Bhutan – The World with Dragons

The endless driving around the curvy narrowed roads has not only added thrills, it has created many unforgettable moments on my new adventure to this part of world – Bhutan. Daily drive along edgy cliffs and through thick fogs with zero vision on the road placed quotidian challenges – triggering minor heart attacks while trying to reach my destination timely. Nonetheless, its morning charm pleaded for her forgiveness by diverting my attention to her magnificent landscape contained on this land of the Thunder Dragon. Green lawn reflected its first ray from the sun, unshadowing the dark patches and revealing its real beauty to its viewer. We arrived at the largest district of Bhutan known as Trashigang, which was once the main trade route between Bhutan and Tibet.

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Road towards Ura – Photography by Kimy Chang

Being regarded as one of the top travel places in Asia, Bhutan has experienced a significant increase in the number of tourists especially over the last two years. As Bhutanese government strongly believes in the preservation of the country’s culture and environment, a control measure has been put in place to curb with the number of yearly foreign visitors. Any tourists except for Indian, Bangladesh and Maldivian nationals are required to pay a daily package rate of USD 250 (during peak season) per person with one time visa of USD 40; to arrange visa clearance via a tour agency prior to your arrival. This imposition did reduce the number of visitors, acting as a deterrent for an uncontrollable high influx of international tourist; it has also made my visit during the peak season much easier.

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Phallus pointing towards me – Photography by Kimy Chang

The picturesque village houses in Ura detailed an idiosyncratic character of the traditional Bhutan architecture and traditions. The three day festival, namely Ura Yakochoe, enchanted me to wanting to explore this preposterous and yet unassailable belief which derives from various versions of Buddhism – mainly from Vajrayana Buddhism. Phallus worshipping, for instance, plays an indispensable role in Bhutanese belief, which this came from the legendary story of Bhutanese Saint Drukpa Kunley or known as the “Divine madman”. The performer wore a mask with a rope tied to a phallus acting in a playful manner, chasing females as well as males who were attending this annual event. It is believed that ritual using a wooden phallus expels negative spirits; similarly, promotes fertility among couples. I was not spared. 

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Animalistic Mask Dancers- Photography by Kimy Chang

Traditional folk dances were used as short breaks between performances for both audiences and performers. Dancing and spinning in circles accordingly to the rhythm of the Bhutanese music, dancers drowned themselves as if they were possessed by supernatural power from their gods, wearing animalistic marks and brightly coloured costumes; with demonic masks representing the eight manifestations of Guru Rinpocle. It was indeed an amazing finale to end the three day celebration.

 

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Jakar Dzong – Hidden pathway – Photography by Kimy Chang

A short drive towards the main town of Bhumtang, we arrived at the Jakar Dzong. Jakar Dzong, namely the ‘Fortress of the White Bird’, has sit on the hill top since the mid 1600s (to be exact 1667). Known to be the first place visited by Guru Rinpoche, its popularity spread across Bhutan – declaring it as the birthplace of Buddhism in Bhutan. 

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Monk Peformance – Photography by Kimy Chang

With the immediate need to pin down a demon to the earth forever, the then Tibetan king passed down a decree to build 108 temples across Tibet, Bhutan and other border areas within a day during the 659 CE. The Jambey Lhakhang is the one of the 108 remaining temples survived the history. Situated in Bhumtang, it is also a must to visit this place of interest. Although it has been repaired and rebuilt several times, its history somehow glorified the importance of Buddhism during the early time.

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Punakha Dzongs – Photography by Kimy Chang

Trees with purple petals lined up parallel along the river and the famous Punakha Dzong, creating an image that one could only imagine from a painting. The river flow cut through its porous stones, forming a curve at an angle dedicated just for this magnificent temple to stand out from its surroundings. This famous Dzong is also known as the palace of great happiness or bliss and was used as the government administrative office until 1955. 

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Bhutanese archery – Photography by Kimy Chang

Besides the dzongs and uncountable beautiful sceneries, the Bhutanese archery game is also another charm for any tourist. Archery is one of the most popular sports in Bhutan played by usually males; it is also the national sport. Bhutanese believed archery improves individual’s health, strengthen concentration as well as verbal/intellectual skills.  During the competition, archers are required to engage in verbal battle against its opponent, demeaning opponent whilst encouraging its own team members – a crucial scoring portion similar to hitting a bullseye.

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The Tiger’s Nest- Photography by Kimy Chang

Last, but not least, the world famous – Taktang Monastery or known as The Tiger Nest is a must stop in Bhutan. The trek through the narrow and uneven paths took me close to 2 hours to reach the peak where the monastery is situated. Carrying additional weight (my cameras) not only slow my speed down significantly, it permitted an approved revenge from my unfit body. This upward trek was indeed a killer for me, requiring a great amount of patience and stamina from my unexpected mind. Hard work indeed got paid off finally with the astonish view of the Taktang Monastery, which was built at the mountain edge about 500 years ago; appraised by many visitors, the Tiger Nest has its own unique and special charm for each individual.

The beauty of this country and their bizarre supernatural belief left me with numerous exclaimed surprises; this adventure to Bhutan acts as a closure to my adventure in the Eastern world for this year.

Tips of travel:

1. Taking pictures or filming inside Dzongs, temples, monasteries and religious institutions is not permitted.

2. Wear decently and remove your shoes when entering into Dzongs/temples

3. Travel sickness pill (for the road).

4. Try Bhutanese traditional butter tea during their tea ceremony

5.  Or, try their locally brewed beer – Red Panda

6. Daily Package Rate – USD 250 (peak season) and USD 200 (non-peak season.

7. Visa: Other than Indian, Bangladeshi and Maldivian nationals, all visitors to Bhutan are required to obtain a visa prior entry. One time visa fee is USD 40 and takes about 10 days to process. For updated information, please contact local tour operator or visit Bhutan official tourist board website – http://www.tourism.gov.bt/ .           

Appreciate and very thankful to have engaged Druk Peaceful Holidays as my tour agency for my Bhutan trip. Tailoring to my travel needs whilst trying to squeeze as many number of festivals during my short trip was indeed remarkable.

Tour agent: http://www.bhutanpeacefulholidays.com/

Camera used: D500 16-80mm/f 2.8-4. 

Thank you for reading my blog. All photographs on this blog, Copyrights © 2015-2017 Kimy Chang. All rights reserved.

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Ubud, Bali, Indonesia – The Land of Magic and Gods

The endless rows of bamboo poles – namely Penjor – decorated the narrow roads on this island, leading you to their tranquilized land yet filled with cultural vibrations. Being the only island in Indonesia with the majority Hindus – up to 83.5% of the population are Hindus, Bali has accumulated a list of ancient Hinduism beliefs and practices; surprisingly, many Balinese Hindus still practice them till date.  Arriving at their newly renovated Ngurah Rai International Airport, the cheerfulness and friendliness of Balinese lifted my spirit instantly. A short break is a must to rejuvenate my stressed out mind due to my never-ending work in Singapore.

Located around the Southeast of the Bali Island, Ubud is one of the must visit places in Bali; famous for its traditional craft and dance. This town is also surrounded by large areas of rainforest and rice terrace paddies; is a definite location to ease your greeneries thirst. The rice terraces at Tegalalang village cascaded down on the steep slope of the valley reflected the beauty of man-made nature. This ancient rice cultivation has not only placed an importance to Balinese agriculture, it has defined their main dietary requirement. The glaze from the shaded sun shadowed the tall standing trees while illuminating the various greens from its boring paddies.  This harmonious balance of nature with human agriculture creates a breathtaking moment and astonishing landscape, capturing the individual heart of each passerby.

 

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Tegalalang Rice Terraces – Photography by Kimy Chang

The instilled concept of Karma with the belief of the existence of invisible force has not only constructed the pillars for today’s Balinese traditions, it has safeguarded Balinese’s faith towards Hinduism.  The Kuningan festival, for instance, is a yearly Hindus’ celebration (210 days to be exact) marking the end of the Galungan holiday where their ancestors return back to their holy heaven from earth; happened to collide with my stay in Ubud. At the Pura Tirta Empul temple, large groups of Balinese Hindus as well as tourists swamp to this historical temple for this festival, creating a festive ambience filled with happiness. A national heritage site constructed during the Warmadewa Dynasty (approx. 940 AD) remains grand with thousands of worshippers visiting this temple each year. The ‘Holy water spring’, which is also a direct translation of what Titra Empul means, is for sure the main attraction of this site. Holy water sprung out from the vents was collected within the purification bath for worshippers to cleanse their soul while providing unlimited blessings to its devotees. Other celebration such as Odalan was also celebrated at one of the village temples which I visited. This once every thirty year’s celebration, which held in this temple, was a rare opportunity for me to further indulge in this magical Balinese culture. Nonstop dance performances and cock fighting were the common sight in this ceremony. (The Galungan, the Kuningan and the Nyepi are some of Balinese traditional festivals that happened yearly on this mythical island.)

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Offerings from devotees – Photography by Kimy Chang

Kecak! Kechak! The chant that twitches your inner soul is a traditional Balinese dance and music performance. The Kechak, or commonly known as the Ramayana Monkey Chant, is a trance inducing exorcism dance, which narrates the battle among the monkey like -Vanara with Prince Rama against the evil King Raven. The various hands and body movements seem to create a visual spell, snatching your vision at every moment. Even though the fire dance quickly marked the end of this short spectacular show, this performance had very much left me amazed throughout my whole evening.

The Barong Dance is also a must performance to watch in Ubud. This traditional performance portrays the complex relationship between the good and the evil. Barong, being the good lion-tiger looking mythical creature, protects Man (villagers) against the Evil Ranga from injury caused by daggers. As evil can never be accommodated, the Barong’s victory affirmed its power over the village, acting as a spiritual protector for mankind.

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Kecak Performance – Photography by Kimy Chang

The sound of crackling leaves from a nearby forest enchanted travelers to immerse themselves into its unique tranquility; walking along the stone pathway, the shades from the tress eased the scorching weather. The sacred Monkey Forest is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the village of Padangtegal, Ubud; is visited by more than 10,000 visitors per month. Within this conservation, there are more than 700 monkeys, about 189 tree species and numerous animalistic statues for visitors to quietly spend their hours. However, the unpredictable response from Monkeys could be a risk. It is thus important for visitors either to read the visitors’ guidelines or to keep away food prior to entering.

My four day trip to Ubud ended rather quickly. Though it has been a really short visit, my exposure to their local traditions and culture has deeply immersed me with great knowledge about Balinese Hinduism. Sadly to halt my visit, further exploration will have to wait till my next visit on this mysterious island. My travel experience on this island has only been great and full of awesome surprises.

Tips:

  • Bring mosquitoes repellent
  • Typical travel seasons are in July to October. My favourite is at the end of April as this is the low season where hotel prices are much cheaper compare to the high season plus there are fewer tourist groups.
  • Temple visit: Sarongs are required to visit temples. Ask your tour guide to provide you or you can also get them at local shops.

Below are some pictures which I took during my Bali trip:

Thank you for reading my blog.

All Photographs on this Blog, Copyright © 2015- 2017 Kimy Chang, All rights reserved

Sri Lanka (Ceylon) – The Colours of Colombo

Located around the Southeast from India, there lies an island that many would not consider her as the top country to visit. Sri Lanka, the land filled of Sinhalese as a majority, has portrayed a vision of continuous tensions and dangers. The more than a decade civil war – between the Sri Lanka government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (in short Tamil Tigers) – has drained the potentials this country can bring, adversely disrupting the daily lives of the Sri Lankan and bringing the death toll to more than 80 thousand people.  This discontent seems to have originated from the colonial times when the Tamils were enjoying greater social welfare and higher social status, which resulted in deep vexation and fortification against the influence of the west; finally a prolonged war that should not have happened began.   Exacerbated with the 2004 Tsunami, the path to recovery seems unattainable. In 2009, the Sri Lankan government finally won their battle against the rebel group, bringing an end to this unnecessary civil war. Sri Lankan has since able to enjoy the overdue peace.

Devotion to Theravada Buddhism has evolved to be the only acceptable consolation and guidance to a better Sri Lanka, forming an essential part of Sri Lanka’s culture and traditional customs. The Poya day, for instance, is the Buddhist day adopted where no meat and no alcohol can be consumed on every full moon. Street stalls, restaurants and even hotels are forbidden to sell alcoholic drinks to anyone including tourist. Clearly, the spread of Buddhism has not only reached this island, it has infiltrated and deeply rooted to the livelihood of each Sri Lankan. Likewise, many government policies as well as events are also skewed towards the promotion of the ideology of Buddhism.

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Buddhas Statues (Gangaramya Temple) – Photography by Kimy Chang

The Gangaramaya Temple, situated on the Slave Island in Colombo, is one of the most intriguing temples I have come across. Hidden behind its dull yellow gate, this temple has treasures beyond your imagination. Entering the temple from the west side, it would lead you into a dark room, slightly lighted by its orange fluorescent bulbs, filled with Buddhas and its disciples’ statues.  These statues seem to carry living souls; the realistic facial features somehow have manifested a strange feeling that is hard to explain. The possibility of supernatural being appeared to be true. Behind this temple, there stood a Bodhi tree as well as a museum where Buddhist related collectables were displayed for visitors.

Great details about Theravada Buddhism can be found at Kelaniya Temple. Located at the northeast of Colombo, one can go to this attraction rather easily – either by train or by tuk tuk. Its ancient historical statues as well as monuments of more than 2500 years old have attracted thousands of Buddhist devotees to pay their respect to this sacred temple.  The locals believe that if one worships at this temple, her/his sins will be washed away

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Shaman – Photography by Kimy Chang

Hinduism is the second largest religion in Sri Lanka. With about 12.6% of the whole population, Hindu temples are easily visible on the streets in Colombo. The celebration of Pongal festival happened to be on the same day with my visit to Sri Kailasanathar Swamy Devasthanam. Hindu worshippers gathered themselves near to a shrine that holds nine planetary gods; with offerings they prepared such as milk, yogurt, curry, flowers and coconuts for this auspicious moment. The cleaning process of these nine planetary Gods started shortly after Shamans finished their initial prayer and cleanup of the shrine.  Curry, milk and coconuts were used to wash the dark looking statues, giving them a new and shiny appearance. Decorated with flowers provided by the worshipper and returning blessings to the devotees, this marked the end of the ritual. It was a great experience for someone like me who is not a Hindu.

Religion not only provides a comfort for a soul, it provides answers to our daily challenges. The look of a Christian in Saint Anthony Church depicted his deep connection with God. The touch he made on the glass panel and the look he had with Jesus portrayed a desperate need for help. Photography is not allowed inside this church unless approval granted by the Church. Lucky as I am, I am allowed to take a couple of photos of this amazing church and to participate in their Sunday parade with them.

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Christian Prayer – Photography by Kimy Chang

Despite the countrywide adaptation to democracy, the freedom of religion in particular Christianity is pretty restricted. The Sri Lankan – Christians- are currently the main targeted group discriminated by Buddhists and Hindus. Saddened by the news I heard, I empathize what the innocents have to go through. Prayer seems to be heard when a large number of policemen stationed themselves at different key areas during the parade, supporting and protecting the Christians from dangers.

Peace seems close, but hard to grasp.

In addition, one should also pay a visit to Jami Ul Alfar Mosque. The red and white bricks sweetened the stroll along the street close to Pettah Market, adding a contrast colour and a little fun to the busy walkways. Pettah Market or Manning Market is an open and bustling market where traders come together to do wholesaling of various products. Coolies are a common sight, carrying bags of goods over their shoulders. Taking a peak into the dilapidated warehouses will definitely bring you memories of those old colonial days.

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Onion Trader – Photography by Kimy Chang

Walking along the Galle Face Green’s shoreline, the contentment among families was felt unconstrained. Expressions of their faces were pure joy despite their horrendous past. This rhythm of happiness could both be felt and heard from their never-ending laughter.  Families brought their kids to the seaside or to the nearby open field to play were common sights; enjoying the cold splashes or gently sea breeze as gifts given by our Mother Nature.

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Galle Food Stall – Photography by Kimy Chang

Most of the Sri Lankans grew up in an unstable and violent environment; the struggle to stay positive could be a challenge for some.  On the other hand, due to their deprivation and hardships, they have somehow realised the importance of history; many of the colonial architectures, for instance, are now under restoration process or undergoing a new facelift. The nostalgic past may stir ire among the Sinhalese – anti colonialism ideology. On the other hand, the urge for stronger economic development and growth has created a harmonious balance among the various ethnicities and religious groups. Sri Lanka, in my opinion, is an intriguing, friendly and safe country, which required our further exploration.

Travel Tips:

  1. Always take a tuk tuk with metered installed. You don’t want to be given a cut throat price by the tuk tuk driver.
  2. Shoes and socks are not allowed in many temples
  3. Finding a toilet can be a problem

Below are some of my pictures taken during my trip to Sri Lanka, Colombo:

 

Thank you for reading my blog.

All Photographs on this Blog, Copyright © 2017 Kimy Chang, All rights reserved