Lombok: Rice Fields and Hindu Temples (and Good Food)

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

Traffic in Mataram town itself could be rather alarming for a first-timer as there are so many different types of traffic here! Aside from the usual  seemingly blind pedestrians, careening motorbikes and SUVs of all shapes and sizes, there were also horse-drawn carts!

IMG_3415

If there was a sudden slowdown along the way, it was sure to be because the traffic was piling up behind one of these carts being pulled manfully along by a blinkered pony. Such were the traffic snarls we had to get past when travelling across town.

IMG_3414

Out of town, however, was far more peaceful. It was almost surprising how close the padi fields were, they started immediately at the suburbs of Mataram town and when we visited in December 2010, the fields were green with new growth.

IMG_3438

There’s something ineffably tranquil and calming about the sight of coconut trees dotting the padi and kangkung fields. To me, it was a symbol of escape from city life and a return to the bucolic past.

IMG_3440

Hidden in the farm area was Pura Lingsar, one of the few Hindu temples in Muslim-dominated Lombok.

IMG_3434

In the past, the Balinese attempted to colonise part of Lombok and extended its influence fairly deep inland. Near the coast, however, was where most of the Hindu temples remain. Pura Lingsar is believed to be one of the most major Hindu centres in Lombok and its

IMG_3435

A tout approached and asked for a bit too much money than we thought was necessary. He wanted to take us inside to see the inner chamber and pool where an albino eel resided. I read from our guidebook that visitors could buy hardboiled eggs to lure it out from its hiding place. Cute as that could be, the tout was a bit too pushy for our taste and we ended up taking pictures of the outside instead.

IMG_3436

It was enough for me to look at the beautiful carvings on the outer perimeter, like this gracefully etched guardian. Having said that, we were glad that we had a car and could zip in and out quickly. It wouldn’t be worth the hassle to get all the way out there on a special half day trip.

IMG_3437

That evening, we headed back into town to Mataram Mall for some dinner. Again, Ibu Rosa at Villa Sayang recommended the place and it was excellent food as usual. I apologise that I can’t remember the name of the place. It serves Indonesian food, is on the ground floor, towards the centre of Mataram Mall and is opposite Istana Gadgets. Have a look at me tucking into our sweet-sour gurame to have a feel of the place.

IMG_3448

This was probably DC’s favourite dish of the night. It was a whole deep-fried gurame topped with sweet and sour sauce. Gurame is a freshwater fish and the flesh is very succulent, never getting stringy like other types of fish when overcooked. I enjoyed the especially juicy bits of the cheeks and also the crunchy fins.

IMG_3449

True to our style, we had lots of side dishes. I felt that the tempeh and squid were rather ho-hum compared to what we’d had before, but the kangkung cha (stir-fried  local kangkong) was a welcome familiar dish.

IMG_3444

We also had the ayam penyet (or deep-fried “smashed” chicken) accompanied by a very spicy chilli sauce. It must’ve been very good because DC ate most of it. He also ate most of the chilli sauce with the tempeh while I was still gnawing on my deep-fried fish fins.

IMG_3445

And as usual, we staggered out of the restaurant stuffed to the gills.

Again, please check in with Ibu Rosa at Villa Sayang for directions (and the restaurant name!). It’s at the ground floor of Mataram Mall, towards the centre of the place and opposite Istana Gadgets.

September in Bali: A Quiet Little Island

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

One of the reasons why we did so few dives a day was because the waters here was less sheltered. The other reason was that the locals were very religious and often had to go for evening prayers. This gave me plenty of time to wander around the village, checking out the sights and sounds of the place. One  of the first things I noticed about this island was their fanaticism for fighting cocks. I didn’t get a chance to witness a fight myself but almost every house kept prized roosters and men would fuss over them in the evenings, getting them ready for the big fight by attaching spurs to their talons. The cocks were then placed under small baskets and left in formation till the fight began.

CIMG3372

The locals were far less concerned about their motorbikes. It wasn’t a big deal at all if a bike didn’t have a proper seat.

CIMG3370

The most spectacular thing in the evening was to witness the locals at their evening festivals as the sun starting setting over the village, causing the temple towers to glow orange.

CIMG3369

We entered the temple grounds through imposing stone gates…

CIMG3375

… and watch discreetly from outside the temple wall.

CIMG3361

All the worshippers were decked out in their finery, the equivalent of their Sunday best. They sat on mats on the ground while waiting for the priests to  spoon out their share of the holy water (or was it holy milk?)

CIMG3363

All waited quietly in the ceremony, including the young children. I was surprised at how quiet the children were as I got bored with the ceremony where there only seemed to be chanting and holy water distribution.

CIMG3366

I soon wandered back to the beach to enjoy the sunset.

CIMG3351

July in Vietnam: A Ho Chi Minh Finale

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

Before I knew it, I was back in Ho Chi Minh City. It was unmistakable from the sheer volume of motorcycles that seemed to populate the city.

00461

I visited the main sights like the Main Post Office, worth a look for its French-style architecture.

00458

And the stately People’s Committee Building or Hotel de Ville. Sadly, it didn’t take visitors, leaving me to take (very bad) pictures from across the street.

00459

Right in the front of the Hotel de Ville was a statue of Uncle Ho, the city’s namesake, comforting a child.

00462

Then there was the Notre Dame Cathedral that lost all its stained glass in the War. Its facade wasn’t very inspiring…

00463

… but inside there were rather unique statues of Vietnamese saints at one of the niches.

00456

There were also amusing Fun With English admonishing tourists to let the mass be.

00457

I also wandered out into the Cholon district, where the Chinatown of Saigon lay. Some of the temples here outshone those in Hoi An by far with their ornate yet somehow tasteful decor. I greatly enjoyed the contrast between black and gold here, complemented by the red background.

00467

The light that day was just perfect for this lovely shot of celestial light streaming past the conical joss sticks to reflect wildly off the ceremonial urn.

00466

There were other bits of detail that I really enjoyed, like this eave guard standing with his fan or some such ready to do… what? Battle with unseen miniature dragons? Beat back the wind?

00465

And there was this deliciously child-like panorama of a manor house and its out buildings.

00468

I’ve somehow lost the pictures I took when eating with Delightt, of banh mi so yummy I had to take some on the plane with me, and mushroom pizzas so addictive I had to have one for brunch despite already having had breakfast and plans for lunch. But I managed to take a picture of a very unusual breakfast of banh cuon, the Viet take on chee cheong fun. I must say that the Vietnamese can outcook the Cantonese for chee cheong fun. (The Singaporean hawker version served with that nasty sweet sauce is irredeemable.) Their version was much thinner and finer, so good that it was even better eaten cold. Mine was stuffed with minced pork and mushroom then sprinkled with nuoc mam and accompanied by spamsticks and basil. It was incredibly yummy.

00469

And then there was Fanny. Delightt and I spent a good afternoon there trying flavour after flavour. They had strange ones like custard apple, peanut and ginger flavours. Most were really yummy, like passionfruit and mango and the usual vanilla flavours. The waitress was incredibly patient with us as we chose to order each scoop separately (they gave one wafer and one grape garnish for each ice cream cup), especially considering that each scoop only cost 11,000 dong (USD0.65). Excellent stuff.

00464

And last of all was one of the best bits of being in Vietnam – having ca phe sua da (ice coffee with condensed milk). Trung Nguyen was everywhere and I dropped in often to get my coffee fix. It was here that I had the most expensive cup of coffee in my life – civet cat coffee, which was strong, intense and cost me a pretty USD7. It would otherwise have bought me a whole day of gluttonous eating. A pity that the coffee was so strong it started giving me palpitations and I couldn’t finish it.

00460

Perhaps a fitting metaphor for my experience in Vietnam. Goodbye Vietnam of the bittersweet memories.

July in Vietnam: Out on the Mekong Delta

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

My next short jaunt out of Ho Chi Minh City was a tour of the Mekong Delta. The Mekong flows through much of Southeast Asia and is of utmost importance to the livelihood of those who live along its banks. When it reaches the sea, the mighty river breaks into many distributories flowing over the vast expanse of the Mekong  Delta, stretching at least a 100km along the coast of Vietnam. Even its distributories are vast, taking some effort to cross.

00404

At some places, the river was narrow enough to build a bridge across.

00437

At others, the opposite bank was a bit too far away for a bridge.

00410

We had to crowd with the motobikes in the ferries to get across. Aside from the usual chickens, ducks and vegetables, one even carried live fish in a makeshift waxed canvas tank.

00403

The river was their livelihood and people lived along the river even if it meant building their houses on stilts. No matter if there wasn’t land in the front, a hanging garden did the trick.

00396

Others grew their garden on the balconies, like this house with its dragonfruit cacti creeping down towards the water.

00391

Further away from the river were places of worship, like this Khmer temple that looked like it had been transplanted from Cambodia.

00408

This area being close to Cambodia, there was a significant Khmer minority here. Some of the Buddhist temples I saw in this area were of quite a different style from the other Mahayana temples I’d seen in Vietnam. This was definitely closer to the Thai and Lao style temples…

00407

… even down to the saffron-robed monks running the temple.

00409

There was also a scattering of other places of worship, like this church here. It looked a little incongruous rising elegantly from the rather scruffy stilt huts along the river.

00395

As part of the tour, we were taken to see some of the cottage industries. One of them was food manufacture. Here, ladies patiently worked over wood fires making rice paper by hand.

00398

Others tempered melted coconut sugar to make rich caramelly coconut candy.

00399

And men did the grunt work of pressing popped rice into blocks which would then be coated in syrup and cut into crispy-crunchy sugary snacks.

00400

It was lovely wandering through the little hamlets in the area, passing under gardens and other topiary.

00402

And also chancing on a wedding banquet, where the happy couple was happy to let tourists take pictures of them on their big day.

00448

There were also some quiet backwaters…

00441

… which weren’t so quiet when children popped out of nowhere screaming “hello hello!” at passing tourist boats.

00442

It was lovely to wave back at them…

00444

… their smiles were such a lovely lift to river experience.

00445

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 like  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: The Cham Ruins of My Son

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

The Champa civilisation was one of the Indian-influenced civilisations in Southeast Asia, similar to those who built the ancient cities of Bagan, Ayuthaya, Angkor Wat and Borobudur. One reason to pass through Hoi An was to visit My Son (pronouced “mi sen”), part of this temple circuit. With this trip, I added the last scalp to my belt.

I booked with a friendly though somewhat scatterbrained travel agent a tour to My Son, Vietnam’s answer to Angkor Wat. After a false early morning start where they forgot about picking me up, I finally got on a tour out there in the later part of the morning. The entrance to the ruins was a lot newer than expected and a friendly American family helpfully snapped a picture of me next to this spanking new pile of stone.

00192

We were raring to go see the ruins, but not before admiring the local cows enjoying a good bit of rumination under the shade. The morning was progressing and it was starting to get mighty hot.

00193

True enough, lots of tourists were already out there, heavily armed with umbrellas. Still, they were very much dwarfed by the Cham ruins, rising up majestically and rather shabbily at the same time.

00181

I was struck by how much of the structures still remained. They survived years of weathering and wars and retained most of the main features of the buildings. The red brick still stood but the cement had long fallen off.

00188

The entrances were tall and thin, probably reflecting the girth but not height of the people then. I admired the intricate carvings on the eaves of the entrances.

00184

Too bad about the statues built into the walls. The details had pretty much been weathered off and the details of faces and dress could barely be made out.

00183

However, no amount of weathering could disguise what this was. This linga was the most graphic I’d seen in Southeast Asian temple sites. There were lots of giggling tourists wondering how on earth to pose with it.

00189

Much easier for the amateur photographer were the headless statues dotting the compound.

00187

There were also plenty of reliefs of lesser gods with heads.

00185

These were less interesting to the average tourist, but the unique features that seemed to me part-Indian and part-Balinese left me admiring them for quite a while.

00186

It was a pity that the wasn’t a great deal to the site as quite a lot of the ruins were really just that. Many of them were ruined not so much because of the passage of time but because of American bombings during the war. Sad indeed.

00191

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