Shiny Moments

I’m heading back to Hong Kong momentarily for a look at a few window displays. I’m always a sucker for cooks who enjoy their trade. The header photo shows a noodle and dumpling chef working in the window of a small cafe. He was pleased that I wanted to make him my shining star, while simultaneously the proprietor was attempting to shoo me away.

The photos below, in contrast, show the ugly side of big business, the Ooh Shiny moments that attract Hong Kong shoppers to big shopping malls.

Oh so sad, what would Van Gogh think of this? Louis Vuitton handbags, in Van Gogh fabric, embossed with bold ‘Van Gogh’ letters. You pay a lot for bad taste.
Gucci store. Why are these people queueing? But then, why do people queue for new iPhones? The world of commerce is insane.
Gucci handbag, black and shiny, embossed with the word REAL. Really?
Get yourself a good suit, boy. Hong Kong tailor shop. Oh so British.

Hong Kong at Ground Level.

Most images of Hong Kong feature walls of skyscrapers marching up the hills from the shoreline. Meanwhile at ground level, Hong Kong is delightfully old-fashioned and quaint. During our recent visit, we took to the trams to get from Sheung Wan to Central before continuing on foot up staircases and escalators,stumbling across little back lanes, tea shops and temples along the way. The trams saved the day and our legs. All double deckered, narrow, and some quite ancient, they are one of the most environmentally friendly ways of travelling about, all for HK$2.30/AU.37 cents a ticket, an amazing bargain. You enter the tram from the rear and exit at the front, whilst depositing your coins in a little box near the driver. Some were covered in words and advertising, others were left plain and painted dark green. 

Top Thai Restaurants in Chiang Mai

Good Thai, bad Thai, Australian suburbs all have at least one local Thai restaurant. Most Australians are familiar with the more common dishes on a Thai menu. We assume that when we travel to Thailand, the food will automatically be much better, more authentic and spicy. This is not always the case. You can read Trip Advisor or similar sites for clues. In Thailand, these recommendations are often written by people staying in 5 star Western hotels who are happy to pay 5 star prices for food, or backpackers who hang around cafes and juice bars who are more interested in the ‘chill’ factor than taste. During my last trip to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand, I found another clue to bad Thai food in restaurants- simply look at the clientele. If a place is full of tourists of any age, you will most likely eat bland, over priced, ordinary food masquerading as Thai. There are exceptions of course, but choosing a restaurant on the basis of a sea of Western diners will usually lead to disappointment. Thai food will be better in your local suburban Thai at home. Watch where the Thais eat. They know where the food is good so just follow their lead.

Here are two of my favourites. They both happen to be vegetarian. The first, Ming Kwan Vegetarian restaurant, is one is frequented by locals from early morning until they finish (around 5 pm). Some brave tourists like ourselves love this place. Little English is spoken. You just point to the things that look good, then ask for a plate of rice, which happens to be wholesome red rice. The cost per plate is between 20 and 30 Thai Bhat ( AU$1.14 or less). The water is free. Favourite dish: the iconic Khao Soi soup, made with a curry sauce and coconut milk base, with some added textured soy meat, a handful of yellow egg noodles and topped with deep-fried crispy egg noodles, pickled mustard greens, shallots, coriander, a squeeze of lime and some ground chillies fried in oil.

A bowl of Khao Soi at Ming Kwan, Chiang Mai
One. Start with the soup
Two. Then add the toppings

My second favourite is Taste from Heaven. This place is frequented by tourists, expats and some locals. ( thus breaking the rule I espoused above). Nan has now opened two more branches in the Moon Muang area but I’ve only eaten at her original branch. The serves here are generous. The menu is in English. Beer, Wine and WiFi  are available as well as things like Vegan brownies, all being tourists draw cards. The food is sensational and medium priced. Most dishes are around 70 – 90 Bhat per plate, (AU $3 or so), and choosing is agony. I want it all. Return visits are a necessity. Favourite dish: Tempura battered morning glory vine with cashews, tofu and peanut sauce and the charred eggplant with chilled tofu salad. The sate of mixed mushrooms with peanut sauce is hard to pass by also. Hungry now?

Ming Kwan Vegetarian Restaurant. 98 Rachadamnoen Rd Soi 4, Tambon Si Phum, Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai, Chang Wat Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand

Taste from Heaven. 34/1 Ratmakka road (opposite soi 1) Prasing Muang Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand

Next post. Old Hong Kong.

Of Songthaews and Temples

This post is ridiculously long, rambling and raw, and so, dear reader, you are excused if you choose to jump down to the nice temple photos at the end of the post.

Another day, another songthaew.

Despite all the planning, some days just go awry when travelling in a foreign land, and more so when you’ve been too lazy to learn the language, other than good morning and thank you, two courtesies that are obligatory to learn in any country you might visit. I have never got my head around the Thai language: I promised myself to learn more this year. Maybe it’s the tropical heat dulling my brain or the insanely difficult Thai script, a syllabic alphabet based on the Brahmi script. Here’s a basic sample below, which looks like one of those children’s activities, ‘spot the difference’. But note, this is the easy part. You get to add extra squiggly marks to add vowel sounds to these letters and after that come the tones. I give up.

Getting back to my very bad day. Things started well. We hailed a songthaew – a Hilux van converted into a bus with two side seats in the back for passengers. Called rot si daeng or red car in Chiang Mai, we paid our 50 bhat each and headed over to my favourite market, the monster and largely untouristed Worawat. I love getting about in Songtheows. The semi open sides and open back door give you enough cheap thrills en route, welcome fresh breezes, as well as more views of the ancient walls and moat which enclose this ancient city. Songthaews travel slowly. The traffic in Chiang Mai is orderly and the drivers are polite, both on the road and to their customers. This is where a courteous thank you, Kob kun krub” or “Kob kun ka“( ขอขอบคุณ for those of you who read Thai) is all important, which is always reciprocated, often with a wai.

Philosophy found in Buddhist temples.

The day was progressing as planned. We spent a few hours meandering around that cavernous market until lunch called. Songthaews get busy at lunchtime and many drivers aren’t so keen to leave the market precinct when they can pick up a load of passengers at a time and not two insane tourists who want to go across town. After some time negotiating with the perennially polite drivers, we arrived at our favourite temple, Wat Suan Dok. Our main mission was to eat at the renowned slow food restaurant behind the temple, Pun Pun Vegetarian Restaurant. A sign earlier in the week promised a re-opening on August 4th and today was that auspicious day. With heightened anticipation and growing hunger, we made our way past all the lovely white wats to Pun Pun, to be greeted by this sign:

Noooo!
The next shot was taken by my camera inadvertently after reading the sign above. It conveys my feelings of frustration and disappointment perfectly.

My favourite Chiang Mai restaurant closed again? Oh well, there would be plenty more fine restaurants a red truck ride away. Re-entering the busy suburban Suthep road in search of another Songthaew, the sun and heat now unbearable, we noticed something very odd. The street was full of policemen and army personnel who were clearing the road of bikes, traffic and old non-Thai speaking pedestrians. We were shooed off the pavements. Something momentous was about to happen. From the long explanation given to us in Thai by one of those heavily uniformed young men, were caught one word in English- King! The king is revered in Thailand, though this new young king hasn’t yet earned the status of his father. We walked some more and waited for the royal cavalcade. Some of the banked up traffic was let through, and then the roads were closed and cleared again. Was the king in the nearby hospital? Would he appear in a black tinted car, making the wait a total waste of time? Did we just imagine we heard them say King? Our hunger and impatience increasing, we decided to walk four kilometres to our next dining option.

I’m a songthaew cowboy. Mr T rides again.

After a late afternoon sleep and a dose of Netflicks, we decided on a pizza dinner, something I need to eat from time to time. We called up a little tuk- tuk and headed into the unlit back lanes of the Moon Muang district. The pizza place was packed. After a wait of 10 minutes or so, the kind waitress found us a small, uncomfortable spot on top of some other would be diners, the loud techno music growing increasingly annoying. We were then informed that the wait for our pizza would be at least one hour. We left. After more walking, I lost my appetite. Some days just go like this.

Tuk Tuks, the other means of transport, useful when needing to find places in little lanes off lanes.

I include these photos of Wat Suan Dok as a reminder that life on the road really is an adventure and that I tend to dwell on food a little too much for my own good.

Wat Suan Dok, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Wat Suan Dok, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Wat Suan Dok

Sunday Walking Street Market, Chiang Mai

A visit to Chiang Mai, Thailand, never seems complete without attending the famous Sunday Walking Street Market. The market takes over four streets in the centre of the old city, beginning at the Tha Pae Gate at one end and running down the one kilometer length of Ratchadamnoen Road and spilling into nearby side streets. The area is closed to traffic from 4 pm until midnight. The market is popular with locals and tourists and is packed, especially round dinner time.

Fresh fruit shakes ready to be blended. 30 Bhat.

On one side, just after sunset, a lone singer appears dressed in a policeman’s uniform. This year he is a serious looking young man: he sings a mournful ballad in Thai. In previous years, that same spot was occupied by an older policeman with an Elvis slick back hairstyle and dark sunglasses, who only sang Elvis Presley songs. Sometimes his 8-year-old daughter performed alongside him. Bring back the Elvis cop. But are they really policemen? I’ll never know. I’m not sure who to ask in this crowded, stall filled corner.

Sunday walking market, Chiang Mai, ’17

Nearby stands the Thai musical instrument stall. Late at night, a troupe of elderly musicians will sit gracefully on a tiny platform and play traditional Lan Na music that is so haunting, it usually makes me cry. The instruments look and sound foreign to the untrained ear.

Ancient Thai instruments.

Midst this crowd, a troupe of blind singers suddenly appears. They move slowly holding a lamp: the crowds step aside as they make their way courageously through the throng, singing melodic Thai tunes in harmony.

Stalls with paper lanterns, stalls with far too much colour, handmade items are a feature of this market. The kitsch nestles side by side with the tasteful. Soft leather wallets and hand-made shoes, artistic etched calico shopping bags, carved psychedelic soaps and interesting fish patterned ceramics, hand printed t-shirts and indigo dyed clothing, home-made cakes, biscuits and sweets, and an abundance of street food stalls, the latter nestled into the front courtyards of temples, it’s a big night out for Thai families. Junk food abounds: there are deep-fried insects and grilled air- dried squid, Thai sausages and pad thai, mango sticky rice, and kôw soy, sweet tropical fruit drinks and some based on tinned Carnation milk. Dotted throughout are small areas offering massage for foot and leg or shoulder and neck. After walking slowly and hesitantly for two or three kilometers in a crowd, you may need one.

The annual Chiang Mai T-shirt purchase. One with a guitar please.

Feeling exhausted and slightly deranged, we wander back to our hotel near Wat Phra Singh and down a large bottle of Chang beer. The market’s sensory overload takes its toll but I wouldn’t miss it for Bhat.

In a Balinese Garden. Ubud

At the end of a busy day in Bali, often involving far more walking in the heat than one initially intended, returning to a peaceful, quiet and well maintained garden is a godsend. A beautiful garden has become a prerequisite when choosing accommodation in Bali, especially when visiting Ubud.

Entrance to the pool in Honeymoon Two.

Unfortunately, Ubud has been loved to death. A private courtyard garden blocks out the pandemonium, the snarl of traffic, the fumes of motor bikes and the endless stream of slow walking tourists hunting for gewgaws, monkeys and food. This is my farewell tribute to one of Ubud’s most delightful gardens. Aging and velvet mossed Buddhist and Hindu statues, inviting seating platforms, beautifully carved and painted doors, screening plants and tropical flowers, archways and entrances and stands of bamboo, evoke a traditional Bali midst a heavily urbanised town. The daily noiseless tending of tropical plants by gardeners and the morning placement of fresh hibiscus flowers and canang sari on all the statues and family temple have called me back to the charming Honeymoon Guesthouse year after year. Situated in Jalan Bisma, development and congested traffic has finally overwhelmed this once tranquil street. I cannot return. My love of Ubud now dwells in the past. I can revisit her there.

Things become old very quickly in Ubud’s tropical environment.

A big suksma ( Balinese for thankyou, best said with hands in prayer position) to all the gardeners of Bali. Without these steady, quiet and humble workers, Bali would not be so inviting.

The following collage is a media file. Tour the garden by opening the first photo and following the arrows.

 

Finding Nemo in North West Bali

Do you enjoy snorkeling and diving? Bali has some delightful areas to explore underwater and as the temperature is always warm in this tropical zone, there’s no need to don a wetsuit.

Rachael snorkeling near Menjangan Island, North west Bali. Photo S Morgan.

This year’s Balinese underwater adventure was enjoyed by Mr T and our daughter: the trip was a birthday gift from daughter to father, and will be another diving adventure they will recall forever. Due to my increasing lack of confidence on the open sea, especially in an area known for some ‘interesting’ currents, I remained behind and enjoyed another massage. These photos were taken mostly  by Mr T, with his cheap underwater camera.

Mr T, near Menjagen Island, North west Bali. Photo by Rachael Morgan.

One of the best diving spots in Bali is in the north-west of the island at Pemuteran. The village, at present, is delightfully calm and traditional: the tourist trade here centers around diving tour operators and small, discreet guesthouses. There are a few warungs along the main road and very little shopping.

Boats used for the trip to Menjagen Island and the nearby reefs. Photo by S Morgan

Many diving boats operate tours each day, especially in July and August, the main European tourist season. A day trip costs between AU$45 and AU$55 per person. This includes snorkeling gear, lunch, drinking water, driver and underwater guide.

Diving with volcanos. Photo By S. Morgan

It was Mt T’s second trip to the reefs off Pemuteran. He also enjoys snorkeling off Lembongan Island and near Amed. Although no turtles were spotted this time, plenty of colourful fish passed by.

Environmental notes

Coral conservation and and a turtle breeding programme are two postive outcomes of tourism in this area. “A community-driven reef restoration and conservation project started in 2000 that has changed not only the reef itself, but also the attitudes, livelihoods and economy of the entire region. Bio-Rock is a technology that uses low voltage electrical current on artificial underwater structures to encourage growth of corals and other reef life. Experiments with the technology worldwide have shown that it can help counteract some of the difficult environmental factors affecting coral growth.”¹

Underwater gardens near Pemuteran. Photo by Rachael Morgan.

“The Turtle Hatchery of Pemuteran in the utmost west of Bali started in 1994 after Australian Chris Brown, the owner of a diving company in the area, bought a sea turtle from a local fisherman who caught the animal in one of his nets by accident, to save its life; the turtle was tied to a rope and let out to graze in the sea during the day, and at night brought into a small pond. A second turtle soon joined the first and thus the Turtle Hatchery Project became a fact. The Turtle Hatchery project’s mission is to promote the protection of the wild turtle population and to stop, or at least diminish the worthless slaughtering of turtles. Up to 2001, more than 3000 juvenile turtles have been released into the ocean as well as many larger adults.”²

¹  https://www.wonderfulbali.com/turtle-hatchery-pemuteran/

² http://www.pemuteranbay.com/en/things-to-do/diving-and-snorkeling

Sunset Kecak Dance. Uluwatu, Bali

The first time I attended a Balinese Kecak Dance was in 1979. We travelled through darkness in a bemo, a basic van with side seats in the back, to a village some distance from Ubud. We passed through dense jungle and small lamp lit villages along the way: at that time, electric lighting was limited, intermittent and unreliable in Bali. Darkness held more mystery then and the Kecak fire dance, always held at night, was more exotic and entrancing. That performance was raw and primitive, leaving an impression of sound, fire, and primordial noise. We sat in a dusty circle around the men and I recall the black and white checked sarongs, the glowing honey coloured skin of the men, and the loud repetitive harsh chanting, as well as the central role played by Hanuman, the monkey.

Recently, almost 40 years later, we attended another Kecak dance at Uluwatu temple on sunset. The fabulous setting added drama to the story. The amphitheatre and stage, a large arena bordered by Balinese carved entrances and dense Bougainvillea, sits on the edge of the Bukit Peninsula, alongside the sacred temple of Uluwatu. The audience wear ceremonial purple sarongs or orange sashes in keeping with the dress requirements of this sacred park. Just after sunset, the show begins.

The dance commences.

The Kecak dance and drama, ( pronounced kechuck ) was developed in the 1930s. While relatively new, it draws on the ancient traditions and legends of the Ramayana. Since its creation, it has been performed primarily by men. Also known as the Ramayana Monkey Chant, the piece is performed by a circle of between 75 and 150 men chanting “cak cak” and other rhythmic and forest noises while moving their hands and arms. There is no accompanying music. One could compare the sound to beatboxing. In the drama, the loyal monkey, Hanuman, helps Prince Rama fight the evil King Ravana. Other Ramayana characters include Sita, Garuda, Holy Man, Twalen, Laksmana, Trijata and servants.

Sita and Rama

In the modern version, Hanoman steals the show. His initial monkey-like scratching eventually brings roars of laughter when he resorts to scratching his crutch. After Hanoman escapes the ring of fire and the story comes to a close, he reappears as a naughty but loveable dramatic character, an acrobatic comedian who taunts and teases the audience. At one point, an intrusive camera waving tourist gets in his way. Hanoman grabs him, turns him around and attempts to pull his shorts down. The crowd laps it up. Then Hanoman leaps into the audience and takes a seat, grabs the glasses from a nearby tourist and places them on his head. This modern Hanoman has learnt a few tricks from the real naughty monkeys that inhabit the Uluwatu park. The crowd roars with delight and the children are entranced.

Hanoman in ring of fire.

It was worth seeing the Kecak dance again. Despite the crowds and chaos of ticket buying, I can highly recommend this show.

Holy Man enters.
Photo opportunities.The Two Hanomans.

 

Balinese Memukur. Water Purification Ceremony by the Sea

The sound of gamelan moves closer, an exotic percussion that is repetitive and hypnotic, as we wake from our afternoon slumber and follow the procession down to the sea. Another Balinese ceremony is about to take place.

White dressing for the last funeral stage, Memukur. Sanur, Bali.

The Balinese will often tell you that they won’t be around for a few days as they have a ceremony to attend. Religious and family ceremonies are an important part of the fabric of Balinese life. Hindu ritual and observance is strictly upheld, despite the massive level of tourism in southern Bali. Balinese often return to their family village in the country for these events: they are always in touch with the ever shifting Hindu calendar. I’m forever asking questions, trying to fathom the significance of each new ceremony that I come across.

Gamelan orchestra, Sanur.

Memukur is a traditional Balinese ceremony for the passed away spirit. The purpose of this ceremony is to purify the spirit to send it off into reincarnation. It must be purified by water so it may return to heaven to begin the process of reincarnation. According to tradition, the deceased returns to human life in the form of the next born family member after these rituals. White is the colour worn during Memukur, with bright sashes and golden sarongs for the women, and white shirts and traditional dark sarongs for the men. The carefully tied udeng is worn as a hat on these occasions.

Ceremonial dress, men wearing the udeng.

The assembled group wait patiently for the priest to arrive, who performs the water purification ceremony. This is not a sad occasion yet the gathered are quiet and respectful. Some of the younger boys in the gamelan band joke quietly together: young women occasionally glance at their mobile phones.

Waiting, waiting.

A collective sigh can be heard as the elderly priest arrives in a black car and slowly moves to the raised platform to perform the purification rites.

The purification ritual begins. Sanur beach, Bali

The gamelan orchestra begins again, with increasing percussion from gongs and hammered xylophones and background wind instruments.

Gamelan orchestra, Bali
Gamelan, sanur beach, memukur ceremony

The Balinese don’t mind foreigners witnessing these ceremonies. Some points of etiquette need to be observed.

  • Do not walk in front of people when they are praying.
  • Do not use flash or point your camera at the priest’s face.
  • Never sit higher than the priest, the offerings and/or people praying.
  • During cremation ceremonies, never get in the way of attendees. Stand at a respectable distance, somewhere along the sides or in the background.
  • The bikini clad and shirtless should stay well away.

    It’s not unusual for the assembled to be happy at this final stage of a funeral process.

Bridges of Yuantong Temple, Kunming, China

The most famous Buddhist temple in Kunming, Yunnan Province, is Yuantong Temple, which was first built in the late 8th and early 9th century during the Tang Dynasty.  After two major restorations and expansions, in 1465-1487 and in 1686, the temple took on its present design, with covered corridors, bridges and grand halls. Bridges feature prominently throughout the complex.

Many elderly Chinese spend time meditating at Yuantong Temple, Kunming. 

Wandering around the grounds, soft Buddhist music plays in the background. Om Mani Padme Hum, the repetitive mantra of Buddhist meditation, inundates my consciousness. As I drift over the many bridges, turtles rise to greet me. Peace caresses me, I am at home in these foreign grounds.

Bridges of Yuantong Temple, Kunming.

The Golden Gate opens into two mountain ranges.
A silver stream is hanging down to three stone bridges
Within sight of the mighty Tripod Falls.
Ledges of cliff and winding trails lead to blue sky
And a flush of cloud in the morning sun.

extract from A Song of Lu Mountain to Censor Lu Xuzhou. Li Bai, ( 701-762) from The Penguin Book of Chinese Verse, Edited by A.R. Davis, Penguin Books, 1962.

Bridges and walkways of Yuantong Temple, Kunming.