20 April 2012

Oasis in the city

Another post from Hong Kong.

Bordering on Nathan Road in the Tsim Sha Tsui tourist district is Kowloon Park, a green space that makes a lovely respite from the hustle of the city. Of course, I was immediately caught up in admiring the plantings, especially the skillful way in which pleasing views were created, even in this relatively small park.

Who could resist this pagoda with plantings of azalea?

We wandered through the park, stopping to rest on a bench and to watch a man moving through his martial arts practice.

The Chinese of Hong Kong have a flair of using space. In this park, there were quiet corners where retired men could gather to discuss the issues of the day.  In this open area, parents share lunch with their children, little people bouncing in bright sweatsuits and munching their sandwiches. Across the way, women work their way through exercise machines that are discretely screened by hedging -- like an outdoor "Curves". For everyone passing through and stopping in the park, it is a safe and peaceful place to find a quiet moment. 

If you look at a map of Hong Kong, you will discover there are pockets of green space everywhere, like tiny perfect oases in the city.  The Chinese here have a landscaping style that calls for intense cultivation, exactly what you would expect in a place were land is limited.  I admire this way of planting very much. A picture of a single, glorious flower (which I still hope to identify) was my beautiful take-away as we continued our explorations of the city.

26 March 2012

Heights and sights of Hong Kong

The view from the Intercontinental Hotel in Kowloon, Hong Kong doesn't disappoint, even in a smog-laden dusk. We stopped in for drinks, but realized we were in time for afternoon tea which was served in high style -- a diminutive three-tier sandwich tray arrived with individual china teapots, cups and strainers for pouring clear tea. Fine, indeed. We sat and watched the junks, ferries and barges plying the harbor waters, still amazed to find ourselves in this fabled, high-speed city.


Built on a 427-square-mile piece of real estate, Hong Kong is home to seven million people. It's a city with a vertical presence; high-rise buildings reach skyward at every turn.


Hong Kong is an interesting city to explore, albeit at a hectic pace. All those residents have places to go too, as we discovered when we found ourselves on the Metro at rush hour. Come with us as we jump aboard at Tin Hau, the station near our hotel. Built deep unserground, the Metro runs just about everywhere in the city. It's the best way to travel.


Long before the Metro, when Hong Kong was an important piece of the British empire, people relied on the the Peak Tramway to reach the the Mid-Level neighbourhoods and the popular lookout on Victoria Peak. Today, taking the funicular to the Peak is a sight-seeing must. So we did, although on a Saturday it took ages to work through the line and catch a ride. The things we do to grab hold of a piece of history. Below, the tram terminus at Garden Road.


Opened in 1888 after three years of construction, the 1.4 km single-track tram route has a passing loop with tram cars. It covers a height difference of almost 400 metres. The cars are beautifully maintained and it was great fun to climb the route.


The view from the Peak looking back down the tramway.


And here, the view of Hong Kong's world-class skyline and harbour.

Rob patiently watches the advancing sunset. Not sure who his dark-haired companion might be, but she does provide scale. Rob and I found it both amusing and practical to be head-and-shoulders taller than most Hong Kong residents.

The sunset sends the hills into silhouette; beyond, a dusky sea lies between Hong Kong Island and the Outlying Islands.

This post could easily end with the sunset and admittedly, several have, but Hong Kong is a city full of life and there are more images to share. Taken in a quiet street not far from the ferry terminal, the photo below captures the "Chinatown" side of Hong Kong I expected to find.

And then there are the well-dressed pedestrians. These young women are typical of the accessorized fashion style the emerging generation loves -- dayglow pumps and all. Hong Kong is headquarters for brand name shopping. In fact, shopping seems to be the national pastime for this Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China.


There's no denying the merchandise is glamorous, if very expensive. While I am known to buy purses when I travel, this is as close as I will ever get to a Prada handbag. If you look closely, you can see the high rise retail stores reflected in the display window glass.



Back in Tin Hau, our hotel neighborhood, we wandered in an open-air space and found a wonderful reminder of colonial days. Looking her regal self is Queen Victoria, who accepted Hong Kong as part of her dominions in 1841.



At that time, according to the travel guide, National Geographic Traveler: Hong Kong, the population of Hong Kong Island was about 3650 souls living in about 20 villages and hamlets. Another 2000 lived on boats in the harbor. In the years following the British arrival and the eventual return of the territory to China, Hong Kong has been a magnet for immigrants from mainland China. Everyone comes seeking a better life.

The National Geographic guide does a good job of explaining the people of Hong Kong. Many mainlanders "faced extreme hardships in China, and Hong Kong was the place where they could better their lives and those of their children. People in Hong Kong have an incredible work ethic. It's not unusual for them to work 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week. These long hours, teeming streets where you often have to battle just to sta. on the sidewalks, and crowded living conditions -- with families of five or six sometimes sharing a tiny apartment -- have given many Hong Kong people a competitive and strident nature." At times this was our experience. Yet we also encountered many kind people who had patience for visitors like us.


25 March 2012

I believe the children are our future …

We are reluctant to leave Cambodia. Our time here was relaxing to be sure, thanks to our Mekong cruise and a comfortable stay in Siem Reap. We were able to see the Cambodian people at work, at play, in meditation, and in many unguarded moments of everyday life. When I reflect on the pain the population has suffered in recent times, I think, perhaps more than other countries we have visited, Cambodia must look to the future. The struggle is to create a future that will bring education and opportunity to Cambodia's children, for at present, they are the most disadvantaged even as they are the country's future.

"I believe the children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way

"Show them all the beauty they possess inside

"Give them a sense of pride to make it easier

"Let the children's laughter remind us how we used to be"

Lyrics from Greatest Love Of All    |   Songwriters: Creed, Linda; Masser, Michael

24 March 2012

Oh, but the fish are nibbling

This post should make you smile. Let me set the scene ... It's our last night in Siem Reap, Cambodia. We take a tuk-tuk from the hotel downtown to Pub Street for a casual dinner. That sounds promising, doesn't it?

We turned a corner and saw a fish spa set up on the sidewalk. We had been seeing fish spas since Thailand and thought they looked weird, even kind of gross. Maybe it was the summery atmosphere of Siem Reap or just knowing it was our last night, but we paused when the young proprietor asked us to consider his fish spa. Rob looked at the fish. He put his hand in the tank. He thought about his rough travel-weary feet and decided to give it a try, especially after the young fellow promised a free beer.

According to the Dr Fish website, "some find the experience ticklish at first but the feeling passes quickly so that deep relaxation can begin." Ticklish? Just check out this expression!

Dr. Fish explains that "the authentic Garra Rufa fish are known for their healing benefits and are native to the hot springs of the Kengal Valley in Turkey. The fish gently nibble the skin to stimulate, rejuvenate and improve the overall health of your skin through natural exfoliation. The experience provides an amazing massage and invigorating sensation similar to that of mini Jacuzzi jets."

"Garra Rufa fish have no teeth and secrete a therapeutic enzyme called dithranol that takes care of your skin. This unique enzyme also reduces the over development of skin cells to ease and prevent the symptoms of many skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis and dermatitis."

Sounds great, right? After about 10 or 15 minutes, the young guy convinced Rob he should try the bigger fish for an even better and more soothing result. Always brave, Rob took his advice. And here's our man as he gets a first ticklish nibble from the bigger fish.

This expression alone was enough to convince me to pass on a fish spa. For some things it's really best to be the one responsible for documentation.


23 March 2012

Banteay Srei - Citadel of beauty

We walked in the morning light past the linga -- sacred symbol of Shiva -- towards one of the smallest temples in Angkor. As we came to the main gate we saw why this temple is known as Banteay Srei -- meaning the "Citadel of Women" or perhaps "Citadel of Beauty". It is a temple in miniature when compared to the grand state temples of Angkor Wat or Banyon and its stonework glowed a warm shade of red thanks to the pink sandstone that is used throughout.

We were instantly captivated by the delicate carvings of female figures and detailed mythological narratives that cover every available surface.

Banteay Srei was built in the later half of the 10th century by Yajnavaraha, guru to the future king Jayavarman V. The temple, which is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, has remained in use at least until the 14th century. It was rediscovered only in 1914, and was the subject of a celebrated case of art theft when a young Frenchman, André Malraux, stole four devatas in 1923 (he was soon arrested and the figures returned). Ironically, Malraux later became the French Minister of Culture in the deGaulle administration.

The main sanctuary stands on a t-shaped platform. The monkey guardians are reproduction sculptures.

Below stands one of the two library buildings; in the centre is a false door for spirits.

Rob asks Mr. Thy a question as we stand in the second gopura of Banteay Srei.



22 March 2012

In Nature's relentless embrace

The heat and humidity of the Cambodian jungle are, in their way, relentless, but our visit to Ta Prohm -- a temple complex in eastern Angkor -- taught us about the living jungle's relentless ability to overtake monuments.  Ta Prohm is perhaps most famous today for the massive tree that dominates the first gopura or gateway into the temple enclosure, as shown in this iconic image.

Photo Creative Commons License Brian Jeffery Beggerly

Unlike the majority of Angkor temples, Ta Prohm has been largely left to the clutches of the jungle. Why?

In 1177 and 1178, invasions of the Angkor region by the Cham had left the the Khmer capital in near ruins. Jayavarman VII decided to move his capital to Phnom Penh. While a few monks remained at Angkor Wat, the temples quickly succumbed to nature.  Seeds germinated in the stonework, weakening walls and roofs and causing collapse. In time, the temples were nearly lost to the jungle.  As French explorers came to Cambodia, they were guided by the local Khmer to their long abadoned temples.  In particular, the 1863 reports of French naturalist Henri Mahout published in Paris inspired Western interest. Everyone wanted to see the temple monuments he had described.

drawing of Angkor Wat by Henri Mahout

In time, adventurers were replaced by archeologists. The Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient, founded in 1899, took responsibility for conservation of the monuments. Thousands of cubic metres of soil were excavated was temples were reclaimed from the jungle.  As Maurice Glaize explains in his still-definitive 1944 guidebook, The Monuments of the Angkor Group, "Even though the relentless force of the vegetation is the cause of so much damage, the École Française d'Extrême-Orient felt obliged to leave at least one temple in Angkor as an example of the "natural state" that so marvelled the early explorers, while also showing by comparison the importance of the effort already achieved in its work to safeguard these ancient stones. It chose Ta Prohm - one of the most imposing and the one which had best merged with the jungle, but not yet to the point of becoming a part of it - as but one specimen typical of a form of Khmer art of which there were already other models."

Today, conservation efforts have to protect the trees as much as the stonework.  If a tree falls, it will further ruin the temple remains. And yes, Ta Prohm is also the highly atmospheric temple from Tomb Raider (starring Angelina Jolie as Laura Croft) which was filmed here. Many come to this temple simply for that connection.

In one corner, our guide quietly pointed out an apsara's face which many call Cambodia's Mona Lisa.

Many writers have written descriptively of Ta Prohm. For me, the integrated juxtaposition of stone and vegetation was completely captivating.  I was also drawn to the contrast between restoration and ruin that was very evident at Ta Prohm.

View this short "atmospheric" video if you are interested in seeing the incredible detail in the stone carvings of Ta Prohm.

21 March 2012

When the apsaras dance

Dressed in the silk and gold of a traditional Khymer costume, a dancer turns and bends in a closing gesture. She presses a lotus flower to her lips, covering a softly enigmatic smile. The nighttime dance ends, the music fades ...

Created to entertain the Khmer royalty, classical Cambodian dance -- also called Apsara dance -- presents themes and stories inspired primarily by the Reamker (the Cambodian version of the Indian classic, the Ramayana) and the age of Angkor. The dancers in the performance we saw at our hotel had an ethereal quality that reminded us that in Hindu myth, the apsaras -- or celestial dancers -- were one of the 13 gifts born of the Churning of the Sea of Milk, a 1,000-year effort in which the gods and demons cooperated under Vishnu's guidance to obtain the elixir of immortality.

In Hindu myth, the apsaras are paired with the ghandarvas, the court musicians of Indra, king of the demi-gods. The ghandarvas make music to which their beautiful consorts dance in the celestial palaces.

Hundreds of carved apsaras decorate the Angkor temples, over 1800 in Angkor Wat itself. To my mind, they give the temple buildings a joyous air. It is said that no two are exactly alike in their dress and hairstyle. Serene, mysterious, the apsaras of Angkor are a captivating expression of femininity and exquisite works of art. View more apsaras and more information about their significance.

The ancient art form of Khmer dance has always received royal patronage; even into the 20th century this has been true.  Queen Sisowath Kossamak "fostered a resurgence in the study and development of Khmer traditional dance, but also helped move it out of the palace and popularize it," according to one Cambodian travel guide.  The Queen trained her granddaughter Princess Bopha Devi from early childhood in the art of traditional dance.  In the 1950s and 60s, the princess was the face of Khmer traditional dance, both in Cambodia and around the world. Many traditional dances that are seen in performances today were developed and refined between the 1940s and 1960s under the guidance and patronage of Queen Sisowath Kossamak at the Conservatory of Performing Arts and the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. 
This video of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia gives a wonderful glimpse into the music, the costuming and most of all the highly stylized gestures of this rich dance form.  Imagine the apsaras have stepped off the temple frieze to perform for a moment in time.