Secular Experience Indonesia


I am currently on a family vacation in Yogyakarta (also called as Jogjakarta) in Central Java region of Indonesia. As my readers should be aware, Indonesia is a secular country though most of its citizens are Muslims; as a tourist guide put it to us, it is a moderate Islamic country with acceptance of other religions and full respect for those people who follow other religions. This is the result of a very long and rich history of tolerance, and also the fact that Indonesia was strongly influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism before it eventually adopted Islam. I am not a historian, neither am I a religious studies specialist, and I am writing all this based on my understanding and interactions with people who I meet when I travel.

This means that most Indonesians were Hindus and then Buddhists before they became Muslims. That explains their moderate views on religion, though most are practicing Muslims. Christianity has also has had some influence on Indonesians. Most Indonesians are soft-spoken and polite, with a deference to almost everyone and especially to foreigners.

At one point in time, Yogyakarta was the capital of Indonesia, and there is even a Presidential Palace here – we passed by it on our way to see the Royal Kraton Palace, or the Sultan’s abode. There is not much industrial activity in Yogyakarta, the economy seems to be centred around tourism and other service industries.

There are two key temple zones around Yogyakarta – one is the Prambanan Temple which is a very large Hindu temple, with individual temples dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. There are hundreds of other smaller temples in the Prambanan temple zone. It was damaged considerably during a big earthquake which occurred in 2006, with its epicentre at Yogyakarta. The main temple has been restored with significant effort after the earthquake. The architectural design of the temple complex has obviously been influenced heavily by Indian Hindu temple construction, but the ingenuity of Prambanan construction comes due to the interlocking stones which prevents them from sliding down in case of any disturbances. The stones were gathered from the rivers which carried volcanic ash from the nearby volcanoes. During the restoration, concrete has been poured to solidify the structure. Amazing indeed.

Some pictures from the Prambanan temple as below:

We also visited the world famous Borobudur Buddhist Temple. At both temples (Prambanan and Borobudur), there were hundreds of school children streaming in, because December has school holidays in Indonesia. There were not many foreigners, my guide told me that most Europeans visit in July and August, and further November to March is a rainy period. Luckily we were spared from the rains so far when we visited the two temples, though it drizzled this morning quite heavily for a short while.

Borobudur is all about Buddha. I have always been impressed about Buddhist philosophy, though I may not agree with Siddhartha for abandoning his wife Maya and their only child, when Siddhartha left his family to get into meditation. Though Buddhism has many variants itself, the ideas pertaining to samsara, karma and nirvana are easily articulated and understood. Some of the ideas are in the pictures below:

Pictures from Borobudur Temple as below:

Overall, the visit to these two temples has been enlightening and revealing: the historic influence of India on Indonesia and several other countries such as Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, etc., in South East Asia cannot be underestimated.

More coverage on my Indonesian vacation will follow, in the meanwhile, enjoy your weekend folks.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

15th December 2018

More of London during weekend


I spent more time walking around London and gaining requisite skills on navigating the rather complex London Underground or the “tube”. I even took couple of bus rides. Transportation is critical in any major city, but in London it is very critical since we cannot just hop into a black cab as it is frighteningly expensive (atleast for me). Uber is some 20 to 30% cheaper depending on the time of the day. I realized that I have to switch off the “foreign exchange data switch” in my brain, which constantly computes the cost of any service or product in SGD or INR and manages to scare me.

Without that switch being on, the retail prices looked pretty reasonable. I walked into a number of supermarkets such as Aldi, Marks&Spencer, Waitrose, Tesco, and Sainesbury. More or less similar, but the best was Waitrose in terms of variety and quality, though the prices were a bit on the higher side. All these supermarkets were crowded and I could hear a babble of multiple languages from immigrants from all over the world. Surely, an Indian in the U.K. is not out of place. In fact, when the Immigration Officer at London Gatwick Airport asked me about the purpose of my visit, I told him I was visiting my daughter for Diwali and he did not bat an eyelid!

Coming back to my London itinerary, I visited the famous Portobello Road Market in Nottinghill area on Saturday which was crowded to the hilt, with hardly any space to even move around. It resembled the flea markets elsewhere, with hundreds of small shops peddling trinkets, memorablia, clothing, books, paintings, etc., as also a variety of food from many parts of the world. I enjoyed the walk, though technically it was not a walk – you get almost pushed forward, or you have to push ahead to get to the next shop. I had to be careful holding the food that I ordered, as it could have been knocked down by any one of the “pushers”. Beware of pickpocketeers of course.

Some of the pictures from my Portobello Road shopping experience as below:

I continued my exploration of the City of London today (Sunday) by visiting the London Bridge and the Tower of London. Fascinating history from over a 1,000 years ago characterize the Tower of London, which is a World Heritage site. Again, I enjoyed the walk which spanned the length from the edge of the modern London Bridge, all the way down the steps towards the Tower of London. Hundreds of folks were doing the same on a bright sunny day, though it was a bit chilly at some 8 deg Celsius.

Here are some pictures from my Sunday itinerary:

London, no doubt, is a fascinating historic and global city – very interesting, very absorbing. I am sure I have not scratched even one-fourth of this great city. I found London to be a lively, happening city, not held to ransom by history though the tour guides and tourists only talk about the British history, Kings and Queens. Though I had written blog post against monarchy in the past, history is so fascinating that I also fell victim to the rather interesting stories about King Henry the Eighth and his foibles with various Queens (six of them!).

Overall, it was a good 3 days of exploration around London, and thats all I had on hand in terms of time.

Have a wonderful week ahead, folks.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

4th November 2018

18,000 Steps in London 02 Nov


I walked and walked.

Never ending tourist spots in one of the most “touristy” cities in the world. I was part of a walking tour!

I am talking here about London, to which I returned after many, many years. I decided to become a “new” tourist in London on Friday 02 Nov.

First I went to the famous Primrose Hill on my own to get almost a full view of the City of London. Here are some pics – I am sure most of you would have travelled to this fabulous city, however I am posting what I took in an amateurish fashion:

I wanted to walk through St Regent’s Park and reach the London Business School and stroll through to Baker Street Underground Station as per my original plan. But I changed that plan and walked back to the cafes located near St John’s Wood Underground Station for having lunch plus coffee. It was a nice walk in sunny weather but the temperature was below 10 deg Celsius. I was of course, decked up for that kind of weather – thankfully, it was sunny all day unlike the usual rainy, muggy London that we usually get to experience almost all year round.

Salad lunch was good at Pret a Manger cafe and I had a lazy flat white coffee before I headed out to take the tube to the Charing Cross Station – I had to reach the Apple Store at Covent Garden to join the Sandeman’s New London Walking Tour (you can google it). It is a free tour, you just pay what you like to the tour guide at the end of the tour. We had a wonderful, vivacious lady from New Zealand as our tour guide, and she spoke almost non-stop right through the tour while shepherding some 30 folks from all over the world. I met people from Brazil, Spain, Russia, Holland, Portugal, Germany, Malaysia and the U.S. I also met an interesting guy from Argentina, but he went on to join the Spanish language tour.

We walked for the next 2.5 hours to many places like the Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, the Royal Park, Whitehall, Churchill’s War Room, and so on. I took several pictures as you can see below, but nothing outstanding as the group was constantly moving ahead and I did not wish to be left behind without being able to hear our guide’s fantastic speeches!

Most of you would have seen these places in London, so I am not elaborating on each and every one of them here. Let me see if you can identify the Harry Potter-specific shots that I took!

It was wonderful walking around London, actually the City of Westminster (not the City of London).

There were thousands of tourists in each place that I visited. When I tried to enter the Piccadilly Station Underground on Friday evening around 6 PM, it was so jam packed that I could move only inch by inch towards the entry gates, and then there seemed to be huge crowds trying to board the tube, I thought it almost looked like Mumbai train system, only there were no people hanging out of the train!

I used the “Citymapper” app for finding my way around which is incredibly useful especially on the London Underground, though I preferred Google Maps for the walking part between any two locations – it was easier and more accurate.

I wondered how people in the past would have navigated without the aid of such apps – signifying how “digital” we have become even to find some coffee shops around us!

London is all about discovering the city by walking around. Never take a taxi, you will be stuck in heavy traffic in a very very expensive mode of travel.

So now you see how I walked 18,000 steps in one day.

Have a good weekend folks,

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

03 November 2018

Traffic Anarchy


I have been in Chennai, India for the past couple of days.

I do not have my laptop with me during this trip, so I am keying this blog post on my iPhone, for the first time ever! Its a bit strange though, however not that inconvenient to type.

The rainy season has started in Tamil Nadu State, with the threat of a cyclone coming during this weekend. While the State Government has issued warnings via a “red alert” for this Sunday 7th October, people don’t seem to be bothering, and everything looks normal on the roads, with occasional drizzles and some good rains during night times. I did not see many folks with umbrellas, which seemed strange, given the potential hazards of getting drenched in heavy rains anytime during the day. I became like the local folks, and decided not to take the umbrella yesterday when my mom proferred one with the warning that rains were coming – I walked out like an absolute local with no cover over my head. And it was drizzling a bit, and I enjoyed it, though I had no intent of getting drenched in the rain!

I got into an auto rickshaw, the affordable three-wheeler still dominating the streets of most cities and towns in India. I had booked the vehicle using the OLA app (similar to UBER or GRAB app), which provides dynamic real-time pricing, and had lot of difficulty in securing one due to the rains. It was annoying to keep getting the same message “no autos are available now – please try again later”, and also keep seeing an ever-increasing price every time. Finally, I had to pay more (like a surge price), and get an auto, it took nearly 30 minutes overall, which was not a pleasant waiting experience. Of course, I am not blaming the OLA app itself, as it cannot do much if even the higher real-time pricing does not elicit a response from the auto drivers who are waiting nearby to my location.

Now, let me come to the traffic part.

Indian cities (except a couple) are notorious for their disorganized and uncontrolled traffic conditions on even the arterial city roads. The road in which my apartment is located is known for its bad traffic all day round, with couple of large shopping malls, many apartment blocks, cinema theatres, a bus terminus, a major hospital and a large IT company building, all located within a stretch of less than 1 KM. I have to almost always make a U-turn just ahead of my apartment to get to the city, and that other side of the road is always super congested.

I suggested to my auto driver that he should take a short cut via some lane instead of joining the bursting traffic on the other side of the road, as I was making a rather short trip to the post office nearby and did not wish to waste a lot of time on the road.

He thought for some 5 seconds and decided to U-turn on my side of the road itself, and started driving against the oncoming traffic to my horror! He asked me not to worry!! The beauty was that the traffic coming against us “slightly” adjusted their traffic curvature to accommodate our vehicle, making a “sincere” attempt to avoid hitting us!!! This “adjustment” is a unique part of the driving culture in India.

After some 30 metres or so, he deftly turned into a side road and proceeded in the “right” side of the traffic, and was able to reach the desired traffic junction undercutting all of the traffic chaos on the other side of my main road by making appropriate quick turns!

Looks like many folks (except cars and heavy vehicles) are doing the same motions to undercut the traffic, with the potential threat of a traffic cop stopping the vehicle anytime, and issuing a traffic violation ticket, or demanding a hefty “contribution”.

Coming to think of it, it is not possible to get control of the city traffic situation in most cities of India without some sort of “ERP” system like that of Singapore – ERP stands for Electronic Road Pricing, and it is a dynamic road pricing system which increases the cost to drivers at peak traffic times. There will be huge protests if such a system is introduced in India, but I believe that there is no alternative due to the lack of proper, well maintained roads and also lack of adequate road space and improper/illegal constructions occupying road corners. Singapore has successfully and effectively used ERP to control traffic congestion for the past two decades.

With the rains hitting Chennai, I could see the very badly maintained roads taking further hits, creating big holes on the roads which are dangerous to all drivers, especially to the smaller vehicles such as autos and two wheelers. Who is responsible for this sorry state of affairs?

The traffic situation is bad especially during the rains, but I discovered the joys of listening to music like Abba, Boney M, and Ed Sheeren using Spotify app on my iPhone. Music one likes or loves to hear would reduce the the stress on Indian roads. Now I am downloading more songs via Spotify! Hopefully, other drivers will resort to some such non-distracting driving aids while encountering the chaos and the poor roads.

In any case, there is no escape from going outside the cosy house and doing your job. Millions of people endure this traffic anarchy right through the day, and they must be always wondering “when is someone going to put an end to all this chaos?”.

Have a wonderful, rain-soaked weekend, folks! At least the folks in South India!!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

6th October 2018

Hangzhou – an amazing destination


I spent the past few days in Hangzhou, the 4th largest metropolitan area of China, just an hour away from Shanghai by high-speed bullet train.

During my previous visit, I was not able to spend any time to see places of importance in Hangzhou, so I was determined to spend a day of personal time during last week’s trip.

As it has become the normal impact on any visitor, most major cities of China astound you with their modernity, infrastructure, lovely hotels, organized traffic and cleanliness. Hangzhou is no different. It is sleek and modern. It has relatively newer infrastructure with some gleaming new malls (I visited two of them). It is well-industrialized, and has a per-capita GDP of over USD 20K! It has good roads, and apparently well-managed traffic, but then Chinese drivers are as bad as Indian drivers in Indian roads, they cut across others and try to squeeze their way between two lanes, and quite rash in terms of speeding up.

Apart from the above, Hangzhou has a long rich history going back couple of thousand years. It has managed to integrate its historical past with its modern society, but I was not happy about the manner in which they are maintaining their old Buddhist temples. More about that later in this post.

I had time only to visit two important tourist destinations in Hangzhou: one was the West Lake, designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site; the other was the stunning Lingyin Buddhist Temple & Monastery, also called “Temple of Soul’s Retreat”. Both places are so huge, it will be an injustice to write about the smallish experiences I had, but then I would like to share what little I did during just half-day of precious time!

First, I went to Lingyin Temple (it costs RMB 45 for an admission ticket or SGD 9). One thing you got to be prepared anywhere of tourist importance in China is the crowd. Even on a weekday, you will find thousands of people streaming in – not unlike India, but more in terms of numbers. Nobody speaks English, including the staff manning ticket counters, so you have to use sign language [I am always even more amazed with the huge growth of China’s economy given that the people struggle with any foreign languages, especially English, and still manage to sell all that they produce to the world!]. The only signs of Westernization are the KFC, McDonald’s and Starbucks – which are all ubiquitous across China. But even at these outlets, no one speaks or understands English so use your fingers to point items on the menu!

The Temple and Monastery were established at the present location by an Indian monk in 4th Century AD (a very important contribution by India to China!!). I went around the temple and walked on stone slabs which were probably 1,500 years old. Lingyin Temple is considered as one of the top Buddhist temples in all of China, and so it is no wonder it continues to attract thousands of devotees from around China.

From the Temple, I went to the “Broken Bridge” across the West Lake (around 5 KMs cab ride), which is the Northern part of the West Lake. As I said, it is a beautiful part of Hangzhou, which has inspired monks and artists over many centuries. It was so pleasant to walk across this bridge – I decided to spend more time and walk for a couple of KMs to enjoy the fresh air and see the Lotus flowers floating on the lake along with some pretty swans as well. A nice walk, but it was bit foggy around 5 PM. My guess is that the fog will clear off towards the nightfall, and it would be a beautiful locale with lights all around the lake’s periphery. I should say it was an excellent walk!

It was a great experience, but I quickly became modern by walking into a Starbucks outlet across the street (difficult to cross, like it is in India) located in a nice two-storey house.

I believe I have not even scratched the surface of Hangzhou. To demonstrate how modern is Hangzhou, I thought it would be pertinent to show to you the walls of a modern restaurant in a glitzy mall that I went to for dinner. Make your own conclusions!!!

Let me also say one thing about Hangzhou that would be rather surprising: taxi fares and food are cheaper than Singapore, or even India. Definitely far cheaper than the Western world, for sure. I used the DIDI app for calling cab to the airport (and my friend did it for other locations) and it costed just RMB 100 (or SGD 20) for a distance of nearly 30 KMs in a new comfortable limousine (called “premier taxi” in the DIDI app). The DIDI app is similar to the OLA app in India or the GRAB app in Singapore, very convenient with reasonable fares, and it also has an in-built English to Mandarin translator!!!

Cheers, and Have a Great Weekend, Folks,

Vijay Srinivasan

22nd September 2018

Haifa and Akko


I made a rather quick visit to Haifa, the third largest city of Israel, some 90 KMs to the north of Tel Aviv. It is situated on a mountainous terrain, and is also a port city. Some views of the city as below:

The Bahai Temple in all its beauty:

I also visited the port city of AKKO (also known as ACRE). Pictures from that visit as below:

Vegetable and Fruit market:

Israel is an expensive country to live. I would think it is more expensive than Singapore though its national income per capita at around USD 38K in 2016 is smaller than that of Singapore which was around USD 52K in 2016. The New Shekels, the currency of Israel, runs like water when you are at a nice restaurant or shopping. Even the hotels at more than USD 250 per night are more expensive than those of Singapore for similar 5-Star brands. So, one would need lot of New Shekels (1 SGD = 2.7 New Shekels) when going to Israel. Unfortunately, Singapore and Tel Aviv are not connected directly by air, and so I had to fly to Bangkok and catch the EL AL airlines flight to Tel Aviv.

Israel is a safe country with lots to see. I would not mind taking my family to Israel on a historical tour (they all love history!). May be I need to find another air route and another airline probably.

Have a great week ahead,

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

12th August 2018

Caesarea


When I visited Israel last week, I did not realize that I was going to visit a country with a very ancient history – I always thought that Israel is a modern country with cities and skyscrapers. It is not the case actually – most locations have some ancient historical background. The religious nature of the land of Israel is of course, well known. Many religions have existed for thousands of years in this region. The influence of Romans, Moghuls, Ottomans, Jews, and Crusaders are to be seen almost everywhere. I did not spend too long, just a couple of days going around so I cannot claim that I have seen most of the places or understood their significance. One thing is for sure – this is a country which should not be missed by itinerant travellers!

Some pictures from the ancient city of Caesarea which is located less than an hour from Tel Aviv on the way to Haifa. I am not recounting the history of this famous port city, but I am going to provide two web links which will be very useful in understanding the history and importance of Caesarea.

Caesarea Story from BRITANNICA

Tourist Israel site – useful one

A few views of the beautiful inlaid marble or mosaic work from a villa during Roman times as below –

Visit this ancient land and enjoy the sights of beautiful architecture built by rulers who lived in this same land a few thousand years ago!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

12th August 2018