September in Komodo: The Star Attraction

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

Every morning I’d go out from Labuan Bajo to Komodo by boat, not returning till nearly dusk. There wasn’t a great deal in the nondescript town, mainly guest houses, small eateries and shops selling everyday necessities. Oh and there were a couple of dive shops too. Probably the nicest thing about Labuan Bajo was looking out towards Komodo and the Rinca Islands at sunset.

CIMG3383

But we’re talking about the dragons today and this is the lovely scenery that passed by while getting there.

CIMG3386

We saw the Komodo dragons en route to more diving, simply stopping at Komodo Island itself. I went in the dry season, which was great for diving, but not so great for the vegetation. Most of it had withered, leaving bare hilltops to face the blazing sun unprotected.

CIMG3387

Hardly were there clouds in the sky, and sea reflected sky to give beautiful blue hues.

CIMG3390

I found it amusing that the Indonesian term for Komodo dragon appeared to be Loh Buaya as buaya means “crocodile” or, in Singapore slang, “sleazy pick up artist.” More amusing were the various primitively painted signs prohibiting guns and logging, and I thoroughly approved of the no-anchoring rule.

CIMG3394

Even though it was only about 10am, the sun was incredibly hot already and we were happy to stand in the shade of the reception area while our guide briefed us on safety.

CIMG3395

Komodo dragons have a fearsome reputation, not quite because they catch you unawares and tear you to bits on the spot. No, it’s a far more horrible death than that! The Komodo dragon is a large lizard but hardly the large dragon-size most people imagine. It gets its dinner by catching unsuspecting prey by surprise and taking a good bite. Then it slinks off to wait while its poor victim dies a slow death, not because its bite is venomous, but because its saliva is so full of nasty bacteria that the bite wound festers and eventually kills the animal. The collection of animal, mainly buffalo, skulls near the reception area was a rather stark record of the Komodo dragon’s bite.

CIMG3398

And then a collective gasp arose from our group: we spotted the first one in the distance! It was slinking off slowly through the scrubby vegetation as we zoomed and clicked furiously.

CIMG3396

Then our guide took us down the path further into the island and there were plenty of full-grown adults simply lolling about in the shade. So much for lean, mean killing machine.

CIMG3399

This fella looked almost immobilised by the heat of the day…

CIMG3401

… we even got close enough to photograph its belly-flopped feet. This one wouldn’t get up and go hunting in a jiffy!

CIMG3402

As another went past, we were fascinated by its tongue. It hissed in and out, detecting the various scents in the air – this was how it knew which weak and vulnerable prey was nearby.

CIMG3405

And our guide took us traipsing further into the island. We walked up a hill…

CIMG3409

… or two, almost devoid of shade because of the dry season.

CIMG3411

But the paths eventually led us to more beautiful views of the sea beyond.

CIMG3412

It also led us to more evidence of deadly Komodo dragons. Our guide said that as long as one of the many buffalo and deer on the island fell sick or got too old, it would eventually end up as dinner for the Komodo dragons. What a sobering thought that none on the island could enjoy a golden old age, not even the dragons themselves.

CIMG3408

We soon came upon more Komodo dragons and were warned to keep even more of a distance…

CIMG3432

… because these rather nondescript burrows formed the nesting ground. Komodo dragons dig several burrows but only lay their eggs in one. The other burrows are meant to be decoys to deter would-be predators. Some of the predators are other Komodo dragons even!

CIMG3417

When the Komodo dragons first hatch, they are tiny little creatures no larger than common house lizards. It’s a hard life for them scurrying around in constant fear of being eaten by other dragons. I can’t imagine how they manage to scavenge for food without themselves getting eaten.

CIMG3449

But once they grow big, they can stick their tongues out at anyone…

CIMG3441

… just like in this video.

July in Vietnam: The Cao Dai Holy See

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

From Mui Ne, I moved on to Ho Chi Minh City and almost immediately found myself on a tour out to the Cao Dai Holy See. Cao Dai is a new religion founded in Tay Ninh province near Ho Chi Minh City in the 20th Century. It’s a fusion of eastern and western religions and, according to Lonely Planet, incorporates elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Confucianism, native Vietnamese spiritualism and Islam. Services are held four times a day at midnight, 6am, noon and 6pm. It was one of these services that my tour took me to see.

The architecture of the temple, just like the religion, had a mishmash of influences. The outlying pagodas had a pastel wedding cake feel so typical of western fairy tale castle architecture yet were unmistakeably shaped likeĀ  Chinese pagodas.

00360

The main temple building was much the same, where a Muslim-inspired dome that sat on Chinese-style tiled roofs was detailed with vaguely Baroque styling and topped with a Chinese qilin (unicorn).

00361

The oddly disjointed design was somehow unified by the pastel colour scheme.

00362

Worshippers in long white gowns were starting to stream in, a stark contrast to the colourful temple. Outside, venerated saints looked benevolently down from the pastel blue sky dotted with fuzzy clouds.

00363

I couldn’t help my amusement at how the real weather was fair more threatening than the one painted on the walls, giving the temple an even more surreal feel.

00364

And just inside the temple was a large mural with Sun Yat-sen, Victor Hugo and Viet poet Nguyen Binh Khiem writing out God and Humanity, Love and Justice in French and Chinese. My mind boggled trying to figure out the link between them.

00371

The tourists then herded onto the balconies along the main sanctuaries, gawking at the blue skies and fluffy white clouds on the ceiling and the dragons plastered on the pastel pink pillars.

00365

To my delight, the priests were dressed in stark primary colours, standing out brightly from the white-garbed laypeople. Each colour represented a different branch of Cao Dai.

00366

The service commenced with lots of bowing, chanting and singing.

00367

I very much enjoyed admiring the blocks of different colours and how they contrasted beautifully with the very cool floor tiles.

00368

Too soon, the signal was given for tourists to leave, and we headed out of the temple past the choir singing dreamily, accompanied by traditional Chinese instruments.

00370

The time for the surreal was over, now it was time for war tunnels and Cu Chi.

July in Vietnam: A Viet Chinatown

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

Hoi An is one of those paradoxical places: right smack in the middle of traditionally China-hating Vietnam yet if you’re dropped randomly into the town for a look round, you’d think it to be China. Except of course that if you’ve been to China before you’d know better. It’s like a really prettied up version of a Chinatown, what Singapore’s Chinatown would aspire to be when it grows up. It was full of Chinese characters and dragon motifs, yet the odd thing was that no one there spoke any Chinese at all.

My first stop was at the Fujian Assembly Hall, oddly named jin shan si or Golden Mountain Temple in Mandarin. It had such a grand facade that I bet any Chinese trader that would have been suitably impressed.

00201

Other halls were less impressive, like this tumbledown one on the edge of town. Unlike the others, it hadn’t a name and wasn’t featured in the guide book. Still, the dragon motifs were incredibly beautiful.

00217

It looked amazing even in silhouette.

00216

Other typically Chinese places were the temples. The eaves were beautifully, ornately decorated and very impressive to look at.

00204

Not being a frequenter of temples at home, I was taken aback by these very cool joss sticks that were twirled into cone shapes.

00202

As it burned, each joss stick gave off plenty of slightly sweet smoke that wafted past the eaves.

00203

Other traditional houses had craft showcases, like this one with lantern making demonstrations to make the colourful lights still used extensively in the town.

00205

Of course, not everything looked bright and new and restored. Here’s a little courtyard of a shophouse turned museum, looking very similar in style to Peranakan houses in Singapore and Malacca. I think it’s the tiled fountain against the wall that’s so typical of Chinese-influenced houses in the region.

00207

And last of all was the Japanese Covered Bridge, oddly not looking anything particularly Japanese at all. It was quite similar to the one in Hue, just that this one was on the edge of town and not in the midst of paddy fields.

00212

Here, the bridge god was a dog, and a strangely Egyptian-looking one at that. How strange.

00213

March in Laos: Along the Mekong in Huay Xai

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

Unlike most travellers who were using Huay Xai as a transit point between Thailand and Laos, Siamesecat and I made our way to the border town for some monkey business. (More on that next time.) We spent a little time cooling our heels here at this tiny strip of huts along the Mekong. I wished “Visit Laos” year would come round more so they’d get a new sign. While the town appeared fairly nondescript, it was so laid back that it was almost worth the couple of days spent here.

00171

The streets were tidy and well-kept, lined by lots of pretty flowering shrubs.

00173

The main focus was of course the river. The slow boat from Luang Prabang ejected its passengers, grubby from the two-day journey, along Huay Xai’s banks. Everything in this town seemed to point to the river.

00169

Even the local temple, with its so-tacky-it’s-cool dragon balustrade, pointed to the river with the long flight of stairs up to the shrines themselves.

00164

The stairs undulated their way down to the river, reminding devotees returning from prayer exactly where the source of life was for this town.

00166

Strangely enough for a riverside town, this place was incredibly dusty. Even this cutie-pie of a dog had its fur messed up with brown. It lived at our guesthouse and at the end of our stay we still couldn’t figure out whether it was a white dog or a brown one.

00150

March in Laos: Vientiane’s Temple Architecture

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

People don’t really go to Laos for its temples. While it’s hardly Ayuthaya or Angkor Wat, Vientiane hasĀ  some lovely architecture. Siamesecat and I spent a leisurely hour exploring How Pha Kaew which now functions as a museum of art and antiquities rather than a temple.

00030

The style was a lot less formal and lacked the grandeur of other places in the region. But this gave the whole complex a rather relaxed feel, somehow as if they didn’t take themselves that seriously.

00031

I liked this wooden structure beautifully gilded with gold leaf. The inside housed many treasures belonging to the city. It was a pity that the interior was poorly lit and the exhibits were placed rather haphazardly.

00036

00033

Laotian architecture, influenced by neighbouring Thailand, pays attention to small details. I enjoyed this naga carving…

00038

… and absolutely adored the carvings on the eaves. I especially loved how this dragonfly was taking a breather on the dragon! Look carefully now.

00034

Inside, the door panels had ornate carvings, again coated with gold leaf.

00040

As in most Buddhist structures, there were Buddha statues all over the place. This tortoise stuck out amidst the many statues. I guess the poor guy doesn’t get much respect seeing as they had to put a “No Sitting” sign on him!

00046