Further afield in Hong Kong

It didn’t take long for me to find Hong Kong’s claustrophobic feeling of the skyscrapers to get too much, and my lack of interest in shopping required me to finding something further afield. The weather wasn’t ideal for hiking, which is a shame as there are some interesting routes on the islands.

So I decided more temples was in order. I headed to Ngong Ping to see the Big Buddha, and though I was initially disappointed to find the cable car wasn’t working I was eventually thankful. It meant it was a bit quieter and my first impression hadn’t been tarnished by departing the cable car into yet another shopping area.

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Catching a local bus instead provided me with the opportunity to see the wildness that still exists on Lantau island. I’m sure had the cable car been working and the mist not enveloping the island I would have got this view from the sky looking down, but it felt more authentic to see it from a local bus.

I have to be honest here, I was disappointed upon reaching Ngong Ping and its touristy shopping area which had some how managed to turn Buddhism into a theme park attraction. Having visited smaller Chinese temples and just left Cambodia with its spiritual temples, I was not that impressed to see Buddhism becoming so touristy. This wasn’t just a popular temple that had become a tourist attraction, but created as a tourist attraction.

That said the Buddha was beautiful, and though the temple was quiet and void of worshippers it was beautiful too. Despite the weather I also walked the Wisdom path with its 38 wooden columns representing the heart sutra.

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I needed somewhere quieter to escape so headed back to the metro station and caught the metro to Nan Lian Nunnery and garden. Despite its proximity to yet another shopping mall and busy roads, the garden was truly serene.

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From here I headed on the metro to nearby Sik Sik Wong Tai Sin Temple, which is entirely Taoist. It was a stark contrast to the quiet of the nunnery and I was greeted by throngs of worshippers, clouds of incense and bus loads of Chinese tourists. If you believe in I-Ching or just fancy something a bit different, Taoists have a strong belief in fortune telling and there are a lot of fortune tellers surrounding the temple.

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The final temple I visited was the Ten Thousand Buddha temple at Sha Tin. Amazing, but a bit garish with its golden Buddha in different poses lining the path to the top of the hill and the temple.

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I finished my trip to Hong Kong with an overpriced trip up Sky 100 tower to see the view over the harbour. Expensive, but worth it for a final night experience, seeing the lights of the harbour from above.

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Exploring Hong Kong

Hong Kong – the place that kept my baggage for while I had a few days in Siem Reap. Having to change flights here again on my way home, I’d planned a week in the city to break up the journey. But being almost 20 degrees colder than Cambodia, a huge city of towering skyscrapers and every metro station leading into a shopping mall (and I really do mean every single one); it was a culture shock in more than one sense.

Hong Kong is a fascinating city, though requires energy to withstand the pace, which I lacked on first arrival. I’d come from a laid back Buddhist Cambodia where the pace was slow, so it took me an afternoon to adjust to the pace. As well as the price of food and goods and the endless shopping. At least a 3-day Oystercard for the Metro was a reasonable price.

Staying in the popular Wan Chai district, within walking distance to the huge shopping centre of Times square, I did spend my first night wandering around admiring the lights, being shocked that it was Christmas (I’d managed to avoid this fact in Cambodia) and eating noodles in a little back street cafe. Despite the culture shock I found the ideal first night, seeing the lights around the Harbour from the Conference centre.IMG_2332 IMG_1969 IMG_1983

The following morning I explored Hong Kong island on foot, despite the drizzle, visiting the nearby Yuk Hui Temple, tucked away amidst towering skyscrapers of housing.

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From the Temple I wandered on to Hong Kong Park with its impressive aviary and The Peak.

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I have to admit, the day wasn’t ideal for visiting Victoria Peak, given it was misty. The Victoria Peak tramway was opened in 1888 and provides an interesting alternative to hiking up to Hong Kong islands highest point, at 552m. The view was still impressive, although I was underwhelmed to find a shopping mall at the top of the hill; but that wouldn’t be the last time since Hong Kong is built around shopping.

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The following day I spent wandering around the other side of the bay having caught Star Ferry across the harbour – which is ridiculously cheap for the experience and leads you to the clock tower and the promenade with its Avenue of Stars.

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I wandered on to the History Museum which is free on Wednesday and definitely worth a visit. From there I continued up Nathan Road, passing shops I couldn’t possibly afford to buy from, finishing at the Jade Market. I had a good wander round and was definitely tempted to buy, especially since haggling is so much fun, but I wasn’t sure it was really jade or just some cheaper stone, so I resisted.

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I then finished the afternoon at the local Tin Hau temple with its overwhelming incense and throng of local Buddhists. Tin Hau temples are listed buildings in Hong Kong as they are dedicated to Tin Hau, goddess of the sea who protects fishermen. It’s clear that Chinese Buddhism is closely linked with Taoism and its mix of deities.

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After a huge helping of fried noodles I braved Temple St night market and on the way back to Wan Chai took a ride on the mid-level escalators. Only in Hong Kong would escalators end up a tourist attraction, but at 800m it is the world’s longest outdoor covered escalator and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take a ride.

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Phnom Penh pagodas and palaces

After a day whizzing around Phnom Penh in a tuk tuk it was time for more pagodas, and Phnom Penh has a lot to see with one in almost every neighbourhood. In order to avoid temple overload I stuck to those most prominent. Wat Ounalom on the river front is allegedly the oldest in the city, predating the end of the capital’s site at Angkor in the 15th Century. It is also home to the country’s Buddhist leader. DSCF7760

Wat Phnom is on a small hill and marks the founding of the city of Phnom Penh. The legend that follows the founding of the city is that Lady Penh fished a floating tree out of the river and found four Buddha statues. In order to house them somewhere she built the hill (‘Phnom’ in Khmer) and built a Wat on top; thus giving the temple its name. The city that built up around it took the name of the hill and her name – Phnom Penh. The temple also houses the remains of the King who moved the capital here in the 15th century.

Despite the strong Cambodian history at this pagoda, the current building created in the 1920’s has a lot of Chinese Buddhist imagery; even lady Penh looks more Chinese than Khmer.

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No visit to the city is complete without visiting the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda. At its river front site the Royal Palace is a very pristine and manicured building and is still the home of Cambodian royalty. It is a beautiful place although like any other palace it jars against the poverty is surrounds – especially the silver pagoda with its solid silver tiled floor. (Although I have to admit to being a bit disappointed it was covered in rugs and barely visible).

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A weekend in Phnom Penh

After 4 nights in the jungles of the Cardamom Mountains, I’ll be honest I was dying for a shower and clean clothes. I have no problem with roughing it, but there’s nothing like being clean again and not smelling of the jungle covered in a film of red dirt.

Phnom Penh is a busy capital with insane traffic but once I was scrubbed clean I was keen to go and explore. I was staying near the Kandal market, full of vegetables, fish and meat as well as household goods. It did mean though that I was also close to the Tonle Sap river, and where it joins the Mekong – the confluence where in the wet season the water backs up and causes the Tonle Sap river to flow in the other direction, back to the lake.

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Phnom Penh is a large city so at some point you will need to jump on a tuk tuk to get around. That said, some of the best shops and restaurants are around the riverside. There’s also some fantastic social enterprise shops on street 240 at the back of the Royal Palace. If you’re not already weighed down with gifts and treasures, head to the Russian market where you will find opportunities to shop.

Riding around on a tuk tuk you can see the French influence on the city and the crazy electrical wiring which explains the city’s power cuts!

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The National Museum is worth a visit although if you’ve spent time at temples already on your trip you might find this a bit underwhelming as it is only small, and whilst there are a lot of exhibits its almost entirely dedicated to the Angkor era.

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As you whizzing around on a tuk tuk make sure you pass the Independence monument; originally created in the 1960’s to celebrate independent rule, but now a memorial to the war dead.

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Given its size it hard to believe that Phnom Penh has only been the capital of Cambodia since the 19th Century (though it had a brief stint in the 15th Century too); and its hard to believe such a bustling city was once so desolate and abandoned during the 1970’s genocide.

Despite the brutal and horrific story behind it, you should also visit the Toul Sleung Genocide museum, to fully understand the history of the country beyond the temples and pagodas. There is also the Killing Field’s site just outside of the city centre which you can visit, but after seeing the museum it felt a little disrespectful to me to visit the killing fields. I understood the story and didn’t need to see more. There is an intense sadness when you ask Cambodians about this period of their history, and whether out of national shame or its just to painful to remember, few share their memories.

The Toul Sleung Genocide museum had been a school prior to the Khmer Rouge occupation when it became the S-21 prison and interrogation facility. As you wander around the buildings the exhibits are sparse but that only adds to a sense of the brutality that lay inside them, in the tiny brick cubicles. That this was one of 150 such prisons in Cambodia during the regime makes it all the more horrific. That around 1/4 of the Cambodian population were killed in just 4 years is sickening.

The rows of photographs of some of the 17,000 people who died there are hard to look at and not cry. Its hard to not feel completely overwhelmed by the brutality and cruelty that took place not that long ago. This is the history of Cambodia which lies in the eyes of the people you meet on your travels.

A new Genocide Museum is being constructed which will help to memorialise the history of Cambodia during this era, and hopefully to teach people to prevent it ever happening again.

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The floating village of Phoum Kandal and Wat Oudong

Lying in bed wrapped in a cotton sheet I watch sunrise in Battambang. Through the blind the sky is turning from reds to yellows.

The dull whirr of the air conditioning, the buzz of insects waking, the occasional motorbike whining by and horns beeping; and below it all is the quiet, mourning melody of a Khmer guitar playing a sad stirring tune.

The sky is blue and the sun is up, the traffic is building as cars beep and drive by the hotel. Voices call and the music disappears into the background, drowned out by the sounds of the day.

We left Battambang early, heading for Phnom Penh. The drive was long and so we stopped en-route at Phoum Kandal, a Vietnamese floating village on Tonle Sap. We caught a local boat to visit the village. Unlikely Mechrey I’d visited a few days before, this floating village was along the lake edge rather than out in the depths of the lake. It was also clear that there was a divide between the poor and extreme poor even in the floating village.

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From Phoum Kandal we travelled on to Oudong to visit the Wat on the hillside.

The area of Oudong was the old capital of Cambodia, before it moved to Phnom Penh in the 19th Century. The limestone hillside of Phnom Oudong and its Wat is now the official resting place of the Buddha’s bones possessed by Cambodia and the three large stupas house the remains of three Cambodian kings.

Unlike some of the newer temples I’d visited which are becoming in need of a little love; Wat Oudong was being restored with funding from UNESCO when I visited.

Phnom Oudong is worth visiting there are fantastic views from the top across Oudong and out to Phnom Penh.

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Battambang – temples and markets or guns and grenades

Having spent an amazing week in Siem Reap it was sad to leave the friendly buzz of the town behind and head off towards Battambang. The 3 hour drive took us past mile after mile of rice fields, making it clear why this part of Cambodia is the main area for rice production in the country.

It was also clear that local ‘delicacies’ were going to be more common; we stopped by the roadside to buy bamboo-sticky rice and also found these dishes. Being a vegetarian provided a great excuse to avoid trying them!

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Before we arrived in Battambang we visited Wat Banan temple. To reach the temple you have to climb 300 or so steps up the hillside. Arriving at the height of the midday sunshine it was a slow walk.

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Wat Banan is still used as a Buddhist temple but I did feel a bit disappointed as the quiet temple is quite dilapidated.

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We then headed to Wat Sampeau, a beautiful golden modern temple on the top of Phnom Sampeau – a limestone mountain which is considered sacred by Buddhists locally. Being the only high point in the vast plains of rice fields there are fantastic views and really cute Macac monkeys. The beauty of the temple, with its mixed history of Cambodian and Chinese Buddhism, hides the horrific past during the Khmer Rouge where the hillside’s caves were used as ‘killing caves’.

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When we finally arrived in Battambang it seemed less of a cosmopolitan town than Siem Reap, and the Khamara hotel reminded me of Soviet buildings, in its style and imposing size. It didn’t help that it had eight huge, shiny and expensive Range Rovers parked outside, and this sign on the back of my bathroom door only added to the feeling that I was staying in a border town frequented by Thai drug barons.

10676192_10152951478598854_5109201430362321258_n IMG_1933My impression changed the following day, when we cycled through the town centre, along the river with its old French colonial buildings and then on the back roads of town passed small markets and homes. (The oranges – or greens! – were amazingly sweet).

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We arrived at the oldest home in the town to see traditional Khmer architecture. The house we visited was 90 years old and had been owned by the same family since it was built. However, its history was incredibly sad, and I found it hard not to cry as the old lady told us her tale with tears in her eyes and her niece translated.

During the Khmer Rouge  all homes were taken by the regime and this one was used as a communal kitchen. The old lady’s children left for Phnom Penh with her husband and she fled with other family members to the countryside. After the war she was able to get her home back and her husband returned but without the children; she waited for years for them to come home. Eventually her husband left her to start a new family with her friend.

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As I cycled on, thinking about the horrors of the past that people have had to live through, we arrived at the fish market where the overwhelming smell brought me to the present.

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As a vegetarian I was immensely grateful for not having to worry about hygiene in the market. Though I have to concede there is very little waste in the process; the leftovers are left to ferment in large barrels to make the famous Khmer fish paste that is added to curries. I can’t describe the smell, only to say that even now just thinking about it I can smell the overwhelming stench. A word of caution that despite it being easy to eat in Cambodia as a vegetarian, you need to check curries don’t have the fish paste still added to them.

Thankfully, the final stop on the bicycles was a small home where we saw a lady making rice paper.

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Phnom Kulem National Park

Heading nearly 50km outside of Siem Reap into the Phnom Kulem National Park we had a more relaxing day of visiting temples and waterfalls planned.

Phnom Kulem is considered the birthplace of the Khmer Empire and the temple of Phreah Ang Thom is the most sacred place in Cambodia for Hindus and Buddhist, as well as the site of the largest reclining Buddha in the country. The National Park was created in 1993 and listed in 2012 by UNESCO to protect the area from the farming practices causing deforestation in the region.

The landscape was beautiful as we ascended the hill, but it is largely unexplored by tourists due to the area being a Khmer Rouge stronghold during the 1970s and therefore unexploded landmines are still present. I’m glad we didn’t plan on cycling as the private road up to the temple might be relatively new, but it’s steep and made of red sandstone so would have been hard work. It was a bumpy 45 minute drive to the Phreah Ang Thom temple at the top of the hill.

Phreah Ang Thom is still used by Buddhists and when we visited it was the weekend of the full moon and so prayers were taking place and there was a strong smell of incense in the air.

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As the whole area is a temple you need to remove your shoes to walk around; I couldn’t help feeling sad that the lady looking after shoes had been injured in the war.

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As monks prayed under the sacred rock and worshippers chanted, we ascended the concrete steps at the side of the rock to the giant reclining Buddha, carved into the top of the rock.

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From the temple we also visited the nearby waterfalls and played with some of the local children. The waterfalls are beautiful but very busy with tourists. This immediate area does suffer from litter and street hawkers, which is a shame but I guess isn’t uncommon, I can think of similar places in the UK that suffer litter from uneducated visitors.

We’d taken a fantastic packed lunch as we’d been advised that whilst there is a local cafe, the water quality and hygiene wasn’t guaranteed. I have to say our packed lunch was the best I’ve ever had!

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