Hoping to get a sneak peak of the Mt. Kinabalu, a natural UNESCO world heritage site, I and Ujjal set off for Kotakinabalu, the capital of Sabah. There is no doubt that the mountain (4095 meters) has been the main attraction of this Malaysian city for all the tourists and explorers. But to our surprise this long narrow coastal stretch fascinated us with all its natural and cultural diversities as well as friendly people.
Here are some of the highlights of our trip.
The most important comes first:
Google shows one of the commonly asked questions about Kinabalu: “Is it a volcano?” The answer is ‘No’! But that certainly does not make it the safest mountain. This massive plutonic body was pushed up from the earth’s crust millions of years ago and it is still rising at the annual rate of 0.5 mm. Back in 2015 it was affected by a deadly earthquake. But all those who still go for the summit definitely seals a lifetime experience! And all those who witness its grandeur from the base also enjoy a breathtaking view!
They say, negative ions in the air are good for your body and its highest concentration is felt in clean air near mountain or forest. Its healing effect can be suddenly felt when you open the windows. Well, what could be a better place of feeling this than the Borneo rain forest! We switched off our car AC and rolled down the window! The chilly wind just refreshed our body, mind and soul as we crossed the beautiful hill town Kundasang!
Our next stop was ‘Desa Dairy Farm’. It is a high altitude grassland, also categorized as montane grasslands and is a an important part of Kinabalu ecosystem. We tasted the freshly made chocolate ice cream while enjoying the green meadows and cool wind.
Talk about Thailand and most of us would already dream for the exotic beaches, scuba diving, night life or the golden pagodas. Without actually visiting Thailand I felt like experiencing all of these repeatedly through my friends’ FB albums. But we always tend to prefer a soulful, serene vista or a secret hideout over a crowded destination! So a sudden long weekend plan for Thailand made us think beyond the touristy places. That is when I learnt about Ayutthaya, the ancient Thai capital! Without giving a second thought we included this UNESCO site in our bucket-list.
Exploring the ruins of Ayutthaya was like a whole new way of knowing Thailand. People who visited Hampi (in India) might also find a lot of similarities like the rise and fall of a prosperous Empire, scattered patterns of numerous ruins and close vicinity of a river. Dating back to 1350, the outside world used to praise this Thai Kingdom as one of the flourishing Empires of East! It was based in the valley of mighty Chao Phraya River. But the time never flows in same way! The city fell in 1767 after the Burmese invasion followed by a Chinese attack. A glorious kingdom got destroyed in war!
At today’s date only the remains of the erstwhile glory can be seen in mysterious temple ruins and relics
Our sojourn towards the former Thai capital started from Hua Lamphong, the main station of today’s Thai Capital. When possible it is good to ditch the luxury of private AC cars and roam like a local. Not only you can explore a new country in grass root level but also it shows your little, nice gesture towards the environment.
Before the train arrived, we saw a fascinating practice by the locals. The station’s loud-speakers started playing the Thai National song. Every single passenger including the cleaning staffs stood up to show respect; the mothers also made their little, naughty fellows stand still until the music ended!
Waiting at Hua Lamphong Station which serves over 130 trains and approx 60K passengers every day
We boarded the train with many other locals and a few British bag packers. As we settled with the seats the diesel engine whistled past the long stretch of city area. For one last time, I glanced through all the notes and routes which I had penned down during my initial research. Ayutthaya is one of the less known sites, so we could not expect to see a professional guide right after getting down. A bit of self-study helps here to comfortably enjoy the grandeur and the historic significance of the place!
Wat Mahathat Temple Ruins were registered as a national historic site by the Fine Arts Department on 8 March 1935. The main prang (a tall tower) fell apart in 1911 during the reign of King Rama VI.
After getting down from the train we had to cross a small river by a local ferry and reach at the main island of ruins. Exploring Ayuthhaya on foot is not recommended because of the year-long severe hot weather. Hiring a local tuktuk is a better idea. Within every kilometer we could visit multiple ruins. It took about 5 hours and we were done with the main sites.
Wat Mahathat, built even before Ayutthaya became the capital, was the religious center with many relics of the Buddha
What we could see in most of these sites were just the vigorously ruined shrines and broken Buddha statues, surrounded by nature!
Ancient Buddha Head, nestled within the tree roots for years after the Burmese attack and destruction
Every time I visit any ruins it makes me wonder how human greed can just destroy the finest creations of another human! However, nature has its own rules. I loved how the tree roots simply grew around the Buddha face for past 250 years and secured this eternal smile!
Apart from the main temples some less popular sites like Wat Worachettharam also offered us interesting visuals in different layers
At many places, we could see the same bell shaped stupas which we noticed in Yogjakarta and Myanmar.
The life of Buddha is portrayed in the mural paintings on the inner walls.
It is said that the attackers had set fire to this temple and melted the 343 kilograms of golden Buddha statue that took about 3 years to get built!
All the majestic ruins of this ancient city are probably Thailand’s best kept secrets. After the war and devastation, Thai capital shifted to Bangkok and Ayutthaya was abandoned only to get slowly claimed by the jungles. History thrived in the lap of nature.
Treasures and relics, recovered during the restoration, are now kept in Chao Sam Phraya National Museum.
It is a good idea to start as early as possible for Ayutthaya so that most temples could be covered before the unforgiving Sun takes its full form. Last but not the least, there is an option for taking Elephant ride around the temples. My sincere request for all the travelers is to avoid this one. You will get myriads of other alternatives to make the trip memorable; there is no pride in promoting captive wild life tourism. Please read details here to know how the elephants are domesticated and what could be the consequences.
After cormorant fishing in China, we wanted to document the traditional fishing style and net mending in Bạc Liêu, a less known coastal province in the Mekong Delta. If the last word is reminding you about the school days then you must have been a dedicated student in the Geography class. Yes, we are just back from Southern Vietnam where 12th longest river of the world meets the south China sea after crossing 5 other countries (China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia). The large triangular region, encompassed by 7 branches of the Mekong river, is a home to diverse traditions, friendly people and floating lifestyles.
The urge for photographing unseen landscapes and old life style are dragging us to places which were well known in school days. Life did not give me any travel opportunities at young age, so only way to visualize the unseen people and places was to see with mind’s eye. But now witnessing all those with my real eyes, has become endlessly fascinating.
Bac Lieu (fishing)
I never heard a place called ‘Bac Lieu’ until I started researching on Mekong Delta. Definitely, it is not one of those top fifty destinations to be ticked off from a tourist’s bucket list. A home to many ethnic Khmer people, Bac Lieu is a coastal province in Mekong Delta, South Vietnam. We wanted to explore its fishing community.
Sprawling wetlands and proximity to the seacoast inevitably make ‘fishing’ a prominent livelihood for the locals. Since ages, the Bac Lieu fishermen use a unique style of fishing. With huge and heavy triangular nets they struggle in the waist deep sea water for their morning catch. Watching them, in the golden hour was one of our precious experiences. Due to the high tide, we could not walk a long distance in the sea like those pro fishermen. So the other alternate option looked little safer but not so easy. Had to climb down to the basement of a floating restaurant and reach near the fishermen. Thanks to our local guide Miss Chou as she found this path. We walked on the narrow stone beams where morning waves were furiously crashing. That really needed a lot of attention, enough to make my sleepy soul wide awake :). It was super risky. But the scene, ahead, was also dragging the photographer in me.
After a constant 2hr shoot when the light turned harsh, we packed up and climbed up only to get scolded by the restaurant manager. He was tensed that we took such risk when nobody was there in the early hours 🙂
Soon we explored the local seafood market along the beach. The merchants set up the stalls very early and sell ample varieties of crabs, squids, shrimps, dried as well as freshly caught fishes. In that less touristy country side, we were the only foreigners; thus attracted many curious but friendly eyes. At a local tea shop, we tasted Viet coffee, it was super sweet which obviously made my morning! (I have severe bad habit of mixing lot of sugar in coffee, enough to ruin others’ taste buds 🙂 )
Bac Lieu (Net Mending)
Next attraction for us was the net mending workshops near the river bank. After struggling in deep sea or wide Mekong river, the fishing groups need their damaged nets, repaired before next trip. So they enter the main land via water channels to park near the net mending village.
We visited the largest factor. It is run by a middle aged lady and provides many jobs to local skilled workers. With a surreal ambiance and beautiful color contrasts these factories are very lucrative to any photographer. Visiting in wet season was a blessing in disguise. A lot of ambiance light variations made us happy as the weather turned sunny to cloudy and then rainy! If you are a photographer then your South Vietnam trip would not be complete without visiting this place.But note, spotting the factories is no easy task for an outsider, a local guide can always help.
Into the ocean waves
We got heavily drenched on our way back. South Vietnam receives a lot of intermittent showers from June to September. This weather pattern promotes a very unique local business. The high ways and rivers banks of Mekong Delta are dotted with hundreds of hammock cafes. We found every table and a chair are accompanied with a cozy hammock. The bikers or boatmen stop at these places during heavy rains, sip tea(Jasmine) or coffee and cuddle up in the hammocks while waiting for the rains to stop.
We embarked on this journey primarily to explore the fishing and floating life styles but tourists can also find a lot of Khmer pagodas in this area. Buddhism is the way of life here.
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
After savoring a bowl of delicious local Crab meat Soup we returned to Saigon.Next morning, we started real early and headed towards the Cholon markets in Chinatown. Our aim was to catch the first light of the day on Trang Tu market in 5th district. That area was also not very touristy. Our young and dynamic guide was constantly talking to random people which gave us ample opportunities to easily load our cameras with some candid moments. So far the eye catchy thing, we noticed about Vietnam, was the conical hats, made of bamboo leaves. It is equally popular through out the generations and regions. The local ladies adore this traditional accessory indeed. The busy morning hours offer excellent opportunities for panning shot.
Established by the Hoa community, Cholon became a scary region during the Vietnam war. But now it looks just as normal as other parts of Saigon where Chinese and Vietnamese people maintain harmony.
The old pagodas in China Town were our next place to halt. In terms of language, culture and rituals this area is sort of miniature representation of China. The pagodas have mysterious twists and turns. Morning hours always turn advantageous to the photographers. Lot of people came to pay their daily homage before starting their job. The directional light and shades, the smoky environments, prayers and the burning smell of spiral incense sticks were creating such ancient ambiance.
After a while, even the beautiful photo opportunities could not make us being ignorant about the breakfast stops. The street scenes were very similar to what we see in West Bengal (we grew up there) ; probably that acted as a catalyst to our appetite 😉 People would sit on the road-side-benches to sip the morning cuppa. Another local favorite is the steaming soupy noodle with veggies or dumplings. We chose a special local shop which serves vegetarian soups but the materials would look like non veg. Strange but very tasty! Also we noticed that Vietnamese love to add leafy vegetables in their daily diet. Baskets of fresh herbs and leaves are served separately to mix with your dish at every local food joints.
Post Breakfast, we visited another pagoda but then crowd was pretty less by that time. Soon we explored the artistic side of Saigon. The hidden backstreets have turned to creative hubs by local and international artists. Residents buy paints, the artists make their walls beautiful! I really wondered how adventurous their lives are. Some of these artists left their home countries to explore new places, concepts and then went busy, converting their ideas on the walls.
We covered few more streets, old housings, Saigon river and finally reached at the most touristy place, Ho Chi Minh city hall! Built during French domination in Vietnam this elegant colonial building was contrasting well against a cloudy sky.
After taking a lazy stroll around the nearby souvenir shops, we looked no further than the Instagram famed cafe apartment. An old nine storey building, renovated by various cafe owners, became the coolest coffee hub since 2015. I had this place in my wish-list since long! So visiting Saigon and not having coffee in one of those cozy balconies would be a crime to ourselves. As we sipped our glass of cold coconut coffee it started drizzling outside. We witnessed an amazing blue evening over the Saigon river and Hochi Minh city hall. The nature God was indeed very kind to us through out the trip.
Our Vietnam trip ended with a sumptuous dinner at Tandoor, an Indian fine dining restaurant. More than us our tour guide wanted to taste the Indian food under our guidance and the taste was real authentic.
In a nutshell, our trip was undoubtedly interesting and worth our time as it offered a lot of photo and food opportunities. Moreover we could travel like locals 🙂
Would love to hear your thoughts too if you already visited these places or wish to visit once 🙂 Check out my other photo stories about South East Asia here.
As you take this name ‘Borobudur’, the vital keywords which cross through your mind must be the mystic ancient temple, buddha, history, monument, world heritage site etc. Many tourists who already visited the Javanese province might also tell you just the stories of this magnificent monument which is also a UNESCO site. There is no doubt that the temple has all excellence to steal the major attention of visitors.
But only if the ‘explorer’ in you can not stay calm without checking the surroundings you may just discover this ‘other side’ of Borobudur. Three to four kilometers away from the main temple, there is a picturesque village, called ‘Tanjungsari’. It is also popular as ‘Tofu village’ because of the scattered tofu or tahu-making old workshops. Public transport or a cab is an almost-impossible option to reach there. Probably a bi-cycle or a bike and a local map can be the saviors. We took an extra step ahead. Instead of renting a bike we ‘rented’ the bike shop owner himself! That was one of those funny travel-moments which still make us laugh. The guy got puzzled when we approached him, saying ‘we don’t want your bike, we want you to take us there’! It was a lesson from all our past trips, local’s help is a ‘must’ to explore a non-touristy place when you do not know the language.
So after a minute of negotiation, the friendly owner got ready to give us a ride. His friends encouraged him on his new job! 😉
Tanjungsari is a beautiful Indonesian village, surrounded by the Menoreh Hills and green landscapes. Our newly appointed guide happily took us to the first workshop. It was owned by a middle aged person ‘Sumbi’. The sign board was half broken and the exterior of the workshop was not at all interesting. It looked like another village home. But after getting inside we found an old, Javanese workshop full of traditional utensils and no automatic machines. Only one worker was there. He greeted his new visitors with a big, hearty smile. There you see the universal innocence of a village culture!
Directional light from the wooden roof and walls had already given an amazing rustic look to the in-house workshop. The entire setting automatically triggered our hands to take out the gears.
The tofu-worker explained us the traditional process of making tofu, the white and healthy blocks, we often include in our daily diet.
It is then simmered in hot water until foamed up and strained through white clothes inside wooden blocks.
After pressing down with wooden heavy blocks, the tofu bar takes a perfect shape
Working constantly beside an ever steaming tofu tub really seems a challenge in the hot and humid weather of Borobodur.
We visited few more such workshops and all still continue the old, local process of tofu-making. Some in house workshops are run by the various members of same family. The art of tofu-making is thus passed through generations.
Since ages, Tofu is an extremely popular food in South East Asian’s daily meals. Hence these workshops, although still manual, do not face much crunch in demand. They send batches of fresh or fried tofus to the local market. In an era of artificial intelligence and automation, there are still few parts, left in the world, which remind you about some old movie-scenes. This place was definitely one of them and I will specially remember Tanjungsari because of the picturesque traditional workshops and the friendly people out there. ‘Slow travel’ always offers something special that is often missed by usual tourists.
It was winter 2014 and I was on full travel spree due to the pleasant weather. How about Hampi? We heard that it is a paradise for history buffs and bag packers.
After our usual research on some documentaries we packed our bags and ventured out for the lost capital of Vijayanagara Empire. A glorious and rich dynasty that ruled southern India for 200 years. Little did we know that we would end up visiting this UNESCO world heritage site two more times later. Given a chance I can probably visit the place ten more times again!
It was just a one night-bus-journey from Hyderabad where we were working. One can reach more quickly from Bangalore. Hampi always had fascinated me because of its magnificent history and iconic temples and a splendid water tank. I read about them since school. But upon reaching we realized, Hampi is more than that and even after 3 visits we could not completely explore Hampi!
If you have time you do not need a cab to reach from one ruin to another. Just get a map from Hampi Bazar, cover all the places on foot or on a rented cycle! 600 years old or older ruins are all over the place. Hampi still retains its ancient essence, intense enough to make us keep the cameras aside and sit quietly somewhere.
Every time we stayed in a rooftop room at a small guest house. Virupaksha temple would be behind us with lots of ruins and ridges along north horizon and majestic Hemakuta hill on south. Did I ever imagine myself in the midst of such wonderful ambiance?
Hampi is not yet crowded by modern hotels or ‘fun-only’ tourists, rather you can find Indian as well as foreign bag packers, groups of students on educational tour, few homely guest houses, some flea markets and little Tattoo studios. Catching a phone signal was tough and the nearest city with all amenities was 12kms away! Well, that is what we liked most! Would you ever mind running away from your daily worries of urban life?
Hampi is mystic, ancient and pure with all its raw beauty! As you sit on the steps of Pushkarini (rectangular pond) you can actually imagine how the ancient Chalukyans used to float on coracles. There is a small temple right in the middle of every pushkarini. The ruins of flower markets are still there around the sacred pond. We visited the famous Lotus Mahal which has an inbuilt AC mechanism. Then covered the Narasimha temple, elephant stables, queen’s bath, underground shiva temple, stunning Vittala campus and many more architectural splendors. Vittala temple can impress anybody instantly with its photogenic shrine, musical pillars, sprawling campus and the beautiful gateway towers. It is an iconic landmark of Hampi. During our third visit, we saw it already under renovation and prayed from heart that the temple should not lose its original charm!
Pushkarini, the sacred tank
I still remember my first morning at Hampi. Probably some mornings are so strangely charming that leave a strong impression in you about the place for long. Brimming with excitement we climbed the Hemakuta hill. The chilly wind, the Sunrise behind the Matunga hill, morning chant and resonating bells from Virupaksha temple, everything seemed so amazing on the hill. You can just sit there for hours without saying a word! That’s where we met Vittal also; a little local boy, selling Hampi post cards as he got a day off from school. We shared a cake for breakfast and the kid merrily showed us the shortest way to reach at the bank of river Tungabhadra.
As you cross the river, that is another different world. There you enter from history to the mythical era of Hindu epic Ramayana. Many believe that Hampi is the ancient Kishkindhya. There are places like Anjaneya Hill which is believed to be the birth place of Hindu Lord Hanuman, Pampa Sarovar where Lord Rama met his devotee Sabari, Rishimukh hill where Rama and Hanuman met each other etc. All I can advise here is just to refresh your knowledge about Ramayana before visiting this site and your experience would be unforgettable. I am neither a religious person nor advising you to be one. But connecting the dots from the mythical events, was awe-inspiring indeed!
During our last trip, we were searching for a mountain which is believed to be the Rishimukh hill. As we walked past the Tunga Bhadra river, met a priest, taking his morning dip. He only showed us that we are already in front of the hill. It is nevertheless a humbling experience to stand before a mythical mountain. Further talking to the priest revealed that he has changed his jobs and places several times just for the sake of experience. Would you believe that the priest once worked as a cook for some Indian army team at border!
Meeting unknown people sometimes gives you a unique kind of joy! On our way to Achyutaraya, we met a stone artist. I also tried my hands in chiseling out some God’s face.
Be it little Vittal or this artist or the priest, when we hear about their daily lives, struggle and amazing experiences, somehow I remember those more than whatever I hear during a family gathering or a kitty party! You may call it as ‘disorder’ in my brain algorithm but I am happy with it 🙂
Except the people, ruins, history and mythology, Hampi has another thing in its Pandora’s box. The mesmerizing sunset spots. There are numerous places like Matunga hill, Malavanta hill, Hemakuta hill where we enjoyed the vivid sunset in every trip and still can not decide which one was better. Sometimes, same place offered us different look and perception. Rock climbers would definitely prefer Matunga hill while usual travelers might want to avoid due to the steep pathway.
So here goes few sunset shots for you to decide 🙂 while I take a break. Because ‘Hampi’ is not yet completely explored and probably that always leaves a smile on our faces. Because we can go back again to see some more!
You can leave your perception about Hampi in the comment. Tell me if you know a secret, sacred, peaceful spot that can be covered in our next trip 🙂
Penang, an island in Malaysia, was founded as a trade hub by the British East India Company back in 18th century. Although it got a place in the global map long before by the Chinese explorers.
Penang was never in my wish list until I browsed some photos over the internet and came to know about the project Mirrors George Town. It was by the famous street artist Ernest Zacharevic. I and my shutter-bug husband both like street murals as they help to form interesting compositions for street photography. Little did I know that this place is a paradise for street arts and has been categorized as UNESCO World Heritage site! It’s neither so far nor so costly from Singapore, our current residence. Unless you have intention to cover street arts as well as all touristy sites in one trip, just a weekend is okay. We did not have to spend hours for planning. One of my colleagues already visited Penang and another colleague’s hometown itself is Penang. So got enough information already over the coffee breaks at office. We just chose a random weekend as the long weekends are too costly to plan in South east Asia.
We kept this trip strictly for ‘street arts, the old jetty and local food’. A day before the trip, I had to buy a 18-55/ 2.8 lens to avoid any ‘domestic violence’ over one 18-55 in our collection..(Chuckles!) As expected, I did not have to touch any wider or longer focal length at all as ‘Street’ was our main objective for this trip.
After landing at airport, we took a UBER as suggested by my colleague. That was really a cheaper and convenient option to directly reach to our hotel door at Georgetown. Well, now that I took this name let me brief about it. Georgetown was one of the oldest British settlements in South East Asia and was a hub of the nearby commercial districts. You can still find those 18th century colonial buildings all over the place. Some of them still have those broken sign boards of old trading centers but many have been converted to hotels. Our small hotel was also inside one of those buildings. Over all, to our Bong eyes the architectures and the lanes resembled not like the ‘Glittering Malaysia’, we typically see in calendars. Rather we found many similarities with some North Kolkata old roads and gullies. I am sure that has to be due to the East India Company effect!
Anyways, after dumping our bag packs our hungry souls ran for food and we ended up in a local shop where they serve soup in big bigger biggest Chinese porcelain bowls . The biggest one is so big that the serving guy himself could take a dip inside it . haha. But the teriyaki chicken and creamy chicken mayo soup were superb in taste and filling as well. Then we took a map for the street art trail and headed with our gears. It is actually a good decision to collect a hard-copy of the map or download available maps from net. Otherwise you may end up visiting same gully multiple times instead of exploring different streets. That afternoon and next day morning we covered street arts.
These art works are not as ancient as the British rulers or the historic Chinese sailor. These were created in 2012 by Ernest Zacharevic who is also leaving his brush marks in many other cities all over the world. But when in Penang, you will just get overwhelmed by the number of arts, he created in the old walls and even on the abandoned shop doors. Some paintings are also supported by real props to give a more lively perspective.
The Old Clan Jetties
In the day-1 evening, it started lightning. We walked towards the jetty, expecting a stormy weather already. It was a pretty thrilling experience with wind so strong while we survived under an old shade. That was probably a rest place for the fishermen. The rattling sounds, the rolling chairs, the swinging plants, crazy waves in the backwaters created almost a movie scene in that old clan jetty. I was sitting on a thick wooden stem and my Indian soul was so badly missing a cup of ‘cutting chai’.
These 100 years old jetties are actually fishermen’s village. Six jetties are owned by 6 Chinese clans and have rows of old or renovated wooden houses. From the outlook of every house, it was easy to guess that the locals are very much religious. Some small and serene temples are also there, facing towards the sea.
After the storm, the temples were lit up with red Chinese lanterns and few people came to place incandescent sticks on a metal bowl. Chew jetty among them is most touristy and local folks built up a flea market on the pathway. We pretty much liked the jetty area and went again next day afternoon. That was a dry weather and we spent the blue hour on the most photogenic jetty.
Finally there comes the most unexpected event. On the Day-2, post lunch we headed towards Lorong Chulia to explore some more street arts, that time the streets around our hotel was quiet and normal like the other day. But we returned only to see a fully different look. The otherwise quiet streets were packed with pop-up food stalls with specialty street foods; plus dragon and lion dancers, doing processions in different lanes. Without knowing the occasion we almost jumped into the vibrant ocean of crowds, tasted various street food and crazy drinks, walked with the dragon dancers and also watched a traditional dance performance. Later we came to know that was the last day of Lunar New Year in Penang. This festival is known to be one of the biggest celebrations in Malaysia.
Overall our Penang trip was very interesting. We purposely avoided the over hyped Penang hill and the upward train as it becomes too crowded on weekends and many including our uber driver told that the streets would be more interesting. In fact it was a pleasant surprise that we enjoyed the vibrant Lunar New Year fest around George Town!