Global gallivanting is our winter therapy with the season-of-soak stepping all over our Zen, and battling this year’s February Blahs, we’re headed for a return engagement in South East Asia. After the plane crawls over the clouds with glacial speed to Hong Kong, we’re shocked to learn it is their coldest winter in 23 years, and to us, about as appealing as a big bag of toenails!
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 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, as it’s lined with an incredible assemblage of life-sized golden statues in poses ranging from the serene to the outrageous. During our ascent of the stairs we are silently observed by a traffic jam of shoeless Buddhas. At the top, an iron gate is sealing off the monastery tighter than a crab’s buttocks, so we sit and shiver until one of the workers arrives. Pointing at our camera, we gesture that we would like to enter, and likely not wanting any human popsicles on the steps, the old fellow kindly gives us a nod and opens up the gate.
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 has its interior walls barnacled with some 12,800 Buddha statues; absolutely Buddha-full!
Finally, having had a belly full of bloated Buddhas, we vamoose to our next destination of Sha Tin Park situated along the Shing Mun River. The park offers oodles of ambiance with majestic banyan trees, and a waterfall spilling into a vast fish pond spanned by a picture perfect Chinese bridge. This is a good spot to isolate from the crowds, as it’s such a different vibe than in hectic Kowloon, where crowded streets are awash in boundless color from a sea of neon signs about as subtle as a bagpiper at a yoga retreat!
Numbed by a frigid face-flinching wind, we ferry over to the island of Macau, where our discomfort is prolonged during our search for the island’s most famous landmark 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 all that remains is the beautiful towering façade; standing proud atop a hill like a cardboard pop-up.
Not longing to dawdle in the frigidity, we bus to the 1488 built A-Ma Temple, 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. It takes little time to become ‘incensed’ with the smoke, and we zealously move on in order to keep our blood from solidifying.
The Arctic conditions have us reaching for the surrender papers, and giving some serious thought to purchasing a set of earplugs to drown out the jackhammering sound of our teeth. Rather than risk hypothermia we decide to goodbye the island. Huddled together on the ferry with frosted breath and incense laden clothes, we’re impatient to get back to our Kowloon hotel room to try and appease the numbness of our extremities by cranking the thermostat as far north as electrically possible!
Today, morosely waiting for a bus in the bullying cold, I scoot off to order a hot bowl of soup, which comes in a container, accompanied by chopsticks! Pondering the ‘nincomsoup’ who decided to combine the two, we are not exactly ingratiating ourselves to those around us, as my numb-fingered fumbling of the skinny wooden utensils accidentally splashes soup on them and leaves a goatee of noodles on my chin!
On Lantau Island, our plan is to visit the giant Buddha at the Po Lin monastery. This mammoth statue, claimed to be the world’s tallest seated Buddha, leaves us speculating how many other 112 foot, 250 ton bronze Buddha statues exist that are NOT seated! Not surprisingly with our modus operandi, the Po Lin Monastery is still closed when we arrive.
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 the gates open we charge up the 268 steps to reach the bronze statues offering gifts to the giant Buddha, eerily ghostlike with a swirling fog eroding our visuals.
We scurry over to the Wisdom Path and its Buddhist prayers carved into tall perpendicular wooden slabs protruding from the ground. The path is meant to be strolled slowly while pondering the wise words, but buffeted by fierce winds causing clouds to gallop across the sky, and weather cold enough to fart snowflakes, we hurtle down the well-trodden trail with the speed of a plummeting peregrine falcon!
Bone-chilled, and a shiver away from hypothermic hallucinations, a bus finally arrives. Lamentably it turns out to be 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 declaration from a lady growing up in Labrador!
Having partially thawed today, we visit the Soho area of HK Island and ride 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 that dust 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 just as the Symphony of Lights splashes laser beams synchronized to music across towering the skyscrapers jostling for space along the harbor.
According to the Chinese calendar 2008 is the Year of the Rat, and the city is currently over-decorated with rat sculptures. Small rats, rats of humongous proportions (probably on leave from Government), and the ridiculous rodents posed in every imaginable position; the displays likely rat-ified by some ir-rat-ional bureauc-rat. Despite the infestation, we do feel Hong Kong has become just a wee bit more sophisticated since our first visit more than ten years ago; in fact, kind of like a rat with a gold tooth!
Mongkok, translating to ‘flourishing corner’, is a bit of an understatement, as according to Guinness World Records, it has the highest population density in the world at 130,000 peeps per sq km. This, we soon find out, translates to 260,000 elbows, many of which introduced themselves to us! So, if you’re on the prowl for some quietude, the constant state of squeeze that is Mongkok is clearly not your best bet!
Ravenous for sun, we’re euphoric to now put a whole lot of gone between ourselves and planet chopstick, and a short flight catapults us out of the ice age and back to Indonesia’s addictive shores of Bali, where Mother Nature is congenially pushing the thermostat’s mercury much further north. We relax on our bungalow balcony with sweating gin and tonics puddling in the welcoming warmth as our gaze glides across Shamrock green rice fields to a paddy-hatted farmer busily tending to his gently quacking throng 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; watching the impoverished tyke’s faces illuminate with big shiny smiles and teeth gleaming in the sunlight.
At Spa Hati we’re kneaded to a pulp during an outdoor massage and 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’, meaning it’s time to cycle back to our bungalow and engage in a little poetry of the elbow.
Last night’s slumber 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 feathered fool as plucked, fried, and accessorized in BBQ sauce; and turning his cock-a-doodle-do into cock-a-doodle-don’t!
During my runs through the scenic countryside I pass bronzed, bent-backed farmers with shirtless shoulders, pulling a living from the soil devoted to their life-giving rice. Usually we share a pleasant morning greeting of ‘Selemat Pagi’ accompanied by friendly wave or a lift of the chin. Christine and I also enjoy splendid country walks after anointing ourselves with mosquito repellant due to Dengue Fever; the scourge of hot weather countries. Having already gotten Dengue on a Caribbean rugby tour many years ago, I need to be particularly alert as a second bout is even more severe, and can cause hemorrhagic fever.
Today is Valentine’s Day, and since we are now staying in the beach side village of Sanur, we’re off sailing aboard a traditional Balinese Jukong boat, carved out of a monstrous mango tree and stabilized by large bamboo pontoons on the sides. 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, as a great grandson of Walter de la Mare, it seems to me like there’s an opportunity in waiting here.
After a thirst quenchable tango of rum and mango, and getting all spiffed up in my best set of jeans tonight, we jump into a wheezing old bemo. This scuffed transport is akin to a three-wheeled travelling tent, but at least it keeps us semi-dry in the rain until making our jalopy jailbreak at our favorite Village Restaurant.
The meals served here may taste like angels copulating on our tongues; but outside it has turned into one devil of a night. Frightening lightning is flaunting a ferocious show, accompanied by ominous detonating thunder and rain falling in biblical proportions. After our meal, the jovial Italian chef doesn’t want us to leave as he’s fretting about falling branches from angry winds thrashing the trees. However, eventually we must take our chances, so our new friend presents Christine with a red rose and hails a taxi to collect us.
Back at our hotel, the last 100 meters of driveway is now completely underwater. Huddled together under an umbrella dithering over our dilemma, a resourceful shopkeeper next door comes up with a solution. Christine removes her newly purchased high heels, and the fellow quickly fashions a pair of booties out of plastic bags for her to put over her bare feet.
What a sight; the elegant Christine all dolled up with a rose and heels in one hand, an umbrella in the other, and the disputable footwear taped over her feet. 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, this is another indelible memory of a Valentine’s Day in our beloved Bali!
Sanur’s tranquility is uncharacteristically broken on our last night. Walking home arm-in-arm after dinner, Christine abruptly breaks free with a little extra hop in her step. Gyrating about with her hands in the air like a woman possessed, she appears to be acting out some weird Newfie-like jig and is making noises that sound like a parrot going under the wheels of a truck! Her dismay and inarticulate dialect leaves me wondering if I’m going to need to call an exorcist!
Hocus Croakus, looking down at her feet, I can see peeping out from inside her shoe, a bulgy-eyed petite frog that somehow magically managed to hop right inside it! The colourful little croaker, ribbiting for forgiveness, has me laughing so hard that I’m afraid of suffering serious internal damage!
Carefully I release young Kermit back into the billowing foliage, while Christine cautiously eases her foot back into her now frog-free shoe; the amusing amphibious incident yet another little treasure to add to our mosaic of special Bali memories!
So, like the ice in our drinks, our travel days have melted away, regrettably meaning it’s time once again for us to bid a fond farewell to this very special place known as The Island of The Gods.
Mark Colegrave February 2008