Malaysia travel- enjoying art, religion and scenery in Ipoh

Ipoh, Malaysia
Ipoh is an attractive city, especially its Old Town and its surroundings. The city is ringed by limestone hills, some of which feature Chinese Buddhist cave temples, while the Kinta River runs through it, with the Old Town on the west bank and the newer areas to the east of the river.

In my previous Ipoh post, I mentioned the Han Chin Pet Soo or Hakka Miners’ Club museum. This used to be a clubhouse for Hakka Miners and is now a museum, with most of the inside maintained as it used to be decades ago. The museum offers free scheduled tours, which you need to book online in advance, and so I did. The tour was led by a local Hakka Malaysian-Chinese, naturally as the museum is about Hakkas, who did a very good job telling everyone about the mining club’s history and members, as well as the Chinese community as a whole.

It was amusing to learn that some of the local Chinese magnates had multiple wives AND mistresses (this seems to be a common old Chinese custom), what the different Chinese groups who came to Malaysia did (Hakkas and Cantonese went into tin mining, the Hokkienese opened shops etc), and what the Hakka club members did at the club – gambling, smoking opium, playing mahjong, and even enjoying the company of prostitutes. You might be able to tell that the miners’ club was men only and the wives were not allowed. While all of this sounds quite raunchy, I don’t want to give people the wrong idea, so let me assure you that our guide was a humorous and friendly guy who wasn’t bawdy or anything like that.
Ipoh, Malaysia

Meanwhile, besides the giant murals spread out across the Old Town, there is an entire lane filled with beautiful wall murals across the Kinta River from the Old Town. The Mural Arts’ Lane features colorful depictions of local Malaysian people and culture. It doesn’t seem to be as well-known as the Old Town murals which were done by a well-known Lithuanian artist, but that suited me as I didn’t mind being one of only two people there. However the lane of murals has another surprise – an attractive blue and white mosque tucked into one end, the Panglima Kinta mosque.

When I walked inside the mosque’s compound to take pictures, two girls suddenly called out to me from the mosque. I was a little surprised when they asked me if I wanted a free tour inside, but I agreed and met A and R, two local Malays who were mosque volunteers. They showed me around the mosque, including the worship area, and told me about the rituals for worship. The mosque was right next to the Kinta river, and back in the old days, worshippers would actually come on boats to the mosque. We ended up having a good discussion about different things, including that A was interested in Chinese and could actually speak some Mandarin. Though the two of them wore hijabs, the traditional Muslim women’s veil that covers the head and body, they were quite friendly.

That was a very memorable experience, and I have to say, maybe there is something good in the air about Ipoh. I already talked about the city having Asia’s nicest Cantonese in my previous post, and these two girls were like the nicest Muslims I’ve ever met while traveling. To be fair, in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, when I visited the Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque, three men came up to me and started telling me about Islam. In Kuala Lumpur, while visiting the National Mosque, a woman volunteer (one of several there) spoke to me about Islam as well. I did tell them I was a Christian but I didn’t mind hearing about Islam. An amusing thing that both the Kuala Lumpur mosque lady and A and R mentioned was why Muslims segregate men and women while worshiping – to avoid being distracted by the opposite sex while praying. It’s a reasonable point, I suppose.

Moving on from Islam to Buddhism, I visited three Buddhist cave temples. Two of them were south of Ipoh while one was north of it. Perak Tong is a large cave temple, but even more relevant to me was that it was located in a hill from which you could ascent to the top and enjoy a sweeping view of the surrounding area.
Ipoh, Malaysia

Back in Ipoh, one unexpected artistic discovery was a building in which each floor was lined with colorful murals showcasing local lifestyle from the 1920-60s. These murals featured mostly Chinese while the murals on Mural Arts’ Lane were Malay, Indian and Chinese. It was free to enter though on one floor, there was a small concubine (mistresses of Chinese men) museum. The building, Wisma Chye Hin, was mostly empty but it was a new venture aimed at creating an artistic and shopping center. I hope they succeed because they really put a lot of effort into it as the murals were fantastic.

I like museums a lot and I tried to visit one in Ipoh, but it was closed, which I only learned when I arrived at the museum’s closed gate (the guard told me it was being renovated). This was the second time it happened to me in Ipoh, the first when I walked up to the Sam Poh Tong cave temple and saw the gates were shut though it was 2.30 pm. There was a security guard and when I asked him why it was closed, he said, “because the workers decided to get off work.” That was very annoying but I had no choice but to leave. That said though, the positives in Ipoh outweighed the negatives by a lot.

Ipoh, Malaysia
What looks like dirty, rundown houses overrun with vines are actually modern boutiques set in a picturesque complex (mentioned in my previous Ipoh post). Next to these shops is the restaurant below.
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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.
  
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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

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.