Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Visual gems abound at Ipoh's Sam Poh Tong

Packed altar and alcoves at Sam Poh Tong
Venture deep into the cave and you'll find an opening, nearby 
which you'll see this intriguing looking temple building :b
I've flown to Ipoh a number of times in my life and have even taken a train from Butterworth over to the state capital of Perak.  For the most part, however, I've travelled to Ipoh by car -- and, irregardless of whether we're arriving there from the north or south, know that we're near our destination upon spotting the visually striking limestone hills that surround the town.
Something else that I've long known is that within many of those limestone hills can be found cave temples -- with the most famous of them all being Sam Poh Tong, situated on the southern edge of town in a limestone hill known as Gunung Rapat.  And the Cave of Triple Gems (which is what its name translates into English from the Cantonese spoken by the majority ethnic group in the area) was where my party headed over to after lunching in town on my most recent roadtrip to Perak.
After lingering for a bit in the ornamental garden in front of the main cave entrance, we ventured into what actually is a pretty sizable cave that's been home for more than a century now to a Buddhist temple established by a monk from China who was passing through Ipoh.  Inside the organic space that's ever-growing and -changing, as evidenced by the drip, drip sound of water flowing down stalactites and enlarging them along with creating new stalagmites, we found a profusion of religious figures and figurines arranged on altars, in natural alcoves and such.
Having read that Sam Poh Tong had an upper level from where excellent views of Ipoh and the surrounding area could be had, I felt letdown upon learning that access doesn't seem to be allowed anymore up to that part of the temple.  On the other hand, I was happily surprised to discover that the cave goes far deeper inside the hill than I had thought would be the case -- and that one of the passageways in the temple leads into an open air area within Gunung Rapat itself that's completely encircled by towering cliffs, where an interesting building, interesting statuary and a pond-filled with tortoise are to be found!
Approximately one and half years before our Ipoh trip, my German friend and I had visited a Chinese Buddhist temple in Amsterdam. Although the He Hua Temple is supposed to be Europe's largest Buddhist temple, it is completely dwarfed by Sam Poh Tong.  Still, it's not Sam Poh Tong's size that is its most visually impressive facet but, rather, its location within a cave.  It may not be a venue that normally springs to mind when thinking of where a temple is to be housed -- but it does appear that the founder of Sam Poh Tong really did make an inspired choice with regards to its location! :) 

Monday, June 26, 2017

Sam Poh Tong's award-winning (in 1993!) landscaped garden

Fish getting ready for a feeding frenzy that never was!

Puppet Ponyo posing with something in the garden of Sam Poh Tong
that called to mind the Summer Palace's Marble Boat ;b
A landscape in the Sam Poh Tong garden that's 
far smaller in reality than it looks in the picture!
If it had been up to my mother, our excursion to Ipoh would have pretty much only involved eating and buying food stuffs (such as Tambun pomelos and whole baked chickens) for friends and to take back home to eat later.  As it was though, she was kind enough to accede to my German friend's and my request to do some sightseeing in between the tea as well as lunch and dinner that we had on our day trip to Perak's capital last month; with the famous cave temple of Sam Poh Tong being the attraction decided upon to head over to after the first of our three meals in Ipoh.
My mother tells me that she and my father had taken me to visit this Chinese Buddhist temple built into a limestone cave when I was a child.  However, I have no recollection of that which is the oldest and most famous of Perak's cave temples -- and certainly did not know that in its grounds is situated that which was named the best landscaped garden in Malaysia in 1993.      

If truth be told, that green ornamental space in question is looking rather neglected and somewhat the worse for wear these days.  Also, it's on the small size and therefore could not be considered worth checking out in and of itself.  And yet, when I look at the photos I took of and in it, I get to thinking that this garden still does have its charms.        

At the very least, whoever conceived and designed it certainly is not lacking in imagination.  And while the fish in its pond and also the colorful structure that surely was inspired by the more plainly colored Marble Boat that's found in the Summer Palace in Beijing may be more eye-catching, the section of the garden which actually impressed me the most was a miniature landscape which, at least in the photo I took of it, looks very much to scale and really like a little bit of China can be found in what actually is Malaysia! :) 

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Hiking after the rain in Tai Lam Country Park

A waterfall that's more spectacular than usual

Further views possible than usual, thanks also to the recent rains!

And while some sections of the ground were muddier than
usual, the likes of this butterfly didn't seem to mind one bit! ;b

Earlier today, a friend and I went hiking for the first time since the first typhoon of the year visited Hong Kong two Mondays ago.  And while Typhoon Merbok actually didn't cause too much damage, it brought in its wake an unseasonably large amount of rain; making it so that by this past Wednesday, there already had been more rain in Hong Kong this month than the 30 year average for the whole month of June.

Consequently, when deciding on today's hike route, I opted for one that took my friend and I on paved paths for a good part of the way.  At the same time, since the days of wet weather have been succeeded by ones with hot sunshine, I also figured that it'd be good to spend much of today's outing in areas where there were many shady trees -- which is why we ended up hiking in Tai Lam Country Park, home to many kilometers worth of paved paths along with extensive forested sections. 

What with it being such a beautiful day, I expected the bus that took us very close to one of the country park's main entrances from Tsuen Wan to be packed with passengers.  But not only was that far from the case but the country park itself -- or, at least, the trails we followed from Tsuen Kam Au down to Sham Tseng -- also wasn't full of hikers at all this afternoon. 

About the only part of today's hike where we came across anything like a bottleneck came at Tsing Fai Tong, one of a handful of rural enclaves located within Tai Lam Country Park -- and it wasn't caused by humans!  Rather, while venturing along a narrow path which bordered a small stream flowing through the area, we came across a herd of feral cattle meandering about while looking to graze on the grass that grew there.  

Understandably, I think, our first instinct was to stop and wait for the horned creatures to move away from the paved path.  But after it looked like they were in no hurry to do so and also seemed to be pretty even tempered and comfortable in the presence of humans, we opted to thread our way through the crowd of bovine creatures with what turned out to be surprising ease -- and some four hours after we began our trek, had reached hike's end somewhat wet with perspiration but otherwise in good shape and spirit! :)            

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Specialty dishes worth travelling all the way to Ipoh for! ;b

A generous bowl of Ipoh style yong tau foo :)
The well nigh unbeatable combination of Ipoh bean sprouts,
poached chicken, clear soup and spicy sauce :b
Just because my Indonesian sojourn was over didn't mean that I wouldn't be travelling any more for a time.  For after my German friend and I got back to Penang from Yogyakarta and rested a bit,  we -- together with my mother and another person -- headed out for a daytrip to Ipoh, which a CNN travel piece that had come out just a couple of days earlier had touted as "Malaysia's rising tourism star".
The capital of Perak state is not all that far away from Penang but it can feel like a foreign place for Penangites on account of the main Chinese dialect spoken there being Cantonese (rather than Penang Hokkien) and the food it's famous for accordingly differing quite a bit (even while being pretty delicious!).  A case in point: after we got into town, the first order of business was to go have lunch; and at the coffee shop that was our first -- but far from last -- eating stop of the day, I had to make a mental adjustment and get to ordering my food in Cantonese (which I had last used while in Hong Kong) rather than any of the languages I had been using recently in Penang as well as Indonesia!

While my mother introduced my German friend to her favorite Ipoh dish (known as Ipoh hor fun), I opted for a bowl of Ipoh yong tao fooThis Hakka dish's name literally translates into English as "stuffed bean curd" but it -- at least, the variants I've eaten in Malaysia -- is so much more than that.  Resembling the delicious Hong Kong street snack whose name translates into English as "three stuffed treasures", fried foods comprising such as eggplant (aubergine), green peppers and sausages stuffed with fish paste, the way to go is to order an assortment and eat them doused in sweet hoisin sauce, chilli sauce, or both!  

But whereas the Hong Kong "treasures" tend to be eaten as a snack on the fly, at stands with no seats in sight, Ipoh (and, for that matter, Ampang) yong tau foo are eaten sitting down and substantial enough to make for a solid meal.  In addition, there are boiled rather than just deep fried items in the selection which -- and this is where Ipoh yong tau foo differs from Ampang yong tau foo as well as Hong Kong's "three stuffed treasures" -- are served in a clear soup.  
Much as I enjoyed my Ipoh lunch however, the meal I really was looking forward to was dinner: which, at my request, was at an eatery specializing in bean sprout chicken.  It may not sound like much but trust me when I tell you that its poached chicken component tastes absolutely fantastically juicy and the dish's star ingredient are the biggest bean sprouts you'll ever see and is far juicier as well as crunchier than any beansprout you'll have ever tasted -- unless you have the famous Ipoh bean sprouts in Ipoh!
And yes, I realize it may sound crazy to wax so lyrical about bean sprouts.  But, in all honesty, the peppery bean sprout component of Ipoh's signature dish is soooo good that I often think that I'd be thoroughly happy to just make a meal out of a plate of rice topped with a generous pile of Ipoh bean sprouts and bathed in the eatery's complimentary clear soup -- that is, until I eat a piece of that poached chicken and find myself automatically reaching out to eat a second, third, fourth, etc. piece of it! ;b

Friday, June 23, 2017

Reflections on nighttime in Yogyakarta, and my general Indonesian experiences

Yogyakarta's Jalan Malioboro on a quiet week night ;)

Night-time road traffic in the vicinity of Tugu Jogja

"Where are all the people?", I remember asking my German friend when I visited several towns and cities in her home country (including Hirschhorn and Speyer) and found their streets unexpectedly bereft of people.  In contrast, on the first couple of nights that she and I spent in Yogyakarta, we both were shocked by the large crowds we encountered on the sidewalks as well as the heavy traffic on the road.  Indeed, I'd go so far as to admit that the sheer amount of people on the pavements and streets was actually intimidating even to someone who's become very used to dealing with teeming crowds after having lived more than ten years now in super high-density Hong Kong

In retrospect, I think my fearfulness stemmed in part to my being in an unfamiliar city rather than just the teeming crowds themselves.  Things also weren't helped by the outdoor lighting in Indonesia being nowhere near as bright as what I've become used to here in Hong Kong, where the light pollution has been found to be the worst on the planet.  In addition, huge swathes of the sidewalks in Yogyakarta were uneven and sometimes potholed to the point that I did fear at times that I'd trip and fall, and injure myself, over the course of my weaving around people and navigating our way around town.      

In any event, I felt more comfortable walking about in the city the second night that I was there than the previous night.  And on our final night in Yogyakarta, walking about at night turned out to be really enjoyable -- what with there being a nice breeze about that hadn't been there before, and also there being way fewer people out and about.

So vast was the size difference in the crowds that my German friend and I were as taken aback by it as we had been by the size of the crowd that we had encountered on our first night in the city -- at least until we got to realizing that our first two nights in Yogyakarta had been weekend nights while our third and final night there was a Monday night!  At the same time, it's all relative, as the proverbial "they" say.  For here's pointing out that the photos at the top of this blog post were taken on the "quiet" night! 

For the record: I really did feel so intimidated those first couple of nights that I didn't feel comfortable taking out my camera and taking photos -- and amidst a whole bunch -- of perfect strangers.  But just as my pre-trip apprehensions about Indonesia (including those stemming from news reports that got me worrying that the whole country was a hotbed of conservative Islam and that racism would rear its ugly, sometimes very violent, head once more there) were dispelled by the interactions I had with various Indonesian people (include whole hordes of students at Borobudur!), so too did my night-time apprehensions end up melting away and I ended up having a pretty good time in an incredibly cultural heritage-rich country I now will definitely consider revisiting before too long. :)

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Prambanan's apparently often overlooked Candi Sewu

Not a movie set but a bonafide ancient temple!
I could easily imagine this central Javanese site 
figuring in an Indiana Jones type movie though...
This also is the kind of setting which called for 
Puppet Ponyo to be captured by the camera in! ;b
More seriously though, Candi Sewu's main building is one of those 
structures that are impressive from whichever angle you viewed it :)

Pretty much whenever one reads or hears about Prambanan, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed site is described as being a Hindu monument.  But within this ancient temple compound -- and, actually, counted as part of the temple complex -- lie Buddhist temples (as is the case with the nearby Candi Plaosan, only on an even grander scale); with the largest and northernmost of these being that known as Candi Sewu.  

In its heyday, the Sewu temple complex was said to have been home to 249 buildings.  But that was 13 centuries ago -- and since that time, Candi Sewu has been witness to the fall of the kingdom whose rulers built it and also has been buried by ash from one major volcanic eruption and severely damaged from at least one major earthquake.  Furthermore, it's suffered from looting over the years by both Dutch colonists and local villagers, with a not a single head left on the Buddha statues found within the compound.

However, when compared to the two other Buddhist temples (Lumbung and Bubrah) located between Candi Sewu and Prambanan's main courtyard (where such as the Hindu temples dedicated to Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu are located), there's much to see -- and be impressed by -- still at Candi Sewu.  For example, whichever side of the temple complex that one approaches from, one will be met with the sight of a large pair of striking-looking Dwarapala (armed door or gate guardians), each carved from a single block of stone.  

Also, even while Candi Sewu's main temple would be dwarfed by the 47-meter-high Candi Shiva over at the main Prambanan compound, it's still no slouch at 30 meters in height -- especially when one considers that its considerable age.  In addition, a walk around this ancient structure (as well as along the walled outer corridor of its high platform) truly helps to emphasize how incredible is this cross-shaped 20-sided polygon architectural plus archaeological gem.

All in all, Candi Sewu's probably my favorite of the temples I visited on the Prambanan Plain.  To be sure, Candi Sambisari was a good place to start, Candi Sari provided balance (as the only non-temple I visited that day), and my initial sightings of atmospheric Candi Plaosan and the majestically tall temples in Prambanan's main courtyard will stay in my memory for a long time.  

But my visit to Candi Sewu truly felt special and magical -- in no small part due to my having been able to enjoy being at this expansive complex in what felt like amazing solitude since so very few people looked to have decided that it'd be worth the bother to walk some 800 extra meters to it from the main Prambanan compound!  Probably not since I visited Great Zimbabwe some two decades ago now did I feel like an intrepid explorer (not just traveller), and so very blessed to be able to have the space as well as time to take in wondrous sights in an atmosphere of such blessed peace and quiet! :)  

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Soaring spires and spirits at Prambanan! (Photo-essay)

On the same day that I visited Candi Sambisari, (Vihara) Sari and Candi Plaosan, I also spent time at Prambanan.  Although part of me worried that I'd suffer from "temple fatigue" the way I had on a visit to temple- and shrine-rich Kyoto a few years back.  But any doubts that I'd feel underwhelmed by this Yogyakarta-area UNESCO World Heritage-listed site that's often overshadowed in reputation by the considerably better known Borobudur quickly got dispelled when I set my eyes on what the official government brochure describes as "the tallest and most beautiful Hindu temple in the world".  
Between the 8th century and 10th century AD, some 240 temples were built within the grounds of Prambanan.  Over the years, some of them have fallen into ruin -- and as recently as 2006, these temple compounds suffered extensive damage as a result of a magnitude 6.4 earthquake.  But enough remains to leave this visitor feeling awe-struck, and also feeling so very fortunate to have been able to visit the place: whose soaring spires tower over the rest of the landscape and leave one feeling very small indeed; and whose stonework gets one marvelling at how amazingly skilled and able its architects and builders -- who lived so very long ago -- were...

Dedicated to Shiva, the tallest of Prambanan's temples 
soars up to 47 meters (around 144 feet) in height

The existence of just a single towering temple is amazing enough 
but there's more than one of them to be found at Prambanan!

  Puppet Ponyo also wants it to be known how
elaborately decorated these soaring structures are!

Like at Borobudur, the detailed sculptural reliefs 
on the temple walls inspire awe along with the 
monumental size and nature of the buildings themselves
In Prambanan's Candi Shiva Mahadeva is a statue of the god's 

 In the inner chamber of Prambanan's Candi Brahma can 

Puppet Ponyo looking sufficiently awestruck by it all!

  Truly, these are the kind of buildings that make you feel that 
you're in the realm of gods when walking amongst them :)