Travel

Tribute to train travel

The first time I ever took a train was in my 20s when I visited East Asia before my final year of university. Since then, I’ve taken trains across China, Japan, Taiwan, and several other countries in Asia, as well as Western Europe. Taking the train, whether high-speed or regular or sleeper, is to me an essential part of travel. While taking a plane might be faster, it’s also too easy and too convenient. Riding a train lets you see more of the land, people, and scenery, and it can also be comfortable and pleasant. Of course, it can also be noisy and jarring if your train is one of those antique ones that shake with every turn of the train wheels and give off a loud racket incessantly. Whatever the case, I’ve come to appreciate and enjoy this form of transport that was alien to me during my childhood and adolescence.
Here, I’ve listed trains I took in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka
I took trains along the West coast (Wellagama to Colombo), then into the central highlands from Colombo to Kandy and Kandy to Nuwara Eliya. The trains were either very old or relatively new but modest in speed and appearance. Finally, I took an overnight train from Eliya Nuya back to Colombo, but on a seat, not a bunk. That last ride was quite rough because the train was several decades old and provided a turbulent and noisy ride that prevented me from getting any sleep. Thankfully, it was the only bad train trip I had in Sri Lanka. All the other train rides gave me the best views I’ve ever had from a train, and the one from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya was amazing as it went up mountains and along a ridge overlooking deep valleys and tea plantations.


Malaysia
I took the train from Kuala Lumpur to Ipoh, then from that city to Penang (actually to Butterworth station then ferry). The trains were modern and clean, and the rides were smooth. They weren’t particularly fast but as the duration of both of my trips were only a couple of hours, that was ok. While Kuala Lumpur’s train station was quite large and busy, most train stations in the rural areas between KL and Ipoh were small structures that were basically platforms and covered roofs. Ipoh’s stately colonial station, built in 1917, is the most attractive train station I’ve seen. Continue reading “Tribute to train travel”

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Europe travel · Travel

Italy travel- Roman glories


It might be long gone but the glory of the Roman Empire still lives on in Rome. Mostly in the form of the city’s most famous attraction, the mighty Colosseum, where gladiators and wild animals fought each other, and the Forum, where Roman senators and leaders used to meet to run their empire, but also numerous other buildings, ruins, castle, and even a 1.5 km road that is still very much in use.

I found the Colosseum impressive as it was built over 2,000 years ago as the Roman equivalent of today’s football stadiums but it was still quite as large as modern stadiums. Obviously, it’s been extensively renovated but it was good to see that the Colosseum is very much still intact. Once inside, you get to walk around the inner bowels and the spectator stands where you can imagine watching gladiators fighting in front of tens of thousands of bloodcrazed Romans.

The Colosseum is next to the Forum, which was the centerpiece of ancient Rome where the government used to meet, but which now exists as an impressive collection of ruins including towering columns, halls, and statues. Next to the Forum is the Palatine Hill, where many rich Romans used to reside.
After you leave the Forum, one can walk straight up the Capitoline Hill to the Piazza del Campidoglio, designed by the great Michaelangelo. A statue of Marcus Aurelius (one of Rome’s greatest emperors and who was in the movie Gladiator) mounted on a horse stands in the middle of a piazza surrounded by three exquisite buildings which house the Capitoline Museum.

My next stop was to fast forward over a thousand years in history to visit a giant hall that pays tribute to the first king of modern Italy, Vittorio Emmanuelle II, who ruled a unified Italy from 1861 to 1878. This massive all-white building fronted by columns looks impressive though apparently some locals feel it looks very out of place and is too extravagant.
From the Vittorio Emmanuelle memorial, one can walk across the roundabout to the Via del Corso, a 1.5 km road which the Romans built. On either side of this straight shopping street are elegant low-rise government and historical buildings, stores, and many lanes. To the east of the Via del Corso are historical structures like the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain. I know Rome was full of history, but actually being in the midst of all these historical structures that still existed as part of modern neighborhoods and not as isolated sites was a memorable feeling.

It was notable that Rome’s subway was the grimiest and dodgiest one I’d ever taken (Toronto’s TTC subway was previously the dodgiest I’d ever taken). The trains were covered in graffiti and the platforms were slightly dark, which made me feel a little uncomfortable. Fortunately, I encountered no problems.
All in all, this was a fantastic first full day in the Eternal City.



From the Palatine Hill looking over the Forum. The Colosseum is in the back next to the tower.

Piazza del Campidoglio

Some Romans consider this monument to Italy’s first king Vittorio Emmanuelle II a little too grandiose.
  Continue reading “Italy travel- Roman glories”

Europe travel · Travel

Random Paris photo round-up


I was only in Paris for a few days during my Europe trip, but wherever I went, from the famous attractions like the Louvre and Notre Dame, to taking walks to the National Library and along the river, the view was enjoyable. It’s obvious that a lot of effort is put into preserving not just historic buildings but decades-old townhouses. There are a lot of old buildings and hardly any highrises, and this is probably a deliberate form of urban planning to maintain the look of entre neighborhoods. The subway also has a distinct antique character, so for example, you have to open the subway doors by hand and a lot of the hallways, stairs and platforms look like you could be in the 50s. It is a great city to stroll through the streets and neighborhoods and riverbank, and I only wish I could have done much more of that.


Goodbye Paris. Setting off at Gare Lyon station
 
The top photo and this one above were taken during a morning walk before I left Paris in the afternoon. It was a serene way to enjoy viewing Notre Dame without encountering hordes of people.

Bibliothèque nationale de France (National Library of France)

Elevated subway station

Looking at one of the many great paintings at the Louvre
Continue reading “Random Paris photo round-up”

Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Singapore- first impressions


Singapore is one of Asia’s great success stories. Tiny and lacking natural resources, the city state managed to raise itself from an impoverished reject (it was briefly part of Malaysia before being kicked out) in 1965 to become one of the world’s richest nations and major financial hubs. Singapore manages to punch well above its weight in business, trade, tech, tourism, and regional politics. Singapore is also unique in that it was ruled by a legendary strongman who was very respected, feared and admired – the late Lee Kuan Yew, who passed away in 2015. Much of Singapore’s economic success and development has been credited to his leadership. But Lee also contributed to Singapore’s reputation as a nanny state due to severe laws that limit freedom of expression, dissent, and other more banal things (like chewing gum for instance). While supposedly a democracy, Singapore has been ruled by only one party, Lee’s PAP, which always wins elections in an overwhelming manner (PAP currently hold 83 out of 89 seats).

I visited Singapore last year for the first time, and I was prepared to be bored, but instead I was quite impressed by the buildings and attractions, and how modern the country was in general. There was a lot of open space and greenery, and places did not feel crowded, despite being a small country with over 5 million. While the population is about 75% ethnic Chinese, Indians, Malays and expats make up the other 25%, and this was apparent everywhere in terms of the people and the food.

My birthplace Hong Kong seems to regard Singapore as its main competitor, due to both being tiny city states that are thriving financial hubs and former British colonies. But from what I saw, Hong Kong is so far behind that there is almost no contest. As mentioned, Singapore felt so spacious and uncongested, in comparison to Hong Kong and its cramped buildings and sidewalks and very crowded spaces.

Also, Hong Kong has nothing like the Gardens by the Bay or the Marina Bay Sands hotel, which even though they often appear in countless photos , are impressive to see in person. I saw a lot of towers with rooftop gardens or plants strewn across the building itself, which besides supposedly being good for the environment also looks kind of cool. I’m sure Hong Kong might have similar buildings, but I haven’t seen any yet.

However, there were a few issues.
As spacious and clean as the streets and buildings in Singapore were, it often felt a bit too orderly. While not boring, I did feel like everything was a bit too perfect and artificial. In fact, parts of the city were a bit sparse like the riverside where the Asian Civilizations Museum was.

I also found the subway system to be kind of slow. For instance, I took the subway from my hotel in Little India to the airport, thinking it would take 1 hour, but in reality it took almost 1 hour and a half, which resulted in me having to rush to check in and scramble to my gate (I made my flight). Apparently, when going to Changi airport by subway, you need to get off at Tanah Merah station and wait for another train to go the final two stops, which took about 15 minutes to come. I hadn’t realized it would take so long because I thought that as a train going to the airport, it would be more frequent.
I also took the subway to visit a friend who worked there as an expat. Foolishly, I thought 45 minutes would be enough since I only had go less than 10 stations, albeit transferring twice, but instead it took over an hour.

A very surprising issue is the dual pricing at attractions like the Gardens at the Bay, which means Singaporeans pay much less than tourists. While this exists across Southeast Asia, I was surprised at seeing this in Singapore since it is a very wealthy country (if anything tourists should be paying less than locals, but I know locals have contributed to these attractions through tax). Still, dual pricing doesn’t exist across Europe, Japan or North America.

It may not be a place to stay for too long or go wild and let loose (go to Thailand for that) but Singapore is a very interesting small country that is an oasis of calm and order in Southeast Asia.




Europe travel · Travel

Italy travel- magnificent Milano

While Rome was the highlight of my visit to Italy during my Europe trip, Milan was actually my first stop. While the Italian financial and fashion center is not as well-known as the likes of Venice or Florence for travelling, I thought Milan was a fine city to visit. It is one of Italy’s most prosperous, being the seat of the country’s stock exchange, and modern cities, but Milan also has a very old historical heritage, said to have been founded in 600 BC by the Celts and being part of the Roman empire. However, Milan also fell under the control of the Habsburgs from the 16th to mid-19th centuries.

I’d chosen to visit Milan not because of finance, fashion or even football (I’m not a fan of Inter or AC Milan), but for its giant, white Duomo cathedral, plus the fact it was in Northern Italy and just a few hours from my previous stop in France. In addition, the city also had the fascinating Sforza castle, the 4th century AD-built Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, as well as the beautiful Galleria Vittorio Emmanuelle, which is right next to the Duomo. There were also the Pinocoteca di Brera art gallery, with its many fine paintings, and a very interesting science and technology museum.

When I pulled into Milan’s Porto Garibaldi station and took the subway to my hotel, I had little idea of what to expect. I was wary of the language barrier and getting around, but it turned out to be relatively easy. I actually found that there was more English in Milan than in France, such as with museums and street signs. Also my hotel turned out to be Chinese-run, so I ended up speaking Chinese to the staff. Interesting, there seems to be a small Chinese community in Milan, consisting both of immigrants and students.

The Duomo was as impressive in real life as in the photos I’d seen, especially the massive interior where it felt like being in a cavern. The giant columns, stained glass windows and various statues were very attractive. I also went up to the roof where you can get a good view of the surrounding area as well as the myriad spires and other structures.
The open area in front of the cathedral was packed with people, including tourists, locals as well as dodgy characters holding strings which they are said to tie on unsuspecting tourists’ wrists and force them to pay money. Next to the Duomo is the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuelle, a high-end open shopping arcade with very attractive roof and floor decorations. On the floor tiles in the center, there were four coat of arms, those of Rome, Florence, Turin (capitals of the Kingdom of Italy), and Milan. Turin’s coat of arms features a giant bull on whose testicles (yes, really) which people stand upon and spin themselves because doing so is said to bring good luck. So many people do that so that there is a hole on the spot where the bull’s testicles are.


Continue reading “Italy travel- magnificent Milano”

Europe travel · Travel

Paris travel- Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe


The most recognizable symbol in Paris is probably the Eiffel Tower, with the Arc de Triomphe second. Previously, my mother and I had appreciated the Eiffel Tower from afar, atop the Montparnasse Tower, but on our third day in the city we went right up to the tower. But before that, we had coffee at Les Deux Magots, a cafe where famous literature and artistic personalities like Hemingway, Sartre and Picasso met and ate at; then visited the Arc de Triomphe, which we walked to from the busy tree- and store-lined Champs-Elysees. The Arc was much bigger than I’d expected and I didn’t realize it was a 19th century military memorial. That said, I wasn’t awed by any one particular structure, but all these places just confirmed my impression from the previous days – Paris is a beautiful city.


It might seem very old-fashioned but it is convenient that Parisian metro stations have giant metal signs with their names right above the entrances

The Luxor obelisk, an over-3000-year-old obelisk given by Egypt to France in 1829, at the Place de la Concorde

The Arc de Triomphe also features the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier memorializing the dead of World War I.

River Seine across from the Eiffel Tower

China travel · Japan travel · Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Travels in 2017- photo roundup

Happy New Year everyone.
Let’s hope 2018 will be a peaceful, productive and eventful year for us all.

Having gotten the frightful political and news lookback at 2017 out of the way in my last post, here is the lighter stuff — 10 photos representing the best of my travels in 2017. I traveled to Malaysia and Singapore for the first time, took a trip from Tokyo to Hiroshima, and went to see Avatar’s Hallelujah mountains for real in Wulingyuan, China. But best of all, I finally took a trip to Canada, where I studied, and Trinidad, where I grew up, to see family. I’m not sure if I would be doing as much traveling in 2018 but I wouldn’t mind.


Malacca’s Red Square, Malaysia. More a collection of grand colonial buildings near a roundabout and river, the “square” is still the heart of this elegant former Dutch and English colonial port, one half of a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Georgetown, Penang is the other half).


Out of all the different cities I’ve lived in, Toronto remains the best. I took a long-overdue trip to Canada a couple of months ago and while it was mainly for family purposes, I still did a little sightseeing.


Wulingyuan national park, Hunan, China. The huge 690-sq-km park is full of limestone peaks like this, which the floating mountains in Avatar were based on. While not as well-known as say, Huangshan, this is the best scenic site I’ve been to in China.


The island of Miyajima, near Hiroshima, is famous for its floating Torii gate. But the highlight for me was climbing Mt Miyajima and taking in the serene views of the nearby islets and the Inland Sea.

 


As part of that long-overdue trip to the West, I went back to Trinidad, where I grew up. This is a view of part of the capital Port of Spain, the northern hills, the sea (Gulf of Paria) and the Queen’s Park Savannah, a giant park in the middle of the capital and the world’s largest roundabout.


While visiting Japan, I went to Matsuyama, the largest city on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. The Dogo Onsen is a bathhouse complex centered on a cool wooden building that looks like a castle. I did go in to take a bath after taking this photo.


I’d never been to Vancouver before so it was great to finally visit it. With views like this right next to the city, there’s little doubt why it tops many lists of the world’s best cities.


As I was visiting Trinidad for the first time in almost a decade, I played tourist and revisited many places I’d been to as a child or teenager. This is Manzanilla, one of the best beaches on the east coast.


Despite having seen many skyscrapers, I find the Petronas Towers to be really amazing. Due to their formidable, hefty appearance and the fact there are two of them, they stand like titanic metal sentries of Kuala Lumpur.


I made my first visit to Singapore in 2017 and I was impressed by some of their structures like these weird, futuristic towers at the Gardens by the Bay.

Europe travel · Travel

France travel- Versailles


The Palace of Versailles is synonymous with French royalty and grandeur, having been built by the Sun King, Louis XIV to serve as his royal court. Completed in 1682, it served as the royal court and remained so for about 100 years before the court moved back to Paris. During that period, the nobility had to stay at Versailles, so remaining under the eye and control of the king. This is covered in the ongoing trans-Atlantic Versailles period drama series.

When we visited France, my mother and I took a day to venture to this immense royal complex. The complex was much bigger than I’d imagined, and I could see why it was so famous, both for its opulence and size. We took the train from Paris to Versailles (the town), then walked towards the palace along a pleasant street.

Approaching the complex, I saw a giant statue, a paved open space, and a courtyard filled with people in a line that snaked across to form an N shape. We got in line and it took about an hour to get in. We checked out a lot of different rooms and halls, including the opulent Hall of Mirrors, the painted ceilings, the rooms where the king and queen lived and entertained, and a brief glance of the gardens in the back, which required a separate admission fee. Everything inside was exquisite, whether the columns, the windows, the paintings, or the stairs, so much that it was almost like an overload. There are additional buildings on the grounds that you can take a shuttle to, but we didn’t have enough time.


The man himself, Louis XIV

Continue reading “France travel- Versailles”

Travel

Myanmar’s Rohingya tragedy and the traveler’s dilemma

The world has seen a lot of horrific events this year. The Syrian civil war is still going on, Yemen is being torn apart as millions of its people face starvation, and deadly terrorist attacks have taken place from the US to France to Somalia. Closer to home, here in Asia, the expulsion of the Rohingya minority from Myanmar has been a terrible tragedy. Over 550,000 Rohingya have been forced to flee their homes and hundreds were killed by their own country’s military, in August and September, ending up in crowded refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh. As a result, the UN has condemned Myanmar for ethnic cleansing, and many countries have also criticized it. Myanmar leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s aura as a human rights icon has also been shredded. While the situation has calmed down a bit, the fact is over 550,000 Rohingya are trapped in Bangladesh refugee camps and unable to return to Myanmar.

Myanmar has become a rising star on the world travel scene in the past few years as it has opened up to the world and shed its authoritarianism. I went there myself a couple of years ago. I thought that its opening up politically and economically was a very positive development, especially the fact that it allowed democratic parliamentary elections to be held just years after. But sadly, its democratization has not prevented the violent actions against the Rohingya.

There are no sanctions against going to Myanmar and the conflict is in Rakhine state, on the country’s western border away from Yangon and the main tourist attractions. But the actions of the military, which used to govern the country and still retain a lot of control, in killing and forcing out the Rohingya should put a stop to Myanmar’s image as an idyllic and tranquil travel destination for the time being. Travelers should consider whether they want to visit a country that is engaged in widespread, targeted violence against a vulnerable subset of its own people. While some might think a distinction should be made between the country and its people, the sad fact is that a lot of Myanmar people support the campaign against the Rohingya, which is a probably factor behind Aung San Suu Kyi’s reluctance to condemn the violence.

Personally I would rather not visit a country in which the government is perpetuating large-scale acts of violence and repression against people. For the same reason, I am not too interested in visiting Xinjiang or Tibet in China, and neither would I have wanted to go to South Africa, actually a fantastic country in the current era, during apartheid. But if one were to go, I hope travelers can be aware of the Rohingya tragedy and be mindful of the government’s deliberate actions.

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority who have lived in Rakhine for supposedly hundreds of years but the Myanmar authorities see them as foreigners — Bengali migrants from Bangladesh who came over during the British colonial era. As a result, the Rohingya are virtually stateless in their own country, being unable to properly integrate into society due to being banned from getting national IDs, and using regular social services like education and medical care. The state has cracked down on Rohingya several times in the past few decades but these have worsened in the last few years. Between 2012 and 2015, violence against the Rohingya resulted in droves of them fleeing in boats to countries like Thailand and Malaysia, who rejected them initially, and photos of wretched, starved Rohingya on crowded boats filled international media.

It is also notable that regional body ASEAN, as well as China, which itself is certainly no human rights champion, and India, has not spoken out at all against Myanmar. To me, this just emphasizes the toothlessness of ASEAN and its feeble mandate for regional cooperation beyond economic trade. This is an attitude not just limited to Southeast Asia, but to much of Asia in general.

Books · China · Travel

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star- book review

The Trans-Siberian Express is one of the world’s most famous transcontinental journeys, spanning across Russia from Moscow to Siberia. But in American novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, the Trans-Siberian is merely his way back home after a gruelling journey from London to Tokyo across Asia, mostly by train. Theroux crossed Europe by train, went through Turkey and Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and Southeast Asia, before traversing half of Japan. This bold journey was not even the first time he had done in, as it was the repeat of an earlier one he made in the 1970s, which he also wrote about in The Great Railroad Bazaar.

Going through over a dozen countries, Theroux writes at least one chapter about each of them, with India and Japan getting several chapters. Besides those two, I found the chapters on Sri Lanka and Myanmar very interesting as those countries were going through civil conflict and authoritarian rule respectively. The chapter on Singapore is surprisingly colorful as it mentions the seedy side of that super-modern island state. Theroux is scathing about Singapore’s nanny state and its famous leader Lee Kuan Yew. He finds Eastern Europe (Romania, Hungary) and Central Asia to be quite bleak and dowdy.

However, one of the most memorable chapters is the one about the Trans-Siberian Express. During the trip, Theroux stops off at a Russian town which has one of the last remaining gulags, which has been converted into an asylum. Theroux talks about how harsh the gulags were, used by a repressive regime under Josef Stalin to obtain mass slave labour by imprisoning its own citizens on often spurious charges to rebuild the economy. Writers were also victims of the gulags, being critics of the state, with Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn being a famous example. Theroux’s local guide also had a direct connection as his uncle spent 25 years in one after being arrested in 1946 for picking up a few grains of wheat from a field because he was desperately hungry. Russia is not a country that I’m too interested or care too much for, but I did feel some sadness for its people after I read this.

During his travel, Theroux meets with several famous writers including Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul, Arthur Clarke in Sri Lanka, and Haruki Murakami and Pico Iyer, who he considers a friend, in Japan. He is extremely frank, perhaps too frank, about his conversations with Iyer, during which they talked about other writers including VS Naipaul, the Trinidadian-British Nobel laureate who Theroux had a significant falling out with after having been longtime friends (about which he consequently wrote a book “Sir Vidia’s Shadow”).

Though this book was published in 2008, by no means is it out of date. The world may have changed, but some things are still almost the same. Theroux is especially critical of China, decrying its soullessness (though he also says that about Tokyo) in its wanton pursuit of wealth at the cost of its environment, historical preservation and social morals.

Having also read Theroux’s Dark Star Safari, as well as Last Train to Zona Verde, which was about his travels through Africa, I would say he is less critical and pessimistic about Asia. However, as with Dark Star Safari, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (the names of two of the trains he took during his journey) is also a very good read.