A journey through Tanjong Pagar in 1970

23 02 2018

There is always and element of romance connected with train journeys, especially the leisurely paced journeys of the past with which one can take in the magical scenes along the way that one can only get from railway journeys. LIFE Magazine’s Carl Mydans, a legendary photograph whose work spans several decades and includes an extensive coverage of Singapore prior to the war (see “A glimpse of Singapore in 1941, the year before the darkness fell“), took one such journey out of an independent Singapore some 3 decades later, capturing a Singapore we can no longer see but through photographs of the era. The set, also includes scenes along the journey to Bangkok, along with those captured at stopovers made in West Malaysia’s main urban centres.

The photographs of Singapore are particularly interesting. There are some of the old harbour, and quite a few of the twakow decorated Singapore River along which much of Singapore’s trade passed through. There are also several street scenes, once familiar to us in the area of North Bridge Road. A couple of quite rare shots were also taken at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station including one showing a steam locomotive of a 1940s vintage, which the Malayan Railway operated until the early 1970s. There are also images of the steam locos captured during the journey.

The photographs of West Malaysia are also interesting. The replacement of rubber trees with oil palm as a crop, which had been taking place in parts of the peninsula from the 1960s to reduce Malaysia’s reliance on rubber and tin was in evidence. This is something that I well remember from the road trips to Malaysia of my early childhood. Another familiar scene from those trips were of the padi fields, which the trunk road passing through Malacca seemed to weave through. This is something Mr. Mydans also seemed to have captured quite a fair bit of.

The departure platform at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station with a prewar relic of a steam locomotive.

Malaysian Customs Inspection at the Departure Platform.

The Supreme Court and the Padang.

Hock Lam Street.

Corner of Hock Lam Street and North Bridge Road.

North Bridge Road.


The old harbour (Marina Bay today)

View of Clifford Pier and the Inner Road, and Outer Roads beyond the Detached Mole. The view today would be towards Marina Bay Sands and Marina South.

Another view of the harbour – where Marina Bay Sands and Marina South is today. The Harbour Division of the Preventive Branch of the Department of Customs and Excise (Customs House today) can be seen at the lower right hand corner.

A rainbow over the harbour.


Boat Quay and the Singapore River

Walking the plank. Coolies loaded and unloaded twakows by balancing items that were often bulkier than their tiny frames over narrow and rather flimsy planks that connected the boats to the quayside.

A view of the stepped sides of the river around where Central is today.

Boat Quay.

Coolies sliding crates that were too bulky and heavy along the plank.

Lorry cranes were sometimes used instead.

But more often than not manual labour was used.

A view of the “belly of the carp”.


The Journey North

(with stops in Malacca, Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Bangkok)

A steam locomotive at what looks like Gemas Railway Station.

More steam locomotives (at Gemas?).

Inside the train cabin.

Train along a shunt line.

Rubber estates and rubber tappers were a common sight – even along the roads up north.

So were water buffaloes and padi fields.

Padi field.

Another view of a padi field.

Oil palms taking root. A drive to reduce Malaysia’s dependence on rubber and tin from the 1960s would see oil palms colour a landscape once dominated by rubber trees.

Another cabin view.

A break in the journey – a view of the Stadthuys Malacca.

Jalan Kota in Malacca.

View of the Malacca River.

The Arthur Benison Hubback designed (old) KL Railway Station .

Another view of the south end of the KL Railway Station – with a view also of the KL Railway Administration Building.

A southward view down Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin (ex Victory Avenue) with the KL Railway Station on the left and the KL Railway Administration Building on the right, also designed by Arthur Bennison Hubback.

The Railway Administration Building and Masjid Negara.

A view down Jalan Raja in KL with the BagunanSultan Abdul Samad on the left.

Another view down Jalan Raja in KL with the BagunanSultan Abdul Samad on the left and Dataran Merdeka on the right.

Sungai Siput Railway Station.

The Penang Ferry from Butterworth.

A view of Butterworth.

George Town – with a view towards the clan jetties.

The Kek Lok Si Temple in Penang.

Air Itam and the Kek Lok Si Temple in Penang.

What looks like the Leong San Tong in the Khoo Kongsi in George Town.

The Penang Hill funicular railway.

More padi fields.

Possibly southern Thailand.

Bangkok.





Days of despair, rays of hope

12 09 2017

Seeing out the storm, the evening after, 12 September 2001, Ostend.





A white pre-Christmas

25 12 2016

Scenes taken in snowy Sapporo – during a prelude to a storm that would bring the city and the Hokkaido prefecture its  heaviest December snowfall in half a century.

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Darkness and light, Lower Manhattan

18 11 2015

Lower Mahattan, seen in the magical light of the bright spring sunshine in April this year:

The East Coast Memorial at Battery Park.

The East Coast Memorial at Battery Park and the Statue of Liberty.

The rotunda of the Alexander Hamilton US Customs House at Bowling Green.

The rotunda of the Alexander Hamilton US Customs House at Bowling Green.

A staircase inside the Alexander Hamilton US Customs House.

A staircase inside the Alexander Hamilton US Customs House.

Bowling Green.

Buildings at Bowling Green.

Inside the Alexander Hamilton US Customs House.

Inside the Alexander Hamilton US Customs House.

Trinity Church as viewed from Wall Street.

Trinity Church as viewed from Wall Street.

Detail on an entrance door to Trinity Church.

Detail on an entrance door to Trinity Church.

Darkness and light, death and life, Trinity Church Cemetery.

Darkness and light, death and life, Trinity Church Cemetery.

View from the yard of St. Paul's Chapel.

View from the yard of St. Paul’s Chapel.

City Hall Park.

City Hall Park.

New York City Hall.

New York City Hall.

The Brooklyn Bridge.

The Brooklyn Bridge.

Thomas Paine Park and the New York County Supreme Court.

Thomas Paine Park and the New York County Supreme Court.

Light and shadow.

Where the light shines – the Police Building and the view down Grand Street.

Lafayette Street (near intersection with Kenmare Street).

Lafayette Street near its intersection with Kenmare Street.

Lafayette Street.

Lafayette Street.

Washington Square.

Washington Square.

Washington Square.

Washington Square.

Union Square.

Union Square.

 





9-11 14 years on

11 09 2015

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

The sun rises on a new Manhattan skyline.

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

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

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

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

Lower Manhattan today with One World Trade Center standing tall.

Lower Manhattan today with One World Trade Center standing tall.


Rebuilding the World Trade Center

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

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

Work to complete One World Trade Center.

Work to complete One World Trade Center.

Another look at One WTC.

Another look at One WTC.

Another structure coming up at Ground Zero.

Cranes working on another structure coming up at Ground Zero.


Remembering 9-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another memorial inside St. Paul's Chapel.

Another memorial inside St. Paul’s Chapel.

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A cross forged from material found in the rubble.

A cross forged from material found in the rubble.

The interior of St. Paul's.

The interior of St. Paul’s.

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

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

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The beautiful terminal in Hoboken

30 04 2015

I never tire of railway stations, especially the grand stations of old in which one can quite easily be transported back to an age when rail travel might have seemed to be all about the romance of it.

Hoboken Terminal.

Hoboken Terminal.

And its gorgeous interior.

And its gorgeous interior.

A grand old station I found myself passing through quite recently was in Hoboken, New Jersey, just across the Hudson from the Big Apple. Being on the waterfront, it was built in 1907 to also connect with trolley buses and ferry services to Lower Manhattan. This was later extended to the subway. As an early intermodal transport hub completed before the first road tunnels were dug under the Hudson, the terminal served an important role in the movement of man and material across the river to a New York in the midst of transformation. In its heyday, the terminal boasted a YMCA residence,completed in 1922 and hosted a mail sorting facility.

Hoboken Terminal at the time of its opening (source: Wikipedia – public domain).

The ferry slips at the terminal.

The ferry slips at the terminal.

The station is one that oozes with the charm of the old world, seen especially in its Beaux-Arts inspired architecture. It is a style found in several iconic stations of the era, one of which was Paris’ beautiful former Gare d’Orsay, now the Musée d’Orsay. Outwardly, the terminal’s copper clad appearance takes us back to the age of its construction. The copper, added for fire resistance – a requirement that was especially necessary seeing that the previous terminal had been consumed by a huge fire just two years prior to its construction, was quite readily available. There was as an excess of the metal procured for the erection of the area’s most famous landmark, the Statue of Liberty, which would otherwise have had to be sold for scrap.

The copper clad exterior.

The copper clad exterior.

The most eye-catching and charming part of the terminal is its Waiting Room. The spacious room has a ceiling that rises to a height of 55 feet (about 17 metres) and is crowned by the most impressive of skylights. The daylight that filters through the skylight, constructed of Tiffany stained glass, casts a warm and welcoming glow on the limestone and bronze finishes of the luxuriously decorated room; as do its bronze chandeliers in the hours of darkness.

The Waiting Room and the Tiffany glass skylight.

The Waiting Room and the Tiffany glass skylight.

Another look at the Waiting Room and its magnificent skylight.

Another look at the Waiting Room and its magnificent skylight.

Looking around, one can understand why Hoboken Terminal has been described as the most impressive and striking of the five terminals that were found along the New Jersey Hudson waterfront. It now is the last of the five still is in use.  Another survivor, the Central Railroad of New Jersey terminal at Jersey City, from which operations had been terminated in 1967, stands today only as a conserved building within Liberty State Park. The Jersey City terminal and Hoboken Terminal, have both been designated as historic sites and are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The former Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal at the Liberty State Park waterfront.

The former Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal at the Liberty State Park waterfront.

Hoboken Terminal’s architect, Kenneth Murchison, was a graduate of Columbia and the Paris based École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts and a notable practitioner of the Beaux-Arts style. Hoboken was one of several railway station projects Murchison was involved with. His work includes another station for the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad (for which Hoboken was built) at Scranton in 1908, which has since been transformed into a hotel.

A look at the train platforms and the shed, an innovation at the time. The low sheds used in Hoboken Terminal were provided with open channels above the tracks to  allow steam and exhaust gases to vent.

A look at the train platforms and the shed, an innovation at the time. The sheds were provided with open channels above the tracks to allow steam and exhaust gases to vent.

Following the opening of the Holland Tunnel at the end of the 1920s, the Lincoln Tunnel at the end of the 1930s, and the introduction of three new subway services across the Hudson in the 1930s, demand for railway and ferry services began to fall off. The gradual decline was to lead to the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad merging with the Erie Railroad in 1960 to form a loss making Erie Lackawanna (EL) Railroad, which in 1970 scrapped inter-city services. By this time ferry services had already stopped in 1967. Conrail was to take over the running of EL’s commuter train services in 1976, before that passed into the hands of the State-owned New Jersey Transit (NJ Transit) in 1983.

Passengers waiting at commuter train platform at the terminal.

Passengers waiting at commuter train platform at the terminal.

The declining fortunes of the railway and ferry took its toll on the terminal and its upkeep. A early victim of this was the original iconic tower, which had to be dismantled in the 1950s due to concerns about its structural integrity. The station lost much of its gloss by the time ferry services had stopped and it wasn’t until 1995 that an effort was made, by NJ Transit, to restore the station to its original glory.

A ticket dispenser at the train platform.

A ticket dispenser at the train platform.

A ticket counter inside the Waiting Room.

A ticket counter inside the Waiting Room.

The first phase of the effort, which lasted until 2003, involved repairs and replacement work on the terminal’s structure, roofs and canopies, as well as a refurbishment of the majestic Waiting Room. A second phase was initiated in 2005. This gave the terminal back its iconic tower, a reconstruction, in 2007. Some of the efforts were unfortunately undone when the terminal and its Waiting Room (as well as much of Hoboken) was battered by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which required further restoration work.

The reconstructed tower.

The reconstructed tower.

Wooden benches in the waiting room required mould remediation work in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Wooden benches in the waiting room required mould remediation work in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

The second phase also saw five of the six unused ferry slips refurbished in 2011. Ferry services have since been reintroduced. Boarding of ferries is now carried out at the level of the rail tracks and not on the second level, which had originally been equipped with a large and beautiful concourse. The second level is now used by NJ Transit and is closed to the public.

The ferry terminal.

The ferry terminal.

The ferry berth.

The ferry berth.

A stairway to a lost heaven - the closed second level of the terminal.

A stairway to a lost heaven – the closed second level of the terminal.

A revival of fortunes came with the restoration. The terminal today is a major hub with a better designed integration of transport services. Services now also include the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Transit (LRT) system that was introduced in 2001. With its new tower in place, the station has also regained its prominence along the lower Hudson and is today a work of architecture, even if not for the charm of the old world it exudes, that is a joy to behold.

The LRT terminal.

The LRT terminal.

More information on the beautiful station, its history and architecture can be found at the following links:

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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.

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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.

Plademunt.

Plademunt.

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.

Pinchos.

Pinchos.

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!

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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.

 





Strange spaces: the mound of ears

14 12 2014

I first caught sight of the Mimizuka (耳塚) in the fading light of dusk. What can best be described as a mound of earth topped with a gorinto – a five-tiered pagoda often used as gravestones; the Mimizuka looked mysterious and curiously out of place against the backdrop of the line of low lying roofs silhouetted against the twilight sky. Surrounded by what largely is a quiet residential neighbourhood in the Higashiyama district of of Kyoto, the mound, I was to discover, stands as a relic of a brutal past.

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Translated from Japanese as “Mound of Ears”, it is where the remains of tens of thousands of humans are buried. Originally named as the “Mound of Noses” or Hanazuka (鼻塚), the remains it contains are in fact noses – those that were severed from at least 38,000 Koreans killed during the Japanese military expeditions into the peninsula initiated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi at the end of the 1500s. Preserved in brine and shipped to Japan as trophies, the noses were buried at the location in 1597 during the time of the second invasion of Korea. 

It is in an area that is very much associated with Toyotomi Hideyoshi that one finds the rather macabre monument, just down the very generously proportioned Shomen-dori (正面通) that runs west from the Toyokuni Jinja (豊国神社), a shrine dedicated to the cruel but much revered daimyo.

The area is also where the grand Hoko-ji (方広寺) temple housing the great Buddha of Kyoto was put up by Toyotomi Hideyoshi – intended to rival the Daibutsu, or giant Buddha, of Nara, in scale. Much of the temple, construction of which began in 1586, and its Buddha was destroyed in an earthquake in 1596  and only its bell has survived to this day.

More information can on the little known Mimizuka can be found in a New York Times article written for the 400th anniversary of the mound, Japan, Korea and 1597: A Year That Lives in Infamy as well as in a Wikipedia entry. More on the Hoko-ji, the Toyokuni Jinja and the area can also be found at this site.





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).

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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).


 





Pasar Kranggan, Yogyakarta

8 12 2013

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

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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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Growing up too soon in Bangkok?

17 09 2013

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

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Life’s a Boracay Beach

8 08 2013

What to get beachy about on Boracay

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

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

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

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

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

Sunrise at Bulabog Beach.

Sunrise at Bulabog Beach.

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

Sunset at White Beach.

Sunset at White Beach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lots of dining options at Boat Station 2.

Lots of dining options at White Beach.

Catch of the day.

Catch of the day.

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

White Beach at Boat Station 1 by night.

White Beach at Boat Station 1 by night.

The very exclusive Discovery Shores at Boat Station 1.

The very exclusive Discovery Shores at Boat Station 1.

A fire dancer performing at Discovery Shores.

A fire dancer performing at Discovery Shores.

The nighttime view from Discovery Shores.

The nighttime view from Discovery Shores.

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

Jonah's - an institution of sorts in Boracay.

Jonah’s – an institution of sorts in Boracay.

Fruit-full milkshakes - served in a bottle.

Fruit-full milkshakes – served in a bottle.

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

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

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

A ferris wheel at D'Mall.

A ferris wheel at D’Mall.

A sandwich shop at D'Mall.

A sandwich shop at D’Mall.

Christina doing her souvenir shopping at D'Mall.

Christina did her souvenir shopping at D’Mall.

As did Atsuko.

As did Atsuko.

The nightlife scene at Boat Station 2.

The nightlife scene at Boat Station 2.

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

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

Having fun in the rain at Boat Station 2.

Having fun in the rain at Boat Station 2.

Hobbit House at D'Mall.

Hobbit House at D’Mall.

By the beach side at Boat Station 2.

By the beach side at Boat Station 2.

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

White Beach at Boat Station 3.

White Beach at Boat Station 3.

Another view of the Boat Station 3.

Another view of the Boat Station 3.

Paraw Cruising from Boat Station 3.

Paraw Cruising from Boat Station 3.

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

Puka Beach.

Puka Beach.

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

Paradise Cove.

Paradise Cove.

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

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

Atsuko horsing around at Fairways and Bluewater.

Atsuko horsing around at Fairways and Bluewater.

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

The beach at Shangri-la Boracay.

The exclusive beach at Boracay Shangri-la.

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

Tambisaan Beach.

Tambisaan Beach.

The gang at Bulabog.

The gang at Bulabog.

What's on offer at Bulabog.

What’s on offer at Bulabog.

Water activities off Bulabog Beach include Helmet Diving ...

Water activities off Bulabog Beach include Helmet Diving …

And riding on a Banana Boat.

And riding on a Banana Boat.

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

Bulabog Beach near 7Stones Suites.

Bulabog Beach near 7Stones Suites.

A tricycle taxi.

A tricycle taxi.

7Stones Suites at Bulabog Beach.

7Stones Suites at Bulabog Beach.

Bulabog Beach.

Boats at Bulabog Beach.


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

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






A sunrise I have a lasting impression of

12 07 2013

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

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

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

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





The swastika at the tenth mile

9 07 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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The Great Buddha in a citadel of peace

2 07 2013

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

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

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

The Great Buddha Hall, Daibutsuden, of the Todaiji.

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

The main gate into the compound housing the Daibutsuden.

The main gate into the compound housing the Daibutsuden.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A view from the entrance to the Great Buddha Hall.

A view from the entrance to the Great Buddha Hall.

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

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

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

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

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

Joss sticks at the entrance to the hall.

Joss sticks at the entrance to the hall.

A school group visiting the hall.

Members of a school group visiting the hall.

A student visitor heading towards the exit.

A student visitor heading towards the exit.

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

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

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

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

The grounds of the Daibutsuden seen during Autumn.

The grounds of the Daibutsuden seen during Autumn.

Another view of the Daibutsuden from across its grounds.

Another view of the Daibutsuden from across its grounds.

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





Devotion

28 06 2013

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

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A different sea of red last autumn

16 06 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

Views around Fushimi Inari:

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The golden glow of the Golden Land

6 05 2013

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

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After dinner conversations

4 05 2013

And yes, nobody really talks to each other anymore …

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