Thursday, May 29, 2014

My Son Sanctuary - the overgrown remains of an ancient civilization

A thousand years worth of work, all taken down in a week would be the short story of the temples at My Son, center of the ancient Champa culture in central Vietnam... Little did the young pilots in their B52 planes know that they were targeting one of the most important ancient cultural sites in South East Asia, when they carpet-bombed the lush valley My Son is situated in. A single, hot August week in 1969 was all it took for the bombers to reduce to dusty rubble most of the 71 temples constructed by skillful Champa builders during nearly a millennium.

The monumental temples, all built to honor the Hindu God Shiva, formed together a huge religious center that served the powerful Champa Kingdom, that ruled over large areas of today's south and central Vietnam from about 3rd century until 13th century. The Thu Bon river starts here, then flows past the valley, finally merging into the South China Sea near the ancient port city of Hoi An, where the Champa exchanged goods and ideas with traders from faraway cultures. Buddhism, Christianity and Islam all made appearances, but My Son remained a stronghold of Hinduism until the 13th century. After that the Champa Kingdom slowly declined and was gradually absorbed by the growing power of Viet Nam. By the late 15th century, the Champa Kingdom ceased existing and the Shiva worshippers abandoned My Son.

Even if many of the monuments were documented by French archaeologists in the early 20th century and have now been reconstructed with help of their detailed documentation, the originals were lost forever. A deep green jungle covers now much of the valley, hiding huge craters of bombs and countless undetonated landmines under it. Remains of the ancient sculptures and structures form only soft mounds in the landscape, with no hope of ever rising again.

 My Son Sanctuary is a UNESCO World Heritage site - read more about its history here.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Days of bliss at Borobudur on Java...

 Stupas on the top of Borobudur - each of which contains a statue of a meditating Buddha.
Another short interlude away from the daily rush of Singaporean city life; this time, a long-lived wish of mine was fulfilled by touring the Borobudur temple on central Java. For no reasons quite clear to me - religious, spiritual or otherwise - I'd been drawn to this enigmatic temple for long time, and was absolutely happy to get to see it with my own eyes.
Why enigmatic? Well, despite many authoritative-sounding explanations, no-one really know exactly why and who built the temple, even if some reliefs on it tell that it was constructed sometime in the middle of the 9th century, during the time of the Saliendra dynasty rulers in Java. As no great cities or centers have ever surrounded it - no remains has been found - no-one quite knows why the temple was built just where it is, in the middle of a fertile volcanic valley in the middle of the island.
Even the purpose of the temple is a bit unclear, but at least, several theories of what it represents have been given. The most popular theory says that it was built to represent the many layers of Buddhist theory in the shape of a traditional Buddhist mandala (a traditional symbol in both Buddhism and Hinduism that represents the universe). According to this view, rising from the lowest levels to the highest, one wanders through three zones of consciousness, until reaching the central top sphere representing unconsciousness or Nirvana. Of course, the crowded consequences of Borobudur being an UNESCO World Heritage site were there, but arriving just before sunset, the tour buses had left and we could wander around the many stupas and statues of Buddha in the calm of the evening - until it was time for the evening prayers, and the loudspeakers of countless mosques of the now Muslim Java started airing out their litanies. The resulting atmosphere was quite surreal - tens of serene Buddhas listening to the blaring message of Islam - but at the same time very revealing, reflecting the strong religious dedication of the Javanese since centuries back.
As impressive as Borobodur was, I was even more taken by the local nature, lush and abundant with plants with names from stories and history books; spices like cloves and coffee, luxurious hardwoods like teak and mahogany; fruits and vegetables from bananas and pandan to chili and taro. I'd been so focused on the temple that I'd given no real thought for anything else, but this "else" proved to be just as interesting, and at least as beautiful. A couple of days of unexpectedly serene bliss, really.
Sunrise from our terrace - with two volcanoes, Mount Merapi and Merbabu in the horizon.

Another - almost steamy, when the morning mist was being burned off by the rising sun - view to the fertile volcanic valley, with fields of rice, corn, chili and tobacco.

 A Javanese version of a Chinese brush painting... I just couldn't stop drinking in the view (and taking pictures).

The temple of Borobudur in the morning mist.
A Buddha without a stupa, gazing towards the rising sun behind Mount Merapi.

More stupas... on the upper levels. My youngest actually looked into every single one of them, checking that the Buddhas were still there.

Yet another view of the stupas... this time, in the fading evening light.
Layers of  steamy jungle...

A hike high up to the mountain - we thought we were doing well, and then met a grandmother, carrying her grandchild on the steep path, all the way down to the village. And soon after, an old man with his shopping bag. Our guide told us that the people living on the mountains do this several kilometers long hike just to buy groceries or to go to the mosque - so much for our "achievements"...

A popular shady resting place under the large stone - the village can be seen long way down the mountain on the left in the picture...

One of the houses up on the mountain, beautifully built of bamboo and wood.

Another house, with the typical high pitched roof form that cools down the building...

More buildings, with the lovely, woven bamboo walls. 

On the top of the mountain, with the villages below...

And to our surprise, behind us on the top of the mountain was a garden growing corn, chilies, bananas and coconuts - the lava soil being so fertile, even so high up!

On the way down, an old man was having a break under the large stone. 

 And yet another view of the valley, with the temple of Borobudur just barely visible in the middle.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Hoi An - an ancient melting pot frozen in time

One of the best things with living in Singapore is how so many amazing places are so easily reachable - countless major cities and old centers of civilization are just a short flight away, with no need to fight any jetlag. Recently, I flew with two friends to Hoi An over a long weekend; just three hours after boarding the plane at Changi, we were all checked in and looking for the best available local restaurant for dinner. Easy!
Of course, we all vowed not to be interested in shopping, but only in culture - which Hoi An is well-known for, having been an international melting pot of culture and trade since the days of the Champa Kingdom from 2nd century and onwards. Despite its long history, its golden era took place later; an important commercial port was built and developed in the 15th to 16th centuries. During the 17th and 18th centuries, traders from Far East, Southeast Asia and India, and all the way from Portugal, Spain, Holland, Italy, England and France anchored here to trade goods like silk, spices, pottery and porcelain, aloe wood and swallows' nests (the last of which probably didn't end up in Europe...). Traders from many nationalities were allowed to settle down, build their businesses and preserve their own customs, which transformed the ancient little trading port into the biggest commercial port of Vietnam, and into a melting pot for cultures from both East and West.

All was well until 19th century, when a new port was built in Da Nang, only 30 kilometers away, but far enough to make Hoi An miss out the new winds of business and development. Missing trading, its lifeblood since ancient times, Hoi An slowly languished away. The old city continued its old ways of life, like a sleepwalker frozen in time, until it was "discovered" again by cultural enthusiasts in late 20th century. Hoi An was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list in 1999 as a treasure of human cultural heritage, which of course has made the city busy again - there simply is no more effective way of attracting hoards of middle-aged (and often somewhat wealthy) tourists, than being included  to that list. (Please keep quiet if your favorite place is dear to you...).
Loaded with handicrafts - lantern makers, tailors, shoemakers, jewelry, pottery, you name it - Hoi An somehow managed to turn us from "temples only, please" kind of tourists into intensive shoppers. But despite crowds and all commercial attractions, Hoi An has still great charm; the buildings are stunningly beautiful  - and not renovated to an inch of their lives; the local people unfailingly friendly, and the local food - oh well, where do I start?
The Japanese Bridge - built by Japanese traders in 16th-17th century - has a small Buddhist temple attached to one side. Somewhat of a symbol for Hoi An, it is constantly surrounded by tour groups.

A local fruit vendor with the typical round baskets that are carried on shoulders. The Japanese bridge to the left, decorated with a pomegranate, a common symbol for fertility and abundance in both China and Japan. The roof is beautifully decorated with blue and white porcelain plates - wares that were traded in Hoi An since ancient times.

 Lantern makers build and sell their wares in the small ancient houses.
Some of the old houses are in complete disrepair - and make dream projects for wealthy "expats" from both Vietnam and other countries.

Small temples, clan houses and shops door to door - the commerce continues, just like it has always done through many centuries... Two versions of "shou", the sign for longevity, on the red wooden doors - it was used as a decorational element in countless places.

A Chinese tourist group on an excursion.  

  A shop with beautiful handicrafts, housed in an old building with signs from the French colonial times reading "Savonnerie Xa Phong" - see under the windows.

A beautiful door inside the temple grounds - I absolutely loved the color palette of the buildings in Hoi An - soft blues, ochre yellows and reds, leafy greens... so beautifully combined.

The temple was dedicated to Ma Zu, a sea goddess, and had all suitable paraphernalia - like this sailing boat, a great reminder of Hoi An's past. 

More of the lovely colors... this soft blue with a drop of lavender probably was my favorite. 

An old lady selling ceramic figures representing the animals of the Chinese zodiac - I just had to buy all 12 of them...
Flowers and traditional baskets outside the market - I really wanted a set of the baskets, complete with the "carrying parts", but couldn't think of a way to transport them back.

What should we play next?

Pottery from one of the many shipwrecks by the coast near Hoi An. Ceramics and porcelain were traded here for centuries, and every now and then disaster struck - even today, many shops sell "shipwreck goods", and it is difficult to know if they really are that, or just pretending...

 A man sweeping clean the steps to a Chinese clan house.

View from a restaurant where we had drinks at the roof top - with a pole of red lanterns attracting customers.

And finally, the riverside at Hoi An, with more restaurants and colorful lanterns.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Pulau Ubin - the last kampung of Singapore

Village dwellings at Pulau Ubin, a short boat ride out from Singapore.
Imagine a Singapore with no cars or high-rise buildings, just small huts on tilts and electricity by generators only, surrounded by a noisy bird-filled jungle... well, that's Pulau Ubin, or the Granite Island, just a short 10 minutes bumboat ride from the east coast. A trip here takes you back to Singapore of the 1960's or 70's, to a kampong life that was eased by more modern lifestyles from the main island - just like from so many other places in Asia.
This small island was named after its rolling granite hills, that supported a couple of small quarries and provided work for a few thousands islanders a century ago. Others cleared off most of the native jungle, and planted crops like rubber, coffee, pineapple, coconut and jasmine. Today, the quarries have closed and a lush jungle again covers the island. Only some hundred villagers still live at Pulau Ubin, supported by farming or by tourists - mainly Singaporeans coming for a biking tour amidst the greenery during the weekends, and having a seafood dinner in the green while on the island.

Despite all complains about a continuous destruction of "genuine Singapore", Pulau Ubin seems to have a bright future - the government has seen the value of this quaint island, and has already gently developed it as a park. A new project is on way looking into ways of conserving the lifestyle and nature of the island, so it seems that the charms of Pulau Ubin can be enjoyed by coming generations of Singaporeans. Take time to get out there, spend a couple of hours strolling the narrow roads, listen to the birds and cicadas, and have a messy dinner of chili crab and steamed fish - you would never guess you are only half an hour away from one of the busiest ports and financial centers of Asia!

 Bumboats waiting for travelers - 10 minutes and $2 is all you need to get to Pulau Ubin.

 Approaching the tiny harbor... 

The village seen from the sea - one of the "famous but simple" seafood restaurants on the left; many Singaporeans take the trip to Ubin only to eat a lunch or dinner there.

Village center - no cars, as only bikes are allowed on the island.

The village temple dedicated to Tua Peck Kong, a Daoist god of prosperity; the islanders think that he helped to spare them from diverse atrocities during the Japanese occupation.

The local grocery store selling coconuts - guaranteed fresh and local...

Most tourists on the island are Singaporeans who bike around the beautiful and car-free island.
 One of many hiking paths, between two large ponds growing waterlilies and lotuses.

Dark pink waterlilies in the bright sun.

One of the local houses, probably with a romantic view over the palm-surrounded pond.  

Another kampung house, with chickens running inside the corrugated iron fence.
A well-renowned seafood place, still going strong despite the faded sign (we tested - the steamed white fish with ginger and shallots was delicious!).  
Yet another village house, by the sea.
And a bumboat ride back home with my kind of a captain - look at the mini garden on roof; he even had potted plants inside the boat!