Category Archives: Places

The Watery Worlds: Kerala’s Backwaters, Ha Long Bay and Venice

The natural progression for the travel journal after Vienna should be Venice but since we did not spend much time in Venice and since we just visited Ha Long Bay, might as well I do a two in one. And then as I started to write, I remembered how the experience in Ha Long Bay reminded me of the experience in the Backwaters of Kerala. We have similarly spent one night on the boat in the Backwaters as we did in Ha Long Bay and we did cruised and enjoyed the same carefreeness, if such a word exists.

Ha Long Bay is picturesque and the sights are pretty amazing. But that place felt very touristy and lacking in some character. The Backwaters, although there are also many tour operators there, the environment did not feel as congested as Ha Long Bay. The atmosphere was more relaxed and there are tons of character. But perhaps I am not comparing apple to apple. In the Backwaters, we had a whole boat to ourselves with our own captain and private cook. And it also costs much less than the Ha Long Bay trip.

Comparatively, I will visit the Backwaters again without having to think but I don’t think I want to return to Ha Long Bay. Picture to picture, the Backwaters does not seems at all comparable to those magnificent limestone hills of Ha Long Bay but there is a natural calm to the Backwaters, and definitely much more authentic.

What about Venice? A completely different animal altogether. It does not have the natural surroundings of the Backwaters nor Ha Long Bay but instead is surrounded by many beautiful buildings with some very nice architecture. Although it is somewhat a tourist city, in itself it has a lot of life. It is a real city where real people live and work and has a life. The way the canals run through those beautiful old buildings makes it one of the most beautiful cities I have visited. We did not spend enough time in Venice but will I return to Venice? Definitely.

The Backwaters is a small town on water. Venice is a city on water. Ha Long Bay is a tourist destination on water.

Pictures say a thousand words, so here they are.

VENICE, ITALY

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BACKWATERS, KERALA, INDIA

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HA LONG BAY, VIETNAM

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halong10So what’s your take?

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Vienna, a Tribute to Gustav Mahler. Movies.

Vienna has always been sort of a teenage dream. At that time, I only knew it was the land of classical music. Only later did I know it has so much more but then again, it was how all the dream to visit Vienna started, i.e. it being a musical dreamland. Then in my twenties, Vienna is a must visit place, sort of like a personal pilgrimage, to pay respects to none other than the great Gustav Mahler.

I cannot remember how I got so deep into Mahler. Something about his music speaks to me. I remember Ted Dorall from the New Straits Times whom I have gotten quite close to at that time (like 13 years ago?) asked me why such a great fascination for Mahler but I cannot remember exactly how I answered him although I remembered then going into a discussion on THE CATCHER IN THE RYE and why he didn’t like Holden and thereafter went into a bit of Hemingway’s A MOVEABLE FEAST. The last time I saw him, he was moving to Penang and gave me a compilation of Hemingway’s short stories as a parting gift.

Continuing from the previous travel journal, we took a train from Prague to Vienna. The first thing we did after checking into the hotel was to go and see the Wiener Staatsoper, the famous Vienna State Opera. Of course it has such great history but for me, all that was in my mind that evening was Gustav Mahler and his time there. It is a dream come true, to be standing at the place where Mahler stood.

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Nothing beats being in the hall itself and having bought the ticket to Mozart’s LA CLEMENZA DI TITO, we indulged in an evening of musical extravaganza. This opera by Mozart is from his later period and is much less well known compared to the likes of THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO or THE MAGIC FLUTE but I felt that opera to be quite deep and engaging. It seems that this opera which was previously believed to be an inferior opera is now beginning to get a revival and was also favorably performed by The Metropolitan Opera in New York.

IMG_0279The little LED panel (blue light) at the back of the seats let’s you choose subtitles for the opera.

IMG_0292The orchestra pit right in front of the stage. I can’t help but imagine Mahler conducting there, although it is now different from Mahler’s time.

staatsbackWe also went for a tour of the opera house and was shown around, including a room named after Mahler. The picture above is the backstage.

A Mahlerite’s visit to Vienna cannot be complete without paying respects to Mahler at Grinzing where he was buried. I sat there by his grave and listened to the whole of his 5th Symphony. It was a wonderful day. The sky was clear and there was light breeze. The weather was slightly cool but not too cold. The place was quite empty and sitting there with his music, I cannot help but shed a few tears.

Woody Allen in his film MANHATTAN asked what makes life worth living.

For me, what makes life worth living comprises of moments like this. Sitting there, I try to figure out what life is all about. I still don’t know but at the moment, and many other moments, I felt it. What makes life worth living is the immense depth of the human spirit and the immense possibility to experience and enjoy them, be part of that human movement. What makes life worth living is the people that makes it worth living. Family and friends. Together appreciating these wonderful human creation and spirit, be it the making and/or appreciation of music, films, art, literature, food, poetry, playing GO….. and hopefully be part of this spirit, contributing whatever little we can to this human world.

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Besides the many sightings of Mahler, e.g. a bronze plate here and there, a street named after him, he also has his own section in the House of Music (Haus der Musik). There are many memorabilia there, including his favorite cap and some letters in his own handwriting. Although it is not a very large exhibition, there is enough Mahler there for me to spend some time.

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All in all, we had a great time with Mahler in Vienna.

Besides Mahler, we also indulged in some movie experience and the best was to go down the Viennese sewers just like Carol Reed’s movie THE THIRD MAN. It is truly an out of the world experience! It has to be a once in a lifetime experience and a must-do if you are a movie fan. Uber-cool.

3rd1Going down into the sewers.

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The guide who knows the movie inside out.

3rd2A picture inside the sewers in black and white.

Besides THE THIRD MAN experience, we were lucky that the Vienna International Film Festival is being held there. And there is a retrospective on Fritz Lang. We immediately bought tickets to his DR. MABUSE THE GAMBLER. It was a 4 hour show in Black and White. Not to mention a silent movie! The pianist did a magnificent job, accompanying the show for 4 hours without rest. It was a new experience for me doing that, and at some point in time, it was also hard for me although Fritz Lang is not a stranger to me having watched METROPOLIS and M, two of his most famous works.

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IMG_3551Waiting to go into the screening hall.

There is so much to Vienna that such a short time cannot do justice to it. There are still many things to explore. I am not talking about buildings and monuments and such. Those things are what many tourists do. They visit a place and takes as many pictures of buildings and monuments as they can.

What I am saying is to have more time to explore the place a bit. Stay there and work there for a while if possible. To know the people and what they really do. Then to dig deeper into the culture and food. But as tourists, it is very hard to do that. But any touring cannot just be visiting buildings and monuments but with whatever little time, one needs to explore the arts and culture, not to mention exploring local food.

If not, why not just stay at home and watch Discovery Channel and if there is a need, use Photoshop and paste your own picture on those buildings and monuments? That way, it saves a lot of money.

(some photo credit many thanks to Kit Liew!)

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Prague….. not so Kafkaesque after all.

Having been lazy and following on from Taipei, I thought I would add a post on the travel journal slot for the trip to Prague last autumn. Vienna, Venice and Rome will have to wait a bit. Memories are very peculiar in a way not dissimilar to what Tagore said, something to this effect:

“I do not know who has painted the pictures of my life imprinted on my memory. But whoever he is, he is an artist. He does not take up his brush simply to copy everything that happens; he retains or omits things just as he fancies; he makes many a big thing small and small thing big; he does not hesitate to exchange things in the foreground with things in the background. In short, his task is to paint pictures, not to write history. The flow of events forms our external life, while within us a series of pictures is painted. The two correspond, but are not identical.”

I feel the same way too. What I desire in my memory is not an exact blow by blow, second by second “true” account of what exactly happened. That will be too sterile and unromantic.

The memories of Prague is one of a giant Disneyland. This is perhaps due to the nature of my visit, i.e. we are merely tourists. But that city is one magical place. The buildings silently speak untold stories it witnessed through its turbulent history. I was impressed with how dog friendly that city is, how bicycle friendly, and what a good transportation system it has. All the hallmarks of an advanced and civic conscious city, which took me a bit by surprise. It makes me reflect on my own city and what a substandard job our city management has done comparatively.

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The beautiful subway station. Well maintained and clean.

But of course, mentioning Prague will inevitably trigger my admiration first and foremost for Franz Kafka and also, but to a lesser extent, Dvořák and Smetana. Surely, Prague has been the host to many others. Mozart once said that the people of Prague understands him. Einstein found Prague to be a great place conducive for him to immerse himself in thoughts and further crystalize his theories on relativity.

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Franz Kafka Museum. Not a big place but the atmosphere inside and the music is unmistakably Kafkaesque!

But no one that ever comes to Prague can miss the vein that runs through this city, the Vltava River. One of my best memories of Prague, besides the morning walk on the Petrin Hill where I have foolishly caught a cold, was to walk by the bank of the Vltava River and listening to Smetana’s MA VLAST (My Country) where the river’s name was featured as one of the six symphonic poems. It is a wonderful piece of music and listening to that piece by the bank of the river, watching the swans swimming in the most carefree manner is one of the high points of the trip.

It is one of those memories what I pray will not fade from my feelings and my mind. And this is one of the reasons to be alive, to be happy, a reason to celebrate life! Memories like this makes life worth living.

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By the bank of the Vltava River

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A Kafka statue. Guess which story this is from.

There is music everywhere. Truly a city of arts and culture.

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Street musicians abound. 

We went for a performance of SWAN LAKE which was so-so. On our final night, we had a sublime performance in the Smetana Hall playing Ravel and Gershwin.

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Some more pictures of Prague:

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Autumn on Petrin Hill

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Street artists on the Charles Bridge

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Municipal House, home to the Czech National Symphony Orchestra.

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Tram lines. Great transportation system in Prague.

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Night scene from the Old Town area. 

Prague is a magical city.

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Lin Yutang

“If a man be sensible and one fine morning, while he is lying in bed, counts at the tips of his fingers how many things in life truly will give him enjoyment, invariably he will find food is the first one.” – The Importance of Living

Lin Yutang (1895 – 1976) is one of the very first Chinese writers that I admire through reading his book THE IMPORTANCE OF LIVING. The charm of the book is in its simplicity, the enjoyment of the small things in life. I have since bought many copies of the book and have given them all away to my friends.

Very often, we live our busy life, going through the hustles of the day, be it spending it on meeting after meeting or busy creating stuffs, we forget how to live and what are the important things in life. Of course, one needs to work but not at the expense of living. Articles like the enjoyment of lying in bed, on food, on culture and even on how to choose a good son in law are such a good read, it always refreshes the mind.

He has written many books, and translated many as well. For example, here is one very nice paragraph about library from his book WITH LOVE & IRONY:

“Books should never be classified. To classify them is a science, but not to classify them is an art. Your five-foot book shelf should be a little universe in itself. This effect is achieved by letting a book of poems incline on a scientific paper, and allowing a detective story to keep company with a volume of Guyau. So arranged, the five-foot shelf becomes a rich shelf, intriguing your fancy. On the other hand, if the shelf is occupied by a set of Ssema Kuang’s Mirror of History, then in moments when you do not feel inclined to look into the Mirror of History, the shelf can have no meaning for you, and it becomes a poor shelf, bare to the bones. Every one knows that women’s charm lies in their mystery and elusiveness, and old cities like Paris and Vienna are so interesting because after staying there for ten years, you never quite know what may turn up in the narrow alley. That same thing is true of a library. There should be that mystery and elusiveness which comes from the fact that you are never quite sure what you have hidden on that particular shelf some months or years ago.”

Lin Yutang’s many writings exudes this kind of romanticism and nonchalant way to life. Rigidity, bureaucracy is thrown out of the window. This is one person that can write a book and call it THE PLEASURE OF A NON-CONFORMIST. His romantic and sensitive being makes his translation of SIX CHAPTERS OF A FLOATING LIFE such a great pleasure to read.

On the trip to Taiwan, we went to pay respects to him at his old home in Yangmingshan. It is a modest place but overlooking a great scenery. The architectural style is predominantly Chinese but given that Dr. Lin is such a cross cultural person, there are hints of western architecture and design here and there, especially hints of Spanish designs.

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The above is the shot of the house from the gate entrance. Simple house with a nice garden, Dr. Lin is walking his talk.

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This is a shot of one of his bookcases. The books collected is a melting pot of east and west philosophy, literature, travel, all sorts of books. Confucius and Lao Tzu lives there peacefully with Nietzsche and Plato while Shakespeare and Goethe aren’t lonely in the company of their eastern counterparts.

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One of Dr. Lin’s big project in his life, besides writing and translating books and dictionaries, is to build a typewriter that can type Chinese characters. He went into serious financial difficulties trying to do so. This typewriter in his house is on his writing desk overlooking the garden.

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This picture of Dr. Lin and his dear wife decorates one wall of the cafe at the back of the house which serves really good tea. It is very relaxing, just like a chapter from his book The Importance of Living.

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Dr. Lin’s final resting place, overlooking the beautiful scenery below.

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Some Photos

Following the trip to Bali, here are some photos from the trip. It is a very beautiful place. All photos taken by my wife with her Nikon camera.

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Some Photos From Cambodia

Here are some photos from our Cambodia trip, taken by my wife


Beautiful Angkor Wat at sunset.


An apsara at sunset in Angkor Wat


The wonderful Ta Phrom


Some of the carvings on the walls of Angkor Wat


Many headless Buddhas stolen by art thieves. One reason I cannot stand seeing the Buddha head being displayed at some places, even if those are just replicas.


Cambodian children very happy with sweets we gave them. Bring lots of sweets and pens to give to them.


Children playing with the water on the Tonle Sap lake.


Entrance to Angkor Thom


Some of the huge carvings at the Bayon


The Happy Herb restaurant at Siem Reap

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Back from Cambodia and All

Well, not exactly to Cambodia as in exploring Cambodia but just to Siem Reap mostly for the Angkor temple visits. Would love to spend more time to explore Cambodia but maybe this will happen only the next time. Have been reading a lot about stuffs to do, eg. in Phnom Penh to shoot a real AK47 and to witness for myself the absolute evilness that the human heart is capable in the Killing Fields. Also to explore Cambodia’s seaside towns and enjoy the great seafood promised by our tour guide.

One of the highlights of the trip is the eating of the “Happy Herb” pizza at the happy herb pizza restaurant. You have to specifically ask for happy herb and after eating that, we were very happy indeed :)

Next up, I am now a citizen of Facebook and this is taking up quite a lot of my time but is quite fun sometimes.

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