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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Weaves its spell in China

Suzhou is one of China’s leading cultural cities, reputedly producing the most scholars and silk. ONE of the questions I am most frequently asked by friends and readers of this column is, “What is the best place to visit in China?” There is, of course, no “best” or “favourite”, as every destination has its own merits. However, there are places I never tire of re-visiting, chief amongst them the Jiangnan region on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River (Changjiang).

For centuries, this land of “soft streams and warm mountains” (to borrow a phrase from Feng Xiaogang’s movie The Banquet) – with its lakes, canals, gardens and pavilions – defined the image of the Middle Kingdom. This was and still is the heartland of tea and silk; of scholars, calligraphers and literary pursuits; of folksongs and opera and sophisticated aesthetic sensibilities.

In ancient times, Jiangnan was also famed for pretty women. The fragile, tragic heroine Lin Daiyu from the 18th century classic Dream of the Red Chamber, for example, hailed from Suzhou where women were renowned for delicate looks, gentle demeanour and soft speech.

Unfortunately, when we asked to meet some contemporary Suzhou beauties, our guide said, tongue-in-cheek: “They have all been married off to overseas Chinese from places like Taiwan, Singapore and beyond.”

Perhaps it was their diet of freshwater fish, or because they lived in a centre of sericulture, but Suzhou ladies of old certainly had good skin. My maternal great-great-grandmother was a Suzhou native who lived to a very ripe old age. Her porcelain skin, my mother recalled, remained wrinkle-free till the end.

It is often said silk pillows and silk quilts are key to good skin (and a good night’s sleep). Cool in summer, warm in winter, light and soft, these “cloud blankets” (yunbei) were formerly the preserve of the imperial family. Nowadays, silk quilts are accessible to all and can even be found in some tourist hotel rooms.

Silk production was a state secret in ancient times. Today, the Suzhou #1 Silk Mill conducts tours where the entire production process, from worm cultivation to the assembly lines where filaments from snowy cocoons are reeled, is open to inspection.

Suzhou’s silkworms reputedly yield the longest strands, up to 1,750m, compared with just 800m from Sichuan’s cocoons and a mere 200m for those from Guangdong.

Twin cocoons are bred for quilts and handstretched on a series of inverted U-shaped bamboo frames of increasing size, until finally the fibres are pulled into quilt-sized rectangles. The process is repeated many times, layer upon layer. I was told on a previous visit that a quilt comprises anywhere from 7,000 to 10,000 cocoons depending on the weight (summer or winter) and size.

Suzhou is famous for its garden villas with their rockeries, lotus ponds and winding reflexology paths. Nine of these residential havens of retired scholars and officials, mainly of the Ming and Qing dynasties, are on Unesco’s World Heritage list.

So admired are these gardens that a part of the Zhongwangfu, formerly abode of Suzhou’s highest official, was modelled on one of the nine Unesco-listed estates, Zhuozhengyuan (Humble Administrator’s Garden).

Constructed on a 10,650 square metre-site in the 1860’s, Zhongwangfu became residence of the province’s governor though it was subsequently destroyed by Qing troops.

The complex has since been restored and is now part of the new Suzhou Museum designed by American architect IM Pei, himself of Suzhou ancestry. It is not unusual for museums to have a gallery with a stage devoted to local opera but Zhongwangfu’s opera stage is unique in its location inside a historical building. The hall is reputedly the largest such indoor facility in Jiangnan.

One evening, we attended a sampling of 600-year-old Kunqu opera at Zhongwangfu. This Ming dynasty art form is the highly refined precursor of Beijing and other Chinese operas, and was listed by Unesco as a World Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2001. Kunqu’s lilting melodies, graceful dances and exquisite costumes are mesmerising. A single opera can carry on for days.
Silk cocoons being stretched on bamboo frames to make quilts at Suzhou #1 Silk Mill.

It was dark as we entered Zhongwangfu’s imposing gate and wound our way through the narrow corridors. Unlike at the crowded Liuyuan (Lingering Garden) earlier, not a soul was in sight and mercifully, no raucous tour guides with microphones.

In the opera hall stood a simple raised stage with two red-curtained doorways and a small table for a prop. After a comedic scene from a piece called 15 Strings of Cash, the female protagonist of that most beloved of Kunqu classics, Peony Pavilion, emerged and together with the male lead, performed an extract from the episode where she dreams of her lover.

The scene unfolded onstage to the accompaniment of percussion and flute. Though I could not understand a single word of the arias, I was enchanted by the melancholic yearning in the youthful actors’ voices, the carefully choreographed tossing of their trailing “water” sleeves and their controlled hand movements. Their eerie wails seemed to emanate from deep within their souls.

As we left Zhongwangfu, a soft rain began to fall, heightening the sense of longing and nostalgia created by the precious performance in that vast mansion. It was at that moment that Suzhou seemed most charming.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Cultural Istanbul

IF you are into continental hopping, it is hard not to include Istanbul on your travels. Catch a Bosphorus ferry from downtown Eminonu to Sariyer near the entrance to the Black Sea and the ferry darts across the narrow waterway from Europe to Asia, back to Europe and then Asia again, several times on its one-hour journey.

The Bosphorus is the strategic narrow waterway that links the Sea Of Marmara (and onto the Mediterranean Sea) to the Black Sea and all the Soviet seaports and markets surrounding the inland sea. Throughout history, whoever controlled this narrow stretch of water controlled regional trade. Turkey’s largest city and former capital has been through many changes throughout history — from being first known as Byzantium, then Constantinople and now, Istanbul. Various people have left their cultural imprints upon the people with the most obvious signs being the legacy of fine buildings, mosques, churches and castles.

However, it is the blend of all things European and Asian that pervades most parts of Istanbul life from food to dance and lifestyle.

Historic Istanbul : Istanbul is a lively city where mosques call people to pray five times a day and yet, young Turks can party well into the morning with club goers from around the world who come here especially in the summer months to be part of the vibrant city scene. Wherever visitors step in the Old City in central Istanbul on the European side, there’s evidence of the past in many areas. But, the Old City is also dissected by many elements of contemporary life but one gets the impression that the city’s future is very much guided by its past.

With a population exceeding 15 million, Istanbul is one of the region’s largest cities and growing at a rapid rate. The ancient lanes and cobble-stoned streets of the Old City struggle to accommodate the people of Istanbul who are keen to keep pace with the rest of the world.

While guidebooks romantically refer to the great historic sites, it’s the modern face of Istanbul that most tourists will encounter even when visiting the city’s historic sites. Istanbul has been a strategic city for some 2,000 years. The original settlement was around along the Bosphorus and the Sea Of Marmara but now there is a sea of houses sprawling well away from the water’s edge.

The city has been home to great civilisations such as Byzantium, Constantinople and the Ottoman Empire. It was once part of the Roman Empire and in the 9th Century, the city had attained a population that exceeded one million.

Ancient Architecture: Istanbul’s great architectural structures reflect the various historical periods and the religions and cultures that have controlled Istanbul. In the early 4th Century, Emperor Constantine established Christianity in Byzantium (as Istanbul was originally known). Several early Christian churches still remain in Istanbul with Aya Sophia (St Sophia) or Haghia Sophia being the main building of the period. Also known as the Church Of Holy Wisdom, it’s one of the city’s most spectacular sights and one of the world’s finest architectural creations.

Always a building of continued political controversy, Aya Sophia stands out above the Istanbul horizon along with the equally stunning Blue Mosque in the area known as the Golden Horn. During the Ottoman period, Aya Sophia became a mosque, but today it is a museum that celebrates the Byzantium era. Certain quarters want to see the building revert to its original function as a mosque, while others want it to re-open as a church and, others want it to remain neutral ground and retain it as a museum. While the debate continues, all visitors can admire its architectural splendour.

Even those who debate its function, agree that 56m high domed structure which took six years to build, is one of the finest buildings in the world. Aya Sophia was completed in 537 and was lit internally by a myriad of candles.

Not far away, perched on the highest piece of land, is the Sultan Ahmet 1 Camii, better known as the Blue Mosque. While quite an impressive building from the outside, it is the blue-tiled interior that captures attention. The mosque was built in the early 17th Century and its imposing architecture dominates the Golden Horn area.

Around the corner is the entrance to the vast Topkapi Palace which was once the seat of the entire Ottoman Empire. A whole day could be spent here to appreciate its treasures, artwork, frescoes and, once secretive harem. At one time, the palace was a miniature town with some 50,000 people living and working here.

Heady Maze : The Grand Bazaar is close by and shoppers will find that a day or so may not be enough time to see it all. It’s a maze of alleyways, cafés and shops with most outlets staffed by enthusiastic hawkers trying their hardest to lure shoppers. Bargaining is an important part of buying anything and don’t be worried about getting lost in the mayhem as someone will point you in the right direction after all the shopping fun. The Egyptian Spice Market situated closer to the waterfront is the place for fresh fruit, nuts, spices, rich Turkish coffee, cheeses and trays of tasty Turkish delight.

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

A rocky of Cappadocia

The eternal conflict arises in Cappadocia: yes, it’s a beautiful area and the whole world should know about it; but increasing tourism brings inevitable problems. Cappadocia’s historial significance was overlooked by the world until the turn of the 20th century, when a French priest was believed to have drawn attention to its cave churches.

While archeologists were regular early visitors, the tourism boom only really began in the 1980s, and many tour groups can be seen in the area today. The ever-intrepid Japanese top the number of visitors, and Cappadocia is also increasingly drawing rich, elite travellers. The Hilton is scheduled to arrive soon, the first of other big hotel chains.

This is good news for a population dependent on tourism, of course. But we’ve seen this before: a beautiful, unique area becomes a popular tourist destination and, soon, what made it unique in the first place is lost.

Is Cappadocia at risk of losing its traditions, unique cave homes, and surreal rock formations?

Until 1974, locals could use the fairy chimneys (as the peculiar volcanic rock formations are called) as cellars and homes as long as they maintained them. Since 1985, however, Turkey’s National Estate Directorate has been charging annual rents, causing many residents to abandon the unique structures.

Some 5, 000 out of an estimated 50, 000 fairy chimneys in Cappadocia are at risk from erosion, said the mayor of Goreme village, Fevzi Gunal, in an interview with Turkish Daily News in January last year.

Goreme Tourism Development Cooperative Chairman Mustafa Durmaz told the same paper, “Whenever it rains, we worry about the fairy chimneys. One or two chimneys are ruined every year. In a few years’ time, we won’t be able to see them any longer.”

The Museum Directorate in Cappadocia’s provincial capital, Nevsehir, reported in the same paper in January, 2006, that 265 TV stations in 45 countries have received filming licenses, with Japan holding 52 permits – all of which means a higher profile for the region, and even more visitors.

With tourist arrivals rising from 1.5 million in 2004 to an expected 2 million this year, there seems no end to tourists treading this ancient land – and leaving their mark. Tourism has its benefits and drawbacks, of course, as the locals well know.

Harun Mumcu, 28, who runs the Kale Terrasse (Cave Terrace) Restaurant beside a Roman tomb inside a fairy chimney in Goreme, says there are just not enough tourists to fill the more than 90 hotels that already exist in Cappadocia.

“There has been progress, such as better roads and facilities,” he says. “But the benefits from big tourist groups are limited. Most profits go to the travel agencies in Istanbul.

The tourism season in summer also lasts just three months.”

Another restaurant owner, who asks not to be named, voices his sadness at the rate local houses are being bought and combined to create “characterless small hotels”.

“Last week when I took a walk around Goreme village, I was startled to find only four houses remaining on one of the streets. The rest had been purchased and turned into a cheap hotel,” he says.

One way of preserving Cappadocia is through sensitive planning and catering to small, exclusive travellers’ groups rather than huge tours, says Didem Z.

Bulgurlu, assistant general manager of Goreme’s newest luxury property hotel, Cappadocia Cave Resort and Spa.

“This was once a pile of rubble before Istanbul businessman Mustafa Cankaya restored the cave houses,” she explains, gesturing around the hotel’s elegant interior.

“We have to abide by strict rules about preserving a traditional façade. Skilled local artisans were hired. We do want tourism here, it’s vital for development and jobs.”

Nevsehir governor M. Asim Hacimustafaoglu says he wants to focus on religious and cultural tourism to preserve Cappadocia’s historical significance and integrity.

“We have synagogues, mosques, and churches that have existed side by side peacefully for centuries,” he says.

“Cappadocia is significant for both Muslim and Christian pilgrims. There are over 2,000 churches and over 300 underground cities, with only 12 of the latter open, as it costs alot to restore and open them.

“As Cappadocia is listed as a Unesco World Heritage site, it is under constant supervision,” he adds. “The rocks have weathered thousands of years. Crumbling fairy chimneys are not a risk.”

Goreme House Hotel founder Yasar Ozdemir, 42, is more worried about the change in lifestyles among villagers.

“We were once a close knit community,” he says. “Now people are living increasingly separate lives.

Young people no longer want to be farmers. We are following the European lifestyle and forgetting our own Turkish roots.”

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Rio from the mountain tops

I’d been told it was a magic place, a viewpoint in Rio second in impact only to heart-stopping Corcovado. I had tried several times to find it, but not even tour guides could ever get me there. Now I was with taxi driver Paulo. He spoke a smattering of English, was decidedly simpatico (friendly), and clearly knew his way around.

It augured well. It was my determination this time to see Rio from the heights, or as many of them as I could scale. This is the city of the morro, or hill. And the hills of Rio are all dramatic, divisional protrusions, soaring to improbable heights, like so many giant thumbs thrust straight out of the ground.

As sheer and rocky as they are, many of their summits can be readily achieved – by road, walking trail, or, in the case of Sugarloaf, by cable car. They all offer spectacular views of this amazing city setting: the crescent-shaped beaches of Flamengo, Copacabana and Ipanema, the indented Botofago Bay, the broad still waters of Lake Rodrigas de Freitas, the clustered city buildings that reside between the morros, and the adobe brick favelas, or slums, that clamour up their sides.

And all of this is pressed between the serious big waters of island-studded Guanabara Bay, and the serious big hills of the forest-covered Tijuca-Carioca Massif straight behind. Wow! Not surprisingly, Rio’s two most popular tourist destinations are elevated viewpoints. These are Corcovado and Sugarloaf. The former affords what must surely be the world’s most fantastic city panorama. Its talon-shaped peak thrust its way through the already soaring Tijuca-Carioca range. Crowning its top is the mighty 30m-tall Cristo Redentor, Christ the Redeemer.

Improbable as it seems from down below, you can reach Corcovado’s summit by car or by “cog train”.

The centerpiece of your view is Sugarloaf. It soars an amazing 396m straight out of the shoreline of Guanabara Bay and guards mightily the entrance to Botofogo Bay. Seeing it from way up here, you feel impelled to conquer it.

The cable car that allows this does so in two stages, stopping at the only slightly less imposing Morro da Urca on the way.

Sugarloaf’s highlight is the view. Curving away to the south, in an arc of brilliant blue and white, is Copacabana. To the north is Flamengo, and then the city centre further on. On the far side of the bay is the skyline of Rio’s sister city, Niteroi. It is linked to Central by the world’s longest single-span bridge.

I happened to be staying in Copacabana. From my sixth floor window I had a great view of the forest-clad morro that marks the beach’s northern limit. At its top stands a fort – “Forte do Leme”.

The Leme morro is an environmental protection area, comprising 11ha of virgin Atlantic forest. The fort was originally built in 1779, and only deactivated in 1965. Several of its giant cannons are still aimed at the entrance to Guanabara Bay.

It goes without saying that you get a breathtaking view from up here: of Sugarloaf to the immediate north, and to the south Copacabana, Ipanema and the giant twin morros known as Dois Irmaos (two brothers) beyond.

Oh yes, and of the gargantuan flat-topped Pedra Gavea behind.

One more little trek would intervene before I set out on my major quests. The track up to the “alto” at Parque Catacumba is akin to a genuine mountain trail – broken steps, slippery patches with branches to grab hold of as you climb. The park covers the southern side of Morro dos Cabritos, which rises abruptly from the shores of Ipanema’s Lake Rodrigo de Freitas.

Two taxi rides with Paulo completed my assignment. The first took me up to Pedra Bonita, which is adjacent to Pedra Gavea. It is from here that hang gliders make their death-defying leap, landing on a beach some 400m straight below. The mighty Dois Irmaos form the best part of the backdrop as they float demurely down.

Buoyed by this success, we set off next day to find Vista Chinesa. To do so, we drove up past Corcovado all the way to the bairro of Boa Vista. Slightly south of here we saw the signpost: “Vista Chinesa”.

I have to admit, I never really imagined the spot to have anything to do with China. But it does. A large oriental pavilion stands in tribute to Rio’s Chinese population, and their efforts in building roads and planting tea.

They were honoured very well, for this indeed is a magical place. The view is uninterrupted. The dense Tijuca forest is slowly being encroached upon by a smattering of buildings. These begin to cluster, but only succeed in keeping the great forest at bay down by the coast. Sugarloaf looks impossibly imposing from up here. And you can’t believe you’ve actually reached its top.

On the way back down we visited yet another lookout. This was at Parque Dois Irmaos. It occupies the lower reaches of those mighty twin guardians, and offers the definitive view of Ipanema’s gently curving beach.

“Are there any other places?” I asked Paulo as I clicked merrily away, and then ran out of film.

“Sure, plenty! You want to go again tomorrow?”


# The Rio Othon Palace, Avenida Atlantica 1020, Copacabana; othon hotels

# Copacabana Palace Hotel, Avenida Atlantica 1702, Copacabana; copaca banapalace

# Center Hotel, Avenida Branco 33; asia rooms

WHEN TO VISIT Rio’s climate is pleasant all year round, but to see the city at its best, avoid the cooler months from June to August.

BRING ALONG Sun block, sun hat, comfortable walking shoes, repellent. Special requirements can be purchased quite cheaply in the city.


# Brazil is especially good value at the moment. You might want to take advantage of the bargains in the shops.

# Check that your taxi driver can speak at least a smattering of English before going on long drives, and negotiate the fee first.

VISA Required for Brazil. RESEARCH Lonely Planet has a current edition on Rio, with great maps and information on the morros.

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Walk on the wild side in Thailand

The two Bengal tigers rear up on their haunches and wrestle. Upstaging the king and queen of the jungle who are keeping a low profile tonight, the tigers unleash an ear-splitting roar that stuns the passengers perched on the tram.

Backing off from each other, the tigers then prowl their enclosure, howling in the moonlight as a guide trains a spotlight on them. His commentary drowned out by the noise, the guide kills his beam and the tram rumbles on.

Welcome to Chiang Mai Night Safari. Set on the fringes of the city romantically called “the Rose of the North” in Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, the 1.5bil baht, Thai government-run initiative opened in 2006.

Modelled on Singapore’s night safari, it consists of two loops. The first, Savannah Safari, stretches 2km, and encompasses a hodgepodge of animals that, despite the name, come from Asia instead of Africa.

The second loop, the loosely named Predator Prowl, is about the same length but more glamourous. It features creatures you certainly would not want to meet on a dark night. Think vultures, tigers (including the rare white tiger), jackals, hunting dogs, wolves and Malayan sun bears whose dark disposition drives them to wreck coconut palms and cocoa plantations when not methodically dismantling walls. Or so we are told – they look cuddly enough to keep as pets.

Anyway, the safari nicely caters to tourists like me who have done spas and temples and want to embark on a tour with an edge. We head for the 7.45pm pick-up point, a tourist police booth buried in the depths of the night bazaar.

Greeted outside with a twinkle by a male usher in a zebra print outfit, we duck into a minibus that matches his get-up. Deliciously cool after the bazaar’s humid hustle, it whisks us to the park by around 8pm.

Beyond the night safari megalith sign (which must look strange in the day), dappled deer dot the fringes of the avenue that bristles with soldiers and statues depicting hybrid mythical beasts. This inspired one critic to think of a genetic engineering centre. The faux-mud roof, wood columns and bongo music of the arena that houses the ticket office, information desk and souvenir shops suggest a tribal village.

Strolling through, we take our seats in front of the lake. Peacocks wail. Otherwise, the park is eerily quiet in the run-up to the no-excess-spared laser show incorporating a musical fountain, which throws up water to serve as a screen for laser graphics portraying a procession of animals and objects.

An elephant makes the cut. So too do a crocodile and a squiggle that could be a snake or a gull, along with a cheeky rabbit that mutates into an impala. Enter three sticks of rhubarb and what resembles an Ikea flatpack furniture item. Everything wiggles around to a swaggering, mashed-up version of Mission Impossible.

As the music builds, the fountains pulse, shimmy to a Mexican wave before climaxing in an explosion of green beads of light. In the subsequent hush, ushers, one touting a megaphone, round us up and herd us towards the Savannah Safari train station. There, we have our tickets punched.

Climb into the back of the farang (“foreigner”) tram for the Savannah Safari loop. Many of the animals, in particular the hyenas, are just too lazy to hunt – a bunch of underachievers, the guide suggests.

The hyena’s neighbours range from gawky and shaggy animals it might try to eat, to monsters and one top-tier misplaced predator. That translates as wildebeest, yaks, giraffes, white rhinos and cheetahs. Then there are the obscure outsiders – serows (goat-antelopes with short, sharp horns, long coarse hair and beards), gorals (goat-antelopes equipped with backward curving horns), gaurs (mammoth oxen native to India and Malaysia) and barasinghas (deer native to India and Nepal).

Amid this menagerie, herbivore hippos play a cameo role, submerged so that they expose little more than their long-lashed eyeballs. Despite their penchant for bananas, cuddly toy looks and aura of calm, hippos are hard. In the wild, they regularly take out crocodiles.

What a scream it would be to see them tangle with the Siamese crocodiles presented in Predator Prowl.

We would see all the gory detail because visibility is consistently good. Only once, when scanning an enclosure for an unfamiliar goat-antelope called a gwarg or something, do I fail to see the occupant.

Keep an eye out for wandering ostriches, our guide says, observing that, while an ostrich’s egg is 30 times bigger than a chicken’s, its brain is the size of a bean.

Consequently, sometimes like a demented geriatric, an ostrich meanders onto the track and stares at the tram, obliging our guide to push the bird way. Our guide, who claims to ride bison, peppers his talk with aspersions.

He ridicules the free-running wild pigs that eat their own poop and male lions that do nothing but eat, sleep, mate and have a beer.

Emus for him represent a warning of the consequences of not washing your hair.

His irreverence injects some jollity into the tour, which needs it because seemingly every other animal is threatened with extinction – usually thanks to the supposed aphrodisiac quality of its private parts.

As the night wears on, we stay alert – jokes, jolts and sudden overpowering urine whiffs helping to ensure that. The worst whiff emanates from the golden jackal, which appears unpleasant in every way, living up to the reputation enjoyed by jackals in general.

For its party trick, the predator dances, siren-like, around its prey until the prey is infatuated, then rips into its face and tears it apart – the stuff of nightmares.

My only grievance is that, although the ushers say you can take photographs, just try. Flash is banned. Photographing fawn-coloured woodland animals without it from a tram negotiating slopes and bends is tricky. Expect megapixel soup.

About the only workable photo opportunity comes when some antelope-like animal, an oryx, I think, appears beside the tram and just stands there, nibbling leaves scattered over the tarmac. Never on the journey do I feel under threat except when some roving wildebeest come into view, all horns and sinew.

If you trespass on their territory and turn your back, the non-predators come after you, the guide says, revealing that he once jumped into a tree to avoid them.

More than any other animals we see, the wildebeest check us out but seem less feral than the cat I saw en route to the night bazaar, which was gripping a gecko between its teeth. The least tame creatures we see appear to be the zebras, which approach on the other side of the road from the wildebeest at a brisk trot.

Bugged by the Bengal tigers or pointing cameras, the zebras buck, displaying their massive haunches. Seized with the jitters, they then lose the plot, break into a canter and, bulging-eyed, bolt, generating a rush of air and contained excitement.

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Christchurch and Canterbury road travelling

Comfortable driving distances from the Alps to the ocean allow you the flexibility to pack more into your New Zealand holiday. Take a leisurely road trip (rental vehicles are available, but advance booking is recommended) and experience the true diversity of this amazing region.

Your first stop will be the vibrant city of Christchurch. Drive down tree-lined avenues to the city centre. It’s only 18 minutes from the airport. Immerse yourself in the city’s cultural heart with neo-Gothic buildings and an impressive art gallery.

Discover unique hideaway alleys, home to high-end boutiques and a myriad of cafes and bars. Meander through the botanic gardens, savour the sunset from a hillside vantage point, take in live theatre or enjoy a romantic hot air balloon flight.

Rustic Sight

Banks Peninsula is one of the region’s many unspoilt treasures and is a great day trip, easily accessible from Christchurch. Rugged cliffs and bright blue waters shape the port town of Lyttelton, with steep and narrow streets, historic cottages and an eclectic array of cafes and bars.

On the other side of the peninsula is Akaroa – one of the South Island’s oldest towns. This French and British settlement is nestled in an ancient flooded volcano, with well-preserved buildings and amazing wildlife. It’s a great holiday spot for both locals and visitors. There are activities to suit everyone, be it enjoying the vista from a local waterfront café, swimming with the tiny Hectors Dolphins or exploring the harbour on sea kayak. For a nice treat, pick up some local fish and chips and spend an afternoon at the beach.
Vineyards And More

For a great short drive north of Christchurch, take the Alpine Pacific Triangle touring route, home to the vineyards of Waipara, the natural wonderlands of Kaikoura and the therapeutic waters of Hanmer Springs.

The Waipara Valley boasts many notable vineyards including award-winning Pegasus Bay and Daniel Schuster - the views alone make them well worth a visit.

Kaikoura has a vast array of wildlife, from dusky dolphins to giant sperm whales and playful fur seals. Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools and Spa is the perfect place to de-stress and unwind. With its therapeutic waters and state of the art spa facilities – it is a true relaxing experience.
Going South

In the south is the ultimate sports playground districts of Geraldine, Timaru, Methven and Ashburton, a haven for lovers of the outdoors with fly fishing, mountain biking, golf, jet boating, four wheel driving, white water rafting, skiing and much more on offer.

For those who prefer the finer things in life – cafes, gourmet food outlets, five-star luxury lodges and quality arts & crafts combine to make the perfect holiday break!

The highlight of your visit will be New Zealand’s highest peak — Aoraki Mount Cook — standing at 3,754m above the 27 other peaks in the Southern Alps. Experience a guided walk on the 27km Tasman Glacier, or take in the beauty of the glacier from the air and if you’re really lucky, experience a glacier landing. This is not for the faint hearted!

With so many things to see and do in Christchurch and Canterbury, your only worry will be finding the time to fit everything in!

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Saturday, April 5, 2008

Holiday travel- Mauritius, Paradise on Earth

Mauritius is famous throughout the world for its beautiful beaches, coral reefs, golf courses, fishing and as the perfect venue for weddings and holidays. IF there is heaven on Earth, Mauritius fits the bill. It is an oasis of peace and tranquility where you will enjoy a multitude of colours and tastes while treating yourself to the finest food, music and miles of turquoise sea.

You will be assured of warm personal attention wherever you go on this gem of an island, situated in the Indian Ocean, 2,400km off the southeast coast of Africa. The island, of volcanic origin, is mostly surrounded by coral reefs.

Here, time stands still as you put yourselves in the hands of experts who will work magic in bringing you to another level of peace and relaxation.

There is never a dull moment as there is plenty for you to do — from deep sea fishing, golfing, shopping, deer hunting, land and sea safari, sightseeing to visiting historical sites, extinct volcanic craters and the unique seven-coloured earth in Charmarel.

If you love fishing, you will find the oceans filled with various species, including marlins, wahoo, sailfish, yellow fin tuna and dorado.

With ocean depths of more than 70 metres, Mauritius has hosted prestigious fishing competitions like the Marlin World Cup in December.

For a relaxing and rejuvenating experience, you must make it a point to visit the enchanting spas on the island. The island offers an assortment of wedding and honeymoon packages. Couples do not have to lift a finger as experts help them to organise every detail of the wedding ceremony. They can spend their special moments under the blue skies or have an intimate, private occasion indoors.

If golfing makes your vacation perfect, then prepare to tee off in an absolutely stunning setting at the Le Paradis at Le Morne, the two 18-hole golf courses at Belle Mare Plage hotel, the One&Only Le Touessrok Golf Course or the Chateau du Golf at Bel Ombre.

The most spectacular is probably the One&Only Le Touessrok Golf Course which is located on its very own tropical island at Iles aux Cerfs, fringed by white sands with a backdrop of green mountains. All the 18-hole golf courses have views of the ocean, while there are nine lakes in all, with a number of holes requiring tee shots across sea inlets to the fairways.

For shopping, check out “tourists only” duty-free shops where passports and air tickets must be shown. Here, prices are very reasonable and you can get a variety of items, including models of old ships, textiles, branded shirts, trousers, suits and dresses and diamonds from Africa set in Mauritius.

Basketwork, embroidery, pottery and recycled glass are also available. Have some space in your baggage for chillies and other types of spices and pickles and the famous Mauritian Vanilla Tea.

Having good food and wine is a must, too. Among the popular restaurants are the La Bonne Marmit, Black Steer and Le Cafe Du Vieux Conseil in Port Louis.

Other favourite spots on the island include the Grand Bay which is a shopping and leisure paradise where you can experience the undersea walk and get onboard the Blue Safari Submarine. Mauritians head for the Grand Bay when they want a fun-filled night out at restaurants, bars and discos.

The wonderful Pereybere public beach is also popular because of its shopping facilities, restaurants and pubs, while other hot spots include the Balaclava Ruins.

The Triolet Shivala, which is the longest village on the island, and the Pamplemousses Gardens are where you can discover a large variety of tropical fruit trees and colourful and perfumed exotic flowers. Apart from being a world-renowned leisure destination for the rich and famous, Mauritius is fast becoming an important business hub in the Indian Ocean and a gateway to Africa and Europe.

Hotels on the island include the Movenpick Resort and Spa, Hilton Mauritius, Le Merville Beach Hotel, The Residence, Legends, Sugar Beach, Le Coco Beach, The Indian Resort, La Plantation, The Veranda Hotel and Beau Rivage. All hotels and resorts offer free water sports facilities, except for motorised sports.

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Holiday Travel - MACAU Tiny colony big in history

MACAU, the tiny former Portuguese colony is big in tourist attractions. Within a short distance, you can see unique East meets West architectural heritage spanning more than 400 years. The region is the oldest, largest and best preserved historical centre of both Eastern and Western architecture in China today. Macau is located on the southeast coast of China to the western bank of the Pearl River Delta. Bordering on Guangdong Province, it is 60km from Hong Kong and 145km from the city of Guangzhou.

Taoist temples from the Ming Dynasty stand near Baroque churches from the 18th century. Then, there are hilltop fortresses from the 17th century, classic China Coast shophouses, the oldest European theatres in Asia and the first Western-style lighthouse as well as colonial palaces and Chinese courtyards.

Place of A Ma

The Historical Centre of Macau is an urban area centred around the old city with eight squares: Barra, Lilau, St Augustine, Senado, Cathedral, St Dominic, Company of Jesus and Camoes. There are also 22 historical buildings, including the A-Ma Temple, the Moorish Barracks and St Lawrence’s Church. The list includes not only China’s oldest surviving church and fortress but also residences of wealthy merchants of the Qing Dynasty.

Macau in the old days was known as Ou Mun, or “trading gate”, because of its location at the mouth of the Pearl River downstream from Guangzhou (Canton). During ancient times, the port city was part of the Silk Road with ships loading here with silk for Rome.

Guangzhou prospered from seaborne business and it welcomed merchants from all over, including Portuguese merchant explorers who reached Ou Mun in the 1550s. The locals then also referred to Ou Mun as A Ma Gao, which means “place of A Ma”, in honour of the Goddess of Seafarers, whose temple stood at the entrance to the sheltered inner harbour. The Portuguese adopted the name A Ma Gao, which was gradually changed to Macau with the permission of Guangdong’s mandarins.

Tourist Attractions

In December 1999, Macau became the Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. It has over the years developed industries making textiles, electronics and toys, as well as building up a world-class tourist industry with a wide choice of hotels, resorts, sports facilities, restaurants and casinos.

Other than appreciating its heritage, tourists to Macau can go on a culinary journey to sample unique Macanese dishes — a result of the combination of Chinese specialties with influences from other parts of the world — as well as Portuguese, Japanese, African and other cuisine. There are also trails for outdoor adventure and numerous entertainment and recreational attractions.

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Holiday Travel -Explore New Zealand on wheels

ONE of the best ways to experience New Zealand is by driving around. It is easy and you get to enjoy breathtaking landscapes at your leisure. You also get to stop and take as many pictures as you like, enjoy a picnic or stay longer at places you wish to explore.

New Zealand’s touring routes are generally of a high standard. All roads, including those in rural locations, are signposted. Just remember to drive on the left side of the road!

Auckland – 30 Minutes To Anywhere. Imagine an urban environment where everyone lives within half an hour of beautiful beaches, hiking trails and a dozen enchanted holiday islands.

Add a sunny climate, a background rhythm of Polynesian culture and a passion for outstanding food, wine and shopping, and you’re beginning to get a picture of how Auckland is like. In just 30 minutes, you can be almost anywhere... sailing to an island, trekking through a rainforest, picnicking on a volcano, sampling wines at a vineyard or wandering on a wild, black sand surf beach.

Auckland is on four touring routes — Twin Coast Discovery, Pacific Coast Highway, Thermal Explorer and the Great New Zealand Touring Route.
Spirit Of The Earth In Rotorua -To get to Rotorua, you can rent a car from Auckland’s international airport (three hours’ drive). Advance vehicle rental booking is strongly suggested. Other transportation alternatives are domestic flights and by bus.

Rotorua is the spiritual home to the Maori of Te Arawa. Here you will experience Earth’s natural forces, bubbling mud pools, spouting geysers and hot water beaches.

Many of the district’s attractions are based around Rotorua’s two greatest assets: geothermal activity and lakes. Just minutes from the city centre, you’ll see geysers of hissing, steaming, scalding water roar from deep within the Earth’s crust and hurl spray 100ft into the air. Pools of bubbling mud pop and belch like pots of porridge.

Rotorua’s awesome natural setting provides thrills and adventure that will take you right to the brink. Here, you can run, slip or slide down the slope of an extinct volcano. Race along huge tracks down a mountainside or take a more scenic route.

Throw yourself from bungy towers, Rotorua style. Hurl yourself down white water rapids by raft or sledge, and try out the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the southern hemisphere.

Must Stops
  • Rainbow Springs Nature Park with lush native plants and trees.
  • Kiwi Encounter hatchery and nursery. When kiwis are mature enough, they are returned to the wild in the areas they came from.
  • The Agrodome sheep and cattle farm offers you the chance to experience farming and get close to sheep, goats and cattle. Don’t miss the world famous Sheep Show.
  • The Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland is the most colourful and diverse geothermal experience in New Zealand. Unique features include naturally coloured hot and cold pools, the world-famous Champagne Pool that occupies a wide explosion crater, bubbling mud, steaming ground, expansive vistas, huge volcanic craters and sinter terrace formations. The Lady Knox Geyser erupts daily at 10.15am.
  • Hells Gate is Rotorua’s fiercest thermal area and largest active mud volcano. See boiling whirlpool, largest hot waterfalls in southern hemisphere, naturally hot mineral foot pools, water and steam vent geysers, hot spraying pools and more.
  • Polynesia Spa is recognised by the prestigious Conde Nast Traveller’s magazine (2004-2007) as one of the top 10 Medical/Thermal Spas in the world. Choose from its 26 mineral bathing pools and an extensive range of spa therapies.
New Zealand has four seasons: autumn 10oC from March to May; winter 9oC from June to August; spring 12oC from September to November; and summer 14oC from December to February.

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Holiday Travel - Wild side Down Under-South Australia

If you enjoy wildlife and the outdoors, then South Australia is where you want to go for your next vacation

YOU’VE not really seen the great outdoors until you’ve been to South Australia. From the botanic gardens in Adelaide to the national parks and forests throughout the territory, South Australia is one of the few places where you can swim with wild sea lions and dolphins and see native wildlife in its natural habitat. Here are few ideas on where to experience the best of nature and wildlife encounters in South Australia, all within an hour’s drive from the city.

IN THE CITY: The wildlife experience starts right in the heart of the city at the Adelaide Zoo by the River Torrens. Just 15 minutes from there is Beachside Glenelg, home to bottlenose dolphins.
ADELAIDE HILLS: In 20 minutes, you can be in the bushland of the Adelaide Hills, cuddling koalas and feeding kangaroos in Cleland Wildlife Park, or taking a tour of Warrawong Wildlife Sanctuary.
FLEURIEU PENINSULA: Go bird-watching on a Coorong cruise, catch a glimpse of the fairy penguin parade every night on Granite Island and don’t miss the Nocturnal House in Urimbirra Wildlife Park, where you can see some of Australia’s interesting night creatures at feed and play. From May to Oct, visit the SA Whale Centre to see Southern Right Whales.
KANGAROO ISLAND: Roam with 600 sea lions on Seal Bay, Watch New Zealand fur seals basking at Admirals Arch. View the feeding of pelicans daily at Kingscote Wharf, pose for photos against Remarkable Rocks and surf the sand dunes of Little Sahara. Swim with dolphins up close and visit a seal colony. Observe seabirds at work and marine creatures like the Leafy Sea Dragon in their natural environment. Try snorkelling or take a walk on a remote beach or just sit back and relax.

OUTBACK: Discover Coober Pedy, the opal capital of the world which produces most of the world’s opals. Many people there live underground to escape high summer temperatures in summer. There is an underground church, underground hotels and a golf course without a blade of grass. Go on a tour of underground homes and opal mines, an art gallery and potteries. Nearby, discover great landscapes like the Breakaways, Moon Plains and the longest fence in the world – the 5,300 kilometre Dog Fence that was built to protect sheep from the dingo, Australia’s native dog.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

Holiday Travel - Yungang’s treasure

Shanxi’s Yungang grottoes are renowned for some of the finest Buddhist carvings in China.

WHENEVER China’s coal-rich Shanxi province is in the news, it is usually for the wrong reasons.

Grim images of the darkened skies and soot-covered streets of Linfen, a coal-mining centre in the southern part of the province, have been featured repeatedly in various international media.
The city is notorious for being China’s most polluted and has become symbolic of the ills afflicting the country’s environment. Collapsing illegal mines and deaths of miners in pitiful working conditions are also reported with disturbing frequency. And to add insult to injury, Shanxi is sometimes confused with its more well-known western neighbour, Shaanxi, home of the Terracotta Warriors.

The Lutian Buddha is symbolic of Yungang.
With such a barrage of negative reports and the dismal images of poverty and environmental and human degradation, it is easy to overlook the fact that Shanxi is home to some of China’s most fabulous architecture and sculpture; and would you believe it, blue autumn skies and days so clear you can see as far as your eyes will take you.

What I wanted to visit most of all in Shanxi was Yungang which, together with Longmen in Luoyang and Mogao (Dunhuang) in Gansu along the Silk Road, forms a tripartite of China’s greatest Buddhist grottoes.

Yungang is just a few kilometres west of Datong, a 2,200-year-old Han dynasty city near Shanxi’s border with the province of Inner Mongolia, about 20km south of the Great Wall. Our “express” train took six hours to cover the 300km from Beijing to the industrial city, passing through an arid countryside hilly in places, with large stretches of brown cornfields, until finally we arrived at Datong’s grey, drafty and very cold train station.

At first sight, Yungang seems less impressive than Longmen which is situated on Luoyang’s Yi River and from which one gets spectacular views of its colossal Buddhist statues. A small portion of Yungang’s kilometre-long stretch of caves, which house over 50,000 carvings, is protected by graceful multi-storey Chinese-style structures built into the cliffs and roofed with grey or blue tiles. Beyond this section, however, is an absolutely stunning expanse of exposed grottoes and niches fronted with soaring stone columns some 8m or 10m high.

Yungang’s caves are ornately carved, and coloured in a style reminiscent of the intricately painted frescoes of Mogao. And fortunately, unlike at Longmen where the sculptures bear the scars of the Cultural Revolution, or have been looted by Western and Japanese treasure hunters, Yungang seems to have been spared the worst of the larceny and destruction.

The energy that went into the creation of the tightly-packed buddhas, boddhisatvas, disciples and flying apsaras in Yungang’s caverns is palpable, and the figures’ gestures as well as their twisting, rounded contours appear more Central Asian than Central Plains.

Yungang’s grottoes contain over 50,000 Buddhist sculptures ranging in height from a mere 2cm to 17m.
This is evidently a legacy of the grottoes’ history as work on them started some 1,550 years ago under the auspices of the nomadic Tuoba clan who made Datong their capital when they swept into north China. A few decades later, they moved to Luoyang where they began work on Longmen, adopted the Han culture of the Central Plains and disappeared altogether.

It was at Yungang that I met one of the most beautiful buddhas I have ever seen. Or perhaps it was he who beckoned. For as I strolled past the outdoor niches, I suddenly felt his gaze on me. His eyes were mesmerising, his lips curved in a gentle smile and his face took on a radiant glow in the rays of the autumn sun. Sitting serenely in his niche, he emanated benevolence, his right hand raised in a gesture of blessing and assurance.

Given Shanxi’s coal deposits, it comes as no surprise that coal mining is fundamental to Datong’s economy. But contrary to expectation, there was little sign of the massive pollution reported in places like Linfen further south.

Datong (population three million) is small by China’s standards and retains the ambience of a market town.

Near the Huayan Monastery in the heart of the city, bundles of leeks were propped against the wall to dry, while across the street from what used to be the palace of a Ming dynasty prince, a woman was sorting a pile of platter-sized loafs on a sidewalk. The thick round “loaves” turned out to be seed-filled sunflower pods and she was carefully inserting the loose seeds back into the pods for sale at, she said “Two yuan for the big ones and one yuan for the small.”

In the palace grounds, a row of round, football-sized white orbs oozing a viscous dark liquid full of berries and star anise sat on a low table under a tree. The owner said they were pickles and the white orbs were a kind of cabbage.

As for the Ming prince’s palace, all that is left of it is a magnificent 45m-long Nine Dragon Screen constructed 600 years ago, the oldest and largest of its kind in the world.

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Holiday Travel - Thailand A perfect getaway

Thailand's cluster of islands offers visitors myriad experiences that complement the picture-postcard locale. From sun worshippers to sea sport lovers and those seeking pure rest and relaxation, the islands offer something for everyone.

At the southern part of the Andaman Sea lies a great spot for those seeking to get away from it all - Koh Hai Fantasy Resort & Spa, located on Ngai (Hai) Island, within the Trang Archipelago. This resort is located approximately 12km off the coast of Trang.

After a long and tiring eight-hour bus ride from Kuala Lumpur, followed by a half-hour boat ride from the Pak Meng Pier, the island was balm for the soul with its fresh clean air, lush tropical rainforest surroundings and crystal-clear blue sea.

The resort covers 8.8ha of land with a tropical garden, lush mountain backdrop, swimming pool, a spa and 85 suites and bungalows of contemporary Balinese design located on the beach and hilltop.

New resort, the Chateau Hill Resort, which is a five-minute boat ride from Koh Hai Fantasy Resort & Spa. The four-star resort, which resembles a castle, has 36 suites and rooms incorporating elements of Cambodian designs in their interior.

You can choose to stay on the island, or venture out to explore the surrounding islands such as Emerald Cave, Koh Cheuk, Koh Ma, Oh Rok and Koh Kradan, among others.

If you are keen on scuba-diving, the best period for this activity here is in November. Trang is known for its many popular dive spots and the coral reefs are simply amazing to behold.

Other activities for the sport lovers include snorkelling, canoeing, island trekking or some sepak takraw on the beach.

After an exhausting day, head over to relax and rejuvenate your mind, body and soul at Raya Spa. Opt for the various treatments available. Get a facial or massage to loosen those tensed muscles. The professional masseurs will knead away all those aches and pains.

In the mornings or evenings, sit by the Pool Bar restaurant after a swim, to have a drink or a quick bite. Alternatively, you could also unwind with a drink at the Blue Lagoon Bar while watching television or reading a book borrowed from the book corner.

As for the Rayabura restaurant, it offers a wide spread of international, Thai and fresh seafood cuisine. Guests can enjoy a candlelight dinner under the stars or sit indoors at the newly-refurbished dining area, decorated with wood carvings and Balinese furniture.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Holiday Travel -Tales from Poppy Land

In the late afternoon of Sept 27 last year, a Malaysian friend called to ask if I could file a story on Myanmar’s latest situation. That very day, Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai had been among those killed by the military suppressing a pro-democracy demonstration in Yangon.

At the time, my wife and I were about to cross the Sino-Myanmar border in Kokang in Myanmar. The crossing was not timed with the Yangon mayhem, though we were aware of the vehement protests being led by the Buddhist clerics.

We were just paying our regular visit to Kokang to inspect the school we had set up and to attend to the spiritual needs of believers. We felt greatly relieved therefore to find no unusual movement of troops on either side of the border, an indication that the Myanmar unrest hadn’t spread to its countryside, at least not in Kokang.

It was business as usual in Kokang especially for its ubiquitous casinos and other entertainment centres. The only inconvenience was that it had become difficult for the locals to travel to Lashio and move on to Mandalay and Yangon, the two cities in turmoil.

Keen to learn: The writer and wife with the young children of their school, Sheepfold.

A team of EU representatives scheduled to visit Kokang had to be flown in by helicopter from Lashio. Kokang’s head of government Chairman Peng Jiasheng, immobilised more than a month by back pain, had deputised his brother to receive the foreign guests. We were naturally more concerned with visiting the Chairman, something we always did whenever we landed in Kokang.

To ensure that the Chairman was well enough to see us, my wife Esther called his mobile. The line was immediately connected, blaring out Peng’s favourite song from the movie Shanghai Beach. There seemed a certain affinity between the “Kokang king” and the Shanghai mafia.

The 76-year-old man we counselled three days later appeared even more humble, perhaps humbled by sickness.

He noted, “I trust God and (know) the devils, but I don’t trust men.”

Peng was born in 1931 and as a teenager he joined the militia of the Yang family, which ruled over Kokang. In 1949, Peng received military training together with fellow students like Luo Xinghan under retreating Kuomintang officers.

From 1959 to 1968, Kokang came under political upheavals. The Myanmar government drove the Yangs out of power with Luo backing Yangon and Peng fighting it as a guerrilla leader.

By 1969, Peng recovered Kokang under the banner of a China-backed Burma Communist Party. Opium production jumped to bankroll armed insurgency. In 1989, Luo succeeded in getting Peng to stage a coup against the Communist leadership and Kokang was granted autonomy.

Yangon appointed Peng chairman of Kokang and allowed him to keep his armed troops (MNDA Army) and run his court of law. Some years later, Peng survived a mutiny and subsequently cleansed Kokang of opium by the end of 2002. In the name of economic survival, Peng allows gambling and the flesh trade to flourish in this frontier town bordering China’s Yunnan province.

And so Kokang continues to attract complex people to its doorstep. In Kokang, not many will tell you their real names, let alone their purpose for being there. There are habitual gamblers, drug and arms dealers, seekers of carnal pleasure, undesirable elements on the lam, corrupt officials, poor people making an honest living, and spies.

Chairman Peng in a good mood.

Kokang, because of its geography and history, remains a place where information related to narcotics and other crimes is actively sought. China has undoubtedly planted its people in the Kokang government to safeguard its backdoor. Likewise, Yangon has its informants roaming the Kokang streets. For years, mutual distrust has developed between Peng and the military junta of Myanmar.

Starting a school

The initial appearance of Esther and I there must have aroused suspicion, mistrust or plain bewilderment in many minds. Our repeated returns to Kokang, however, won us the friendship and favour of the Chairman. Peng allowed us to start a humble school offering free education to the children of former poppy farmers.

Until Kokang’s crop substitution programme succeeds like that of northern Thailand, the Kokang farmers will remain poor. Some have virtually been subsisting on rations handed out by the United Nations and other NGOs.

Our privately-funded school, called Sheepfold, takes in their children as well as orphans and those from single-parent families. Many children in Kokang have been left behind by parents who have either been summarily executed or are serving long sentences in China for trafficking drugs.

Sheepfold provides normal education in Chinese and Myanmar for children aged six to 13. We employ local teachers and have a small committee to help oversee the school. Presently, we have some 40 pupils housed in one room but are taught separately under three levels, a practice common in rural China.

Peng gives us a free hand to run the school and helped us solve a sticky problem in March last year. He extends favour to us in other ways too. We have a certain amount of freedom, for example, to move around in Kokang including security areas manned by the MNDA Army.

We love to mingle with Peng’s soldiers, many of whom started their career as kids. It’s not uncommon to see a very young soldier in oversized uniform and an equally oversized rifle slung over his shoulder.

Zhou Zhengrong, for example, joined the Kokang army at 13. When we first met him in 2005, Zhengrong was 17 and appeared undersized and sickly. He was one of the eight children of a poppy farmer.

Since poppy cultivation had been banned, Zhengrong dropped out of school with just a year of formal education. Later, he followed in the footsteps of his siblings and became a MNDA soldier. We met him recently and were glad that he had become healthier and looked tougher. Military training has done some good for Kokang boys who have neither a decent education nor job opportunities.

Another example is Shen Caogui, a lanky bodyguard of Chairman Peng. Like many other MNDA soldiers, Caogui has difficulty writing his own name. However, he has a chance to make good as a soldier and was picked to provide round-the-clock protection to the Chairman. He once watched his boss praying with us and later wanted similar blessings for himself.

Girls have better chances of employment in Kokang. Young girls with secondary school education usually go for higher paying jobs in casinos, though they are required to work long hours in a not-so healthy environment. Since May, the MNDA Army has recruited its first batch of 90 female soldiers. All in, there are some 2,000 soldiers on the army roll.


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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Holiday Travel - Shanghai affair

AFTER seven wonderful years in Taipei, it was not easy to just pack up and leave, which I decided to do several months ago.I was eager to see for myself the reality behind the hype about China being the rising new economic superpower whose GDP (gross domestic product) has been surging past those of many traditional powerhouses.My motivation was partly the pull factor – the promise of new prosperity – but there was also a bit of the push since Taiwan’s importance has been overshadowed by China in recent years.

However, I was lured by the exciting prospect of a fresh start in Shanghai – the most westernised and cosmopolitan city in China.

There was a bit of nervousness from the prolonged cross-straits tension that has put the island in a volatile and vulnerable position. At the same time, my job as a journalist in Taipei did not seem to offer much prospect, with no salary increment in sight after two years.

The time was right, I convinced myself, to embark on a new adventure.

So, last October saw me packing up my stuff in Taipei and setting off for Shanghai.

During the first two weeks, I shifted accommodation three times. First, I stayed in a budget hotel, then bunked at a friend’s home and, finally, I found an apartment in the upscale Jinganshi district that was shared with a bunch of French expatriates.

It was only after I moved into the apartment that I realised how international Shanghai had become. The rapid development in recent years has attracted not only a massive influx of capital from abroad but also hordes of foreign talent.

According to Business Week, over 150 multinationals had set up offices in Shanghai in 2006 alone. The city reported 12% economic growth the same year, even higher than the blistering national average of 10.7%.

“I am worried about the future competitiveness of Taiwan,” lamented a Taiwanese friend after her trip to Shanghai.

Don’t get us wrong, we are still deeply in love with Taipei, and we have so many fond memories of the city. Taiwanese are open-minded, they have press freedom and passionate about politics; this is a huge contrast to mainlanders.

From my years staying in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Taipei, I felt most at ease among my Taiwanese friends.

But I chose to look for something new and, thus, began my flirtation with Shanghai.

Shortly after landing in Shanghai, I became acquainted with a bewildering variety of foreigners from as far away as France, Russia, Spain and even Malaysia, all seeking their fortunes in this city of opportunity.

Almost immediately, I sensed it was not going to be easy. Shanghai, being the wealthiest city in China, is a magnet for millions of immigrants from smaller mainland cities and rural villages, all trying to make it big.

The number of fresh graduates fighting for a job market is scary. A friend who hails from Guizhou tells me that fresh graduates are happy to secure a job offering 2000 yuan (RM900) a month.

With so many expatriates, myself included, trying our luck in China, it remains a big question mark if local companies would be willing to hire me, let alone pay according to my high expectations.

The last time I checked a recruitment website, there were over 200 people vying for the same vacancy!

Just when I was beginning to wonder if I was losing my edge in the job market, something unexpected happened.

I discovered that one of the fellow students at my ballroom dance classes in Shanghai is from my hometown, Malacca! And, the 30-something lady is in charge of operations at “Three on the Bund”.

Touted as one of the best places to see in the new China by Time magazine in 2005, Three on the Bund is a renovated 1916 building strategically located along the renowned Shanghai bund.

It houses four of the city’s top eateries, an art gallery and a spa that boasts of rivers flowing with Evian, as well as an Armani flagship store.

She extended a warm welcome and even offered me a job in her glamorous firm. Who could have expected to meet someone from the same hometown, and even get a job offer, while taking dance lessons in a strange land?

This, to me, is the charm of the new China – anything is possible, anything can happen. It never ceases to amaze me how much and how quickly it has evolved.

Still, I decided to say goodbye to Shanghai, despite the promise of great possibilities. My three-month sojourn there made me realise that, after all these years, I have become used to the warm and friendly Taiwanese and I missed them so much when away.

But, should wanderlust strike me again, I’m thinking ... Beijing.

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Saturday, February 2, 2008

Holiday Travel - Qingdao Olympic city

Western and local tradition are seamlessly juxtaposed in Qingdao, famous for its beer and host of the 2008 Beijing Olympic sailing events.

IF YOU stood at the top of Xiaoyushan (Little Fish Hill) in Qingdao and looked down over the city, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Europe, or to be exact, Bavaria. Except of course, for the crescent-shaped bay with a golden sand beach more reminiscent of Hawaii’s Waikiki.

Whereas many places in Asia are eager to rid themselves of their colonial past, Qingdao has chosen to preserve its quaint European buildings as a tourist attraction. Constructed when the outpost was a German possession in the first two decades of the 20th century, they give the city a distinctly western feel.

Qingdao (population 7 million) is not only Shandong province’s premier port and home to respected companies like Haier and Hisense, but it has also been chosen to host the sailing events of the Beijing Olympics later this year. The metropolis’ history and economic success have created affluent and sophisticated urbanites who have evidently absorbed lots of outside influences. But sometimes, local and western traditions are intermingled in the weirdest of ways.

One brisk late autumn morning, my friends and I were waiting for our coach in the warmth of a hotel lobby when the sounds of a marching band wafted in from the outside. We rushed to investigate and there, in the hotel driveway, life-sized versions of cartoon characters Mickey, Minnie, the honey-loving bear, Winnie, and a pink piglet were dancing to a tune played by a small marching band smartly decked out in red jackets and white pants.

That in itself was plenty bizarre but soon a white, impossibly long stretch limo pulled into the driveway. Jaws dropped. I counted six windows on each side. Our cartoon friends joyfully approached the car, making deep bows as a young couple emerged – she in a demure white wedding gown and he in a dark suit – then held hands and danced in a circle around the bride and groom. At the entrance to the reception area the dignified couple posed for photos with the two mice, the bear and the piglet under a red balloon archway topped with the time-honoured wedding symbols of a dragon and phoenix.

It was the middle of the ninth lunar month (late October), a particularly auspicious time for weddings, and over at the old colonial enclave of Badaguan, flower-decked cars lined the roadsides. Badaguan, with its grassy parks, tree-lined avenues and a mishmash of different styles of European architecture is an obvious choice for wedding photos. On that very cold day, brides in thin white dresses preened and posed against the stone-walled houses while assistants handed out lucky candy to well-wishers.

A bride hurrying towards her family lifted her long skirt to avoid tripping. A flash of red appeared. Beneath that white satin skirt she was wearing bright red tights and equally red shoes. Red, the traditional wedding colour, is auspicious while fashionable white is the customary colour of mourning, so the red stockings and shoes were insurance against bad luck.

The brief German occupation in Qingdao produced a world-famous beer whose name is synonymous with the city. Located at the site of the original factory, the newly-opened Tsingtao Beer Museum leads visitors through the production process, a history section, an exhibition hall, and finally, an eagerly-awaited tasting room set up like a pub, except with free beer.

The Museum has spared no effort in creating an educational experience but it certainly is not without a sense of humour. For just before the entrance to the Beer Hall we encountered a windowless box-like pinewood structure named, tongue-in-cheek, “Tipsy Room”.

Once inside, I found myself lurching all over its angled floor, desperately clinging to the railing on the side as I crawled towards the exit. That simulated state of inebriation was meant to remind those entering the next section – the Beer Hall – to be moderate. But judging by a group of shrill, excited ethnic Dai girls who broke into their melodious drinking songs with each toast, it is anybody’s guess whether the Tipsy Room made a difference.

It seems the crisp, clean taste of Tsingtao Beer comes from the pure waters of Laoshan, a hilly resort area less than an hour’s drive from the city centre. Laoshan also happens to be one of the oldest and holiest Daoist sanctuaries in China. Some believe Daoism’s founder Laozi came from there.

The road to Laoshan offers breathtaking views of the Yellow Sea. In contrast with modern urban Qingdao, innumerable ancient temples dot the mountain’s wooded slopes, maintained by Daoist priests in flowing blue robes.

An ascetic-looking “immortal” with black beard and topknot sat outside the door of a small vermilion building. Dressed in grey Chinese jacket, cotton pants and cloth shoes, he looked as if he could have stepped right out of the Ming dynasty. Then he whipped out his mobile phone, and at that surreal moment 21st century technology converged with 26 centuries of Chinese tradition.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Holiday Travel - The Legend Athens

VISITORS to the olympic games in Athens find that it is not so simple to find their way around the city: the capital is a large place, with 4 million life in the urban propagation. One of the best opinions of the old city is of a 277-metre-high rock, the Lykavittos, which is crowned by the white chapel by STR George.

According to legend the goddess Athene wanted to shift their handle on the Akropolise more naeeher in skies. During nighttime a Thunderstorm broke it off a gigantic block of the rock of the Pentili mountain, which it wanted to set on the Akropolishuegel. But, when them returned with the stone, two blackbirds with bad messages approached it. Athenia let the very large lumps of the chalk in the anger fall and caused the Lykavittos, and since at that time the city has an attraction more.

Today a modern wire rope course takes visitors to the summit in some minutes. But can be also climbed the Lykavittos with a Footpath, which leads by a Kiefer and a Zypressewald. The visitor with an opinion of the endless sea of the houses is greeted by the top side. The city will surround gulf by a mountain distance, which opens only to the southwest, to the Saronic.

Famous boundary stone the Akropolis (pix), the most famous boundary stone of the city, is an architectural masterpiece. It symbolises Athenian democracy with the distance of the buildings inclusively the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, the handle of the Athene Nike and the Propylaea.

The Parthenon was established between 447 and 438 B.C. and its sculptural decoration in 432 B.C was accomplished. In the coming centuries the mountain went through some changes. During center the age the churches and the chapels and under Turkish guideline were established found a mosque with minaretts a place in the Parthenon. The Erechtheion became a Harem.

Greek classical authors to 18. Century gave it renewed interest in the Greek classical authors and some historical buildings in the different parts of the world, like Brandenburg of the gate in Berlin, by the Propylaea was spurred.

After Greek independence 1830, deleting work began over the Akropolis. Before independence lord Elgin, the British Ambassador in Konstantinopolise removed, some important works of art including the "Elgin marbles".

The Parthenon Fries, which can do metopes and pediments into the British museum in London is today seen. Since extensive work of the renewal was 1975 on the hill in motion. That whole scaffold was for the olympic plays. But the work is accomplished earliest only in the year 2006.

The Panathenaic stage was established on the place of assembly old stage, which was designed BC in 330 and later by novel into more musical and converted was the Gladiators competitions of an arena, in which the Athenians celebrated every four years sporting.

When Athens was selected as the scene of the first olympic plays of the modern times, the wealthy helped benefactors re-establish the stage. Baron Pierre de Coubertin opened the again developed stage, established in the white marble, 1896. More repeats itself than 2,700 years after first play history.

The airport is one of the most modern in the world. The place of assembly of the old airport was made one canoeing scene. After the plays the place of assembly becomes a gigantic water-free time center for Athenians. In January 2000, the underground course net was extended by two lines by 16 stations. Some the station announcement archaeological discoveries discovers during the structure work. Since pedestrians of this yearly from the handle of the olympic Zeus under the Akropolis to the Agora and to the Keramikos cemetary without concern to go can.

And a popular routistic place of destination, the Plaka range, a labyrinth of the narrow roads, Taverns, coffee and restaurants was cleaned above. Visitors cannot keep lost real, because the Akropolis is always in the proximity one point of the determining position. Under the Syntagma square is and leads to the Ermou buying route. In the middle in the road an old Byzantine church is dated and of the 11. Century. It is a Oasis of the isolation under the busy relocating.

Syntagma square is the political center of the city. It becomes by the parliamentary buildings, which controls former royal palace. The Obenmarkt Kolonaki suburb, house to many messages, is convenient also close. Kolonaki square characteristics many top side of the distance kind and way fashion shops with the international and Greek creations. Clothes, shoes, handbags and designer furniture can be bought... at a price. The slogan in the many restaurants and into the coffee of the range is not to be seen and seen and this is during the plays different.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Holiday Travel - To return visit to the people of the water

The REMAINDERS of the furnaces to red bricks therearones, village of pottery can still be seen on the island of Kret, just as can of the remainders of the ancient civilization of my and of the migrants of my who started to mould hundreds of ground of flasks here of years ago.

The island is a short and scenic voyage of boat of the north of Bangkok, offering a pleasant day-voyage, of no-car of the congestion and the traffic of the Thai capital as well as an outline in one of the oldest cultures of the area. My were known as people of water, an empire of riverine which dominated much of what is now Thailand and Myanmar (Burma), before the rise in Thais and the Burmese.

Migrants of my who balanced the account on what is now island of Kret or KOH Kret because one knows it in Thai was refugees of the Burmese invaders who later captured and sacked the old capital of Thailand, Ayutthaya. Kret became an island in the 1720s with digging of a channel, of a short cut to accelerate the traffic of boat along the river with the new Thai capital, of Thonburi, and its successor of cross-river, Bangkok.

To arrive at the island of Kret is at least half of the recreation. Take modern Skytrain of Bangkok at the station of bridge of Taksin, the end of the line, which is only the jet of a stone of the pillar of Chao Phraya. Then take in Chao Phraya the upriver with Nonthaburi, also the end of the line, a voyage which will slow down you the baht 10 (probe 95). Hour-length travels of boat provides some great sights of old man and new Bangkok: smooth new hotels and condominiums dominating of slum out of wooden dilapidated; wats Buddhist coloured and century-old man, or temples, including splendid Wat Arun temple of the paddle (higher and left) better seen in the light of the morning or of the twilight early.

Pillar of Nonthaburi, the taxis are available for the baht approximately 90 (RM8.50) to Your Kret, house of the temple of Buddhist of Wat Sanam Nuea. And from there, it is a turn court of vat through the river in the island of Kret, which costs the baht 2 (probe 20) for the return ticket, gathered on the return voyage. Chao Phraya recently began a service of boat of excursion in the island of Kret for the baht 300 (RM28.50), leaving to 9am starting from the pillar Nonthaburi and turning over to 3pm. Culture of my on the KOH Kret the products of the island of Kret are famous. Ceramics particularly is very popular. Is thus food. Fish crepes are different anywhere elsewhere inside from Thailand, and the pink shrimps of river are famous just as obsolete candies.

To the bottom the side one to take the new service is that Sunday is the day by far most occupied on the island, with mainly the Thai swarming tourists to buy manual food and work inside. During a recent visit of Sunday, almost all the restaurants on the island were out of food per semi-after-midday. In more of the eating and buying memories, much of Thais, in particular those of descent of my, come to pay their regards at Wat Paramaiyikawat, the principal Buddhist temple of the island built by immigrants of my there is more than 200 years.

Support then, it was known by its name of my, Wat Pak ao, which means the "temple at the end of the course" due to its geographical position on the river. It was renovated by King Chulalongkorn after it visited the island in 1874 and retitré Wat Paramaiyikawat, which means the "temple of Grandmother of the King". Today, the driving pedestrian path starting from the temple around the island is furnished with the stands of remembering selling the basins My-model, the pots and ceramics the flasks of water.

Some of the furnaces with red bricks where the products of ground pottery are made remains, while resembling the giant red tortoises or the formless red elephants. Others are émiettent after decades of disuse, forming the walls of some of the houses close to the temple. Although the majority of the residents of the island are descendants of my, it is rare to hear the spoken ancient language. "the children today do not want to learn my, and the schools do not teach it that in any event," a supplier selling food along the pedestrian path said. "we had obtained tourists more and more coming here in 10 last years. Much development.

Now we have the concrete gratings." Continue to go, north or south, along the concrete walk which surrounds the island and the stands of remembering carry out thereafter to the countryside, where the grating is furnished with the houses of farm, of the orchards of fruit and some fields of padi. The island of Kret, as the remainder of the province of Nonthaburi, was known like field of fruit culture, covered in the orchards of mango, the lychee, grapefruit, the plum marian, the mangoustan (right) and the durian. But in the last two decades, the urban abandoned position of Bangkok of the developments of housing pushed the fruit orchards to the margins.

The walk around the island takes about a hour-and-a-half and better is appreciated in the fresh season, as from November at February. Although there is no car, be prepared to dodge some motor bikes, which whiz close less frequently on the remote side of the island. Over there, surrounded by relative peace of the surrounding jungle and the fruit trees, one can almost smell oneself transported again at a simpler and quieter time.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Holiday Travel - The Beauty New Zealand's

AKAROA, or Riviera of the Zealand News on the island Of the south, while it is called affectionately, carries a charming mixture of British and French architecture. The left hills mark the beginning of the peninsula of banks, house with the port of Lyttelton, picturesque bay and the French pocket anglo small-striped colonial of Akaroa on the port.

Maoris of the tribe of Ngai Tahu discovered the charm of the peninsula well before the cook of James saw the port of Akaroa in the 1770s. In 1840, the French colonists arrived in Akaroa, which had been just claimed under the Treaty of Waitangi by English. The peninsula of banks is the result of the violent eruptions of three volcanos.

A crater nourishes the port of Akaroa and the compartments surrounding, notching the littoral. The remaining legacy of the fury of the ground. The kilometers of Eighty-five de Christchurch, the city is one hour and a half far on the road rising jusqu with the top of the volcano. The French influence is obvious, with Akaroa maintaining its line of history to the bottom with the names of road. Many streets have the French names like the street Villiard and the street Lavaud, and the line of bus that races of Akaroa with Christchurch is called French connection!

The descendants of the first French families live always here, and some of the original buildings out of wooden going up to 1820 remain, well maintained and always in service. The volcanic crater provides a rich environment for birds and the marine life. The indigenous reservations with the majestic trees of Totara are a recall of the forest of podocarp which cover the sheltered slopes. The breeding of the sheep dominated the local economy until the turning of the century. Now dairy industry and the cattle populations are added to the rural mixture. If you think that exploring a place which shouts the history is a yawn, then will swim with the dolphins of the fanfaron , the smaller world becoming a maximum length of 1.4m and less weighing than 50kg.

The population of the species is estimated only at 3.000. There are also trekking, horsemanship of horse and mountain-to make bicycle in the country, visiting the colony of joint, surfer, snorkelling and water-ski. You could like to go bird observing for gloves of oyster baseball, the stilts black and white, fantails, gulls, carpet with long hairs, pigeons out of wooden and penguins white-flippered, on fast yachts or boats.

Be informed, however, a turn of boat is not for the weak stomachs, which, discovered the hard manner, although you could want to face it while preparing with labels or wrist-bands of movement-disease. Seafood fresh and abundant Is being surrounded by the seafood of NZ of means of fresh and abundant ocean. The succulent fish, crayfish and the crawfish are recommended on the majority of the menus of restaurant and coffee. But much because I appreciated the food delicately seasoned with butter and grasses, I wished ardently for pepper a generous amount of my dish before we arrived in Akaroa our last stop on the island Of the south and could not help to think of the fresh hook in curry of fish of the mom or hot pink shrimp sambal, a feeling divided by a journalist of comrade who had with fish cooked with the vapor paresprit heavy on the ginger.

A visit with Akaroa is not complete without lunching of fish and the pieces with the store to carry famous fish and of piece on the road of beach, on out of wood puts except play under the nuance of the trees striping the port, sharing your food with a band of puffins, looking at outside the yachts in the distance. Oh... and remember that you should dig inside with your fingers to appreciate fish, as became obvious wrinklings of the eyebrows which I drew when I asked a fork and for a knife out of plastic. And if you need always a reason to visit NZ, then for some, this could do it. There is more course of golf of NZ per capita than any other country in the world more than 400 per 3.98 million people!

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Holiday Travel - Eating and sleeping-Manchester and London

HERE’S a brief introduction to some of the lovely hotels and restaurants we experienced during the Manchester and London tours. Where to stay

Lowry Hotel, Manchester: Walk into one of the chic rooms in this five-star hotel and you’ll be greeted by classical music lending elegant ambiance to a well-lit, inviting space that offers nice little personalised touches. The River Restaurant dining room, where an excellent breakfast is served, offers a view of the River Irwell.

The Cumberland Hotel, London: A member of the Guoman chain of luxury hotels, The Cumberland is filled with original sculpture, paintings, and artwork, making the lobby (pic right) a great place to sit and chill – though the over 1,000 designer bedrooms are great to be in, too. Walk out through its doors, make a quick left turn and you’ll find yourself spoilt for choice of high street stores as well as designer boutiques.

Where to eat

Choice Bar & Restaurant, Castle Quay, Castlefield, Manchester: A family owned business established in 2001, it has won numerous awards, including Manchester Restaurant of the Year 2003-2004 and Manchester Tourism Awards Taste of Manchester 2007. Our memorable meal there included the signature dish, pan fried king scallops on a Cheshire cheese scone with saffron sauce and chive oil. The duck breast topped with cool chilli and honey ice cream was interestingly different. For dessert, the sticky toffee pudding wins hands down.

Olive Press, Lloyd Street, Manchester: Popular with the locals, especially for special occasions, the restaurant serves pizzas, seafood, pasta, goat’s cheese with figs, cured ham and olives and platters. The chicken liver pate with quince jelly served on flat bread was our favourite starter while the vanilla ice cream with butterscotch sauce and fruit coulis ended the meal perfectly. If you’re lucky enough to celebrate your birthday there, let sous chef Lee Walker make it one to remember with a specially designed “birthday plate” (pic left) as opposed to cake! He creates 15 to 20 of these a week.

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