June in Thailand: The Death Railway

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One of the main things to see in Kanchanaburi is the Death Railway. I took a day tour out that included the Death Railway and the Erawan Falls. Oddly enough, the first stop before seeing the Death Railway was a little pit stop in the middle of nowhere for tourists to feed wild monkeys. I found it a bit disturbing because it makes monkeys dependent on people for handouts and also quite aggressive to humans, particularly when they’re holding on to shiny things like chocolate bar wrappers and water bottles. I just stood aside while everyone else emptied their pockets of food and took opportunistic snaps of the monkeys including this one with the cute googly-eyed baby.

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Onward to the Death Railway. Thousands of Allied POWs died during WWII to construct this railway to help the Japanese forces travel overland faster.

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Despite its sad history, the scenery was lovely. The tracks followed the bend of the River Kwai.

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Where we were dropped off, a little way beyond the station platform, was a small dark cave with with a Buddha image. Perhaps it was to provide peace to those who perished there.

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The Death Railway is still an active train line now, with not just tourists using it. We clambered onto the old-school train to find seats among the locals. There were all sorts: school children on their way home, vendors lugging their wares, regular people on the commute.

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And we pulled out of the platform into more of the verdant countryside.

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It’s funny how tourists pretty much took over the train, everyone was leaning out the windows trying to get a good shot and also trying not to take pictures of the cameras.

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I took the opposite tack and just went ahead to capture all the tourists doing their thing. It’s interesting how tourists only occupied the front few cars and became sparser and sparser down to the last car.

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The view was a lot prettier than I expected, with the clouds against the pale blue and the trees silhouetted against the river and far hills.

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It was such a lovely sight.

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April in The Philippines: Cebu City

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Visitors to Cebu City typically go to Fort San Pedro and the Cebu Cathedral. We started off at the Fort, a lovely little respite from the heat built in the time of the conquistadors.

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The gardens and old guns were rather nice to look at, though I wasn’t very good at appreciating the history involved.

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It was a very handsome fort nonetheless. I wish I could have done it slightly more justice than a place to poke around in and sit with a cold drink for a while.

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We headed on to the Cebu Cathedral. I loved the baroque architecture and how it seemed so sturdy and somehow unfussy compared to famous European cathedrals. We went to the neighbouring Basilica of Santo Niño to see the Santo Niño statue and ended up queuing for 15 minutes with the locals to go in. They brought their pleas to the statue, wiping the glass casing and then their faces with a handkerchief, then kissing a special glass window, and finally crossing themselves. Most of  them wiped away tears as they prayed. It was hard not to be moved by the scene. I walked out of there feeling the spiritual and emotional power of the place. As we left the area, we realised that tourists could view the statue from the main sanctuary instead of queuing to go inside. No regrets though, as being a part of the ritual made it a far more meaningful experience.

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Last stop was at Magellan’s Cross, which didn’t seem to actually be planted by Magellan. Seems like it was planted by order of Magellan. The big deal was more that it was a symbol of Cebu. I think I liked the paintings on the ceiling of the chapel more!

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March in Laos: Vientiane’s Temple Architecture

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People don’t really go to Laos for its temples. While it’s hardly Ayuthaya or Angkor Wat, Vientiane has  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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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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!

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August in China: Sanxingdui Museum

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Sanxingdui Museum is a bit of an oddity in the Chinese museum scene. It’s  a spanking new and beautifully curated non-tacky place smack in the middle of nowhere. The site itself is close to where a neolithic jade piece was found by a ditch-digging peasant, and is thought to be the site of the ancient Shu capital.

This lovely reconstructed bronze sculpture and panel greeted us as Mr Bunglez and I entered the main building of the museum. Later we found that the designs were true to the originals. I was gobsmacked by how fine and sophisticated these were and how it didn’t seem in the least primitive, as would be expected for something from the neolithic age. A lot of these could possibly pass off as modern art even.

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No photos allowed in the dark galleries filled with awe-inspiring bronze masks with impressive motifs of all-seeing eyes. You’ll have to go there to see it for yourself. What I could get a picture of is a reproduction (the original I saw in a darkened gallery) of a fantastical bronze tree adorned with mystical birds and flowers. I stood in front of both original and reproduction for ages, simply gawping at the refinement and beauty of the sculpture.

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It was overcast when we emerged from the museum, but this didn’t detract from the majesty of the (reproduction of, guess where the original was?) only complete bronze human statue found at the site. The figure must’ve used to hold a sceptre of some sort. As it was Olympic season, they cleverly fashioned him holding an Olympic torch for the promotional material. I’m glad they had the sense not to put one on this permanent exhibit though!

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Here’s a closeup of the statue. Notice how he’s got pierced earlobes. How cool is that?

August in China: The Leshan Buddha

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And now to the main attraction! The Leshan Buddha is probably the biggest in the world (particularly since the Taleban blasted the Bamyan Buddhas to smithereens in 2001), built to quiet the turbulent waters at the foot of Lingyun Shan. The descent from the head to the foot of the Buddha is rather vertiginous, have a look at the winding staircase all the way down.

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Upclose, the Buddha is huge and almost impossible to capture in one frame of my point and shoot compact camera.

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Shot from below, the true majesty and sheer largeness is something to behold.

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Just for a sense of proportion, here’s a quick shot of the many ants posing under his toe.

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August in China: Buddhas Everywhere Part Deux

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Before I let you readers get to the main attraction of the Leshan Buddha himself, I must let you have a look at the other curiosities in the main complex. There were some side temples with great columns of smoke rising from incense sticks.

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In front were large old fashioned cauldrons filled with rather impressive flames for devotees to light their incense sticks.

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And I spied in a quiet corner this intricately carved dragon-shaped hammer used to sound a gong to call monks to prayer.

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In yet another one of the many side halls of the complex, I found a hall of bodhisattvas and luohan (fellas about to achieve enlightenment).

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There were a gazillion of them set out in four perpendicular arms of the hall. Each one was different and some of them had very amusing expressions and stances.

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This fella I christened the not-me-he-did-it Luohan.

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He’s of course the I’m-always-the-unlucky-fall-guy Luohan.

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Goes without saying, this is the I-pick-up-girls-oh-helloooo-there Luohan.

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Last, not least the ugh-I’ve-seen-so-many-luohans-I’ve-got-a-splitting-headache Luohan.

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Humour me, it was a long day!

August in China: Buddhas Everywhere Part Un

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One popular day trip out of Chengdu led me out to Leshan to ogle the Big Buddha. I was dismayed when told at the main entrance that only taopiao (literally: set tickets) were sold there, meaning that the only way to gain entry to see the Leshan Buddha was to also buy the set of tickets that led to some Buddha complex with the most Buddha statues in the county or some sort. It was only at the end of the day when I left by a side entrance that I realised that tickets only to Leshan were sold at a minor side gate. Yet another buyer beware warning.

I figured that I’d gone this far so I might as well pay the extra and wander through the amusement park anyway. There was a huge sleeping Buddha likeness carved into a hill face…

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… a series of sitting Buddhas carved into a hill face…

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… and lots of little Buddhas carved into niches behind a hill face!

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I quite enjoyed this bodhisattva with the infinite arms, it was just too bad the bare bulb lighting was so unflattering.

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However, I wasn’t too impressed with the deliberately neglected and moss-ridden figures outside.

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This one of the Laughing Buddha wasn’t too grotesque, just that it was too bad his belly was too far up to rub for good luck.

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After a rather ho-hum whiz past the rest of the statues came a very steep flight of stairs…

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… that rather surprisingly came with its own Health & Safety warning! The sign basically advises all those with acrophobia, high blood pressure, heart problems, the old, young and weak to take the other gentler route for the sake of life and safety. Rather impressive for China, I felt.

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The steep set of stairs of course led up to the entrance to Leshan, but enroute I stopped several times to admire the lovers’ locks lining the railing. It’s typical of Chinese custom for lovers to place a lock on the railing and throw away the key to symbolise their everlasting love. Judging from the numerous locks there, Chinese people can be very sentimental.

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