A Travellerspoint blog

July 2019

Singapore’s Delightful Gardens by the Bay

My favorite city in Asia never disappoints with its over-the-top high tech sights

rain 88 °F

large_CEA3566A-B827-4CA6-8E12-F18ED33AE383.jpeg
The interior of the Cloud Forest Dome at Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

When I talk about traveling in Asia, I tell people that Singapore is my favorite city in Asia. Those who prefer their cities chaotic and a bit crazy, will disagree. You can read my entries from my 2016 visit there on this blog, for more details about it why I like Singapore so much. Earlier this year, I made the decision that I was not going to refrain from traveling abroad like I did last year. With all of the health problems my parents are experiencing, I opted out of a summer trip in 2018. However, when I saw a good round trip price from LAX to Singapore, I pulled the trigger and bought it.

large_15DECFBE-BA17-4C75-A4FE-60613671997F.jpeg
The indoor waterfall at the Cloud Forest Dome

As it turned out, I would have extremely limited time in Singapore. My main destination for the summer was Bhutan, and I was at the mercy of when I could schedule a tour to this hard-to-visit, Himalayan country. Still, I had enough time to hit one spot that I was upset I didn’t get to in my last visit - The Gardens by the Bay. You can think of Singapore as a Dubai in Southeast Asia. There are a number of over-the-top attractions just like Dubai has, and the Marina Bay Sands Resort and the adjacent Gardens by the Bay are two examples. I had visited the towering, futuristic Marina Bay complex in 2016, so the gardens were the number one attraction that I wanted to see here in my short stay.

large_9CA74363-7E2A-40DF-85B8-719FC2744D8B.jpeg
Painted masks in the style of New Guinea aboriginal cultures

It is essentially a sprawling botanical gardens, though with a high-tech, Singapore twist. It’s most signature sights are the two, climate-controlled domes with thousands of plant species suited for that biome. My first stop was the Cloud Forest dome. There are six separate levels of pathways and walkways - some suspended high in air above the floor level. The dome is designed to simulate a mountain side climate, with lowland tropical vegetation at the bottom, up through rain forest, and gradually changing to cloud forest at the very top. You begin your visit circling the ground level, where you find an elevator to take you straight to the top. As you step off, it is noticeably cooler. You walk out onto skyways that circle the “mountain” that is the center. Each of the thousands of species are arranged attractively at their particular environmental niche.

large_47CA357A-D134-4ED9-B799-82E3C49938CC.jpeg
Suspended six stories about the ground level, the Cloud Forest Dome’s skyways are an awesome experience

Another cool aspect is the reproduced examples of artwork from around Southeast Asia - painted masks from New Guinea, statues and totems from other islands — all are placed aesthetically amidst the colorful flora. Some represent the mythology of the cultures, others the craftsmanship. I have to admit that I am not normally a botanical gardens type of guy. But I love taking pictures, and the arrangements of the flowers and other plants were so artistically eye-catching that it was a joy to photograph them.

large_38B9C32F-1DAD-4D25-A94D-DC543FA0AD1A.jpeg
The Gardens by the Bay’s exhibits art often an eclectic mix of plants, native crafts, and modern art

I slowly wound my way downwards, passing the source of the enormous indoor waterfall, a crystal cave explaining the geology of cloud forests, and squeezing past more selfie-takers than should be permitted under one roof. I try to be polite and not walk between a photographer and his or her subject, but there IS a time limit for snapping your pictures. It is rude to expect others to wait more than 10-15 seconds or so while you line up your model shoot or Instagram post. Those taking half a minute or more deserve the photo bombs they get, in my opinion!

large_E7B5A616-FF7E-451B-A7AA-85369B432417.jpeg
Carnivorous plants in tiny glass globes

There were displays with orchids, carnivorous plants, and a bedazzling rainbow of flowers. Nearly all of the plants were labeled, and the Gardens does a great job trying to educate visitors about eco systems. The domes and climate within them are designed to simulate nature and be as ecologically friendly as possible. The water that falls as spray rain (or from the waterfall) is collected at the lowest levels and circled back into a closed environment. At the very lowest level are numerous exhibits about the importance of protecting our environment. One theater with an all-around (including the floor) screen walks viewers through the climate change and its projected effects world-wide as the global temperatures rise. It shows vivid video of species loss, deforestation, glacier melt, droughts, flooding, and more. It makes an impassioned but scientifically-based plea to viewers that now is the time to reverse this process, and make our modern world more friendly to the environment. I can think of a certain U.S. president and his supporters who could do well with learning from this film and other exhibits in the Cloud Forest Dome.

large_006B5C29-A12D-478B-826E-847310217EA9.jpeg
A theater showing the long-term effects of climate change on our planet’s future

Next, I was off to see probably the most recognizable symbol of the Gardens by the Bay - the towering, artificial trees. These actually function as mammoth sized trellises, and are home to real flowers and plants the climb up their towering, conical sides. At the top, they flare out forming artificial branches that are embedded with lights for the evening light show. There is a sky walk - an elevated pathway that winds amongst their heights. It was closed due to weather during my visit (winds? forecast thunderstorms?), unfortunately. I had planned to come back in the evening for the light show, but in the end decided not to return. I have to leave something for future Singapore visits, right?

large_6083919A-714A-45A4-A8EE-DF309508ADB8.jpeg
The towering artificial trees at Gardens by the Bay

The base of the artificial trees were home to a Toy Story 4 exhibit and kids area, timed to coincide with the recent release of the movie. I was a bit disappointed in this veer towards crass commercialism. Of course, the fact that the area surrounding and amongst the artificial trees was swarming with dozens and dozens of kids had NOTHING to do with my feelings, I am sure! In all, I felt this part of the Gardens was somewhat disappointing. Though with the skywalk closed and not viewing the light show, that might have something to do with it!

large_3FCEB79C-4281-4211-BC6E-8F3F566ADCCF.jpeg
Statue marking the entrance to the Heritage Gardens

There are a number of Heritage Gardens in the park, too. They celebrate the different cultures that compose Singapore’s cosmopolitan mix. There was an Indian Garden, Chinese, Malay, and more. There are some informative placards talking about cultural medicine, food, and customs, but this part of the Gardens is definitely outclassed by the domes. Speaking of which, it was time for me to hit up the second one - the Flower Dome. I took the long way around the dome to photograph its outsides. Inside, I found it swarming with visitors - much more so than the Cloud Forest had been.

large_DA41D7C9-AC1E-4342-A746-05AAAC51285F.jpeg
The Flower Dome with the skyline of Singapore visible through the glass panels

This dome was arranged by various biospheres and types of plants. These ranged from water-filled ones from desert environments like yucca and cacti, to the bulbous tree trunks like Africa’s baobab trees, to the Mediterranean climate’s flora. There was also a special exhibit on roses, so there were thousands of brilliantly-colorful arrangements of roses inside the dome. Once again, statues and other artwork were placed in amongst the plants in an eye-catching way. Many were made of wood fashioned to look like ordinary branches whose intertwined shapes just happened to resemble a dragon, leaping deer, or horses. The ones in the Mediterranean section were white plaster, flower-draped replicas of Classical Greek and Roman statues.

large_0C2A6B8A-3297-48E4-A8F8-4A6859A38C12.jpeg
The Roman statues in the Mediterranean section of the Flower Dome

Once again, the sheer over-the-top aspect of the domes wows the visitor. Looking through the glass panes of the dome, you see downtown Singapore and the Jetsons-esque Marina Bay Sands. The displays use height to their advantage, aesthetically rather than biologically like in the Cloud Forest dome. I slowly, thoroughly worked my way through the dome. However, as the crowds grew, I found it became more and more like work. There were too many people expecting others to wait while they were photographed standing in front of this or that statue, or a particular spray of colorful flowers. I knew I was getting irritated by the press of people. Once I had seen it all, I bolted for the exit, not stopping much in the displays underneath, at the end. Once out of the dome, I made my way through the park to the nearby Bayfront MRT station.

large_6A210FE4-7DE8-4508-83B4-9CBC7C03B811.jpeg
Some of the artwork mixed among the flora in the Flower Dome

Which brings me to one of the things I like so much about Singapore - it’s top-notch public transportation system. The metro is one of the easiest and most efficient to use that I have ever encountered. And the only air-conditioned one. I am not referring to the interior of the metro trains themselves, but to the whole thing. As soon as you begin to descend on escalators from the city streets, you feel the air conditioning wafting past your face as a cooling breeze in Singapore’s tropical heat. The signage inside is easy-to-understand, and everything is clean and comfortable. Just as importantly, when you reach your destination, maps and signs help you figure out which exit from the metro you should take for your destination.

large_8694817F-CB13-4207-BB8F-6A27924FB127.jpeg
Singapore’s easy-to-use metro system

Transferring from the metro to city buses is probably one of the easiest in the world, too. I normally avoid city buses like the plague. I find it is too hard for someone unfamiliar with a city to know which stop to get off on. However, Singapore’s buses are more like trams, with designated and named stops. You can go online and print off (or save on your device) your route and simply count your stops to your stop. That is one reason I always prefer trains and trams over buses. If you pay attention, you know where you are, and how soon you need to get off. However, in Singapore, I take the buses, too. Occasionally, I will lose track and scramble to get off in time, but overall they are easy to ride. Paying for your ride is just as easy. You buy a credit card sized pass, and load it up with as much as you will need at electronic kiosks or at 7-Eleven stores. It works for all public transit, of course.

large_D2F5FB09-ACEE-4D36-8A50-5EEDC2BC25A3.jpeg
Some of the gorgeous flowers in the Gardens by the Bay

The food in Singapore is usually great, too. I visited the Indian restaurant near my hotel again for dinner. Their butter chicken and naan bread is top notch. I also love my usual Singapore hotel - the Village Hotel Katong. The rooms are large and comfortable, and there is a grocery store in the shopping center attached to the second floor. I know this entry is short on words, so hopefully the extra pictures of the Gardens by the Bay will convince you to consider Singapore as a future destination. I think it will become one of your favorites, too!

large_EED5986D-969C-4D94-B92C-7D8449B9AECE.jpeg
Awesome dragon looming over the Flower Dome

large_61015A10-11DD-4ED3-8E06-D248459EE8C7.jpeg

large_3AF15DB5-C4B0-4F73-B541-B2F7FC8650A3.jpeg

large_DDB3F0C3-BBB1-439F-94B5-4C689CA11C83.jpeg

large_31094DF7-5A16-4447-BEB7-16D632B334A7.jpeg

large_A5E8F73C-3B51-4E79-876B-067505E5018A.jpeg

Posted by world_wide_mike 03:59 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

Into the Himalayas and Bhutan

Sunshine breaks through in the Land of the Thunder Dragon

sunny 78 °F

large_D609E3BA-BDBC-4448-B752-76EC437ABF5B.jpeg
Bhutan’s capital of Thimphu gleams in the sunshine

I couldn’t have asked for a more auspicious omen to begin my trip to the Himalayan Mountain Kingdom of Bhutan. As I sat in my window seat looking down, the sun was rising above the clouds. I suddenly spotted what I had fervently hoped to see - the white peaks of the Himalayas. I watched in awe as the dawn made them stand out more and more clearly. I snapped a few photos with my camera phone, then pulled out my digital SLR with its 300mm lens. All the way until we landed, I was either admiring, photographing, or video recording the view. We landed to a sunny, gorgeous morning in Paro, Bhutan. I had been worried about the weather, as it was supposed to be rainy season, and the forecast showed unending thunderstorms. But here it was, the mountain kingdom revealed in all its glory!

large_63B57CBC-7A82-47B9-93F2-E1F6F92970AA.jpeg
A lifelong dream come true - seeing the Himalayas

Visiting Bhutan is neither easy, nor cheap. The only way to be granted a visa is to sign up for a guided tour with one of their agencies. The fee is $250 a day, but that includes everything - hotels (or homestays, if you prefer), transportation, car, driver, and all your meals and site admissions. Plus, being off-season, my rate was dropped to $200 a day. And did I mention that I was receiving an individual tour - not a group one? Only a limited number of people are permitted to visit Bhutan, a fact I could tell by the emptiest flight I had ever flown. We had 16 passengers on a normal passenger jet designed to hold around 120.

large_F9E4D537-D171-4721-BD9E-270E65A0BDB7.jpeg
The beautiful Bhutan countryside

I was met by my driver and guide, and the tour began right away. I let them know that I enjoy taking photos and they encouraged me to let them know whenever I wanted the car to pull over. This started right away when we halted at the river crossing guarded by Dungtse Lhakhang temple. It was originally begun as a bridge toll booth in 1421, when an iron bridge was built over the river by a man named Thangton Gyelpo - who was famous for building dozens of iron bridges in Tibet and Bhutan. A watchtower stands as a toll booth on either side of the river, and the temple is a short walk up from there.

large_D650A974-481D-4405-A094-F2C9A1B2B31E.jpeg
Chain bridge stretching across the river between two watchtowers

It was cool to climb around inside one of the medieval watchtowers, though you can’t walk on the reconstructed iron bridge. When they say iron, they don’t mean beams of steel, but instead a chain link construction. Prayer flags adorn the modern chain link reconstruction of it, while next to it, a swaying wooden footbridge stands for people to cross today. The spot is incredibly scenic with the river rushing past, the colorful prayer flags, and the temple and watchtowers.

large_C687CE06-686E-4C50-BC17-8E152C28C705.jpeg
Traditional Bhutanese dwellings overlooking rice paddies

The rest of the 45-minute drive from the airport to the capital city of Thimphu was beautiful. I had to resist making the driver pull over around every bend. One of the coolest things about driving through Bhutan’s countryside is that nearly all buildings look like temples - even if they are just farmer’s dwellings. The king of Bhutan decreed that all new construction should be done in the traditional, highly decorative style. Most are three stories tall. In the old days, farmers brought in their animals at night into the ground floor to protect them from predators. The second floor was for the family’s living space, and the third held shrines for praying.

large_B42FAF72-0BDB-4D01-977F-26E9AA7C92B6.jpeg
All new buildings in Bhutan must use traditional architecture

The buildings would cluster in groups of a half dozen or so, surrounded by rice paddies and pastureland. They would usually loom about a third of the way up a hillside, overlooking the fields. Honestly, it is hard to identify which are family homes, which are government administration buildings, and which are temples. They all look so ornate and gorgeous.

large_218B4C21-9087-42A0-B0E3-A35CB175F717.jpeg
Traditional and modern, one in the same in Thimphu

As we arrived in Thimphu, Bhutan’s largest town - holding about 1/5th of the nation’s 750,000 or so residents - the buildings clustered closed and closer together. The palace fortresses, called Dzongs, were much larger, though. From hilltops, temples and monasteries looked over Thimphu’s modern sprawl along the valley floor. The capital is a relatively recent phenomenon, being nothing but scattered hamlets in the 1960s and 1970s. Still, even the stores, banks, hotels, and commercial buildings had the ornate Bhutanese roofs, decorated windows and trim, and carved wooden designs.

large_AAE35557-2343-4E6D-AED3-4F3F73B84A9A.jpeg
Thimphu stores

My guide dropped me at my hotel for an hour to check in and unpack, figuring I was tired and might need some rest. I was fired up to see more of this fascinating kingdom, though, and was back in the lobby early. We drove to the Memorial Chorten, built in honor of Bhutan’s long-reigning third king. Chorten is Bhutan’s word for stupa, which is a Buddhist memorial usually containing a relic of the deceased person, often a saint. This one apparently does not, but is supposed to be lavishly decorated on the inside, with paintings explaining the Buddhist faith. I was disappointed we could not go in, though. I was 0 for 2 today at seeing temple interiors, so far. The bright golden spire of the stupa shone in the day’s amazing sunshine. We circled the temple, my guide explaining and spinning the prayer wheels. I never knew that inside the drum shaped wheels were written Buddhist prayers. My guide explained that, by spinning them, illiterate worshippers earned the same blessings as if they had said them.

large_50E5CA50-0BE6-4C40-A6D2-9641B6C8563D.jpeg
Memorial Chorten in Thimphu

We struck out on our next temple, Thimphu’s oldest, which was closed for restoration. However, we were in the Motihang neighborhood, which was where the Takin Preserve was located. He knew I wanted to see a takin, so we added that to the itinerary. What’s a takin? Well, it is Bhutan’s national animal - kind of a cross between a wildebeest, a cow, and a massive mountain goat. Bhutanese mythology says they were created by its most beloved saint, the Divine Madman, to prove his magical powers. Some remain in the wild, of course, but the preserve has a herd of about 20 or so, from the looks of it. There were also several varieties of deer particular to the Himalayas inside the preserve. My guide stressed it wasn’t a zoo, but it looked for all the world like one to me.

large_A980C774-7D3F-4158-9D86-EFA9A64F1164.jpeg
Bhutan’s national animal - the takin

Next up, was a visit to a nunnery perched on a hill with dramatic views of Thimphu. Thangthong Dewachen is relatively new, built in the 1960s, and is run privately rather than by the government (like most monasteries and nunneries in Bhutan). It was founded when a child was discovered to be the reincarnation of the iron bridge builder by Buddhist monks. Reincarnations of saints are a big part of Buddhist beliefs. I was happy that I was able to go inside the temple in the nunnery. The paintings were very interesting, and my guide identified the Who’s who of what I consider the very confusing Buddhist theology. Many of its benevolent gods look fearsome, and sport teeth and claws which look like they could rend a human limb from limb. Apparently, this is to cow and subdue demons, so you can’t judge a Buddhist deity by its cover.

large_605D3A58-0495-4A3E-88A1-2842A97357B4.jpeg
Decorative windows at a Buddhist nunnery

It was lunch time next, and I have to admit that I was actually hungry. I was taken to a restaurant buffet and sampled most of what was being offered. Bhutanese food is definitely fiery, and I had to order a second drink to cool my scorched tongue. I liked the spicy beef best, and had a second helping. From there, we were off to a Thimphu landmark - a towering, 203’ tall golden statue of Buddha, on a hill overlooking the city.

large_DE1D3DE3-BE7D-4758-8165-95A3F8A7A53E.jpeg
A landmark in Thimphu - a towering Buddha statue atop a hill overlooking town

My guide explained that we were lucky because the senior priest in the kingdom was holding a service there all day to bless worshippers. That this would be popular was immediately obvious by the bumper-to-bumper string of cars, buses, and taxis headed up and up the six kilometer road to there. Our fine, sunny day was quickly turning into a scorcher. I felt myself nodding off as we inched along in the car. The road was lined with parked cars of worshippers who decided to hike the rest of the way up. Eventually we reached the summit, well kind of, as there were a lot of stone steps still to climb. As we ascended, it seemed fairly crowded. However, when we created the top of the staircase, I realized what an understatement “popular” had been. There were throngs there - many sitting cross-legged under umbrellas or in the hot sun. Others circled the statue, like we did, and still others seemed to be just enjoying the festive atmosphere.

large_6A6D9575-F3B2-4ECE-BE04-8C7078E9C1F5.jpeg
Worshippers in the hot sun receiving their blessing

The voice of the Buddhist priest droned mantras over the loudspeakers, as my guide pointed out various features of the site. Senior government and religious figures sat together in a gallery to the left of the statue, while an immense number of red-robed monks sat directly in front. Behind them, were the throngs of worshippers patiently enduring the heat and sun. In the shadow of the towering Buddha, a dozen beautiful golden statues of Buddhist goddesses were placed around the platform. It was an impressive sight, and I did indeed feel lucky to be there on this special holy day. All day, the three of us (guide, driver, and myself) had great discussions about Bhutan, America, and what is truly important in life. In talking about my photography, I had said that every site tells its story in the pictures you take. Today’s story at Buddha Dordenma was about devotion. The devotion of those who sat in the hot sun to show their faith. Also the devotion of the Hong Kong and Singapore Buddhists whose donations had paid for this monstrous mark of their faith.

large_26ED846D-343C-4202-B86B-DEDC786BEDF7.jpeg
Built from donations by Buddhist abroad, this statue is one of the largest Buddhas in the world

Perhaps noticing my nodding off on the drive, my guide called an end to the day’s sightseeing. He encouraged me to rest a little, then explore Thimphu on my own. Honestly, I wanted to keep going, but once dropped off at the hotel, I did find myself napping for about an hour. I woke up incredibly disoriented, not sure where I really was. However, I soon got my head about me and ventured forth to find an ATM to finally withdraw some local currency. After that, I spent the afternoon wandering the area around my hotel. I watched archery practice (Bhutan’s national sport), checked out the soccer stadium, and took lots of pictures of ornately decorated buildings.

large_FFCEDCBF-8807-49AC-8864-CC1003085D72.jpeg
Buddhist monks

Eventually I wandered back to my hotel, and ordering a Bhutanese beer from the bar, spent the rest of the time until dinner looking over and editing my photos. My adventures in the Land of the Thunder Dragon were off to an incredible start. Despite my lack of sleep, I found myself looking forward to tomorrow’s sights.

large_CD8720C7-DF25-4A91-8571-5B65E11F7CE9.jpeg
Practicing their national sport - archery

Posted by world_wide_mike 10:03 Archived in Bhutan Comments (4)

Two Unequal Halves of a Day of Sightseeing

The key question is always “What do you want to see?”

rain

large_6F7F03B3-0F95-48A5-B426-A2C1DF728FEC.jpeg
The sumptuous Tasiche Dzong is visually spectacular

So, what do you want to see? I think, more than any other question, that is what a traveler must ask themself when planning a trip. And it is one of the drawbacks, in my opinion, of a guided tour. Although you may be able to tweak a planned itinerary and squeeze in or rearrange stops on it, you have given up essential control of what you will see. And what may excite me, may bore another traveler. That is why I have always preferred arranging my own trips, and don’t mind solo travel at all.

large_CC82346E-B852-4CD9-8797-CC25C84DCC4A.jpeg
One of the ancient Buddhist tracts on display at the National Library

Here in Bhutan, the itinerary was basically set. Today’s stops were heavy on folk museums and cultural sights. My guide Sonam seemed surprised and a bit disappointed that our first stop, the Postal Museum, didn’t really thrill me. Bhutan is known for its colorful and interesting stamps, but this seemed less museum and more shopping stop to me. The prospect of getting your own picture (and face) on a kingdom’s actual, valid stamp may seem the coolest thing in the world to many. Not being a selfie guy, I wasn’t interested. The museum essentially consisted of four binders and a couple glass displays of past Bhutanese stamps (all of which were for sale, of course). Not being much of a shopper either, we were out of the Postal Museum rather quickly, compared to most tourists, I imagine.

large_DB4A89B2-97BC-4F50-879A-3F47BBF040A1.jpeg
A traditionally dressed Bhutanese woman explains the significance of sights at Simply Bhutan

The National Library, and a chance to examine historical Buddhist manuscripts, seemed much more interesting to me. However, there were very few really old documents on display, actually. It was more of a working library for monks and Buddhist scholars to come examine and study from copies of ancient works. It was cool to see how many Buddhist tracts were wrapped up in colorful silk cloth to preserve them. But how many colorful silk bundles behind glass can you really look at? Speaking of colorful, seeing the world’s largest book - a very colorfully printed examination of animal life in Bhutan - was neat. But it was also behind glass for safekeeping, with only one set of pages on display.

large_15610981-79F7-4480-A915-D02EDE171D49.jpeg
The Land of the Thunder Dragon means, well, occasional thunderstorms

Our next stop was the Folk Heritage Museum, which are always hit or miss with me. The no photos rule was an immediate strike, and the displays of tools and household implements were very static. Sonam tried to inject life into it, but the best part was the chance to climb around inside of a reconstructed three-story, traditional Bhutanese home. A later stop in the morning, called Simply Bhutan, was much more interactive, though it was essentially a repeat of information. Each visitor to Simply Bhutan was assigned a young, dedicated Bhutanese guide who explained everything thoroughly. You had a chance to taste the traditional alcohol, Ara, and shoot a traditional Bhutanese bow. There was a lot more life in this stop, though they both covered the same topics.

large_41646B78-D292-453F-A299-82CD0E80A8FE.jpeg
The day’s highlight - Tasiche Dzong

After lunch, we drove high in the hills overlooking Thimphu for a scheduled scenic overlook of the city. They day had dawned warm, clear, and sunny, which had delighted me as every day’s forecast showed unending thunderstorms. While eating lunch at Simply Bhutan, though, I heard my first crack of thunder in the Land of the Thunder Dragon. Sure enough, by the time we arrived atop the hill, a steady rain had set in. Clouds all but obscured the city below. We waited a few moments for it to stop, but another rumble of the dragon convinced us that this stop was a bust. There was little else to do except have them drop me off at the hotel before picking me up for the late afternoon portion of our tour at 4pm. I stretched out on my bed and napped, wishing I had urged Sonam to rearrange the stops that morning and do the viewpoint right away since it had been sunny.

large_09FC6CBA-6A33-44D4-98B8-18B244D92B59.jpeg
Pomp and circumstance at the flag-lowering ceremony

The sun was out again when we set out for the day’s highlight - a visit to Tasiche Dzong. A dzong is a combination fortress and palace, with this one being the actual, working center of government. The king and religious leaders have offices here, as do the nation’s ministers. Since it is a working administrative office, it doesn’t open until 5pm (or as we found out, until the last minister closes up his office and goes home). Beforehand, though, is a flag-lowering ceremony, which we could see through the fence. A color guard lowers the huge Bhutanese flag flying in front of the dzong with pomp and ceremony, attended by three Buddhist priests.

large_604E39F1-DC06-4F01-8ED2-A0435973C014.jpeg
The main temple at the dzong, where royal weddings and coronations are held

Remember when I said things that may excite one person may bore another? Most of part one of the day’s sights had fallen flat with me. However, the palace was right up my alley! Bhutanese architecture is colorful and decorative in even ordinary homes. However, they pulled out all the stops for the dzong, and it was encrusted with carvings and paintings that overwhelm the eye. Entering the courtyard, the visitor is surrounded by a visual feast. Sonam started me off in the complex’s main temple. No photos were allowed inside, I was told to my disappointment. Otherwise, the temple was gorgeous.

large_21DE66D7-1A4B-4C85-98D3-8F17FB52A08D.jpeg
Beautiful decoration on the exteriors of the buildings of the palace complex

Sonam pointed out and explained the meaning of the statues and paintings. This temple is where royal coronations and weddings were held. Both he and our driver seemed awed to be there, and the reverence sunk in. A guard patrolled the interior to make sure I or the other visitors weren’t tempted to sneak in a photo (trust me, I was!). Even when we stepped back outside, and Sonam explained the facade of the building (where pictures were allowed), I was reminded not to try to sneak an interior shot in by including the open doorway in my focus. Trust me, I had every intention of doing that - darn!

large_523AD6EC-13C6-4D8F-ACA3-861D58C6841C.jpeg
A monk prowls an inner courtyard of the dzong

In such a sprawling complex, the temple was the only part of the interior we were allowed to visit, I was told. I was free to roam the courtyard and photograph the exteriors of the sumptuous buildings, though. At this point, I took off on my own and roamed the complex. I photographed the other buildings, the long covered hallways leading between them, the statues and carvings covering nearly every foot of their walls, and the tiny courtyards I could glimpse past gateways. Half of the palace is devoted to the religious officials and the other half to the secular ones, led by the king. Monks roamed the complex in their deep, almost burgundy colored robes. All officials and civil servants wore their ceremonial sashes (my guide and driver had donned their’s prior to entering).

large_7B17B3BA-A905-47DB-9E55-2B0FDAE9AF02.jpeg
Carvings watch over a doorway

I am sure I spent much more time photographing the dzong than the average visitor. The dozen or so other tourists who had entered when we did were long since gone. But the sheer aesthetic joy of lining up different angles and unusual shots excite the artist in me. Remember: what do you want to see? My visit to Tasiche Dzong is the kind of thing that tingles my travel nerve. Others may have popped in and out, as I did in the Postal Museum, earlier. But when you get to that sight you’ve been longing to see, devour it, make it last, save every moment.

large_33F89A19-712B-46B4-9A0E-C96F3FF03316.jpeg
Long galleries cover the corridors between buildings

large_079101D3-4BD0-473E-A272-B21175F69851.jpeg

Posted by world_wide_mike 08:47 Archived in Bhutan Comments (0)

Bhutan’s Stunning Mountain Scenery

...and more penis jokes than you can stand

overcast 79 °F

large_8A1097FD-EAC9-4CED-B85F-87C63FB4ED3A.jpeg
Gorgeous views along the road from Thimphu to Punakha

Deep gorges and sheer cliffs fell away to one side of the car as I looked out my window. Beyond those drops, isolated farmsteads, tiny hamlets, and colorful towns stretched into the distance. The road from Thimphu to Punakha, Bhutan, was one of the most scenic I have ever traveled. I tried to imagine what it was like to for these poor villagers to wake up to million dollar views every morning. Did it grow old after awhile? My guess was no - based on the number of road side stands selling chilis, tomatoes, corn, and other vegetables from their fields. All were cleverly sited exactly where you’d want to pull over to take pictures of the incredible panorama opening up before your eyes. They knew they lived amidst soul-searing beauty.

large_38B3C009-BD4B-4031-A692-6E40F251209C.jpeg
Clouds obscure the view from Dochula Pass

My morning had begun with a heartfelt prayer for good weather and clear skies that day. We would be traveling through the Dochula Pass on the way to Punakha. On a clear day, you can see the peaks of the Himalayas from the pass. Yes, yes, I had been incredibly lucky and seen them on my flight in. But how many times can you view the Roof of the World before you grow tired of it? My guess is never, and thus, my hope to see those icecaps on this morning.

large_CB2FA7FA-8285-49B2-8E61-C1FFDD87E840.jpeg
A line of mountain peaks of plays hide and seek n the clouds

When we arrived at Dochula Pass, we were greeted by a dense cloud cover, wrapping us in a blanket of fog. My guide Sonam was positive, and said it might clear up. He led me around what was essentially a roadside park, pointing out the display illustrating Bhutan’s Himalayan peaks, the best viewpoints, and the monument at the center of the park. It was built by the Queen in honor of the 108 soldiers who lost their lives suppressing an Indian rebel movement that had based themselves in Bhutan along its border with India. An oval of 108 man-high, brick stupas crowned the park - one for each soldier.

large_630501C4-E2C3-4A4F-A24E-9E4620E847B5.jpeg
A villager’s home standing on a hill above a deep valley

Sonam led me slowly through the mist, each of purposively dragging our feet to give time for the skies to clear. As we finished our circuit, I suggested we climb the monument and walk amongst the stupas, which seemed to have a great viewpoint - if the day were clear instead of fogbound. The stupas are in an oval on a hilltop, and as we reached the summit, I saw a patch of blue amidst the gray, and pointed it out to Sonam. He looked around, seeming to sniff the air, and declared it was clearing up.

large_DA95BF85-3C63-4005-BF59-C54AB4A32D09.jpeg
More Mountain scenery on the road to Punakha

We waited patiently for almost an hour. Breaks would appear in the cloud cover and jagged peaks would loom out of the gray. The openings would expand, and soon we could see an indistinct line of mountain tops. But each time, the clouds would pull their blanket back over our hilltop. I looked up at the hazy disc of the sun, praying for it to do its job and burn away the mist. We both joked that if we had superpowers, we would pull the clouds aside like a lace curtain. After an hour of Dochula Pass’s teasing, we finally gave up, and drove down the winding, two lane road towards Punakha.

large_C59C0BEC-89CC-48CB-BE87-EE232B2A60FF.jpeg
A town looms above its rice paddies in Bhutan

It was then that I saw those Bhutanese villagers’ million dollar views. Dochula Pass paled before these dramatic panoramas. This was life lived on a raw, elemental scale. Steep mountains loomed over valleys of rice paddies, which surrounded clusters of three-story, Bhutanese homes. Monasteries stood proudly on summits, seemingly inaccessible, above tiny villages. Forests cloaked the hillsides, wrapping them up in green mantles that made you wonder how isolated and cut off those villagers were before modern roads came. How many weeks would it take to travel the route we were covering in a few hours?

large_51933151-E1F1-48C7-B2AA-9661C8677AAF.jpeg
Imagine waking up every morning in this house to those views

At the halfway point in my trip, I had seen a good bit of what Bhutan had to offer. I had seen the incredibly detailed and decorative dzongs. I had paced through Buddhist temples, admiring their wall paintings and marveling at their ornate, otherworldly statues. I had learned about its culture in its museums. I had sat amidst a night time crowd In Thimphu and listened to an outdoor concert. But this - the drama of the geography of a mountain kingdom - was the true soul of the land. This was why I had come to visit this Himalayan mountain kingdom. I soaked up the sights I saw through my window, and every time I asked my driver to pull over, he courteously did. Sonam immediately popped out, too, offering up my telephoto lens and being as good as an assistant photographer as I had any right to ask for. I could have done this all day, but we reached our destination all too soon.

large_35A11A94-C105-44DB-908D-92326E2C2F4C.jpeg
Hiking through the rice paddies towards the temple of the Divine Madman

One reason most tours of Bhutan stop in Punakha is to visit Chime Lhakhang, the temple of the divine madman - Bhutan’s most beloved Buddhist saint. Lam Drukpa Kuenly lived an unorthodox life in the 15th century. Wandering the countryside as a vagabond, indulging in booze and women. He decided that the ultimate weapon to confront the dangers to the soul that every Buddhist faced was, ahem, the phallus. And so wooden phalluses are his symbol, and the village in the shadow of his temple is adorned with more images of male genitalia than any high school bathroom could ever have.

large_BF3DCEEE-802B-489F-8CA9-6DF96522842B.jpeg
The Temple of Chime Lhakhang

In fact, selling painted phalluses of every size, shape, and use imaginable is their business. And - dare I say it - business is growing. Lots of construction is going on, with new hotels, restaurants, and craft shops being erected (sorry, couldn’t resist) on a weekly basis. I mean, really, how many places can you walk into a shop, and with a straight face and ask, “How much is that phallus in the window?”

large_B54547E7-8D33-4FA8-9081-2A4F2542A320.jpeg
A woman seeks the Divine Madman’s blessing, circling the temple carrying a giant, wooden phallus

Of course, the climax of any trip to Punakha is visiting the Divine Madman’s temple. In fact, couples having trouble conceiving often visit here - some coming (hee, hee) from around the world. The women circle the temple three times, cradling a giant wooden phallus in their arms. As you’d expect, miracle stories rise from Chime Lhakhang’s potency. The temple was actually smaller than I expected (a common complaint of women worldwide, I think). Sonam dutifully explained the “birds and bees” of the temple - the meaning of all the paintings and statues. He and all of the other Buddhists present donated money or food. I asked Sonam if, having four children already, he really desired the Divine Madmen’s unique blessing of fertility?

large_BC495EC8-9252-4924-91EB-8AF3BF4E7470.jpeg
Hand-painted “souvenirs” for sale in the village

After lunch, and an end to my sophomoric double entendres, we checked in to our hotel. From there, we visited the Punakha Dzong - the winter palace of Bhutan’s kings. The fortress is wedged in the triangle of land between two rivers which join together as one (honest, I am trying to stop!). It is smaller than Thimphu’s Tasiche Dzong, but seems to cram the same amount of decoration into half the space. Once again, we could visit only the main temple. And once again, I took my time wandering the fort, admiring the thick walls (blame yourself, not me, for that one!), taking tons of photographs of the decorations, and imagining what this fort was like when it fought off an invasion of Tibetans and Mongols.

large_B94531C9-1857-47F9-A413-1B9CD84AD232.jpeg
Punakha’s dzong stands proudly at the strategic junction of two rivers

My guidebook recommended a scenic overlook, and Sonam recognized it and agreed wholeheartedly. We wound our way up hairpin turns until emerging high above the riverside town. The view was every bit as good as expected. It was a gratifying finish to a thrilling day. I felt I had touched the soul of Bhutan. It’s landscape, its beliefs, and its achievements were everything I could ask for. I had no idea what tomorrow would bring, but could only hope it was as good as today. And if you take that the wrong way, you have only yourself to blame!

large_C082BFF8-1236-47AF-86E5-4DC965B27311.jpeg
The Dzong gleams in the afternoon sunshine

Posted by world_wide_mike 17:55 Archived in Bhutan Comments (0)

Retracing my Steps to Paro, Bhutan

Abbreviated day of sightseeing takes in temples and dzongs

semi-overcast 79 °F

large_CD7461D5-B01E-4523-81B0-498AC59A92C6.jpeg
The Paro valley stretched out below its dzong

Even with six days in Bhutan, I was covering only a small slice of this 200-mile wide mountain kingdom. What’s more, the country’s limited road network and only one international airport meant that travelers are bound to retrace their steps, sooner or later. Today was my day. We drove from Punakha to Thimphu, and on to Paro, where the airport is located. Though I saw a lot of countryside, the scenery was pretty much a repeat of day’s one and three.

large_E998A746-253B-47D1-A069-9148440989BD.jpeg
Paro Valley, hemmed on on all sides by high hills

Once in Paro, we had lunch, then began our half day of sightseeing. This started at the National Museum, or more accurately, the stand-in for the museum which is being renovated after a fire a few years ago. It is now housed in a stone building just steps away from its former location, a round medieval watchtower located atop a hill overlooking the Paro valley.

large_247F65D4-D1EB-4ADE-BCF5-6CA089FA99BC.jpeg
The round medieval watchtower that normally houses the National Museum

It is a small museum, with only three rooms of exhibits. The best is the first room with the masks that are worn in cultural dances covering the walls. The masks are grouped according to the dances they are used in, and well labeled in English. There is a placard explaining the origin and purpose of each dance, and what the masks are meant to represent. In addition, there is a decent video running every five minutes showing the dances being performed, with commentary.

large_5CD5AEEA-7289-4CE5-B8F5-5EAE303625CD.jpeg
The watchtower and dzong share a hillside overlooking the town

The second room is merely photographs of Bhutan’s kings, while the third covers the animal and plant life of the country. There are a mix of photographs and taxidermy (complete animals, or their heads for larger ones). The information is good, and it is arranged by Bhutan’s very vertical climate system or habitats. It doesn’t take long to work your way through the museum. Afterwards, we walked down to look at the watchtower, whose exterior is in great shape (must have been mostly interior fire damage). We were supposed to hike down to the dzong next, but Sonam got spooked by the rain clouds rolling over the hilltops at the far end of the valley. So we drove down.

large_0739F2F6-5DB2-474C-A6D8-C3EC9B06A09F.jpeg
Looking down at the fortress dzong from the watchtower

The dzong was the smallest of the three palace fortresses I saw in my time here. It was also the quietest, with a half-dozen tourists and mostly just monks in residence. Once again, no photos were allowed in the temple, which was the only building we were allowed inside. As usual, I was free to explore otherwise, making a circuit of the interior walls and courtyards. The decoration was amazing, as always for Bhutan’s historic dzongs. I probably spent the least amount of time here of the three, but it was also the smallest. Or perhaps I am getting “dzonged out!”

large_475B7840-CE1D-4510-9A0E-FED310954E6A.jpeg
The interior courtyard of Paro’s dzong

From there, we drove to one of Bhutan’s oldest temples, Kichu - built in the 7th century, according to Sonam. Apparently, it was constructed by a Tibetan king who built 13 temples in Bhutan in all. The coolest part about it was the active service going on when we arrived. The monks were droning their prayers and there was, I believe, recorded music accompanying them. It was very small and somewhat claustrophobic inside, with all of the worshippers, bowing and prostrating themselves. The monks were scurrying around dealing with all of the offerings of food and money being left by worshippers. I did my best to stay out of the way.

large_A7969A14-225B-4E50-93FA-7A8774573BE0.jpeg
Faded colors don’t spoil the beauty of the palace’s decoration

The temple did look older, and had different types of statues than the others I’d seen, so far. More bronze, and almost Hindu looking, with multi-armed goddesses. In an even smaller side chapel built less than 200 years ago, another service was going on. About a half dozen monks were chanting in unison. Suddenly, I saw two get out their cell phones (yes, Buddhist monks across the world seem to carry them). My first thought was, “Ah-ha! Monasteries are having the same problems with cellphones as teachers!” When I circled back around I saw that I was wrong. The monks had been pulling up an app that had the chant listed. They were reading from their cellphone screen - technology changing the way an ancient religion is performed!

large_3428032D-2459-47E1-8178-08322EB7C1A3.jpeg
Kichu Temple’s interior courtyard

That wrapped up the day’s abbreviated sightseeing. I was driven to my hotel - The Tiger’s Nest Resort - and checked in. My room did indeed have a view of the cliff face where the monastery is located. That was the good news. The bad news is it is a 10-minute drive out of town, and neither my guide nor driver are staying here. So. I am kind of marooned out here. The grounds and view are beautiful, yes. But I was actually planning on doing some shopping tonight since Paro is kind of a handicraft headquarters in Bhutan. Driving through town today I saw tons of shops. Plus, there is a microbrewery here! Will I be retracing my steps into town tonight via taxi? Hmmmm...

large_4A942F57-C743-4F47-84AD-2302B71698EC.jpeg
Dusk falls, looking out the window of my hotel room at Tiger’s Nest Resort

Posted by world_wide_mike 06:07 Archived in Bhutan Comments (0)

Hiking to Tiger’s Nest is a Thrill for the Soul

Grueling walk in the mud and rain is worth every step taken

rain 72 °F

large_AA64D2DB-1855-4C51-B6C6-051F553A3FDA.jpeg
Tiger’s Nest monastery - a world class site that is a key reason I came to Bhutan

There are those world-class sites, that when you first glimpse them with your own eyes, stop you in your tracks. I was on a rough, stone staircase leading to Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Bhutan. My guide went ahead, not noticing me frozen in place. “This was why I came here,” I mumbled to myself. A lump rose in my throat as I said my thanks for being able to see another amazing place in our world created by man.

large_2D77226F-DF5E-4F62-90A8-0E66AF2A6B1A.jpeg
Looming high up in the mist, Tiger’s Nest is worth coming to Bhutan to see

It was images online of Tiger’s Nest that convinced me to choose Bhutan as a destination, months ago. Everything about the country sounded intriguing - it’s difficulty in actually getting there, the relatively few amount of tourists allowed in, and its unique embrace of Buddhism in creating its modern world. It does not measure Gross National Product, but instead created its own Gross Happiness Index. It had been difficult to get here, and expensive, as well. But as I raised my camera and began taking pictures of the gorgeous white, red, and gold buildings, I knew it had been worth it.

large_5C79CE6D-5068-48F1-9CD6-94F63BDD7B4D.jpeg
The view of the hillsides and valley as we begin our climb

It had also been worth the climb. I woke up almost two hours earlier than I had planned, so anxious about my visit was I. I was praying for sunshine, or at least not pouring rain. I wasn’t sure if they’d cancel the hike if it was storming. The path was mostly mud and rock, and I imagine could be treacherous if it became a river. After showering and getting ready, I held my breath and opened the curtains of my hotel room windows. My second story room had a great view of Tiger’s Nest. Paro is in a valley hemmed in by tall, forested hillsides. I could see clouds drifting across the hillsides, and a gentle rain falling. The hills were not completely socked in with clouds, though. The fact that I could see the hillsides at all, and the entire valley was not fogbound, was good news.

large_2474A542-A2F9-4081-89B9-8C96EA0572B8.jpeg
Prayer flags are a common sight everywhere in Bhutan, including the trail on the hike

At 7am, I walked downstairs and out the front doors of the hotel to see if anything had changed. The rain had stopped, and it seemed to be getting steadily lighter. I ate breakfast, and went back up to the room to begin preparations for my departure tomorrow. My guide and driver were picking me up at 8:30, so I drifted back downstairs at 8:15 - I have made it my goal to be early every morning. To my surprise, my guide Sonam and driver Niwas were having coffee in the lobby. They’d beaten me, for the first time all trip!

large_2DEA74EA-70C5-4DD3-B69F-0E09CAFC6994.jpeg
Slackers, er tourists, mount up on horses to cover half the hike to the monastery

The drive to the trailhead took about 15 minutes, the road narrowing and become more potholed as we climbed. We passed strings of horses going the same direction. Sonam told me that some tourists ride horses halfway up, and it was obvious he disapproved. As we began our hike we talked about it more. I agreed that it kind of defeated the purpose to ride a horse on a hike. Plus, going to a monastery is somewhat like a pilgrimage. And pilgrimages are meant to be walked, to suffer physically for your spiritual quest. You could argue that if you’re a non-Buddhist like me, what does it matter? Sonam and I were of the same heart on this, though. Besides, horses on the trail meant watching out for poop going up and down!

large_391DE5A0-88B4-4B43-A71F-907B8BF0C12D.jpeg
The cafe at bottom left, with the monastery looming in the mist above it

The day was foggy and damp, and clouds drifted up and across the hillside as we hiked. Sometimes, Tiger’s Nest was cloaked in mist, other times it shone clear, beckoning us upwards. Within 15 minutes, I shed my rain coat. It was very humid, and I began to sweat freely. My pace didn’t slacken, though, and Sonam said we were making good time. It was two hours up, and two hours down. At the halfway point of the climb would be a cafe, where we’d rest and have refreshments.

large_8B79AE0A-7843-46D5-BE71-175BEFAD244E.jpeg
Even the dogs in Bhutan know how to enjoy a scenic view

I took photos as we continued upwards, either of the monastery coming slowly closer, or of the views down below as we hiked higher and higher. Seemingly stray dogs are everywhere in Bhutan, and this hike was no exception. Some of them were even perched on rocks with amazing views beneath them. Do dogs appreciate beautiful scenery, too? In Bhutan, they appear to! We encountered few other hikers, perhaps our early start or the intermittent clouds were the reasons. We did encounter Gray Langur monkeys, lounging high in the cloud forest trees, though. Sonam spotted them first, and declared it good luck (or at least that is the tradition in Bhutan). As I zoomed in on them with my telephoto lens, I agreed wholeheartedly.

large_431D1628-A7D6-4980-8C0C-F1E19FADBC4E.jpeg
Spotting a Gray Langur monkey is good luck, according to Bhutanese tradition

Spanish moss appeared on the trees, too, at a certain elevation as we climbed. The fog and lichen and moss-encrusted trees gave the surrounding forest a magical appearance. We passed prayer flags, alternating in blue, white, red, yellow, and green. You see strings of them everywhere in this Buddhist kingdom. Some have been hanging in the weather so long they are faded to white, the prayers written on them long since faded away. Eventually, we came to a tall pole affixed with red prayer flags. Sonam had pointed it out to me yesterday from my hotel where we could barely make it out high near the summit. This was our highest point in the hike. From here, we would actually descend slightly to the bridge that led to Tiger’s Nest.

large_3DF40190-4AAB-48E8-8723-6C5941AC1589.jpeg
Lichen and moss hangs from the trees, giving the hike a magical feel

We stopped for awhile, though, and enjoyed the view. Sonam said this is the most famous view of the monastery buildings, but I would find dozens of stupendous viewpoints as we got closer and closer. A short time later, we rounded a shoulder of the mountain and came to the rough, stone stair. Here is where I froze in my tracks. There, slightly beneath us, Tiger’s Nest stood proudly in all its glory. My pace slowed to a crawl, as my eyes drank in this world-class sight and every nerve in my body thrilled to the experience.

large_B8FC4996-3851-405C-A251-ED682DDD0062.jpeg
Tiger’s Nest monastery looming high above the valley

The hardest part of the hike, in my opinion, actually still lay ahead. The monastery is at more than 10,000 feet elevation, and the stone staircase leading up the final hundred yards kicked my butt like no other part of the hike. It was the altitude, I knew, but it was humbling nevertheless. One of the coolest parts of exploring the monastery buildings was the service going on in one temple. Two dozen monks chanted their prayers in unison, with older monks beating drums and blowing long trumpets. The monks were of all ages, from the elderly priest who led the chant to elementary school age boys. All were dressed in their deep, burgundy-red robes. Sonam was obviously moved to be there and prayed and prostrated himself in every building.

large_28A2F4A6-6BAF-4BE6-813E-9E1C3F7D1794.jpeg
Buddhist monks visible in front of the right hand buildings, enjoy the views from a railing

After we had explored the monastery - as much as we were allowed to - and enjoyed the amazing views, we began our trek down. The rain started about halfway down, and came and went all the way till the end. Going down was trickier, easier to lose your footing. Luckily (thanks monkey!), neither of us fell. For some reason, the way down seemed to take longer, and I was happy when we reached the parking lot. On the climb I had talked Sonam into stopping at the brewpub in town that I’d found out about yesterday. What better way to reward yourself for more than four hours of sweat and exertion than in a cold beer? I was tired of the traditional lunches I had eaten the previous four days, and pub grub would be a welcome change! Not that I am complaining - my tour with Bhutan Exist Tours and Travel had arranged a great tour for me. They were always available to answer questions and I’d highly recommend them: http://bhutanexist.com/

large_61FD0AED-5965-497F-8560-77E59BCE621E.jpeg
At Namgay Artesianal Brewery in Paro, Bhutan - a reward for a tough hike!

After lunch, Sonam helped me shop for souvenirs, then took me to one last dzong, nearby. He said it wasn’t open and was still being renovated, but it looked pristine on the outside. Drukyul Dzong was built in the 16th century and was instrumental in Bhutan’s defeat of a Tibetan invasion. I couldn’t get too excited about it because, for me, I had already experienced my high point of the trip. When I came face to face with Tiger’s Nest lording over stupendous view’s high above the valley, I had seen all that I needed to see. Bhutan had been a great trip and worth the trouble to get here. However, the memory of Tiger’s Nest will stay with me forever, and of the grueling hike across rock and mud to get there.

large_304A9ADA-D704-4986-A50C-DF6140061D3F.jpeg
Drukyul Dzong - a smaller fortress currently being renovated

Posted by world_wide_mike 08:43 Archived in Bhutan Comments (1)

Bulgaria's Historic Sites are a Medieval Gem

Monasteries, Castles, and Roman ruins don't disappoint here

sunny 75 °F

large_01bg_dome.jpg
Alexander Nevski Church, Sofia
A couple years ago, I read an article in a travel magazine about Bulgaria. It described the country's beautiful, historic monasteries tucked away among forested hills like hidden gems of Medieval Europe. I vowed to go see them, one day. When the appropriate airline passes came my way this summer, I began to plan my pilgrimage to Bulgaria and its monasteries.

While reading other traveler's experiences in Bulgaria on the web site Igougo.com, I saw a post from Krassi, a Bulgarian native. I e-mailed him some questions, and in the course of our conversations, he offered to be my guide during my visit. All I would have to pay for would be the gas we used, entrances to the places we visited, and $25 a day "pocket money." That price for a private driver/guide interpreter was unbeatable. Not to mention that I had read that most signs -- especially in bus or train stations -- were NOT in English. Bulgaria uses the Cyrillic alphabet, which could make relying on public transportation a challenge.

I landed in Sofia in the early afternoon of a sunny, pleasant September day. As my Lonely Planet guide book advised, I bypassed the men asking, "Taxi?" and walked to the official airport taxi stand and hopped in. The Bulgarian Lev is approximately 2-to-1 to the dollar, making it simple to calculate that my 6 lev taxi ride to the hotel was a bargain. After checking in, I changed clothes and headed out to see the Bulgarian capital's sights (which are compact enough to see in a leisurely, several hour walk).

The afternoon ripened into an absolutely gorgeous one. The gold domes of the Alexander Nevski Church blazed in the sun, providing dramatic contrast to the clear blue sky. Nearby, in a tree-roofed park, the domes of the St. Nicholai Russian Church also shone in the sun. Its colorful mosaics and tiles flashed brightly to passers by. As scenic as the outsides of Sofia's various churches were, the frescoes painted on the inside walls and ceilings were just as beautiful. Most were hundreds of years old -- some approached a thousand. Gazing up at images of the saints and churchmen, I was stirred to think I was seeing the same sight Bulgaria's kings, nobles and untold generations of its citizens looked upon. I noted the influence of the Byzantine art in the large eyes of the saints and their placid expressions. They seemed to exude calm, urging me to slow down and realize all is in God's hands.

My guidebook's map was excellent, and even though I never saw a street sign I could read (all really was in Cyrillic!), I got around fine. I met a couple people who spoke English -- mostly collecting my entrance money at the various sites! Bulgaria is fairly inexpensive, though. I think the most I paid to visit a church or museum was 5 Lev (about $2.50). Many were free, but none were crowded. It was pleasant to wander around them, looking up at the man-made beauty.

02bg_prez.jpg
President's building, Sofia

After I'd checked off the sights I'd planned for my half day in Sofia, I decided to go on a scouting mission. The next morning, I would take a bus to Plovdiv, where my guide Krassi lived. He would pick me up at the bus station, and from that point on, I wouldn't have to worry much about directions. Anyway, I thought it might make things go smoother if I sorted out the bus station ahead of time. So, as the sun was setting, I tromped over to see just how confusing "the most disorganized in Bulgaria" could be.

The bus station abuts the train station, and to be honest, it was hard to tell where one began and the other ended. The giant board showing city names and times was a squirming mass of spaghetti lettering to my eyes. After about five minutes of looking, I finally found the Cyrillic spelling of "Plovdiv" on the board. Then, I couldn't tell what days those times were good for. Was one side weekdays and the other holidays?

My impression of Cyrillic is that roughly a third of the characters are ones that we don't use in Latin letters. Maybe another third are same as the ones we use, but correspond to a different letter ("B" is the Bulgarian "V"). For example, Plovdiv has seven letters in both Latin and Cyrillic. The Cyrillic P looks vaguely like the Greek (or math) symbol for "pi." The L is an upside down V (like the Greek "lambda"). The O is the same. The V is B, remember, and the D was a really odd-looking beast like a TV perched atop a wrinkled carpet. The I is a backwards "N," followed up, finally, by another B (which, as you now know, means a V). Confused? I sure as Hell was!

Now, by the end of the trip, I got a lot better with the letters. Initially, it is quite a shock, though. And the guidebook was right: It is a rare thing to see Latin letters anywhere near public transportation. Oh, want something else that threw me the entire trip? Yes and No. When a Bulgarian is saying Yes (or "da," like Russian, which it is similar to), he shakes his head like we do for No. When he is saying NO (or "ne"), he inclines his head, like we would when we agreed or understood something another was saying. It seems simple but it threw me for the entire trip to hear a Bulgarian saying yes and seeing him shaking his head no.

For dinner, I continued a decades-old and time honored traveling tradition for me. Yes, that can mean only one thing -- Pizza Hut! Much to my surprise, though, they did NOT take credit cards (like every other Pizza Hut I've visited in the world). And that would hold true for much of Bulgaria. Very few places take credit cards, so if you go, plan on not being able to use them.

large_03bg_amphi.jpg
Plovdiv's Roman amphitheater

The next morning I discovered my scouting trip of the evening before was useless, as it took me another good 15 minutes of wandering and asking before I found the bus to Plovdiv. Once I discovered what time it left, I had to call Krassi to let him know. A friendly, unemployed Bulgarian helped me out, and even let me use his own phone card. I paid him back by buying him a coffee and slipping him some cash for his help. I think that was his "job," really -- helping out foreigners and (in the mildest way possible) begging some cash from them. The day before, I had to shoo off a half dozen not-so-mild beggars on the steps of the churches or on the streets. I got the impression business is NOT booming for all Bulgarians. It is not the poorest country in Europe, but it seemed to have its share of people down on their luck.

The bus ride went by quickly and Krassi was waiting at the bus stop. He took me to my hotel to check in, then we set out to explore Plovdiv, Bulgaria's "second city." We started in the Old Town, which is quite beautiful, with cobblestone streets, colorful 19th Century houses with intricate woodwork, and a seasoning of nearly 2000 year old Roman ruins. The signature sight is Plovdiv's Roman amphitheater, which is in great shape, and is used for concerts, plays and operas. Perched on a hill overlooking the city, its dramatic views doubtless enhance the performances. I wandered around the seats, soaking up the ancient heartbeat of the place.

04bg_pvtown.jpg
Old Town, Plovdiv

Krassi was a good guide, pointing out spots for photographs, and explaining the history of places. In Plovdiv, he is a web page designer and internet entrepreneur who yearns to earn enough to buy his travel agent license. It felt good helping him out. I'm sure there are professional tour guides whose knowledge and store of anecdotes is greater. However, seeing the city with him was like seeing it with a friend.

After a bite to eat in a cafe, we drove about 20 miles south to Bachkovo Monastery. Like advertised, it was nestled peacefully among forested hills. Clad in their black robes and hats, the brother monks milled in and out of the monastery's church, bowing and praying before the icons and altars. One burly bearded fellow reminded me of Gimli the Dwarf from Lord of the Rings. I was struck by the expression on his craggy face when paused in front of the silver-plated icon of the Virgin Mary. It was the smile with which you greet an old friend with whom you share many secret memories. The monastery grounds were gorgeous, with well-tended flowers and trees surrounding the fresco-covered walls of the buildings, which had been rebuilt more than once since its founding in 11th century.

On the way back to Plovdiv, we stopped by the ruins of a hilltop castle and its accompanying church (which unlike the castle was still in good shape). The views up the valley towards Bachkovo and down towards Plovdiv were resplendent with green trees, broken by the tawny scar of the granite hillsides. As light faded, we stopped by the Monument to the Soviet army, which sat atop Plovdiv on a commanding hill. The Bulgarians have a different view of the Soviets than we do as Americans. The Russians had long been there allies, and their help was instrumental in freeing Bulgaria from Turkish rule.

The next morning we drove three hours or so northeast, over two mountain ranges and through the "Valley of Roses" to Veliko Turnovo. Billed as the heart of Medieval Bulgaria, it is a town scattered on various sides of a gorge that encircles and slithers amidst a series of hills. The Tsarevets Fortress commands the highest ridgetop, its walls encircling a triangular shaped plateau. We headed straight there and I was immediately in my element, walking along the walls, peering from the guard towers at the dramatic views of the town rising up on the opposite slopes and examining the ruins of churches and buildings scattered across the grounds. I think I walked poor Krassi to exhaustion as I clambered all around the ruins, losing myself in the views and sense of history.

05bg_tsars.jpg
Tsarevets Fortress, Veliko Turnovo

In the center of the plateau are the castle-like ruins of the Royal Palace. Veliko Turnovo is called the City of the Tsars, as many of Bulgaria's Tsars and Kings ruled from here. On the hill's highest point is the Patriarch's Complex. Its spire commands the view from town, but the interior of the building is a disappointment. Instead of ancient frescoes or austere stone, there are modern art murals on the walls, with distended, impressionistic figures illustrating Bulgaria's history -- bleah! It felt as out of place as a shopping mall.

We took a break at the cafe to enjoy the fortress' wonderful views of the town -- and to rest Krassi's feet. It was another glorious, sunny day, and the small handful of other visitors to the fortress basked in the sunshine. Krassi thanked me, though, for convincing him to come to Veliko Turnovo. Like many people across the world, he hadn't been to one of their country's stellar sights! We took one more walk along the walls to Baldwin's Tower -- named for a deposed emperor who was imprisoned there -- before leaving the fortress.

We then drove to St. Peter and Paul Church, in the gorge below, that had splendid murals from the 14th - 17th centuries. The caretaker was an enthusiastic women who apologized when her English gave out as she took us from fresco to fresco, explaining each and its significance. I noticed that many of the saint's portraits had their eyes gouged out, and asked why. My thought was perhaps they were defaced during Turkish rule. Her explanation was a fascinating step into the Medieval mind. It seems that the phrase "The eyes are the windows of the soul" exists in Bulgarian, too. Well, the local inhabitants -- who had no hospitals or medical clinics to visit -- naturally had to make their own medicine. They felt if the potion or poultice contained a part of the Saint's soul, recovery was guaranteed. So, they would chip a tiny portion of the eyes of the saint off the mural and mix it with their medicine. Toss in centuries of this practice, and you have a church wall with saints' eyes gouged out.

06bg_veliko.jpg
View of the town from the walls of Tsarevets

We wanted to squeeze in one more sight, so drove to the quaint hilltop village of Arbanasi. Nearly all of the village buildings are hundreds of years old and built in the traditional style, surrounded by their own individual walls. This made it difficult to appreciate as almost none are open for visitors. However, nearly all were open for business, with a table set out in front selling souvenirs and crafts. I found it too touristy, which upon reflection, was exactly what my Lonely Planet guide book had said, too.

We then made the long drive back to Plovdiv. Krassi is a disco fan, and I'd been listening to it for two days. He must have felt sorry for me, though, as he changed it to a rock station for most of the drive back. The sun was setting as we climbed through the Shipka Pass, site of an intense battle in the 1800s between the Turks and the Russians with their Bulgarian allies. The Russo-Bulgarian victory against four times their numbers is commemorated by the delicate golden onion domes of the Nativity Memorial Church on the southern slopes, and a stone monument at the top of the pass. On the way here in the morning, we'd stopped and struggled through fierce winds and cold to the stone monument. On the return trip, the weather looked much more benign, but we didn't have time or the energy for another try.

07bg_bachko.jpg
Bachkovo Monastery

Once back in Plovdiv, we had a couple drinks in a cafe on the main pedestrian "drag." Krassi explained that the locals saunter up and down the street, doing what the Italians call "La Passegiata" -- checking everyone out. None of the Bulgarian women (who are quite good looking -- not the stereotype Olympic weightlifter that seems to be the assumption in the U.S.) seemed particularly interested in a dusty, travel-worn American traveler, unfortunately. I thanked Krassi for all his help, and wished him luck on his ambitions in the travel industry.

The next morning, he drove me to Sofia airport. During my planning back home, I'd wished I'd given myself more days here. As I boarded the plane, I knew my pilgrimage to the monasteries, churches and historic sights of Medieval Bulgaria had been too short. But then, sometimes all we can afford are the small gems, and remember they sparkle none the less for their size.

Posted by world_wide_mike 16:08 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (0)

Winter's Surprise Arrival Doesn't Spoil Visit to Lithuania

Lots of Churches, Castles, and City Sights Take the Edge off the Cold

snow 36 °F

01lith_chur.jpg
Church of SS Peter and Paul, Vilnius

It took seven years and three attempts, but I finally made it to Lithuania. The only unpleasant surprise awaiting me when I finally landed in my star-crossed destination was an early November snowstorm.

Of course, knowing how far north the Baltics are, I should have expected as much. That and the roughly eight plus hours of daylight at this time of the year. However, the photogenic snow dusting the church steeples and trees of Old Town Vilnius made up for it, and my complaining about the bitter wind was only half-hearted. My travel companion, coworker Scott Thomas (who is of Lithuanian descent), and I plunged right into the sights shortly after landing in the early afternoon in Vilnius.

Our hotel, Mikotel, was on the edge of the Old Town, and we bundled up against the chill and struck off from there in the direction of the Center. We entered through the whitewashed "Gates of Dawn," pausing to look behind us at the very popular Catholic shrine overlooking the gates. I'd read that rising above nearly every block in Old Town were the domes or towers of churches, and it seemed true. Along with the pastel colored buildings and the fresh powder sugar snow on everything, it made for a scenic wander.

We were surprised how quickly dusk fell, but had a nice time picking our way through the winding Old Town streets. If we had a theme or plan, it was "church-spotting," and we managed to take in a good number of them before cold and growing hunger drove us inside to find a restaurant. Those who know me are aware that food is not one of my priorities while traveling, but Scott is a bit of a gourmet, so we made an effort on this trip to dine reasonably well. And no, I did not find a Pizza Hut (but did talk Scott into pizza and beer at a local place one night!).

02trakei.jpg
Trakei and its charming lakeside views

The next morning we were off to the old Lithuanian capital of Trakei, which is built on a peninsula surrounded by three lakes. Upon our arrival, the gray skies slowly softened and broke up into patches of blue, throwing an enchanting light on the lakes and the snug-looking cottages that lined its shores. Many of the homes are traditional wooden buildings, painted bright greens and yellows. Scenic as they were, it was the castles that drew me to Trakei. The first one we visited was on the peninsula itself, and was mostly in ruins. The walls, gates and scattered buildings that still stood stretched scenically across a wooded and hilly Winter Wonderland.

We then continued down Trakei's main street, stopping at a souvenir shop for some of Lithuania's trademark amber. The town's most famous site, the Island Castle, was next. As if scripted by Hollywood, the sun broke through just as we approached it. Its warming rays shone on the rich, reddish-orange of its brick walls and towers. The approach to the castle is equally dramatic, as you walk across two footbridges from the mainland to the island it is built upon. Reeds and trees line the banks making for a wonderful setting for the well-restored, 1400s-era castle.

03lith_cas.jpg
Island Castle, Trakei

For the first time in Lithuania, we actually saw other tourists there (we could count them on our fingers, but they were there!). The interior of the castle has been turned into a rambling museum with displays on just about every aspect of Lithuanian history, recent and Medieval. The best part about the display rooms for me was they were heated! Actually, I enjoyed roaming the interior of the castle, especially the three level main keep built around a chilly stone courtyard. I wanted to climb to the top of the circular, brick towers, but they were closed off, perhaps a disadvantage of visiting in the off-season.

After a thorough exploration of the Island Castle, we slowly headed back through the snow-carpeted streets, pausing to take photos of some of the town's attractive churches. We then caught our bus back to Vilnius (heat is used quite sparingly on the public buses, we'd found that morning). Since lunch time had come and gone while sightseeing, we dropped by a local tavern near our hotel and enjoyed the special of the day (pork cutlet with cabbage salad, and uh, beer). Scott's command of Russian came into handy, yet again. He found more people seemed to speak Russian than Lithuanian in Vilnius. My ability to smile and nod in hopes that I guessed what they were talking about proved universal, as usual.

That evening, Scott wanted to check out "New Town" Vilnius. The wind was brisk, but we walked a wide arc through the area surrounding the Old Town. Scott seemed pleased, but I am more of a historic or scenic sights kind of guy. One row of apartments or modern buildings pretty much looks like another to me. Then again, Scott is an urban living kind of guy, so probably is able to appreciate such sights more. It was in his happy and weakened condition (from the day's walking) that I was able to talk him into pizza and beer for dinner. It was excellent, and remarkably inexpensive ($8 between us for a pizza and large beer each).

04lith_view.jpg
View of Cathedral Square from Higher Castle, Vilnius

The next morning, our final one in Vilnius, was slated for the Old Town sights. We took up where our first day had left off with more church spotting. Many had services going on, which let us slip inside and enjoy the rich, decorative interiors. Particularly noteworthy was the baroque Church of SS Peter and Paul, with more than 2,000 stucco figures carved along the walls, columns and ceilings. Definitely one of those churches were your neck gets sore from pacing slowly along, head straight up, breathing, "Wow..."

Another highlight of the day was the hike up the small, conical hill in the center of town to the remnants of the castle overlooking Cathedral Square. The view from the windswept tower atop the hill was a swirl of pastel, snowy whites and cloudy grays -- as if a master painter had time to detail a few areas of the panorama, splashing bits of color in other places on the canvas to suggest more. Doubtless on a clear, warm summer day, it would look like a vibrant postcard. And on a cloudy Winter day, it would probably look bleak and cold were it not for the pinks and yellows glinting on the Old Town buildings. Either way, it was an interesting vantage of Vilnius.

Our original plans had been for a full week in Lithuania, with a side trip to Latvia. However, the flights on LOT Polish Airlines were once again not cooperating, booking up around the time of our planned return. This forced us to trim our trip with a Thursday return (the only day that there seemed to be plenty of seats). In turn, this meant that we had to take an overnight bus from Vilnius to Warsaw. Let me say this: Never again. Unless you're are a masochist, I do NOT recommend this route, as it was uncomfortable, cold and featured a more than 90-minute border crossing between Lithuania and Poland, complete with Soviet era "efficiencies" such as drunk border guards, misplaced passports and inexplicable delays. I have crossed more than my share of borders in my travels, and this was without a doubt the worst. Enough of that. If at all possible, fly. Do not cross borders by bus in this area of the world.

Despite the red star that loomed over our border fiasco, I found Lithuania was definitely worth the seven year wait. I wished I'd had time to see more. I'd definitely return again, one day...by plane...and in warmer weather!

Posted by world_wide_mike 16:37 Archived in Lithuania Comments (0)

Philosophical Ponderings in Densely-packed Hong Kong

Temples, and searching for the perfect mix of touristy and authentic

sunny 85 °F

01hk_harbor.jpg
Hong Kong harbor

Angry and depressed, I sat in my hotel room in Hong Kong, looking out the window. I was cursing the $600 I'd just spent on a full fare airline ticket to get home. The flight I'd missed today had empty seats and would likely have plenty tomorrow, too. Instead of putting on standby passengers like me on this route, Continental Airlines crams on as much freight as it can every day. It doesn't care that it strands its workers, their parents or unsuspecting employees of other airlines. Money rules in this "to the last pound" efficiency.

Damn my luck, I thought.

02hk_shack.jpg
Shack atop Hong Kong high rise

Suddenly, a movement caught my eye. I'd been looking out over the row upon row of 30-plus story apartment high rises. Atop a nearby one, I noticed a plywood shack had been constructed. A man was scrubbing his shirts in a bucket and hanging them to dry high above Hong Kong. Unlike the regular apartments beneath it, I could see this home had no air conditioning, and perhaps little in the way of plumbing. I didn't want to think about how hot that shack got on a humid, tropical day. As the man took a break from his washing, he lit a cigarette and leaned on the rail, seeming to ponder the world below. Was he mourning money lost on a quick, overseas jaunt? Hardly. Any woes of his were probably of a more dire, necessity kind. In an instant, my viewpoint changed and I ceased to worry about the $600. My own problems seemed pretty small.

Hong Kong has a way of making you feel that way, though. Its millions of people are squeezed into a small, geographical area. Picture New York City's skyscrapers clustered along the shore of a jungle-clad, mountainous island in the South Seas, and you have Hong Kong. Some would argue that when you look at Hong Kong, and the way it builds upwards for lack of space, you are looking at the future of our cities on Earth. Will we all one day live in Hong Kongs as our planet's population grows?

large_03hk_view.jpg
View of Hong Kong from Bank of China building

As bleak as my lead-in to this travelogue sounds, Hong Kong itself is anything but. The city works -- its masses go to their jobs, eat, sleep and play in a relatively clean, efficient urban environment. Transportation is a breeze, from its subways speeding beneath the city, light rail hurtling to the hinterland and ferries skimming to neighboring islands, it is all smooth sailing, so to speak.

I used most of Hong Kong's transportation means during my visit, too, beginning with the tram to the top of Victoria Peak for a scenic overlook. Only a clear, blue sky could have improved on the spectacular view. As it was, the mists and grays still gave it a subtle beauty. Walking through the busy city streets afterwards, I took in several of the intricate markets, and picked up some souvenirs despite myself. When, at noon, I'd checked off most of my day's list of things to see, I decided to visit one of the outer islands. A quick ferry ride plopped me ashore on Lantau Island, where I caught a bus to the Po Linn Monastery. We rode through Polynesian landscapes to the hilltop site, where the world's largest, bronze outdoor statue of Buddha gazed down at us. There was a surprising horde of tourists there, though, but I imagine at night (after they've left) the serene setting is perfect for metaphysical contemplation.

04hk_buddha.jpg
Po Linn Monastery, Lantau Island

Day two saw me on a bus, again, heading north into the "New Territories," towards the mainland China border. My guidebook's description of an ancient, walled village with its fortifications still intact, had intrigued me. I stumbled upon the village almost by accident, though, as it is surrounded on all sides by a growing town. Inside the walls, the streets were single-file narrow and the houses squeezed together so tight that porches were rare and courtyards nearly nonexistent. The inhabitants are known as Hakka, and appeared to be mostly old women. Upon sighting me wandering their streets, they grabbed their distinctive, sombrero-like hats and closed in, shouting, "Picture, picture! Ten Dollar!" Obviously, they were used to posing for the few tourists that venture up here for the roughly $1.25 U.S. equivalent. I humored one of them, then tried my best to shoo off the rest.

All in all, though, Wat Hing Wai was a disappointment. Its trademark walls are unvisitable and surrounded by garbage, and its interior layout so claustrophobic you couldn't get a feel for it as a whole. It was the real, living thing, though, not a commercialized creation. Afterwards, I stopped by a walled village (Sam Tung Uk) not far from my hotel that had been turned into a museum. It was informative, well reconstructed, and well...too much in the other direction! I'd have enjoyed a more happier medium: A place still lived in, but one where you could walk the walls, peer through arrow slits, etc.

05hk_hakka.jpg
Old Hakka woman, Kat Hing Wai walled village

The mix was perfect at the Chi Linn Nunnery, later that afternoon. The setting was immaculate and gorgeous. The monks padded silently through the hallways, the statues of Buddha glistened with burnished gold, fountains bubbled, and the deep brown wood shone in the sunlight. The Nunnery was rebuilt recently in its original Tang Dynasty style, which uses no nails, all the wood fitting together with dowels. Chi Linn is sited on a slight rise, perhaps only a baseball throw away from a multilevel shopping center. However, it was still the proverbial island of peace in Hong Kong's sea of motion.

With more time on my hands, I rode the light rail north to Shattin and its Temple of 10,000 Buddhas. The temple is also a resting place for the ashes of cremated Buddhists. It is built atop a steep, wooded hill, and my guidebook mentioned something about 500 steps. Modern Hong Kong is efficient as ever, though, and an escalator whisks you up the shady slopes. The temple itself was a bit of a let down after Chi Linn, but still interesting. The 10,000 Buddhas are hand high ceramic statues painted a dusky gold and set in niches along the temple walls. Since I felt I hadn't breathed my daily quota of incense, yet, I headed back to Hong Kong for one final temple. Wong Tai Sin was bursting at the seams with worshipers, all waving handfuls of incense (or Joss) sticks. It was a carnival atmosphere, with some praying, some snapping photos, and others just stepping back and absorbing the chaos. The temple buildings were colorful with mint green tile roofs, many of them guarded by adorable little stone lions. Eventually, the clouds of smoke drove me from the temple -- now, I'd had my daily fill!

06hk_temple.jpg
Wong Tai Sin Temple, Kowloon, Hong Kong

See my entry for Macau for the conclusion of this travelogue!

Posted by world_wide_mike 07:40 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (0)

Rain Washes Away Plans for Scenic Day in Macau

Skipping the casinos and checking out temples and museums

rain 82 °F

01macau_sq.jpg
Senate Square, Macau, China

For the beginning of this travelogue, see my Hong Kong entry

What was to be my final day of sightseeing, and perhaps Hong Kong's most popular "day trip," was a hydrofoil ride to the former Portuguese colony of Macau. It is popular with the locals because of the casinos and gambling. With tourists, it is a spicy blend of the Mediterranean and the Orient, with Portuguese style buildings and Chinese temples. Since I've been to Las Vegas numerous times, and I'd read the casinos of Macau are bland in comparison, I planned to see the history and scenery.

The weather had other plans for me, as it turned out. I shared a cab from the ferry port to Senate Square with a German traveler, then set off to wander the streets (which is what my guidebook recommended). Since the overcast skies and occasional sprinkles foretold rain, I wound down towards the southern tip of the island, where the highly-rated Maritime Museum was located. Bigger raindrops began to fall as I entered the museum, which was excellent, by the way. When I finished exploring the museum, I walked across the square to A-Ma Temple. The sprinkles turned to a drizzle, which was a nuisance for taking photos.

02macau_Ama.jpg
The round gate to A-Ma Temple

From the colorful A-Ma Temple, I walked back north to Penha Hill, which was supposed to have the best views in Macau. Gray curtains of mist partially hid the view from me, but I could see the outlines of what should have been an excellent panorama of sea and shore, city and hill. The drizzle became rain as I trudged back into the center of town, looking for a bar or restaurant to wait it out. All I could find was a Juice Bar, of sorts, so I plopped down, ordered a fruit cocktail for lunch, and wrote some postcards. Outside, the rain began to rage and turned into a full fledged storm.

large_04macau_sq2.jpg
Rainy day in Macau

Eventually, I realized, it wasn't stopping. If I wasn't going to spend the rest of the day in Macau in a juice bar, I was going to have to venture out. I zipped up my rain jacket, pulled my soaked cap down tighter on my head, and hunched out into the rain. Macau should have been a colorful, scenic island, with plenty of forts, hilltop views and intriguing colonial buildings to explore. Instead, the foul weather ruined it. Even ducking into another museum was little relief. The Chinese insist on setting their air conditioning in public places at the Arctic level, which only makes it more miserable to someone who is already soaked to the skin.

03macau_vw.jpg
Misty view of Macau shoreline from Penha hill

So, basically, the rest of the day sucked, and I eventually packed it in and took a ferry back to Hong Kong an hour earlier than I'd planned. The ferry terminal and boat ride were freezing, of course, like the museums. On the way over, I have to admit, I'd looked down my nose at those coming over just to gamble. I was there to see the cultural sights and natural beauty, I puffed. On the way back, as they sat dry in their seats, and I dripped, I knew who was looking down their nose at who, now.

But then again, it merely followed the theme of the trip. China seemed to have a way of deflating the pompous, and teaching us lessons.

Posted by world_wide_mike 07:55 Archived in Macau Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 10 of 29) Page [1] 2 3 » Next