Friday, June 29, 2012

Beijing China: Temple of Heaven (The need of man to connect with Gods)

I am going to postpone my postings on Korea for a short while and write about my recent visit to Beijing last week. As I have mentioned in my earlier post, I would be relocating there soon and you should be expecting to see more posts (hopefully) on the beauty of Beijing and China for the next two years.

Although I was there for a week, we were busy going school and apartment hunting. I had to opportunity to squeeze out a day for sight seeing and I was contemplating where I should head to first. Yes. Beijing has that much to offer and even deciding which place to go can be perplexing. I opted for the Temple of Heaven as some other places are rather far off. Anyway, I have the entire two years here to explore them in depth.

I was staying at the Westin Beijing located in the city center. I took a cab from the hotel and braving the morning traffic where the major roads were still jammed pack, even at around 10:30am, the journey still took a good 40 minutes that cost me RMB40 (RM20).

Temple of Heaven, 天壇, is located at the southeast of Beijing. The entire ground covers 2.73 square kilometers and is huge, comprising of a series of religious buildings built between 1406 and 1420 under the reign of Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty who also oversaw the construction of the Forbidden City when he moves his capital from Nanjing to Beijing.
Originally known as the Temple of Heaven and Earth, Emperor Jiajin during his reign renamed this as the Temple of Heaven and built three more temples, Temple of Sun on the east, Temple of Earth on the north and Temple of Moon on the west. In the 18th century, Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty carried out further extension and renovation to the existing structures.

I have seen the pictures of this place for hundreds of times before and have never really comprehend the massiveness of these structures, the ground it covers or her significance to the ancient Chinese empires....until I stood on her grounds....

The first sight that greeted was the Circular Mount Altar, Huanqiutan, the place where the ancient Emperors are to make offerings to the Gods of Heaven during winter solstice and to pray for a good harvest as well as worship of his ancestors.
Can you imagine the might Emperor Qianlong walking up these stairs during his heydays, in all solemnity and grandeur, offering prayers to the Heavens....?

Once passed the Circular Mount Altar, I am faced with the Imperial Vault of Heaven, a small round building housing the tablet of God of Heaven and the tablets of the emperor's ancestors. This structure is almost similar to the larger Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, except that the Imperial Vault of Heaven is only single tier while the much larger Hall of Prayer consists of three tiers. The Imperial Vault of Heaven, built by Emperor Jiajing in 1530 and further renovated in 1752, was surrounded by a semi circular wall known as the Echo Wall, Huiyinbi. Legend has it that you can hear a whisper from one end of the wall to the other based on the ancient Chinese advance knowledge of sound waves. However, do not even hope to try to test this out, as the wall is perpetually crowded with tourist shouting at the top of their voice.
The beautiful woodcraft and intrigue designs of the Imperial Vault of Heaven. Simply amazing ....

The entire temple grounds are surrounded by beautiful green gardens consisting of hundreds if not thousands of mostly cypress trees, reputed to be hundreds of years old. The oldest apparently is close to 600 years old!

Linking the Imperial Vault of Heaven to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, is the long Red Stairway Bridge, Dianbiqiao. This bridge is 30 meters wide and 360 meters long, slowly inclining upwards, as if one is now slowly strolling up to the heavens....
And after this long and impressive pathway and you will finally see this magnificent structure, The Hall of the Prayer for Good Harvest.

The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, Qiniandian, is located at the north of the Red Stairway Bridge and is the last huge structure in this temple grounds. This structure is a architecture wonder, 3 tier circular structure, supported solely by 28 pillars with absolutely no beams or nails in her construction. Why 28 pillars? The main four pillars in the center of the temple is known as the Dragon Well Pillars, 12 more to represent the 12 months in a year and 12 more to signify the 12 time periods of which a day is divided into. Each pillar is made out of a single tree trunk and the main four pillars (Dragon Well Pillars) is well over 19 meters tall! Considering that this structure was built in 1420, this is truly an amazing feat and a clear testimony of the ancient Chinese grasp of technologies we still marvel at today.
The vast temple ground ...I took this picture from one corner at the back of the temple ground where there were lesser crowd...Sitting there, if you could close your eyes and try to imagine the grandeur and the fanfare it must have been during the Ming or the Qing Dynasty when the Emperor, also known as the Son of Heaven, offer his prayers and worship to the Heavens and his ancestors, asking for blessings and a bountiful harvest for the people, knowing fully well that any countrywide famine or natural disasters would spell serious trouble to his reign and government, as he would have been perceived as being punished or abandoned by the Heavens and his offerings,  not accepted and his ancestors have not been appeased. 

With that in mind, it then began to make sense to the amount of thoughts, state funds, efforts, blood and sweat put in to put up these structures. Every circle and every square, every number, every column, pillar, bridge, walkway, pathway, steps and trees were there for a particular reason and omen, each according to the Chinese feng shui and believes, each meant to bring forth blessings, peace and prosperity. Herein, lies the underlying age old fact that no matter how powerful one is on earth, one can not but believe, accept and fear even, the ONE who is above.
If you look carefully into the design of the steps leading to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, you will notice that it starts with designs of waves (water/sea), followed by tall mountains which stretches to the heavens denoted by the formation of clouds. I particularly like this picture because among the clouds, I have captured in the reflection of the sun.

Leaving the Temple of Heaven via the East Gate, I walked through a long corridor also called the Seventy Two Corridor which passes by the Imperial Kitchen. This corridor takes you past the vast cypress trees garden, truly a feast to the eyes. I was however stunned by what I saw as I walked past a particular section of this corridor. On both sides of the corridor were packed with locals, both young and old, men and women ...gambling!
I understand that this is the most common and favorite past time activities of the locals. I have even witnessed locals with their vans, cars or lorries parked by the roadside and the occupants happily having a game of cards sitting by the roadside. It saddens me when I see this supposedly sacred structure being `abused' in such a manner.

There is still much to see at the Temple of Heavens, such as the Rose Garden and the Hall of Abstinence which I have not yet visited. But I will be in Beijing for awhile and I will definitely make it a point to revisit this magnificent structure in other seasons, now that I have seen it in summer. Till then, stay tune for the next post on one of the seven wonders of the world, The Great Wall of China.....

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Korea : Daepohang Port (Fishy Fishy)

Sorry for the recent absence folks. Just got back from Beijing for a one week scouting trip. We would be relocating there in October 2012 and the last one week was spent getting to know Beijing a little (since we have never been to Beijing before) besides checking out schools and apartments. I still managed to visit the Temple of Heaven and the Great Wall at Mutianyu despite our busy schedule. Will get to that in my next post before I forget.

But for now, back to Korea.

On our trip to see Seoraksan (my last post), we were brought to the little town by the seaside, known as Daepohang, located at Sokcho. Daepohang Port as this place is commonly called, is a small little fishing town and is a MUST visit destination for those travelling up to Seoraksan.

Here, you will find yourselves walking along a narrow street, one side lined by vendors akin a wet market back in Malaysia, selling fresh seafood of almost every size, shape and colour and the other side lined with seafood restaurants, ever so tempting.

A walk in the wet market and you will discover that it is bustling with activities of both locals and tourist alike choosing and bargaining over the wide variety of fresh, and when I said fresh, I really meant LIFE seafood, swimming in the pots and containers of multiple colors.

Taking a slow stroll along this place allows you to witness a little about the lifestyle of the locals who have been plying their trade here for decades. It was also simply amazing to see so many species of FRESH seafood which either I have not seen before or have only seen them frozen from supermarkets.
Those were Fresh salmon roe...something I don't get to see at all back home..Simply superb...

The only regret I have was I was not able to spent some time here to savor these fresh tempting seafood that looked so succulent and delicious simply because our tour has our lunch menu planned elsewhere as we rush to Seoraksan. Given another opportunity, I would definitely want to come back and sit by the wooden benches, having my raw sashimi, downing Korean shochu and enjoying the view of those graceful seagulls gliding just above the calm blue waters .....Care to join me?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Korea: Seoraksan (Mystical mountains)

Korea is not all about tall sky scrappers and shopping. Once you travel out of Seoul, there are plenty of magnificent mother nature and God's creation to see and admire.

Over 70% of peninsular Korea is mountainous and hence, there are several spectacular mountain ranges that will definitely capture your imagination when you are there. One such mountain and probably one of the most visited mountain is Mount Seorak, also known as Seoraksan.
Apparently, this is the one place that every Korean will want to visit at least once in their lifetime and I can understand why when I stood there, looking at the peaks and the valleys. Somehow, there is a mystical sense about these mountains. As you stand silently among the rocks and the pine trees and listen, it is almost as if you can hear God Himself. It is simply amazing. Words just can not describe the smallness of our fragile human form, dwarfed by the towering and magnificent mountain peaks or the sheer depth of the plunging valleys.

I joined a tour I booked through the hotel from one of their tour brochures. It was cool, almost like a personal tour with just another couple from Singapore, with our guide and our driver. The journey from Seoul to Seoraksan took almost 4 hours and we made a couple of stop along the way. I went to Korea during autumn and I was totally excited and expecting to see the hue of red, yellow, orange and green maple leaves which I saw just a little in Seoul. I heard that Seoraksan is beautiful in autumn and I was looking forward to it.

We started off from Seoul at around 7:30 am. and on the way, we stopped by this look out point for my first glimpse of Seoraksan ....a view of Ulsan Bawii...
Legend has it that the rock, Ulsanbawi was walking to the north to represent the city from Ulsan, southeast of Korea when Mount Kumgang (Kumgangsan) was being built. However, he arrived too late and there was no room. Ashamed, Ulsanbawi trudges back home and when night fell, came to rest at Seorak. When he woke up, he found the place so beautiful that he decided to stay there forever.

Autumn was indeed beautiful here at Seoraksan. The trees were all decked with leaves of green, yellow, orange and red. Such a feast to the eye and for one like me, who have never experienced autumn, this was paradise to me....
Since this is a popular tourist destination, be prepared for a long wait for the cable car ride to the top of the mountain. We waited a good 2 hours. While waiting, we took a walk at the foot of the hill that still gives you a spectacular view of the mountains and temples.
The cable car will take you up to a certain point of the mountain and there is still a significant part to track to the highest point. It is definitely advisable that you do not come wearing your best dress or gown and leave your high heels back in the hotel. The view at the top is simply breathtaking.
A look at one of the many peaks at Seoraksan ....
This is one of the many small temples found scattered throughout Seoraksan where monks used to meditate ..This one is apparently 120 years old !
Climbing to the top take a significant amount of effort but the efforts are well worth it...You will be rewarded with this magnificent and breathtaking view from the top. 

There is another beautiful mountain range found on Jeju Island but I will leave that to another post ....stay tuned ....

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Korea: Seoul (Shopping Haven)

I was in Seoul, Korea about 2 years ago right after our trip to Washington and New York. I have been to Seoul a couple of years earlier on a company trip but I can not honestly say that I like Seoul during my visit then. I can not recollect any places that I could fondly remember.

So, when I was given an opportunity for a revisit, I gladly took it and I was looking forward to explore the part of Seoul that I miss, the part that speaks to me, the part that excites me, the part that will make me want to go back for more.....

And I must said that I fell in love with Korea in general from this trip.

Even before we touched down, my wife has been talking non stop about the shopping that can be done, the 24 hours shopping centers, the boutiques, the clothes and the stuff that she can buy. Now, I am definitely not a shopping freak. Maybe it is a guy thing. I am the type that walks straight to the shop that I want to buy from, directly to the specific rack, pick up the item, pay for it and leave. So, you must understand why I was not really that excited about all the walking, browsing and haggling over prices and oh GOD, the waiting .....hahahahaha

But, it is true that Korea is truly a shopping haven. There are just so much to see and savor. I can not say that the prices of all the items are cheap but there are still pretty good buys and bargains if you know where to find and having the patience to look for them.

Several well known shopping spots in Seoul include, the famous Myeong-dong, Dongdaemun, Namdaemun and Itae'won to name a few.

The first shopping spot we drop by was Dongdaemun. We were impressed with the huge shopping centers here. The one particularly famous is the Migliore. However, we did not really find anything interesting here. They were rather common and the prices were not exactly cheap. Moreover, the place was really crowded.

Not satisfied with the shopping experience from Dongdaemun and not having bought anything or spent any money, my wife insisted that we must visit another shopping spot. I was not exactly sure which is which or which is better but I remembered a very interesting shopping attraction that I went to during my first visit there. After some inquiries at the hotel, we decided to try out Myeong-dong, and hopefully, the place that we were looking for. And, we were right and not disappointed, or at least my wife was not ....hehehehe
I would say Myeong-dong is definitely a much more interesting place to shop, even for a guy who dislike shopping like me. Unlike a huge shopping complex, Myeong-dong is a place where there are rows and rows of small little shops selling all sorts of stuff. The variety is simply amazing, the clothes were nice and the prices were more reasonable. Besides boutiques, there were also plenty of little cute cafes, pubs and restaurants, always ready to welcome and refresh a tired, weary, thirsty and hungry shopper.
Have I mentioned the street peddlers as well? Oh yes, there are also these street peddlers that sells a whole variety of items, from ties to souvenirs and lots and lots of local street food, which by the way, are extremely delicious.
Another thing I noticed as I went around shopping in Seoul was that I did not seemed to find ANY slimming centers offering slimming packages. Of course, when I stopped for a second and started observing the streams of Korean girls that walked past, I began to understand why. I can hardly find ONE FAT or PLUMP Korean girl. Maybe it is because of their diet and the food or kim chi that they eat on a daily basis.

However, the same cannot be said about beauty saloons or cosmetic shops. You can find them at every turn and cosmetic and beauty here in Seoul IS BIG BUSINESS! And again, if you stop to admire the Korean girls (like I did, with my wife's knowledge of course), you will find NONE that is not without some form of make-up.
Cosmetic business and industry is so competitive that as you walked along the streets at Myeong-dong, you will find many pretty, and I mean pretty cosmetic promoters and ambassadors marketing their products with headphones and speakers, enticing the many potential shoppers with free gifts and discounts if they only would just walk into their shops.

I left Myeong-dong impressed while my wife left Myeong-dong with two hands full of bags and definitely a very happy woman. Would we come back? Dare I NOT? Hahahaha.....

Next, the beauty of Seoul's mother nature!

Monday, June 11, 2012


We wanted to go for a short break in October 2011 and we wanted somewhere near. We heard much about our Sepang Gold Coast. Yes, you hear me right. We have one GOLD COAST right here in Malaysia, located at Sepang. Now, we have been to Gold Coast, Australia and we totally fell in love with that place.

Curious of what our very own gold coast has to offer, we did a search and came across this very interesting resort known as the GOLDEN PALM TREE RESORT. Again the design of this resort resembles something similar in the Middle East, with villas branching out from the shore line to the sea, just like a palm tree.
Pictures from the website looked impressive. However, the prices were rather steep. But then we were thinking, a place charging this kind of prices can not be that bad right?

We made a few calls to see if we could just walk in to check out the place but were told that only guests could go in and most of the weeks we called, we were told that they were running at full capacity and occupancy. Now, that seemed like a good sign, or so we thought.

We found out also from their website that they too have an `All Inclusive' package which include room stay, breakfast, lunch and dinner. This package even include `all you can drink beer"! I was like "Wow! This is like Club Med!" The inclusive package is not as pricey as Club Med or Tanjung Rhu Resort in Langkawi that I posted in my last post, but it was not cheap either.

We were still cautious, and hence, we only booked for one night stay.

Getting there from Subang (with the help of a GPS) was not difficult and we had a pleasant drive. Upon arrival, the lobby was spacious and impressive. The service we received from the front desk was reasonable and we were quickly checked in and a buggy drove us to our villa. We got upgraded to the Canary Palm Villa (a promotion if we paid full upon booking).

Now, we asked for a room towards the tip of the branch for the best sea view and we got it. No complains. But on the downside, it is a long long walk to the club house, restaurant and the pool which are all located at the center of the palm tree. From our room, it was easily a 10 minutes walk and not particularly nice, if it rains as it did in our case.
The room was new and nice. Very comfortable and with an excellent view of the sea. It would even be nicer if the weather held up. There was one king size bed on one side of the room and  two single beds on the other side, separated by a very nice living area.
The infinity pool at the club house is also excellent, with a little shallow end for the children and a deeper end that stretches towards the sea for the adults. However, one must watch over the children playing on the shallow end carefully as they could easily climb over the ledge separating the shallow and the deep end, and ended up struggling in the adult pool immediately.
What we were not particularly happy about during our stay here was the service at the restaurant and their `All Inclusive' package. Firstly, their `All Inclusive' package meals were from a different fixed menu. Our lunch at their Chinese Restaurant, Hai Sang Lou was pathetic. We were served a small bowl of porridge and some fried dim sums. If we were to order any extra, all those would be chargeable.

Our unpleasant experience continued when we were dipping and swimming in the pool. Beer was definitely free and inclusive and so was coffee and tea. But when my wife wanted to order a cup of Milo, we were shocked to find out that that too is not part of our `All Inclusive'. Milo is chargeable! We somehow had that feel that `All Inclusive' customers were second class customers who opted to an fixed inferior menu as compared to those without the `All Inclusive'.

Our nightmare with these `All Inclusive' package extended to our dinner. We were told that it is going to be an international buffet dinner at their Bila Bila Restaurant by the pool and the operating hours were from 6pm to 10:30pm.

We managed to get to the restaurant by 8pm after getting the children ready and braving the rain, walking a full 10 minutes with our umbrellas. By the time we got there, most of the dishes were empty and many tables left uncleared. We found a table and sat down and patiently waited for the dishes to be refilled but sadly, the staff did not seemed to have any intention of filling them. Finally, we went up to the manager and complained and then only we see some of the dishes being refilled by the staff by which time, we have already lost our patience as well as our appetite. And neither the restaurant manager nor the staff were apologetic over the issue.

Would we go back again for another visit? I seriously do not think so. And if you are thinking of a visit, I would strongly suggest not eating at the resort. There are plenty of good seafood restaurant only a couple of minutes drive away.

On the day we check out, we were walking behind this Caucasian male personnel of whom we presumed to be of the senior management team through his mannerism. We would be expecting him to be smiling to the resort guests that he bumped into but oh no...not him...he is high and mighty...

As we were walking out, there was this row of chairs which was supposed to be lined nicely against the wall. Well, one chair was out of the order. And this high and mighty senior management team Caucasian personnel walked up to that chair and .....using his LEG, kicked the chair back against the wall, and this was in full view of all other resort's guests!

With that, I began to understand why we were treated the way we were treated at the restaurant the night before.....emmmmm....and they are rating this as a 5 star resort ......go figure!
Gold Coast Australia boasts of miles and miles of white sandy beaches. Gold Coast Sepang has miles and miles of dark muddy shoreline. I wonder who was responsible in coining up the name for this location and what was in his mind ....????

Friday, June 8, 2012

Tanjung Rhu Resort : Unparalleled Service

Another reason why we go back to Tanjung Rhu Resort again and again and given a chance, we would not hesitate to go back is because of their rooms and above all their service rendered right from the point of arrival.

We took a flight from Kuala Lumpur and upon arrival at the Langkawi airport, we were greeted by a cheerful driver, assigned to pick us from the airport. The mode of transportation was also impressive, a brand new 7 seater Estima.

On the way to airport, I asked the driver where I could buy some beer at local prices as I do not intend to spent too much buying alcoholic drinks (which is not part of the all inclusive package) from the resort. He was kind enough to bring me to this huge warehouse like store where locals shop. Everything there was cheap, especially if you compared them to KL prices. I bought my cartoon of Carlsberg for less then RM40 (if I remember correctly). In KL, you probably get a cartoon for RM98 or RM88 (during Chinese New Year promotions) from the major hyper markets. The cheapest you could get from the black market would still be between RM70 to RM80. So, Langkawi is definitely an alcoholic haven!

5 minutes before arrival, the driver radioed the resort of our impending arrival. Once we reached the resort, a couple of resort staff was already on hand to greet us by name. From then on, one assigned staff led us straight to our room and all documentations for checking in was done in the comfort of our room. Once that was over with, our fun begun....

Throughout our stay, we find every staff that we encountered, friendly and we got to know a couple of their staff pretty well which goes a long way to get even better service and favor. As I have mentioned earlier in my previous mail, the restaurant manager even prepared two special lobsters dishes for our lunch with was not in their menu ....

We were actually `accidentally' upgraded by the resort. So, our rooms were superb, complete with sea view and personal Jacuzzi. We only found out when we checked out and true to a resort of this status, they reimbursed us the extra charge once they found proof of the type of room we actually originally booked. I am quite sure that this would not happen again.

The resort and spa is set with a tropical theme and hence, there are plenty of trees, plants, water scape within the resort grounds, creating a feel that you have truly entered a tropical paradise and where money is not an `issue'. (since you can order anything and everything that is in the menu). I never knew how much mango juice and mocktails my wife can drink until we were there...hahahaha

A view from the lobby looking through some tranquil water scape out the open sea beyond ...The building housed the Rhu Fine Dining Restaurant ..

The children's sandy pool.....well shaded and a small little haven for the little ones to play sand and swim at the same time....

Part of the pool..

Since we brought our maid along for this trip and she can take care of our son, we took the opportunity to relax and try out their spa. Needless to say, it was simply heaven on earth ....

Entrance of the JivaRhu Spa ....

Getting ready for our massage ....

We had a great time way back in 2010 when we last visited this place. We have not been back the last 2 years because we were too caught up visiting the different Club Meds within this region such as Cherating, Bali and Bintan Island. You can also read about them in our earlier posts. We have booked to Club Med Maldives this September and we are definitely looking forward to that.

Meanwhile, about the all `All Inclusive' package, there are other resorts who also offered similar packages but at times, there are more of a marketing gimmick than anything else. One such resort, unfortunately is the Sepang Gold Coast Resort. We took their `All Inclusive' package and was in for a real surprise....Stay tuned to find out why in my next post.....:)