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Once upon a clear sky in Hong Kong

Sunny days with blue sky were hard to come by during my little sojourn in Hong Kong. We had snatches of it on our first day – ah, what a bright welcome – and then the city was just shrouded in foggy whiteness/greyness on the following days. I was beginning to wonder if I was actually in Hong Kong or in Beijing… Lo and behold, on the final day of my trip, I woke up to clear blue sky and everything was basking in shimmering light!

Sunny Hong Kong

Sunny Hong Kong

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How to gain a few kilos in a week

First, there were dim sums. Then, came desserts. There were even some street food/ snacks. But, as you may have guessed, I was not done with eating yet. I dare not step onto the weighing scale when I got home from Hong Kong, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I’d put on a few kilos; my jeans felt snugged… /whistles

Food in Hong Kong

Food in Hong Kong

For someone who is not big on biscuits and cookies, I had fun tasting a large range of goodies offered at Kee Wah Bakery and Koi Kei Bakery. There are multiple branches for each of these famous bakeries, with friendly staff that really want you to know how delicious their treats are and why you should buy a few more packet of everything. Guess who was the sucker who hand-carried boxes of delicate egg rolls back to Paris?

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So many markets

I’ve lost count of the number of markets I stumbled upon in Hong Kong. In the vicinity of Mong Kong/Yau Ma Tei, visitors’ guides are recommending the Bird Market, the Flower Markets, the Ladies’ Market, the Temple Street Night Market and the Jade Market. The variety of things that anyone could buy is just mind-boggling. Not only that, all of these markets could be pretty much visited in one go – they form a complete walking tour route! Somewhere along the way, there are shops and stalls to pick up walkabout snacks. ;)

Hong Kong markets

Hong Kong markets

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Hong Kong by night

Central Hong Kong puts up a colourful display of neon lightings no matter where you go and look, and over at the harbour waterfront, the Symphony of Lights set to wow visitors nightly at 8pm with its almost-15 minutes lightshow. I caught the show one evening from the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, and for anyone interested in listening to the accompanying narration, the places to be are the Avenue of Stars and Golden Bauhinia Square (Wan Chai).

Hong Kong by night

Hong Kong by night

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Occupy Central with Love and Peace

It is difficult to walk around central Hong Kong and not run into the occupy protestors, with their tents and living areas pitched on a number of streets around Causeway Bay, Mong Kok and Admiralty. The Umbrella Movement valiantly stood their grounds, but alas, their courageous protests and occupations were brought to an end last week. It is a complex socio-political issue and one which I don’t have enough knowledge to discuss, so all I can offer are a few photos, guiltily taken, during the week I was in Hong Kong.

Occupy Central

Occupy Central

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Chinese desserts galore

One Chinese New Year many moons ago, I organised a dinner in Dublin for 35 friends and colleagues. In keeping with the theme of the meal – Chinese dishes which non-Chinese can’t find on their version of the menu (the restaurant owner was very nervous when he saw 35 non-Chinese walked in with me because I had pre-ordered some very traditional dishes!) – I had specially ordered red bean soup for dessert. The meal was a great success but I wish I could say the same about the dessert; a majority of the diners abandoned it after a spoonful or two, and proceeded to order frozen desserts available in just about every Chinese restaurants in Europe (you know which one I’m talking about, right?).

Asian desserts

Asian desserts

It is true that Chinese desserts are not very conventional by European/Western standards. Many are in the form of warm soup or custard, the ingredients often include beans or seeds or nuts, there are glutinous and/or jellied textures… I could go on, but that’s no reason to confine Chinese/”Asian” restaurants’ dessert menu to ice cream, frozen stuff, and at a push, banana/pineapple/apple fritters. If bubble tea and the chemically-induced flavours could gain popularity in the West, why not other desserts too?

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Postcards: Stanley (HK)

For yet another change of scenery from central Hong Kong and its skyscrapers, A and I took the bus out to Stanley, one of the oldest villages in Hong Kong, and the site of a former English fort that is now famous for its market bearing the same name. En route, I spied the cable cars that transport visitors to the Ocean Park and some of the park’s rollercoasters, and I also looked admiringly at the scenic Repulse Bay – nothing repulsive there, right? We found Stanley Market highly commercialised and generic to many other local markets; walking along the main street waterfront and Stanley Ma Hang Park was decidedly more interesting.

Stanley

Stanley

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Tai O fishing village

A short 20-minutes bus ride away, to the west of Po Lin Monastery, lies Tai O, a traditional fishing village that sits partly on Lantau Island and partly on a small island mere metres away – not immediately obvious until I had a closer look at the map. The small island is today connected to Lantau by way of 2 bridges: Tai Chung footbridge (completed 1996) and Sun Ki bridge (completed 1979); until then, river crossing relied on punting and even rope-tow ferry pulled by elderly Hakka women! If you want to experience the latter, it may be possible on some weekends and holidays, but not on the day I was visiting.

Tai O

Tai O

On arrival, we were lured by the touts selling boat tour of the village and to see the pink dolphins. The 30-minutes ride is very affordable, and while no sighting of the dolphins for us that particular day, what I actually found more fascinating is the way of life in this small village that relies heavily on the river and the sea for their livelihood. It is as different from central Hong Kong as day and night. No skyscrapers, no shopping malls, but houses so close that the neighbours could stick their heads into each other’s living rooms.

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Po Lin Monastery and the Big Buddha

SL and I arrived at Tung Chung, and we started to hem haw – should we trek for 3-3.5 hours or queue up for for the cable car in order to get to the Ngong Ping plateau, where the Po Lin Monastery and the Big Buddha are located? It was already past noon, the sun high in the sky, and the queue for the cable car didn’t look too bad (it ended up being a 40-minutes wait). And I admit it, I was feeling lazy too. Cable car, it is!

Po Lin Monastery and Big Buddha

Po Lin Monastery and Big Buddha

The 6km-ride from Tung Chung to Ngong Ping plateau took about 20-25 minutes, over uninhabited peaks and rather magnificent view. We could also see the trekking trail just below us, and spotted the occasional walkers heading downhill towards Tung Chung. Clearly, they’d been up at the Lantau Peak much earlier in the day and were ready to wind things down.

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Wong Tai Sin Temple

The temple of Wong Tai Sin lies a couple of kilometres to the west of the Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian Garden. It is also just one MTR station away from Diamond Hill (“Wong Tai Sin” station, exit B3) for anyone looking for a quick access option, although frankly, it’s easy enough to walk between them. A and I walked it in about 20 minutes.

Wong Tai Sin Temple

Wong Tai Sin Temple

Home to three different religions: Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism – there are distinct differences between them even if they’re often lumped together as “Buddhism” – the Wong Tai Sin Temple complex is large and bustling with worshippers and visitors alike. Apparently, there is an one-way system which visitors are encouraged to follow, and during festival periods, this system is compulsory to keep things in order. Well, since we arrived through “Supreme Paradise Gateway” that was definitely not the main entrance, we explored the complex randomly.

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Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian Garden

I found myself heading towards Diamond Hill on my second morning in Hong Kong, in search of the Chi Lin Nunnery and the Nan Lian Garden, for something more traditional and away from the gleaming towers in the Central district. For anyone travelling by public transportation, the access of the Chi Lin Nunnery is easiest through the Nan Lian Garden, mere minutes walk away from the MTR (exit C2).

Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian Garden

Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian Garden

Founded in 1934, the temple complex of the Chi Lin Nunnery was renovated in the 1990s. The elegant wooden architecture was constructed using specific interlocking systems to hold the wood together, very much like how they used to do it during the Tang Dynasty, and thus not a single iron nail was required in the present-day buildings. A series of temple halls can be found, with exquisite statues of the divinities, including Buddha, Kuan Yin (Goddess of Mercy) and other bodhisattvas. (Sorry, no photos of the halls and statues allowed!)

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Postcards: The (Victoria) Peak (HK)

Victoria Peak is the highest peak on Hong Kong island. Locally known as The Peak, it gave a superb view of the Victoria Harbour as well as other neighbouring islands. I trekked up there twice during my six-day stay, blocked sinus notwithstanding. I was glad to have repeated the experience since the second go was on a clearer day and right before sunset; it was beautiful.

The Peak

The Peak

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More dim sum, please

Even prior to landing in Hong Kong, I knew what I wanted to eat – dim sum! There are a few dim sum places in Paris, some better than others, but I miss those that I get in Asia which somehow always tastes better and comes in more variety. I know, this could just be the biased Asian in me speaking. ;)

Dim sum

Dim sum

Four of my six lunches in Hong Kong constituted of just dim sum. The first among them was at a small place called Ding Dim in the Central district, and we were so glad to dig in our food that not even a single photo was taken. Two of the next three dim sum restaurants I went to were noticeably packed with Asians and barely a couple of token Caucasians. If they were, I’d hazard there have been a lot of cart peeking and dish pointing instead of ordering, unless they are long term residents in Hong Kong. Fun times!

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First impression: Hong Kong

Growing up, I’ve seen enough TVB dramas to have an idea of what Hong Kong is like. In fact, it was thanks to these series that I learned Cantonese; daily lesson, every weekday evening, seated next to my greatgrandparents and glued to the latest riveting tales of love and rivalry. The actors and actresses were pretty much the same from one drama to another, so even a child could pointed out right from the first episode that who was likely to be the nice guy and who the bad one. ;)

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

Still, it is very different to experience Hong Kong in person. Somehow, in my head, it is geographically a single main island surrounded by a handful small ones. Imagine my surprise to find Hong Kong island actually constitutes of a small part of the Special Administrative Region (SAR) and a large part of it attached to the mainland China. It is also a lot bigger than I had envisaged. I was in Hong Kong for six days and I barely covered the grounds around Central, Kowloon and Lantau Island. I’d love some time to go out to Yuen Long, or to Sai Kung, or even trek the Dragon’s Back trail.

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What can I do in Hong Kong?

Hong Kong is located just across the border from Shenzhen. It was also the perfect location for me to recharge after a very intense work period: I could visit SL who lives in Hong Kong (ahem, mooch a free bed for the trip), satisfy my craving for great Asian food (dim sum!), and sightsee a little in a region that I know very little about.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

The trouble was, I did not have much time to research what I could do in Hong Kong either. Before leaving, WL helped identify a few key things to, and once in Hong Kong, I am grateful for SL who came to my rescue. She made a list of places we must eat in, suggested places to visit, and even took time off work to play guide a couple of the days. If you know how preciously few paid holidays there are in Asia, you know how significant such an effort is. She is the hostess with the mostest!

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Postcards: Hello from Shenzhen (CN)

Work took me away to Shenzhen for a few days recently, and for my maiden trip to China, I was pretty much ensconced inside a fancy hotel throughout the period. I wish I had seen more of the city but each day, I was up and on the go pretty much between 7am and 11pm with little down time in between. Nonetheless, I made some effort to escape the glittering chandeliers for the very modern city filled with skyscrapers.

Shenzhen

Shenzhen

A couple of hours walk barely took me anywhere beyond the couple of blocks around the hotel. The distance that seemed doable from the map I’ve secured from the hotel was dauntingly further, and it did not help that I got lost at some point in an urban park and none of the exits (except the one I came in through) were accessible. A lot of walking hopelessly in circle until I found the way out…

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Postcards: Kuala Lumpur (MY)

Unlike many of my friends, I have never lived in Kuala Lumpur, neither to study nor to work. Instead, it becomes a pitstop each time I travel back to Malaysia, mostly because my flights arrive and depart from KLIA, and usually I’d organise to see my friends in the couple of days leading to my departure.

Trying to show F around was therefore not a particularly easy task, since my knowledge of the city is rather limited. Armed with a good map, we managed to get around the historical centre of KL, taking in a few classic sites and walked the streets whenever it wasn’t raining. Oh yeah, they seemed to be heavy downpour for 2-3 hours each of the few days we were there, which curtailed some of our planned sightseeing.

Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur

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The temples of Batu Caves

F and I visited quite a number of Hindu temples while in Bali, so it was rather interesting to contrast those with the Hindu temples that we typically see in Malaysia. Not only are they architecturally dissimilar, the customs and practices of the devotees also bear differences. Since we saw the Mother Temple of Besakih in Bali, it was apt that we picked Batu Caves as its counter comparison.

Batu Caves is famed for the annual celebration of Thaipusam, taking place early in the year (January/February) to mark the gifting of a vel (spear) by Parvati, the wife of Shiva, to her son Murugan, created by Shiva from the flame of his eye of wisdom. It was this vel that was ultimately used by Murugan to emerge as victor against Soorapadam, an asura who was terrorising the devas. On Thaipusam, devotees from all over Malaysia, following a strict period of cleansing, fasting and preparation, begin a pilgrimage of kavadi bearing. A kavadi is a burden bore by the devotees to be offered to the deity in exchange for good tiding and/or aversion of serious trial and tribulation. It is an absolutely fascinating festival to observe.

Batu Caves

Batu Caves

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A daytrip to Pangkor

If you talk to F about my hometown, he’ll tell you right away that there is not much there. And he’s right. Here, you either work, eat, shop or sembang (chit chat); there is a distinct lack of interesting attractions and activities when you’re used to the kind of variety found in many European towns of similar size. Still, for me, it’s home, and I’ll happily stay for a spell without having much to do except searching for the next best eat. For a small town, it kinda rocks that way – outsiders come here for delicious snacks and meals.

Perhaps the most “exciting” thing one can do is to visit the nearby Pangkor Island, an island inhabited primarily by a thriving fishing community but in parts have been developed for tourism. It is a short ferry ride over from Marina Island or Lumut (this takes a wee bit longer) and once arrived, there is no shortage of shocking pink taxi-vans in waiting to take you on a 2-hour island tour.

Pangkor Island

Pangkor Island

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Postcards: The legacy of Georgetown (MY)

A single blog post is hardly going to be sufficient to tell the rich history and the many tangible heritage sides of Georgetown, and I would not even dare to try to write a succinct summary in fear of getting it wrong or short-changed it in any way.

Instead, I’ll let the photos take you through a simplied journey, of appreciating the kind of childhood that is familiar to my generation (and those that came before, for we played barefoot outside and wouldn’t think of sliding an icon on a touchscreen gadget), on looking at freeze frames harking back to the colonial time, or seeing how much we stand to lose if we do not preserve part of our roots.

Georgetown

Georgetown

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Postcards: Kek Lok Si (MY)

The Temple of Supreme Bliss, or Kek Lok Si as it is known based on Fujian dialect (the most prominent dialect in Penang) pronounciation, is the most celebrated and largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia. Sitting atop the hill and overlooking Ayer Itam, it is said to be auspiciously located and feng shui-approved to protect the well-being of the temple and its devotees.

Constructed in 1893 under the direction of a well-supported head monk of the Kuan Yin Temple i.e. Temple of the Goddess of Mercy, from local consuls to the Chinese Emperor Guangxu, Kek Lok Si incorporates motifs of Buddhism from Burma, Thailand and China – a nod to both major branches of Buddhism: Mahayana and Theravada. (Note: ask most Chinese Buddhist and they’ll have a hard time telling you which branch of Buddhism they are followers of, in part due to the integration of Taoism to muddle up the mix further.)

Kek Lok Si

Kek Lok Si

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A Perhentian stopover

My trip home last year was short – a mere ten days – and for a number of practical reasons, F stayed put in Paris. It therefore makes this trip his first to Malaysia, and with a couple of big family events to attend, he was in for the tough task of meeting absolutely everyone. If there’s anything you ought to know about Chinese family events, it’s that just about anyone related in anyway gets an invitation and the extended branches could get a little too crazy.

In order not to overwhelm him with the amount of time we spent with too many people at the same time, and to also introduce him to parts of Malaysia, I planned a couple of stops in Penang and Perhentian Besar during the weekdays flanked by family event weekends, and just before flying back, we had a quick visit of Kuala Lumpur and its environs.

Perhentian Island

Perhentian Island

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Postcards: Inlands of Bali (ID)

A considerable amount of time of our final 24 hours in Bali was spent on the road. The north-south parallel roads system in the region we were at meant it would never be quick to get from one place to another, even if they are geographically nearby. From the car, we scanned the horizons so to remember what it was like to be there, and when the vista got really interesting, we asked Komang to park to the side briefly so I could at least grab a few photos.

Given Komang was really there to be our driver and not as a driver-guide, I don’t have much stories to tell you in return either. Nonetheless, I hope you too enjoy the views which we had oohed-aahed over ;)

Gunung Agung

Gunung Agung

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Pura Tirta Empul

F and I had initially planned to trek Mount Batur on our final day in Bali. However, for a number of reasons, we scrapped that plan (so I brought my trekking shoes for nothing?) and swapped it for some inland sightseeing and a visit to the Pura Tirta Empul, more commonly known as the temple of Holy Water Spring, in Tampak Siring.

Pura Tirta Empul

Pura Tirta Empul

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Pura Besakih

It was Day 3 and the last that we would spend in East Bali. Given the prominence of Mount Agung in the region, what’s more culturally fitting than to pay a visit to Pura Besakih, the Mother Temple of Bali that’s perched some 950 metres up on the south-western slope of Mount Agung? Pura Besakih is, like Pura Lempuyang, both a kahyangan jagat (directional temple) and a sad kahyangan (temple of the heaven).

Pura Besakih

Pura Besakih

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Postcards: Amed and Tulamben (ID)

There wasn’t a day in Bali that we did not go into the sea. In fact, whenever possible, we squeezed in two sessions in the water – once in the morning, and another in the evening. I usually paddled by the beach, although I did once go out snorkelling with F, the veritable water baby.

Amed was therefore the perfect base for us while exploring East Bali, and we also nipped over Tulamben, which is popular among divers, for a couple of hours to snorkel. These sleepy towns were exactly what we were looking for – calm and peace from large tourist groups and urban traffic. Don’t get me wrong, there are other visitors around, but unlike Kuta or Ubud, we did not feel like there were more foreigners than locals in Amed.

Amed

Amed

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Pura Lempuyang

Balinese culture is steeped in spirituality, and therefore it is not a surprise that there are tens of thousand Hindu temples all over the island. Bali is, afterall, “the Island of a Thousand Puras”. Some of the temples are small and territorial, located within private compounds (usually among the wealthier clans) or local community-based (each village has at least 3, known as kahyangan tiga), while the larger public temple complexes are revelled by Balinese near and afar, and they are also among the most visited by non-Balinese.

Pura Lempuyang

Pura Lempuyang

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Postcards: Masceti and Candidasa (ID)

Our ultimate destination in East Bali was Amed, the name of a village but synonymously used to refer to a number of other villages within the same coastal stretch. Normally a solid three hours drive away from Kuta, we broke the journey down a little by making a few short stops along the way. We made it to Masceti Beach and Candidasa in the morning, before tracking down Bali Asli for lunch and the subsequent visit to Tirta Gangga.

Bali

Bali

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A feast at Bali Asli

I wanted F’s first trip to Southeast Asia be a memorable one, so I put in considerable effort in planning our holiday. Not a rigid hour-by-hour schedule, mind, but enough to have a good idea what we could do each day and what were the alternatives should we fancy a change. It was during this research phase that I came to know about Bali Asli.

“Asli” refers to something genuine or authentic, and Bali Asli strives to promote the food tradition of East Bali by using own-grown or locally sourced fresh produce for its constantly changing menu. Not only the ingredients used are indigenous to the region, the cooking method is also preserved (wood-fired mud brick stoves!) so to showcase the best East Bali has to offer. More significantly, Bali Asli serves a menu that is based on the concept of megibung, where food and drink are presented as communal platters to be shared, a tradition that harks back a few centuries ago where the King of Karangasem would sit down with his soldiers for their daily meals.

This was the restaurant we “dropped a cool half million for lunch” ;)

Bali Asli

Bali Asli

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Postcards: Tirta Gangga (ID)

We kickstarted our (East) Balinese cultural education not with a visit to one of the many temples; instead we went for a walk at the Water Palace of Tirta Gangga. The “Blessed water from the Ganges” is a beautiful complex which incorporates fountains (the centrepiece is an eleven tiered fountain), pools (for swimming, with water from its natural spring), ponds (for lily and koi), stone carvings, statues and a small temple among its lush and meticulously-kept gardens.

The water palace is not very old, built only in the late 1940s by the last King of Karangasem. Following damages caused by the 1963 eruption of Mount Agung, it was rebuilt and restored to its present form, and has been well-maintained since. For visitors who would like to dine with a view, restaurants with balconies adjacent to the water palace offer a premium view and presumably with a premium price tag too.

Tirta Gangga

Tirta Gangga

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