It’s Time For The Fire Monkey!

In two days’ time – 8th February 2016 – it will be Chinese New Year or the Lunar New Year. Chinese astrology (zodiac) consists of 12 animals and 5 Elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water) which are associated with their own “chi” or “life force”. According to Chinese astrology, 2016 will be the Year of the Fire Monkey.

So what’s in store for us in the Year of the Fire Monkey? Some astrologers say because monkeys are agile, witty and quick, thus the Year of the Monkey is ideal to take a chance to make a positive change in your life. And hopefully with the ‘Fire’ element, this coming year will provide you the drive, opportunity and the right environment for you to realise your ambitions. Well, I hope so too :-)

I’m back in my hometown Malacca to celebrate Chinese New Year with family. As usual, there will be lots of food and catching up. But before the official day starts on Monday, I’m catching up on my sleep. Somehow life just slows down here – don’t know why – it must be the amount of sleep-inducing food I have been consuming!

Zzzzz.........
Zzzzz………

I’ll be back with my usual travel posts next week. In the meantime, here’s wishing you all KONG HEI FATT CHOY or GONG XI FA CAI or HAPPY CHINESE NEW YEAR!

In Pictures: Handloom Weaving and Thangka Painting

One of the standard sightseeing tours (3 point, 7 point or 10 point interests) offered by local taxi drivers in Gangtok is a visit to the Directorate of Handicrafts and Handloom (DHH).

I know some of you probably cringe at these touristy visits but please try not to resist it because Sikkimese people take pride in their local heritage and culture. Many of their sightseeing tours are very touristy – curated by their state tourism – but with good intent. In fact, the locals recommend you to visit these places, not because of the commercialism that comes along with it but is an opportunity for outsiders to learn about their culture.

When my local taxi driver, Poorva, drove me to the DHH, it was during their lunch hour. I could still visit the small museum (Rs 10 fee) and the gift shop but the workshops were empty. It would have been a waste of time. I requested Poorva to drop me off at DHH in the afternoon once we had finished our sightseeing tour of Gangtok.

(Related Post: In Pictures: Rumtek Monastery of Gangtok)

Apart from manufacturing, showcasing and selling arts and crafts, DHH is also a training centre. I came across students working hard – weaving handlooms and painting thangkas. They don’t mind visitors coming into their classrooms or workshops to observe them :-)

Handloom Weaving

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Just as I thanked them and was leaving their workshop, one of the girls ran towards me to take a photo with me with her phone camera :-)

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Optimistic About Our Future

Day in, day out we read, listen or watch news and it’s a constant feed about war, terrorism, global warming, floods, snowstorms, drought, poverty, killings, etc, etc, etc. No wonder I feel so weary sometimes whenever I read the news. I hardly watch news on TV anymore because the captions and images are so negative. One can’t help but to feel pessimistic about the state of the world. And situation is getting insane.

However, there are times when I feel optimistic about the future of our world especially when I meet kids. It’s their innocence that captures my heart. An old Malay woman mentioned to me several years ago that when children are born, their souls are like a white, blank canvas. They don’t know what is good or bad, or what they should like or dislike. But the “canvas” starts to take forms of various shapes and colours when they grow up due to the environment that they were raised in and other external influences.

As much as we worry about the state of the world – is it a safe environment for our children to live in – well, let’s control what we can control. Let’s view the world from children’s perspective – their innocence – and start to make this world a better place!

For the weekly photo theme Optimistic:

Junior must be feeling proud to be part of this significant event...
Junior must be feeling proud to be part of this significant event, Penang, Malaysia
Kindergarten kids in Shiraz, Iran
Kindergarten kids in Shiraz, Iran
Kindergarten kids and their teachers at Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka
Kindergarten kids and their teachers at Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka
School kids on class excursion to City Palace, Udaipur
School kids on class excursion to City Palace, Udaipur
Saying hello to me from their home in Bow Barracks, Kolkata
Saying hello to me from their home in Bow Barracks, Kolkata
Met them cuties when I was walking back to my guesthouse in Gangtok, Sikkim.
Met them cuties when I was walking back to my guesthouse in Gangtok, Sikkim.
School boys mucking around in the gardens, Gangtok, Sikkim
School boys mucking around in the gardens, Gangtok, Sikkim

Have a great weekend, travellers!

In Pictures: Rumtek Monastery of Gangtok

The first site that I visited in Gangtok was Rumtek Monastery. Rumtek Monastery is situated about 24km southwest of Gangtok, and is the main seat of the Karma Kagyu lineage, also known as the Black Hat sect. The Karma Kagyu order was founded in Lhasa, Tibet, in the 12th century by His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa who is the head of the Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism.

The sixteenth Karmapa fled to Sikkim in 1959 during the Chinese invasion of Tibet, after which His Holiness established the Kagyu order in Sikkim and built a new monastery on a land donated by the Sikkimese king.

The sixteenth Karmapa was also instrumental in spreading Tibetan Buddhism to the West and had set up over 200 Karma Kagyu centres, so much so when he died in 1981, he left behind a wealthy monastery with lucrative international network. However, there are tensions between two sects on the rightful successor to the throne (their disputes have lengthened into court battles), resulting in Rumtek Monastery currently guarded by Indian army against possible sectarian violence by the feuding parties.

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Rumtek Monastery consists of the main temple hall, a golden stupa and the Karma Shri Nalanda Institute. Photography is allowed only in the courtyard of the monastery – it’s prohibited inside the main temple and the golden stupa.

Facing the main temple at the courtyard
Facing the main temple at the courtyard

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As I observed the murals and thangkas on the walls of the prayer hall in the main temple, I noticed a room with the door left ajar. I peeked in the room and saw a monk sitting on a stool bent over the table, working on something with his hands. I was very curious but was afraid to interrupt as he seemed so engrossed in his work. Ordinarily, I would have walked away but these last few years of travelling solo have made me braver in approaching people :)

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I knocked on the door and asked if I could come in. Without so much as a glance toward my direction, he said yes, and when I moved closer to the table, he was moulding tiny clay objects. I asked what was he making and he replied dharma – Buddha image. On the table laid several clay moulds, a jug of water and a book of sketches which I assume were instructions on how to sculpture the dharma.

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Behind the main temple is the Karma Shri Nalanda Institute where monks spend a minimum of 9 years studying here, followed by an optional 3-year period of isolated meditation. Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to enter the institute.

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Karma Shri Nalanda Institute

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Here are scenes from the monastery grounds.

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Note:
– Entry to Rumtek Monastery is free.
– Foreign nationals need to show their passport and the Sikkim entry permit.

(Related Post: The Sikkim Entry Permit: A Guide For Foreign Nationals)

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Alphabets of Wisdom From Rumtek Monastery

For this week’s photo theme of Alphabet, here are some ABCs of wisdom from Rumtek Monastery in Gangtok.

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Related Post: I Made It To Sikkim!

Have a great weekend, travellers!

I Made It To Sikkim!

The first time I heard about Sikkim was in 2006. I was having dinner with a former colleague from Delhi who came to Kuala Lumpur to accompany her husband who was attending a conference. She had mentioned about her December holidays in Sikkim and showed me her photos. That was ten years ago and photos taken on phone cameras in those days weren’t that great – low resolution and grainy. I wasn’t a seasoned traveller then but I had dreams building inside me to see more of this world, thus I had a hunch that Sikkim would be an interesting place to visit.

As time went on, I had changed jobs and have lost touch with this colleague but I never forget that dinner. Obviously the images of Sikkim from her phone were no longer clear in my memory but it was she who introduced it to me. Over the years whenever I mentioned Sikkim, I often received thumbs up from Indian friends who had been there. Therefore, when I was planning my trip to the Eastern part of India in 2015 to coincide with the Durga Puja festival, I decided that I must extend my trip to the Northeast – to step foot in Sikkim – finally.

(Related Post: Meeting Goddess Durga in Kolkata )

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Sikkim is a landlocked north-east state of India, and borders with the Indian state of West Bengal to the south, Nepal to the west, Tibet to the north and east, Bhutan to the east. It is the second smallest state after Goa, and the least populous state in India of approximately 600,000. 75% of the population are Nepalese with minority groups such as Lepchas and Bhutias form the remaining population. Due to the majority of the population are Nepalese, the main language spoken in Sikkim is Nepali, but culturally and spiritually, Sikkim’s strongest links are with Tibet.

Sikkim, sandwiched between Nepal & Bhutan. Source: www.mapsofindia.com
Sikkim, sandwiched between Nepal & Bhutan. Source: http://www.mapsofindia.com

Sikkim was an independent Buddhist kingdom for many centuries but it suffered territorial losses to Nepal over a period of 150 years. Because of its geographical isolation, the kingdom allied itself to British India in the 19th century and became a British protectorate. Subsequently, Sikkim gradually lost its independence especially during the Indian-Sino War in the early 1960s that led the Indian government realised the importance of Sikkim as a crucial territory between Tibet and the Bengal area. Eventually a referendum in 1975 abolished the monarchy and Sikkim became part of India.

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I was in the car admiring the view from Darjeeling to Gangtok, a 4-hour journey traversing through several hairpin bends, manouevred skilfully by the driver, Mr Gurung who knows these roads like the back of his hand. We passed through virgin forests of pine and bamboo trees with the blueish-green Teesta River flowing below.

Gangtok is the state capital of Sikkim, and the only way to reach Gangtok is by road. There are no railways or airports in Gangtok. The nearest railway station is in New Jalpaiguri, and the nearest airport is in Bagdogra, all of which are located in West Bengal state. One should expect a journey of approximately 4 to 5 hours by car to reach Gangtok.

Teesta River
Teesta River

Due to Sikkim’s proximity to China and the fact that its land border with Tibet is wide open, the entire state of Sikkim is under restricted area regime. Hence, all foreign nationals require the entry permit i.e. Restricted Area Permit (RAP) or also known as the Inner Line Permit (ILP).

The entry permit was a piece of paper containing my passport data and was valid for 15 days. Upon entering and exiting Sikkim, my passport and the permit were stamped – it was like crossing international borders but I was still in the country India. I was informed that I had to keep the entry permit at all times, in the event I needed to produce for identification purposes.

For more information about the entry permit, click The Sikkim Entry Permit: A Guide For Foreign Nationals

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As we drove into the city proper, I was amazed by Gangtok. Compared to its state neighbour West Bengal, the roads in Gangtok were cleaner, traffic was more orderly and the atmosphere seemed less frenetic. I was particularly surprised that the locals followed traffic rules! There was a little honking here and there, but there was a general sense of calm as people went about their daily activities.

Gangtok
Gangtok

I stayed at The Shire guesthouse, recommended by travel blogger Charukesi who had stayed here a few years ago. I didn’t have the time to do a lot of research on accommodation options in Gangtok as I had been very busy working prior to my trip to India. I stumbled upon Charu’s review on The Shire, relied on her recommendations and was very happy that her reviews were accurate.

The Shire is a lovely house located about 15-20 minutes walk from MG Marg which is the main shopping strip in town. The driver had a little trouble finding the place but with a few phone calls to my guesthouse host, Karma, I arrived at this gem of a place fairly quickly.

The Shire
The Shire

I was warmly welcomed by Karma and his mother – check-in was easy and quick – and within minutes, Karma and I were already talking about the places of interest in Gangtok and the excursions that I could take. My room was comfortable and clean with an attached bathroom, and the windows opened out to the backyard terrace which guests could see the views of the mountains. Guests can order breakfast and lunch/dinner in The Shire. On my last night in Gangtok, I requested for dinner and it was a delicious home-cooked Sikkimese meal :-)

Apart from the facilities provided at The Shire, what I had enjoyed most throughout my stay was the easy conversation I had with Karma and his family members. As such, I felt very welcomed, comfortable and safe to be there, and gained some insights into the Sikkimese history and culture.

Sunset view at The Shire backyard terrace
Sunset view at The Shire backyard terrace

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After I had settled in and unpacked my bag, I left the guesthouse and walked towards the town centre. I didn’t want to dive right into sightseeing, in fact, I wanted to go to a cafe to relax, have a cuppa, people-watch and perhaps to plan my itinerary in Gangtok.

I went to Baker’s Cafe on MG Marg, a quaint cafe known for their pastries and cakes. I ordered 2 pieces of madeleine and a cup of tea.

Baker's Cafe
Baker’s Cafe

And just as I was eating my madeleine halfway, I saw a beautiful sunset right next to the window. Some of my readers know by now that I have a soft spot for sunsets, be it by the beach..or in this case, amidst the mountains.

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As I watched the sun set, I counted my blessings for arriving safely in Gangtok, for having a wonderful time visiting new places like Darjeeling and meeting friends in Kolkata, and for having such a wonderful opportunity to be, probably, one of the very few Malaysians who have made it to Sikkim! With that, I perused a pocket guide book on Sikkim, and excitedly planned my trip for the next two days.

(Related Post: Weekly Photo Challenge: Sunsets My Muse )

Look out for photo essays of Gangtok in future posts!

Weight(less) in Penang’s 3D Interactive Museum

This week, share a photo of something marked by its weight — or its air of weightlessness..

There is always something fun to do in Penang. The island has many museums, and a number of these museums are fun and quirky. I like museums especially those featuring history, culture and art but admittedly, I do get bored after a while. Hence it’s quite refreshing to learn that Penang has the 3D interactive museum.

There are a few 3D interactive museums in Penang but the one which I went to was “Made in Penang” which let visitors explore the island via 30 interactive trick art paintings in a whole new dimension.

Here are the cheeky ones for the theme :)

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(Related Post: Art Fun In Penang)

Have a great weekend, travellers!