China · China travel · Travel

China travel- Datong and the Hanging Temple


As Datong used to be a capital of a regional dynasty in the 3rd to 5th centuries, it features several historical attractions in addition to the Yungang Grottoes. Foremost among these is the 1,500-year-old Hanging Temple. It doesn’t exactly hang, but it is an elegant wooden temple complex that is built onto a cliff wall. It already looks unbelievable in photos but it is more impressive in real. Sixty-five km from Datong, the Hanging Temple is located within Hengshan, which is also a major attraction in its own right as one of China’s most sacred mountains. As the temple, which was built during the 4th century AD, is precariously mounted on the cliff wall, it is narrow and visitors enter in a one-way direction from top to bottom.
Another historic sight is the Sakyamuni Pagoda, built in 1056, the oldest wooden pagoda in the country. The attractive, large, multi-layered tower stands 67m. While it is impressive that such a tall wooden pagoda could survive for so long, visitors cannot ascend it. I visited this pagoda as part of a day-trip arranged by my hostel to the Hanging Temple and while they are one hour apart, the pagoda is worth seeing as a secondary attraction. That said, the public toilet in the temple grounds was the nastiest I’ve ever seen, which forced me to almost run out without using it, and that is saying something (the only detail I’ll provide is no running water) given how many bad washrooms I’ve been to in China.

Aside from the Yungang Grottoes, Datong is a relatively nondescript and not-so-prosperous city. There are a couple of temples, Huayuan Monastery, a huge compound with several halls and a pagoda, and the Shanhua Temple, which features some attractive wooden buildings. The temples are more sleek than most traditional temples in China, with less animal and deity statues on the curved roofs. The Huayuan Monastery looked impressive, but there is a distinct lack of authenticity as only three of its buildings are original, as an employee told me. Meanwhile, another difference is that Huayuan Monastery’s entrance faces east unlike many Chinese temples, due to the Khitans being sun worshippers.

Datong had a mayor who had huge ambitions to build it up into a tourist mecca, which culminated in creating a new “ancient city centre” and putting up towering, brand-new city walls to replicate ancient walls that had been torn down decades earlier. However, this mayor got transferred to the provincial capital Taiyuan, so the city wall was not completed. In addition, the plan saw thousands of residents relocated and homes destroyed. While the wall looks impressive, it is completely fake so I didn’t bother to visit it.
     

Datong



This might look impressive but the wall and towers are all fake.

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China · China travel · Travel

Beijing travel- Yonghegong Lama Temple and Imperial Academy


Beijing has so many famous sites that it’s not surprising that its largest temple is somewhat overlooked. But the Yonghegong Lama Temple is still a nice place to visit, being a rare instance of Tibetan Buddhist building that blends both Tibetan and Chinese Buddhist architectural aspects. Built in the late 17th century during the Qing Dynasty, Yonghegong actually was a residence for an imperial prince, before being converted into a lamasery, a monastery for Tibetan Buddhist monks. I first visited it during my first week in Beijing when I came to work there in 2013, then brought a friend visiting from Trinidad there. The temple is always full of worshippers and tourists, and saffron and red-clad Buddhist monks can be seen walking around as well. Unlike some other Chinese temples, the commercial aspect is toned down so there isn’t a ton of vendors and stalls in the temple ground. While the worship halls and the largest building, the three-storey Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happinesses at the northern end, are all interesting, the most fascinating aspect of the temple is the exhibit of small Buddhist statues, specifically deities wrapped up in erotic Tantric coupling, as you will see in my photos below.

Across the street from Yonghegong temple in a nearby lane is the Imperial Academy or Guozijian, a former imperial college for officials. As the name implies, it was the highest place of learning in the country and used for training and testing officials throughout the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. Built in 1306, making it older than the Yonghegong temple by centuries, the Guozijian is also worth a visit and is a quieter place than the Yonghegong Temple. Inside the ground is also the Confucius Temple, the second largest in the country.

Outside the temple, there are a bunch of fortune-telling and Buddhist paraphernalia stores along Yonghegong street, as well as sadly, numerous beggars, some of whom are handicapped and missing limbs. It might be different now, but back then, there was always a lot of them on that street.


  

After you are done with the Yonghegong Temple, head to the Confucius Temple nearby.

The famous Chinese sage

Emperor’s seat 

Rows of massive stele inscribed with Confucian classics

  


Yonghegong Temple from outside

Nearby Hutong, which may or may not still be around, given Beijing’s recent destruction of hutongs

Southeast Asia travel · Thailand travel · Travel

Bangkok revisited


Bangkok is a city I didn’t like much the first time I went there several years ago. But after going there a couple of times again in the last two years, for brief stays while transiting to other places, I confess I’ve had a change of heart. Not only does Bangkok not seem so noisy, ugly and stifling, I think I might even like it a bit.

Once you go beyond the famous attractions like the Royal Palace, Wat Pho, Wat Arun, and the mega-malls, there are a number of interesting places to check out.
There is the Big Swing, a giant swing over 15 meters high from which people used to swing on it to try to retrieve something from the post during religious ceremonies (it sounds dangerous and indeed it was banned in 1935 due to a number of deaths), and the elaborate Wat Suthat temple next to it.

There are the many English-language bookstores ranging from Asia Books, a local bookstore chain, to Dasa, a multi-level second-hand bookstore, to Kikokuniya, a large Japanese regional bookstore chain. Compare this with Hong Kong where Dymocks and Page One have both shut down in recent years, leaving only local chain Bookazine for English-language books.

Then, there is Jim Thompson House, the former residence of silk magnate Jim Thompson. The small, but spacious and pleasant compound consists of several red houses, built from teak in the traditional style and brought over from other parts of Thailand, and a garden. The houses are attractive and comfortable, though you can only enter them as part of a tour (which is included as part of the entrance fee). Of course, the houses may be traditional but they are probably much bigger and fancier than the ones regular Thais lived in.
Thompson was an American businessman and intelligence operative (he served in the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA, during World War II) who settled in Bangkok and built up a silk export business, and disappeared in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands. His disappearance remains a mystery even now though his silk brand is still thriving.
There are more, but that will be for another post.


Another form of public transport in Bangkok, which I took to get to the Giant Swing.
These boat taxis run on the narrow canals (klangs) and are different from the Chao Phraya river taxis and not as pleasant. The canal is not very hygienic and the boats are completely enfolded in tarpaulin, which are let down when passengers get on and off, as you can see in this photo. Try it for the experience, but I wouldn’t recommend taking it more than once.


Erawan Shrine, a Hindu shrine located at the corner of a busy intersection surrounded by offices and shopping centers. This was the site of a bombing in August 2015 that killed 20 people and injured over 100. I took this photo in 2016.


   

Asia Books is a local English-language bookstore chain that has a wide selection. This outlet is in Siam Paragon.

Bangkok’s colorful traffic

The Giant Swing


Wat Suthat, another of Bangkok’s beautiful temples, located next to the Giant Swing

It has a massive golden Buddha inside and walls and columns covered from floor to ceiling in intriguing black mosaics.

Myanmar travel · Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Bagan photo roundup 2

Because we all can’t get enough of Bagan, here’s a second photo roundup post of its myriad ancient temples.

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These boxy buildings were storehouses, according to someone I asked.
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Dirt road that got increasingly muddier and narrow

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Continue reading “Bagan photo roundup 2”

Myanmar travel · Travel

Myanmar travel- Bagan

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One of Myanmar’s most impressive sights is the thousands of ancient pyramidal temples studded across a wide plain next to the Irrawady river. These are the ruins of Bagan, the country’s answer to Angkor in Cambodia. But whereas Angkor lies amongst forests and many of its structures are in a state of destruction, Bagan’s temples and pagodas are all in plain sight and many are relatively intact, thanks to intensive recent renovations. Built between the 11th and 13th centuries when Bagan was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, the first to rule over most of what would become Myanmar, the temples initially numbered over 10,000, but “only” 2,000 remain today.

Besides the sheer number of temples, what might strike you is the different sizes and styles, ranging from massive multi-level domed “fortresses” to spire-topped pyramids to garden-shed-sized pagodas. Apparently the larger ones were built or financed by royalty and noblemen, while wealthy people and commoners built the smaller ones. Many resemble pyramids, but with outer levels you can walk around on, while some are square shaped and look like formidable fortresses. Also, most of the temples are clay-colored, but some are white, which I found to be more attractive, even and especially with the very apparent black stains of weather damage.

The weird thing about Bagan is that after its heyday, it quickly declined and became largely abandoned (similar with Angkor in Cambodia), with different theories put forward such as the invasion of Mongols. Whatever the case, it stopped being a city and gradually became a village. If you stay in Bagan, there are actually 3 settlements – New Bagan, old Bagan, and Nguang U, with old Bagan, where the original village used to be, the most expensive and the nearest to the actual temples. However, the other two settlements are close by and are just minutes’ away by car or bike. I stayed in New Bagan and hired a car and driver for the first full day there. You can also hire a horse and carriage and I was tempted to do that for the second day.

Instead, I decided to try an e-bike, an electric bicycle that requires no pedaling and is like a slower scooter. These are very common in China but I’d never ever ridden one before during my time in Beijing. Anyways, I managed ok, despite almost getting lost and almost toppling into a huge muddy puddle when I decided to cut across on a dirt path. Hence I decided to do the same thing for my third day. Riding the e-bike was quite fun, especially as the streets did not have much traffic, and it was much cheaper than hiring a driver. To be honest, two full days is enough to appreciate Bagan’s temples.

How I got to Bagan was quite interesting too. I flew from Yangon on a domestic flight on a small turboprop plane. However, it wasn’t a direct flight. Instead, it flew to Mandalay first, where some people got off and others got on, then it flew to Heho (where you can go to Inle Lake, another of the country’s most popular destinations), where the same process repeated itself, before then flying to another town and people got off and on again, and finally Bagon, my stop. Basically, it was like an air bus.
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Continue reading “Myanmar travel- Bagan”

Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel- Tokyo’s Asakusa district

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Tokyo is one of the great world cities that everybody has heard about. But to be honest, I liked Osaka better. Perhaps it’s because Tokyo is so big and multifaceted, so modern and such a mega-metropolis, that I wasn’t able to feel that much affection for it. I only spent three days there and maybe that wasn’t enough. It was the last stop of my Japan trip in 2013, with a trip to Mt Fuji bracketed in between, following Matsumoto.

I stayed in a rather old and cramped but passable hotel in a neighborhood between Ueno and Asakusa, two districts with a lot of history. Asakusa features Tokyo’s oldest and most well-known temple, Sensoji Temple, with over 1,300 years of history. It’s a pleasant white-and-red Buddhist temple, that has a front gate, the Kaminarimon or Thunder Gate, with a giant paper lantern hung in between and a small shopping street, Nakamise-dori, leading up to it, with stores selling snacks and souvenirs. Passing that street brings you to another gate, a large two-story one, with three giant paper lanterns, that you pass through before entering the temple proper. The main temple hall also features a giant paper lantern. The temple grounds is a nice place to walk around, with a pagoda, smaller halls, a 300-year-old bell and two rather stylish sitting Buddhas. The temple was busy with worshippers and tourists when I went there on a drizzling afternoon, and the shopping street was packed.

Weirdly enough, there is also a street near Sensoji that is well-known for … kitchen utensils. I passed by it and I saw a few stores, some of which had very large colorful kitchen cups as decorations, but passed up the chance to browse.

Asakusa has Tokyo’s oldest temple and its tallest tower. Tokyo Skytree is further east of Sensoji on the bank of the Sumida river. Standing 634 meters tall, the Skytree is the second-tallest structure in the world after the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. However, I didn’t bother to go up the Skytree, mainly because I planned to go up a skyscraper in downtown Tokyo that was free. I did walk up to it and appreciate how tall it was. It doesn’t have a fancy design as it is a fully functioning TV tower and only a small part of it is used for regular human activity, which is the observation deck.


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Main temple hall
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Looking back at the second entrance gate to Sensoji
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Shopping street that leads up to the temple
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Stylish Buddhas on the temple grounds
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A statue of a mother and children in the temple ground. I also saw little statues with bibs in Kyoto. These are called jizo and usually have something to do with children. This statue was erected to comfort the spirits of mothers and children who died during World War II.

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Tokyo Skytree. I don’t know what the hell is that golden “horn” perched on the black box on the left.
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Oldish wooden houses on a side street in Asakusa

Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel- farewell to Kyoto

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On my final day in Kyoto, I took a trip to Fushimi Inari Taisha, the hillside shrine that features paths lined with a lot of orange torii gates. The famous Shinto shrine is in a quiet area to the east and I had to cross a train track and passing some old-style stores to get there.

After the entrance lie the main shrine and small pavilions, each red and white. Behind the shrine are concrete footpaths behind it that lead up a hill Mt Inari framed by hundreds of torii gates and surrounded by forest. There is even a small lake with fish. The gates are paid for by donations from individuals and companies; the larger the gate the more expensive it was.

Going higher up, there are concrete “altars” with mini torii gates and statues of gates and foxes. This is because Inari is the god of rice and foxes are his messengers. The top gives you a good view of Kyoto, but it was hazy that day so the view wasn’t that nice. It was a nice walk though I got tired of the torii gates after passing so many of them. However, the gates make the place a favorite for some Taiwanese who visit Kyoto.

The Inari shrine wasn’t the last site I visited in Kyoto. Kyoto Station was, and the reason I mention it is because it was a very attractive station with a massive arched glass roof atop a metal grid and a spacious interior. The station overlooks the Kyoto Tower, an observation tower on top of a 9-story building and the only tall structure in the entire city. I took a bus to the station, bought a ticket to my next stop Matsumoto, with a transfer at Nagoya, and then that was it for Kyoto.
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One of the numerous altars along the trail
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Trailside restaurant
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Main shrine at the base of the hill
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Torii gate prices, starting at 175,000 yen or $1,412.25 
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Crossed this to get to the shrine
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I couldn’t help noticing a “battle” between wasps and beetles on this tree. The beetles had this really nice color scheme on their shells of green alternating with red.
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View from the hill
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Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel- Kyoto’s Nanzenji and Heian Temples

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So continuing on from my previous Kyoto post, after Chionin Temple, I reached Nanzenji Temple, a large Zen Buddhist complex nestled at the foot of a hill. As the head temple of a Zen Buddhism sect school, it features several different buildings that require separate admissions tickets. The main hall, the Hojo and former head priest’s residence, featured squeaking floors similar to Nijo Castle which were meant to detect intruders, and a rock garden with rocks that are said to resemble tigers and cubs crossing water. The rock gardens are meant for quiet contemplation which seems like a very Japanese thing.

There’s also a large brick aquaduct that was part of a canal system that carried water from Lake Biwa to Kyoto.
I also went inside the grounds of one of the temples inside, which consisted of a wooden building that you could not enter and a pleasant garden with a large pond and forested grounds. This was the retirement villa built by Grand Emperor Kameyama in the 13th century.

Nanzenji also has a massive Sanmon gate of its own, and it’s said that legendary bandit Ishikawa Goemon sheltered there while running from the law (a 2009 movie about him is one of the few Japanese movies I’ve ever seen). The Sanmon Gate has a chamber on top with stairs on the side. To go up required an entrance fee so I didn’t bother. The Sanmon Gate here is similar to Chionin Temple’s own, though that one is bigger. When looking back at my photos, it’s a little hard to differentiate as I went to Nanzenji right after Chionin (the walk took about 40 minutes).
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Entrance to the Hojo
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Nanzenji’s massive Sanmon gate
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Grand Emperor Kameyama’s retirement villa
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Rock garden inside the Hojo
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Aquaduct that carried water from Lake Biwa to Kyoto

After I went to Heian Shrine, a Shinto Temple which I read somewhere was a favorite of Chinese tourists due to its design being based on Chinese temples. This is apparent in the green-tiled roofs on the red and white buildings arranged around a large open ground. The shrine is a replica of the Imperial Palace that existed in the Heian era (794-1185) in which Chinese influence was at its strongest, hence the architectural similarity.
The temple buildings looked kind of gaudy which I didn’t exactly find so attractive. The reason it looks so new is because it’s not that old, having been built in 1895 but the current buildings were reconstructed in 1976 after being burnt down by fire. The way to the shrine passes through a park with museums and a zoo, and a massive red torii gate.

On the way back, I passed Shorenin Temple, but I was tired of temples by then so I didn’t go inside. I did see the 5 giant camphor trees in front of the temple that are a “natural monument” and were planted by a famous monk.

Besides the temples, even the city streets were attractive since there were a lot of traditional wooden houses and buildings that people still lived in. It’s easy to see why a lot of people are charmed by the city.

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Heian Shrine
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Wacky store or home on a random street

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Aquaduct from on top
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Garden inside Grand Emperor Kameyama’s retirement villa
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Below the aquaduct
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Side view of the Sanmon gate
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Inside the Hojo
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I think this is the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu and his lover
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Shorenin Temple’s massive trees, above and below
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Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel- Kyoto’s hillside Kiyomizu Temple and old district

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My second full day in Kyoto was temples, giant temple gates, old neighborhoods and a shrine to a dead warlord. I started with Kiyomizu Temple, located on a hill in the east, then stopped by Chionin Temple, went on to Nanenji Temple and finally Heian temple, which is based on Chinese Tang Dynasty temples. It was a long walk that took up half a day and required lots of sweat, but no tears, as well a little sunburn (really).

Kiyomizu or Pure Water Temple is an attractive Buddhist temple complex views overlooking the hill and the city. I could see it from my hotel on the hill and it was a relatively straightforward 20-minute walk.

The front features two tall pagodas, then you enter the main complex. After that, there are a few small shrines including one devoted to Okuninushi, the god of love, and a small waterfall (which is basically just a trickle) with supposedly pure water, which the temple was named after, that people lined up to drink from. Right below the temple is a neighborhood of traditional shops and teahouses, part of the Higashiyama District. It’s said to be old Kyoto, with wooden buildings and independent shops, cafes and restaurants, and I don’t doubt it. It’s a pleasant atmosphere and there are no cars so you’re free to walk right on the streets and lanes.
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Kiyomizu Temple’s main building
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Kiyomizu Temple’s front towers
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Okuninushi, the god of love and “good matches” and his rabbit messenger, at Kiyomizu Temple
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Walking down a street in Higashiyama District

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Higashiyama District again

Walking west from Higashiyama District, I briefly visited Chionin Temple, which is Buddhist. Chionin’s entrance features a giant wooden gate, the 24-meter-tall Sanmon Gate which is Japan’s largest such gate. The actual temple was undergoing renovation and was completely covered by a facade that made it seem like a wooden building. I’d seen the structure when I came in but walked around trying to find the temple before realizing that that wooden building was it. The fact they’d covered the entire temple so thoroughly was because the renovation was going to go on for 7 years (2012-2019)! The Japanese don’t mess around when it comes to doing things carefully and thoroughly, unlike a certain giant Asian neighbor.
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Chionin Temple’s massive Sanmon gate
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I walked by this and kept on looking for Chionin Temple’s main building until I found out this was it.

Here are more photos of Kiyomizu Temple and Higashiyama District:
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The “waterfall” which Kiyomizu Temple is named after

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View of Kyoto; the lone tower is the city’s only highrise
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Small stone deities adorned with frocks on the Kiyomizu Temple grounds
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These were a bunch of tourists, possibly mainland Chinese.
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Geishas or dress-up tourists? If the latter, then the make-up and dress were done very well.
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Random houses on a random street