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A Cup of Tea at the Source in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is known for its tea, rugged terrain, and civil unrest in the past. English is still commonly spoken, but not as much as earlier. Under Dutch influence, canals and extensive irrigation systems have allowed the successful cultivation of previously non-productive and hilly terrain. The canals were used to transport spices and herbs to various ports and the railroads were constructed to transport tea, rice, and rubber to market. Only recently has any form of interstate highway construction begun. Local people travel by train, bus, and tuk tuks (taxis).

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The main roads are two lanes in width and black topped and other roads are narrow dirt lanes. Expanded air travel hopefully will bring more tourists and international trade to Sri Lanka, and increased tourism is seen as vital to this country’s economy. The population of the island is 20 million people and 17 million cell phones are currently in use. Moreover, many different religions are part of the culture including Buddhism, Hindu, Islam and Christianity.

We started our day taking pictures of an Asian elephant (named Monica) on the pier, bedecked in a red costume, who posed with passengers for photographs. A short time later a group of local dancers performed for us before we had to leave on our shore excursion to visit a tea factory located in the hills outside of Colombo.

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We saw many Buddhist domes/and temples during our drive and were made aware of the Jami ul Alfar mosque as being one of the most visited landmarks in the city of Columbo. Muslims have been part of this culture since the 8th century.

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As we traveled through one village today, police were very evident in the town center as white clad school children gathered and Buddhist monks arrived. Recently there have been protests in India against the monks, and the school children and adults were rallying against the Indian protests.

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Traditional dress is similar to that seen in India, but many people are now wearing Western attire because the clothing manufacturers and outlet stores that are now located in this country make overruns and seconds very affordable.

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The people of this country rely on the tea industry for employment, recognition and refreshment. Over one million people are employed in the tea industry alone. Not only is tea important to the economy but also other agricultural products such as rice, rubber, tobacco, palm oil, cinnamon and other spices play an important role in the country’s economy.

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We finally arrived at our destination and drove up a steep incline to the tea and rubber plantations. By growing both crops, both men and women in a family can be actively employed and the land can be profitably kept in production over many years. First land is cleared and the soil prepared for planting over a 14-month period. The tea plants are set out and irrigation ditches provide water to the plants and a way to walk between the rows to trim, pick and maintain the crop. It takes some time for tea plants to reach about three feet in height and broaden out.

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The top three or four tea leaves and flower buds on each branch are hand picked. Several pickings can be made during each growing season of which there are two: a long one October through March, and a short one July to September.

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The pickers, mainly women, carry large bags on their backs into which they put the fresh cuttings. We were able to get out of the bus and talk to and photograph the tea picking ladies. They seemed to enjoy the attention and the photographing. Each picker is expected to pick 20 Kilo a day – about 44 pounds.

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Freshly picked tea leaves and buds are the taken to the tea factory and wilted for 12 hours before processing. We entered the factory and watched as the barefoot employees (both men and women) processed the leaves and buds to produce tea. The process involved many processes: grinding and fermenting, drying, removing foreign matter and grading and separating at least twice more before bagging and being sent to another facility for packaging into tea bags or just packaged as loose tea for sale and distribution worldwide.

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Our guide showed us and gave each of us a samples of the output from each of the steps in the tea production.

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Each time a process is completed the tea has to be loaded by hand shovels into plastic rectangular boxes and carried to the next station. The tea that falls on the floor and not on the protective tarps is swept up and discarded.

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Within the factory some of the product is temporarily stored in multi-colored silk sacks and stacked by grade. Before shipment from the factory, the processed tea is put into large heavy plastic bags and then shipped to another facility for packaging and wholesale and retail distribution either as loose tea or tea bags.

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People in the Western world seem to prefer teas made from the finer tea leaves and buds and not the larger, coarser leaves that are also processed with a few stems mixed in as well. White tea is the finest and also the most expensive tea produced. Flavorings and other spices are added to some tea blends before final packaging.

When the tea shrubs get too tall and/or coarse they are grubbed out. At that time the rubber trees may be about ready for tapping. A ground cover is then planted between the trees to protect the soil from erosion, control weeds and put nutrients back into the soil. The rubber trees are tapped and the sap is collected daily for several weeks during the two primary harvesting seasons if the rainfall is sufficient.

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One fresh diagonal cut is made in the outer layer of bark of the mature tree and the sap is collected daily from the little cups attached to the trees. As one cut quits emitting any latex, another is cut. The cuts do not encircle the tree and a narrow strip on one side is not cut into at all. The collected sap must be dried and processed daily to prevent it from spoiling. The dried latex sheets are then sent to processors both within and outside the country for making into rubber for a myriad of products and uses.

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From the tea factory we went to estate manager’s home for a cup of tea (which was delicious) and a piece of cake served English style on china. We could also buy packages of loose tea produced at this factory to take home. The landscaped grounds and flowers in various beds were all lovely.

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We enjoyed our excursion to the tea plantation as a different way to look at the brew that forms our love of High Tea in the afternoon.

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Thai Cooking School in Phuket

Phuket is Thailand’s only island province and its economy mainly depends on tourism, along with cashews, rice, pineapple, rubber, and coconut production for local consumption and export. Interesting markets, Hindu and Buddhist temples, tropical vegetation, nature preserves, beautiful sand beaches and plentiful resorts all add to the culture and experience one enjoys during a visit to Phuket.

We chose a Thai Cooking Class for our Phuket experience. MJ had eaten Thai food before, but Barb was quite unfamiliar with the cuisine. She was not sure what she was going to eat, if much, on this adventure as she had secretly vowed not to eat such things as dried fish, fish oil, hot chilies, and unknown fruits and vegetables.

We docked at Phuket Port, and then traveled by bus to Phuket Town and then to the other side of the island to Patong, where the lovely beaches are located. Traffic was slow moving with too many cars on the road for the width of the roadways. Outside many homes and places of business we noticed golden and multi-colored spirit temples signifying good luck. Notice the front of this new, modern Toyota dealership with the gold colored spirit temple in front to entice good spirits and enhance business.

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Much of the electrical wiring that we saw reminded us of scenes in India, with thousands of wires strung and looped around poles to provide electricity to homes, restaurants, and businesses. We are not sure if there was a power outage how repairmen could find the offending wire.

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Our first stop was a cashew nut factory store and distribution facility named Sri Bhurapha Orchid Company. It just sold cashews.

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In the parking area we saw one large cashew tree growing. This tree had some immature fruit and nuts on it and also some fake fruit tied to the branches to show us what the mature fruit looked like.

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The process of preparing the nuts for market is quite complicated and can be labor intensive. Each fruit produces one nut, which grows outside the fruit. The nuts are separated from the fruit, dried, boiled twice, shelled and peeled. Then they are roasted, salted, and flavored (BBQ, spices, garlic, butter flavor and sea salt). Rubber gloves have to be work in shelling and peeling to protect the workers from burns that cause skin damage.

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Thai food is popular. The philosophy behind Thai cooking is that the food serves as everyday medicine for health and longevity. We stopped at a fresh food market, which was not unlike some others that we have visited, but here we saw a lot of fruits, vegetables, meats, spices, herbs, and products with which we had no familiarity.

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When we arrived at the lovely beachfront restaurant Sala Bua, we enjoyed a herbal welcome drink of fruit juices.

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Each of us was presented with a bag containing a tall white chef’s hat, a black apron, and a cookbook. We split up into groups of four and went to our “kitchen” for the day. Each of us was to prepare and then eat the four different courses that we prepared. Each station had all the necessary ingredients set out as well as gas burners, pans, tools and mortar and pestles. A chef stood by each station and coached us through the preparation of four courses.

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Thai cooking incorporates five tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and spicy. Chinese and Indian cuisines have both influenced and been incorporated into Thai cooking. At one time Thailand was a cross road of East to West sea routes causing its culture and cuisine to be infused with Persian and Arabian elements. The early Portuguese contributed sweets, Buddhist monks from India brought curry to the country. Thai culinary is said to be an “art.”

A Thai dish contains at least a dozen ingredients and uses a variety of sauces (fish, soy, chili, and oyster) and other ingredients like lime and lemon juices, tamarind juice, coconut milk, garlic, lemon grass, galangal, basil, cilantro, cayenne, and black pepper and bean sprouts.

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Traditionally Thais use only fresh ingredients such as fresh coconut milk and curry paste for the curry dishes.

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The heart of a Thai meal is rice. Thais eat rice as Westerners eat bread. There are several varieties of rice grown in Thailand. The most famous is Jasmine or fragrant rice. To add flavor and more nutrition to a Thai meal, a stir-fry dish soup and or curry are added, which is then known as Gup Kaow.

Our group prepared Green Papaya Salad as our first course, which included 11 different ingredients and was mixed using the mortar and pestle. You could add as much or as little of each ingredient to suit your own taste and preparation began with pulverizing a hot chili. We were expected to eat everything we prepared. At this stage in the game Barb felt she could not at least try it, and she ate it all.

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Next we prepared Green Curry Chicken which, when prepared, was sort of like a soup into which you added cooked rice at the table. This was fairly simple to concoct with both coconut milk and chicken stock and two small pieces of chicken breast for a total of 11 ingredients.

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Our third dish was Thai Fried Noodles with Shrimp. Two shrimp were sautéed in a frying pan to begin the exercise that included 17 ingredients – most of which Barb had never heard of before.

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By this time we were stuffed and really did not want to eat anything more, but we still had to make spring rolls which involved soaking rice paper to make it was pliable and then rolling and totally wrapping fresh lettuce and shredded chicken in it and topping it with a peanut sauce.

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We were all served decoratively sliced fresh fruit for dessert, which was followed by tea and coffee.

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Each of us received a certificate for our experience; and the chef who presented them suggested we might seek employment in or open our own Thai restaurant.

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It was an interesting experience and now the trick will be to find the ingredients if we want to try Thai cooking when we get home.

Our special thanks goes to our superb guide on this adventure, Nooni, who is part of the Cruise Asia team here in Phuket.

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Langkawi Malaysia ~ An Island Destination for Peace and Beauty

We docked at Porto Malai on the Island of Langkawi in the country of Malaysia. Porto Malai was and continues to be a fishing village. Our guide shared a legend with us about a Princess wrongly accused and put to death, cursed the island for seven generations for the crime.

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For over a hundred years the island had not been prosperous and about 1987 the markets for their rice, rubber, and tin dried up. About the same time the marble quarry was shut down. The decision was made to make the island a duty free port and to capitalize on the island’s natural resources (beaches, waterfalls, hot springs, colored cliffs, historic caves, and the fishing grounds) by promoting tourism.

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The growth and development has been phenomenal and successful. A modern port has been designed for cruise ships; several beaches have been improved and expanded; hotels, resorts and restaurants built, roads constructed; and tourist attractions such as an aquarium, oriental village, fish farm, rubber plantation, rice garden, and cable car developed for domestic and foreign visitors. Rice remains an important crop and is raised along with vegetables, coconuts, herbs and spices.

The first stop on our tour was the Craft Cultural Complex and was an outstanding attraction showcasing Malaysian handicrafts. Not cheap trinkets but beautiful and quality products from forest-based products, batik fabrics, ceramics, metal artifacts, to beautiful art objects, wood products, baskets, rattan-based items, and costume jewelry.

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A heritage museum displayed handicrafts and musical instruments representing the various Malaysian ethnic groups and the wedding gallery displaying colorful traditional wedding costumes worn by the various communities of multi-ethnic Malaysia (British, Indian, Chinese, and Malay). Glass blowing and their hand-blown items were also a part of this complex. A great cultural experience!

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Examples of handmade batik fabrics

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Below are the ethnic wedding costumes

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Wood Carving and Musical Instruments

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Glass Blowing

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Our second stop was in the island’s administrative center of Kuah, which also was a fishing village and resort area. We walked along the town jetty that lines the waterfront to see the 36 foot high brown eagle statue that graces the waterfront at the end of the ferry dock. The eagle is Langkawi’s unofficial mascot.

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Our last stop was Underwater World – a 32,700 square foot facility with more than 5,000 examples of colorful marine life and tropical fish in 100 specially designed tanks. We saw many exotic fish plus sharks, turtles, stingrays, eels, penguins, birds, and reptiles.

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We forecast within a few years this island will become a major tourist destination!

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Tea, Orchids and Followed by Lamb in Singapore

The Amsterdam docked in Singapore about 2 PM in a pouring rain. We escaped the St. Patrick’s Day’s activities aboard the ship to wend our way through immigration and a crowded cruise terminal that is full of shops and products of every type one can imagine. By the time we got outside, the rain had quit but we were armed with umbrellas! We caught a cab and headed toward the Raffles Hotel. The cab driver got lost, but we had maps with us to assist him.

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We had made advance reservations for High Tea and since we arrived early we walked around all the shops outside the hotel proper taking some pictures. Mary Jane ducked into a shop and Barb lost sight of her and got hopelessly lost on the backside of the hotel at the loading platform. A lovely gal who was scheduled to work High Tea led Barb back to the waiting area and MJ arrived shortly. One of us needs a leash!

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High Tea at Raffles was GRAND! The Tiffin Room is beautiful. The accomplished harpist added ambiance and the service could not be faulted. The Tea experience was one we will treasure for years. After we were seated and given our tea order, a three-tiered tray arrived with finger sandwiches, little cakes and topped with sweets. We were also invited to visit a buffet table at the side of the room where we sampled berry soup, fresh fruit, and luscious layered cakes. As we munched our way through the goodies, scones were served with clotted cream and jam. Two hours later we emerged into the real world and took the Metro Rapid Transit (MRT) back to the ship.

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On our second day in Singapore we first tried to use Mary Jane’s phone card and met with nothing but frustration! Barbara Dempsey was not home and South Carolina family members phones were out of order. Of course, first we had to learn to make the phone card work by putting in some keystrokes not indicated on the phone card; a very helpful transit employee helped us solve that challenge.

Our MRT ride to the Botanic Gardens was easy and, as we exited the station, we walked right into the huge (74-hectacre) Botanic Gardens, which is a green sanctuary in the heart of the city. In 1822, Stamford Raffles developed the first Botanical and Experimental Garden at Fort Canning. About 1860 the Singapore Botanic Gardens was established at its present site.

Our primary destination was the Orchid Garden and off we headed on a twenty-minute walk meandering from one landscaped and undulating area to another past a variety of water features, sculptures, buildings, and plantings. Some of these included a trellis garden, palm valley, rain forest, bamboo garden, ginger gardens, rain forest and symphony lake.

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As we emerged into the Orchid Plaza we were greeted with a beautiful display of the flowers. Over the next several hours we wandered through the orchids bromeliads and ginger taking many photographs. This garden as the park in the whole is divided into sections such as the crane fountain, orchardarium, heritage display, tiger orchid display cool house, mist house, celebrity garden, VIP garden, and golden shower arches. At the end of this segment we visited a lovely orchid garden gift shop and both of us bought several items.

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By this time we were dripping wet, hot, and hungry and chose to have something to eat at the Halia Restaurant located within the Gardens. What a wonderful treat to find ourselves at one of the top restaurants in Singapore! Even thought the day was warm, we treated ourselves to a lamb chop entrée with Chocolate Marquise for dessert! Yum, yum, yum!

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Both were delicious and well prepared and presented with style by a personable, informative server named Kengar. Another memorable meal in lovely surroundings – a totally unexpected experience!

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We took a different route back to the MRT station and sought some relief from the heat and humidity by going underground. Part way back to the ship Mary Jane went on her own, heading to another part of the city near the City Hall. She visited St. Andrews Cathedral before heading down into the Chinatown area to photograph picturesque shutters. After one picture the heat got to her and she headed back to the ship via the MRT and arrived about 5:15 PM very exhausted. So much to see. We look forward to our return trip to Singapore.

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Singapore, an island country and the smallest country in Southeast Asia, is located on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. When Singapore acquired independence, having few natural resources, it was socio-politically volatile and economically underdeveloped. Foreign investment and rapid government-led industrialization has since created an economy, which relies on exports of electronics and manufacturing from its port.

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Singapore is known to have the highest standard of living in Asia. Measured by GDP per capita, Singapore is the 22nd wealthiest country with a foreign reserve of $119 billion. Eighty-three percent of Singapore’s population lives in housing estates constructed by the Housing Development Board and nearly half use the public transport system daily.

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As a result of efforts to control motorized traffic, the maintenance of natural greenery, strict regulations on industrial locations and emissions, and other pro-environmental initiatives by the government and the private sector, Singapore has been able to control its pollution level to well within World Health Organization Standard.

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500 Steps for Buddha in Nha Trang Vietnam

Nha Trang, Vietnam is positioned in the middle of the country and enjoys two seasons a year – sunny from January to September and rainy for three months from October through December. Although it threatened to rain all day, it did not while we were out and about, but the wind was blowing hard.

We docked in the harbor and nothing looked familiar from two years ago. This harbor was filled with ferries, pleasure boats, fishing boats, and miscellaneous other boats. The bus drove us northward and we were amazed at the changes that taken place all along the route. The lovely deserted beach with a grassy area between the road and the white sand beach is now filled with walkways, parks, manicured plantings, and hotels. Tourism has arrived in this area big time. Many four and five-star hotels have been built. There are still millions of motorbikes on the roads and a few more cars than we remembered from our last visit.

Our first stop was to see the Po Nagar Cham towers – one of the few remaining testaments to the ancient Cham civilization. These were built between the 7th and 12th centuries.

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Today Vietnamese Buddhists come to Po Nagar to pray and make offerings according to their beliefs. We climbed 105 steps up and the same number down in order to appreciate everything at this site. The food donations at this temple seemed much more elaborate than we had seen before. There were also several smaller side temples around the main one that you could enter as well.

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On the way back to the bus we photographed the fishing boats that Carolyn had been looking for when we were here before. Nha Trang at one time was known as for being a major fishing port, and fishing still is a way of life for some in the area. The blue and red boats we saw were near the Xom Bong Bridge in the shallow Nha Trang harbor.

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A short bus ride brought us to the Long Son Pagoda, which was founded in the late 19th century and has been rebuilt several times. It is now home to less than 10 monks. The entrance roofs are decorated with mosaic dragons made of glass and ceramic tile.

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From the pagoda we climbed 152 stone steps leading to the giant white Buddha seated on a lotus blossom.

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Barb made it to the top, but Mary Jane ventured off the path to photograph the large reclining Buddha about a third of the way up the hill.

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The view from the top gave you a panoramic view of the whole area. On the way down Barb stopped to watch them sound the giant bell using a horizontal wooden pole.

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Our last stop on the tour was the embroidery shop we had visited two years ago, and both of us were really looking forward to the revisit. Mary Jane bought two scarves at the shop and then we went looking for embroidered pictures to purchase. We wanted to see if the one Carolyn had fallen in love with two years ago was still available. But, alas, it was not there and there were none that even came close to the color or subject matter of the one she fell in love with. We walked through the second floor workshop where the girls work eight hours a day. Some work individually and others work in teams.

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Many of the girls appeared quite young as and were in training with an adult supervisor assisting and instructing them. The finished products were as lovely as before, but we were not moved to buy one.

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When we returned to the dock, we took time to go through to investigate all the vendor stalls that had been set up for us to browse in. Beautiful fabrics, watches, sunglasses, t-shirts, scarves, and luggage were in abundance. By the time that we arrived, it was the middle of the afternoon, and the young ladies tending the tables were certainly tired from all the activities and sales that they made to the passengers of the Amsterdam. We all helped to make Nha Trang green.

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A Day in the Life of Hong Kong

For our last day in Hong Kong we scheduled a shore excursion to see a number of sites in Kowloon. Our cultural tour allowed us to experience some everyday sites and areas of the city not visited by Americans with regularity.

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Our first stop was a Taoist temple. The number of buses in the parking lot was a surprise, and our guide explained that all of the tourists were from Mainland China, except us. We entered the Wong Tai Sin Temple and observed residents burning incense, presenting food donations, praying and making wishes. According to legend, Wong Tai Sin is able to ‘make every wish come true upon request.’ This temple is one of the most popular temples in Hong Kong. There were several beautiful and ornate temples in the complex with lots of steps and nice landscaping against the backdrop of high-rise apartment houses hemming in the square.

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Our second stop was The Walled City Park, which opened in 1995, after being almost completely reconstructed, and sits on the site of the former Kowloon Walled City. During the Japanese Occupation between 194l-45, Japanese soldiers tore down the wall to provide materials for laying the foundation of the Kai Tak Airfield.

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The post-war years saw high-rise tenements built over the Walled City. Built without government supervision, the living conditions deteriorated as the days went by. The Walled City had literally sunk into a hotbed of vice. In 1987 the governments of China and Hong Kong agreed on the demolition of the Walled City for re-development into a park.

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Although land for development is at a premium in the city, this park is a beautiful, secluded and a peaceful retreat apart from the traffic, noise and congestion throughout the surrounding the city.

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Barb was aware of the Hong Kong Museum of History, but had not mentioned it to Mary Jane, as she dislikes “museums.” When Mary Jane exited the building after an hour saying, “I wish we could have stayed longer, I really enjoyed that,” Barb was speechless. Barb had enjoyed her visit there, but we had separated almost immediately after entering the facility. One could easily spend four hours in this outstanding modern facility.

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The Hong Kong Story is a permanent exhibition to preserve and promote the historical and cultural heritage of Hong Kong. For years the museum staff collected, preserved, and researched the history and development of Hong Kong. Occupying an area of 7,000 square meters the “story” is told through eight galleries on four levels, through the display of over 4,000 exhibits with the use of 750 graphic panels, many dioramas, and multi media programs and supported by special audio-visual and lighting effects.

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The exhibits cover 400 million years of Hong Kong’s historical and cultural journey. The major exhibit areas include: The Natural Environment, Prehistoric Hong Kong, The Dynasties from the Han to the Qing, Folk Culture in Hong Kong, The Opium Wars and the Cession of Hong Kong, Birth and Growth of the City, The Japanese Occupation, Modern Metropolis and the Return to China.

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SEVEN SISTERS FESTIVAL

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After our shore excursion, rather than returning to the ship for lunch, we tackled the huge shopping center that incorporated the cruise ship terminal and spread out over three floors and five buildings. We had a map and a list of stores we wanted to visit and items we were looking for. How we got everything done and returned to the ship in a little over an hour is unbelievable. We had fifteen minutes to spare when we checked in with security. We had missed lunch so we went to the dining room for High Tea. We were the first people in the dining room and the last two to leave as we relaxed, drank tea, ate goodies, and chatted. Chalk up another busy day for the two of us.

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A Busy Day in Hong Kong

Although we said we were going to take it easy today, we did not. We got up about 6:45 and Barb had the laundry in before 7:15. We ate a quick breakfast and were finished folding and putting away our laundry by 8:30 and could be on our way.

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But then where were we going to go and how were we going to get there. Armed with maps and lots of ideas we left the ship in search of a phone. MJ called Leo and Carolyn and Barb called her house sitter. While MJ was on the phone Barb’s assignment was to find out what was the easiest way to get to the part of Kowloon where the flower market, bird park, and goldfish market were located – all of which were some distance from the ship.

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The directions were simple, cross the street, go down to the underground and take the red line of the subway straight up Nathan Road from Tsim Sha Tsui four stops to Prince Edward and get off. Barb did not even have to write those down, but could remember them. However, executing them proved once again to be a challenge. But sometimes it is fun to get lost, because we stumbled upon an interesting area called 1881 Heritage. We first saw the ornate carriage standing next to the wall in front of us, and then our surprise when we went around the corner.

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1881 Heritage is an area where the former Police Station was located, but the area was renovated and now contains a hotel, lovely shops, restaurants, and a huge atrium where decorations change by the season of the year.

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We left this oasis and finally found the entrance to the MRT station where we purchased our tickets and managed to get on and off at the right stops.

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Once above ground, we consulted our maps and found helpful street signs and the flower market. The flowers were fantastic. We will let you enjoy the pictures, as words cannot express the loveliness and beauty we saw. They were even selling orchids as cut flowers!

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It was getting close to 1:30 PM so we decided to head back to the harbor to get lunch. We stopped at The Library Cafe and had a great lunch – small Caesar salads, toasted cheese sandwiches and apple juice. However, the cheese sandwiches were a gourmet treat: crumbled blue and feta cheeses mixed with truffle oil and honey on a grilled ciabatta roll. Yummy!

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After lunch, MJ kept on exploring and wanted to look at shops on Nathan Street where she found something for Leo. Barb decided to go back to the ship, but stopped to take pictures of the merchandise displays in various children’s stores that lined the ground floor of the Ocean Terminal. In that section of the terminal there must have been 60 stores or more devoted solely to children’s wear. Both of us were amazed with the number of major fashion designers that also had a children’s line – Ralph Lauren, Gucci, Hallmark, and others.

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We enjoyed Day 2 in Hong Kong even though it was a busy day!

A Day on Hong Kong’s Lantau Island

We had an excellent guide for our first day in Hong Kong. Our guide Albert shared information with us about sites we passed as well as life in Hong Kong both before and after the turnover by the British to the Chinese that took place in 1997. Most of the younger Hong Kong residents who fled have since returned, as life did not substantially change under the new communist regime. For the main part, the British governmental, educational, and economic institutions were left in place.

The traffic was heavy, but moving better than it had two years previously when we last visited the city. The infrastructure of the country seems greatly improved. We stopped at a viewing platform near the world’s longest road and rail suspension bridge. The smog obscured our view and discouraged our picture taking, but just seeing the size of the huge cables was impressive.

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We then crossed the bridge on our way to Lantau Island – Hong Kong’s largest outlying island. This bridge links the new, huge airport on Lantau Island to the Kowloon Peninsula. We were impressed with the amount of green space that we saw and other conservation practices implemented to reduce erosion and add color to the landscape.

At Tung Chung on Lantau Island, our second stop was the Tai O fishing village. Local fishing boats were anchored in the river, some containing nets. The majority of homes are built on poles in the riverbanks.

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We walked through the large fish market where we saw dried fish, live fish, crabs, and oysters offered for sale as well as other fish and marine products.

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A small Buddhist Temple in the village has played an important role in the lives of the fisherman living there as contracts signed in the temple must be upheld and completed as agreed.

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From our sea level location, we changed buses and began a torturous drive up into the mountains surrounding the harbor. The shorter bus was hardly able to make the turns and make the steep climb upward. We finally reached our destination, the largest seated bronze Buddha statue in the world. We still had to climb steps to reach the base of the statue that sits upon a bronze lotus flower.

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However, the bus was able to park part way up the final hill and thus we did not have to climb the 256 steps from the bottom. I think we had to climb only about 40 steps both going up and down. The female statues at the base of the large Buddha were lovely and easy to photograph.

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The huge Buddha was not easy to get a good picture of from any angle due to the terrain, the sun’s location, and the relatively narrow base around the elevated statue.

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We had a vegetarian Chinese luncheon and it consisted of several courses served traditional Chinese style on a turntable in the middle of the table. We had soup, the main course consisting of several selections, and then dessert with tea.

We then visited the Po Lin Buddhist Monastery and it was lovely and both of us took lots of pictures.

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Our last experience was to take a cable car down to the foot of the mountain and that was an outstanding experience.
Each of the glass sided cars held 6 to 8 people and was completely enclosed once the doors were shut.

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First we climbed even higher and cleared the crest of the mountain and then began our descent in stages going between massive towers that were the major supports for the structure. We were easily over 1,000 feet or more off the ground as we traveled downward. The scenery was lovely and there was a hiking trail below us part of the way upon which fit and experienced hikers can make the rugged climb in seven hours. It took us 25 minutes to reach the base by cable car. We also saw the new airport, built entirely on reclaimed land that now services Hong Kong.

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We crossed the mouth of the river and could see oyster fisherman wading in the waters below us. All of us remarked many times on how thrilling and beautiful this experience was as it progressed. It will be one of our fondest memories as well.

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A Gift to the Philippines

It is a special day for Barb as she is returning to the people of the Philippines a historic artifact that rightfully belongs in the National Museum of History, as part of a donation that was made to the Museum in 2000 by Grafton and Barbara Cook and Southwesten Michigan College. At the time of the original donation, the artifact (silver medallion) was missing, and it wasn’t until years later that it was rediscovered among Grafton Cook’s files. When Barb learned she was going to be in Manila as part of our 2013 World Cruise, she contacted the Philippine Consulate in Chicago who forwarded the information onto the National Museum of History in Manila.
Today, March 9th, is the day she returns the medallion of the Philippines. Here is her story:

Mary Jane and I were outside the Cruise Terminal a little before nine AM and were transported to the National Museum by museum personnel. The museum is housed in a building comparable to our Congressional Building in Washington, within a complex of former governmental buildings that will all be used for museums of history, anthropology and natural history in the future.

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After a brief visit and introduction to the people involved with the day’s program, we adjourned to the room that had been used in the past by their house of representatives.

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The program went very well. I gave some background on how the medallion I was returning to the Philippines had come into my possession, the previous donation in 2000 of Philippine artifacts, and the military career and life of Harry Hill Bandholtz.

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After I spoke, Dr. Ana Labrador told of the importance of the donation to the national collection and conservation of the artifacts.

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Museum Director Jeremy Barns then presented a slide show of the Bandholtz exhibit, which had just been disassembled for a renovation project.

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Then Director Barns, Augusto Villalon (a Trustee of the National Museum Board), an official from the Philippines Foreign Affairs Department, and I unveiled the Bandholtz Medallion and formally presented it to the National Museum and the People of the Philippines.

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The morning’s activities concluded with a response on behalf of the National Museum from Trustee Augusto Villalon, who surprisingly is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame.

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Considering that the program was presented on a lovely Saturday morning, a nice number of people were in attendance. Afterwards, we enjoyed a very delicious and congenial luncheon and at that time I was given a lovely book entitled Treasures of the San Diego that provides pictures and text about the wreckage of an early Spanish galleon sunk in Manila harbor.

On our Queen Mary 2 cruise in 2011, we met one of the ship’s photographers, Egan Jimmez. He and a friend were in attendance taking pictures of us, the medallion, and, during the program, for a proposed documentary he and his cousin are considering producing.

During lunch Dr. Augusto Villalon asked what Mary Jane and I had planned for the afternoon and offered to take us on a guided historic tour of Intramuros, the oldest colonial district of the sprawling city that is a mixture of many different cultures and nationalities. We agreed and arranged to have a car from the museum pick us up later in the afternoon to transport us back to the ship.

After expressing our heartfelt gratitude for all the arrangements made by the Museum staff to organize the program for the return of the Bandholtz medallion we paused for a few quick photos with new friends. And Mary Jane made a detour to snap a few shots of the gorgeous lobby staircase and the parquet flooring and then we were off to explore the city.

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As we left the museum in Augusto’s car we drove down the edge of Rizal Park and into the walled city of Intramuros. The Spanish constructed the wall and Fort Sebastian in the 16th century, as the last of seven forts completed across the Spanish empire and trading area. The area had been a Chinese settlement before the Spanish fortified it and encircled their defenses within a stonewall – very similar in appearance and construction to the forts in Cartagena, Columbia.

Intramuros is historic and tourism has been encouraged in this area. The traffic was terrific and parking non-existent. Three universities presently reside in this area also. The moat that surrounded the complex was largely filled in by the Americans to prevent malaria and now is a lovely golf course. Augusto took us to the top of The Bayleaf Hotel for a bird’s eye view of the area. The view was spectacular, but the air was smoggy so pictures did not turn out well. The hotel is a laboratory experience offered by one of the local universities
for hotel and restaurant management students.

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Our next stop was Fort Santiago and we walked around inside the grounds, saw the stairs to the dungeons and footsteps embedded in the pavement of where Dr. Jose Rizal was incarcerated and then marched to his execution outside the wall (now Rizal Park) for his participation in the Philippine Insurrection against the Spanish in the late 1800s.

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We had forgone dessert at the luncheon and we stopped a one of Augusto’s favorite little restaurants inside Intramuros where we sat in the ice cream section of the establishment. He ordered for us. First we were served tall glasses of fresh coconut water over ice with thin strips of fresh coconut in it – that kept clogging my straw. The two big bowls of Halo-Halo were delivered and Augusto insisted that each bowl contained half of a full order. We were sure we could not consume it all, but in the end we did admirably and only a few chunks of crushed ice remained. A number of candied fruits and yams and a scoop of ice cream sat on top of a bed of crushed ice. It was suggested that we mix everything up with a spoon and enjoy eating it. We did just that and felt very refreshed from the experience.

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Augusto had an appointment so he had to leave us, but called the Museum, who sent a car with a driver for us along with three lovely young ladies who agreed to show us some more sites.

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Off we went again, our first destination was the Manila House, which is a “colonial lifestyle” museum. At Casa Manila, there are shops on the first floor, where we could buy antiques, art objects and souvenir items. The walls on the ground floors are made of adobe stones. The uppermost floor, the living quarters, was made of wood. Since wood is lighter than stone, it is less hazardous during earthquakes. The uppermost floor extends outwards, helping shade the pedestrians during the day.

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We entered the house through an entrance corridor that carriages entered to drop off passengers. The area is paved with granite stone, originally used by the Chinese as ballast for their junks and later sold in Manila for paving lane, patios, and streets. The fountain in the center of the courtyard appeared after running water came to Manila in 1832.

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The interior of the house was lovely, unusual, and beautifully maintained. Each room was decorated in period furniture and represented various functions and included, in modern day vernacular, an entry way, an office, a spare bedroom, day room, formal living room, chapel area, central hallway that could be used as a bedroom, master bedroom suite), toilet room, bath room, laundry, kitchen, and pantry. Unfortunately, pictures of the interior of the house were not allowed.

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We walked across the street to the San Augustin (Saint Augustine) Church, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the nation’s oldest churches.

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As you entered the church complex that contains an extensive museum like collection of church artifacts, vestments, statues, altars, pictures, side chapels, and columbaria. In addition, a convent was part of the complex along with a lovely garden area all inside the church wall.

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The high vaulted ceilings in the multiple corridors were truly magnificent! How those ancient stonemasons assembled all those stone blocks to form the ceilings is truly an architectural feat worth noting.

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The interior of the church was breathtaking. It is a popular place for weddings and just in the time we were there three weddings took place or were taking place all in the main sanctuary. As one wedding party and guests filed out another took its place and another ceremony began.

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We bid our museum guides goodbye and boarded the ship hot and tired, but happy. It had been a wonderful day and one we will remember for years to come.

Puerto Princesa ~ What a Natural Beauty

The natural harbor that forms Puerto Princesa here in the Philippines is one of the most beautiful harbors in the world. Its people are also very beautiful ~ gracious, welcoming, and so very friendly to the arriving passengers. When the ship reached its berth at 7 AM, there was music, banners, and a large number of school children singing and dancing their welcome to us.

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Barb chose to take the City Highlights tour of Puerto Princesa where their first stop was at the Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm. It is also known as a prison without walls and is more like a 2,500-acre rural farming community where prisoners work on the farms and are encouraged to become more self-sufficient.

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Armed guards were certainly in evidence, but seemed relaxed and not on alert. The maximum-security prisoners are incarcerated and guarded carefully, but the majority of the inmates live in detached, no-bar window houses that are located around the compound. Just outside the unfenced prison the city has set up a re-location center where ex-prisoners can live, farm, and work until they believe they are ready to re-enter society. Over the years a few men have tried to escape, but the distance, jungle like surroundings, and their appearance usually assists law enforcement officials to find them quickly.

The prisoners entertained the visitors by singing two numbers for them and then a troupe of dancers did a native war dance where there is one victor, but then the people killed in the knife battle, are brought back to life.

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Their next stop was the Crocodile Farming Institute that was established in 1987 whose mission is to preserve and conduct further research studies into endangered species of crocodiles. They have a hospital–type facility for sick and disabled crocodiles. They did see the skeleton and skin of one croc that had taken the right leg off a local fisherman before being captured. The reptile later died in captivity from stress; he was about 60 years old and16 feet long.

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Returning to the city they stopped at the lovely Immaculate Conception Cathedral, which appears blue when you are
inside from the blue colored glass in the windows and the wall color.

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Mary Jane went into the city on her own for a quick walk about. The citizens have unique forms of transportation. Similar to the tuk-tuks in India, they have a three-wheeled variation using a motorcycle for propulsion and a covered sidecar for the passenger. There was a long line of them down at the end of the pier ready for us to use as transport for a short trip or a day of sightseeing with a guide. Each was decorated and named individually.

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Besides the tricycles, the locals use a modified minivan bus style vehicle that has the van portion modified with no glass
In the windows and the passengers enter via the open back entrance. There is a bench seat on each side and many passengers (too many at times) can ride inside if you like being up close and personal. Many of the individually owned buses were named and creatively painted.

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The park in the center of town was featuring a small, neighborhood competition for the skate boarders. It is like a form of dancing when you look at the photographs.

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On my way back to the ship I met three schoolgirls on their way home from classes.

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The Tourist Board is trying very hard to build their tourism industry and we believe they will succeed. The students who danced in front of our ship in the morning set the tenor of the day. At every stop hostesses and guides worked very hard to provide information and answer any questions we might have. Many of the passengers commented what a wonderful day they had in Puerto Princesa

We were not able to visit the Subterranean River National Park that is located about 20 miles outside the city. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is the world’s longest navigable Underground River that winds its way through a spectacular cave before emptying into the West Philippine Sea. The dugout canoes they use to make the trip are not easy to negotiate for the two of us with double knee replacements, so we had to forgo that adventure we are sad to say, because the people who did participate said it was a great tour!