ‘The Wall’ and KISS. Further information and the full schedule can be found at WWW.ALLTHATMATTERS.ASIA.

The sun rises on a Sembawang tradition

5 04 2012

The Panguni Uthiram festival is a Hindu festival that is celebrated annually during the full moon of the Tamil month of Panguni. In Singapore, this is celebrated at the Holy Tree Sri Balasubramaniar Temple, now located at Yishun Industrial Park A. The celebration of the festival in the area traces its history back to 1967 when the temple was located off Canberra Road which was then part of the Royal Navy Naval Base in Sembawang. More information can be found on a previous post, A lesser known Hindu festival with a Kavadi procession: Panguni Uthiram, and also on the Holy Tree Sri Balasubramaniar Temple’s website.

Photographs taken at Sunrise today of this year’s Panguni Uthiram

Thaipusam at Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple

7 02 2012

Having photographed the procession of Kavadis on the streets over the last two Thaipusam celebrations in Singapore, as well as with Thaipusam falling on a work day this year, I decided to set off early this year to take a look at the preparations of the Kavadi bearers at Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Serangoon Road at the break of day. The colourful Hindu festival during which ‘Kavadis‘ or burdens, some which involve piercing of various parts of the body, are borne by devotees, is one which captivated me as a child and one that still contiunes to fascinate me to this day. It can possibly be considered to be the last authentic religious festival that is still enacted on the streets in Singapore – albeit with some restrictions which give it less of an atmosphere than celebrations that take place in our northern neighbour Malaysia.

Extreme action on the Bay

9 12 2011

This weekend will see some Extreme action returning to Marina Bay as Singapore plays host to the 9th Leg and grande finale of the 2011 Extreme Sailing Series™ – the second time the Extreme 40 circuit will be seen at Marina Bay, the first time being in December 2009. The race will see ten teams featuring 40 of the world´s best sailors racing from Wednesday 7 December to Sunday 11 December 2011 in what is the final and deciding round of the 2011 season. The race will commence at 2pm on each day with the 9th to the 11th being public days, and action can be caught at the Extreme Race Village which is located at the site of the Singapore Flyer, which will be opened to the public from Friday to Sunday.

The Extreme 40 Boat

The creators of the Extreme 40 took the biggest, fastest sailing boat in the Olympics — then made it twice as big and even faster. And no, brakes do not come as standard… The concept of Extreme 40 is to bring the sailing to the public and not the other way round.
The Extreme 40 catamaran is a scaled-up version of the former Olympic class Tornado, all of the dimensions are relative to the Tornado, it’s just twice as big and incredibly fast. Both light -for better speed and acceleration potential – and very stiff – to withstand the huge efforts put on the structure – the Extreme 40s are made of a honeycomb core trapped between two carbon fiber skins. The stability is provided by the shape of the structure, the Extreme 40 being a “rectangle” sitting on the water, but things change very quickly when the wind kicks in and one hull starts to fly: it’s a treat for spectators, and a real challenge for the crew who have to maintain the balance whilst making the most of the boat’s potential. The generous sail area allows Extreme 40s to sail faster than the wind, in just 15 knots of wind, an Extreme 40 is capable of traveling at 25+ knots.

Weekend Race Programme:

Friday 9th December
12:00 – 20:00 – Extreme Race Village opening times
12:00 – 14:00 – Moth Racing
14:00 – 17:00 – Extreme 40s Stadium Racing
17:30 – Public presentation to the top boat of the day

Saturday 10th December
10:00 – 12:00 – Moth Racing
12:00 – 20:00 – Extreme Race Village opening times
11:00 – 14:00 – Optimists Racing and NeilPryde Racing Series
14:00 – 17:00 – Extreme 40s Stadium Racing
17:30 – Public presentation to the top boat of the day
17:00 – 19:00 – NeilPryde Racing Series

Sunday 11th December
11:00 – 12:00 – Moth Racing
12:00 – 20:00 – Extreme Race Village opening times
12:00 – 14:00 – Optimists Racing and NeilPryde Racing Series
14:00 – 17:00 – Extreme 40s Stadium Racing
17:30 – Championship trophy presentation

**please note that times/activities might vary

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The Gala Opening of the 1st Rendezvous With French Cinema

8 12 2011

The Cathay last night saw a crowd that had gathered to welcome the ever so lovely Carole Bouquet at a red carpet event – opening of the Societe Generale Private Banking 1st Rendezvous With French Cinema. Ms Bouquet, was there to open the six-day French film festival together with Mr Antoine de Clermont-Tonnerre, Chairman of uniFrance, the association responsible for the promotion of French Cinema internationally. Also gracing the event were members of a delegation of French film personalities which is in Singapore to promote the French film industry and will be presenting their films and taking questions from audiences at the Festival screenings.

Mr Antoine de Clermont-Tonnerre, Chairman of uniFrance with Ms Carole Bouquet.

At a press conference held before last evening’s Gala Opening during which was Ms Bouquet and members of the artistic delegation were introduced, Mr Clermont-Tonnerre, spoke of how uniFrance hopes to participate in more events such as this not just to increase the market share of French films in Singapore which is estimated add about only 1%, but also to increase cooperation between the French and local film industries as well as increase its distribution network. Also speaking at the conference was Ms Bouquet, who revealed that she had only just landed a few hours before. Ms Bouquet, who is well-known for her role in the 1981 James Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only and as the face of fashion house Chanel in the 1980s, has over 40 films to her credit, added that she was happy to be in Singapore together with the delegation and to be the “godmother” of the 15 films which will showcase the diversity of French Cinema.

Ms Carole Bouquet with Mr Olivier Gougeon, Regional Chief Executive Officer – Asia Pacific, Societe Generale Private Banking.

For the festival’s title sponsor is Societe Generale Private Banking, bringing the festival to Singapore, is very much an extension of the sponsorship of the Cannes Film Festival by its Head Office. Its Regional Chief Executive Officer – Asia Pacific, Mr Olivier Gougeon, spoke of the French zeal for filmmaking which the organisation hopes to share by creating a first of its kind artistic, cultural and industry exchange. He also added that he hoped that this would not “just be a rendezvous with French Cinema, but a date”.

Stéphane Rybojad, Director, Forces spéciales (Special Forces) with Gilles Paquet-Brenner, Director, Elle s’appelait Sarah (Sarah’s Key).

Ismaël Ferroukhi, Director, Les hommes libres (Free Men) sharing a lighthearted moment with Mathieu Demy, Actor/Director, Americano.

Ms Bouquet speaking.

The crowd that attended the Gala Opening was treated to a brilliant opening movie, The Artist, directed by Michel Hazanavicius – and an appearance on stage of Ms Bouquet and the delegation. The movie, a (largely) silent movie set in Hollywood between 1927 and 1931, looks at the decline of a male star as the silent movie era made way for the talkies and stars Jean Dujardin, one of France’s leading actors, who took the accolade of the Best Actor Award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival for his role in the film, alongside Bérénice Bejo. The festival will run from 8 to 13 December 2011 with tickets priced at $10 each. A list of films to be shown as well as a synopsis of each film can be found at this page (click here). More information on the festival, ticketing and schedule can be found at the festival’s website www.rendezvouswithfrenchcinema.sg.

The Gala Opening of the Societe Private Banking 1st Rendezvous with French Cinema was held at the Cathay.

Mr Antoine de Clermont-Tonnerre, Chairman of uniFrance with Ms Bouquet and the other members of the Artistic Delegation on stage at the opening of the Societe Private Banking 1st Rendezvous with French Cinema.

Mr Clermont-Tonnerre and the gorgeous Ms Bouquet.

The Ultimate Battle has begun …

4 12 2011

Recruits are now being sought for a battle for the Universe which arrived at the shores of Singapore on 2 December 2011. The battle is one that pits the forces of good against that of evil, and what is at stake is a Universe that is ruled not by humans, but by humanoid robots that are able to transform into machines such as vehicles – a virtual one that many of us have had an introduction to as an a member of the audience in 3D on a cinema screen. We now have the opportunity not just to be armchair observers of that battle, but to actually get right into the thick of the action as the latest human recruits of NEST riding on EVAC, an AUTOBOT recruit who makes his debut as a character as it joins in on his first battle to help protect the ALLSPARK shard from the evil DECEPTICONS – on TRANSFORMERS The Ride which had its World Premiere at Universal Studios Singapore® on Friday.

The ride is located within Sci-Fi City, one of seven zones of Universal Studios Singapore.

TRANSFORMERS The Ride: The Ultimate 3D Battle opens at Universal Studios Singapore, Resorts World Sentosa (image courtesy of Universal Studios Singapore).

TRANSFORMERS The Ride was launched at a Grand Opening party at Universal Studios Singapore on 2 Dec 2011.

The highly anticipated ride was powered up at a Grand Opening party, by TRANSFORMERS director and executive producer Michael Bay, who made a grand entrance on stage in a 2010 edition of the Chevrolet Camaro, with the ALLSPARK shard. Bay also served as what is Asia’s most technologically advanced motion thrill ride’s creative consultant. On stage with Bay, were Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay, Chairman of the Genting Group and Resorts World Sentosa (RWS); Mr Tom Williams, Chairman and CEO of Universal Parks and Resorts, Mr Tan Hee Teck, CEO RWS; and Facebook fan contest winner Mr Malcom Chen.

The 2010 Chevrolet Camaro making its entrance.

Michael Bay making a grand entrance in a 2010 edition of the Chevrolet Camaro (image courtesy of Universal Studios Singapore).

Mr Michael Bay being introduced on stage as Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay and Mr Tom Williams looks on.

The ALLSPARK shard was inserted by Mr Michael Bay to power up the ride.

All guests to the party had an opportunity to experience the Ultimate 3D Battle, something that must be the ultimate experience for any fan of the TRANSFORMERS or for that matter anyone else seeking to have a four-minute adrenaline rush on the back of EVAC, a Stealth Transport Bot, who we are told is as agile and fast as they come. Going through the ride’s entrance, Guests are led through a Pre-show area resembling a NEST facility where the anticipation builds where Guest are introduced to the world of the AUTOBOTS and prepared for the ride with paraphernalia as well as instructions for the ride, including an ALLSPARK shard containment chamber, before arriving at the waiting area to board EVAC.

All guests to the party were able to have an experience on the Ultimate 3D Battle.

Guest are taken through a Pre-show area to the ride.

ALLSPARK containment in the Pre-show area.

TV monitors providing instructions to guest in the Pre-show area.

Battle glasses (3D glasses) for the Battle.

The waiting area before boarding EVAC.

TRANSFORMERS The Ride - EVAC ready to roll (image courtesy of Universal Studios Singapore).

On board EVAC, Guests are seated in three rows of four seats and secured in with a lap bar (personal belongings may be placed on the floor or in a net placed in front of the seated Guest). It is once EVAC is launched where the fun starts (of course!) as Guests are immersed in a fast pace, heart-pumping battle between the AUTOBOTS and DECEPTICONS – some which are seen spring right into your face (fans will be thrilled to come face-to-face with BUMBLEBEE and OPTIMUS PRIME), as EVAC accelerates, decelerates and reverses through subway tunnels, over roof-tops, across city streets, in between skyscrapers (even falling in between them) and even crashing into buildings which feels so real! Spectacular 3D effects that make the ride a truly awesome experience and a must-go. Chiefly responsible for these visual effects is Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) a division of Lucasfilm Ltd, which had digital artists working simultaneously out of their offices in California and Singapore. The project was also one that was worked on simultaneously with the most recent feature film TRANSFORMERS: Dark of the Moon which was the 4th highest grossing global movie of all time. For me – it was certainly an amazing experience and one that I would certainly want to have many more experiences on – and if I may borrow from a phrase from a famous hero of many battles past, I came out of Sentosa and I shall return – just for what must certainly be the Ultimate 3D Battle!


TRANSFORMERS The Ride - OPTIMUS PRIME battles MEGATRON (image courtesy of Universal Studios Singapore).

Bumblebee guards the entrance to the ride.

EVAC who makes his debut as a character on the ride.


TRANSFORMERS The Ride is located within Sci-Fi City – one of the seven zones of Universal Studios Singapore. The attraction is enhanced both by a TRANSFORMERS retail store, the TRANSFORMERS Supply Vault, and a new food/beverage venue, the Starbot Café. In addition, theme park guests will be welcomed to TRANSFORMERS The Ride by a walking OPTIMUS PRIME character who measures a whopping 2.9 metres in height, a 2.3 metre tall walking BUMBLEBEE character, providing great photo opportunities for the family.

A special 3D2N Ultimate Fun package for TRANSFORMERS The Ride has been rolled out through the Resorts World Sentosa website and authorised travel agents, which includes complimentary TRANSFORMERS The Ride souvenirs.

Guests planning to visit Universal Studios Singapore and take part in the ultimate 3D battle at TRANSFORMERS The Ride this holiday season are encouraged to make prior reservations as quickly as possible through the Resorts World Sentosa website at www.rwsentosa.com.

TRANSFORMERS and its logo and all related characters are trademarks of Hasbro and are used with permission. © 2011 Hasbro. All Rights Reserved. © 2011 DreamWorks L.L.C. and Paramount Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Universal Studios Singapore® & © Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

A sneak peek at the Gardens by the Bay

13 11 2011

Latest updates and a preview of Cloud Forest
Latest updates (from a 3 Apr 2012 Media Preview) on the Gardens by the Bay’s Bay South Gardens opening, opening hours, admission rates and the Cloud Forest can be found in this post: An ascent into the clouds.

It is hard not to notice that massive project that is being undertaken by the National Parks Board (NParks) to create a garden in the Marina Bay area that is part of a greater effort to transform Singapore from a ‘Garden City’ to a ‘City in a Garden’ with the obvious signs from the sprouting of the supertrees that are very visible in the area. Occupying 101 hectares of prime land by the waterside in Singapore’s new downtown, the Gardens by the Bay will, when the first phase is completed in June 2012, offer visitors an opportunity to savour a 54 hectare site at the Bay South, just across the East Coast Parkway from the Marina Bay Integrated Resort, designed by UK-based landscape architecture firm Grant Associates, that will offer Horticultural Themed Gardens, Supertrees and a chance to experience the environments of the cool-dry springtime climates of the Mediterranean and semi-arid sub-tropical regions as well as the cool-moist climate of the Tropical Montane regions such as in Mount Kinabalu in two cooled glass conservatories.

It is hard not to notice the futuristic looking glass domes, and ...

... the sprouting of the Supertrees.

Several of us were able to have a sneak peek at what will be on offer at the Gardens by the Bay, which will feature as one of the venues in the 20th World Orchid Conference (20WOC) World Orchid Show, which Singapore is hosting for the second time this November, yesterday. What we were able to see were the sections which were made ready for the preview – the Heritage Gardens, Dragonfly Lake (and Dragonfly Bridge which connects the strip of land between the ECP to the Gardens), the Supertrees at the Golden and Silver Gardens and one of the cooled Conservatories – the Flower Dome, which features some never seen before and thoroughly fascinating plants from the cool-dry Mediterranean and semi-arid climates around the world.

The foliage of Supertrees, which are tree-like structures 25 to 50 metres in height are vertical gardens with an emphasis on creating a 'wow' factor, seen with a natural tree.

The preview, which was for members of the media, started with a briefing chaired by the CEO of Gardens by the Bay, Dr Kiat W. Tan and the COO, Mr Kenneth Er. We were guided through a plan of the Gardens and the features of each area of the Gardens – which would cost approximately SGD 1 billion to build. The Gardens by the Bay would include the current area of focus, the Bay South area, as well as a 32 hectare site at Bay East which is being designed by another UK firm Gustafson Porter, and Bay Central – which will have a 3 km waterfront promenade that will offer stunning views of the city.

The Dragonfly Lake with the Supertrees at the Silver Garden in the background as seen from the Dragonfly Bridge.

Next it was a preview of the opened parts of the Gardens itself, which we were told, needed a huge effort to get ready for the WOC sneak preview, which will include the Flower Dome, where there is a display of some 14,000 orchids – 150 hybrids and 30 species from around the world which include Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and South America.

One of the parts of the Gardens by the Bay opened for the sneak preview was the Flower Dome.

The external areas we had access to did appear to be short of tree cover and shade, and perhaps a little too much concrete for a garden – perhaps as the space was one that was created to blend in with the area and one that required itself to be different from the existing parks and gardens. The fact that the garden was new was another factor and perhaps a more garden-like feel to the garden would come as the trees in the garden matures. The Heritage Gardens was an interesting concept, and allows visitors to move through spaces that are connected with the three major ethnic groups that featured in the development of Singapore as well as with the colonial establishment, with plants and trees which feature in the cultural practices and cooking of the respective ethnic groups.

A sculpture in the Chinese Garden - to represent the numerous Chinese who have left their homeland to seek a better life elsewhere.

A rockery with palms and cycads in the Chinese Garden.

The highlight for me was the visit to the Flower Dome, which covers an area of 1.2 hectares (or 2.2 football fields) under a steel frame supported glass structure which features 3,332 glass panels of 42 varying shapes and sizes and is 45 metres high. What was interesting to learn during the briefing about the Flower Dome – and the smaller neighbouring Cloud Forest (which isn’t completed yet), was of the innovative cooling system which makes use of biomass from horticultural waste generated by NPark’s parks and gardens. An holistic approach is also taken to maintain both temperature and humidity, resulting in an estimated 30% savings in energy consumption compared to conventional methods which also involves:

  • Minimising solar heat gain while allowing maximum light through the use of spectrally selective glass and light sensor operated shadings,
  • Cooling only of the occupied areas through thermal stratification which ensures cool air settles on the ground and warmer air is vented to the upper levels, and,
  • An efficient dehumidification process which de-couples the de-humidification of air from the cooling process using a liquid dessicant to first remove moisture.

Innovative energy efficient methods involving the use of NPark's own biomass waste is used to cool the Conservatories.

Chilled water pipes run below the Flower Dome to cool the ground.

Walking into the cool Flower Dome, one can’t help but be impressed with what has been achieved, as well as with the visual treat provided by the curved glass and steel roof. The Flower Dome is arranged to move the visitor from one cool-dry region to another, from semi-arid regions that represent areas such as the Australian Bush, South Africa, South America, the United States and Madagascar to the springtime climate of the Mediterranean. On display are Baobabs (Bottle Trees), Ghost Trees, Cacti and Succulents, as well as the fire adapted plants of the Australian Garden, the moisture rich plants such as various species of Aloe Vera in the South African Garden, the trees of the Mediterranean region in the Olive Grove such such Fig and Olive Trees, as well as some fascinating trees such as the Monkey Puzzle Tree and the Chilean Wine Palm in the South American Garden.

The Baobabs.

The Succulent Garden.

Cacti in the Succulent Garden.

A Ghost Tree - planted near graveyards in Madagascar and is said to have medicinal uses.

An Aloe plant in the South African Garden.

The leaves and branches of the Monkey Puzzle Tree - so named because a UK based specimen owner remarked that it would 'puzzle a monkey to climb the tree'.

Chilean Wine Palms - natives used to fall the trees to harvest the sap which is used to make an alcoholic beverage.

The highlight for me - 1000 year old olive trees in the Olive Grove. The trees were ones that were affected by development in Spain and transported by refrigerated container to Singapore.

The trunk of an Olive Tree.

The Flower Dome also features a Flower Field, which will feature changing displays of flowers to reflect different seasons, themes and festivals – including its current display of orchids for the WOC. The Flower Dome will also see two F&B outlets, as well as an event space for 800 to 1000 people. The event space will be used to host a gala dinner for the WOC.

The Flower Field in the Flower Dome which will feature changing displays of flowers to reflect different seasons, festivals and themes. It currently displays orchids for the 20th WOC.

Phalaenopsis on display in the Flower Field of the Flower Dome during the WOC.

More Phalaenopsis on display.

And yet more!

Visitors to the WOC would be able to visit the Flower Dome for a sneak preview during a one week period from the 14th to the 20th of November with a ticket to the WOC. Further to this, visitors as well as members of the public without admission tickets to the 20WOC World Orchid Show would also be have a look at the external areas of the Gardens by the Bay which are ready. Information on the 20WOC World Orchid Show, including admission and ticketing, can be found at the 20WOC’s site. Further information on the Gardens by the Bay can be found at their website.

That one man isn’t alone – remembering Tiananmen 22 years on

4 06 2011

On the 4th of June 1989, hundreds (according to official accounts), if not thousands, lost their lives in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, as tanks and troops sent in by the government of the People’s Republic of China, brutally and indiscriminately opened fire on the crowd of demonstrators that had occupied the square for some seven weeks. The unarmed demonstrators, mainly students, had been staging what was a peaceful protest as part of a call for democratic reform in China. 22 years on, although economic progress has been made, democracy remains elusive, as human rights abuses continue, one recent case being that of the detention of dissident artist Ai Weiwei. It is for that and for those who gave their lives on the fateful day that we must remember.

Remember 4th of June 1989.

Remembering Tiananmen: "One Man alone, can stop history, can move a mountain".

This post is also appears as ‘That One Man Isn’t Alone’ on asia! through asian eyes, an online and mobile platform for Asian bloggers and other writers. asia! offers a place to get a feel for what ordinary Asians are thinking and saying and doing providing a glimpse of the Asia that lies beyond the news headlines.

Join the party at Tanjong Pagar this June!

2 06 2011

Tanjong Pagar Railway Station for many of us, has come to be that sleepy, somewhat laid-back and old world escape from the crowded ultra-modern Singapore that now surrounds us. But, if you have been there of late, the station, you would have noticed that the crowds which the glorious work of architecture that the station’s building is deserves, missing for several decades, have returned. It is perhaps ironic that they have in what is now the last month of the building’s use the southern terminal of the Malayan Railway, that we see crowds that perhaps are reminiscent of those in the earlier days when the appeal of rail travel went far beyond the romance of taking the train.

A party is happening at the station this last month with many hoping to get a last ride on the trains which have passed through Singapore for 108 years.

Interest in rail travel from Singapore to Malaysia has indeed waned over the years as other modes of travel have become not just affordable, but a lot more convenient. Where it might have been a norm for Singaporean families to take a trip our of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station back in the 1960s and 1970s, the construction of the North South Highway has made road travel for one, a lot quicker than the trains, which for most part, run on a single track, and rail became somewhat of a forgotten and less used means of travel (although it is still popular with Malaysian residents along the line working in Singapore as a means to travel back home during the weekends).

A party from years gone by: crowds queuing up for tickets in the lead up to the Lunar New Year in the 1970s (photo source: http://picas.nhb.gov.sg)

The impending shift of the southern terminal station of the Malayan Railway has certainly increased interest in rail travel over the last few months, with many who had not taken the train out of Tanjong Pagar doing so for the first time as well as many like me, who are doing it out of pure nostalgia. The trains will of course still be around with us as a means of transport come the 1st of July when they will pull out of and into Woodlands Checkpoint instead, but there is nothing that compares to embarking on a train journey from and returning to a station of the stature of Tanjong Pagar, which was to have been the southern terminal of a grand rail transport network that was to have spanned the continents of Europe and Asia, that never was completed.

The party will end when Tanjong Pagar Railway Station sees its last train pull in and leave on the night of the 30th of June.

The terminal, which opened on 2nd May 1932, and after a 79 years and a month of operations, is now into its last month of its life as a railway station. That also means that after some 108 years since the railway started making its way through the railway corridors of Singapore, first in 1903 through much of Bukit Timah (part on which Dunearn Road now runs) to Tank Road and then in 1932 when a deviation at Bukit Timah turned it towards the docks at Tanjong Pagar, we would soon see no more of the trains chug along the various visible parts of the line (a friend related how he had learnt to count by counting trains passing by the window of his flat in Tanglin Halt), across the two black truss bridges over Bukit Timah Road, the various simple girder bridges, the prominent ones being the ones across Hindhede Road and Hillview Road, the five remaining level crossings. What I guess many of us will miss more is sitting on a train as it weaves its way on that half an hour journey that brings us into another world – the hidden parts of Singapore that we might have only seen from window of the train … In a little less than a month, it would not be the old world Tanjong Pagar that greets the train passenger coming back into Singapore, but, a stone cold platform surrounded by high wire fences and manned by blue uniformed personnel, and with that, the wonderful experience of passing over the old railway tracks and bridges and through some very charming parts of Singapore that would otherwise be hidden, will be a thing of the past. That, is reason in itself, to join the crowds that have descended on the usually sleepy Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, for what must surely its farewell party, and hop on a train out or back into the station before the opportunity to have that wonderful experience passes by.

29 days before the final farewell ....

The Malayan Railway (now KTM) which has provided a rail service to Singapore since 1903 and maintained the grand station at Tanjong Pagar since May 1932, will after the 1st of July, terminate at Woodlands, the entry point from the Causeway into Singapore.

Ticketing information:

Tickets for the Express services, which can be purchased up to 30 days in advance, to and from Singapore this June are fast selling, with trains for most weekends already quite full. Tickets can be obtained at the station (advance bookings open from 8.30 am daily) or online at the KTMB website. If you are interested to join a party on the last train into Singapore on the 30th of June, there are several of us who would be having one on Train 15 Ekspres Sinaran Timur. Most of us are in Coach 2 and will be getting on that at Segamat. If you have you tickets, you may drop an email to Notabilia or me with the subject line “Strangers on a Train”.

Further information of interest:

Information related to the station and its architecture can be found on a previous post: “A final look at Tanjong Pagar Station“. In addition to that, I have also put together a collection of experiences and memories of the railway in Singapore and of my journeys through the grand old station which can be found through this page: “Journeys through Tanjong Pagar“.

Do also take a look at the proposal by the Nature Society (Singapore) to retain the green areas that have been preserved by the existence of the railway through Singapore and maintain it as a Green Corridor, at the Green Corridor’s website and show your support by liking the Green Corridor’s Facebook page. My own series of posts on the Green Corridor are at: “Support the Green Corridor“.

A tweetup to explore the mind of the genius that is Salvador Dalí

30 05 2011

If you have ever wondered how a mind of a artistic genius works, you would be able to take a walk through the mind of one, in the form of the Dalí: Mind of a Genius – The Exhibition, now running at the ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands. The exhibition which opened on 14 May, will run up until 30 October 2011, and transports the visitor into the world of Salvador Dalí, the world as he saw it that is manifested in the somewhat bizarre surrealist expressions of his inner workings that he has made his mark on the world with.

Step right into the inner workings of the great surrealist artist Salvador Dalí's mind at the ArtScience Musuem in Marina Bay Sands.

I have long had my own fascination with the artist, drawn to his work after stumbling on a striking and haunting expression of a religious zeal he had at the point of the painting rediscovered when wandering around Glasgow’s west end almost a quarter of a century ago. That painting, Christ of St. John of the Cross, still captivates me to this day. It is however, the depictions of melting time, a reoccurring theme on many of his artworks that has been the greater source of fascination. Having had an opportunity to visit the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, in the following summer, I was able to understand a little more of the background and interpretation of Dalí’s own fascination with the depiction of time in a fluid and non-linear state, not the hard deterministic version of time that most of us would have.

Dalí is known for his bizarre interpretation of the world around him which is expressed by depictions of everyday objects in a ways that seem beyond human comprehension.

I had the opportunity at a tweetup organised by the good people of the ArtScience Museum on Saturday to reacquaint myself with the works of Dalí, and to explore the inner workings of his mind. It is in the latter, that the curators of the exhibition have done an excellent job in bringing out the influences, inspirations and the perspective that Dalí had in giving us his wonderful works. In walking through the themed areas of the exhibition Femininity and Sensuality; Religion and Mythology; and Dreams and Fantasy, we are transported into what some would see as an insane mind that sees the world in the way he did. It is in this that we understand the artist’s mind further and see the genius of it. Dalí as with Oscar Levant who is attributed with the well used quote “there’s a fine line between genius and insanity”, is one who seems to have erased the line where genius starts and insanity ends.

The exhibition explores several themes in Dalí's work including Dreams and Fantasy.

Throughout the guided exploration of Dalí’s mind, we are constantly reminded of the background to the influences on his thoughts – a repressed sexuality stemming from an upbringing largely influenced by his strict widower father an atheist, who in stark contrast to Dalí’s staunchly Catholic mother – suppressed all form of expression in Dalí. It was through Gala, Dalí’s would be wife that freed him from the repressed sexuality and besides depicting her, his ideal of womanhood, in many works, he sought to express his view of femininity and sexuality in many ways. Amongst the influences Dalí had were some of the thinkers of the time, Einstein for one, the Theory of Relativity being a source of inspiration for the stretching of time and Sigmund Freud, who provided a basis for the understanding of symbols in dreams as symbols of a repressed sexuality that Dalí seemed to be obsessed with.

Dalí's exploration of sensuality and femininity includes Woman Aflame which includes plenty of the symbolism that is found in his work which includes drawers signifying secrets, revealed by them being opened, and the use of clutches to represent death and resurrection.

Space Venus - also contains much symbolism: a melted clock which tells us that beauty is finite, the body split at the midriff representing death and the egg, the symbol of life representing renewal in death.

Anthropomorphic Cabinet with drawers again ... this time on a female form that perhaps deceives us into seeing a masculine one who appears almost as if she is writhing in pain.

Dalí who returned to Catholicism later in life, becoming a staunch follower of the faith, also shows religious influences in his works and this can be explored in the Religion and Mythology themed area. Both mythical figures and religious symbols can be found in sculptures such as Adam and Eve, St. George and the Dragon, Unicorn and Vision of the Angel. The last of the three themed areas, Dreams and Fantasy, which features works such as furniture in the form of Mae West Lips Sofa, Glasswork, and Sculptures such as Alice in Wonderland, was perhaps my favourite. It is in some of the works here that the quirkiness of Dalí comes to the fore. This is perhaps summed up by at quote we see at the exit of the exhibition “I do not understand why, when I ask for a grilled lobster, I am never served a cooked telephone”.

St. George and the Dragon again explores sexuality in a depiction of the legendary slaying of the dragon by St. George. The stallion - a symbol of power and masculinity mounts a dragon whose wings as seen through the fore legs of the stallion resemble flames - the flames of passion.

Unicorn has some sexual connotations. Possibly influenced by Sigmund Freud's interpretation of images in dreams and their hidden sexual meanings.

Lady Godiva with Butterflies - butterflies symbolise the soul.

Vision of the Angel explores the role that religion plays in society.

Mae West Lips.

Alice in Wonderland.

I was enthralled enough to return once more to the ten galleries which feature in total over 250 of Dalí works which come from a collection of the Stratton Foundation, the most striking of which are the sculptures which, full of symbolism which the exhibition does attempt to explain in detail, providing a perspective on Dalí and the thoughts behind his lifetime of work that would be otherwise be hard to fully appreciate. It is for this that the exhibition is well worth a visit, giving us not just an opportunity to look at an amazing collection of Dalí works, but also a rare opportunity to appreciate the mind of one that was certainly a creative genius.

A nice touch added by the curators - a reflection of clocks distorted by their reflection on convex and concave mirrors at the exit from the exhibition.

A date with a lovely French lady

23 05 2011

I took the rare opportunity to pay a visit to a French lady that was in town recently. She is a lady of much beauty and the pride of the French (Naval Fleet that is) and was the largest of the warships that was in Singapore for the biennial IMDEX Asia Maritime Defense Exhibition which was held last week. The vessel, the FNS Mistral, is indeed a beauty, designated as a Landing Platform Helicopter (LPH), she has been provided with six helicopter landing spots on an expansive flight deck which features an island (offset) superstructure, resembling an aircraft carrier. In fact, she might be seen as a mini one, having the capability to deploy up to sixteen large helicopters that can be stowed in a large hangar below the flight deck. An LPH is traditionally designed to support long range troop deployment and amphibious assault, providing a force projection capability to the forces that deploy them, with the U.S. Navy having the largest fleet not just of LPHs but of purpose designed amphibious assault ships. The Mistral is designated by the French Navy as a Bâtiment de Projection et de Commandement (BPC), or a (Force) Projection and Command Ship, and is the lead of two Mistral class BPCs, the other being the FNS Tonnerre.

The French Navy LPH or BPC, the Mistral was in Singapore for a visit during the recently concluded IMDEA Asia exhibition.

Having previously visited similar but smaller vessels such as Landing Platform Docks which have a reduced capacity and hence capability as compared to the Mistral, including the FNS Foudre, and the ITS San Giusto, the Mistral seemed a lot larger and a generous amount of space that the smaller LPDs (the Foudre is 168 metres in length and the San Giusto, 133 metres compared to the Mistral’s 199 metres) do not afford. The Mistral represents a tremendous effort in coordination and engineering, not so much from its design but by the fact that the hull was constructed in two pre-outfitted sections, the aft section at Direction des Constructions Navales’ (DCN) yard in Brest (which also constructed the island superstructure) and the forward section at the well known passenger shipbuilder Chantiers de l’Atlantique in St-Nazaire. Various sub-assemblies were also outsourced in the process to contractors in various locations including to a Polish shipyard. The keel of the Mistral was laid in July 2002 and the vessel was launched in October 2004, before being commissioned in December 2006, thus being in service for some six and a half years already.

The Mistral, seen at berth at the finger pier in Changi Naval Base during IMDEX Asia, next to the USS McCampbell, an Arleigh Burke class Destroyer. The Mistral, which displaces 21,500t at Full Load, was the largest of the warships in town for the event.

A view of the Mistral's bow in the rain.

One of the large differences in the Mistral compared to the LPDs is that there are multiple decks for the stowage of vehicles and helicopters compared to a single deck in the case of most LPDs. This was very much in evidence from the guided walk through the less sensitive parts of the magnificent vessel led by a member of the ship’s crew, which started with a walk up the multiple decks, first to the Bridge, then to the Helicopter Control and Operations Rooms, and the Flight Deck before visiting the Helicopter Hangar immediately below the Flight Deck (helicopters are raised and lowered via two elevators), the hospital, the large Vehicle Deck below the Flight Deck and the Dockwell. A ramp allows vehicles and other material to be transported between the dockwell and the vehicle deck. The dockwell is floodable by ballasting and opening of a stern ramp with a water depth of 1 to 2 metres and lined with wooden sheathing to take punishment from the Landing Craft Mechanised (LCM), up to four of which can be accommodated, allowing for troops, vehicles and equipment to be deployed to shore. The Mistral also features a side ramp / door which can be used to load and discharge vehicles and equipment to the wharf.

A walk through the FNS Mistral

The wheelhouse console on the Bridge.

The Bridge was the first stop.

A view of the Flight Deck and ship's bow from the Bridge.

The Helicopter Control Room.

Windows of the Helo Control Room.

View of the Flight Deck from the Helo Control Room.

Helicopter ops are planned in the Helicopter Operations Room directly below the Helo Control Room.

Looking forward from amidships on the large Flight Deck which has six helo landing spots.

Looking aft over the expansive flight deck.

View of the Helo Control and Ops Rooms from the Flight Deck.

The walk through also provided an appreciation of the generously sized alleyways on the Mistral.

The hangar below the flight deck. Two elevators (one seen in the background) provide communication between the Flight Deck and the lower decks which includes the Hangar and the Vehicle Deck below.

The hangar can accommodate up to 16 large helicopters.

Another view of the Hangar.

A view at Hangar level.

Republic of Singapore Navy Officer Cadets posing for a photograph in the Hangar.

The Mistral is equipped with a large Hospital over 900 square metres on Deck 5 to support both military and humanitarian operations. This is expandable by use of the Hangar to provide space for up to 100 beds.

One of two Operating Theatres inside the Hospital.

The large (upper) Vehicle Deck. Together with the lower Vehicle Deck which is contiguous with the dockwell, the vehicle decks provide for the stowage of 60 armoured vehicles or 13 main battle tanks on 2 650 square metres of space.

Another view of the (upper) Vehicle Deck.

A ramp provides communication between the upper and lower Vehicle Decks (and the Dockwell).

The side door/ramp at the lower Vehicle Deck / Dockwell.

The floodable Dockwell accommodates up to four Landing Craft or two LCACs (Hovercraft).

Information on the Mistral from the DCN Brochure

In the eye of the frenzied storm of the Bisket Jatra

22 05 2011

A third UNESCO World Heritage Site that I visited on the day of the Nepali New Year was probably the one that was the highlight, not just of the day, but also the trip. Having explored Swayambhunath and Boudhanath, the group of friends I was with were left with the latter half of an afternoon with which to catch the action of a Nepali festival, the Bisket Jatra, being lived out on the streets of Bhaktapur, an ancient town 13 km east of Kathmandu.

Durbar Square in Bhaktapur. Bhaktapur is a UNESCO World Heritage Site 13km east of Kathmandu.

It was quite a pleasant ride in once the van took a turn off from the highway from Kathmandu, this in spite of the somewhat dusty and bumpy approach we were given. Even with being on the outskirts of the city, it gave us a feeling that we were in a world far removed from the madding streets of the Nepali capital and even further away from the incessant honking on the busy streets of Kathmandu. The view we were afforded by the windows of the moving van were quite refreshing ones at that – padi fields dominated either side of the road against the backdrop of what would be the green foothills of the world’s highest peaks, interspersed with the red-brown piles of brick that lay in the yards of what must have been brick making kilns. It was the warm colour of the piles of bricks we passed that radiated from the buildings and cobblestone streets of Bhaktapur that greeted our arrival into the ancient town.

Piles of red brown bricks mark the passage into Bhaktapur, an ancient town founded in the 9th Century that once served as the capital of the Kathmandu Valley. The bricks used in bulk of the buildings and cobblestones now colour much of the town.

The point at which we alighted was at the bottom of a street that rose steadily uphill, either side of which was lined with a row of tall and narrow brick houses that in a strange sort of way perhaps resembled a scene one might associate with Tuscan hill town. The streets were strangely quiet for a town that was in celebration – just a few children could be seen playing up the street. My attention was quickly turned towards the blue of a rectangle that framed an aperture within which the colourful display of what literally was a hole-in-a-wall shop manned by an elderly lady set into the dusty sand coloured plastered wall of a building at the corner that seemed to break the orange-brown light that the earthen bricks and cobblestones reflected in the mid-afternoon sun. It was only the cry of the lady behind another aperture that alerted us to the window of the bureau which collected the equivalent of US$15 (NRs 1100) from the tourist as an entrance fee to the town.

Set against the dusty sand coloured plaster of a building that was in contrast to the rest of the town, the blue frame of the hole-in-a-wall shop caught my eye.

With the entrance fee out of the way, we sought the help of a guide to lead us to the heart of the festival of which we had found no evidence of where we were. Making our way up a dusty road that did well to obscure what we were to discover at the summit of the climb. At the top, we found ourselves making our way past the first sight of the heart of the old capital of the Kathmandu Valley, the white tower of the Fasidega temple (one that is dedicated to Shiva) that rose on the left of an alley into the eastern edge of Durbar Square. Beyond that, two stone lions seemed to guard the square within Durbar Square where the Tadhunchen Bahal stood. The Tadhunchen Bahal dates from 1491 and is where the origins of the Kumari, the living goddesses of Nepal, is said to have started from. Turning left past the magnificent wooden structured Tadhunchen Bahal, and then right through a narrow street lined with the dwellings of the town folk on the right and tourist shops on the left, we soon found ourselves with the first signs of the Bisket Jatra in full swing, with the amazing sight of the huge gathering of townsfolk and curious tourists colouring the steps of the towering 30 metre high Nyatapola temple, the tallest temple in Nepal, built in 1702 and said to be one of the best examples of traditional temple architecture in Nepal.

Part of the Tadhunchen Bahal, where the Nepali living goddessess, the Kumari, had their origins.

Townsfolk seated beneath the wooden arches of the Tadhunchen Bahal.

The crowd gathered on the steps of the Nyatapola temple in Taumadhi Square.

The scene around the Nyatapola temple and Taumadhi Square.

Continuing our way through the crowded Taumadhi Square in which the Nyatapola stands, we wound our way through yet another cobbled street in which we encountered the steady flow of townsfolk, before arriving at the entrance to Khalna Tol at which we had to squeeze our way past a wall of people before we were able to survey the square at the heart of the Bisket Jatra celebrations. The scene that greeted us was an amazing one. From where we had stood, the Khalna Tol fanned out downwards, every inch of which was filled by the gaudy colours of the sea of people decked out in their New Year’s finery. At the end of the square, a tall pole seemed to rise, as if it were a mast of a ship in the colourful sea of people. The 25 metre pole, representative of the lingam, is set into a mound of stone, representative of the yoni, and is part of the ancient festival which is celebrated in Bhaktapur over a nine day period that straddles the Nepali New Year. The festival is said to have preceded the establishment of Bhaktapur in the 9th Century and has been celebrated from the time of the Lichhavi period (5th to 8th Century A.D.) to commemorate the defeat of a snake demon that was believed to possess a princess who according to legend, was made a widow when the man who married her died of a snake bite. After that, no one would marry her out of fear of death and it was only with the arrival of a merchant who married the princess that the snake demon was defeated.

The crowd seen from the top of Khalna Tol, where the main festivities were taking place on the fourth day of the Bisket Jatra which coincides with the Nepali New Year.

The lingam pole erected in Khulna Sqaure with one of the two chariots that are pulled through the streets of the town over the nine day festival.

The highlight of the festival, which culminates in a tongue piercing festival during which participants carry a Mahadeep (similar in some respects to the practice of the carrying of the Kavadi still practiced by southern Indian communities of South-East Asia during Thaipusam and Panguni Uthiram), is the pulling of two chariots, the Bhairavnath and Bhadrakali chariots, containing the idols of the god Lord Bhairavnath and his consort, the goddess Bhadrakali respectively. The chariots with huge crude wooden wheels, are traditionally made of a mix of wood and cane and coated with gold at the top. Iron nails and bronze rods have now been introduced to strengthen the chariots which undergo quite a fair bit of punishment as they are pulled from Taumadhi Square in a slow parade around the streets of the town. It seems that on the last day of the festival, the copulation of the god and goddess is enacted by the ramming of the smaller chariot carrying the goddess Bhadrakali against the chariot carrying Lord Bhairavnath.

The chariot carrying the idol of Lord Bhairavnath seen in Khalna Tol.

The highlight of the festival is the pulling of two chariots through the streets of the town.

While we did not have the opportunity to see all of that happening, we did weave our way through the sea of people towards the lingam and the Bhairavnath chariot which was being pulled through Khalna Tol near where the lingam was located. The chariot up-close was a lot bigger that it had seemed from a distance floating in the sea of people. The wheels were huge, the diameter of which was certainly larger than the height of a person. The chariot itself was mounted by many young boys, perhaps seeking a good vantage as well as hitching a ride on the chariot, oblivious to the dangers of doing so (the wheels do sometimes give way during the drawing of the chariots). A pause in the pulling saw even more children attempting to climb on, as well as giving a chance for parents of the very young to seek blessings for their children from the bells that hung from the front of the chariot. That also allowed us to get right up to the chariots to see the feathers and blood of chickens on the wheels – evidence of a sacrifice that would have taken place at the start of the festival.

A closer inspection of the chariot reveals the scale of the crude wooden wheels.

Evidence of the sacrifice of a chicken could be seen on the wheels which had feathers and streaks of blood on them.

A pause allowed children to scramble up the chariot - one seen having his share of an ice lolly ...

Sights and sounds at the heart of the festivities in Khalna Tol.

It wasn’t very long before the cries of men perched on the curved front of the chariot that extended much like the bowsprit of a sail ship rang out, urging on the two lines of boys who held two lines used to draw the wooden structure as if they were participating in a tug-of-war against the chariot. It was with that that some of us were drawn towards the heavy looking ropes – something that one is probably ill advised to do, as an attempt to turn the chariot resulted in the lines sweeping swiftly across the crowd that had gathered, causing a few including a woman carrying a baby to fall … the thought that immediately crossed my mind was “stampede” – as bodies swept by the rope pressed me hard against the wall of people that stood behind me. Fortunately nothing worse than what happened to the woman who fell resulted from this and a pause in the drawing of the chariot allowed order to be restored, giving me an opportunity to quickly make my way out of the eye of the storm. We were to learn later from two Israeli travellers with whom we had the pleasure of sharing a bottle of whisky with on the terrace of the Peaceful Inn in Nagarkot that the festival has in the past proven to be a deadly one … they how they had witnessed the lingam pole being pulled down and breaking in the process and whilst on this occasion no one had been hurt, it was common knowledge that a few deaths are not uncommon as a result of the pole falling on the crowd or from a runaway chariot.

Trying to get close to the action during the pulling of the chariot proved to be not just an exhilarating, but also quite a terrifying experience.

One of the two lines being tugged at by children to the cries of men perched at an extension at the front end of the chariot.

Short clip of the chariot being pulled in Khalna Square.

Being caught up in the frenzy of the ancient Bisket Jatra close to the action probably counts as one of my most exciting experiences. If you were to ask if I would do it again, I would definitely want to … but knowing what I know now, chances are that I would keep a safer distance from all the action – as did many of the better informed tourists in the square. Leaving the excitement of the festival behind, we made our way back to Taumadhi Square and then to Durbar Square – that was enjoyable in many ways as we were able to take in some fine examples of traditional Newari religious architecture for the first time on the trip … but what probably remains etched most in our memories were the events of Khalna Tol that we had moments before, been caught up in.

A circle of Tibetan life in the Kathmandu Valley: Boudhanath

12 05 2011

From one UNESCO World Heritage Site, we found ourselves, after a quick (in Nepali terms) lunch, at another – the giant stupa of Boudhanath, the largest stupa in Nepal, some 5 kilometres northeast of Kathmandu. As was very evident from the crowd and the décor of the buildings that were laid out in a circle around the giant stupa, the stupa and its supporting buildings is very much a centre for Tibetan Buddhism, as well as being a shelter for the largest community of Tibetans (numbering some 16,000) in Nepal.

The stupa at Boudhanath, a UNESCO World Heritage Site is an important centre for Tibetan Buddhism in Nepal.

Our first glance of the stupa was through a passageway which to get to, required a somewhat treacherous passage across the busy stream of traffic passing through a thoroughfare that perhaps epitomised traffic conditions in Kathmandu with its steady stream of honking motorcycles, cars and buses bursting with passengers. The street, besides the chorus of horns and over laden vehicles, was littered with the colours of the saffron and dark red robes of Buddhist monks and that of the many pilgrims attempting to weave their way through the cross current of dusty vehicles. Once across, a sign board next to an archway gave us a clue as to what we were about to visit a World Heritage Site, and through the crowd of pilgrims and curious tourists many of whom were posing for a photograph, and the row of shops many offering religious articles, the towering sight of the grandest of stupas in the Kathmandu valley greeted us. The great white dome and its pointed pinnacle dressed up in the colours of the New Year crowd was truly a magnificent sight.

Getting across the street filled with honking overloaded vehicles proved to be a challenge.

Many of the buses and vans were bursting at their seams with the Nepali New Year crowd.

The first sight of the stupa, the largest in Nepal.

The stupa and the area around has apparently a long association with Tibet, being on an ancient trade route used to reach the Kathmandu valley from Tibet, and is where Tibetan merchants have stopped for a rest and to seek blessings before continuing on their journey. Boudhanath has since 1959, in the aftermath of the People’s Republic of China’s annexation of Tibet in 1950, served as a area where many Tibetans crossing the border into Nepal to flee the oppression of Chinese rule have taken refuge in. There is a fair bit of information on the stupa and the area around the stupa as well as on Tibetan life in exile around the area of Boudhanath which can be found on Wikipedia as well as on blogs such as Everyday Exile, Of Yetis and Yaks (Nepal through Western Eyes) and other online resources such as on this link. The area which hosts many new monasteries that have come up since has become one of the most important centres of Tibetan Buddhism outside of Tibet.

The area around the stupa is home to some 16,000 Tibetans in exile.

Two elderly Tibetan ladies at Boudhanath.

Boudhanath is home to many new Tibetan monasteries set up after the influx of refugees in 1959.

Detail on one of the buildings of the monasteries.

A Tibetan temple.

A mural on one of the religious buildings.

Another mural on one of the religious buildings.

Pastel shaded houses circle the stupa.

A monk turning a giant prayer wheel.

The stupa is set on terraces which allows the visitor to ascend to the base and also circumambulate the stupa. Again, being the New Year, we had a chance not just to mingle with the Tibetan community who were distinct in their appearance and in the dressing, as well as the many locals who had descended on the stupa for the occasion. Having circumambulated the stupa once, it was time then to move on, on to our next destination which proved to be the highlight of the day, but not before the treacherous crossing back across the street to where the van was waiting for us.

The circle of life ... a spinning prayer wheel ...

What goes around certainly comes around ....

The circle of houses around the stupa as seen from the terraces of the stupa.

The ascending terraces allow access to the stupa's base.

The base features niches in which images of Buddha are placed.

365 steps plus 13 degrees to enlightenment: Swayambhunath

11 05 2011

It was with a touch of good fortune that seven friends and I found ourselves in Kathmandu on the eve of the Nepali New Year I suppose. We hadn’t intended that, having to accommodate one who now lives half a world away, as well as fitting the trip we had planned within the constraints of flight availability. That we were, was something of a photographer’s dream I suppose, as we were confronted with the burst of life and colour around some of the most wonderful cultural heritage sites that I have visited. Wonderful not so much for the richness of architecture or craftsmanship that we sometimes associate with a cultural heritage site, but for the fact that the sites were not edifices that remind us of a time gone by, but living ones that are very much bursting with the life that makes them what they are.

The Nepali New Year is as much a religious celebration as much as it is one to celebrate the arrival of a new year.

Our first stop during the New Year was to the pilgrimage site of Swayambhunath, up the pilgrims path of 365 steps that leads one to a stupa, built with thirteen rings that represent the thirteen degrees of knowledge one needs to acquire on the path to enlightenment. Swyambhunath, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is located on a holy site that is thought to go back some 2,500 years, according to local legend, the bodhisattva Manjushri was said to have discovered a lotus flower at the centre of an ancient lake that had filled the Kathmandu valley, and drained it by cutting a gorge, allowing the valley to become habitable. The flower was said to have settled where the stupa now is.

The stupa at Swayambhunath is accessible via a pilgrims path of a flight of 365 stone steps to the top of the hill on which the stupa is perched.

The stupa of Swayambhunath said to be built on a site where a lotus flower of an ancient lake drained by the bodhisattva Manjushri was found and features 13 gilded rings each representing a degree of knowledge a person needs to acquire on the path to enlightenment.

Arriving at the foot of the steep flight of steps, we stepped out from the calm of the van into the din and frenzy that accompanied the gathering of street vendors in a clearing next to where we alighted, and were transported into the sea of saffron, crimson and gold of pilgrims decked out in the finery of the New Year, mingling with holy men and monks in robes that suggested the paths in life they had taken, in the cool shade of the trees at the foot of the hill. The trees are in fact according to legend, said to have grown from hairs cut from Manjushri and the monkeys we find around, said to have been the lice from Manjushri’s hair.

The foot of the hill is shaded with trees which are said to have grown from the hairs cut from Manjushri's head.

And the many monkeys found around the complex are said to have grown from the lice that fell off.

The stupa is of course one that is associated with the Buddhist faith, one that in many parts of the world is distinct in its practice to that of the predominant Hindu faith in Nepal, and has been a cebtre of Buddhist learning for centuries. It is in Nepal where the faiths intertwine, as much as life and faith comes together as one in daily life. Nepal is where Buddha, as the Hindu Prince Gautama had been born, and where he left the comforts of his princely life to live a life that led him on the path to enlightenment on which the Buddhist faith was built on.

A statue of Buddha on the ascent up the pilgrim path to Swayambunath - Buddhism is embraced within the larger Hindu faith in Nepal.

Smaller stupas on the pilgrim's path.

Detail on a small stupa.

The ascent is one that gets steeper as it reaches its climax, as the stairway narrows and the stupa comes into sight. It is near the top where the tourist is required to pay an entrance fee of Rs 200 at a landing on the left of the stairs that one realises how much one has climbed as the opportunity to look back and survey the mass of narrow brick dwellings that define the city of Kathmandu that lay below. At the top, the stupa dominates the crest of the hill, surrounded by other structures and a circle of prayer wheels at the base. Teeming with pilgrims that sought blessings for the New Year, the area around the stupa was a kaleidoscope of the colours of the earth, the wind and of fire, earth being that of the offering laid out all around; wind seen in the the fluttering of prayer flags and the frenzy of movement of people around the stupa; and fire being the fire of fire being offered to the deities.

The steep final part of the ascent ...

... as the stupa comes into view.

The view of the Kathmandu valley near the top.

Another view of the stupa at the top of the 365 steps.

Prayer flags to be offered at the top.

Prayer wheels circle the base of the stupa.

The turning of prayer wheels on which mantras are written on is believed to bring purification and merit to aid in the path one takes to enlightenment.

Offerings being prepared.

An offering of food.

The area around the stupa is surrounded by temples, shrines and other religious buildings and monkeys roam the area freely, mingling with the pilgrims and curious tourists. For this, the stupa is sometimes referred to as the Monkey Temple. A feature of the stupa is the four flat sides of a cuboid of which each is adorned with the eyes of Buddha looking in four directions, each with a third eye painted above. More information on the complex and its background can be found on this site.

View of the complex around the stupa.

Roof of a building around the stupa.

Saffron water being thrown to trace the shape of the lotus petal on the stupa.

Dongak Choling Gompa.

A view of the Swayambhunath complex.

Offerings of fire.

Local children.

Another view of the area.

The stupa and the Hariti temple in the background.