Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains- book review

Nestled in the deep northeastern corner of India lies Arunanchal Pradesh, the “land of the dawn-lit mountains,” and one of the least explored parts of the country. Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent went on an epic motorcycle journey into the state where she explored thick jungles and mountains, met and stayed with remote tribes and gained insight and experience into their fading traditions and customs. Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains- A Journey across Arunanchal Pradesh – India’s Forgotten Frontier is the result of Bolingbroke-Kent’s intrepid journey.

Arunachal Pradesh is one of India’s “Seven Sisters,” the group of seven northeastern states that border China and Myanmar and are connected to the rest of India by a narrow strip of land, the 20-40 km wide Siliguri Corridor. The entire region is still quite isolated and visited by few people, however Arunachal Pradesh is very remote, with visitors needing to apply for a government permit to enter. Given that the state borders Tibet, it is also a very strategic border region for India, due to its vulnerability to invasion from China, which actually claims the province as its own territory.

Bolingbrooke-Kent set out in a counter-clockwise journey from neighboring Assam, looping into Arunachal Pradesh and riding from east to west. Along the way, she stops at several points, sometimes even venturing for days deep into the interior and far borders of Arunachal Pradesh while leaving behind her motorcycle. She meets tribal elders, shamans and even kings, observing ceremonies and festivals and even mithun (cattle) sacrifices. The tribes include fearsome warriors with a historic reputation as headhunters, nomads, and former Tibetan vassals residing around the old mountain fortress of Tawang. Indeed, Arunachal Pradesh’s history includes past interaction with Tibet when it was an independent entity.

The book also shows serious challenges faced by the tribes. It is clear that modern life is gradually eroding a lot of the tribal traditions, especially as young people are lured by education and jobs in big cities. There is also a fair bit of ethnic tension between tribal people and Indians from outside the state, who have moved into Arunachal Pradesh to settle or work. The tribal people are ethnically and culturally different from most Indians, with some of them having more in common with Myanmar, where their ancestors came from.

Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains is a fascinating, moving, and entertaining account of one of Asia’s most unknown remote regions.

Sri Lanka travel- visiting the hill town of Nuwara Eliya

Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
The mountainous interior of Sri Lanka, Hill Country, is full of mountains, picturesque towns, and hillside plantations where the country’s famous tea is grown. Among the largest towns in the Hill Country is Nuwara Eliya, considered the centre of the country’s tea industry. As a former British colonial hill station, Nuwara Eliya was a favorite holiday retreat for British officials, hence its wooden bungalows, a charming post office, and a horse-racing track that is still used today.

The town is a good base for visiting tea plantations and waterfalls in the nearby hills, as well as Horton Plains National Park (several hours away by car), where you can visit World’s End, a cliff edge with a massive drop of 4,000 feet. Nuwara Eliya itself features Single Tree Hill, and a small lake, as well as Pidurutalagala, the country’s tallest mountain.
Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

Hiking up Single Tree Hill, so called for a lone tree at the top (not actually true), provides great views of the town as well as the tea plantations on its slopes. It’s a relatively easy hike because most of it is along a small road which is not too steep. At the top, you can either go back down the way you came or clamber down not-so-clearly-marked trails through residential neighborhoods. Watch out you don’t accidentally trespass onto a tea plantation as I did!

To actually visit a large tea plantation, just go outside Nuwara Eliya to Pedro’s tea factory (3.5 km away). You can get a guided tour of the factory to see how they sort and process the tea, and then walk around the tea plantation outside the factory. Very conveniently, just opposite the road from Pedro’s is a trail that leads to Lover’s Leap waterfall, a 30m-high waterfall on a cliff. I took a tuktuk from town to Pedro’s, then after completing the hike, I took a local bus back to Nuwara Eliya.

How to get to Nuwara Eliya: Take a train to Nanu Oya station, then a tuktuk into town. If you want to be fancy, hire a local car and driver to take you from cities like Kandy or Colombo.
Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
View from Single Hill Tree
Continue reading “Sri Lanka travel- visiting the hill town of Nuwara Eliya”

Thailand travel- the ancient capital of Ayutthaya

Ayutthaya, Thailand
I’ve been to Thailand numerous times, but it took me five visits before I visited anywhere other than Bangkok. This was Ayutthaya, which was the capital of Thailand before Bangkok. More specifically, Ayutthaya was the capital of the Thai kingdom of the same name from the mid-14th century to 1767, when it was sacked by the invading Burmese, which then led to the capital being moved to Thonburi (now part of Bangkok). Ayutthaya is actually quite close to Bangkok, being about one hour away by train, so I went there on a daytrip.

Ayutthaya’s massive centuries-old temple and monastery ruins and monuments lie scattered within a sprawling historical park next to a modern town, making it different from Angkor in Cambodia or Bagan in Myanmar, both of which exist in rural areas. There are well over a dozen large temples. Most of these sites, all red or white, were heavily damaged by the Burmese so you can see a lot of destroyed Buddha statues and walls. I visited the following sites below (each site has a separate admission fee).

Wat Ratchaburana has a towering prang (temple spire) and is one of the most impressive sites. It was built by King Boromaraja II in 1424 to hold the ashes of his two brothers who died fighting each other in a duel on elephant-back for the throne. You can climb inside the prang and go up for a higher view of the surroundings. Wat Phra Sri Sanphet (first photo at the top of this post) is another impressive site, featuring three distinctive white chedis (Buddhist domes) that contain the ashes of three kings.
Ayutthaya, Thailand
Wat Ratchaburana
Ayutthaya, Thailand
Wat Mahathat’s famous and eerie smiling Buddha head
Ayutthaya, Thailand
Wat Lokaya Sutha

Wat Mahathat was one of Ayutthaya’s most important temples but it was sacked by Burmese invaders and is full of damaged prangs, headless statues and broken walls. Ironically, this gives it a certain attractiveness. It is most famous for a smiling Buddha head, chopped off from a statue by Burmese soldiers, stuck in a giant clump of tree roots. Wat Thammikarat is an interesting temple complex, with an indoor reclining Buddha, the outdoor ruin of a hall missing its roof, and a quirky hall devoted to chickens in the form of dozens of green and black rooster statues. Wat Lokaya Sutha features a giant white reclining Buddha outdoors as well as a solitary leaning prang. Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon is an monastery complex that features a chedi and dozens of Buddha statues.

There are many other temples as well as several former European and Japanese settlements (where foreigners of those countries resided when Ayutthaya was a flourishing city) to check out, but I didn’t have time to do so.

I went to Ayutthaya by train from north Bangkok, but you can also take the train from Hua Lamphong, the city’s main station. When I arrived, I ignored the tuktuk drivers at the station and crossed the river via a short boat ride, then walked to the main sites in the historical part of Ayutthaya. However, it was very, very hot and after visiting three sites, I gave in and hailed a tuktuk to drive me to the other sites.

If you find yourself in Bangkok and have time, make sure to visit Ayutthaya. A couple of good online resources about Ayutthaya to check out are this website and this blog.
Ayutthaya, Thailand
Wat Mahathat (above and below)
Ayutthaya, Thailand
Ayutthaya, Thailand
Wat Phra Sri Sanphet
Ayutthaya, Thailand
One of Wat Mahathat’s Buddhas

Ayutthaya, Thailand
Chicken shrine at Wat Thammikarat
Ayutthaya, Thailand
Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon
Ayutthaya, Thailand
It’s a sad sight because of the immense strain on the elephants.
Train station, Thailand
Northern Bangkok train station, the most casual train station I’ve ever been to

A brief return to Toronto

Toronto, Canada
Toronto is one of my favorite cities in the world, not because of traveling, but that it is probably the best city I’ve ever lived in. As a university student, I spent several years in Canada’s biggest city, and this came after many visits as a kid and teenager to see my grandma and other relatives there. Toronto is clean, safe, and prosperous, which makes it seem boring, but it’s also very diverse and multicultural. You can meet and interact with people from all over the world, whether it’s the Caribbean or Asia or the Middle East or Africa. Almost half of its population was born overseas, which is more than New York City or London. Anyways, since graduating from university and coming to Asia, I hadn’t been back to Toronto until last year.

While I saw some of my relatives and visited my grandmother’s grave (she passed away in my final year), I also spent time walking around downtown and checking out some sights. It was a strange feeling playing tourist in a place you’ve lived in for years but it was also pleasant. The time went by fast even though I spent five full days in total there as I balanced family visits and travel.

Toronto was as pleasant as before, but it seemed to have gotten more upscale and has more shiny buildings and skyscrapers. It even has a new, fast train between its Pearson airport and downtown that is just as modern and convenient as any airport train in Asia. Of course, its subway system is still rather modest (trains were newer but the lines were the same and the new card system was a bit inefficient), but as they say, some things never change.
CN Tower, Toronto, Canada
The CN Tower was the world’s tallest structure and tower up until 2007 and 2009, respectively. Having been
up the CN Tower several times when I was younger, I didn’t bother to this time
Toronto, Canada
Ripley’s Aquarium, next to the CN Tower, did not exist when I was in Toronto.
Toronto, Canada
Chinatown mural
Toronto, Canada
Union Station, Toronto’s main train station and airport train terminus, and the CN Tower
Toronto, Canada
Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada
Royal Ontario Museum and its “Crystal” front extension
Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada
The ROM was just as fascinating as when I last visited, sometime in the early 2000s!
Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada Toronto, Canada
Nathan Phillip’s Square, featuring the two curved buildings of City Hall
Toronto, Canada
Ryerson University’s Student Learning Centre stands out on Yonge Street (Toronto’s main downtown street
but which actually runs 56 km from Toronto to Lake Simcoe)
Toronto, Canada
Another shot of Union Station and the CN Tower at night
Eaton Centre, Toronto, Canada
Eaton Centre, iconic downtown shopping centre
Toronto, Canada
Massey Hall, one of Toronto’s most well-known arts performance venues, which was built in 1894

Malaysia travel- Exploring Penang

Penang, Malaysia
Penang might be a small island* off the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, but it is probably the country’s most popular destination to visit. Penang boasts a lot of heritage architecture, great street food, a mountain, and a small but pleasant national park on its northwestern coast. Penang was one of the British Empire’s former Straits Settlement, and its capital George Town is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which it shares with Malacca, another former Straits Settlement. With almost 40% of its population being Malaysian-Chinese, Penang has the highest proportion of Chinese in Malaysia and is one of the country’s most multicultural places.

The capital George Town has an extensive heritage district that boasts many historic colonial buildings including a fort, Chinese temples and halls, shophouses, churches, mosques, and mansions. This is similar to Ipoh, the inland city which was my previous stop on this trip, though much more extensive. Some of the buildings have been restored and look very new while those that had not still have a sort of old-time charm.

There are also several murals in various buildings, with the most well-known painted by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic (I only came across two or three of them but I wasn’t actively searching for them). Popular with tourists, Zacharevic painted them in 2012 for the George Town Festival. My favorite mural, the “Indian Fisherman,” was painted by another artist.

One of the most well-known sites is the Clan Jetties, several long waterfront piers along which entire Malaysian-Chinese clans live. I found several of them quite touristy with gaudy signs and lots of souvenir stalls, but there were also a couple of quiet ones. To be honest, I found the view of the sea from the end of the jetties more interesting than the actual jetties. As people actually live there, remember to be respectful when walking around and taking photos.

One notable piece of Chinese history in Penang is the Sun Yat-sen Museum, the preserved house where the Chinese revolutionary Sun, often considered the “father of modern China,” lived for several months in 1910. While there, he organized and raised funds from the local Chinese community in his efforts to overthrow the ruling Qing Dynasty. The house is a fine, elegant two-story dwelling that is very long and features open space in the centre.

Penang is famous for food. However, I’m not a foodie and was traveling solo, so I didn’t indulge in too much of the local delicacies. I did enjoy Chinese noodles and Indian food, as well as nasi kandar, which is rice with fried chicken.

*Penang also includes part of the neighboring coastal mainland called Seberang Parai, which is larger than the island. But travelers usually just go to the island, which for all purposes is Penang.

How to get there: You can fly to Penang or you can cross over on a car ferry from the mainland, after getting off the train at Butterworth station (which I did).

Penang, Malaysia

Penang, Malaysia
Goddess of Mercy temple (Kuan Yin Teng), built in 1728, Penang’s oldest Taoist temple Continue reading “Malaysia travel- Exploring Penang”

Formosa Moon- book review

As both a travelogue and a sort-of memoir, Formosa Moon sees Joshua Samuel Brown, a longtime Taiwan expat moving back from the US, bringing his girlfriend Stephanie Huffman to Taiwan for the first time. The trip stems from a premise years ago when after their relationship becomes serious, Brown makes it clear to Huffman that he would eventually return to Taiwan.

As a result, when Huffman finishes her studies in Portland, the couple decide to move to Taiwan and embark on journeys around the island nation so Huffman could see whether she could accept living there. The couple start off in Taipei, the capital, where Huffman is introduced to the usual tourist staples of night markets and the National Palace Museum. They then proceed down the East Coast and to Green Island, a tiny isle whose volcanic beauty belies its past as a prison for political dissidents during Taiwan’s martial law era. They then swing around to the southwest to Taiwan’s oldest city Tainan before coming back to Taipei. After a break, they travel back to the south to Yunlin, the south’s largest city Kaohsiung, as well as the central county of Nantou.

Usually, travel information on Taiwan is dominated by night markets, the National Palace Museum, and the east coast. Brown and Huffman do visit those places, but they also go beyond them to explore the quirkier and artistic aspects of Taiwan. As Huffman is deeply interested in art, especially puppetry, there is a strong artistic emphasis during their travels, especially the Taiwanese glove puppet folk art potehi.

Besides hitting famous spots like Sun Moon Lake and Taroko Gorge, the pair also venture to lesser-known places like Smangus, an aboriginal commune set up like kibbutzes in Israel, and Gukeng, the heartland of Taiwan’s coffee-growing industry. In addition, there are visits to the world’s first hotel built around a scuba-diving pool, aboriginal artisans and a hot-air balloon ride over Taiwan’s most unspoilt county of Taitung.

Contrasting Brown’s longtime knowledge of Taiwan and Huffman’s first-time experience of the country, the book has separate dual narratives in every chapter. This constant change of pace in perspectives works well because the pair are candid and quirky people who are sincerely interested in Taiwan. It also helps that the book is filled with color photos so readers can see a bit of the places themselves.

It’s not all about travel as there are also a few chapters about life in their neighborhood on the hilly outskirts of Taipei and Huffman’s attempts to use Chinese and navigate the city by herself. The couple succeed in showing off Taiwan’s main attractions for travelers, which are not famous ancient landmarks or stunning beach resorts, but a combination of plentiful cultural and artistic sights and experiences, quirky places, and beautiful mountain and coastal scenery. Brown also succeeds in his goal of convincing Huffman to base their future in Taiwan, at least for the next few years.

One might wish for more about Taiwan’s other large cities like Taichung and Kaohsiung, which both get one chapter apiece. The Taichung chapter is particularly fascinating as Brown and Huffman stay at a hotel where guests could scuba dive in a 70-foot deep pool and explore Rainbow Village, which is famous for its gaily painted houses, all done by its lone elderly resident. For Kaohsiung, most of the chapter is filled with photos and descriptions of major Taiwanese food dishes. But the book is not intended as a definitive travel guide to Taiwan, so the sparseness of content on Kaohsiung is excusable.

There are several chapters on Tainan, arguably Taiwan’s most interesting city, not to mention two chapters on Yunlin, a relatively obscure county sandwiched in the region between Taichung and Kaohsiung that not even many Taiwanese have been to.

Brown and Huffman never shy away from testy moments such as describing arguments or doubts; if anything they are too frank. One of the more striking parts of the book is when a Tainan fortune-teller tells Brown never to marry Huffman and then tells Huffman she will have other lovers later on.

Huffman is upfront that being new to Taiwan (and Asia), she finds Taipei very intense and at times discomfiting as it is the largest city she has ever lived in. It seems appropriate that Taiwan is her introduction to Asia because, as seasoned expats and travelers know, there are many more intense and crowded places across the continent.

Formosa Moon is both a work of love for Taiwan and from the co-authors for each other. It is also a very welcome addition to the collection of English-language literature about Taiwan.

This is the abridged version of my review of Formosa Moon, the full version of which I wrote for Asia Review of Books.