France 2018, part II

Status

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…:-)

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…:-)

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.

Here is the reward for our efforts…:-)

The interior of the monastery is beautiful, but photography inside is not allowed and the checking was strict, cameras and smartphones had to be put into lockers. We stayed inside for about one hour, then walked back in  2 hours

Tired but happy that we had made it!. In the right picture you can see the Tiger’s Nest above me

I wrote earlier that Bhutanese food is not that special, but the lunch we had was delicious

Ram and Tenzin had ordered it especially for us, probably because they knew that we are interested in food..:-)

Aric had also asked them if they could arrange a Hot Stone Bath, a Bhutanese speciality. So, after lunch we went to a bathhouse. As they had to prepare the baths , we had some time to try archery.

The water in the bathtub is heated by stones, that have been roasted in a fire. When they are dumped in the tub, they not only heat the water, but also give off minerals, supposedly good for your  health. It was a fun experience, when the water cooled down, you just called the helper outside “one more stone, please”.

After we had taken some rest in our hotel, Ram and Tenzin took us to a restaurant for a farewell dinner. Again really nice food

 


DAY 10

Ram and Tenzin took us to the airport, where we said goodbye to what had become our friends..

A very rewarding trip, although we still prefer to organise our own travels, if possible

Singapore 2018

Regular readers of my blog may remember that during my visit to Taiping in April 2017, I met a gentleman from Singapore, Dr Lee. We are both interested in (Taiping) heritage and kept contact by email. He suggested that we should visit Singapore, not only for its cultural heritage, but also for its nature, he could show us some interesting places.

So we booked a hotel in Singapore’s Chinatown for three nights and took the Aeroline bus to travel. Quite convenient

On my to-do list were a few of the recent modern buildings and one of them we passed already in the bus…:-). The Interlace (2013) , a 1000-unit apartment complex, which looks like numerous bricks irregularly stacked upon each other

From the bus terminal we took the MRT to Chinatown. The Keong Saik hotel was a good choice, the room was not big, but comfortable, and we had a view of another building on my architecture list, the Tanjong Pagar Centre (2016), the tallest skyscraper in Singapore. Although designed by world famous  Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, it did not look very special from our balcony. The Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar temple nextdoor was more interesting, but we had no time to visit it.

After a short rest, we met Dr Lee and walked with him through Chinatown.

Nicely restored houses and shoplots, many consisting of three storeys, unusual in Malaysia. Also here mural art. There are several works by Zacharevic, but we had no time to look for them. Next time…:-)

During our walk passed another modern building on my to-do list, the Pinnacles@Duxton (2009), a residential complex of 50 storeys high, dominating the three storeys shoplots of Chinatown. Initiative for this development came from Prime MInister Lee Kuan Yew, who was concerned about the exodus of residents from Singapore’s center.

We walked back via Keong Saik Road, beautifully restored houses. In the 1960’s this was the red-light district of Singapore! Dr Lee told us that in those days you could not pass the street without being addressed by the ladies of the night..:-)

For our dinner we went to the foodcourt in the Chinatown Complex , where we met a few of Dr Lee’s friends. Nice food, nice company.

The next morning Dr Lee picked us up from our hotel and brought us to the “best nasi lemak shop in town” for breakfast. He was formally dressed this time because he had to work in the hospital that day.

But first he dropped us at the Botanical Gardens, where we spent the next few hours. The gardens are 158 year old and, since 2015,  an Unesco World Heritage Site.

We started with the Rainforest, a small part of the gardens, actually older than the gardens themselves! Of course Malaysia has more rainforest, but Singapore is one of the few cities with a rainforest within its borders.

We walked around, beautiful views everywhere

On many places you can find sculptures, Here are two of them, Change Kuda (2011) by Chong Fah Cheong and Girl on a Bicycle (1987) by Sydney Harpley.

A few more pictures. To the right the Bandstand (1930), no longer used for musical performances, but still an iconic landmark of the gardens.

The bandstand was a good spot to take some rest

After our rest we had again enough energy to continue…:-)

Nice flowers.

Interesting leaves.

The gardens are free and open all day but for the famous National Orchid Garden you have to pay an entrance fee. After some hesitation we bought tickets and entered. Very worthwhile. Never in my life seen so many orchid species!

Here is a collage of orchids we have seen.

First we wanted to take a “wefi”, then a friendly visitor offered to take the picture. Even better..:-)

It would have been no problem to spend the whole day in these gardens, but we had decided to spend the afternoon in another beautiful garden, the Gardens by the Bay, created in 2006 on reclaimed land. The public transport in Singapore is well-organised, we took the MRT to the Bayfront station and walked via an underground corridor to the gardens.

This passage has a few remarkable works of art. Left in the upper picture is a painting by Sol Lewitt, Wall Drawing#915, Arcs, Circle and Irregular bands (1999). Further on both walls are covered with mirrors, which gives multiple reflections. Could not find the name of the artist

Perfect location to take a wefi..:-)  Can you find out who of us has taken this picture?

When you exit from the underground passage and look backwards, you see the iconic Marina Bay Sands Hotel towering above you. One of the most impressive buildings I have seen in my life. I have stayed once there, expensive but it was worth the money..:-).

Entering the gardens you pass three smaller gardens, Malay, Chinese and Indian, Singapore is proud to be a multi-racial country. Far away the surrealistic Supertree Grove, but first we had a simple lunch at a snack bar.

Also in these gardens you can spend easily a full day. We had only limited time and decided to visit one of the two domes in the Gardens, the Cloud Forest dome. Expensive but 100% worth it.

Inside the dome a “misty mountain” has been created, with a waterfall, and pathways leading up and round the structure. Amazing and fascinating, just look at the pictures.

Of course flowers, mosses, ferns everywhere. These are fuchsia flowers, a favourite of mine.

Look carefully, two pictures show real flowers, the other two are fake!

In between the Lego “artworks”, there are real pitcher plants and other carnivorous plants.

A lot of maintenance is needed, but the result makes it worthwhile.

Interesting artworks, made of tree roots.

There is a Secret Garden too

When we bought tickets for the Cloud Forest, we thought about combining them with tickets for the “canopy walk” at the Supertree Grove, but the friendly lady at the ticket counter advised us to wait, because there might be rain in the afternoon and then the walk is closed. Good advice, there was a downpour while we were inside the dome, when we came out we noticed that the canopy walk around the trees was empty.

We went back to our hotel and had some rest. Later Dr Lee picked us up and with two of his friends we went to the Kent Ridge Park, to have a view of the harbour. Nice surprise, his friends had brought pulut & mango for us. Delicious

Next we went to Labrador Park, where we walked a part of the boardwalk. Nice view of another building on my list: Reflections at Keppel Bay (2011), a luxury residential complex designed by Libeskind, another famous architect. Singapore knows how to choose…:-)

Here is the boardwalk

TIme for dinner. We went to the Alexandra Village Food Centre, where we had a tasty soup and claypot chicken rice from the well known Tai Liok restaurant . It really is an advantage to go out with Singaporeans, they know where to find the good food!

The next day, after breakfast in our hotel, we took a bus to the Southern Ridges for a long hike, from the Alexandra Arch bridge to the Henderson Wave. Surprising that Singapore has so many hiking and walking opportunities. On the map you can see also the location of the Labrador Park.

The bus passed two buildings I had seen before already, the Reflections and the Interlace

It was an interesting walkway. We met many student groups on a Learning Journey, as it is called.

We continued until the Henderson Wave, a pedestrian bridge with a unusual artistic design

From this bridge we had a nice view of the Singapore skyline. Dark clouds again, it was quite rainy during our visit

The Henderson Wave, as seen from below.

After this walk we took a bus to the city center, as we had planned to visit the National Gallery in the afternoon. There were still remnants of the Christmas celebration. Again we had a very simple lunch

We walked around and had a look at Singapore’s landmark, the Merlion.

View of the Theatres on the Bay, colloquially known as the big durians. Memories came back of a “concert” by MozART Madness, attended many years ago…:-)

Boat Quay, dwarfed by the skyscrapers

We walked around in what is called the Civic District. Here many of the heritage buildings are located. Left another “wefi”, right the St Andrews Cathedral (1861)

The Victoria Hall began as Town Hall in 1862, the Asian Civilisations Museum is housed in what originally were the Government Offices (1864). The Old Parliament House, possibly the oldest surviving building of Singapore was built in 1827 as a mansion for a Scottish merchant. The National Gallery occupies two more recent buildings, the Former Supreme Court and the City Hall, both built in the first half of the 20th century

We decided to keep the National Gallery for the next day, and walked a bit more along the padang in the direction of two conspicuous buildings. The left tower is part of the Raffles CIty (1986) designed by architect I.M. Pei who has been responsible for many of Singapore’s skyscrapers. The right building was new for me, and it was only after I came  back home that I found out that it is  the South Beach development.

Looking back from the padang, the skyline of Singapore, the National Gallery, the Victoria hall with in front of it the Singapore Cricket Club.

It was in this club , the oldest one of Singapore (1852), that Dr Lee invited us for our farewell dinner. The club has a dress code, fortunately we had brought long pants, shirts, shoes. We started with an aperitif and what could be a better choice than a Singapore Gin Sling?

After our dinner we walked to the Singapore river for a few night view pictures. The majestic look of the Fullerton hotel suggest that is one of the prestigious old hotels of Singapore like the Raffles. Not true, the building is from 1928 and for many years it has been the Post Office of Singapore. It was only in 2001 that it became a five-star hotel!

After the posh dinner in the club, we enjoyed at a stall coconut ice cream as a dessert…:-)

The next morning we visited the National Gallery. There was so much to see and admire that I decided to write a separate post about this impressive museum: National Gallery, Singapore

 

In the afternoon we took the bus back and arrived home around 11 pm, tired but very satisfied. There is much more to do in Singapore and we are looking forward to come back soon.

 

Taiping September 2017

At the end of our Trip up North, Aric dropped me in Taiping, where I stayed two nights in my favourite hotel Furama. My last visit was in May (read the report here) and I was missing my “second hometown” :-).

After a shower and some rest, I had dinner with Tung Lay Chun and her family. Later that evening I met Wan Amril for a drink. Both are members of the Taiping Heritage Society and knowledgeable about Taiping heritage .

Four years ago I have written a blog post Shame on Taiping! about the pitiful condition of several historical buildings in a town that proudly presents itself as  Bandar Warisan (Heritage Town). In the meantime these buildings have deteriorated further, but recently there has been some activity and Lay Chun and Amril updated me about the present situation

The next morning I went out for breakfast. A bit early, because I wanted to try the “most famous” Chee Cheong Fun in town..:-). During my last visit I had also gone to stall 37 in the Taiping hawker center near to the Bomba, but the CCF was sold out early in the morning. This time I was lucky and just in time.

Delicious food. I chatted a bit with the friendly owner of the stall, his family had been operating this stall for many decades already. Will sure come back.

After my breakfast I walked to the Lake Gardens.  In January 2017 I published a blog report Taiping Old and New in which I compared old photographs and postcards with recent pictures taken from the same location.  One of those buildings was the Standard Chartered Bank, now the Public Library. The Lake Gardens are beautiful any time of the day. I passed the Peace monument, the THS has tried to beautify this monument by planting flowering plants around it, but that was not a success. Now it looks better, with new tilings around the  brick posts, each carrying a peace message in various languages

My first target was the ruined Casuarina Hotel on the hill where once the Residence stood. According to Amril there were (serious) plans to build a 4-star boutique hotel here. The hotel has no heritage value, it was built after Merdeka. No sign of any recent activity here yet.

I was not in a hurry, so I checked the number of pillars and their location, the only remains of the former Residency. In total there are 32 pillars, see the GE image below.  This imagery was obtained in 2007, when the Casuarina hotel was still operating!

Walking back I passed the (former) First Galleria. After a few successful years it was taken over by MPT because of mismanagement. Now it is called the Taiping Municipal Gallery. It was closed. Note the sloppy way they have kept the old sign, just removing “will” (and forgetting to add an “s” to function). My Taiping friends tell me there is nothing of interest inside. Pity.

Behind this Gallery is the soon to be opened Telegraph Museum. The first telegraph line in Malaysia line was built between Taiping and Kuala Kangsar, so it makes sense to have a museum about the history of the telegraph here. Hopefully it will be managed better.

I continued my walk to the biggest eyesores of Taiping, the Old Rest House and the former PWD building. During my last visit you could enter the PWD building through all doors, no fencing at all. Squatters were living there and trees were growing in the courtyard. Recently they have cleared the interior, removed the trees and bushes. They had to destroy one of the entrance doors, so a bulldozer could enter. After the cleanup the destroyed door was rebuilt, in itself a good sign.

Also the doors have been closed in a primitive way, and in Malaysia that means you can still enter..:-). The courtyard is clean now, which makes the ruined state of the building only more obvious. The same holds for the Rest House, it is fenced off, but you can still enter. Also here the undergrowth  around the building has been cleared. According to Amril this building is designed to become a boutique 3-star hotel.

My breakfast had been quite filling, so I decided for a light lunch with cendol and pasembor at Ansari, one of the two famous cendol stalls in Taiping.

Before I ordered my food, I got into a conversation with two gentlemen, who had just finished their meal. We came to talk about Taiping heritage and one of them was the owner of two beautiful heritage houses, in Barrack Road  around the corner. We had a look at these houses and will keep in touch with each other, because of our shared interest!

I had been walking quite a lot, so I took a long rest in the afternoon. I decided to have popiah for my dinner, so I walked again to the Taiping hawker center. No popiah there, but interesting preparations for the last day of the Hungry Ghost month. During the 7th month of the Chinese calendar, the ghosts of the ancestors are permitted to return to the world of the living. At the end of this month they have to go back and Taai Si Wong (his effigy is shown in the right picture), takes care that they do…:-)

When I reached the stall of the Famous Omar Popiah near the Central Market, they were just closing. So no popiah, I went to a nearby stall and ordered satay and ketupat, also nice…:-).

After my dinner walking back, I came across a Caucasian couple and we started chatting. Not very often I meet Mat Salleh’s  in Taiping…:-). They are from New Zealand, traveling in SEA, and were  pleasantly surprised by the relaxed atmosphere of Taiping. Of course I agreed and we decided to have a drink together. We walked back to the Taiping hawker center, where we had three big Heineken for RM 21 only. Just behind Taai Si Wong…:-)

A nice day. I don’t know why, but it is easy in Taiping to meet interesting, friendly people.
The next morning I met Yeap, the president of the THS. A few months ago the Malay Mail Online published an interview with him about the deplorable state of many heritage buildings in Taiping.

He was willing to show me some of these buildings. In the GE map I have indicated with letters the locations we have visited (click to enlarge)

In the center of the town, one block behind the Old Rest House (A in the map), a dilapidated facade, overgrown by trees and greenery. Decaying for how many years already?

Two examples of shoplots. This one (B) is located on Jalan Lim Tee Hooi. MPT has put a warning sign, AWAS (Be careful)

Here is the second one (C) opposite Central Market. Again a useful warning sign by MPT…:-)

Next we visited the area around Swettenham Road (now Jalan Istana Larut). In colonial times many sumptuous bungalows could be found here, and also more simple government and army quarters. Here is what is left of an impressive bungalow (D on the map). Note the pillar structure. No fence, you can just enter. I explored the ground floor, the upper floor is no longer accessible, look at what is left of the stairs.  No wonder that useful parts of the building will disappear. It would be interesting to find out more about the history of this building.

Here are a few more pictures of deserted government quarters (E, F, H). Not fenced off, you can just enter and explore.  G is special, a gate with two posts is all that remains of what once must have been a big bungalow on a huge plot of land.

Thanks to Yeap for an interesting excursion. Next time I will explore more.

KL Heritage

Kuala Lumpur, now a bustling metropolis, had a very modest start around the middle of the 19th century. It began as a small hamlet at the confluence of the Gombak and Klang rivers. In nearby Ampang rich tin mines were opened and Kuala Lumpur was the place from where the tin could be transported by boat to Klang.

Here is how Kuala Lumpur looked in 1884. The open field at the left (the padang) is what today is Dataran Merdeka !

The wooden houses with atap roofs were prone to fire, and several times the whole village was razed. Kuala Lumpur also got heavily involved in the Selangor Civil War (1867-1874).  After this war Selangor became a British protectorate and in 1880 Kuala Lumpur replaced Klang as the capital of Selangor.

In 1884 Frank Swettenham, at that time the British Resident of Selangor, decided that future buildings should be constructed of brick and tile, to reduce the risk of fire. Yap Ah Loy,  Capitan Cina of Kuala Lumpur, started a brick industry in what now is called Brickfields. He can be considered the founder of modern Kuala Lumpur.

When in 1895 the British government decided to establish the Federated Malay States (FMS), a federation of Selangor, Perak, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang, Kuala Lumpur became the capital in 1896.

Here is a map of Kuala Lumpur, as it was in 1895. Worthwhile to study it in detail!

Regular visitors of my blog know my interest in history and heritage (Taiping, Klang) and may have been wondering why I never posted about Kuala Lumpur. Well, here is the result of two heritage walks in Kuala Lumpur.

We will start at the padang (Dataran Merdeka) where many of the heritage buildings are located. Here is a fascinating aerial view of colonial KL, taken circa 1930. What a beautiful town KL was in those days, without all the modern high-rise buildings! I have numbered the heritage buildings.

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Selangor Club (1)

The Selangor Club was founded in 1884 as a meeting point for educated and high-ranking members of British colonial society. It started as a small wooden building with an atap roof, near the north eastern corner of the padang. In 1890 it was replaced by a two-storey structure,  designed by A.C.A. Norman in Mock Tudor style . Later, in 1910, it was enlarged by Arthur Benison Hubback

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Government Printing Office (2)

Built in 1899, designed by Norman in Moorish Revival (Neo-Mughal) style. In the 1895 city map an earlier building was still located west of the padang, where nowadays the Police HQ can be found. The building has been used for various purposes, at present the KL City Gallery has its premises there. There is a gallery about the history of Kuala Lumpur, a souvenir shop, a cafe and on the first floor a scale model of KL. Quite touristic, but worth a visit.