Wednesday, February 25, 2015

February 22nd-23rd – Hong Kong Is Busy!

Hong Kong has always made its location work for it. First, as a base for the British opium trade to infiltrate China in the 19th century, and more recently as a place to ship out all the manufactured goods from China's factories. But, what's happening at the moment, is that the territory is getting over-run with megabucks shopping tourists from the Chinese Mainland, who are flocking here in their hundreds of thousands to snap up "bargains" in its huge malls. To be honest, there aren't many bargains to be had for us western tourists, but for the Chinese, where sales tax is above 40%, they can't get enough of Hong Kong's high end malls.

So, with the long weekend for Chinese New Year, I don't think that I've ever seen Hong Kong looking more packed. The malls were chock-a-block with shoppers who were willing to queue up in long lines outside Hermes and Prada to spend thousands of dollars on European handbags – the whole territory is in danger of becoming an unbelievable monument to consumerism and conspicuous consumption.

Just to prove to ourselves that Hong Kong still has some soul left, we decided to take the bus out to Sha Tin in the New Territories, to visit the 10,000 Buddha Temple, a temple that we've not been to before. As we got off the bus, we emerged into a huge mall that was almost as busy as the mall we'd left behind in Kowloon – although, being out here in the unfashionable New Territories, it was full of local shoppers rather than out-of-towners.

Tracy did her bit for the local economy by buying a new camera lens, and we then got down to the reason we were here – visiting the temple. Not as easy as you might think, seeing as it wasn't signposted; so, after a false start in a large temple which had the grand total of three Buddhas, we finally followed the crowds to the correct temple.

The temple swiftly lived up to its name, as we climbed a stairway lined with thousands of life-size Buddhas, in so many different reposes, states of enlightenment, states of baldness, hairiness, fatness, thinness, surprise, contentment etc etc. Actually, the temple should also have been called the Temple of 10,000 Tourists, because it was also thronged with people, although in this case, the majority of them were Filipina maids enjoying a cheap day out on their day off. This made it a lively and fun place to visit, and a nice way to get out of the commercialised atmosphere in Kowloon.

That evening we went for a lovely meal out at the Shangri-La Hotel – our first ever Michelin Starred restaurant!

The next day, we had a lot of jobs to do on the internet, so we spent the morning hunkered down on the wifi – our concentration only broken by the many noisy dragon dances being performed around Kowloon to welcome in the Chinese New Year. They were all very entertaining, although the clashing symbols do begin to give you a headache after a while.

At the end of our interneting, it was a case of if you can't beat them, join them, as we dived into the mall to do a bit of retail therapy ourselves (although at the other end of the scale from the moneybags mainlanders).

Finally, we went out in the evening to watch the Festival of Lights in which all the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island are lit up with lasers and neon – sadly, it was more of a Festival of Fog, as the clouds obscured most of the show. So, we spent our time taking silly photos for Tracy's next photography class.

Every year I come to Hong Kong, it seems to get just a little bit more Chinese, and even more focused on shopping. I suppose that the Chinese authorities believe that shopping is the opium of the masses – as long as people have Prada, they might not care about the lack of democracy.

Monday, February 23, 2015

February 21st – Celebrating Chinese New Year in Haikou

The island of Hainan in southern China is getting increasingly popular with Chinese tourists, who come here in their droves to enjoy its sub-tropical warmth and sandy beaches. However, the resorts and beaches are all in the south of the island, while our port of call, Haikou, the island's modern capital, is a long way away from them in the north of the island, and it's not really used to entertaining Western tourists.

Our introduction to the island wasn't great – it was enveloped in fog so thick that its lines of skyscrapers were scarcely visible, while the authorities seemed unprepared for clearing a ship promptly. However, somehow the ship managed to get us all through the immigration chaos, and the sun began to burn off the fog, so that we could actually see what the city looked like.

What we saw was an almost totally modern city that seemed to be expanding before our eyes – building sites everywhere constructing line after line of tower blocks and shopping malls. In spite of this, it wasn't a depressing place – the streets were wide and lined with thousands of coconut trees (which makes this seem an exotic place to those Chinese tourists from the cold cities of the north), while there seemed to be quite a large proportion of parks in the city.

My tour actually took us out of the city to see Haikou's "Volcanic Cluster Park" – a park of extinct volcanic cones and craters swathed in thick greenery. Unfortunately, that probably makes it sound a bit more interesting than what it's become, because the tourist industry has virtually turned it into a theme park. As it was Chinese New Year, the park was absolutely packed with thousands of Chinese families enjoying a noisy day trip out. It wasn't unpleasant, and in fact the people watching opportunities were great, but it wasn't quite the back-to-nature experience that people may have been expecting.

So, we joined the crowds trekking up the long stairways that led to the main crater – if you could zone out the millions of other people sharing the views with you, you could just about imagine the primeval volcanic landscape this was before man arrived.

As we were finished a little early, I persuaded our guide (who was excellent) to take us into the city to see Evergreen Park, the place where the city's people come to play. This being Chinese New Year, they were out playing in their droves, but there was a really good, happy atmosphere to the park, as children played gleefully with their kites and strolled with their parents.

So, I don't think that Haikou is going to be turned into a Mecca for western tourists any time soon, but it's a pleasant enough place which showed us the massive changes that are taking place in Chinese society, as it gets ever more focused on urbanisation, consumerism, high-rise living and leisure.

February 18th – Messing Around in the River in Kota Kinabalu

Visitors to the fast-growing modern Malaysian city of Kota Kinabalu (KK) don't get to see much of the rainforest that people tend to associate with Borneo (the logging operators saw to that long ago) – so, on our half day here, I joined a tour that would take us out of the urban jungle into some of the better preserved countryside in this region, and go rafting down the Kiulu River.

Apparently it had hardly rained for the previous two weeks, so the river wasn't particularly high – something which our group of mainly rafting novices weren't too upset about. So, the rapids weren't too rapid and the waters weren't too white, which meant that we could concentrate on enjoying the lush riverside scenery, rather than re-enacting any scenes from the film Deliverance. In fact, our biggest trouble was to avoid getting stuck on any rocks whenever the water levels got too low – seeing as, somehow, we were floating backwards down the river quite often, this wasn't as easy as it sounds.

Even if the sense of danger wasn't really there, it was great fun as we pretended to paddle and made our guide do all the work, while the tranquillity of the river was incredibly beautiful.

PS. Tracy joined the ship's tour to the Lok Kawi Wildlife Park to see some of the wonderful wildlife whose habitat in Borneo is sadly disappearing fast. Her pictures of soulful orang-utans and the super ugly proboscis monkeys are attached.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

February 17th – A Brush With Sharia Law in Brunei

The fact that the Sultan of Brunei has recently just introduced full Sharia Law into his country has not endeared him to many in the West. However, there isn't an oppressive feel to the streets of the sleepy capital, Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) – in fact, the place felt so calm and deserted, it was virtually comatose.

Although he's one of the richest men in the world, with a personal fortune in the region of $24 billion, it's obvious that this is a fairly wealthy place – every house we passed by appeared to have at least four cars parked in each driveway, and with diesel costing around 25 cents US per litre, maintaining a car is not an expensive business.

Our guides were certainly very complimentary about the Sultan, regaling us with stories of his generosity and largesse, but it was when you started questioning them further, that the downsides of living in an absolute dictatorship became obvious. Difficult questions were avoided and subjects changed, or we were told official party lines about how wonderful life was in Brunei – which it probably is, if you are a devout heterosexual Muslim who is happily married. However, it was obvious that free speech is not totally free here.

Given the amount of money sloshing around here (or at least sloshing around in the Sultan's bank accounts), you might be expecting the architecture to look a little like Dubai or Abu Dhabi, but everything is much more understated here. In a city of shopping malls and bog-standard government buildings, BSB's most impressive architectural feature is its huge mosque with its gleaming golden dome – a splendid reminder to everyone that Islam is the over-riding force here in Brunei. They were happy for us to go inside, so Tracy put on her headscarf and huge black over-cloak and we had a quick look around.

But, for me, the most interesting aspect of the urban landscape was that a large proportion of the population still live in ramshackle-looking stilt villages, overlooking the water of the wide Brunei river. On closer inspection, these stilt houses are not quite as rudimentary as they look – connected to the sewage system, electricity, the internet and satellite TV, while parked up on the landward side, we could see plenty of posh cars.

We didn't have long to look around BSB (not that it needed long), because in the evening we were joining the ship's Silversea Experience to the palatial Jerudong Polo Club – part of the $1 billion investment by the discredited profligate Prince Jefri, who equipped this tiny country with a set of enormous theme parks and leisure facilities that were ridiculously over the top for a population of less than half a million people.

On the way there, we drove through the government district and passed the hugely grand legislature building – a massive complex built for a legislature that has no voice whatsoever; and we then passed the enormous Prime Minister's Office – considering that the Sultan is the Prime Minister, Finance Minister and Defence Minister, all rolled into one, you'd have thought that his offices could be accommodated in his 1,700-room Palace.

On arrival, we found that the interior of the Polo Club was duly opulent, its huge ballroom illuminated by massive crystal chandeliers; and we were treated like royalty in a country where the royalty are obviously treated pretty well. There were some interesting local singing and dancing performances - sounding like a cross between Indian and Arabic music, which I guess sums up the main cultural influences here. While, the food was delicious too, and again was a mix of India and Arabia. The only downside for a group of passengers who are used to all-inclusive champagne every evening, was that this is a dry country, so we had to wash it all down with plain old fruit juice (once everyone was back onboard, there were a few strong martinis swiftly downed to get everyone back to equilibrium!).

So, we saw all the aspects of modern Brunei – mosques and stilt villages, a populace who remain deferential to the Sultan, and opulent architecture funded by oil money. It makes you wonder what this place would be without oil – would the Sultan still be in charge, and would Malaysia have taken it all over?

Brunei may not appear to have much soul to the casual visitor, but it was a fascinating experience to see it in action.

Monday, February 16, 2015

February 14th – Semarang and Borobudur

Most people come to this part of Central Java to see the amazing temple at Borobudur, rather than the more gritty urban attractions of our port of call, Semarang. So, while Tracy was whizzed along the two hour journey to Borobudur with a police escort clearing the traffic out of her way, my tour around Semarang slowly made its way through the chaotic traffic that's become a feature of urban Indonesia.

In a city that's grown exponentially since the war into a modern town of 2 million people, there weren't many traces of the old town that was founded by the Dutch in the 18th century. We visited the old Dutch Church near the port – a grand reminder that the Dutch were making serious money out in the colonies in the East Indies, but also a reminder that the world has come a long way since the time of the European empires. The days when this was the centre of town have long gone.

There were a few more old Dutch houses and office blocks, but the only other major colonial building was the Lawang Sewu ("The Thousand Doors Building"), the former headquarters of the Dutch Railway Company. Other than that, Semarang has become a sprawling city of shopping malls, office blocks, ramshackle housing, and posh suburbs. The contrast between the sparkling malls and the rambling markets, between the dilapidated shacks and the opulent villas told the story of Indonesia's two-speed economic growth – the rich have been getting richer, while it seems like not much has changed for many of the poorer people.

Semarang is notable for being "the most Chinese city in Indonesia", with roughly a third of its population ethnic Chinese; so we visited one of their most impressive temples, the tall pagoda at the Buddhagaya Watugong Monsastery. The pagoda was covered in carvings and made a photogenic stop, but the whole site was curiously deserted.

Our final stop was at the Balemong Resort, a resort complex of 50 rooms and villas set in some beautiful grounds, that again appeared to be deserted. At the resort, we were shown how to make Batik designs and then given a chance to have a go ourselves. All I can say is that it's a lot harder than it looks – by the end of our session, my hands were covered in boiling hot wax, while the cloth that I was "decorating" was covered in clumps of wax that had little relation to the drawn out lines that I'd been attempting to follow. Somehow, in between me turning in this terrible piece of work that a three year old would have been embarrassed by, and it getting dyed, they'd managed to resurrect it into something vaguely artistic.

It was hot work, slaving over the boiling wax, so we were glad to have a cool beer with our tasty lunch, and then we got to watch a couple of enormous buffalos labouring away in the thick mud, as they ploughed a rice paddy – maybe doing a bit of batik wasn't so hard after all.

So, Semarang isn't the most attractive city in the world, but it's not completely without its charms.

PS. So, while Semarang is ok, Borobudur was a place to fall in love with on St Valentine's day. As you can see from Tracy's pictures of Borobudur, she definitely picked the right tour to join, as she followed the path of enlightenment around this enormous, totally stunning temple.

Friday, February 13, 2015

February 12th – The Contrasting Sides of Bali

You go to any temple in Bali (you have the choice of 20,000 of them on the island after all), and you'll see that many of the statues are draped in a black and white checked cloth. These cloths represent the duality of spiritual life – the good and the bad spirits which must always be kept in balance. In the Hindu teachings, too much of a good thing is to be avoided just as much as too much of a bad thing.

From our time on this beautiful island today, it appears that Bali is in danger of losing some of its balance, if all the development and commercialisation are allowed to continue to expand at the same rate as it has in the last decade. When Tracy and I first came to Bali in the year 2000, the population was 2 million – 15 years later, it's doubled to 4 million. That's far too many people for a place like this; as the terrible traffic around Sanur, Kuta and Denpasar showed. As you drove around this over-populated southern part of the island, it was difficult to see where one city finished and another one started.

Having said all that, once you got out of the congested cities and into the peaceful countryside, then the fabled Balinese charm begins to work on you. Every village and every home you pass by has at least one ornate Hindu temple to remind you that a deep spirituality runs throughout Balinese life, even if western fashions are increasingly taking over from traditional dress. While, the countryside is still swathed in the emerald green paddy fields that make give the island its timeless character (away from the cars and fast food joints).

I joined a tour that visited Tanah Lot temple to see the view of a million postcards of Bali, of its super-picturesque temple sitting on a tiny island surrounded by the sea. The temple was looking as good as ever – the tide was coming in, but people were still crossing the semi-flooded causeway over to the island; however, on the land, there were hundreds of souvenir and clothing stalls that give this place a hard commercial edge which seems at odds with the serene temple surrounded by foaming waves.

Our second temple, the Pura Taman Ayun at Mengwi, was a much more tranquil affair – its lines of meru (multi-tiered pagodas) and its well tended lawns looking as majestic as they ever did, without being marred by lots of stalls and shops. Earlier, we had enjoyed a delicious lunch at one of the homes of the Mengwi Royal House, and we'd been met by a welcome party of what looked like the whole village – we felt like royalty.

Thunder clouds had been looming all day, but the heavens didn't open until we'd pretty much finished all the main sights – the gods must have been pleased with us.

So, we got back to the ship without being drenched, and we got to enjoy a wonderful gamelan show, with some great examples of the Balinese exotic dancing. To be honest, there's only so much of the crashing gamelan music that I can listen to without getting a headache (as an ignorant philistine, it can occasionally sound to me like someone's noisily washing up the pots and pans without much care); however, the bulging eye motions, the jerky head movements and the doubly bent back fingers of the graceful female dancers is just totally unique – a pleasant reminder that plenty of the Balinese traditions are still going strong.

Bali remains a place of fascinating contrasts – serene temples and manic traffic; peaceful countryside and crazy cities; ancient traditions and modern commercialism. Long may that fragile balance continue.