Berlin travel- Museum mania

Berlin, Germany

I really like visiting museums, especially those that focus on history and anthropology. Berlin is ideal for museum lovers like myself because of its Museum Island, a cluster of museums on the northern half of an island in the Spree River, right in the middle of the city. Museum Island consists of five museums, each with a different focus and each housed in a magnificent building. For example, the Neues has Egyptian and prehistoric collections, the Pergamon has ancient Middle Eastern artifacts while the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery) holds 19th-century artwork.

I didn’t have time to visit all of these museums so I chose the Neues (New) Museum, which despite its name was built in 1859. It’s new compared to the neighboring Altes (Old) Museum was built in 1830. The Neues Museum featured a great Egyptian collection featuring mummies, tombs, papyrus scrolls, and busts of pharaohs, as well as Germanic and Celtic exhibitions.

I also wanted to visit a museum about German history so immediately afterwards, I went to the German Historical Museum, which is just down the road from Museum Island. The museum features cool suits of medieval knight armor and weaponry, medieval paintings of battles and royalty, German cars, as well as World War II posters and newspaper clippings. However, I wasn’t able to see everything since the museum was about to close so I missed out on a few of the exhibits.

Also on Museum Island is the Berlin Cathedral, a neat fortress-like Protestant church with a massive green dome flanked by two smaller green domes. The domes remind me of Orthodox churches and the Kremlin. Built in 1905, the Berlin Cathedral actually isn’t very old and isn’t even a proper cathedral because it’s not the seat of a bishop.

Earlier that day, I had visited a friend in a scenic residential part of town, that had a park with horses and a barn nearby as well as a horseshoe-shaped housing complex. While the inner parts of Berlin, like the one I was staying in, seem rather gritty and gray, the residential neighborhood was like a whole different world. I wish I could have spent longer in Berlin.

Berlin Cathedral
Berlin Cathedral
Museum Island, Berlin
Alte Nationalgalerie

Neues Museum

Berlin
Neues Museum exhibit, Berlin
Berlin, Germany
Ancient elk skeleton, found in Berlin, dating from 10,700 BC!

Altes Museum

Knight on horseback, German National Museum

Berlin, Germany



In a much different part of town, a horse pasture in a residential park

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

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”

Sri Lanka travel- Dambulla Buddhist cave and Peradeniya botanical gardens

Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, Sri Lanka
While Kandy by itself is not that remarkable other than its lively cultural shows and the temple of the Buddhist Tooth, there is a lot of fascinating sites outside of the city. This includes the Dambulla Buddhist cave, an elephant sanctuary with dozens of elephants, and Peradeniya Botanical Gardens. Dambulla is about two hours’ drive, the Pinnawala elephant sanctuary is about an hour away, while the botanical gardens is very close, less than 30 minutes by bus.

Dambulla is a collection of several Buddhist caves filled with Buddhist murals and statues that date back to the first century BC. Located inside a series of caves on the top of a small hill, Dambulla is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a good place to visit along with Sigiriya if you’re going by car (check with your hotel for a driver). There are five caves, differing in size, with Buddhist statues, murals and even stupas. The murals are very beautiful, though in general, I found Dambulla underwhelming. At the foot of the hill is a Buddhist temple with a huge golden Buddha statue.

I’m not exactly a big fan of trees and flowers but I was very impressed by Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, so much that I spent almost two hours there strolling around and taking photos. Not only is it huge and feature a diverse collection of over 4,000 trees, plants, an orchid house, a spice garden, and enormous bamboo groves, but it has a colony of large fruit bats sleeping on several trees. As I visited during the day, those guys were all asleep and it was easy to take pictures of them. It was the first time I’ve seen bats sleeping in the outside during the day and it was a fascinating and slightly uncomfortable sight (not a bat fan too).

There is a central “great circle,” lawns, as well as an avenue shaded on both sides by giant palm trees. Among the most fascinating trees to look out are a giant Javan fig tree, which has a sprawling umbrella-like canopy, and Coco de Mers or double coconut palms, which bear coconuts of 10-20 kg that are the world’s heaviest nut or fruit!
The botanical garden was established in 1821 by the British, though Kandy kings had set up gardens on the site in previous centuries.

I had a slightly unpleasant experience as I was showed around the orchid house by an employee, who then asked for a tip at the end. I didn’t give him much but I don’t like it when people do something for you and then demand money, especially for something like a 5 minute tour of the orchid house, which was included in the garden’s entrance fee. A similar experience would later happen to me in Colombo at the natural history museum and I refused to give a tip (still annoyed over the orchid house guy).

I had a surprisingly pleasant experience when I came upon a bunch of local Muslim youths. They ran up to me and started crowding me, but in a friendly manner. These guys couldn’t speak much English and couldn’t tell me where they were (Sri Lanka! was all they could say) or what school or organization they were but we managed to take a few photos.


Colonial-era building in Kandy
Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, Sri Lanka
Continue reading “Sri Lanka travel- Dambulla Buddhist cave and Peradeniya botanical gardens”

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”

Sri Lanka travel- thriving Galle Fort


Despite being a small island next to a giant country (parallels with Taiwan), Sri Lanka boasts historical sites, lush mountains, elephants, and beaches. The country is really special for travel; so special that I wrote two articles about it. I mean how many countries in Asia, especially small island nations, can you go on safaris to see elephants in the wild? And the country’s historical sites include both native structures like the 5th-century mountain fortress of Sigiriya and the ancient cities of Poḷonnaruwa and Anuradhapura, as well as the Portuguese-Dutch colonial fortress of Galle. The latter was my first stop during my trip to Sri Lanka a couple of years ago.

Located on the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka, Galle Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was built in the late 15th century by the Portuguese before later being expanded by the Dutch (who captured Galle from the Portuguese). It is the largest European-build fortress in Asia. Guarding the bay of the town of Galle, the fort lies on a small peninsula and still is home to a residential community of locals and expats. When you come here, you aren’t just looking at sea walls and gun emplacements of a historic fort, but museums, lighthouse, mosques, churches, shops and hostels.

The sea wall of the fort is a great place to look out at the Indian Ocean, especially sunsets, but even better for walking the lanes inside the fort. That’s because the lanes are full of interesting colonial homes, many of which house shops, cafes, and restaurants. The most interesting building I came upon was the Historical Mansion Museum, a former colonial administrator’s mansion, which housed several rooms of antiques and a jewelry workshop. It is free though there is a jewelry gem store on site. If you are not interested, there’s no need to buy anything of course. I also made a quick visit to the Maritime Museum, which besides a mounted whale skeleton had a disappointing sparse collection.



Continue reading “Sri Lanka travel- thriving Galle Fort”