Celebrating the Botanics

5 08 2015

In a Singapore caught up in the frenzy of celebrating the abandonment of the past, being given an opportunity to celebrate a piece of our pre-independent history, the Singapore Botanic Gardens (SBG), is a welcome distraction. The 74 hectare green space, recently inscribed as the country’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one that connects the generations as a community space, a constant in a Singapore in which change seems to be the only other constant, for which alone it deserves to be celebrated.

The bandstand and its iconic gazebo, one of several conserved sites within the SBG.

The bandstand and its iconic gazebo, one of several conserved sites within the SBG.

The inscription into the UNESCO list gives us a lot more reason to celebrate. The Gardens has long played a role not just as a community space, but as a centre for botanical research, it has made immense contributions even to Singapore’s (and Malaya’s) early economy. The rise of rubber as an economic crop and the spread of rubber plantations, once dominant across our island’s rural areas, across much of Malaya, owes much to the work carried out in the SBG and Henry Ridley, the SBG’s first scientific director. The rural landscape while now conquered by the sea of concrete, owes much of its green colouring, a product of the efforts to transform Singapore into a Garden City, also to the SBG.

Henry Ridley and his work on rubber is remembered in the SBG Heritage Centre.

Henry Ridley and his work on rubber is remembered in the SBG Heritage Centre.

Green is a colour that paints the Botanics is beautifully. Home to numerous heritage trees, it also is a showcase of more than 10,000 tropical plants. Offers an escape many seek from the insanity and clutter of the urban world, its wide open lawns provide our young with the space necessary to learn that life is not just about virtual play. The same lawns have given great service to society. One, was to provide the space for the first Aneka Ragam Ra’ayat or People’s Variety Show that drew a crowd of 22,000. The shows were an initiative to help unify Singaporeans in the early days of full self-government and started in 1959. 

Space to run free.

Space to run free.

One of several heritage trees.

One of several heritage trees.

My first acquaintance with the Gardens came about in my earliest of years. On the evidence of my childhood albums and the long lasting fascination I had with sundials and black swans, many of my early interactions with the SBG would have taken place in the Tanglin Core, the oldest part of the gardens. This part of the Gardens is where many of its heritage sites are to be found, including Singapore’s the first ornamental body of water, Swan Lake, which was completed in 1866. Several of the Gardens’ icons can be found close to the lake such as the famous tembusu tree that has found its way to the back of our five-dollar note, the Bandstand – a popular spot for wedding photographs to be taken at, and Swan Lake Gazebo. The cast iron gazebo harks back to a forgotten age and is one that graced the Royal Navy’s Commander-in-Chief’s one time residence (at old Admiralty House on Grange Road, which was demolished in the 1960s to allow the 2nd Raffles Institution campus to be built).

My introduction to the sundial at the Botanical Gardens in 1966.

When I first met the acquaintance of the sundial.

The iconic tembusu tree attracts large crowds.

The iconic tembusu tree attracts large crowds.

Dynamic supports developed by ST Kinetics now support the outstretched branch of the tembusu on which many previously posed for photographs.

Dynamic supports developed by ST Kinetics now support the outstretched branch of the tembusu on which many previously posed for photographs.

Swan Lake, Singapore's first ornamental lake.

Swan Lake, Singapore’s first ornamental lake.

One of the tiniest species of bats, the bamboo bat, can be found roosting in the Gardens.

A bamboo clump – one of the tiniest species of bats, the bamboo bat, can be found roosting in the Gardens.

A wider view of Swan Lake.

A wider view of Swan Lake.

The Bandstand is a popular spot for wedding photography.

The Bandstand is a popular spot for wedding photography.

The cast iron Victorian Swan Lake Gazebo, previously of Old Admiralty House at Grange Road.

The cast iron Victorian Swan Lake Gazebo, previously of Old Admiralty House at Grange Road.

Also within the Tanglin Core, is an old building that offers cool relief, especially on a hot day, Holttum Hall. Built in 1920, the two storey bungalow, one of four conserved bungalows found on the site (more information on which can be found at the Urban Redevelopment Authorty (URA) Conservation Portal), now houses the SBG Heritage Museum.  The hall is close to the Botany Centre – one of the visitor gateways into the Gardens and holds a wealth of information in its interactive and multimedia exhibits on the work that went on in the gardens and its role in the proliferation of rubber as a crop.

The SBG Heritage Centre in Holttum Hall.

The SBG Heritage Centre in Holttum Hall.

An exhibit showing the herringbone pattern developed by Ridley to tap rubber.

An exhibit showing the herringbone pattern developed by Ridley to tap rubber.

One of the things I was surprised to learn about the SBG, was that what is thought to be the oldest and largest orchid plant in the world, can be found on its grounds. The plant, a clump of tiger orchid, wears a rather undignified appearance. Measuring some 5 metres in diameter, it is thought to be the one planted in 1861 by Lawrence Niven, the SBG’s first superintendent who is credited with its development, just two years after the Gardens was established.

The oldest orchid?

The oldest orchid?

Flowers belonging to the world's oldest orchid plant.

Flowers belonging to the world’s oldest orchid plant.

Another interesting site is at Plant House. Here, arrows can be found marked into several of the red bricks of its steps, the significance of which only came to light in 1995, when a group of former prisoners of war visiting from Australia told of how the arrows got on the bricks. Apparently the arrows, a symbol then commonly used to mark government property, were marked by the POWs involved, as an act of defiance. More on this story (and also of Lawrence Niven) can be found here.

The steps of plant house.

The steps of plant house.

A close-up of the bricks used to make the steps - with arrows seen on some of them.

A close-up of the bricks used to make the steps – with arrows seen on some of them.

Adjoining the Tanglin Core and to its north is the Central Core. Here, laid out over the highest point of the grounds, one finds the National Orchid Garden. Opened by Singapore’s first prime minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew in 1995, the National Orchid Garden celebrates its 20th anniversary on 20 October.  In it, the visitor will find over 1000 species and 2000 hybrids of orchids on display, making it an especially colourful site. Nestled in the midst all that colour is is another of the SBG’s four conserved bungalows, Burkill Hall. A former plantation owner’s bungalow built in 1886, it now is rented out as an event venue. The National Orchid Garden is also where the most vandalised tree in Botanics can be found. As part of the celebration of its 20th anniversary, SG50 and SBG’s UNESCO World Heritage Site inscription, admission into the National Orchid Garden will be free until the 31st of August for all resident in Singapore (this includes Singapore citizens, permanent residents and others residing in Singapore such as EP, Work Permit and Dependent Pass holders).

Burkill Hall.

Burkill Hall.

The most vandalised tree.

The most vandalised tree.

A close-up of it.

A close-up of it.

The National Orchid Garden is a riot of colour with some 1000 species of orchids on display.

The National Orchid Garden is a riot of colour with some 1000 species of orchids on display.

SBG Director Dr Nigel Taylor with National Orchid Garden nursery manager David Lim.

SBG Director Dr Nigel Taylor with National Orchid Garden nursery manager David Lim.

The National Orchid Garden seen through the porch of Burkill Hall.

The National Orchid Garden seen through the porch of Burkill Hall.

It seems these days that no attraction in Singapore is compelete without something to tempt the palate. The SBG these days certainly isn’t short of this with its range of gastronomical delights found in the abundance of the food and beverage outlets now found in the Gardens. One of these outlets can be found close to the National Orchid Garden, set in the tranquility of the Ginger Garden. This, the ginger themed restaurant Halia at Singapore Botanic Gardens, seems to have been caught up in the celebratory mood and has come up with a special SG50 menu of orchid inspired desserts and beverages. Orchid tea blends from the SBG Gardens Shop feature in the beverages, two cocktails, Yam Seng and 1965, and a mocktail, Singapore Jubilee.

A ginger plant inspired mural at the Ginger Garden.

A ginger plant inspired mural at the Ginger Garden.

Halia at SBG.

Halia at SBG.

Ginger and Gold at Halia.

Ginger and Gold at Halia.

White and Lapis.

White and Lapis.

SG50 Cocktails at Halia.

SG50 Cocktails at Halia.

Nassim Gate Visitor Centre, which lies northeast of the Ginger Garden, are where another two F&B outlets can be found. One, the Casa Verde, which touts itself as a “casual trattoria”, offers casual dining. On its menu over the National Day period (from 3rd to 17th August 2015, served from 12pm to 2.45pm but not on weekends and public holidays), several local favourites curated by its chef Danny Tan, can be selected. The dishes, Singapore Laksa, Mee Siam, Mee Rebus, and Char Kway Teow, are priced reasonably and have a soft drink thrown in. Diners at the tratorria can also look forward to its National Day celebration when its fresh oven baked pizzas come with a 50% discount on 9 August from 11.30 am to 5.45 pm. Casa Verde will also run a Kids Pizza Making workshop on 7 August at 2 pm as part of the celebration.

Offerings at Casa Verde for the National Day period.

Offerings at Casa Verde for the National Day period.

A stone’s throw away from the “green house”, we find Corner House, set in a beautifully restored conserved two-storey bungalow, E J H Corner House. The fine-dining restaurant offers the Gastro-Botanica creations of Chef Jason Tan and to mark the country’s 5oth birthday and the restaurant’s first anniversary, Chef Tan is presenting his Celebratory Discovery Menu (available until 16 August 2015 – for dinner only). The menu takes diners on an eight course journey that traces the various stages in the development of Singapore’s culinary scene. Each course reinterprets the chef’s favourite dishes along that journey, which I must say is pretty impressively on the basis of two items on the menu I got to have a taste of, one of which the Remembering Oyster Omelette. That does have me recall the flavour of the real hawker dish, and one with which I found myself transported back at first bite to that car park opposite Cold Storage that became known as Gluttons’ Square.

Corner House.

Corner House – The Verandah.

The Reading Room.

The Reading Room.

The Claret Corner.

The Claret Corner.

The Claret Corner.

The Claret Corner.

Remembering Oyster Omelette.

Remembering Oyster Omelette.

Chef Jason Tan.

Chef Jason Tan.

My Corner of the World - Durian Bread and Butter Pudding.

My Corner of the World – Durian Bread and Butter Pudding.

Delightful salted egg macarons served after each meal.

Delightful salted egg macarons served after each meal.

For those for whom only the real hawker fare will complete an outing to Botanics, one can, rather surprisingly, find a food court on the grounds of the SBG, Food Canopy. While it may not offer the same fare as the food centre at Taman Serasi many from my generation miss, the food court, tucked away in a quiet corner of the Bukit Timah Core (close to the MOE  Co-Curricular Activities Branch, CCAB), offers a choice of hawker fare with its seven stalls. One of these, is the Di Wei Teo Chew Restaurant, which offers Teochew classics such as cold crab, chye poh kway teow, pan-fried pomfret, yam rings and Teochew yam strips.

Cold crab and chye poh kway teow.

Cold crab and chye poh kway teow.

For the those with a sweet tooth, Teochew yam strips.

For the those with a sweet tooth, Teochew yam strips.

Besides the food on offer, visitors to the SBG over the so-named Jubilee Weekend (7 to 9 August 2015), will find a host of activities to celebrate independent Singapore’s 5oth anniversary, including a carnival at the Bandstand and Orchid Plaza with activities and food offerings that include some that bring back the good old days.  There will also be a reenactment of the People’s Variety Show, movie screenings and concerts to look forward to. The SBG’s Shaw Foundation Symphony Stage will, on the evening of 9 August, provide an alternative site to catch a live-screening of the National Day Parade from. More information on the activities over the weekend can be found at the NParks SBG Jubilee Weekend page.

The Gardens Shop.

Offerings at the Gardens Shop – no visit is complete without dropping by.


The old university town of Alcalá de Henares

21 04 2015

I love old university towns and I got to have a look at one of Spain’s oldest, Alcalá de Henares, quite recently. The university established there had its origins in 1293 as Estudio de Escuelas Generales de Alcalá and became the University of Compultense (Universitas Complutensis) in 1499 through the vision of a important church figure at the time as Spain was entering into its Golden Age, a move that was to transform the former college to one of Spain’s most important seats of learning and also lead to the expansion of Alcalá into a planned university town. Although the university has since been moved to Madrid, the city of Alcalá de Henares’ still retains much of the flavour of the old university town and has seen a revival of the old university as the University of Alcalá in more recent times.

A courtyard inside the historic Colegio de San Ildefonso of the University of University of Alcalá.

A courtyard inside the historic Colegio de San Ildefonso of the University of University of Alcalá.

I arrived in Alcalá de Henares in the quiet of a Saturday morning and the first glimpse I had of the city was of its quiet, neat and ordered streets lined with brick and sandstone buildings coloured gold by the light of the morning sun. Alcalá, some 30 kilometres from Madrid, seemed distant enough to be isolated from the hustle and bustle of Spain’s capital city; the dignified air of calm unsurprising perhaps of a city that was reinvented as a seat of learning.

A peek at Alcalá de Henares.

There is much more than meets the eye in Alcalá de Henares.

A street in Alcalá de Henares.

A street in Alcalá de Henares.

What does surprise in Alcalá is that perhaps there is much more of it than its early weekend demeanour does suggest,  the city’s glitter is one that glows not just due to to golden light of the morning, but the that of the city’s fascinatingly storied past.  The city’s rich history, which has been recognised by the listing of its historic and university precincts have been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1998, goes back well beyond the university or even the Moorish origins of its name, Alcalá – derived from the Arabic Al-Qal’at or fortress. This I was to very quickly realise two hours into my stay in the city.

The quiet streets of the university precinct on a Saturday morning,

The quiet streets of the university precinct on a Saturday morning.


My visit to Alcalá de Henares was the first stop in what was to turn out to be an amazing journey that also included visits to four other UNESCO World Heritage cities close to Madrid. The trip was made possible by the Spanish World Heritage Cities Group (Ciudades Patrimonio de la Humanidad de España), the Spanish Tourism Board and Thai Airways. Alcalá de Henares, located close to Madrid’s Barajas airport, made it a very convenient first stop.

City Hall.

City Hall as seen from Plaza de Cervantes.

Another view of the university precinct.

Another view of the university precinct.

One of the things that becomes very quickly apparent about Alcalá, is its association with Spain’s most celebrated literary figure, Miguel de Cervantes; Cervantes’ work, Don Quixote, an icon of a masterpiece that is considered to be one of the most important works in Spanish literature. Alcalá is where the famous writer came into the world during the days of the Spanish Golden Age and Alcalá’s heyday in 1547, and in Alcalá, we find all things Cervantes, including in and around the city’s main square that is very predictably named after him.

The statue of Cervantes in the centre of Plaza de Cervantes.

The statue of Cervantes in the centre of Plaza de Cervantes.

The main square, Plaza de Cervantes, is where the medieval town of Alcalá and the post-medieval university town meet. The formerly walled medieval town in which there was a Arab, Jewish and Chirstian quarter, lies to the east of the square. To the west is the university town and its ordered streets. In the centre of the square, the centre perhaps of Cervantes’ Alcalá, is where the writer is immortalised in a statue that stands high over the square, holding a quill in his hand.

The northern half of Plaza de Cervantes.

The northern half of Plaza de Cervantes.

Plaza de Cervantes by night.

Plaza de Cervantes by night.

It was to the square that I headed out to almost as soon as I put my bags down at the hotel, resisting the urge to climb into the very inviting king sized bed in the beautifully furnished room of the hotel. This despite the lack of sleep having stepped off only hours before from  the 12 hour intercontinental flight.

The rooms of the parador as seen from the very peaceful roof top garden.

The rooms of the parador as seen from the very peaceful roof top garden.

The room in the parador.

The room in the parador.

The hotel, Alcalá de Henares’ is surprisingly modern as a Parador. Surprising because the limited experiences I have had of staying in a paradors, were of ones in which the tone of the decor of the rooms seemed to match the history of the buildings they would be found in. Paradors, luxury hotels run by the Spanish government, are usually found in historic buildings such as former palaces, castles and monasteries.

The parador in Alcalá.

The parador in Alcalá.

The cloisters of the former Convento Santo Tomas.

The cloisters of the former Convento Santo Tomas.

The old and the new parts of the parador.

The old and the new parts of the parador.

In the case of the parador in Alcalá, while it is rather interestingly set up in a 17th Century former Dominican monastery, the Convento de Santo Tomás that has also seen use as a military barracks in the 19th century and a prison in more recent times, its transformation into a parador has given it an ultra modern feel. The parador’s beautifully furnished rooms and spa, does make it all that more difficult to want to leave its premises.

Another view of the cloisters - through a second level window.

Another view of the cloisters – through a second level window.

The roof top garden by night.

The roof top garden by night.

At Plaza de Cervantes, the gaze of a Cervantes is towards the the plaza’s north. Following his gaze and turning west is one of the main cobbled streets of the medieval Jewish quarter, the Calle Mayor, along which the house in which Cervantes was born is found. Furnished with furniture from the era, the two-storey house with an inner courtyard typical of old Castille, is now a museum that is a must visit, especially for all interested in Cervantes’ life and work.

Calle Mayor in the medieval quarter.

Calle Mayor in the medieval quarter.

Another look at Calle Mayor.

Another look at Calle Mayor.

The birthplace of Cervantes.

The birthplace of Cervantes.

My travel companions in the courtyard of the birthplace of Cervantes.

My travel companions in the courtyard of the birthplace of Cervantes.

An exhibit depicting a scene from a puppet play at the birthplace of Cervantes.

An exhibit depicting a scene from a puppet play at the birthplace of Cervantes.

Furnishings for a sanitary  room from the period.

Furnishings for a sanitary room from the period.

The dining room.

The dining room.

It was just past Cervantes’ birthplace on the Calle Mayor that a link to pre-Moorish past was to leap out at me to the beat of of a march. Making its way down the street was a religious procession. While being one very typical in the sense of the Iberian traditions as well as one commemorating a post medieval event, the 1568 return of the relics of city’s patron saints, “los Santos Niños”, Saints Justus and Pastor, the procession also tells of Alcalá’s links to Roman times. The saints, both children, had been martyred for their faith in the year 304 AD, at a time when a Roman settlement, Complutum, was established there.

The statues of los Santos Niños being led through the streets of the medieval quarter.

The statues of los Santos Niños being led through the streets of the medieval quarter.

Figures seen during the procession.

Figures seen during the procession.

Don Quixote meets the procession along Calle Mayor.

Don Quixote meets the procession along Calle Mayor.

Plaza de Cervantes being at the divide of the old and new Alcalá, is always a good place to start with orientating oneself with Alcalá, especially when one gets to do so high above it with an ascent of 109 steps to the top of the tower of Santa María (Torre de Santa María). Located at the square’s southern edge, the 15th century tower that was the bell tower of the Church of Santa María la Mayor, is one of the few parts of the church that escaped destruction during Spanish Civil War. The view it provides, besides that of a close-up of the storks that seem to be nesting and roosting on top of just about every red rooftop and the spire in the city, is unparalleled and provides a sense of how the city had evolved.

Torre de Santa Maria.

Torre de Santa Maria.

Nesting storks perched on a spire.

Nesting storks perched on a spire.

A stork in flight.

A stork in flight.

A view south from the tower.

A view south from the tower.

The view north across Plaza de Cervantes. The medieval quarter is to the left of teh square and the university precinct to the right.

The view north across Plaza de Cervantes. The medieval quarter is to the left of the square and the university precinct to the right.

Lying in the shadows of the tower, are some of what has survived of the ruined church. One of the attractions the ruins contain is a reproduction of its destroyed baptismal font with pieces of the original font embedded into it. The original font was the one that featured in Cervantes’ baptism in October 1547 and its recreation can now found in the surviving El Oidor chapel. The chapel along with the Antezana chapel are where an Interpretation Centre for the Universes of Cervantes (Los Universos de Cervantes) is now housed. What is also interesting is that the archway that leads to the El Oidor chapel is beautifully decorated with a 16th century grille and beautifully executed Mudéjar plasterwork.

Inside the El Oidor chapel.

Inside the El Oidor chapel.

The 16th century grille and the arch decorated with Mudéjar plasterwork at the entrance to the El Oidor chapel.

The 16th century grille and the arch decorated with Mudéjar plasterwork at the entrance to the El Oidor chapel.

A piece of the original font that is embedded into the reproduction.

A piece of the original font that is embedded into the reproduction.

Besides the ruins, there are also several other interesting historical structures around the square. One I was able to visit is in the south-eastern corner close to the tower, a two-storey Castilian courtyard building from the 16th century that served as a guesthouse or hostel for university students. The house’s structure has been well preserved along with the courtyard and its laundry well. Used by the municipality in more recent times, two rooms on the upper floor of the building have now been reoccupied by the university.

The courtyard of the hostel.

The courtyard of the hostel.

The laundry well.

The laundry well.

A structure of significance lies on the western side of the square. This, the Corral de Comedias, constructed as an open air or courtyard theatre or corral de comedias in 1601, is the oldest in the country to have survived and also one of the oldest theatres still in use in Europe.

Inside the Corral de Comedias.

Inside the Corral de Comedias.

The stage and the space below the stage, which includes a well.

The stage and the space below the stage, which includes a well.

Modelled after Spain’s first purpose built theatre, the Corral de la Cruz, Alcalá’s corral was originally laid out as all early purpose built theatres in Spain were, replicating the layout and arrangement found in the makeshift theatres that preceded them. The makeshift theatres utilised courtyards of inns and houses and had a stage placed at one end and as with the makeshift arrangements, the purpose-built ones that were a natural progression also featured balconies and boxes on the upper levels of the three free sides, where the audience, segregated according to social status and gender, could watch the performance from.

Stage machinery.

Stage machinery.

The Corral de Comedias before restoration (source: http://www.corraldealcala.com)

Over time, the Corral de Comedias underwent several transfromations, including the addition of the horseshoe shaped theatrical seating facing the stage in 1831. From 1945 to 1971, the theatre saw use as a cinema, after which it was abandoned. It wasn’t until the 1980s that a massive effort was made to restore it, which was completed only in 2003 when the grand dame’s dignity was restored through its use as a theatre.

The restoration has uncovered some of the original foundations.

The restoration has uncovered some of the original foundations.

As well as provided an idea of the width of the original theatre boxes.

As well as provided an idea of the width of the original theatre boxes.

One of the surprising things I learnt about Alcalá, was that it was here that the seeds of the Spanish sponsored adventure led by Christopher Columbus into the new world was planted. The city, serving as the location of the first meeting of the Venetian with Queen Isabella and where the expedition was planned, the events taking place in and around the very majestic Archbishop’s palace tucked away in an area of the city northwest of the main square.

A statue of Isabella by the Archbishop's Palace.

A statue of Isabella by the Archbishop’s Palace.

The palace is especially interesting in that it was built as a residence for the Archbishop of Toledo, the highest ranking member of the clergy in the Catholic church in Spain and through much of Castille’s and Spain’s history, one of the country’s most influential positions, in 1209. Its architecture bears the influences of its long history and within its walls resided not just powerful church men, bit also served as the residence of kings and queens, including Ferdinand and Isabella and in which their daughter Catherine of Aragon, the future first wife of Henry VIII and the Queen of England, was born in 1485. It the annulment of marriage to Catherine that Henry’ sought that was to lead to the split of the English Church from Papal authority in the 1530s.

The Archbishop's  Palace, built in 1209 as the residence of the Archbishop of Toledo.

The Archbishop’s Palace, built in 1209 as the residence of the Archbishop of Toledo.

The Church, or rather an important member of its leadership, was to have a significant influence on the revival of the city’s fortunes, which fell into decline following the expulsion of the Jews in 1496. Cardinal Cisneros, Queen Isabella’s one time confessor and a powerful member of the clergy, established a university in 1499 that was to become one of Spain’s most important seats of learning. The buildings of the university, which would be centered around the magnificent edifice of the Colegio de San Ildefonso put up by Cisneros east of the medieval town, to which I will devote more detail to in a separate post, has to be one of the highlights of a visit to Alcalá.

The Colegio de San Ildefonso built by Cardinal Cisneros.

The Colegio de San Ildefonso built by Cardinal Cisneros.

A visit to Alcalá, as in the rest of Spain, would of course, not be complete without indulging in its gastronomic offerings. There is a mix of old and new, traditional and fusion that can be found along the city’s streets. The parador for one, offers two restaurants, in which a full meal can be savoured for a reasonable outlay and is great value for money. One is in the more traditional setting of the Restaurante Hostería del Estudiante across the street from the main lobby of the parador at the former Colegio Menor de San Jerónimo. The other in a more contemporary setting of the Restaurante de Santo Tomás set in the cloisters of the former Convento de Santo Tomás.

The traditional setting of the Restaurante Hostería del Estudiante.

The traditional setting of the Restaurante Hostería del Estudiante.

There is also the chance to savour the more modern interpretations of traditional dishes in more contemporary settings in Alcalá, with restaurants such Plademunt in the quiet streets of the new part of the city and Ambigú in the historic quarter, just by the Teatro Salón Cervantes. Both restaurants are helmed by  young culinary talents. On offer at Plademunt are the extraordinary tapas creations of Ivan Plademunt that feature some very traditional and hearty working class comfort foods from the region such as migas and atascaburras as well as pinchos of pintxos from the Basque country.



Migas, a traditional dish made from a base of breadcrumbs.

Migas, a traditional dish made from a base of breadcrumbs.

Ivan Plademunt demonstrating how Atascaburras is made.

Ivan Plademunt demonstrating how Atascaburras is made.



The Teatro Salón Cervantes on Calle Cervantes.

The Teatro Salón Cervantes on Calle Cervantes.

Ambigú’s offerings include many favourites including grilled octopus, sardines and a dessert to die for, torrija. The utterly sinful dessert, traditionally served during Lent and the Holy Week, is made from a base of bread soaked in milk and is similar to the English bread and butter pudding, only better!





Offerings at Ambigú include the utterly sinful torrija.

Offerings at Ambigú include the utterly sinful torrija.

It was a pity lunch at Ambigú can on the back of a visit to Esencias Del Gourmet on Calle Mayor just around Cervantes’s birthplace . The proprietor of Esencias Del Gourmet holds a fun yet enlightening food and wine appreciation experience, which was to provide me not only with a much better appreciation of wine and how fine foods can complement wine and bring out its flavours, but also a full stomach that left me with little room for much more.

Esencias Del Gourmet on Calle Mayor.

Esencias Del Gourmet on Calle Mayor.

Wine appreciation experience at Esencias del Gourmet.

Wine appreciation experience at Esencias del Gourmet.

Unseen Alcalá - the former Women's prison behind the parador.

Unseen Alcalá – the former women’s prison behind the parador.

The entrance to the former women's prison after dark.

The entrance to the former women’s prison after dark.


My Shanghai Story: the arrival of Spring

8 05 2014

The arrival of Spring, Spring Airlines that is, did spring me a pleasant surprise. That came in the form of an to, quite literally as it did turn out, soak Shanghai up over a weekend, the weekend that coincided with the launch of the Shanghai based Low Cost Carrier’s Shanghai to Singapore route.

The iconic former Normandie Apartments in the former French Concession of Shanghai - a pleasant Spring surprise that did await me.

A survivor from the treaty port era of Shanghai, the iconic former Normandie Apartments in the former French Concession of Shanghai – a Spring surprise that awaited me in Shanghai.

The launch of the route, coupled with the no-frills carrier’s attractive fares (overall, Spring’s fares are said to be some 30% below their competitors), does make Shanghai, just five hours away, a rather appealing destination for that short break away from Singapore.

The attractive fares it offers does put Spring Airlines on your mind when it comes to a trip to Shanghai.

The attractive fares it offers does put Spring Airlines on your mind when it comes to a trip to Shanghai.

Spring, which was founded in 2005 and operates a fleet of Airbus A320 aircraft – one of the world’s youngest fleets, sells its tickets directly through their website and mobile apps. Flying over 50 routes, which are mostly domestic, it does have offer several international destinations in Japan, with the latest offering being Singapore.

A high-five to Spring.

A high-five to Spring.

More than any other city in China, Shanghai has a fascinating mix of the vestiges of what was a rather colourful past together with the emblems of its current renaissance driven by its position as the financial centre of a booming land of opportunity. Within easy reach of several other popular culturally rich destinations such as Suzhou and Hangzhou and several water towns, Shanghai does seem to have it all for the traveller, whether on a short break or on a lengthier trip. A big plus is the excellent public transport network does make travelling to many of its attractions quite a breeze. In its shops, cafés, and eateries, ranging from the trendy to the traditional, as well as its bazaars and markets, it does have an appeal for many especially so from Singapore.

On the Metro, a convenient means to move around the city.

On the Metro, a convenient means to move around the city.

Taxis, which are metered and are rather affordable, are also a good way to move around, although communication can sometimes be difficult, and many taxi drivers do often take tourists on a roundabout route.

Taxis, which are metered and are rather affordable, are also a good way to move around, although communication can sometimes be difficult, and many taxi drivers do often take tourists on a roundabout route.

I had two full days at my disposal. While that didn’t quite give me enough time to fully appreciate what the city and its environs did have to offer, the Shanghai I did see, even on what did turn out to be a rain soaked weekend, did have a huge appeal to both the photographer and the traveller in me.

Rain falling off the roof of Huxinting Teahouse.

Rain falling off the roof of Huxinting Teahouse.

The rain did bring an air of freshness and joy to the streets of Shanghai, offering an alternative perspective of Shanghai and its many sights from the umbrella painted pedestrian malls, vendors touting umbrellas at Metro station exits, to reflections of Shanghai’s famous lights colouring its nighttime streets.  The rain did not as well dampen any of what Shanghai is to me all about, a city rich in contrasts and with it contradictions in its mix of old and new, tradition and modernity, and in a heritage that tells us of the meeting of east and west, a meeting that has as much to do with the clash of civilisations as it has about the embrace the civilisations did also find themselves locked into.

The neon coloured glow of Century Square  along Nanjing Road in the rain.

The neon coloured glow of Century Square along Nanjing Road in the rain.

The traditional garden - the must-see Yu Garden in the Old City that dates back to the Ming Dynasty.

The traditional Suzhou style Chinese garden – the must-see Yu Garden in the Old City that dates back to the days of the Ming Dynasty.

A western style garden setting in Xujiahui Park with the building that was the former offices of the Pathé record company.

A western style garden setting in Xujiahui Park with the building that was the former offices of the Pathé (later EMI) record company.

The T'ou Sé Wé Museum, looks at the Jesuit run Orphanage that dates back to the 19th Century that is touted as the  cradle of western influenced modern Chinese arts and craft.

The T’ou Sé Wé Museum, looks at the Jesuit run Orphanage that dates back to the 19th Century. The orphanage is touted as the cradle of western influenced modern Chinese arts and craft – an example of the embrace of the civilisations.

The contrasts and contradictions that gives Shanghai its soul is indeed very much in evidence all around. It is in Shanghai that one can take as much pleasure from sipping tea in a traditional teahouse with centuries of history behind it, as in chilling out over a slice of cheesecake and a cup of espresso in one of the many hip cafés that line the streets of what is today a very Bohemian part of Shanghai in the former French Concession.

Ferguson Lane in the former French Concession and its modern cafes.

Ferguson Lane in the former French Concession with its modern cafés is one of the places to be seen.

Tea in the Huxinting Teahouse, which has a centuries old tradition.

Tea in the Huxinting Teahouse, which has a centuries old tradition.

The contradictions are very apparent in the tourist sites of the old city.

The contradictions are very apparent in the tourist sites of the old city.

The tree-line streets of the former French Concession does seem to transport you far away from China.

The tree-line streets of the former French Concession does seem to transport you far away from China.

The contrasts one will find does certainly not end in the places to chill-out at. From hairdressers, to eateries and places to shop at, sometimes just a few doors away from each other, to Shanghai’s public spaces; the collisions of time, cultures, and even ideologies, seemingly at odds with each other are very much in evidence. All of this does provide Shanghai with a rather unique flavour and one that for me is the Shanghai Story that the city did tell and it is this story I hope will come out in the posts on My Shanghai Adventure that will follow.

An old world hairdresser seemingly out of place in the now very chic former French Concession.

An old world hairdresser seemingly out of place in the now very chic former French Concession.

In contrast with shopping in less trendy settings at the Dongtai Road Antiques Market.

Shopping in the rough: Dongtai Road Antiques Market, which is full of atmosphere. Sadly, I am told the market will make way for redevelopment very soon.

Shopping at the brightly lit and trendy Nanjing Road.

In contrast, the the brightly lit Nanjing Road, provides a more sophisticated shopping experience.

Shanghai is a city that is comfortable with its many contrasts and contradictions.

Shanghai is a city that does seem at ease with its many contrasts and contradictions.

About Spring Airlines Shanghai to Singapore Route

Spring Airlines is China’s first and only low-cost airline, which was founded in 2005 by Spring Travel and has become a dominant player in the domestic travel market in China. Currently Spring Airlines offers flights on the Shanghai (Pudong Airport) to Singapore route three times a week. Each ticket comes with 15 kg baggage allowance (inclusive of cabin baggage). Do also look out for some of the really good travel deals Spring does also offer from time-to-time including a current offer for flights from Singapore (for travel up to 31 May 2014) that includes two nights free accommodation in a five-star hotel in Shanghai (more information including terms and conditions can be found on the Spring Airlines website).


Spring Airlines has a huge online presence (in fact their website and mobile apps account for all of their ticket bookings), and besides their website, they can be found on Facebook, Instagram, and can also be contacted through Skype (id: springairlines001).

A view inside Spring's A320 passenger cabin.

A view inside Spring’s A320 passenger cabin (click to enlarge).


We did once enjoy getting hit by a ball

28 03 2014

This photograph, which was taken at a school yard during my wanderings to Kathmandu in Nepal in April 2011, takes me back to my own days in primary school some four decades ago, when children looked forward to the opportunities for physical activity and outdoor play that presented itself during recess time as well as before and after school hours. It didn’t matter then that we would be sweaty, our uniforms often bearing the marks left by balls or through falling during play. It was pure fun and a perfect way to interact.

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Many of the games we played in the expansive fields involved a good run around. Games such as “catching”, football, rounders were popular, as was the game that the photograph does remind me of, “hentam bola“, or as we did pronounce it, “hantam bola“.

Translated from Malay as “hit with (or by) a ball”, although grammatically not quite correct, the game involved a player, singled out as one who “pasang” – who initially would have drawn the short straw through a selection process that might have involved mini-games of chance (a common one used was “oh-bey-som“, similar to rock, paper, scissors).

Played in an open field, the objective of “hentam bola” for the “pasang” was to chase the other players (who would be trying to give the “pasang” a run around), and attempt to hit another player by throwing a ball with as much strength as one could muster. A successful hit would mean that the player hit would be the next to throw the ball. The ball we used was a small compressed air filled rubber ball, which could sometimes do some damage, not just to the players, but to glass panes in windows and doors.

It is sad that the outdoors feature less in children’s play in Singapore these days, not just due to the gadget age, but also with open space at a premium – many schools have sacrificed parts of their great outdoors for the greater indoors in the form of sports halls and the opportunity for such outdoor play does seem to be greatly reduced.

Borobudur in the light of darkness

13 12 2013

It was in the semi-darkness of a rain washed December’s afternoon that I first set eyes on Borobudur. Even through the dreariness of the semi-darkness, it wasn’t difficult to be taken by the splendour of the temple built over a hill – one that has been described to be the world’s largest Buddhist sanctuary. There seemed also to be an air of mystery surrounding the temple, heightened perhaps by the mood the fast shifting clouds overhead provided in painting the elaborately decorated stepped structure with changing patterns of darkness and filtered light.

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There is certainly much mystery about the age ravaged pyramid shaped structure that rises on the Kedu Plain some 42 kilometres northwest of the city of Yogyakarta in Central Java. Thought to have been built in the 8th and 9th century (between 750 and 842), well before the famed temples of Angkor took shape, not much is understood as to the motivation for what must have been a monumental effort – its construction involved bringing in and working some 60,000 cubic metres of Mount Merapi stone (some 2 million pieces in all). Fiction does accompany fact, in the many stories we do hear of its construction today.

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Legend, as told by a seemingly well-informed guide, Budi, does have it that Borobudur was the work of giants – one lies asleep to protect the structure from destruction in the near distance. A glance across the plain in the direction of Budi’s finger reveals the Menoreh range, the ridge line of which does appear to trace the outline of a gigantic sleeping man which some accounts say is Gunadharma, who has also been attributed as the architect of the temple.

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Whether it has been through a divine hand, or due to the protection offered by the sleeping giant, the monument has, quite remarkably, stood for well over a thousand years. This, despite the fact that Borobudur does lie in the shadow of what has been Indonesia’s most active volcano, Mount Merapi, and also in an area in which earthquakes are not an infrequent occurrence.

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It is also equally remarkable, that we do today get to celebrate the wonder that is Borobudur. Abandoned as far back as the 11th century, it was subsequently forgotten as Islam spread across Java. For over eight centuries the abandoned temple was to lie crumbling and well hidden from sight. Buried not just in volcanic ash from Mount Merapi’s frequent eruptions, but also behind a wall of overgrown trees, it wasn’t until 1814 that the then Lieutenant Governor of Java, Sir Stamford Raffles, uncovered the long lost monument.

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The immense work of devotion sits on a base measuring 119 metres square over which the temple’s nine terraces rise – which takes the shape of a Mandala when viewed from above. The terraces, the first six are square and the three topmost ones are circular, are pathways around which a pilgrim circles on a journey of spiritual learning which takes the pilgrim around and upwards towards the summit. There are three levels on the journey the pilgrim takes, levels which correspond to the stages that the Bodhisattva must pass through in the journey to Enlightenment: Kamadhatu, Rupadhatu and Arupadhatu – the last being the stage when the soul departs from the body to unite with the gods in Nirvana.

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The path the pilgrim takes which provides a deeper understanding of how Nirvana can be achieved, would have been a rather long one. The journey involves a study of and reflection on reliefs which depict scenes which provide lessons in morality and spirituality, taking a pilgrim from the east on a clockwise path three times around each level. This would allow the study in sequence of three rows of reliefs on each of the two lower levels, Kamadhatu and Rupadhatu – one row lines the balustrade with another two lining the terrace’s inner walls, involving a total of 1460 reliefs (there are another 1212 panels of decorative reliefs).

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At the Arupadhatu level, the appearance of the three tiers which form it, departs from the relief heavy lower levels. Without the balustrades of the lower tiers, the level offers a magnificent view of the plain surrounding the temple, through the stupas arranged on each tier. There are 72 small stupas in all with a large stupa right in the centre which tops the structure. The smaller stupas are constructed with openings in them, through which the images of Buddhas can be seen and also touched. 32 are found around the edge of the lowermost of the top three terraces, followed 24 on the next tier and 16 on the topmost tier.

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One of the touristy things one can do is to join the popular sunrise or sunset tour organised by Manohara Hotel – the only hotel that is within the grounds of the temple (Manohara, which lies a short distance away from the temple, while not the best hotel around, is the place to stay if you do intend to visit Borobudur – rooms are taken up rather fast, and it will be best to book well ahead of your visit). This is highly recommended as you do get some rather stunning views against the colours painted by the rising or setting sun. Unfortunately the skies conspired not to allow me the pleasure of that, although I was able once again to capture the temple in a rather different mood.

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While I am not a very spiritual person, the visit to Borobudur did fill me with the sense of calm and perhaps a sense of contemplation – possibly in the same way it the sanctuary was to have imparted this to its pilgrims of a thousand years before. The visit did also fill me with a sense of awe for what could be achieved through the sheer determination of the human spirit – in erecting a monument of devotion, more so than gazing at the great cathedrals of Europe or the temples of Angkor have done. It is for this that I shall return one day to gaze once more at its splendour and perhaps walk the pilgrim path in search of the peace that comes with reaching its summit.

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Useful information on Borobudur:

COLLECTIE TROPENMUSEUM Luchtfoto van de Borobudur TMnr 10015636
An aerial view of Borobudur

(source: Tropenmuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

More photographs of Borobudur and its reliefs

Borobudur by night as seen from the Manohara.

Borobudur by night as seen from the Manohara.

The sleeping giant in the distance lending protection to the temple.

The sleeping giant in the distance lending protection to the temple.

Reliefs lining a lower terrace,

Reliefs lining a lower terrace.

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Globalisation in an ancient world

23 10 2013

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

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Autumn in Kyoto

22 11 2012

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

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

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

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

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

Another view of the Hozugawa (保津川).

Higashiyama (東山区).

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

Ginkakuji (銀閣寺) ,the Silver Pavilion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Along the Philosopher’s Walk (哲学の道).

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eikando (永観堂) Temple night illuminations.

Useful Links:

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

A walk through Japan’s largest cemetery

20 11 2012

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

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

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

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

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

An area close to the entrance to the cemetery.

The tree-lined path through the cemetery.

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

Nakano-hashi, the second bridge.

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

Sugatami-no-ido, the Well of Reflections.

Moss covered gravestones.

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

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

A shrine in the woods.

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

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

Pilgrims crossing the Gobyo-bashi.

Votive tablets placed in the Tamagawa.

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

The cemetery also has several interesting statues.

Stone lamps line many of the paths through the cemetery.

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

A ‘dressed’ Jizo statue.

Another ‘dressed’ Jizo.

A grave.

Getting there:

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

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

Resources on Koyasan / Okunoin:

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

A living gallery of Kathmandu’s heritage: Durbar Square

16 07 2011

Kathmandu is a city that is blessed with some of the most magical of places, several of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites that are not just a collection of buildings that have lost their souls, but sites in which the rich cultural heritage of the city and country is very much being lived out in the present day. In additional to the two heritage sites that I have mentioned, Swayambunath and Boudhanath, there is another, Durbar Square, that serves as the heart and soul of the city. It is in the square that one finds what is said to be the oldest building in the Kathmandu Valley, the Kasthamandap or House of Wood, which in fact gives Kathmandu its name. The house which dates back to the 12th Century is where the city is said to be centred on, and is one in an amazing concentration of monuments (of which there are more than 50) packed into an area that measures no more than about 300 metres by 300 metres.

Durbar Square is a living showcase of Kathmandu's heritage.

Arriving at the square late in the afternoon, what greeted us was not just the warm glow of sunlight that reflected off the red and brown of the buildings in the square, but a quadrangle that was abuzz with the confusion of traffic on the streets in and through the square mixed with the sounds and movement of life that seemed to swirl all around me. The square indeed was alive, alive not just with the passage of life through it, but also with life as it is lived within it.

Kathmandu's Durbar Sqaure has more than 50 monuments packed into a 300 by 300 metre area.

The Bhagwati Temple - part of the Hanuman Dhoka Durbar complex that is the heart of Kathmandu's Durbar Square.

At the heart of Durbar Square is the Hanuman Dhoka Durbar – a complex that served as the seat of power of the Malla and later the Shah dynasty of Nepal that dates back to the 16th Century. It was the intricate wood work of the Bhagwati Temple of the complex that was the first building that caught my attention standing as I stood in awe at all that surrounded me. It wasn’t the last as all around as I wandered I was struck by the wealth of Newari architecture that the area was filled with, many of which are still serving the functions they were originally built to serve.

Part of the former Royal Palace complex.

Another part of the former Royal Palace complex.

Another eye-catching piece that isn’t so much a building but a colourful relief that is carved into a 3.7 metre high piece of stone – that of Kala (Black) Bhairav, a manifestation of the Hindu god Shiva in a six-armed terrifying destructive form that is seen to be stepping on top of a human form that symbolises human ignorance. The image of Kala Bhairav is said to strike down anyone who is dishonest before it, has served in the past as a place where criminals are tried and innocence was often proven by the swearing of innocence to the image.

The 3.7m relief of Kala Bhairav was used in the past to try criminals.

Beyond the masterpieces of Newari architecture, scenes of everyday life added to the wonderful experience of a visitor to the square. All around there were rows of vegetables being sold, little shops that operated from some of the old buildings themselves, and people going about their daily lives (as well as the many that seemed to be there just to soak the atmosphere in). Wandering around the square and taking in the somewhat bewildering array of what was on offer, it didn’t seem long before the fading light of the sun set told us that it was time to go. And after a final walk around, I was prepared to part taking away with not just the many images I captured with my camera, but a lasting impression of what is certainly a living gallery of Kathmandu’s heritage.

The square was filled with people going about thier daily lives.

A man watching the world pass him by.

Another man sits, watching the world pass by from under the arches of the Bhagwati Temple.

Vegetables being sold on the steps of the Maju Dega, a 17th Century shirne in Durbar Square.

A dried goods vendor.

Shops operate out of some of the old buildings.

A child that seemed to be carrying her weight over her shoulders.

Cotton candy on sale.

The image of Kala Bhairav in Durbar Square.

An early morning stroll around the streets of Kathmandu

12 07 2011

I love taking a stroll around the streets of any city that I find myself in, particularly in a city in which the streets are alive as is the case in much of Asia. Mornings are especially interesting when streets, in a matter of minutes, come to life not just with the coming and going of people going about their daily routines, but also often with street markets that add not just the array of sounds and colours, but a sense of life as it is lived on the streets. Kathmandu, where I found myself with some friend in April is one place in which the an early morning stroll offers the visitor not just an opportunity to see the streets come alive, but also to see Kathmandu as it would be, unadulterated and clear of the hoards of tourists that throng the streets later in the day and without the distractions of what is on offer at the shops that lay behind the closed shutters of the early morning.

Children getting ready to go to school.

The early morning street scene.

Nepali pastries that seem to be a popular choice for breakfast.

The scene outside the pastry shop.

Opened padlocks lined up against the window sill as a shopkeeper opens for the day.

Rickshaws riders waiting for customers.

Workers waiting for their transport to arrive.

Judokas on an early morning jog through the streets.

A delivery man on his rounds.

A milkman carries a milkcan on his shoulders.

A vegetable vendor sets up shop in an alley.

The butcher's shop.

Customers watch as a butcher carves goat meat.

A lady holding a child buying food from a mobile vendor.

Salt being sold at a sundry shop.

Sunlight streams into an abandoned shop.

A vegetable vendor transporting his goods on a bicycle.

A tailor gets down to work in a hole in the wall.

A butcher's shop.

A mobile vendor balancing his wares on his head.

Vegetables on sale on the sidewalk.

Snacks on sale.

The breakfast crowd at a bread shop.

A fishmonger.

The scene in a schoolyard.

A reluctant customer at a barbershop.

The road to Nagarkot from the backseat of a van

6 07 2011

Nagarkot, where the group of friends I was with had hoped to catch a glimpse of the sunrise over the top of the world, is a hill station that lies some 32 kilometres east of Nepal’s capital Kathmandu. Sitting at an elevation of some 2,195 metres, it reputedly offers the visitor a magnificent panorama, not just of the highest mountains in the world to the east, but also of the Kathmandu valley to the west. And, it was with the promise of that, that we had long before our visit, decided that we should break away from Kathmandu for a day and head up to Nagarkot for an overnight stay.

Nagarkot, besides offering a view of the rooftop of the world, also offers a view of the surrounding foothills in and around the Kathmandu Valley.

The dusty and bumpy road to Nagarkot is one that first rises gradually from the ancient town of Bhaktapur, before there is a dramatic change in gradient further on. It is one which on the steeper part of the ascent, that provides a wonderful view of the hills around, many with terraced slopes that from which the valued long grained variety of rice is harvested from. And as I am usually inclined to do when seated in the back seat of a car or in this case a van, I tried to capture the scenes on the road to the top as best I could, managing a photograph whenever the van slowed to negotiate a bend. And so, through the series of photographs that I managed on the bumpy road … I am now able to share that the long, winding and dusty road to Nagarkot seen from the backseat of a van with anyone that is willing to take the road with me …

The road to Nagarkot begins from Bhaktapur east of Kathmandu ...

The landscape changes with the gradual rising of the bumpy and dusty road to Nagarkot.

Still on the initial part of the climb which is marked by the lush greenery that lines the road.

The road starts to rise more steeply and provides a wonderful view of the slopes below.

Terraces come into view as the road rises further.

Another view downslope.

Negotiating a sharp bend.

Houses perched on the slope.

Looking down at the road we taken.

A shack by the roadside.

Women with loads that are supported by their heads and necks struggling up the steep gradient.

The landscape changes dramatically as we climb higher ...

Another van and a car following the van we were in up the narrow and winding road.

The changing landscape.

The approach into Nagarkot.

The view from Nagarkot Village.

The best view on the bus.

And 45 minutes after we started the ascent ... our destination ...

but, not before a little bit of work that needed to be done ...

An out of the backseat view of the Peaceful Cottage and the Cafe do Mont ... there was apparently more work to be done!

Sunrise over the top of the world

14 06 2011

Getting up at 5 in the morning probably isn’t one’s idea of a holiday, but it is something that I regularly do just so as to revel in my favourite time of the day. It is the sunrise of the new world that I often seek, a time which always brings a sense of calmness, freshness and hope to me. Sunrises anywhere have a unique flavour, some accompanied by a brilliant show of colours, some less so … the sight of that red or orange ball or light rising over the horizon or the distant landscape is truly remarkable and one that I never fail to marvel at. It is something that I have done, since the carefree days of childhood when I first watched that red ball of fire rise over the distant horizon as I listened to the sound of the South China Sea lapping up the same fine white sand that was stuck in between my toes as I sat seated in between my parents.

I have always been one for the sunrise – the sunrise over the Volcán San Cristóbal near Corinto, Nicaragua, 1985.

A magical sunrise that I recently had the good fortune to see whilst on holiday was one that I watched in the company of friends with whom I go back to a time that would have been the time of that first sunrise that I watched. It was on the trip to Kathmandu that we found ourselves perched, at 5 in the morning, up on the roof of the Peaceful Cottage in Nagarkot, a hill station just out of Kathmandu which on clear days, provides a wonderful vantage from which the majesty of the world highest peaks rising in the distance, can be admired. The sunrise wasn’t so much one that was magical in its display of colours with the morning’s mist filtering out any attempts the sun made to paint the canvas that was the sky, but one that was magical just for the view of the mist shrouded hills below us that extended across to the magical looking mountain range rising high above the hills.

The anticipation of a brand new day over the Himalayas roused many from their slumber including this couple on the roof of another building across from the Peaceful Cottage.

I guess it would be hard to describe in words the magical spectacle that started with the surreal glow over the still invisible snow capped peaks, the glow eventually reflecting off and revealing the snow capped southern faces of the world highest peaks, turning blue to grey and then to orange, culminating in the majesty of the orange ball of fire rising in between two peaks … it is I guess for the pictures that should paint a thousand words to describe the spectacle … one that will always be remembered as that first sunrise that I watched some forty years ago.

From a surreal glow, the strengthening light from the rising of the sun illuminates and reveals the southern faces of some of the highest peaks in the world.

First rays over the peaks.

The moment of anticipation.

The sun peeks out between two peaks.

The progress of the sunrise over the top of the world:

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.

A 40 year journey from Essex Road

28 04 2011

I made a journey recently with a group of friends. It could be said that it was a journey that had started some forty years ago, one that had started with the forging of bonds in the classrooms and on the schoolyards at Essex Road in Singapore. Yes, we were schoolmates, seven of us, making a journey in mid-life that was as much motivated by a common passion, as it was by the camaraderie we developed in the course of our Christian Brothers’ education that kept us in touch with each other well into our teenage years.

Flying the flag of our Alma Mater: Seven schoolmates and one we adopted ...

Some of us in Primary 6, St. Michael's School.

The journey we took was one that brought us to the shadow of the roof of the world. An excursion, as one put it, an extension of those we used to look forward to at the end of the year during our primary school days. Having a common interest in photography, we sought to capture, through seven pairs of eyes, how we saw the wonderful world in which we found ourselves immersed in for a few days, coming back not just with a multitude of images, but touched by the beauty and warmth in the simplicity of the people, fond memories of the colourful sights that unfolded before our eyes, and most importantly with the spirit that the ten (some twelve) years in St. Michael’s School (now St. Joseph’s Institution Junior) and St. Joseph’s Institution had imparted on us.

Life on the streets in Kathmandu makes it a wonderful place to see and discover.

Along the three hundred steps to enlightenment: A statue of Buddha on the ascent up the pilgrim path to Swayambunath, a stupa which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the outskirts of Kathmandu.

The ancient capital of the Kathmandu Valley, Bhaktapur, seen during the Bisket Jatra festival held during the Nepali New Year in April.

The trip involved not just a visit to Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal, but also to some of the areas that surround the city, places that have a magical or mythical charm, as well as one that would, on a clear day, have given us a magnificent view of the roof of the world. Kathmandu and the Kathmandu Valley, is certainly blessed with some magnificent cultural treasures, a few which have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including two stupa sites, Swayambunath and Boudhanath, and a former capital, Bhaktapur, and it was these that we focused our cameras on. Along the way, we also visited a Roman Catholic church, the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, in Lalitpur on the outskirts of Kathmandu, and along with it the Parish School, the Regina Amoris School, set up and run by the Sisters of Cluny for the children of the needy. All in all, it was a huge and meaningful adventure for us, and one, that I would be touching on in detail in separate posts to come on each part of our visit.

The long, narrow and winding road up to Nagarkot, a hill station near Kathmandu.

Boudhanath, a UNSECO World Heritage Site and the largest stupa in Nepal, is also a centre of Tibetan life.

Durbar Square in Kathmandu, a concentration of monuments which is another UNSECO World Heritage Site.

The Church of Our Lady of the Assumption in Lalitpur.

A visit to the lighthouse on Singapore’s One Tree Island

12 04 2011

An hour by boat from Pasir Panjang Ferry Terminal, lies Pulau Satumu, which by virtue of being the southernmost island of Singapore, is the southernmost point in Singapore. The island, which is some 14 km south of the nearest point on the main island of Singapore is also home to a lighthouse, Raffles Lighthouse, one of four offshore lighthouses operated by the Maritime and Port Authority (MPA), the others being on Sultan Shoal, Pedra Branca and Pulau Pisang which is on Malaysian territory. Being very much one who has always taken an interest in all things nautical, I have always been drawn to lighthouses … my very first encounters with one being the one that had shone its beacon from the top of the Fullerton Building that I loved watching on the many strolls with my parents down Collyer Quay, and when the opportunity arose to catch a boat to Raffles Lighthouse, I certainly wasn’t going to give it a miss.

Pulau Satumu or "One Tree Island", the southernmost island of Singapore, is home to Raffles Lighthouse.

The visit to the lighthouse, part of a learning journey organised by the MPA in conjunction with Singapore Maritime Week was a rare opportunity. Lighthouses are protected places in Singapore and access to the islands that the lighthouses of the form that most of us have an impression of is restricted, and I certainly did not need a second asking. So, on an overcast and rather muggy day, I found myself sitting in a launch at Pasir Panjang Ferry Terminal with a large group of students, as I keenly anticipated the start of a journey that would take me to the first ever operating lighthouse that I would have ever visited in Singapore, to the gentle rolling of the launch to the undulations on the surface of the sea.

Lighthouses currently operated by the MPA, as seen on a nautical chart at Raffles Lighthouse.

The ride which took a little more than an hour, provided me with an excellent opportunity to have a look at the massive changes to the waters around the south west of Singapore. What greets the eye immediately upon leaving the ferry terminal is the reclamation taking place off Pasir Panjang, part of the effort to expand the container terminals that the area now hosts. Moving off along with the launch we were in, was a double ended ramped single deck vehicle ferry with a load of construction vehicles, a sign of the frenzy of activity that is now surely taking place offshore. The Semakau landfill (perhaps more appropriately “seafill”), which has joined Pulau Semakau with Pulau Seking (a.k.a. Pulau Sakeng), is clearly visible from the start, the long building that serves as a receiving station is instantly recognisable. The first island we actually pass along the way is Pulau Bukom on which the Shell Refinery has long been a feature, and moving southeast we soon see Pulau Jong, a tiny rocky island which is topped by green vegetation, before going past Pulau Sebarok which houses petroleum products receiving and discharging facilities as is evident by the many tanks and berthing spaces on the island. It was in going around Pulau Sebarok that we catch the first sight of Raffles Lighthouse in the grey of the overcast sky … just as I had envisaged it – well, almost … there are certainly more than a single tree that one might have expected knowing the origin of the name of the island that the lighthouse was built on. Pulau Satumu, based on information found on Wikipedia, “means one tree island — sa refers to satu (one) and tumu is the Malay name for the large mangrove tree, Bruguiera confugata”.

On the launch to Pulau Satumu.

Pulau Jong.

The receiving station at Pulau Semakau, looking beyond Pulau Jong.

Pulau Sebarok.

Enroute to Raffles Lighthouse.

The stern and exposed propeller of an unladen tanker - probably undergoing sea trials ....

Raffles Lighthouse on Pulau Satumu as seen on the approach to the jetty.

Raffles Lighthouse as seen on land.

Once on land, whilst waiting to be taken up to the lighthouse, MPA was kind enough to provide the participants of the tour with lunch, and it was over lunch that I had a chat with a member of MPA’s staff. One of the interesting things he did mention was that there were holiday facilities for staff at Sultan Shoal, as well as there being rooms within the lighthouse that were reserved just to allow Ministers to take a holiday on the island. One thing we could do before going up was to have a walk around what certainly seemed like one of the few idyllic places left in Singapore, that is until the silence was punctured by the roar of jets flying above – the island being in close proximity to the live firing range used by the Airforce at the cluster of islands that lay to the west of Pulau Satumu: Pulau Senang, Pulau Pawai, and Pulau Sudong. Still, the island does exudes a charm that has been lost from the coastal areas of Singapore with a little beach and coconut grove leading to the southernmost point of Singapore.

A bench at Raffles Lighthouse.

An idyllic scene from Pulau Satumu.

The beach leading to the southernmost point of Singapore.

Pulau Senang.

It was soon time to ascend the flight of steps up to the top of the lighthouse – 107 steps we were told, 86 built into the lighthouse and a further 17 on the iron stairway up to the top – hard work even for the fit. Standing some 72 feet high, the lighthouse, the second oldest operated by Singapore (the oldest being Horsburg Lighthouse built in 1851), was built in 1855, on what was then referred to as Coney Islet, and looks none the worse for wear in spite of its age. A little bit of its history can be found in the infopedia stub on the lighthouse. At the top we were greeted by one of the two lighthouse keepers on duty Mr. Mani. The lighthouse keepers work on a rotating 12 hours shift for 10 days, returning to the mainland for 10 off days, and are involved in the upkeep of equipment and in the event that the beacon fails – would require to operate the emergency beacon run off batteries. It is quite a quiet and lonely life for ten days … something that is probably hard to imagine in the fast pace world that we live in today. Lighthouses, which have always been important aids to navigation, has with the advent of GPS and electronic navigation means, been rendered somewhat obsolete. However, these are still around and serve an improtant function as a backup in event that electronic means onboard ship fail.

The stairway to the top ...

A window at the bottom of the lighthouse.

A pressurised vapour kerosene mantle burner system that was employed at the turn of the 20th Century at a landing just before the top.

Up the last flight of stairs.

The beacon at the top of the lighthouse.

A radar reflector.

Mr Mani, one of the two lighthouse keepers on duty showing us around at the top.

All too soon, it was time to leave, the launch taking a different route that took us to Marina South, with a stop off Marina South to watch a demo by MPA’s fire-fighting vessel Api-Api, throwing a spray of sea water with its two monitors. Soon back on dry land, we were to be greeted by a different spray altogether – one of a shower that was threatening to come down on us the whole day … fortunately we had made our trip to Raffles Lighthouse and back, with pleasant memories of a rare foray to an otherwise off-limits southernmost part of Singapore.

The Bridge over the River Kwai

22 12 2010

It might have been because of the nursery rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down”, that I have held a long fascination with bridges, having many doses of it throughout my early childhood. It was a fascination that was also fed by my regular encounters with the two railway bridges from my childhood journeys through the Bukit Timah area, and of those with the magnificent Anderson and Cavenagh Bridges that sets our Civic District apart from much of the rest of Singapore, and maybe by the picture of the red oxide coated Forth Rail Bridge on the back of a postcard that my mother had for much of my childhood displayed on her dresser. There were of course bridges of significance that I encountered in my diet of war inspired movies and novels that might also have fed that fascination: one being “A Bridge Too Far” over Arnhem that was the subject of Cornelius Ryan’s novel which was adapted by William Goldman for the movie of the same name; and the so-called “Bridge on the River Kwai”, part of the infamous Death Railway, that was made famous by the 1957 David Lean movie based on a novel entitled “Bridge Over the River Kwai” by French writer Pierre Boulle, which I had watched many times on TV.

Poster for the movie "Bridge on the River Kwai".

The bridge over the River Kwai in Dec 1984.

The bridge in 2006.

That I guess was what compelled me to visit the bridge that stands over the River Kwai today, or the River Mae Khlung as it should rightly have been (the river has since been renamed as the “Kwai Yai” for the tourists). The bridge that stands today isn’t the wooden bridge built in 1943 that was the subject of the movie, but a second more sturdy bridge of concrete and steel built by the Prisoners of War (POW) also in 1943. It stands as a powerful symbol of the pain, suffering and death that was inflicted on the POWs who were put to work on the infamous Siam to Burma rail supply line that the Japanese intended to use on their push towards India. Estimates vary but at least 100,000 POWs and labourers died in the construction of the railway due to the harsh conditions, starvation and malaria.

A view of the bridge from the far bank. The two straight-sided spans were transported from Japan after the end of the war as part of Japanese war reparations, to replace the two original arched spans which were brought over from Java by the Japanese which were destroyed.

Another view of the bridge.

Information plate on one of the replacement spans.

One of the original arched spans which the Japanese brought over from Java.

My first visit to the bridge which is about 5 kilometres out of Kanchanaburi , which is located 130 kilometres west of Bangkok was in December 1984 – back then I was struck by the surreal calm that taking a walk on the bridge provided despite the presence of the tourists (not the hordes that one encounters these days) and the vendors trying to hawk a few souvenirs. I did return some twenty years later – dismayed to find that the bridge had been overrun by hordes of tourists and the area now dominated by the tourist shops that have somehow destroyed the peace that I had first encountered in 1984. Still, taking a walk on the bridge provides a wonderful experience, and certainly once across the bridge, the far back does provide that sense of calm absent on the near side.

Taking a photograph of the bridge in 1984.

On the bridge in 2006.

Around the bridge, there is the River Kwae Bridge railway station which is certainly worth a visit. The station in fact provides an gateway for rail passengers coming from the south who can make a connection at Nakhon Pathom, and also directly from Bangkok. The line itself runs over part of the original Death Railway route to Nam Tok. The line which was assessed to be too poorly constructed to support commercial use was sold by the British in 1946 to Siam for a sum of ₤1.5M which included 65 locomotives, 1125 wagons and other stock, and revived in 1948. The train also runs through and stops at the town of Kanchanaburi.

Ticket counter at the River Kwai Bridge Station.

River Kwai Bridge Station.

An old steam locomotive (#719) on display at River Kwai Bridge Station.

Beyond the area where the bridge is, it makes sense to also pay a visit to one of the war museums to have a sense of what went on, as well as the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. The museum I visited was the JEATH (Japan, England, Australia Thailand, England) War Museum, which is housed inside the grounds of the Wat Chai Chumphon temple and is built around huts meant to replicate those that the POWs had been housed in and contains graphic images showing the conditions the prisoners had lived in.

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery in 1984.

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery.

Plaque at the entrance of the War Cemetery.

Plaque at the War Cemetery.

The JEATH War Museum.

Exhibit at the JEATH War Museum in 1984 with photographs of the bridge destroyed in 1945 by allied bombings.

Where legends of the silver screen had once set foot on: No. 8 Jalan Ampas

11 11 2010

It may not be a surprise to some that the legendary Malaysian actor, singer, songwriter and director, P. Ramlee had actually plied his trade and made his mark on the silver screen from a studio that was located in Singapore, the Shaw Brothers’ Malay Film Productions (MFP). However, it may surprise some that a few of the buildings that were associated with the studio still stand, albeit somewhat obscurely and forgotten and dwarfed by the many commercial and residential developments that now surround its compound at No. 8 Jalan Ampas, off Balestier Road in Singapore.

Lying somewhat hidden amongst commercial and residential properties is the former Shaw Brothers' Studio at Jalan Ampas.

It was back in the late 1940s, the 1950s and the early 1960s, that the studios at No. 8 had its best days, rising to become the most successful Malay film production house of the time. It was also during that time when as a young and aspiring actor at the studios, P. Ramlee, not only made his mark as an actor and a singer and songwriter, but also very quickly as an award winning movie producer and director. P. Ramlee was responsible for over 70 films and 200 songs before his departure for the Merdeka Studios in Kuala Lumpur in 1963. P. Ramlee was of course, well known to me in my childhood, having been given many doses of his exploits in black and white whilst seated next to my maternal grandmother in front of the Setron console television.

A nondescript gate leads to hallowed grounds on which the legendary P. Ramlee had once ruled the studios.

Somehow 1963 had been a very eventful year in Singapore, not just because of P. Ramlee moving to Kuala Lumpur, but it was more importantly, the year in which Malaysia was formed, made by the merger of Singapore and the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak into what had been the Federation of Malayan States. More significantly for the MFP though, it was a year which saw the introduction of television in Singapore, and while it certainly benefited my grandmother who was able to obtain the diet she craved of P. Ramlee and Pontianak movies in the comfort and safety of the living room of our flat, it also led to competition for the Malay speaking audience for the film making industry in Singapore, which besides Shaw Brothers, also featured another prominent film studio, Cathay Keris. Ultimately, this, together with a ban imposed on Malaysian productions by Soekarno’s Indonesia during the Konfrontasi (Confrontation), led to a falling demand and the eventual demise of the hitherto very successful Malay film making industry. The MFP, unable to sustain itself in this climate, eventually closed its doors in 1967.

A peek through the gates into a world that might have once been where dreams were made ...

While many of the events had either been before my time, or had passed me by in the bliss of my childhood, I did have some of my own memories of the MFP after its closure. What I would remember most is the view I regularly got of it in passing-by, from the back seat of my father’s car on the many occasions through the late 1960s and during the 1970s that I passed it on my visits to my paternal grandfather (who lived in the area). I had by that time been very aware of the MFP’s role in providing my maternal grandmother with the endless hours of entertainment which probably kept her sane through some of the lonely moments she had living in the confines of our HDB flat. I would in passing-by often look at what I remember as a desolate looking whitewashed walled compound which had a sign that must have read “Malay Film Productions” for me to have been able to have identified it then. I had also, in passing-by, often tried to picture what it would have been like in the days when the career of the legendary P. Ramlee flourished in the studios, wishing sometimes to have an opportunity to see and explore the place, which I never did get to. In time, with the passing of my grandfather the late 1970s giving me no reason to pass by the studios, it had been somewhat forgotten by me.

To the memory of a legend. A modest memorial to the late great P. Ramlee at the former MFP.

The memories of the studios did come back to me only recently, when I, in recalling the comical antics of Mat Bond (which was produced by the rival Cathay Keris studios), also remembered our very own more Bond like Jefri Zain, played by Jins Shamsudin, which was made at MFP, and the MFP along with it. I had intended for some time, to take a walk of rediscovery in the area where the MFP was (I wasn’t even sure if it was still around), which I somehow never go to doing. It was by sheer coincidence, a group involved in this concept of Urban Exploration, which I was only very recently introduced to, the One° North Explorers, obtained permission to visit the former studios and were kind enough to extend an invitation to me (see One° North Explorers’ post about the exploration of the studios) – an invitation at which I was quick to jump at. It wasn’t for me, so much a walk down memory lane, as I am often inclined to do, as it was to satisfy that unfulfilled childhood desire to see and explore the hallowed grounds that my grandmother’s silver screen hero, P. Ramlee, had once trodden upon.

Where the more serious of the two local Bond like characters, not Mat Bond, but Jefri Zain, was created.

There isn’t really a lot to remind us of the past use of the abandoned buildings which stand silently and forgotten in the compound at No. 8 Jalan Ampas. For one, they are well hidden behind a nondescript gate that one might only notice because of the two misspelt signs that might convince vehicle owners not to park there. There is however, an easily missed marker that does stand just by the gates, which does tell of the forgotten past and of the fact that it wasn’t just local legends whose feet had once trodden on the grounds, but also the feet of hallowed legends of Hollywood, including John Wayne and Ava Gardner. Beyond this, there is perhaps only the faded Shaw Brothers (SB) logo at the top of one of the buildings that gives away a clue to its past.

Information on the Shaw MFP Studio on the marker at No. 8 Jalan Ampas.

A scene from the filming of the last movie to be made at the studios in 1967, Raja Berslong.

I guess I would have been disappointed if I had expected to find much that would have connected the buildings with their glorious past, with most of what had equipped the rooms within the buildings disposed off in the 1970s. However, being there just for the opportunity to satisfy that desire to see and explore, I was quite happy to discover there were indeed some little reminders, this despite most of the equipment there having been moved out, and also the four decades of relative neglect. Within buildings that are still in relatively good condition, beyond the external walls that exhibit some of the ravages of weather and time, were rooms illuminated by the soft glow of light filtered through frosted and textured window panes which did hold a few things that connected the buildings with its past: contraptions that might have perhaps been old film dryers, old reels, posters and photographs that would have been used in promoting movies produced or distributed by the studios … Although that wasn’t really enough to go on to allow me to have a feel of what the buildings might had once been like when perhaps it was the Hollywood of South East Asia, it did not leave me the least disappointed, for at last, some three and a half decades since I last set my eyes on the old buildings behind the wall, I got the chance I had longed for – to have a look around the grounds where the great P. Ramlee had once trodden upon. And, for some reason beyond my comprehension, it felt as if I was home again.

The visit to the former MFP offered me a chance to see and explore the hallowed grounds that I had previously only had a peek at ...

Reminders of a forgotten past ...

Much of the former MFP although worn by the weather and time from four decades of neglect is still in relatively good condition.

The SB logo on top of the building ...

Reminders of the past ...

Evidence of a forgotten time when the MFP ruled the silver screen.

More evidence of the glorious past ...

The Directors' Rooms ... one had been where P. Ramlee had worked from ...

Perhaps Room A?