Visiting Taiwan’s Lanyang Museum

Lanyang Museum, Yilan, Taiwan
When it comes to museums, Taiwan doesn’t seem to have any famous ones other than the National Palace Museum, which showcases imperial Chinese treasures brought across from China by Chiang Kai-shek in the mid-1940s. But in reality, Taiwan has several great museums that are impressive, beautiful, and feature fascinating exhibits. One of these is the Lanyang Museum, in Taiwan’s Yilan County, which I visited recently.

At first glance, from the side, Lanyang Museum resembles a large, sleek rock soaring out of the ground. Indeed, the museum was designed in the shape of a cuesta, a tilting stone escarpment that is common to Taiwan’s northeast coast. The museum is surrounded by a small lake with ducks and other birds.

Located on Taiwan’s northeast coast, Yilan County has an interesting geographical profile because it includes flat land sandwiched between mountains and the ocean. Yilan thus features abundant forestry, rice, and marine fisheries resources. The Lanyang Museum bears homage to this with separate levels devoted to Yilan’s mountains, ocean, and plains.
Lanyang Museum, Yilan, Taiwan

The museum features an attractive collection of dioramas, artifacts, and historical photos. Among the most interesting cultural exhibits is a model of a wooden platform which people compete to climb up in the Zhongyuan Qianggu festival, a late 18th century festival. There are many life-size displays of farmer and workmen mannequins engaged in irrigating or other kinds of work. It was interesting to see a yamu boat, used by farmers to harvest rice in their paddy fields.

Yilan also has a significant aboriginal presence, especially the Kavalan tribe (who the famous Taiwanese whisky brand is named after) who have lived in Yilan for 1,000 years and traditionally lived near rivers and streams. Han settlers came later in the 18th century and gradually pushed the aboriginals out of their lands.

There are an actual fishing boat, which you can climb into, and a traditional boat, as well as the skeleton of a Bryden’s whale which washed up dead ashore. The museum has an open, colorful and spacious layout that provides a nice ambiance to enjoy the exhibits.

How to get there: From Taipei, you can take the train to Yilan’s Wai’ao Station and walk to the museum, or take the long-distance Kuo-kuang 1877 bus at the Nangang Exhibition Center bus stop, which stops right at the museum.
Note: The museum is closed on Wednesdays. Continue reading “Visiting Taiwan’s Lanyang Museum”

Malaysia travel-Introducing Ipoh

Ipoh, Malaysia
The word Ipoh might conjure puzzled looks or recognition of a certain coffee brand. But Ipoh is actually one of Malaysia’s largest cities, the former center of the nation’s tin mining industry, and a gateway to the Cameron Highlands. It is also a rising travel destination in its own right, and rightfully so.

Lying between Kuala Lumpur and Penang (roughly speaking) as well as between KL and the Cameron Highlands, Ipoh used to be overlooked. But Ipoh has a very decent old town with impressive colonial-era buildings, a thriving cafe culture, and is surrounded by limestone hills, some of which harbor well-known Buddhist cave temples. Ipoh also is home to white coffee and the Old Town brand, which is popular across parts of Asia such as Hong Kong.

When I plan my travel trips, I try to visit lesser-known cities that have decent attractions. Examples include Hiroshima, Milan, and Hue in Central Vietnam. Ipoh is another example. Having traveled by train from KL, when you arrive in Ipoh, you have already visited one of the city’s most attractive landmarks, Ipoh train station. While not very big, the 101-year-old station is regal in its all-white form incorporating Edwardian Baroque and Indo-Saracenic architectural styles.

Across the street from the train station is the city’s Old Town, which features more stately colonial-era buildings, shophouses, and a large mosque. There are also several large murals dispersed across the Old Town, painted by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, who also painted the well-known murals in Georgetown, Penang’s capital. Also in the Old Town are several modern cafes and old Chinese restaurants. One particularly impressive building I came upon was an art boutique center in which the building’s old, worn-down exterior was left intact while the interior was renovated. The building in the top photo in this post follows a similar concept – don’t be fooled by the hanging plants, the shops at the bottom are new, modern cafes.

Ipoh lies in the Kinta River Valley, surrounded by limestone hills and tin deposits. During the late 19th and 20th centuries, it was home to a booming tin mining industry hence its stately colonial-era buildings and large Chinese community, many of whom worked in the tin mines. However, the tin deposits were depleted in the 1970s and the city suffered a decline. Recently, Ipoh has seen a resurgence thanks to tourism, with the city having made an effort to renovate and conserve its heritage buildings. Ipoh did not have an air of decline at all, and seemed fairly well-off by Southeast Asian and Malaysia standards.

Ipoh’s large Malaysian-Chinese community is mainly Cantonese-speaking, being made up of Cantonese (people whose ancestors were from China’s Guangdong Province) and Hakkas (also from Guangdong but with a more complex origin. Half of my family is also Hakka). Penang, in contrast, has a Chinese community that is mainly Hokkien-speaking (a language from China’s Fujian Province, which many Taiwanese speak as week). Michelle Yeoh, Malaysia’s most famous actress, is from Ipoh.
The city’s Hakka heritage is preserved in Han Chin Pet Soo or Hakka Miners’ Club, a former clubhouse for Hakkas which is now a museum.
Ipoh, Malaysia

Across the street from the museum are Chinese eateries serving specialties like bean-sprout chicken and Hakka mee (noodles). There are a few lanes which historically served as the homes of prostitutes or mistresses, hence two of them are called Concubine Lane. These lanes have been renovated for tourists and instead of ladies, are filled with stores, cafes and hostels. Ipoh white coffee originally was made from beans roasted with margarine and served with condensed milk, though nowadays white coffee doesn’t need to be roasted with margarine. Apparently the white coffee has a caramel flavour when roasted with margarine, which I found a little off-putting.

What was surprisingly pleasant to realize was that Ipoh’s Cantonese are probably the most polite Cantonese-speakers I’ve encountered in Asia. People who have been to Hong Kong or Guangdong might know what I mean. Whenever I spoke to local Chinese, whether service staff or museum guide or even an entrepreneur at the center I mentioned above, they were all polite in responding to my queries, with none of the surliness or brusqueness you’d get in Hong Kong.

Ipoh is also famous for its limestone hills just outside the city. While not as beautiful as the ones in Guangxi, China or Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay, Ipoh’s limestone hills are pleasant enough. In fact, so pleasant that several temples were built inside of these hills. I visited three of these cave temples, but a fourth turned out to be closed even though it was only 2.30 pm.
Ipoh, Malaysia
Ipoh Train Station
Ipoh, Malaysia

From the way I’ve written about Ipoh, you might think everything was fantastic. But the truth is I had a few small issues. First is my hotel was actually next to a mosque, which you know broadcasts the Muslim call to prayer several times a day. For some reason, the morning call was particularly long and would go on for at least 20 minutes. I have nothing against mosques (I actually visited one in Ipoh, after I was invited in by two friendly local volunteer guides, but not the one next to my hotel) but I wouldn’t want to stay next to one in the future.

Second is Ipoh’s buses are very scarce and not reliable. While I knew in advance they only come about once an hour, I twice experienced seeing buses drive past me while I was waiting at bus stops outside the cave temples to return to Ipoh (I’d taken the bus from the Ipoh station to get to those places). Given I was the only one at the stop and that these buses don’t get many passengers, perhaps the drivers just didn’t see me. I ended up getting a taxi back to Ipoh both times.
Third is the Old Town is rather quiet at night and most of the streets are dark as there aren’t many restaurants or bars open, besides the street next to the Hakka Miners’ Club.

But weirdly enough, I actually enjoyed visiting Ipoh and all these issues couldn’t make up for the good experiences. I heartily recommend visiting Ipoh if you go to Malaysia.
Ipoh, Malaysia
Ipoh, Malaysia
Two of Ipoh’s giant murals done by Ernest Zacharevic (above and below)
Ipoh, Malaysia
Continue reading “Malaysia travel-Introducing Ipoh”

How to deal with too much tourism?

Among all the serious problems the world is facing now, one of them stems from a surprising source. I’m talking about excess tourism, or the problem of places having too many tourists. This has become a worldwide problem, affecting places like Barcelona and Venice, as well as islands in Thailand and the Philippines. Travel is generally a very good activity, as the vast number of people who travel and the growing revenues of tourism worldwide would attest, not to mention blogs like mine that focus a lot on traveling. However, excess tourism causes major issues such as affecting local people’s lives severely and damaging the environment.

In Venice, tourism is being blamed for pushing small businesses out of the city centre as more people open businesses like restaurants and souvenir shops catering to tourists rather than locals. In Barcelona, locals have taken to protesting tourists and even targeting tour buses as they blame tourism on lack of housing, rising rents, overcrowded public transportation. The Philippines have closed down Boracay, an island filled with beaches and resorts, for six months in April to try to clean up rising pollution while Thailand did the same with Maya Bay, where the backpacker film The Beach was filmed. But while you can close off small islands and beaches, you can’t do the same with cities. How can the problem of excess tourism be solved? I’d like to think there are a few ways the authorities and travelers can try.

While the world has become much smaller due to the power of the internet and the convenience of smartphones and the prevalence of flights, especially budget airlines, certain places often get a huge amount of travelers. In particular, these include, besides Venice and Barcelona, cities like Paris, Dubrovnik and Bangkok, as well as Bali and Phuket. Look at the most prolific travel blogs or travelers on Instagram, and you will certainly see posts of these places flooding your feed.

So what can be done about this?
The tourism authorities of countries and cities need to try harder to promote lesser-known cities and attractions to visitors. Meanwhile, travelers should consider going to less famous destinations themselves. I try to do this on my travels such as when I chose Milan (it’s not an unknown city of course, but for travel, it’s not that popular) on my trip to Europe or Ipoh earlier this year. Of course, you should visit famous cities (it’d be a shame to visit France and not go to Paris) but diversifying where you go would also be good. For instance, instead of Venice, consider Bologna, instead of Bali, consider Flores; and instead of Barcelona, consider Valencia. When you read a top 10 list of cities or places, aim for numbers 4,5,6 etc rather than the top 3.

Second is while saving money is good, sometimes we need to consider whether the money we spend is really going back to the community. AirBnb is considered a big problem since rather than homeowners renting out spare rooms, which was the original intent, you get firms or landlords buy up multiple properties specifically to rent out to tourists. This not only raises local property prices but also deprives locals of apartments to rent or buy. Keep in mind that while hotels and hostels need to pay business taxes, most AirBnb homes do not do this, thus limiting how much of your money goes into the local economy.

Third is people can consider traveling during shoulder or off-peak seasons. As an example, I visited a part of southern Thailand during the summer, which is the rainy season and thus the tourist off-season, so there were not much tourists which made it easy to enjoy the various places. Also, it didn’t rain much. Because tourist numbers are not so numerous during off-peak seasons, when you travel during this time you help provide local hotels, businesses and drivers with much-needed business whilst also helping alleviate high tourism numbers during the peak seasons.

You can read more good points about this problem from established bloggers here and here.

Island People-The Caribbean and the World- book review

The Caribbean often conjures up an image of idyllic white-sand beaches and blue seas with steelpan music or reggae playing in the background. The reality is far more turbulent and fascinating. The Caribbean is a region of multiculturalism and complexity, mixed with arts, poverty and crime.

First off, the Caribbean comprises over a dozen countries ranging from Spanish-speaking nations like Cuba and the Dominican Republic to English-speaking Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad. This also extends to current British and American territories like Cayman Islands and Puerto Rico and the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Island People- The Caribbean and the World is an excellent guide to this diverse region that covers history, politics, sociology and culture of 14 of these island nations and territories.

As someone from the Caribbean myself, hailing from the southernmost island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, I must confess I’m ignorant of the wider region. While I grew up in Trinidad, I’ve never actually traveled to any of the other islands in the Caribbean. But even still, I am not unaware of these other places, especially Jamaica, whose reggae and dancehall music is widely popular in Trinidad, which we had to learn about in school. As a former British colony that that grew a lot of sugar with slave labour, Trinidad shares a common history with many of its fellow Caribbean brother nations like Barbados.

However, Island People, part travelogue and part sociological and historical study, gave me a much greater insight and appreciation of the Caribbean beyond the little I knew from history classes at school and the news. The book is the result of Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s lifetime of studying, researching and visiting the Caribbean. Starting from the north and winding its way southwards, Jelly-Schapiro’s book traces the arc of the Caribbean from the Greater Antilles of Jamaica, Cuba and Hispaniola to the Lesser Antilles islands that ends with Trinidad.

Some of the more memorable chapters are those on Cuba, which the author spent a year in and devotes three chapters to; Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere but also the only one where slaves won their independence by force; and the lush island of Dominica that remains the last refuge of the indigenous Carib people, after whom the region is named after. The author certainly enjoyed Jamaica a lot and found its reggae and politics intriguing which he also wrote three chapters about. My own country Trinidad is featured in the book’s finale, and not surprisingly, the author covers carnival, Trinidad’s carefree nature, and crime.

For Jamaica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, music is a key theme as Jelly-Schapiro expounds on reggae, rumba, meringue and salsa respectively. For Antigua and Dominica, he focuses on writers like novelist and essayist Jamaica Kincaid and Jean Rhys (author of Wide Sargasso Sea), while in the chapter on Guadeloupe and Martinique, he goes into detail on intellectuals like Aime Cesaire, poet turned statesman, and Frantz Fanon, a fierce critic of colonialism. And for Trinidad, both music and literature are featured (I write with a little pride) in the form of calypso and soca music, and historian and writer CLR James and VS Naipaul, the Nobel Literature laureate.

One thing that plays a major role in the Caribbean is race relations, which is a product both of colonialism and the mix of races and cultures. Going beyond merely black and white (and Indian and Chinese), race relations involve complex hierarchies that encompass not just colour, but also the tone of one’s skin due to the mixing of races. As a result, light-skinned people, whose ancestors were a product of colonizers mixing with their slaves, often form an elite minority. Consequently, this also plays out on a national scale with the lighter-skinned Dominicanos looking down on their mostly black Haitian neighbours.

Island People- The Caribbean and the World is a superb book that will appeal to a lot of people interested in travel and history, even if they don’t have a personal connection or interest in the Caribbean. The book will take readers on a journey through the Caribbean, alright, just not a light-hearted one like the holidays you’d go there for.

World’s troublesome and problematic power China

There has been a lot of bad news regarding China, but the last two weeks have been even more disturbing and bizarre than usual. In September, a weird spat with Sweden broke out after a Chinese family had to be carried out of a hostel because they showed up at midnight half a day before their booking and caused a disturbance. Despite the family being recorded rolling around and screaming theatrically whilst bemused policemen stood by, they alleged brutal treatment which the Chinese embassy and state media then criticized Sweden for.

Last Sunday, a Chinese state media “reporter” caused a disturbance by heckling and then slapping somebody at a Conservative Party conference in the UK; then on Tuesday, a Chinese warship almost rammed an American warship in the South China Sea, and on Friday, the Chinese head of Interpol was reported missing by his wife after he went to China and disappeared. On Thursday, Bloomberg reported a sensational but worrying story about China secretly putting tiny microchips onto motherboards for servers used by 30 firms like Apple and Amazon, for the purpose of stealing data.

Even amid all this, in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, hundreds of thousands (possibly a million) of Muslim Uyghurs have been detained by the Chinese authorities in “reeducation” camps with the campaign showing no process of slowing down.

China’s sinister reach also extends to show business as the country’s most well-known actress Fan Bingbing went missing for months before news surfaced this week that she is in custody and is being ordered to pay over US$129 million in taxes.

It is clear that China is becoming more erratic and confrontational abroad, whilst undertaking disturbing actions at home. The trade war with the US is still going on, taking a toll on China’s economy but instead of trying to deescalate tensions or change tact, Xi Jinping appears to be doubling down on his repressive and strongman policies. His Belt and Road initiative (BRI), which is a quixotic attempt to develop Asia and parts of Europe and Africa, is starting to be seen for the hollow economic plan and subtle imperialism it is, forcing smaller and poorer countries into debt-traps that make them either pay off staggering amounts of debt or give up territory and assets to China.

Whereas the US and Japan have usually been critical of China, now the criticism and skepticism is coming from different countries like Malaysia, Australia and even longtime China “ally” Pakistan.

It’s easy to feel a little satisfied these days if you’re a China critic because it seems the country is finally starting to pay the price in 2018 for all its belligerent actions over the last few years. Whether intimidating Taiwan, furthering its grip on Hong Kong, expanding its militarization in the South China Sea, or imprisoning mass numbers of its Uyghur people, China has been flexing its muscles with little fear in recent times.

But the truth is that even as staunch a critic of China, its CCP regime, and Xi as I am, I also feel some disappointment. I wasn’t always a critic of China, since from my secondary school days to university up until the middle of my two years in Beijing, I actually had high hopes for the country. That was until I realized that all the economic growth and geopolitical power wasn’t doing anything good for China, that it wasn’t going to liberalize or expand media and civil freedoms, or start being friendlier to Taiwan and other neighbors. And with an increasingly repressive government and a strongman dictator like Xi, China wasn’t going to become a peaceful power but a global bully that wasn’t afraid of exploiting countries, bending international laws, and terrorising its own people.

These are worrying times for China and for the region, and for everyone’s sake, let’s hope the CCP does not prevail.

Links to recent notable news concerning China:

How China used a tiny chip to infiltrate dozens of America’s top companies

China’s internment camps for Uyghurs now out in the open

Interpol head reported missing in China

Chinese state TV reporter assaults UK Conservative party member at event about Hong Kong

Chinese warship in unsafe encounter with American destroyer in South China Sea

Fan Bingbing hit with US$129 million tax bill after being held for months incommunicado

China’s Xinjiang Muslims live in fear of disappearing into concentration camps

Islamic world starting to protest China over Xinjiang camps

Sri Lanka’s ancient hilltop fortress of Sigiriya

Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
One of Sri Lanka’s most distinctive and fascinating landmarks is the ancient fortress of Sigiriya. Located atop a massive 200m-high column of rock that dominates a vast plain, Sigiriya was built between 477-495 CE (AD) by a king as a refuge during a war with rivals for the throne. Eventually the place became a Buddhist monastery before being abandoned in the 13th-14th century.

Once you enter the grounds, you will get a great view of Sigiriya looming ahead of you. At the sides are pleasant landscaped gardens with terraces and fountains. In terms of wildlife, look out for monkeys, monitors and even peacocks roaming around. On one side of the grounds, there is even a large man-made reservoir that is still in use.

Climbing up the rock takes you past beautiful frescoes of some very voluptuous maidens along the walls. Unfortunately, some of the paintings have been smeared, either through vandalism or an attempt at modesty by overzealous guardians. Near the top, you will reach Lion Gate, a stone staircase flanked by huge lion’s paws, which signifies the final route to the actual fortress on top. A quick climb up this staircase brings you to Sigiriya and magnificent views of the surrounding plains.

The fortress exists as ruins, with much of the base structures intact. It was much larger than I expected, and it is easy to understand why the king, Kashyapa, would build a fortress there. Despite building Sigiriya, he met a sad end because after losing a battle to his half-brother and claimant to the throne, he is said to have committed suicide.

Sigiriya isn’t just a cool site to see, as it’s also an example of Sri Lanka’s over 2,000 years of history, impressive even by Asian standards. Sigiriya is over 90 km from Kandy, which is about a 2.5-hour drive. I visited Sigiriya and Dambulla, a Buddhist cave temple with murals that is over 2,000 years old, on a daytrip from Kandy with a driver which my hotel helped me hire.

Sigiriya, Sri Lanka Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

Continue reading “Sri Lanka’s ancient hilltop fortress of Sigiriya”