France 2018, part II

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See France 2018, part I , for the first part of our trip to France. Here is again a map of the places we visited.

In 1976(!), after my graduation, I applied for a position as a physics teacher at a school in Amstelveen. The rector (headmaster) in those days was Dr B.C. Poeder, he interviewed me and decided to give me the job. He retired long ago, but we had become friends and kept in touch. Therefore I knew that he was now living in France, in the region that Aric and I were going to visit.

I wrote to him, and he invited us to stay a few days in his house, in the small village of Robiac, about 50 km north of Nîmes. Take the road via Vézénobres, he suggested.

I had never heard about that village, but we followed his advice and decided to have lunch there . A romantic, medieval village, no cars allowed, we had to park quite far outside the walls

Walking around we were wondering if there was a place to have some food. We were lucky, found a nice shop where they prepared crepes and galettes. I had a glass of cider. Very nice people too.

When we arrived in Robiac, Carel was already waiting for us at the roadside, otherwise we might have missed the small road leading to his house. The nameplate on the letterbox still refers to his past as headmaster :-).

We were warmly welcomed by Carel and Joanne, his wife. The house is part of what before has been a school. The basement, formerly a goat stable, has been transformed in a guest room.

A big garden with many flowers.

Our hosts invited us for a nice dinner in Barjac, a nearby village.

The next day we enjoyed the swimming pool and the hospitality of Carel and Joanne, but also made a trip to a cave, the Grotte de la Salamandre. This cave was discovered in the 60s, access was possible only by abseiling through a hole above the cave! Five years ago the cave was opened to the public after an access tunnel had been excavated from the side of the hill.

You can still rappel down in the original way ( for an extra fee), we chose the tunnel..:-). A guided tour, clear explanations, the stalagmites and stalactites were illuminated with varying colors, some really very bright, but also with normal white light.

A very rewarding experience.

When you click on the left picture below to enlarge it, you can see at the top people who are abseiling from the hole in the roof!

The next day we said goodbye to our hosts and continued our trip. We had decided to follow the Gorges du Tarn, a long but very  scenic route. It is a canyon, 400 to 600 meter deep, eroded by the river Tarn. Spectacular views, like here of the village of Castelbouc, deep down.

The river is a favourite playground for kayakers.

We had lunch in La Malène

We stayed overnight in Millau, our Airbnb was a nice apartment, located in the historic center of the town.

Millau is nowadays known for its viaduct, but it turned out to be a surprisingly attractive town itself. The next morning we climbed the Beffroi, a bell tower consisting of a 12th-century square tower topped by an octagonal 17th-century tower.

It was a steep climb, but the view was worth the effort. The Millau viaduct was of course clearly visible and deep down the Halles, built in 1899.

In the Middle Ages Millau was an important town, especially because of a bridge across the Tarn river, consisting of 17 spans. Nowadays only one span remains with a house built on it, formerly a watermill. Very scenic.  In a nearby cafe we had coffee with a piece of fouace, a cake specialty of Millau.

The Millau viaduct is (at the time of writing) the tallest bridge in the world, with a height of 340 meter above the river Tarn. It is considered one of the great engineering achievements of all time.

The viaduct has become a major tourist attraction. We drove over it and also under it, when you look up at the supporting pylons from the river valley, they look so fragile!

Our next destination was Albi. Here a view of the town with the Sainte Cécile cathedral and the Vieux Pont (Old Bridge) in the foreground. This bridge was originally built in 1035.

We stayed two nights in Albi in a very nice Airbnb , a complete house, a bit outside the historic center, easy parking, with a very friendly hostess, who advised us where to eat where to shop and where to park when we wanted to visit the town center. Airbnb at its best…:-)

The cathedral is an amazing building, constructed between the 13th and 15th century. Those were the days of the Cathar Heresy, and the Roman Catholic church wanted to make a clear statement of strength. What a contrast with for example the Notre Dame in Paris! It looks like a fortress and is claimed to be the largest brick building in the world.

The monumental doorway was added at the end of the 14th century

The austere outside forms a strong contrast with the flamboyant interior.

Next to the cathedral the fortress of the Palais de la Berbie, the Bishops’ Palace, dating to the end of the 13th century

Nowadays it is the Toulouse-Lautrec museum. We had a quick look , I am not really a fan of him..:-)

But the gardens of the Palace are beautiful.

For dinner, our hostess had advised us  restaurant Lautrec in Albi and that was a good choice!

Albi has of course many interesting old houses. The left picture also shows the belltower of the cathedral

Another useful advice of our hostess was to visit the small village of Puycelsi, one of the Most Beautiful Villages of France . There are more than 150 of them…:-)

The weather was a bit grey during our visit, here is a view of the village

We parked our car outside the walls and explored the narrow streets, visited the church and had lunch.

During our trip we had already passed  many sunflower fields, but on our way to Carcassonne we found such a beautiful field that we really had to stop to take pictures..:-)

We visited Lautrec, another of the Most Beautiful Villages of France. The view of Lautrec might look similar to the view of Puyselci, but careful inspection of the two pictures will show you they are not the same…:-)

The weather was beautiful again, that could be the reason that we liked this village better. The walls are still there and the 14th century market square is attractive

We had lunch in a nice restaurant , Le Clos d’Adele. Good food, pleasant service, value for money.

After lunch we visited one of the other attractions of Lautrec, a 17th century windmill. A steep climb, but worth the effort, we could enter the mill and had a nice view of the surroundings. When there is enough wind the mill is still operating.

With Airbnb the host often doesn’t live in  the same building, so you have to contact him/her about your arrival time. That works well in general, but in Carcassonne it took us some time, the apartment also looked more like a hotel room. But it was ok, from our window we could see the medieval fortress in the evening light. But what were those strange yellow surfaces on the walls and towers?

The next day we explored the old town. It  the largest walled city in Europe and really impressive.

Not surprisingly it is a major tourist attraction with crowds of visitors in the narrow streets. We were lucky to find a restaurant with a secluded garden, where we had a nice lunch, again value for money

The name of the restaurant is Le Jardin du Carcasses, it has good reviews

The Church of Saints Nazarius and Celsus was built in its Gothic form at the end of the 13th century on the site of an earlier church. It was the cathedral of Carcassonne until 1803. Beautiful interior. But keep in mind that this church and also the citadel itself have been “renovated” in the 19th century by the French architect Viollet-le-Duc!

Access to the medieval city is free, but to access the fortress and the walls you have to pay an entrance fee.

Carcassonne is  a Unesco World Heritage site already for 20 years and of course that had to be celebrated. The Swiss artist Felice Varini was asked to create a project.

Quoting Wikipedia:

Felice paints on architectural and urban spaces, such as buildings, walls and streets. The paintings are characterized by one vantage point from which the viewer can see the complete painting (usually a simple geometric shape such as circle, square, line), while from other view points the viewer will see ‘broken’ fragmented shapes.”

In this case he projected concentric circles on the walls and towers of the citadel. They look broken, only from one vantage point they are circles. Quite spectacular, of course many specatators, not easy to take a picture without people.

In the evening we came back especially to admire Varini’s work

Our trip was coming to an end, our last destination was the naturist village of Cap d’Agde. On our way we passed this strange landscape, the Étang de Montady, a wetland, drained in the 13th century.

What to say about Cap d’Agde? Here is a picture of the beach, when you enlarge it, you will see that the sunbathers are naked…:-)

Nudist beaches are common in Europe, but Cap d’Agde is a nudist village, where you walk around, have a drink/ food on a terrace, go to the supermarket etc, all in your birthday suit..:-)

We had booked a room (Airbnb) with Bernard and that was a lucky choice, because he had been living there for many years and could tell us the do’s and don’ts. One don’t is that you can not take pictures of other naked people. Another one is that at night, during dinner, you are supposed to be a bit dressed at least…:-)

Bernard had two other guests, Christiane and Alain, a nice couple who had been regular visitors of Cap d’ Agde for many years. We became friends almost immediately…:-) The village itself is a nondescript conglomerate of concrete apartment complexes, but the company made our visit very enjoyable.

The second (also last) night of our stay we were invited to join our new friends to a dinner in a nearby restaurant. There was music, there was drag, and both Aric and I have been dancing! A fun evening and a worthy ending of our trip

It is amazing how much you can do in twelve days. After our return ot Amsterdam we needed several days to recover…:-)

France 2018, part I

When Aric and I visit the Netherlands, we always try to combine it with a short trip to another European country. In 2014 we have visited Norway, and in 2016 Portugal. This time we went to the Languedoc region in Southern France. We wanted to visit the famous “village naturiste” of Cap d’Agde, in combination with some of the numerous historical towns in the region, like Arles, Avignon, Carcassonne.

We took a flight from Amsterdam to Montpellier, where we rented a car. The map below gives the places (in red) where we stayed overnight. To guide the eye I have connected the different locations with blue lines, the actual roads were of course winding and much longer..:-)

Our first stop was in Nîmes where we stayed three nights in an Airbnb. A nice apartment, on walking distance from the historic center, only a bit difficult to find a parking place.

After arriving in the apartment, I discovered that I was missing my passport and driving license! Searching my luggage and the car, nothing. Panic! Could I have dropped it when I entered the rental car? A telephone call to Avis in Montpellier finally gave the solution, they apologised that they had not given back the documents after photocopying them! Of course it was my fault not to have asked them back, but what a relief.

After this commotion we went out to explore the town a bit. Nîmes was an important regional capital during the Roman Empire

We were not in the mood to look for a restaurant, so we bought food in a nearby Carrefour supermarket and had a drink on our own balcony followed by a microwave dinner, Brandade de Morue, a typical Nimois specialty .

The next day our destination was Arles, but first we had to go back to the airport to collect my documents. From there we drove to Arles through the Camargue and on our way we found a very nice place for lunch, le Resto de Paty. Isolated location, we wondered if it was open, but it was , friendly service. We had tellines as a starter, a kind of clams, similar to the Malaysian lala. The main dish was grilled Camembert with charcuterie , delicious but filling 🙂  Really a lucky find!

You can easily spend days in Arles, but we had only a few hours. Fortunately we could park near the center. Here is a GE view, with the places we visited.

The Roman theatre was built in the 1st century BC and is one of the oldest stone theatres in the Roman world.. It is used now for concerts and events, which rather spoils its visual appearance.

Much more impressive is the amphitheatre, built in 90 AD and capable of seating over 20.000 spectators. In Roman times it was used for chariot races and gladiator fights, nowadays for bullfighting and concerts.

Many visitors will come to Arles because van Gogh lived there more than one year and created some of his most famous paintings. Through narrow streets we walked to the Place du Forum, with the cafe, painted by van Gogh.

Here is the painting (1888) and the cafe, where I had a lousy ice coffee for a ridiculous price. To be avoided!  I hope you will understand why I cover my ear…:-)

Our last destination in Arles was the Saint Trophime church, but on our way we passed the entrance of the Cryptoporticus, and we visited this intriguing foundation of the former Roman Forum first. Crowds of tourists in Arles, but this place was deserted. I loved it!

Saint Trophime was built between the 12th and 15th century  and is famous for its cloisters.

Some details of the columns, fine examples of the Romanesque style, and a photo of the church interior.

It had been a long and very hot (38 °C !) day. Before going back to Nîmes, we relaxed for a while on the Place de la Republique, with a 4th-century Roman obelisk in its centre.

The following day we visited Avignon and it was even hotter.(38 °C). Probably almost everyone will associate Avignon with the famous children song  Sur le pont d’Avignon but the real importance of the town is because it replaced Rome as the seat of the Pope in the 14th century, the Avignon Papacy . The Palais des Papes is what remains of those turbulent times. It is one of the largest and most important medieval Gothic buildings in Europe. More of a fortress than a palace, here is an overview taken from Wikipedia to show its size. Bottom left you can see the beginning of the Pont d’Avignon.

Because of the hot weather we limited ourselves to the bridge and the palace. Here are my own photos. In the top left picture you see the cathedral of Avignon with the prominent statue of the Virgin Marie on top of the belltower. Notice the massive fortifications. The bottom right photo shows a door in the palace. Enlarge it to see the damage that has been done to the statues.

And here are pictures of the interior. You can easily spend many hours here.

Here is the famous  Pont Saint-Bénézet, which is the official name of the Pont d’Avignon. To take this picture we crossed the Rhone river. The bridge was built in the 12th century and had originally 22 arches of which nowadays only four remain. In 1995 the bridge, together with the palace and the cathedral were declared  Unesco world heritage sites.

We walked across the bridge , but it was too hot to dance…:-)

On our way back to Nîmes, we visited another Unesco world heritage site,  the famous Pont du Gard. It is an ancient Roman aqueduct, built in the first century AD to bring water to the town of Nîmes.  It is the highest of all elevated Roman aqueducts and really impressive.

Back in Nîmes, we decided to have a real French dinner. We walked to the Place aux Herbes, with many eateries, and had our dinner in restaurant O-Delice. Nice food

After our dinner we walked back to our apartment. Nice atmosphere, it was a Saturday evening, big crowds everywhere.

Although we had chosen Nîmes only as a convenient location to visit Arles, Avignon and the Pont du Gard, we discovered that the town itself has also many interesting places. Before leaving next morning, we visited two of them.

First  the Halles de Nîmes. It is considered a major tourist attraction, but for somebody used to the Central Markets of Asia, it was a bit disappointing. Lots of fresh food of course, always nice to take pictures.

The Jardins de la Fontaine are a public park, established in the 18th century around a water source. In Roman times this was the center of Nîmes, ruins of the so-called Temple  of Diana (not a temple, probably a library) and the Tour Magne can still be seen.

Our next destination was Robiac, a small village north of Nîmes. Why did we go there? That will be explained in part II of this blog.

Loke Yew Graveyard

In 1858 a young Chinese boy, 13(!) year old, decided to leave his home province Guangdong (former Canton) and try his luck in Singapore. His name was Wong Loke Yew. He worked there in a provision shop, before starting his own store. Business went well and  in 1867 Loke Yew decided to go to Perak, where he was active in tin mining and other business. In the 1880’s he moved to Kuala Lumpur, where he stayed the rest of his life until he died in 1917.

A remarkable man, his life is described in more detail in an interesting blog Overseas Chinese in the British Empire.

I had come across his name a few years ago, when I visited the Sam Wong Yah temple in Kamunting, built in 1882. Loke Yew was a supporter and patron of this temple and  the caretaker showed me the wooden bench used by Loke Yew as a bed when he visited the temple. Proof that even though rich,  he remained a humble man.

Left the interior of the temple, right the bench.

Recently Bernard, a geocaching friend of mine, told me that there existed a Loke Yew Graveyard in Kuala Lumpur! We are both interested in cemeteries, would I like to join him in an “expedition” to this graveyard? Of course I accepted his invitation.

And an expedition it turned out to be…:-). Because the graveyard is located in Desa Tun Hussein Onn, a military residential complex in Kuala Lumpur (below outlined in green). You need a permit as a civilian to enter the village!

When we arrived at the entrance of the village, and told  an officer that we wanted to visit Loke Yew’s graveyard, it took Bernard considerable time to convince the officer of our honest intentions. It helped that the officer was interested in history and rather surprising that he did not know anything about the graveyard, although he had been living for many years in the village!  We got our permit..:-)

Naively I had expected that there would be a clear access road to the graveyard, we drove around the hill, but didn’t find any signboard. However, we noticed something that looked like a trail, followed it, and indeed, we reached the graveyard, but there was a solid fence and a locked gate.  At least I could take a picture  🙂

We didn’t give up and tried another access, from near the  school, climbing the stairs, then turning right along the wall.

We were of course more or less expecting that we would again be blocked by a fence.  But no, this time, after some jungle hiking, we could enter the graveyard!

A beautiful place, on the slope of the hill, good feng shui. Dominated by a statue of Loke Yew. An elaborate memorial hall next to it. Amazing that this exists in KL..:-)

From the top of the hill we had a view of sprawling Kuala Lumpur. Guardian lions kept watch over the graveyard.

You find these guardian lions often at graveyards. Lots of symbolism, see the Wikipedia article Chinese Guardian Lions. The lions have a “pearl” in their mouth, a stone ball which can move freely inside, but not be removed. Unfortunately there had been vandalism, the mouth had been broken and the ball inside was gone.

One of the  lions is male, the other female. Of course we had to check..:-)

There were many more signs of vandalism and graffiti. Even the secluded location does not fully protect the graveyard. Imagine how bad it would be if this place was easily accessible.

The graveyard itself looked good, the grass was cut, there must be regular maintenance, probably by the family. Not only Loke Yew has his tomb here, also several of his descendants.

Here is the grave of Mr Lu Yun Huai, born 25/5/1897, died 16/10/1941

Walking down the hill we arrived at the “official” entrance, closed and heavily protected with barbed wire.

It was a very rewarding experience!

Loke Yew may have been a humble man, but his graveyard is truly monumental!

Note: Both Wikipedia and the blog mentioned above give 9 October 1845 as Loke Yew’s birthdate , but according to the tombstone it is  9 October 1846.

 

Singapore, July 2018

In January I visited Singapore, see my blog post Singapore 2018 . We met my friend Dr Lee and had a wonderful time. It was only a short visit and there was no time to visit his penthouse in the iconic  Pearl Bank apartments, the tallest and densest residential building in Singapore when it was completed in 1976.

In February the building has been sold to a developer and it will likely not be conserved despite the wishes of heritage lovers 🙁

The building was designed by architect Tan Cheng Siong, here is an interesting interview with him about the Pearl Bank apartments. 

Dr Lee invited me to stay a couple of nights in his penthouse. The C-shape of the design is very impressive, both looking up from the central courtyard, as looking down from the 37th floor where he has been living since the completion of the building!

From his penthouse you have an unobstructed view of Singapore. It was slightly hazy during my visit, but Dr Lee told me that you can even see the sea and Indonesia when the sky is clear.

The apartments are built in split-level style and as a penthouse occupies two floors, there are many levels. Fascinating, how I would love to live in an apartment like this!

But as the building probably will demolished in the near future, my friend is already preparing to leave. Very sad. There have been proposals for conservation, read more details here, but at the end of the day it came to nothing.

Two more pictures, a night view looking up, and a proposal for conservation/renovation, prepared in 2014 by Tan Cheng Siong’s firm, Archurban Architects Planners. Pity that this beautiful design will not be realised.

After I had arrived in Singapore (by First Coach bus) and met Dr Lee in his apartment, we went out in the afternoon to visit an exhibition of textile art, Nüshu: An Inspiration , just opened the day before I arrived. The artist, Benny Ong, was present to explain to us the meaning of the artworks.  Even without any explanation his work is quite fascinating. Ong became famous as a fashion designer, but switched in the 2000’s to textile art

The exhibition was held in the Goo Loo Club, more than 100 year old, and a couple of years ago revitalised. It used to be the club for the Peranakan millionaires of Singapore The building next to it (right picture) is even grander and was the club for the Chinese millionaires…:-). It dates back to 1891 and was more modestly named the Chinese Weekly Entertainment Club

We had dinner with friends  in another prestigious club, the Singapore Cricket Club , the second oldest club of Singapore, established in 1852, the present clubhouse is from 1884. Very good cuisine, I had a delicious lamb shank

After dinner we had a walk through town. Every time I visit Singapore, I enjoy it more. Traditionally in Malaysia the opinion about Singapore is rather negative, concrete jungle, over organised etc. But when you see everybody enjoying the evening temperatures on the Esplanade, with everywhere activities, it is a pleasant, peaceful town.

The next morning, after breakfast we visited the Flower Dome in the Gardens by the Bay. Special exhibition during our visit was an orchid display, nice, but I prefer the Orchid Garden in the Singapore Botanical Gardens

There are many different gardens in the Flower Dome, each dedicated to a specific continent or plant species. I liked the cactuses..:-)

Nice flowers, old olive trees, a baobab tree, you wonder how they transported those trees from their original locations.

Decorated by Peranakan facades and other decorative items, it was a pleasure to walk around, although the other dome, the Cloud Forest, visited during my January visit, is more spectacular.

Walking back to town from the Gardens by the Bay, you pass Marina Bay Sands hotel, the iconic landmark of Singapore. Not cheap but worth to stay there at least once, see my 2013 report Singapore.  The ArtScience museum nearby is by the same architect

My next destination was an exhibition in the ArtScience Museum by a Dutch(!) artist, Theo Jansen, who has been designing and building “beach animals”, constructions of PVC tube that are able to move along the beach when there is enough wind.

It was a fascinating exhibition, I have written a separate post about it: Strandbeesten, (the Dutch translation of beach animals). Here one of his creations

My trips are not complete without food..:-)   For lunch we went back to the Singapore Cricket Club, where I had a tasty laksa. That evening we had dinner at a friend’s place, he had prepared a delicious meal with many different dishes. And the next morning we went to the Tiong Bahru Food market, where I had nasi lemak. I think it is a misconception that the Singaporean food culture is inferior to the Malaysian one.

This day I spent on my own. After breakfast Lee dropped me at the Peranakan museum, near the Fort Canning Hill. I had never visited this part of Singapore, it was a pleasant walk. The hill has a rich history, read the Wikipedia link.

In the 19th century there was a Christian cemetery on the hill, the Gothic gate (1846) is a remnant and probably the two attractive cupolas as well. Several tomb stones have been placed in the surrounding wall.

I was interested to visit the Battle Box, the Military Command Center during the Japanese invasion in 1941/42. It is now a museum with a guided tour. After I bought my ticket there was just enough time for a cup of coffee in the National Museum of Singapore, located nearby.

The guided tour was very informative. You are not allowed to take pictures inside the maze of corridors and rooms, pity but understandable.   I found a picture on the Internet with the most impressive room, where on 15 February 1942 Lieutenant-General Percival decided to surrender, in spite of Churchill’s order to keep fighting until the last man.

I am very interested in the Japanese invasion of Malaysia, see my report Japan invades Malaya 1941/42 which describes the first part of the invasion, until KL.

Some pictures outside the Battle Box. A sally port is a hidden door to enter and exit the Battle Box undetected. In case of emergency or fire you could escape via a ladder. What is now the Fort Canning Arts Center, were originally British Army Barracks, constructed in 1926. And Hotel Fort Canning was the British Far East Command Headquarters during World War II.  Everything looks so peaceful and serene now..:-)

After the Battle Box I walked down the hill to the Peranakan Museum, a beautiful building in Classical style, originally built in 1910-12 for the Tao Nan Chinese School.

You can explore the museum on your own, but I decided to follow a (free) guided tour, which was again very informative. The Peranakan are are the descendants of Chinese immigrants who came to the Malay archipelago between the 15th and 17th centuries. Another term for them is Nyonya (for the women) and Baba (for the men). I didn’t know that Yap Ah Loy, Capitan Cina of KL and Lee Kuan Yew, first president of Singapore, were Peranakan…:-)

Dinner that night was in the Tanglin Club, one of Singapore’s most prestigious and prominent social clubs, founded in 1865. Even more upmarket than the SSC, I would say.

Western food this time. Walking around in the lobby I noticed a board with the past presidents of the club. Surprised to find J.W.W. Birch in the list, the first British resident of Perak, murdered in 1875 in Pasir Salak. In 1876 the club had no president, just a coincidence?

After breakfast the next morning,  I took the bus back to KL. Already looking forward to my next visit of Singapore…:-)

Strandbeesten

The Dutch artist Theo Jansen has become famous by the creation of Beach Animals, otherworldly constructions that are able, under favorable wind conditions, to move along the beach. In Dutch language they are called Strandbeesten and on the Internet you can find many fascinating videos of them.

Here is a compilation

I had never seen a Strandbeest in the real, so I was thrilled when I read that there was an exhibition of Jansen’s works in the ArtScience Museum in Singapore! I had planned already to visit my Singapore friends before my next trip to Holland, this was an extra reason. A full report of my Singapore trip will come later.

The iconic ArtScience museum was designed by architect Moshe Safdie and opened in 2011. The Strandbeest exhibition fits perfectly in the concept of this museum. Theo Jansen actually studied physics before becoming an artist and you can still see clearly the scientific/technical background of his creations.

Theo Jansen started the creation of his animals in 1990, basically using PVC tube. The first Strandbeesten are now fossils, they have evolved during the years, the newest species is the Burchus family, resembling giant caterpillars

The exhibition shows 13 large-scale Strandbeests, fossil ones and new developments. They have been assembled in the museum by a team of Jansen’s helpers, according to a museum attendant it took months..:-)

It is really a pleasure to view these creations, even when they are static and don’t move

But of course it is even nicer when they  move..:-) At certain times of the day demonstrations are given with a few models, using a wind generator, but not during my visit.

However, there are two models you can move by hand. Fascinating!

Of course I had to do it myself.

It is a nice exhibition, occupying one floor of the museum. You can experiment yourself, the kids can make drawings.

Some of his creations look like prehistoric animals.

The details are often astonishing.

A few more pictures

If this one was supposed to move, I don’t know. But so beautiful!  This exhibition brings you in a happy mood.

The exhibition in Singapore will be on until 30 September 2018. More information about opening times, guided tours etc, can be found here.

For the Dutch readers of this post, here is a very readable interview with Theo Jansen, from 1996: De schaamte van een strand-eskimo

 

Gunung Rapat Cave Temples

Gunung Rapat is a limestone hill, south of Ipoh. When you drive the no 1 trunk road from KL to Ipoh, you will pass  a number of Chinese temples, built in the limestone caves of Gunung Rapat. One or two I must have visited in the past and several times I have been to the Kek Lok Tong temple, on the other side of the hill.

Searching the Internet I found 8 major temples on the slopes of Gunung Rapat and I decided to make it a project to visit all of them during a visit of Ipoh. Here are the results. In the Google Earth screenshot below, the locations of the eight temples are given.

We started our trip with a visit of Tasik Cermin, the Mirror Lake. Until not long ago this was a “secret” location, known only to a few people. The lake is located within a quarry and can only be reached through a tunnel. Access was not always allowed by the quarry owner. This time it looked like quarry operations had stopped, there was no entrance barrier and we were told that the lake is nowadays becoming popular for wedding shoots!

If there is no wind, the water is really like a mirror, but during our visit there was a breeze. Aric tried to operate his drone, but between the steep cliff walls, GPS reception was not good enough.

Da Seng Ngan

Our first temple. When we visited Tasik Cermin in January 2017 (read my blog here), we noticed that there was a cave temple nearby. We visited it and the caretaker told us that the temple is quite old but has been covered by a landslide for many decades, and was only rediscovered in 2006! Restoration has now been almost completed. To get funding, devotees can “sponsor” statues of the Amitabha Buddha. For more information, click here .

From this temple you can actually walk to the Kwan Yin Tong temple nearby, but we were by car, had to u-turn twice on the busy trunk road, which made it more efficient to first visit the Ling Sen Tong temple.

Ling Sen Tong 

There are three temples along the trunk road next to each other, when you leave Ipoh. Lin Seng Tong is the first one, and that might be the reason that it is quite touristy and gaudy. A bit too touristy, we did not spend much time there

Nam Thean Tong 

The second one, next to Lin Seng Tong. A 19th-century Taoist cave temple with colorful shrines.

We explored the elaborate network of steep, dark stairs. Interesting, but a bit rundown

The third temple is Sam Poh Tong, but it was closed when we arrived there in the afternoon. It even looked closed indefinitely, we continued to the Kwan Yin Tong temple

Kwan Yin Tong 

Dedicated to Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. Numerous statues of Guan Yin. An attractive Buddhist temple

Then it was time for food, always an important aspect of our trips 🙂  For dinner we went to a food court, where we ordered deep-fried Mantis prawns, sotong with kangkung, popiah and teochew kueh, everything nice, but way too much..  Breakfast next morning at Chooi Yue, one of the famous dim sum restaurants in Ipoh. Good quality dim sum, many varieties.

Unfortunately it was raining heavily the next day, a real downpour. Before continuing our temple tour, our Ipoh friend took us first to another “mirror lake” location, a former tin mining pond at the Iskandar Polo Club. Attractive scenery.

Kek Lok Tong

We started with the Kek Lok Tong temple, the most beautiful of the Gunung Rapat cave temples, in my opinion. In the 1920’s it was already a place of worship. In the 1960’s it became part of an iron mining site, the entrance to the cave was widened to allow lorry access.  When mining ceased it was dedicated again to religious purposes and opened to visitors in the 1970s.

Interesting feature of this temple is that after entering and crossing the cave, you will exit to a beautiful garden. Because of the heavy downpour we could not visit the garden this time. Here you see the laughing Buddha, contemplating the view of this garden.

Searching the Internet, I had found two more temples on the North side of Gunung Rapat

Panna Tong

The first one, Panna Tong, was closed, so only a photo of the exterior. By the way, tong means cave in Chinese language

Miaw Yuan Chan Lin

The second one was a pleasant surprise. It is a Thai style Buddhist temple and relatively unknown, compared to the popular, more touristy  temples on the West side of Gunung Rapat. Nice environment, very scenic.

When I play tour guide again for my friends, I will include this temple in the itinerary!

Sam Poh Tong

Before finishing our temple trip, we decided to go back to Sam Poh Tong, because I had checked on the Internet that the temple was not closed forever. And indeed, now it was open, we were told that the day before they had closed early because there were no visitors!

It is quite a large temple complex, but as it was still raining, we did not explore everything. We had a look at the famous turtle pond and bought some kangkung to feed the turtles. But we did not enter the gardens, because of the rain. Will have to come back here.

In the afternoon I continued to Taiping, but that will be another post.

My friend David May has written informative web pages about many of the Ipoh cave temples, for example this one about Da Seng Ngan, with references to other temples.

 

Dixit Dominus

A few months ago I listened for the first(!) time to Dixit Dominus, composed by Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759) in 1707.  It is an absolute masterpiece of Baroque music.

Not surprisingly numerous recordings can be found on YouTube. Here are two, one conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner with the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists in 2014

The second one with Emmanuelle Haïm conducting the hr-Sinfonieorchester and her Chœur du Concert D’Astrée in 2017

When you search YouTube for Dixit Dominus Handel, you will find more than ten different recordings. I found it interesting to compare them. Listen for example to the first bars of the slow recording by Sir David Willcocks 1965) and the very fast one  by Andres Mustonen (2018)!

Händel wrote Dixit Dominus when he was 22 year old and staying in Italy, in Florence and Rome. In Germany he had already made a name for  himself with the opera Almira, composed when he was 19 year old.

But during his stay in Rome, operas had been (temporarily) banned by pope Clement XI because he considered them immoral. So Händel composed mainly sacred music while in Rome.

The portrait is dated about 1710.

Dixit Dominus is a musical setting of psalm 109 from the Book of Psalms, which is part of the Christian Old Testament. The title comes from the first line of the Latin text of the psalm:  Dixit Dominus Domino Meo, which translates (in the King James version) as The Lord said unto my Lord .

A rather cryptic line, is the Lord talking to himself? The explanation is that in the Hebrew text two different words are used for Lord. The Lord who speaks is God and he speaks to the psalmist’s lord. This lord is seen as the Messiah and in the New Testament Jesus quotes this psalm that he is the Messiah and the son of God.

That is the reason that this psalm 109 plays an important role in the Christian liturgy, the psalm is sung often in the Roman-Catholic Vespers.

Actually, Händel was not the only composer who wrote a Dixit Dominus. Vivaldi even wrote three versions, RV 594, RV 595 and RV 807 (my personal favorite). On YouTube you can also find versions written by Pergolesi and by Alessandro Scarlatti (the father of Domenico).

The last line of the psalm in the Händel version is sung as a duet by two sopranos and choir. It is impressively beautiful and in the Gardiner recording it was given as an encore. Here it is, put the volume high and listen to what you can read in one of the comments: One of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written.

When I heard this emotional, moving duet, I got curious about the text, expecting it to be equally  emotional and “deep” ..:-). But no, the last line of the psalm is in Latin:

De torrente in via bibet, propterea exaltabit caput. 

In translation

He shall drink of the brook in the way: therefore shall he lift up the head.

What does that mean, it sounds so trivial? I got intrigued, started searching the Internet and found this website  Psallam Domino   where all the psalms are analysed in a very thorough way.  About psalm 109 the blog says  “This is a hard psalm to interpret correctly” and “… it is very theologically dense”

The webpage about the last line has the title  “Prophesying Christ’s humility and the Ascension” . The humility is that he just was drinking water from a brook, the ascension is indicated by the lifting of the head .

Being a non-believer, I gave up after this and just will enjoy the music…:-)

Bhutan 2018

Bhutan is a Buddhist kingdom in the Eastern Himalayas, landlocked between India and China. The country is slightly smaller than the Netherlands, with  a population in 2016 of about 800.000, roughly the same as the city of Amsterdam!

It was only in 1974 that the isolated country opened its borders to foreigners. In that year 287 tourists visited Bhutan, a number that increased to almost 180.000 in 2016. Compare that with the 15.5 million tourists visiting the Netherlands in 2016!

The Bhutanese government wants to preserve the traditional culture and has decided to limit the tourism, by making it expensive. Tourists have to spend 200-250 USD daily, depending on the season.

Friends who have visited Bhutan, told us not to wait too long with a visit, so we decided to go and started looking for a suitable travel agency, because you can not travel on your own in Bhutan, you need to book a guide and a driver. For us that would be a new experience. Finally we chose Book Bhutan Tour ,and booked a 10D9N tour with them.  With only the two of us as passengers, it made the trip even more expensive  🙂

But it was worth it! Before I start my travelogue, here is a Google Map of Bhutan in which I have indicated the places where we have stayed overnight (A – H) and some of the highlights of the trip (red markers). When you click on a marker, you will see a picture. The map can be enlarged and you can zoom in and out.

There are no direct flights from Kuala Lumpur  to Bhutan, first we took a MAS flight to Bangkok, stayed overnight near the airport and early the next morning we departed with Druk Air for Paro, the international airport of Bhutan.

The descent to the airport was quite spectacular. Because the terrain is so mountainous, the plane can not approach in a straight line. Aric took pictures during the descent and nowadays smartphones can record GPS data, even inside the plane! The GE screenshot shows the altitude of the plane and the surrounding mountains.

 Here are the corresponding pictures

At the airport we were welcomed by Ram, the owner of Book Bhutan Tour, and Tenzin, our guide. We received as welcome gift a khata, a silk shawl, decorated  with the  Ashtamangala , the Eight Auspicious Signs. Tenzin, our guide, is wearing the traditional Bhutanese dress for men, the gho.

After a cup of coffee we drove to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, where we had our first Bhutanese food.

On the way to our hotel we passed a sports meet, where students were competing in various activities. Fascinating to see how the spectators  were all dressed in traditional garb, the boys in their gho with black knee stockings and the girls in their kira.

Our room in the Jumolhari Hotel   was comfortable. As we had got up at 4am, we took a short rest.

But not for long, we were going to visit our first Dzong! A Dzong is a fortress, often built on a hill top, dominating a town. Half of a dzong houses administrative offices, the other half is occupied by the monastic body, monks quarters, chapels etc. Many of them have their origins in the 17th century, when Zhabdrung Rinpoche  unified Bhutan as a nation-state. These spectacular fortresses are  one of the main reasons to visit Bhutan.

Here is the Tashichho Dzong in Thimphu. Built in 1641, it has been the seat of Bhutan’s government since 1968.

Because government offices are housed in the dzong, access is only allowed after working hours and there is a dress code. Bhutanese men have to wear a ceremonial white scarf, and tourists should not wear t-shirts, shorts or sandals.

When we arrived, it was raining, they were just lowering the flag.

After a while the rain stopped and we could enter the courtyard. It was our first dzong, so we took numerous pictures. Bhutanese architecture is beautiful, very traditional and decorative.

Here are a few more pictures

Because it had been raining, there were some pools on the pavement. Aric knows how to make spectacular pictures, using the reflection in the water. Tenzin was interested and Aric was eager to explain how to do it…:-)

Before calling it a day, we drove to a spot where we had a good view of the illuminated dzong. A nice first day in Bhutan


DAY 2

We spent this day in Thimphu. First we visited the Memorial Chorten  , built in 1974  in memory of Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, the 3rd Dragon King, who died in 1972.

There is a lot of respect and love for the royal family in Bhutan, which may explain that daily hundreds of locals visit the memorial for praying. They walk many times around the chorten (stupa), always in clockwise direction. Or they go to the prayer wheels and turn them around and around. Old ladies sit down near those wheels and keep turning them. Fascinating.

Next we went to the Great Buddha  statue, one of the largest Buddha statues in the world, 52 m high. Construction started in 2006 and was completed in 2015, only a few years ago. It is quite impressive, although there has been criticism that it is megalomaniac and doesn’t fit in the Bhutanese culture.

The Buddha is overlooking Thimphu and can be seen from far away. Inside the statue are temples and halls, containing ten thousands of small bronze Buddha statues.

After our lunch we visited a vocational education center, where young (and older) Bhutanese were trained in traditional arts and crafts. We were allowed to just walk around and take pictures. I was impressed by the concentration of the students, even without the presence of their teachers .. 🙂

Wood carving, painting, embroidery, drawing. Notice how concentrated everybody is

It was my birthday and I had decided not to tell Ram and Tenzin. When Ram suggested that we could have a cup of tea at his house, I was not suspicious and accepted his invitation. Only when his wife came in with a cake, and everybody started singing Happy Birthday,  it became clear that there had been a complot between Aric and Ram. Really a surprise, I even became a bit emotional…:-)

Back in our hotel, we had dinner. We had several nice meals, but in general Bhutanese cuisine is not a reason to visit the country. The red rice is tasty, many dishes are prepared with local cheese and can be very spicy. Not much variety.


DAY 3

Our destination this day was Trongsa, less than 90 km from Thimphu, as the crow flies. But the connecting “highway” is winding, resulting in a driving distance of almost 200 km, traversing mountain passes up to 3400 m high. We left Thimphu at 8 am and reached Trongsa around 4 pm, just in time to visit the dzong. But the landscape is beautiful. Ram had prepared a picnic basket with coffee and cookies and we had lunch in a restaurant halfway. I could not resist the temptation to have my picture taken as a big boss…:-)

After lunch we continued and visited an interesting stupa with eyes (Nepali style) . The “highway” is the only east-west connection,  being widened, some parts were in bad condition. We passed a waterfall and finally saw the imposing Trongsa Dzong, but it still took almost an hour to reach it. Have a look at the map above to find out why…:-)

The Trongsa Dzong is the largest dzong of Bhutan, built in 1647. For centuries it was the seat of the Wangchuck dynasty who ruled over much of eastern and central Bhutan, and from 1907 have been Kings of Bhutan

Also here a division in a governmental and a monastic half. A very impressive fortress.

The dzong is a paradise for photographers. Here a small selection from the many pictures we took during our visit.

We stayed overnight in the nice Yangkhil resort,  celebrating a long, tiring day with a bottle of Bhutanese wine.


DAY 4

Our room had a balcony with a view of the Trongsa Dzong.

After breakfast we continued our trip . Also here they were working on the  “highway”, widening it. We stopped for a while at the Yutong La pass, marked by a chorten and a sea of prayer flags. At an altitude of 3425 m, you feel out of breath easily!

After the pass we descended into the Bumthang Valley , the  religious heartland of Bhutan. First we visited the Jakar Dzong, founded as a monastery by the great-grandfather of the Zhabdrung and in 1667 extended as a dzong. Impressive, large building.

Interesting were the many monks in this dzong. Notice that one of them is carrying a smartphone…:-)

Walking back to our car we met a group of young schoolboys going home, dressed in their gho uniform. They were friendly and could speak English quite well. It is educational policy in Bhutan to teach English already in primary school.

After lunch we visited two holy places, each with an interesting history.

The first one is  the Jambay Lhakhang. According to legend, it is one of the 108 temples, built by a Tibetan King in 659 on a single day, to pin down a female demon. The temples were constructed on her body parts that spread across Tibet and Bhutan. In Bhutan two of the temples still exist, the other one is in Paro (see later). Of course they have been repaired and rebuilt  several times. Looking at the many devotees visiting the temple, it is still a very holy place.

The second holy place is the Kurjey Lhakhang , a complex of three temples. The oldest one was built in 1652, it was locked when we were there, inside there should be a meditation cave where the Guru Rimpoche left his body print. The Guru Rimpoche lived in the 8th century and is one of the most venerated Buddhist masters in Bhutan. The second temple was built by the first king of Bhutan in 1900. The third one is very recent, built in 1984 by the grandmother of the present king. Interesting is that the architectural style of all temples is very similar

On the temple grounds we noticed this large collection of miniature stupas. They are placed here by devotees who hope that it will add to their karma. And near the temples there was a hanging bridge decorated with numerous prayer flags. Bhutan is a deeply religious country.

We were getting tired, it was time to go to our guesthouse. The Swiss Guesthouse to be precise and indeed, it felt a bit like Switzerland..:-) . With an apple orchard, a wood stove in our (spacious) room and a more or less Western style dinner.


DAY 5

Another picture of the Swiss Guesthouse. Left in the background the Jakar Dzong. Lots of apple blossom

This day no dzongs, monasteries or temples, we started our trip back to Thimphu, using the same so-called Lateral Road. Here one more stretch (to be fair to Bhutan, large parts of the road were already finished and in good condition)

At  high altitudes, there are no longer cows but yaks. And of course there were  rhododendrons.

Destination for the day was the Dewachen  hotel in the Gangteng Valley, a vast U-shaped glacial valley at an altitude of ~ 3000 m. During the winter months the globally threatened Black-necked Cranes roost here. It is a beautiful valley and our guide Tenzin suggested that we should hike a 4 km nature trail to the hotel. It was a pleasant walk.

The last few days we had been often the only guests in the restaurants and guesthouses. Here in the Dewachen Hotel there was quite a crowd.

We had a beautiful room with a view of the valley. After our dinner Ram and Tenzing joined us for a while, dressed this time in “western” outfit…:-). Both are nice guys and became our friends easily.

 


DAY 6

From our hotel it was an easy walk to the Black Necked Crane Visitor center. We knew that the cranes had already left to their breeding places in Tibet, crossing the Himalaysa at 6 km altitude! One juvenile bird got injured and broken-winged in 2016 and is now kept in the center. Read here more about Karma

We walked through the valley, as the car had a problem. Quite a long walk, but a good exercise. The landscape is dotted with farms, the region is fertile, potatoes and other vegetables are grown. The farmhouses look attractive in their traditional Bhutanese style. Look carefully at the house in the top row, second from right, next to the stairs. It is a penis! Later more about this interesting Bhutanese tradition. We bought  a drink in a local grocery shop

We passed a school and of course I had to take a look. There was a sports meet going on, so we could have a look inside.

The Gangtey Monastery is one of the most important centers of Bhutanese Buddhism.  Established in 1613, but of course several times rebuilt and restored, last in 2002-2008.

This is a monastery, not a dzong. There are prayer halls, the monks have their rooms, no government offices here.

The car had been repaired and from the monastery we continued to Punakha, our destination for the day. One of the famous views in Bhutan are the snow-capped giant Himalaya mountains. But you need clear skies to see them The best view we had was today, at least there was snow. Our altitude 3330 m

In the late afternoon we reached the Punakha Dzong. Altitude 1230 m, 2100 m lower! Constructed by the Zhabdrung Rinpoche in 1637–38, it is the second oldest and second largest dzong in Bhutan and one of its most majestic structures. Quite accessible, compared with Trongsa and Bumthang, not surprisingly there were relatively many tourists here.

Punakha was the capital of Bhutan and the seat of government until 1955 and in 2011 the wedding of the present king took place in the dzong


The dzong closes at 5pm, we could not really visit in detail. Before going to our hotel we visited the longest suspension bridge of Bhutan. Modern design, traditionally decorated with prayer flags.

Another interesting day.


DAY 7

After breakfast we visited Chimi Lhakhang, a monastery near Punakha, with an interesting history. Built in 1499, it was the monastery where the “Divine Madman” lived. From the Wikipedia link:  “Some of his most famous performances include urinating on sacred, thankhas, stripping down naked or offering his testicles to a famous Lama.” It is a nice walk through the padi fields to the modest monastery.

The tradition to decorate houses with paintings of erect penises originates from the Divine Madman. Nowadays the government discourages this tradition, but in the countryside we had still seen several (see picture above). They are not fertility symbols but serve to protect against evil spirits and demons.

In the nearby village of Sopsokha it has become the main tourist attraction. Shops, restaurants, they are all decorated with modernised phallus images. A bit too much…:-)

But of course I joined the crowd in taking pictures. Here is a collage.

Leaving the village we had a nice view of the beautiful landscape. If you look carefully, you can just see the monastery on the hill top, left from the village

Next stop was at the Royal Botanical Park, where that day the yearly Rhododendron festival took place. Quite a few visitors, mostly locals.

The rhododendron season was almost over, we had to search for nice specimens.

Our last stop was at the Dochula mountain pass at 3100m.  With clear skies you can see from here the big Himalaya mountains, but, although the weather was nice, the view was not clear.

The 108 memorial chortens have been constructed in 2004, in honour of the Bhutanese soldiers who were killed in the December 2003 battle against Assamese insurgents from India.

We stayed overnight in Thimphu, in the same hotel as the first two nights.

 


DAY 8

Before we left Thimphu for Paro, we went to the Main Post Office. Why? Because you can buy regular stamps there with your own picture on it.

At the Dochula pass we had already taken a picture , especially for these stamps.

Here is the result. We have used them to send postcards to family and friends.

In Paro we first visited the National Museum, high above the Paro Dzong. A watchtower (left) protects the dzong, which you can see downhill (right).

Seen from above it looks rather small, but actually it is a large fortress. Notice the watchtower in the top right of the picture

This was the fifth and last Dzong we visited during our trip. Fed up with dzongs? Not at all. Although the basic architecture is the same, all of them have their own character. And they are live monuments. Here too the dzong houses both government offices and the monastic body.

Everything so colorful. A delight for photographers

During our stay in Bumthang we had visited Jambay Lhakhang, one of the 108 temples, supposedly built on one day in 659 AD to pin down a demoness. The other one in Bhutan is located in Paro, the Kyichu Lhakhang .

It is believed that the two orange trees in the courtyard of the monastery bear fruit throughout the year.


DAY 9

Probably the most famous landmark in Bhutan is the Paro Taktsang, better known as the Tiger’s Nest, a monastery located in the cliffside of the mountains near Paro, at an altitude of 3100 m. The shrine was first built in 1692 around a cave where according to legend the Guru Rimpoche had meditated in the 8th century.

It is considered the cultural icon of Bhutan , so of course we wanted to visit it. It is a strenuous hike, starting at an altitude of 2600 m, and we were not sure if we could make it…:-)

Of course we were not the only visitors. The first part of the hike you can rent a donkey, I just bought a walking stick. We started early before 8am. In both pictures the Tiger’s Nest is visible, try to spot it ..:-)

Even though we were reasonably fit, it was a tough hike, we were often out of breath because of the altitude. The pictures give the altitude and the time. Notice that we had to climb higher than the monastery, then go down steps about 100 meter and finally steep up again to the entrance.