With the season-of-soak stepping all over our Zen, the habitual lust for wandering in warmer lands afar has returned; so to battle this year’s February Blahs, Christine and I are returning to South East Asia.
After 21 tedious hours passing with glacial speed, we arrive in Hong Kong to shockingly discover it’s the coldest winter the city has had in 23 years! The conditions about as appealing to us as a bag of toenails, but since our protesting is irrelevant, we button up and begin the search for our hotel.
As the city snores, we travel out to the New Territories and the Monastery of Ten Thousand Buddha’s; one of the most dramatic and sacred sites in all of Hong Kong. Arriving in the darkness, the monastery is still closed, but we mosey up to the entrance gates anyways. If your main daily exercise is brushing your teeth, you’re in trouble, as reaching the top of this monastery involves climbing 431 steps up the steep hillside.
The entire pathway is a lesson in Buddha diversity, lined with an incredible assemblage of life-sized golden statues of shoeless Buddha’s with poses ranging from the serene to the outrageous. They silently observe us ascend to the top of the stairs. An iron gate seals the monastery off tighter than a crab’s buttocks, so with no option, we sit; waiting patiently until one of the workers arrives and unlocks the gates. We point to the camera gesturing that we would like to enter, and the old fellow compassionately gives us the nod.
This is a perfect scenario, having the monastery entirely to ourselves with dawn’s blushing light breaking over the righteous Buddhas. A nine story red pagoda towers in the central courtyard, and a nearby temple is barnacled with some 12,800 Buddha statues lining the interior walls; absolutely Buddha-full!
Finally, with enough enlightenment and a belly full of bloated Buddhas, it’s time to vamoose to our next destination of Shatin Park along the Shing Mun River. The park offers oodles of ambiance with huge banyan trees and a waterfall spilling into a vast fish pond, spanned by a picture perfect Chinese bridge. This is such a different vibe than in hectic Kowloon, where the crowded streets are awash in color from a sea of glaring neon signs that are about as subtle as a bagpiper at a yoga retreat!
Today, regrettably numbed by a frigid face-flinching wind, we ride an early ferry to the island of Macau. Exiting the boat, our discomfort is prolonged during the time it takes to eventually find Macau’s most famous landmark of the world heritage site of St. Paul’s Church; or at least what’s left of it. The once magnificent 16th century church burned to the ground during a typhoon in 1835, and the only remnant is a beautiful towering façade standing surreally atop a hill like a cardboard pop-up.
With no longing to dawdle in the frigidity we bus to the A-Ma Temple; built in 1488 and dedicated to the goddess of seafarers and fishermen. Our nostrils pick up on it before our eyes as it’s bathed in a haze of smoke from hundreds of smoldering incense coils hanging in every possible nook and cranny. In no time we become ‘incensed’ with the smoke, and zealously move on in order to keep our blood from solidifying.
Holy shit-ake mushrooms; it’s so bloody cold the Arctic conditions have us reaching for the surrender papers, and seriously considering purchasing a set of earplugs to drown out the jackhammering sound of our teeth. Rather than risk hypothermia we goodbye the island. Huddled together on the ferry with steamy breath fogging up our incense laden clothes, we are impatient to get back to our Kowloon hotel room; with a priority of ending our mutual misery by cranking the thermostat as far north as electrically possible!
On Lantau Island we want to check out the giant Buddha and Po Lin monastery. This mammoth statue is claimed to be the world’s tallest seated Buddha, which has us speculating how many other 112 foot, 250 ton bronze Buddha statues exist that are NOT seated!
Waiting for a bus in the bullying cold, I scoot off to order us a hot bowl of soup while Christine holds a spot in line. The soup comes with chopsticks, and I ponder the ‘nincomsoup’ who decided to combine the two! We’re not exactly ingratiating ourselves to the locals in our proximity as we splash soup on them with our ferocious inhalation of the noodles and numb-fingered fumbling of the skinny wooden utensils.
Not surprisingly with our modus operandi, the Po Lin Monastery is still closed. Snuggled together in the breath-fogged air, we’re shaking like a couple of jelly donuts at a Weight Watchers meeting, and vigorously rubbing our limbs as if trying to make fire. The instant PLM opens, we charge up the 268 steps for a few quick pics of bronze statues offering gifts to the giant Buddha, eerily ghostlike in the swirling fog.
We scurry over to the Wisdom Path and its collection of Buddhist prayers carved into tall perpendicular wooden slabs protruding out of the ground. The path is meant to be strolled slowly, while reading the words and pondering life. But with the weather cold enough to fart snowflakes and buffeted by fierce winds, we hotfoot it down the well-trodden trail with the speed of a plummeting peregrine falcon!
Chilled to the bone and a shiver away from hypothermic hallucinations, a bus finally shows up. Lamentably it is yet another heat-free zone, and by the time we finally step off Christine is near tears, telling me this is the coldest she has ever been in her life; quite the statement from a lady growing up in Labrador!
Having partially thawed today, we visit the Soho area of HK Island and ride the 2,625 feet up the world’s largest escalator. Later we set sail aboard a ‘Duk Ling’ boat, an authentic Chinese junk with billowing red sails; dusting off memories of the romance and intrigue associated with the early traders and taipans. Back ashore with darkness closing in, we stroll the waterfront promenade as the Symphony of Lights splashes laser beams synchronized to music across the towering skyscrapers jostling for space along the harbor.
According to the Chinese calendar, 2008 is the Year of the Rat, and the city is over-decorated in rat sculptures. Small rats, rats of humongous proportions (probably on leave from Government), and rats posed in every imaginable position. I’m not sure who ratified the ridiculous rodents, but they certainly seem to be ir-rat-ional embellishments. Thinking about our last visit to Hong Kong over ten years ago, it appears the city is now just a wee bit more sophisticated; in fact, kind of like a rat with a gold tooth!
Our next halt is Mongkok, meaning ‘flourishing corner’. This is a severe understatement if ever there was, as according to Guinness World Records it has the highest population density in the world at 130,000 peeps per sq km. As we soon find out, this translates to 260,000 elbows; many of which we are introduced to! If you’re looking for some quietude, the constant state of squeeze that is Mongkok is clearly not your answer!
Seriously pining for the sun, we’re jubilant to now put a whole lot of gone between ourselves and planet chopstick. A short flight takes us out of the ice age, and back to Indonesia’s addictive shores of Bali, where Mother Nature has apologized by pushing the thermostat mercury much further north. Ecstatically, we relax on the bungalow balcony with gin and tonics puddling in the welcoming warmth, as our gaze glides across the Shamrock green rice fields to a paddy-hatted farmer busily tending his army of ducks.
Today’s mission is to cautiously cycle the spine of the Champuan Ridge along a scenic trail with both sides plunging down through the tropical tapestry into deep river gorges. Pedaling to the village of Tegalallang, we play Santa Claus by doling out a bag of toys brought from home and watching the impoverished little tykes faces illuminate with big shiny smiles.
Stopping at Spa Hati, we’re kneaded to a pulp during an outdoor massage while serenaded by little frogs making big noises in the rice paddies next door. With joints soothed, we sip ginger tea soaking in a beautiful stone Jacuzzi pool with water cascading down from the jaws of lions. Our blissful indulgence leads into ‘the hour of happy’, making it time to cycle back to our bungalow to engage in a little poetry of the elbow.
Our slumber last night was disrupted by an over enthusiastic rooster; cock-a-goddamn-doodle-doing it’s brains in the dead of night. Perhaps in my younger days I may have had more appreciation for a cock that stays up all night, but right now I’m only contemplating this raucous clucker accessorized in BBQ sauce, and turning the cock-a-doodle-do into cock-a-doodle-don’t!
Running through the scenic countryside in the mornings I pass bronzed, bent-backed farmers with shirtless shoulders, toiling in endlessly green fields devoted to their life-giving rice, and we usually share a pleasant morning greeting of ‘Selemat Pagi’, followed by friendly wave or a lift of the chin. Christine and I also relish splendid country walks after anointing ourselves with mosquito repellant to try and stave off Dengue Fever; the scourge of hot weather countries. Having already had Dengue while on a rugby tour in the Caribbean many years ago, I need to be particularly alert as contracting the disease a second time can be fatal.
Today is Valentine’s Day, and since we’re in the beach side village of Sanur, we’re off sailing aboard a traditional Balinese Jukong boat carved out of a monstrous mango tree; with large bamboo pontoons on each side for stabilization. The playful breeze makes for a splendid sail along the coral reef. Sailing free, in the Bali Sea, Christine and me, in a mango tree; hmmm, it seems like there’s a song in waiting here.
After a thirst quenchable tango of rum and mango, and getting all dressed up in my best set of jeans, we jump into a wheezing bemo; a scuffed transport akin to a three-wheeled travelling tent! As the weather takes a turn for the worse we reach the Village Restaurant and make our jalopy jailbreak.
The awesome meals here taste like angels copulating on our tongues; however, outside it has turned into a devil of a night. Frightening lightning is flaunting a ferocious show, with ominous thunder detonating in the distance, and rain falling in biblical proportions. After our dinner, the jovial Italian chef doesn’t want us to leave as he’s worried about falling branches from trees thrashing about in the angry storm. However, eventually we must take our chances, so he presents Christine with a red rose and hails us a taxi.
Back at our hotel the last 100 meters of its driveway is now completely underwater, and huddled under an umbrella dithering over our dilemma, a resourceful shopkeeper next door comes up with a solution. Christine removes her newly purchased high heels while the fellow quickly creates a perfect pair of booties out of plastic bags to put over her bare feet.
What a sight; the elegant Christine all dolled up with a rose and heels in one hand, umbrella in the other, and adorned in plastic bag booties. While she fords the driveway as lightly as a butterfly with sore feet, fat splats of relentless rain mercilessly slap the ground around her like machine gun fire. No doubt about it, an indelible memory of a stormy Valentine’s Day in our beloved Bali!
Sanur’s tranquility is uncharacteristically broken on our last night when walking home arm-in-arm after dinner. Christine abruptly breaks free with a little extra hop in her step. Gyrating about with hands in the air like a woman possessed, she appears to be acting out some weird Newfie-like jig, while shrieking with dismay in an indistinguishable dialect that leaves me wondering if I’m going to need to call an exorcist!
I am concerned she may have been attacked by a tarantula or poisonous beast, but this is not so. As she bends over to remove her shoe, I can see peeping out, the bulbous eyeballs of a small frog that has somehow managed to hop inside it, leaving me laughing so hard I’m afraid of suffering serious internal damage!
Carefully I release young Kermit back into the greenery, while Christine cautiously places her foot back into her now frog-less shoe. The amusing amphibious incident is yet another little treasure to add to our mosaic of special Bali memories!
So, like the ice in our drinks, our travel days have now melted away, and regrettably it’s time once again to bid a fond farewell to this very special place known as The Island of The Gods.
Mark Colegrave February 2008