Exotic Asia

“Yoo Hoo” … he cried melodically with a broad smile, greeting us every morning boarding the bus for our day’s exciting activities. That simple cheerful salutation from our diminutive tour guide ‘Setee,’ certainly set the tone in making us feel truly welcomed in far away Exotic Asia.

We first encountered this jovial young man while emerging through the sliding doors of Bangkok’s International Airport only to be instantly engulfed in the moist blanket of oppressive heat and humidity pervading this bustling city. With black umbrella in hand, he stood a shade over five feet, his chubby olive-coloured cheeks highlighting his distinctive Chinese ancestry. And crowned by a neat crew cut, his pear-shaped face was reminiscent of the many smiling Buddhas we were yet to encounter.

Beads of perspiration were trickling down our faces and backs, as we forty two tired Canadian travelers accompanied our new leader to an awaiting air- conditioned coach for our ride to the ‘Rembrandt Hotel’ downtown. And just before boarding, to our pleasant surprise, we each were garlanded in pink Orchids by a pretty Thai maiden, with whom a welcome photo was taken.

Here we were on a late Wednesday morning in April 2006, a world away from cool and damp Toronto, from where we’d flown nineteen hours ago via Anchorage Alaska and Hong Kong. And strange enough, we seem to have lost Tuesday somewhere along the International Dateline after our Monday night departure on Cathay Pacific Airlines.

Setee, arranged for my wife Margaret and I along with others, to receive a much needed traditional Thai massage. And no sooner checking into our hotel rooms, we received a thorough two hour massage to our aching bones; thus putting us in shape for our sumptuous welcome dinner later that evening, and at the same time developing a lasting affinity for the wonders of Thai massages.

The twelve hour time difference hardly fazed us as we woke early the following morning to be greeted by the first of many feasts comprising a wide variety of foods that constitutes a customary Thai breakfast. It was easy to forget Bacon and Eggs with such delicious choices as sticky Rice, spicy Noodles, Fish, Chicken, Vegetables and other exotic delicacies to tempt our foreign taste buds.

With contented stomachs and smiling faces we headed out on a half-day city tour, the highlight of which was a visit to the opulent but crowded Grand Palace. First erected in 1782, this city within a city covers an area of 218,000 square meters and is surrounded by four walls, 1900 meters in length. It houses not only the royal residence and throne halls, but also a number of government offices as well as the renowned Temple of the imposing Emerald Buddha.

A group photo was taken on the grounds, before starting our conducted tour of the various temples and pavilions. It was a photographic delight capturing the many gold-plated domes and ornately decorated spiraling steeples. I marveled at the cultural norms observed by both locals and tourists as we removed our offending shoes placed at temple steps, as well as the need for women to be properly attired before entering these sacred places.

It appeared that our visit to Bangkok, the cultural, religious and political capital of Thailand was timely, in that it coincided with the celebration of the Songkran Festival …their Lunar New Year. In this bustling city of twelve million inhabitants as well as across the country, friendly water fights were the order of the day, with any and everyone being potential victims of a good splashing and powdering.

It wasn’t uncommon to see truckloads of happy people soaked to the skin, driving around the congested streets and highways laden down with barrels of water, spraying and splashing on-coming vehicles and pedestrians in fits of merriment. Many a time our bus also faced barrages of splashing, accompanied by good-natured splatters of white powder for good measure.

Located on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, this ‘City of the Angels’ has been the former nation of Siam’s capital since 1782; and despite its modern towering architectural wonders, has remained remarkable faithful to ancient traditions and customs, as exemplified in its myriad Buddhist temples and Royal palaces, as well as in celebrating religious festivals, customs and traditions.

Ultimately it’s from its people that Bangkok derives its unique flavour. Congenial, and easy going, we felt welcome everywhere we went, and even where our English wasn’t fully understood, friendly smiles sufficed…. And don’t talk about the food,… the tropical fruit juices,…the massages,…the shopping.

We were certainly in for some aquatic adventure the following Friday as we ventured a few hours away from the picturesque tall towers of Bangkok, with the famous ‘Floating Market’ of Damnoen Saduak as our destination. Known as the ‘Venice of the East’, these waterways called Klongs, serve as the main thoroughfare and commercial lifeline of that community. With six to eight of us to a ‘long tail boat,’ we were impressed at how skillful our able boatman navigated his outboard motor along the muddy interconnecting canals.

While briskly sailing the waterways our eyes caught sight of the rows of weather-beaten wooden homes, some precariously protruding from the river on stilts. Children were swimming happily in the murky water, while women did their laundry at the river’s edge. There were small variety shops, Buddhist temples, and of course the customary cows grazing in backyard farms. It wasn’t uncommon to receive the occasional unexpected spray from faster passing boats driven by ‘Hot Rod’ young men along the Grand Canal, reminiscent of a former James Bond movie filmed at this location.

Our boat ride eventually brought us to the main marketplace, outside of which we encountered a traffic jam of long tail boats suggestive of floating stalls. We later witnessed from an overhanging bridge brisk sales of fresh produce and dry goods in brilliant hues of reds, yellows and greens by the native women venders. In addition, they were resplendently dressed in multicoloured costumes, complete with distinctive wide-brimmed straw hats. And from that vantage point, many of us took wonderful photos amid the feast of colours and frenzied activities taking place.

By then, we still hadn’t gotten used to the oppressive heat and humidity; therefore it was most appreciated when we later arrived at the ‘Rose Garden’ dining hall to be greeted with floral-scented cold towels to freshen up before enjoying a delightful buffet lunch. After a short tour of the Orchid-flowered Botanical Gardens, we were treated to a cultural show which consisted of a variety of traditional songs and dances.

It was fascinating to watch the nimble feet of male and female dancing couples doing the intricate ‘Bamboo stick dance.’ They managed this by repeatedly skipping over and between long Bamboo rods rhythmically slapped together by their seated colleagues in time to the music. Dressed in brilliant native costumes and accompanied by a performing elephant, many others regaled us with songs and pantomimes depicting cultural traditions and legends. The finale was a rather vigorous kick-boxing display, in which surprisingly both combatants gave it their all; enough to have me wincing with every blow.

By Saturday, we were beginning to feel quite ‘native,’ as we boarded a commuter train and shared available seats with the ‘locals’; who though curious of these foreigners in their midst, were most friendly and accommodating. Cooled by the on-rushing breeze through the open carriage windows, we admired the luxuriant countryside fleeting by, with glimpses of corrugated roofed shacks, verdant farmers’ fields, grazing cattle, wandering stray dogs and cats, and of course occasional gleeful children waving us a warm welcome.

Setee made sure we were all aware of the correct stop to disembark by scurrying up and down the carriages gathering his scattered ‘Flock’ like a worried mother hen. There was a sense of heightened anticipation as our train slowly arrived in the station at Kanchanaburi where we collectively got off and made the short walk in the scorching noonday sun to the infamous ‘Bridge over the River Kwai.’ The original wooden bridge, immortalized in a movie of the same name, was built during World War 11 by allied prisoners of war held captive by the occupying Japanese army; resulting in sickness, injury and death to thousands of soldiers of mainly Australian and British nationalities.

Quiet moments were observed by many, in memory of the great pain and suffering which took place here generations ago. In my effort to traverse this crowded railway bridge to the other side, I had to take great care maneuvering carefully along the tracks high above the river, worried that my feet may get caught in the planks, while avoiding others on the busy thoroughfare. The area had somehow lost its solemnity in my view, judging by the many busy restaurants and tourist stalls erected nearby.

But the memories soon returned as we toured the Jeath War Museum in the nearby town of Kanchanaburi, where on display were military memorabilia and replicas, as well as faded black and white photos of emaciated soldiers. To conclude our tour and pay our respect, we later visited the well landscaped cemetery where most of the victims are buried.

8:30 Sunday morning April 16th, found our group boarding a yellow engine train at the bustling Bangkok railway station to commence our twelve hour journey to the northern city of Chiang Mai. Responding to the Conductor’s loud whistle blowing, green flags waving and horns tooting, our train snaked its way through the urban neighbourhoods of this dynamic city, soon passing the nearby international airport;…the one with a Golf Course remarkably situated between runways;… and eventually finding our way on the outskirts of town.

As we fondly bid La Kon to Bangkok, brown wooden shacks with children, cats and dogs playing in backyards along dirty canals, soon gave way to green pastures with cows, cheep and oxen leisurely grazing, as our train gathered speed along the steel-ribbon tracks.

Golden Buddha statues made occasional fleeting appearances prominently displayed on hilltops and town squares for all to worship and revere. As in Bangkok, we witnessed similar billboards of their beloved Majesty King Bhumibol and his Royal family proudly portrayed on many thoroughfares throughout our journeys. This was certainly not surprising as explained by our Guide Setee, who with pride, chronicled the high esteem this, the longest reigning monarch in the world and his family enjoy, as a result of the many benevolent community improvement projects they’ve provided their subjects.

Frequent but brief stops were made at local stations along the way, where the continuing parade of embarking and disembarking passengers observed us with friendly curiosity. And much to our delight, our amazing Setee had arranged for our delicious meals to be served ‘A La Airline style,’ while we lounged in first class comfort. To pass the time, some of us slept, others read or gazed at the ever changing countryside; while a competitive game of ‘Trivial Pursuit’ was enjoyed by the rest. As is our custom, we ambassadors cheerfully presented the appreciative railway staff with miniature Canadian commemorative flags and pins; even appointing some as honorary Canadians for the journey.

The sun had long set by the time we inched our way into the station at Chiang Mai. Though a somewhat restful trip, we were collectively longing for an early bed at the traditional Thai-style ‘Empress Hotel,’ where our luggage, having earlier been transported on our tour bus from Bangkok, awaited us.

Breakfast was a delight as usual, with our appetites becoming more acclimatized to the spicy Thai cuisine, as well as our bodies now more comfortable in the cooler northern temperatures. After our customary “Yoo Hoo,” we eagerly set off to see the town. Chiang Mai, situated on the banks of the Ping River was founded in the late 13th. Century as the capital of the once independent Lanna Kingdom, and is considered the hub of the north. Located some 700 kilometers north of Bangkok, this second city of Thailand comfortably manages a blend of modern city amenities with ancient traditions.

Some of those traditions could be viewed within the city’s original perimeter which is marked by a moat and fortified gates housing numerous ancient Buddhist temples such Wat Phra Singh; Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Chiang Man,… the oldest temple build by King Mangrai. As is the custom, we had perfected the taking off of shoes and wearing appropriate clothing by then, making for easy access to view these elaborately decorated religious structures. Some of us even ventured to take photos of and with the young orange- robed Monks as they went about their duties on the grounds and temples.

Some appreciate religion, while others appreciate shopping religiously; and such was the case as we made a customary stop at a local handicraft and jewelry factory. In no time, bargains were quickly snapped up by the experienced shoppers’ amoung us, the least of which being my wife Margaret. Then it was on to a Wood Carving factory to view marvelous works of art carved by highly skilled artists. Unfortunately due to weight and size restrictions, our purchases had to be limited to the smaller pieces.

After returning to our hotel to rest and freshen up, that evening we were whisked to the Kantoke Restaurant to enjoy yet another delicious multi-coursed dinner, which was followed by a cultural show of beautifully costumed female dancers, sporting long painted fingernails. It was also Margaret’s birthday, and much to her delight, in celebration, she was presented with two candle-lit cakes accompanied by the singing of “Happy Birthday” by all the patrons and staff. Embarrassed, it took her several attempts in trying to blow out the candles. But it was a birthday party she won’t soon forget, and one for which she is most grateful.

The sun rose bright and early on Tuesday April 18th., and greeting us with his usual sunny disposition was our able Guide Setee with the wonderful news that he was going to “spice up our Noodles” today, if we were willing to change our itinerary a bit. “I will pray for you” was another of his welcomed trademark expressions, in this case praying that we would want to fully experience the wonders of the ‘Golden Triangle.’

In that regard there was no hesitation, so off to Chiang Rai we headed, passing by farms and salt mining fields, with a brief stop along the highway at the oddly named ‘Cabbages and Condoms Inn and Restaurant.’ Standing on guard like a Sentinel stationed at its entrance, was a massive red penile symbol promoting the Government’s campaign for safe sex. Though providing an interesting photo opportunity, it none the less conjured up suggestive ideas and chuckles amoung the more liberal minded in our group.

Within hours we were entering the highlands of Chiang Rai with its towering mountain ranges, peaceful jungle rivers and quiet villages such as Yao and Akha. Our first delight was to visit an Artist Colony managed by a friend of Setee’s, and located off the beaten path towards a more densely forested area.

To get there we were transferred from our comfortable air-conditioned bus onto several open-aired wooden trucks with metal roofs, pulled by smoky farmer’s tractors, the noise of which was at times deafening. As we laughingly held on for dear life seated on padded side benches, our caravan of about six trucks left a trail of red dusty clouds hanging in the air along the bumpy dirt road, with each truck trying to avoid the other’s dust by passing it on the corners, as in a dustbowl derby.

The Artist Colony was uniquely designed to compliment the flora and fauna of the area, giving it a rather rustic appearance. And situated outside its wooden gates we encountered a small handicraft market operated by a few indigenous women in full costume. Interestingly, some of their teeth were stained in dark red apparently as a result of chewing on a local nut, making for a highly valued tribal beauty mark. Needless to say, they did a brisk business with our shopaholics.

After cleaning up, we sat comfortably under a shed, on rudimentary wooden benches situated around homemade wooden tables. Lunch was comprised of a delightful soup, salad and a spicy Bar-B-Q chicken that my taste buds still savour. To conclude, we enjoyed a tropical dessert of purple ice cream, made from a vegetable Taro root, which was most welcomed in the heat of the day.

Climbing back into our bus some hours later, after dusting off the red remnants of the winding country road, we headed further north, this time towards the renowned ‘Golden Triangle.’ This is an area in the northern most part of Thailand which meets the borders of Laos and Myanmar (Burma). We soon arrived at this bustling port city and found ourselves jostling with local travelers scurrying to catch their buses and boats. There were also a few fully costumed children requesting our photographing them for a fee.

From our vantage point, we could look across the narrow waterway where the shores of Laos were plainly in sight, while moored alongside the muddy Mekong River were a number of mid-sized motorized long boats waiting to take us across. And to our left while making our way carefully down the steep stairway towards them was the ever present massive golden Buddha statue, admirably perched high on a nearby temple.

During the brief crossing, my mind sadly reflected on tragic scenes over four decades ago, to the times the horrendous Vietnam War was raging; mindful of the strategic role this Mekong River and its Delta played in the war theatre. My thoughts were mercifully interrupted as we carefully disembarked the rocking boat, making our way up the steep ramp to a Laotian village on the island of Donsao. Prices of souvenirs and clothing were even cheaper here than in Thailand, and a mad shopping rush was on in the limited time we were allotted. We were also given the option of receiving a commemorative stamp in our passports, and many were delighted to take the opportunity.

In short order we were back across the River and on our bus heading further north to Myanmar. At this border, we were met with a more officious entry process, in that our passports had to be surrendered and documented in order to enter this autocratically governed country. A short walk across a bridge leading into the nearby border town, and it felt like we’d instantly stepped back in time. Looking around, all that could be seen were aged facades on low-rise buildings; unkempt dusty streets and noisy market places, as well as a general state of frenzied activity abounding. To be fair, this was just a border town and not the capital, therefore one would hope that this disparaging scene was atypical.

Setee had arranged for us to visit a nearby Buddhist temple, but the dilemma faced was how to transport all our group members safely without the benefit of our tour bus, which of necessity remained in Thailand. To our rescue came a phalanx of red three-wheeled motorcycle taxis called Tuk Tuks. With the rider perched up front on the bike and a capacity of two passengers seated behind, we must’ve appeared an amazing sight to the locals, as our convoy hurriedly wheeled its way amoung the cars, motorbikes, cattle-drawn carts and pedestrians all vying for safe passage along the busy city streets.

By the time we arrived at the temple situated on a hill overlooking the city, ominous clouds on the horizon threatened rain. Therefore after a few photos taken in the midst of pestering local vendors, our caravan made its way back to the border. Ours was the last in line, and by the time we arrived at the bottom of the hill, unbeknownst to the others ahead, our driver came to a surprisingly abrupt stop. He muttered something to Margaret and me in Burmese, and hurried across the street to a local grocery shack where we observed him purchase a large Coca Cola bottle containing a golden liquid. He returned with bottle in hand and proceeded to pour the liquid into his gas tank, started up the engine, and to our relief off we went quickly catching up with the procession.

The late afternoon sun was setting behind cloudy skies as we finally arrived at the jungle-framed village of the ‘Padaung Giraffe women.’ This tribe originating in the Myanmar Province of Kayah has since primarily settled in the adjacent region of Mae Hong Son in Thailand. We learned that the first brass ring is placed around a girl’s neck at age six, setting in stage a lifelong fixture. And by the time a woman is of marrying age, her neck could have stretched to about ten inches. The original explanation for the wearing of the rings is that it saved the women from being sold into slavery, as well as from Tigers, but through time has evolved into a cultural status symbol.

We were first assembled and greeted in their wooden thatched-roof community hut by a decorative troupe of dancing female musicians, none of whom to our surprise wore neck bracelets. But much to our delight and in our great honour, they proceeded to play a few native tunes on long Bamboo flute instruments. During the brief performance, I found it a strange occurrence to actually be amoung these indigenous people previously familiar to me observing National Geographic specials. It left me feeling overwhelmed with the magic of this exotic moment, as I’m sure others were.

Darkness was descending rapidly as we with walking sticks were eagerly escorted to the main village to observe the long awaited ‘Long necked women.’ And stepping into their environment, at first sight, they seemed surreal and otherworldly. With the dim light reflecting off the spiraling brass neck rings, their gentle smiling faces curiously peered out at us from colourfully stunning head scarves of blue, red and green, as they gracefully moved about greeting us. These beautiful tall women and children were a sight to behold with their long white cotton tops embroidered down the front with hanging pink tassels and dark blue ankle-length skirts, which made up the remainder of their attractive native attire.

On their arms three or four large silver bracelets were worn, corresponding to the number of brass-coloured neck bracelets, befitting their status in the community. It appeared that the older women were more elaborately decorated with greater numbers of bracelets, stretching their necks even higher, while the teenagers and young girls were less adorned. Though our visit was expected earlier in the day, despite our late arrival they were most gracious in accommodating our curiosity, as well as group photo sessions with them and their beautiful children. It was a privilege indeed to be allowed a glimpse into their simple but serene world; one which I’m afraid is quickly being extinguished by modernization.

On leaving in the dark of night with the fire lights of the village slowly fading in the distance, we were mindful to what extent Setee had indeed ‘spiced up our Noodles’ that day; and were therefore exceedingly grateful to him. But despite the privilege of setting foot on the soils of the ‘Golden Triangle,’ in reflection, I was somewhat saddened experiencing the Mekong River where the ghosts of the Vietnam War still prevailed.

Burma left me somewhat distressed as well; mindful of its oppressive military regime restricting Pro-democracy campaigners such as Aung San Suu Kyi to remain under house arrest since 1988, despite the condemnation of the World community. And the Padaung Giraffe women, with all due respect to their customs and tradition, appeared to be trapped in a grotesque cultural time warp; today relegated to a mere tourist curiosity. We were a quiet and reflective busload that cruised back down that dark highway, returning to the comforts of Chiang Mai in time for dinner, and shopping at the night market.

For those who’d never ridden an elephant before, they were in for a treat that Wednesday morning when we arrived at an elephant Camp situated in a conservation area on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. Margaret and I had ridden one in Phuket some years earlier and therefore knew what to expect. However it was a day of adventure as our group, couples at a time, boarded from a platform station onto bench seats strapped to the elephant’s back.

With our able jockey / trainer seated on its neck, his feet securely tucked behind its enormous floppy brown ears and with spiked wooden stick in hand to prod him, our elephant proceeded slowly out the station following in the procession. In a slow lumbering unperturbed walk, we eventually arrived at an uneven jungle trail, after crossing a swift current rust-brown river. Occasionally ducking to avoid low hanging branches, it was best to relax by not resisting the natural rhythm of the animal as his huge feet steadfastly trudged through the familiar muddy terrain.

Every thrust of his massive shoulders pitched us sometimes to the right and just as soon to the left, having us rocking and rolling. Along the trail our caravan stopped for photo opportunities courtesy of our jockey and nearby professional photographers, and by the time we’d returned to the station, the way my body was jerked about I felt I’d experienced a different kind of Thai massage.

Much to their delight some amoung us had their photos taken being lifted on the trunk of a young elephant, before we were eventually summoned to view the highlight of the day; that of the elephant show. Seated as a group in a shaded pavilion, we watched as they paraded in single file accompanied by their trainers, and proceeded to delight us with their skills. Apart from the usual standing on hind legs and rolling over, amoung other activities was a brisk game of football with accurate shots being executed by these intelligent Pachyderms.

We were next astonished to witness the artistic talent some of them demonstrated in painting water colour pictures. With the aid of their trainers who continually dipped their paint brushes in the buckets of colours before placing it in their trunks, one elephant proceeded to paint a bouquet of red flowers on green stems. But then we couldn’t believe our eyes when we saw the other one’s artistic rendition. To our utter surprise.... and what some might call animal pornography, he depicted what appeared to be two elephants copulating. Needless to say, these pictures were placed on sale after the show, and were quickly snapped up.

April 20th., it was time to sadly say La Kon to Chiang Mai; our dear teary-eyed Setee, who embraced each of us; and Thailand all together, when we boarded our early morning Thai Airways flight to Bangkok. On this occasion, we were in transit on Cathay Pacific Airlines bound for Singapore. As with most flights in this part of the world, they were surprisingly fully booked. Furthermore, we North American travelers were most impressed with the full service and wonderful meals provided, even on short flights; in comparison with what passes for airline service on our local carriers back home.

With dark clouds hovering on the far horizon signaling a coming thunder storm, our 747 effortlessly touched down at Changi International Airport early that afternoon in the beautiful city-state of Singapore. Lying just 85 miles north of the equator, we welcomed our escape from the heat in our air-conditioned bus ride through this pristine flower-strewn city.

On our way into town, we were met with visions of loveliness replete with red Bougainvillea vines enlivening palm-treed parks, as well as overhanging many expressway bridges. Le Meridien Singapore Hotel situated on Orchard Road in the heart of the city’s shopping area would be our home for the next twenty four hours, a time far too short to really appreciate this wonderful island.

Once the devastated victim of occupying Japanese armies during World War two; modern day Singapore is now a bustling and thriving 250 square mile metropolis. Situated at the crossroads of neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia … the largest archipelago in the world;.. its climate is typically tropical with high temperatures and humidity. The territory consists of the mainland, 26 miles in length and 14 miles in breadth, and some 60 tiny islands strewn about its territorial waters, of which more than 20 are inhabited.

Singapore’s ancient history is still sketchy, but what’s better known, is of its modern day founder Sir Stamford Raffles who sailed into its harbour in January 1819, to establish a trading station under an agreement between the British East India Company and the Sultan of Johor, the Malay ruler of the island. He’s still renowned today where a glass is raised in cheer at the ‘Long Bar’ of his namesake the ‘Raffles Hotel,’ home of the world famous ‘Singapore Sling.’

With a population of over four million, this multi-cultural and multi-racial country boasts one of the highest standards of living in the world. It’s also known for its strict, somewhat draconian laws regarding public behaviour, with penal dispositions handed down for offences such as littering. But that seems a small price to pay in light of the thriving economy and corresponding benefits its citizens continue to enjoy.

Breakfast was delightful as usual, after which we all met early the morning of April 21st. in the spacious and opulent lobby of our hotel. Our itinerary for the day was a half day orientation tour of the city, which I was really looking forward to. Unfortunately, our substitute tour guide in the limited time allotted only managed to take us to the spacious Botanic Gardens which rival many the world over; as well as walking tours of Little India and Chinatown, where some of us managed to purchase souvenirs.

Margaret and I were privileged to spend a number of days in Singapore six years ago, at which time we enjoyed visits not only to the previously mentioned sites, but amoung others the impressive manmade Sentosa Island amusement park situated across the harbour. We also took the cable car ride to the lookout point of Mount Faber, where a panoramic view of this impressive ‘Lion city’ symbolized by the Lion-headed ‘Merlion’ could be enjoyed. At night, apart from a variety of available restaurants and nightclubs, we also toured the ‘Night Safari’ to observe the wanderings of rear nocturnal animals and creatures.

I was somewhat disappointed by the fact that first time visitors in our group weren’t fortunate to get a better view and appreciation of one of my favourite places in the world. Therefore I felt rather melancholy that afternoon as our Garuda Airlines flight thundered down the rainy runway, a white shroud of water vapour trailing as we climbed steadily above the overcast skies, heading south of the equator to the island paradise of Bali.

Denpasar Airport with its flashing white lights could be seen just beyond the edge of the Indian Ocean as our plane made a steep left bank on final approach later that night. We’d been flying for hours, with my eyes peeled admiringly at the ever changing sunset. Blindingly white at the outset from which I shaded my eyes for protection; in time evolving through an interplay of vibrant orange hues valiantly vying for supremacy against the ever advancing dark blue. But alas the magnificent star-studded equatorial night sky prevailed, putting to rest another blessed day in our lives, as we safely touched down. A short drive from the airport brought us to the luxuriant ‘Balihai Resort’ in Kuta, where exotic Asian hospitality awaited us for the next few days.

Bali is Indonesia’s second most densely populated island after Java, with a population of 2.7 million. Lying less than two kilometers off Java’s eastern tip, this 5,632 square kilometer island is the westernmost island in the Lesser Sundas island chain. To the north lays the Bali Sea, and to the south the Indian Ocean, where our resort was located. Known as the island of a thousand temples, Hinduism is the predominant religion practiced, in contrast with Buddhism in Thailand; but that, along with Christianity amoung others are observed here as well.

We awoke that April 22nd morning to a brilliant sunrise reflecting off the rippling Indian Ocean and quietly seeping through our window, heralding yet another beautiful day in paradise. Breakfast was the usual delightful puzzle of choosing from a vast variety of exotic dishes, but I managed quite well to sample a good cross-section of Balinese as well as Western foods.

After finding our way through the twin-level maze of ornately decorated hallways, divided by spouting fountains and goldfish-laden water gardens, awaiting us outside the open concept lobby were two white mini buses for our day trip. Our destination was the rural area of Kintamani to visit its historic temple and holy springs. On the way, our route took us through a number of small villages, their tiny houses heavily laden with wild vegetation, some unkempt with accumulated garbage, and fronted by a variety of weather-beaten religious and mythological stone statues; which certainly didn’t live up to my expectation of paradise.

Maneuvering the narrow winding roads jostling a myriad of horn-tooting motor scooters, we followed the nearby river, in some parts noticeably polluted, to Jalan Waribang- Kesiman to be entertained by the Barang & Kris Dancers. This was another cultural song and dance show performed in brilliant costumes, highlighting the triumph of good over evil to the accompaniment of haunting flutes and drums.

On the road again where we passed through towns with strange sounding names such as Udud, Tampaksiring, and Batur. Before the usual afternoon tropical downpour descended on us, we were treated to another delicious buffet lunch at a restaurant overlooking Lake Batur with nearby volcanic Mount Batur as a picturesque backdrop. Told that the volcano last erupted in 1966, during our meal my main concern was that rain was the only element down pouring at the time.

As was the case in other countries visited, we were fortunate to have most informative and hospitable local Tour Guides; and our Bali Guide was no exception. Dressed in his native costume of a yellow, red and blue floral short-sleeved shirt over an ankle-length blue and white sarong, this bespectacled young man also covered his head with a white kerchief headband tied in a neat bow in the front.

The rain only let up long enough for us to enter the hallowed grounds of kintamani to visit its sacred Hindu Dharma temple, where we observed some of the faithful bathing at its holy spring’s ten successive spouts. As a sign of respect, the women in our group were issued sarongs as well as some men who wore shorts; making for quite the comic site.

With borrowed umbrellas in hand we made mad dashes back to our buses that afternoon, bound for our next stop before returning to our hotel. It was a botanical nursery where we were introduced to tropical plants and trees yielding fruit, spices and medicines; the bottled products of which were more familiar to us.

The remainder of our stay in Bali was unorganized, allowing individuals to explore and enjoy the culture, shopping and interesting features of this exotic island. My party took full advantage, by indulging ourselves with a variety of massages at local parlors; shopping downtown Denpasar; and swimming both in the resort pool as well as the beautiful blue waters of the Indian Ocean. We hired a taxi one day for a private tour of the city and environs, and took the opportunity to pay our respects at the monument memorializing the hundreds of unfortunate tourists killed in the terrorist nightclub bombing of 2002.

And how could we forget our succulent seafood dinner that night on the beach of the ‘Sunset Bali Café’. As the waves rhythmically washed ashore to the accompaniment of a local serenading four-piece band, we sat at our candle-lit table with the red checkered tablecloth, amusingly sinking slowly in the sand. On the far horizon hovered my favourite Orion Belt Constellation, and overhead the heavens were all a twinkle with her brilliant diamonds sprinkled on black velvet skies for as far as the eyes could see. A full moon would have been ideal.

It was a fitting farewell to this unique island and one I will long remember, as we boarded our Cathay Pacific flight late that afternoon of April 25th. for our last destination, …the bustling city of Kowloon, Hong Kong. On our approach to the engineering marvel of Chek Lap Kok International Airport, ..a massive manmade island situated in the harbour,.. the billions of lights in this exciting city beckoned us new arrivals with the promise of a wonderful finale.

This area is located just south of the Tropic of Cancer, and situated on the southeastern coast of China at the mouth of the Pearl River, 122 kilometers from Guangzhou. After more than 150 years of British rule, Hong Kong finally returned home to China in 1997. Now renamed the Special Administrative Region (SAR), it’s comprised of the island of Hong Kong, Kowloon, and the new Territories to the north. The territories also include more than 230 islands, the largest being Lantau, home of the world’s largest seated bronze Buddha at ‘Po Lin Monastery.’

HK’s first known inhabitants were the Hundred Yue, a maritime people who populated much of China’s southeastern seaboard during the second millennium BC. Little is known however about their living habits, language or ethnic origins. The British on the other hand had been attracted to china and these maritime ports since the 16th. Century, as did the Portuguese. But it wasn’t until January 1841 that the Union Jack flag was first raised at ‘Possession Point’ heralding their possession of these islands to their growing Empire and involvement in industry, including the thriving Opium trade.

Shipping is the territory’s most obvious money earner, seeing as how the procession of container ships through the East Lamma Channel to the Kwai Chung Container Port is never-ending. And from all indications commercial trade is the engine that drives this money-minded country of 6.5 million, with the familiar label “Made in Hong Kong” known the world over.

Our home for the next two days was the upscale ‘Eaton Hotel’ situated on Nathan Road, one of the main shopping areas in the city, and just blocks away from the famous ‘Ladies Night Market.’ After a hearty breakfast we boarded our bus with our local Tour Guide headed for a day trip of this exciting high-rise city. First stop was the lookout point on lofty 554 Metres ‘Victoria Peak.’ Unfortunately, the harbour and city below was somewhat shrouded in morning mist, obscuring our photos and view of this world famous cityscape. Much to our regret, this was also the case when Margaret and I first visited in previous years.

With the fog slowly lifting, we made our way across town, creeping through heavy traffic towards ‘Repulse Bay’. As with ‘Victoria Peak,’ this part of Hong Kong has also attracted the wealthy with their expensive cars and boats, affording them access to the amenities of these upscale neighbourhoods and nearby sea.

‘Stanley Market’ is a ‘must’ for shopping, and very popular with tourists who find bargains galore. Not to be outdone, our group’s visit certainly aided the Hong Kong economy with timely purchases. To conclude our tour, we made a stop at the famous fishing village of ‘Aberdeen’ for a chance to ride on a ‘Sampan’ boat.

Known as the ‘Boat People’, the original 50,000 inhabitants of this community who spent most of their lives afloat, have through the years been re- housed, reducing their numbers to mere hundreds today. The nearby floating ‘Jumbo Restaurant’ is one of the prominent landmarks once also featured in a James Bond movie.

We enjoyed a pleasant boat ride with our captain seated at the rear controlling the outboard motors. From our vantage point as we maneuvered around other anchored boats, looking up all that could be seen apart from heavy vehicular traffic were wall to wall high-rises lined up like massive concrete stilts, some of which no doubt now house the former ‘Boat People.’

The perpetual dilemma for Hong Kong is too many people and too little land space. As a result it’s understood that the average two bedroom apartment houses approximately ten family members, causing quite a crowding problem. The solution is that families take turns sleeping in shifts, resulting in half being on the streets at any given time, therefore the high density of people and traffic at all time of the day and night.

Ours was nowhere as chaotic at the elegant ‘Eaton Hotel’ where our group enjoyed our festive farewell dinner that evening. Many accolades were sincerely expressed in praise of the organizers of our wonderful vacation in exotic Asia; some were so impressed that they elected to stay on a few days longer; bidding us a fond farewell as we departed the following afternoon.

It was with some trepidation that I squeezed my big frame into the cramped Cathay Pacific Airline seat for the long haul home. And as the islands of Hong Kong faded in the distant sunset, my thoughts fondly drifted back to those wonderful Thai massages; delicious spicy noodles and sticky rice; warm Indian Ocean waves washing over me; sips of cool fruit juices and Coconut water; shopping and,…and,.. for a moment there I could’ve sworn I heard a distant voice cry out “Yoo Hoo, …I’ll pray for you …to come back to exotic Asia?”

Ray Williams - Ray's Space

In Search of the Promised Land

“Aren’t you guys worried about going to places like Israel and Jordan?” concerned family and friends asked. “They’re always having wars and trouble over there.”“Not really,” my wife Margaret and I replied while packing our bags, “we’re going to look for the Promised Land.”... full story