Snow in Manila? Check out this Manila Cathedral snow sculpture!

There were a lot of amazing snow sculptures at the 66th Annual Sapporo Snow Festival, but the most intricate and artistic of them all was the replica of the Manila Cathedral. How would you rate the resemblance? I was brought back to a much warmer place when I first saw this sculpture a few days ago. Everything from the cross to the stained glass windows to the figurines and Latin script on the front was dead on. I was very impressed. Here is a comparative photo.

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Macau vis-à-vis Manila: Architectural Splendor in Photos

If you paid attention during a high school world history class or during a discussion about empires rising and falling, odds are that you learned a lot about the Iberian Union between the Spanish and the Portuguese. At the same time, you most likely learned about the Spanish Empire and the Portuguese Empire and the vast, wealthy trade empires both nations built. The famous military leaders, the military victories and defeats, and even cultural traces like national languages are known to most, but one of the most interesting aspects of colonial rule I want to investigate is strikingly visible all over Macau and many parts of Manila: architecture.

Walking to Senado Square through the customs building.
Walking to Senado Square through the customs building.

In previous posts (some solely dedicated to architecture, and some not), I have mentioned the interesting nature iconic imagery that accompanies many of these old colonial structures as newer, more modern buildings spring up around them. In Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, high rises and office buildings stand next to crumbling (albeit beautiful) colonial structures, and those structures stand next to other well preserved colonial buildings. The contrast is fascinating and deserves its own post.

The nature of the Iberian Union and the close ties between the Portuguese and Spanish, though Catholicism and colonial architecture are a dominating presence as you walk through historic Macau and Intramuros, the famous walled city within metro Manila. There is one uniting factor between the two cities, even though they are thousands of miles apart: Spanish Baroque style architecture. This influence resonates from the gates of Intramuros to the walls of St. Paul’s.

The main impetus for me traveling to Macau for the first time over a year ago was rather simple. I wanted to play roulette at the famous Grand Lisboa Casino, eat some of the famous Portuguese egg tarts, and see the famous fountain at Senado Square, right in the heart of old Macau. As soon as I arrived, though, I was taken back by the fantastic job that Portuguese authorities (until 1999) and the current Chinese government have done with preserving and protecting the colonial architectural treasures that await in Macau. The fabulous parks and street signs instantly let you know that you are in a special place, unlike any other on Earth.

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Of course Senado Square is the most famous attraction, with its 16th Century tiled walkways and plazas, boasting images of sea creatures and boats within the intricate tile work. I thought the historic nature of the city would be limited to this touristy area, but I was happily mistaken. Almost as soon as one gets off of the bus at one of the casinos, the rich history of Macau becomes visible. The pastel pink governor’s mansion is visible across the lagoon from Macau Tower.

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As my friend and I made our way towards this beautiful building, we walked up more back alleys and found ourselves in a world of a past time. Tiled plazas were abound, as were nice walkways and statues. The dominating factor of it all, though, was the nature of the architecture. There were Catholic Churches everywhere. Nearby buildings borrowed from the Spanish Baroque style of architecture to help create a unique feel and flavor in the world’s most-densely populated city. It is quite a site to see Catholic nuns walking through the streets in China with a backdrop as elegant as the various Catholic Churches in the area. We haven’t even gotten to the most famous part of the Portuguese legacy in Macau: the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

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When one walks through Intramuros, similar sights and sounds follow you in a completely different environment than the one found in Macau. Ravaged by war, the colonial history of the city is still visible, but only in small places like Intramuros.

Once you pass through the gates to the city, a whole new world comes to life. Children bustle on the cobblestone streets and in the back alleys while horse-drawn carriages carry tourists from one place to another in the Spanish-era fortification. Ruins of old shops, homes, and stores have been turned into museums and antique shops while the plazas, fountains, and monuments to previous leaders and religious figures are kept largely in tact. Pastel-colored buildings adorned with Spanish names and large cast-iron gates represent what life was like during another era. I did not find it difficult to imagine myself walking down these streets prior to the Spanish-American War.

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As you realize you are inside of a massive walled city and earthwork fortification, something else becomes very clear: Manila was a very important and strategic location for the Spanish Empire. Overlooking various waterways and the Pacific Ocean, there was a reason why the Spanish, Americans, and Japanese all coveted Manila at different points in history. These kinds of views and outlook points are very similar to those one can observe in Macau, adjacent to the Ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

View from Fort Santiago
View from Fort Santiago

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The Portuguese built a sizable and imposing fort at the top of the ridge next to St. Paul’s centuries ago and this fort helped stave off a formidable Dutch invasion centuries ago. Much like in Manila, the guns and soldiers are long gone but the fort symbolizes the military importance of a port city to trading giants. In Manila, forts look out over some of the poorer areas of the city, but in Macau there are some spectacular views of the Grand Lisboa Casino.

Cannons overlook the Grand Lisboa Casino in Macau.
Cannons overlook the Grand Lisboa Casino in Macau.

These architectural styles are fantastic, but the true beauty in Manila and Macanese architecture rest in the Catholic Churches and other places of worship that dot the respective cities. In Macau, there are various churches and cathedrals, which, with their bright exteriors and somewhat plain interiors, show off the importance of Catholicism while being somewhat modes in their construction. At the same time, the Baroque style dominates their exteriors with concrete sculptures, high rooflines, and ornate woodwork. The true beauty in Macau rests with the world famous St. Paul’s ruins. A truly baroque building, the stonework and remaining elements of this church make one wonder, in awe, bout how it would have looked in its prime before it was destroyed by a fire.

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Manila’s lavishly painted San Agustin Church, along with the Manila Cathedral provide a similar feel for the Catholic influence over the largest city in the Philippines. Dominating stone facades and interiors show the Spanish Baroque-influenced architectural similarities, as well.

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Had it not been for World War II’s destruction of much of Manila, I often wonder what the rest of the city would look like, and whether or not many of its historic and colonial structures would have been preserved. While the most famous elements of Macau’s colonial architecture rests on the northern island, a trip to the southern island and its town, called Taipa, reveals even more interesting colonial architecture. Entire streets of colonial homes and businesses give this part of Macau a very unique feel, even though it is very close to the center of the casino industry. The coolest part about going to Taipa at this time of year was seeing the Lusophone Festival in full swing and sampling some Portuguese and Macanese delights as I walked through the streets of the historic port city.

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When traveling, especially in Asia, where colonial outposts, forts, and other remnants of empire exist, it is important to take some time out of your travel to take in the architecture and try to understand the influences and underlying causes to these buildings and why they are there in the first place. I was surprised by how similar Macau and Manila were, architecturally speaking. I will be visiting a former Dutch garrison in Taiwan in a few weeks and look forward to seeing my first piece of the former Dutch East India Company.

In the coming days, I will post another article documenting some of the architecture I witnessed in Malaysia, specifically Kuala Lumpur, and how seeing that British architecture inspired me to embark on my most daring and exotic trip yet: Burma.

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All Photos are Copyright Erik Jacobs, Erik Abroad (c) 2013 – Present

The Beauty of San Agustin Church

As my travels in Asia have continued to evolve, so have my interests and sights I intend to see when I travel. Initially, I looked for skyline photos and other modern aspects that compliment and often overwhelm the Asian mega city. While captivating skyline photos are still near the top of my list when I travel, a new form of building to see in former colonial cities now tops my list of places to see: Catholic Churches. This may surprise some readers 3when you find that I am not Catholic, but the intrinsic beauty and Architectural components within many of the colonial-era Catholic churches in cities like Manila and Macau are ripe with these buildings and all the history attached to them.

Many buildings in Manila’s Intramuros had fantastic, vibrant colonial-era exteriors and architecture, but San Agustin Church (founded in 1607) was a cut above the rest. Its unique form of beauty, both on the interior and exterior stole the show for me.

When I did research about Manila before my trip last weekend, I was immediately mesmerized by the brightly colored, almost florescent stucco exterior of the San Agustin Church. Images online all showed the Philippines’s oldest adobe building adorned with  pink, peach, red, or yellow walls and white window frames and pillars. The feeling was distinctly Spanish and colonial, so I could not wait to see it. When I first arrived, I was in for quite a surprise: the colors were GONE and the bare, four hundred year old walls, were fully exposed to the outside world. While some may have been disappointed (I certainly was), reflection has allowed me to realize the true beauty and character of this church.

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While it was disappointing, the exposed exterior shows the amount of craftsmanship and skill that went into constructing a stone church the size of San Agustin. Everything from the mortar to the pillars and regular facade had a lot of wear, the type of erosion which only buildings with immense character hold.

After passing through the double doors on the right side and entering the church, I entered the interior courtyard of the church, which, although as bare as the exterior, exuded a similar sense of beauty in its plainness. The palm trees and fountains provided another unique scene.

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After entering another set of doors in the back side of this plaza, More stone corridors were waiting for me, and somehow the cool temperature of the hallway and the accompanying oil paintings of Catholic leaders in Manila through the centuries showed a different sense of plain beauty. All of the hallways in San Agustin resembled this one in one way or another, with ceiling heights varying slightly between floors. It was the first time I have seen hallways like this in a Catholic Church since I set foot in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem back in 2013.

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At the end of this hallway, another first inside of a Catholic church awaited: a completely bare, bricked dome. As I have visited more and more churches, I have become accustomed to ornate mosaics or paintings at the top of many domes inside of these churches, but San Agustin was so different. There was no artwork at the top of this dome. The cool, dark hallway, only illuminated with a chandelier and sunlight provided yet another, different, backdrop for another amazing piece of architecture in Manila.

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After entering the second floor of the building, I encountered the church organ, and then to my right, a spectacular view of the altar and pews of San Agustin.

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As you can tell from the ceiling’s stonework and the woodwork style, San Agustin boasts a baroque style of architecture certainly unique to this part of the world. One of my family friends is an organist, and I could think of him playing this centuries-old organ as the pews fill on hot and steamy Sunday morning in September. The view over the railing was spectacular.

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High ceilings, dimmed and off chandeliers, simple painting on the ceilings, and an acoustically pleasing main hall accent an ornate and spectacular front altar. In the aforementioned paragraphs, the simple, historic, and cultural implications of San Agustin make this one of the most beautiful Catholic churches I have ever seen. Next up on the tour was the main floor.

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The altar was as spectacular as the rest of the church. High ceilings, marble pillars, and Spanish paintings dominated the main hall. The ornate masonry and stone carvings on the ceiling were the highlights of the architectural components of the main floor in San Agustin.

Even though I was initially met with disappointment surrounding the exterior of San Agustin, I am so happy that I continued to explore the interior of the oldest stone church in the Philippines and certainly one of the oldest churches in Asia. The high ceilings, palm trees, plazas, and bare, stone walls created a very different, memorable, building for me. Much different than other churches in Asia and North America, San Agustin stands alone for several reasons.

When you stop in Intramuros, I hope you take a few minutes to tour this fantastic church.

Of Rosaries and Intramuros – Manila (Part 1)

You can often tell a lot about a country by the first thing you notice once you step out of the air side of an airport and into the nearest taxi, train, bus, or transit vehicle. For me, I instantly noticed something that would set the tone for the rest of my trip last weekend in Manila: a rosary hanging on the rearview mirror inside the vehicle I took from the airport to my hotel.

After meeting my friend and tour guide at the airport, we were quickly on our way to check in at my hotel to change and head off to Intramuros, the historical walled city within the metropolis that is urban Manila. As soon as we stepped into this car, I realized that we were in Asia, but the Philippines were going to be a completely different experience. The rosary would be a mere precursor for how much Catholicism and the Spanish influenced this island nation during its growth and colonial period.

Aside from the rosary, the radio stations were broadcast in English, but with a heavy American accent. It was very nice and actually made me feel like I was back at home for the hour or so ride to the hotel. Given that the Philippines were American territory from the conclusion of the Spanish-American War until 1946, I expected to see a lot of American influence on the islands, especially by means of the English language, but there were more subtle influences waiting around every corner. Streets named Taft (after President Taft, who was once Governor-General of the Philippines), fast food chains, clothing brands, snacks and candies in the convenience store, and even television channels (imagine having Lifetime, Fox News, and HBO in your room) all added American flavor to a city with hundreds of years of Spanish colonial rule.

Light Morning Traffic in Manila

Our first stop of the day was the famed Intramuros section of Manila. Everything online about this historical neighborhood in the city said it was a sight to behold and the most important thing to see in the city. After stopping by the neighborhood for a few hours, I conclude that all reviews and assessments were completely accurate.

As I have continued to travel in Asia, I’ve noticed that my interests and the things for which I look on my trips continues to evolve and change. Ever since I visited Macau in November 2013, my eyes in all new destinations have turned towards architecture. For architectural features and uniqueness alone, Intramuros is worth your visit. The sites therein hold so much history and the moss-covered walls surrounding these sites surely have countless stories to tell of Spanish and American rule and of bombing and warfare to retake Manila from the Imperial Japanese in World War II.

In the plaza portion of Intramuros, many military relics remain as a reminder of the history and military roots within this walled city. Here is an anchor and cannon which are predominately displayed.

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As I turned to the right before we passed through the famed Santa Lucia Gate, I marveled at the pure beauty of the palm trees and plants surrounding two ornate fountains. These images and gardens are unlike anything else I had seen in Asia, except for Macau, which was Portuguese-controlled for several centuries. The Spanish style and influence certainly made Intramuros very special for me from a cultural trace and architectural perspective.

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Behind this fountain, the Catholic influence and tout in Manila reared its head again in the most interesting of ways with this statue on the law of Intramuros.

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As the sweat continued to roll down my face and soak through my shirt, we pressed onward to Santa Lucia Gate and Fort Santiago. As we passed horse-drawn carriages in the street, I took a second to rest and chat with General MacArthur’s statue in the shade before pressing onward.

In the distance, you can see the spectacular Santa Lucai Gate. As soon as I lain eyes on this gate, my mind tried to imagine what types of people and objects had based through it over the past few centuries. From iconic images like American tanks during the Battle of Manila to regular merchants, what kind of stories could these walls share? The walls and gate show their character and age as they are in the process of erosion and destruction, certainly sped up by Japanese assault on the city in the 1940s.  Take a look at the ornate gate and craftsmanship within the stone structure.

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They say, “dead men tell no tales,” but for some reason, I think these disheveled walls have many stories to tell.

After passing through the two-tiered walls into Fort Santiago, more history was upon us in this part of historic Manila. As you can see below, gravestones and monuments overlooked a more desolate part of the sprawling and polluted city. DSC07413 DSC07418 DSC07420

Inside Intramuros near Fort Santiago helps anyone gain a perspective on Manila’s rich history and also helps the traveler realize how war torn the city has been in the past, as well. Inside of this part of the city the sites and sounds are great, but even more elegance, beauty, and history  awaits in other parts of Intramuros, namely in the Catholic churches and sites which are extremely prevalent in this part of the city.

To make it to the Catholic sites, one can take a cab or walk the streets. We decided to walk and had the chance to see many historic and Western-style buildings like nowhere else I have seen in Asia outside of Macau and perhaps Malaysia.

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Bright colors, ornate woodwork, black fencing, and stuccoed exteriors are all indicative of something you would see in Spain or other European settlements in Asia. I even felt like I was in New Orleans as I walked through some of the narrow alleyways atop cobblestone streets.

Architecturally and culturally speaking, Manila is a place like nowhere else I have visited to date. American and Spanish influence looms large in many ways of life, but inside Intramuros, Spanish architecture is King (Philip). After speaking with some locals and seeing photos, I only wish I could have seen Manila before the Battle of Manila in 1945. The colonial buildings would be a world treasure if they still existed and were not bombed out during the war.

I will devote my next post almost entirely to some of the cathedrals I saw in metro Manila last Friday.

Taipei in Photos (Day 2)

Following a jam-packed first day in Taipei and a long night’s sleep, I was ready to go for another grueling day eating the best street food and seeing the best sites Taiwan had to offer. It’s a good thing, too, because this day was even more grueling than the first day. First up on the schedule was a rendezvous with one of my friends from college, both in Japan and the United States. David and I were off to Taipei Station. Stepping into the main atrium at the station, I felt like I was back in Japan, with high ceilings and shops in every corner at the station.

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Once we arrived, we found Karina in a Taiwan-style restaurant and recounted and rehashed our stores from college and talked about what we have been doing since we last saw ourselves in Philadelphia nearly two years ago. I often echo this sentiment on many of my posts on here, but I am always grateful when I meet my friends from college at different locales in Asia. Many people lose touch with their friends from college, but I am very fortunate to have been able to keep in touch with so many people given how busy all of us are.

After downing some delicious fried pork, some noodles, and some other Taiwanese delicacies, we were off to our first stop of the day, Freedom Plaza.

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After a short trip on Taipei’s subway system, dubbed the MRT, we were greeted by the sweltering humidity that had built as the day progressed. A quick stroll and turn to the right led us through the gates in this photo and into Freedom Plaza. I was very impressed with the size of the plaza in the middle of a bustling metropolis like Taipei. Traditional buildings flanked the plaza, with its focus on the Taiwanese national flag situated in the middle of the plaza. We were on our way to see the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall at the other end of the plaza. As soon as I saw it, images of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., filled my mind. The similarities between the two memorials are striking: a hike up several levels of white stairs led into a large, high-ceilinged rom with one main focus: a gargantuan statue of a national leader. Once you first see the statue, it would be almost impossible not to think about the Lincoln Memorial. While the materials are different, the exuding feeling is similar. The statue of Chiang Kaishek dominates the massive room.

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Following some perusing in the museum area of the memorial, we returned to the statue area to watch the changing of the guard ceremony. That, too, was exciting and very interesting to watch.

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Once the ceremony was over, we returned to the MRT to go to a different part of the city with another food in mind: mango-flavored ice cream. Following a short ride on the MRT, we arrived at the ice cream parlor and sat down to have more conversation and discuss my thoughts on Taipei before Karina had to go to work for the rest of the afternoon. Although we had planned to speak about Taipei, I noticed something interesting about the people who sat down next to us: they were speaking Japanese!

Quickly I was in the midst of a conversation with these three Japanese tourists about life in Japan. This was a very interesting conversation and my friends did their best to communicate with them even though they did not understand our Japanese conversation. Little encounters and conversations like this make learning and speaking another language very enjoyable for me. No matter where I go, I usually run into Japanese tourists at famous landmarks in Asia. The Japanese tourists were on their way and we lingered for a while longer to reminisce. It was a great morning with Karina.

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The three of us took a bus to Taipei 101and split ways, with Karina going to work and David and I continuing on to hike up Elephant Mountain, the most famous viewing point for Taipei 101. We saw the night view yesterday, so naturally we were headed up in the afternoon for a daytime view of the world’s second-tallest building. On the way to the mountain, I noticed Taipei copied another famous Philadelphia landmark, the LOVE statue.

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The humidity continued to increase and by the time we made it to the base of Elephant Mountain, my shirt was completely soiled with sweat and so was David’s. The sweat was dripping off the faces of everyone descending Elephant Mountain following the climb, so it was obvious that we would suffer the same fate following the twenty minute hike to the outlook point at the top. Scenery at the start reminded me of Macau, which was also unexpected.

As the hike up the narrow stairs began, I could not wait to see the spectacular views of Taipei 101!

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David and I passed some children and elderly visitors making the hike and finally made it to the first landing, and, oh, was it a sight to behold! Taipei 101 cut through the sky and was spectacular. I posed for a photo with the world’s second-tallest building even though I was soaked with sweat.

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Ten minutes later, David and I made it to the top and climbed up some large boulders to take in the skyline and snap some photos. the cameramen already atop these boulders made for an interesting foreground.

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As the sun began to set, David and I moved in unison with it, descending Elephant Mountain’s steep stairs.

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Then, in the middle of our descent, I encountered one of the most beautiful views of a skyline I have ever seen: the setting sun illuminated the humidity and smog which engulfed Taipei on that Sunday afternoon. The resulting view was fantastic. I will never forget this scene as long as I live. Taipei101

David and I stopped at the base of Taipei 101 for some photos and then were off to see more of the city before it was too late in the night. This evening’s purple lights were fantastic.

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First up on the night’s agenda was another night view of Taipei from a different location. Following a long motorcycle ride, we found out that location was closed due to road construction, so we quickly changed plans and decided to go to Taipei’s second most famous night market and included a stop at one of the city’s most famous temples, too.

Much like the previous night, David and I indulged on many foods and drinks as we walked through the narrow stalls and dogged the rain drops that intermittently spritzed throughout the night. Milkshakes, hot meat sandwiches, finger food, and pork ribs were all on the menu tonight. I am always impressed with the intricate nature of the woodwork that always adorns the temples in Asia.

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Temple

After a few hours enjoying the food (and wi-fi) in the market, my time with David in Taipei was essentially over. It was amazing to get a tour of one of Asia’s most bustling cities from a local perspective while also rekindling a lost friendship. Seeing Taipei from atop a motorcycle, in its back alleys, and from its most famous lookout points helped me appreciate one of Asia’s most underrated destinations. While I fully admit my feelings for Taipei over the first two days are largely dependent on the willingness and eagerness of my friends to be fantastic hosts, I recommend Taipei to anyone whom is seeking adventure and i unique mix of Eastern and Western history.

Aside from a random traffic stop at 2:30 AM following a very late dinner, this trip was stress-free and amazing. To this point, Taipei is certainly my favorite destination in Asia, alongside Macau and Seoul. Only one more day remained in my Taiwanese adventure and the next post here will certainly provide insight into my third and final day in Taiwan.

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A Solemn Walk

A Solemn Walk

Yesterday I had the pleasure of capturing this image in Nara, Japan, on Coming of Age Day where women who turn twenty years old wear their kimono, put on their best makeup, and go to the local shrines and temples. While there were many kimonos to be photographed, this was my favorite photograph I took of people during the day.

This is a scene which would be hard to replicate outside of Japan.

Meandering Through Malaysia

Almost as soon as I started my journey from Singapore to Malaysia, I knew my two day stay in Kuala Lumpur would be full of interesting surprises and unexpected turns along the way. 

It all started when I made my way to Woodlands train station, located in northern Singapore, to board my overnight train to Kuala Lumpur. For starters, this train station could have been one of the most poorly designed and signed stations into which I have ever gone. There are several different  busses and trains that depart from Singapore for Malaysia and the busses and trains have their own immigration checkpoints and checkin procedures. If only it was labeled as such. I arrived at the station two hours before my scheduled departure to ensure everything went off without a hitch, and, boy, am I glad I did. 

I walked through a long, cold, Soviet-looking corridor through the terminal and up to a set of immigration gates. What had been a cursory process in Singapore, Thailand, and all other destinations up to this point on my trip suddenly hit a snag when the immigration officer told me that i was at the bus terminal instead of the train terminal. Other immigration officers came and escorted me into a quarantine area as they ran all my documents before personally escorting me back to the immigration check at the train station. Following a lengthy wait, I was stamped out of Singapore and awaited my entry stamps for Malaysia at jointly operated checkpoint. 

I had heard stories about folks who had gone to Israel that had faced hassles entering Malaysia and were even denied entry, so I was a bit antsy given I had been to Israel in January. Certainly the border agents would not know as I had no entry or exit stamp, but that crossed my mind. I faced a lengthy series of questions as they scrupulously flipped through my passport before stamping my passport.

I lain in my bed for the overnight train when I heard two fellows speaking English in the cots near me so I struck up conversation and who knew? They were also Americans working in Japan. We had a great chat and plan to rendezvous at some point in the future. 

Eight hours later, my train rolled into Kuala Lumpur’s Sentral Station and when I disembarked I knew I was in a completely different world. Many different sights surrounded me in the train station: women bustling in every which way wearing burkas, Muslim prayer rooms, and signs written in Malay. Given this was my first time in the Muslim world, I should have expected that, but it still took me a bit off guard. 

Following a quick coffee, I was on my way to my hostel in Central KL when I ran into something oddly familiar- a Girl’s Generation (Korean pop music group) ad in the station. 

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As someone interested in the British Empire and European influence in Asia, I was very excited to see Malaysia and Kuala Lumpur. I had heard stories from my Malaysian friends and friends who had visited that Kuala Lumpur is a bustling metropolis where dilapidated colonial-era buildings stand side-by-side with the well preserved buildings and new buildings towering over them. I was in for a treat as soon as I stepped out of the station near my hostel. In front of me were various types of colonial buildings and newer hotels/apartments, but this motorcycle stuck out to me, especially as the Petronas Towers loomed large in the background. Image

From here, I went to my hostel, checked in, charged up my camera and phone, and took a short nap on account of the fact that it was extremely difficult to sleep on that overnight train. The second day of my trip was already fully booked with a tour of the Batu Caves and some other areas in KL, so I set out on foot to explore a swath of the area near my hostel: Chinatown, Little India, Merdeka Square, etc. were all within walking distance.

First up for me was the Sultan Abdul Samad Building. As the power center of British Malay, this elaborately constructed building certainly has stood the test of time. Unlike in other colonies, the British incorporated local and Muslim architectural elements into what would be the center of their operations in Malaysia for many decades. The domes, clock tower, and facade make for an interesting appearance which both stands out and fits in with the surrounding area. One of the most interesting pieces of art nearby is the Queen Victoria fountain, brought from England in 1898 to commemorate Victoria’s rule and British influence in Malaysia. Below is a photo of both of them in Merdeka Square. 

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Aside from this building, several other interesting buildings surround the square. An Anglican Church and former private British club flank the other sides of the square, which used to be a cricket ground. Certainly a must-see place if you are in Kuala Lumpur. 

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The other element of the square which I found fascinating was the enormous flagpole. I have always been fascinated with flags, and this is certainly the largest flagpole I have ever seen in my life. Eerily similar to the United States flag (and the British East India Company flag), I took a double take when I arrived in Merdeka Square. The dominating presence of the flag speaks for itself  as a symbol of Malaysian pride. 

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From here, it was off to see some colonial architecture and visit Chinatown before a trip to the Petronas Towers in the evening. 

On my way to Chinatown, I encountered some of the dilapidated and gorgeous colonial-era buildings about which my friends told me! It was truly a sight to behold. The chipping pastel paint brushing up against street signs and traffic lights is a scene that will not leave my mind when I think of Malaysia and walking the streets of Kuala Lumpur. 

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Then I stumbled upon the Malaysian Heritage Trail and saw some more beautiful colonial-era buildings which had been converted into shops, restaurants, and other places of business. It was another beautiful scene which shows off the history and richness of Kuala Lumpur. 

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Chinatown was a whole different animal. With bustling markets and the smell of street food percolating through the air, I don’t know how anyone could not enjoy a stroll down its narrow streets. That is, of course, so long as cars were not trying to make it down the alleys as well. Image

I encountered never before seen foods and shared some delicious chicken at a street side market with a fellow traveler before eventually returning to my hostel to change and head out into the Malaysian night.

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If you ever go to this part of Kuala Lumpur, I am sure you will notice what I did at this point of my journey: the streets are higher than the sidewalks at certain points in the city! I could not figure out what was so peculiar about the streets until I tripped up the stairs when leaving a shop. Years of new pavement, sewage systems, and electrical utilities are certainly the cause of this. Here’s a look. 

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I could not wait to see the Petronas Towers in person and the two skyscrapers did not disappoint. I arrived at twilight and was fortunate enough to see the lights turn on from below. The glistening eight-sided spires connected by the skywalk was certainly a sight to behold for all. Add into the mix the luxury malls beneath both towers and I could see why people would come to these towers for a day out on the town. 

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As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the interesting people I met in Singapore was in Kuala Lumpur not his evening as well. My new Korean friend and I rendezvoused at the fabulous SkyBar inside Traders Hotel to have a drink and take in the breathtaking view of the Petronas Towers from 33 Floors above Kuala Lumpur. I usually am not keen on spending big bucks for a drink, but if you love cityscapes, skylines, or just breathtaking views, you MUST go to SkyBar. Add into the mix that there is a pool inside the bar and I don’t know how you cannot go. I was very happy to meet up with my friend and discuss Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and other travel destinations in such an unlikely place. 

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As the rain began to fall for the first time on my trip, we decided to head to the streets to feast on the cheap street food that is omnipresent in the city. Once we arrived at Jalan Petaling Market, we were very pleased. Delicious street food was everywhere for the taking. I enjoyed an entire deep fried frog and some other delicacies on a stick and she had various other types of local fare. The gentlemen running all of the stands were very nice and helpful when it came to suggesting what to eat. This was my first time going to a real street market in Southeast Asia outside of the tourist-ridden markets in Bangkok and I am thrilled I went.  The food was delicious and the company was nice, as well. 

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As the rain picked up and the night wore on, my friend and I split our separate ways and I took a cab back to my hostel where I thought the night was over, but not before I made some more friends on the road. 

My hostel boasted a rooftop bar so I headed up there to see if any interesting people were still awake. I met a fascinating traveler from London and we had a few drinks discussing our travels, our college experiences, and our current travels before going our separate ways. 

Early to arrive and late to bed, my first day in Malaysia was phenomenal. From the historical buildings to the Petronas Towers and the markets in between, I was thrilled to be in KL and could not wait for what the next day had to offer. It was a marathon day of meandering through Kuala Lumpur’s narrow streets.

 

 

 

Why Macau is as Good as Hong Kong

For anyone who has never been to the two Special Administrative Regions in China, what I am about to say could sounds shocking to some. The same could also be said by those of you that have been to Hong Kong and Macau. I am going to say it anyway, though. I liked visiting Macau as much as I liked visiting Hong Kong last week. Both cities are great, but for very different reasons. The fusion of European and Chinese history and architecture, the different parts of the island and accompanying lifestyles, and the amazing photographic opportunities on the streets highlight some of the reasons why I loved my time in Macau. 

The whole day started off bright and early as my friend and I left our hotel in Hong Kong at 5:15 AM to start the walk from the Admiralty Station area to make it to Hong Kong – Macau Ferry Terminal in time for a customs check before our 7:00AM departure. The sun still had not risen and this offered a unique look over to Kowloon across Victoria Harbor. Image

After the most cursory of all security checks (literally presenting a passport and walking through a line without metal detector check or bag inspection), we were aboard the TurboJET ferry with an 8:15 arrival time in the former Portuguese colony. As the boat swayed at the dock in Hong Kong, I worried about sea sickness, but that fear did not come to fruition. Nearly as soon as we exited Victoria Harbor and began passing through the many smaller Hong Kong islands, the easy and smooth ocean lulled me to sleep. 

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After dealing with some pushy mainland Chinese at the immigration stop in Macau, we were through but there was one big problem: no currency exchange desks or information desks were open. It sure was weird to see Portuguese on a sign in Asia. I had read in several places that you could literally travel through all of Macau for free on casino busses, but we wanted to have a map to make sure we knew where we were going. After getting our map, we found out the worst-kept secret in Macau was true: you can travel virtually anywhere on the island, for free, on a casino shuttle bus. We boarded the shuttle bus to the Wynn to position ourselves for a morning and afternoon traversing the famous Portuguese parts of town. 

After a brief taste of the opulence and wealth that pervades Macau inside the shopping areas at the Wynn and on the casino floor, we began our walk around Nam Van Lake (past the Grand Lisboa) towards the government house to start our journey. Almost as soon as we arrived, I was enthralled with how well the Chinese had preserved the Portuguese and European architecture in Macau. Unlike Hong Kong, many of the older buildings from colonial rule were still in tact and vibrant. The colors on the administrative government building are something you will have to see to believe. I felt like I was somewhere in the middle of a Caribbean colony. It was odd to see a Chinese flag atop this building, but the colors were so vibrant.  Image

 

After a few more photos of the surrounding gardens and lotus pond, my friend and continued onward to the famous St.Lawrence Church where I witnessed something you could only find in Macau.

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Amidst the bustle of mopeds and motorcycles on every corner, a Catholic nun walked down the street with several other people. Here is a photo of that unforgettable moment.Image

You could never capture a moment like this in Hong Kong. The fusion of East and West was so evident outside of St. Lawrence Church. I loved watching the bicycles and motorcycles make the hard left turn in front of the church to continue down some more narrow streets where other bikes and pedestrians waited. Here is a shot of the area surrounding St. Lawrence Church. Image 

The sounds of a lively colonial city still emenated as we walked up the tiled slopes of this part of Macau with our sights set on finding Senado Square and then taking the famous walk through Macau to the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Fortunately for us, we were sidetracked and encountered even more mosaic-covered plazas and beautiful churches along our meandering route. 

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There were more bikes along the way, too. Image

 

As we walked through more cobblestoned streets where Asian-style architecture was right next to European architecture, I fell more in love with Macau as I took each passing step. Originally my friend and I had planned this trip to Macau as a nice excursion to gamble a bit and check out the view from Macau Tower, but we quickly realized that we needed to spend an entire day making our way through the “other part” of the city, away from all of the glitz on the south side of the island. It was a great choice and one I will never regret. Over time, the number of tourists and other people picked up and we knew we were nearing the famed Senado Square in the heart of Macau’s Portuguese-influenced area. Just like that, the iconic mosaic-tiled square was upon us. As if it was a scene from a movie, we entered Senado Square as a band on the street played the song from the Star Wars cantina bar and here is what we saw. Everything from the teeming energy on the square to the architecture made me think I had been transported to Europe. It was impossible to believe that we were seated in China. I wished I had a time machine to go back to the mid-19th Century or the early 20th Century to see this location in its colonial heyday. Image 

Down on the square, my friend and I even ran into one of our friends who lives in Japan by mere coincidence. The world is such a small place. 

From Senado Square, my friend and I navigated through the quintessential Asian street market to make it up to St. Paul’s ruins. As bartering for a fresh Portuguese egg tart happened on the left, more negotiating over the price of famous pork happened on my right. A couple tried to push their newborn up the hill in a stiller, and I saw a Dairy Queen store and Nike outlet near the end of the passageway. This controlled chaos is one more reason why I loved this walk through old Macau. European streets were dominated by some of the best street food in all of Asia.

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As soon as this chaos broke, the reason why we began this journey appeared on the horizon: the ruins of the beautiful St. Paul’s Cathedral, destroyed by fire centuries ago. The scene was beautiful. An immaculately constructed Catholic facade sits atop several flights of stairs in the middle of the bustling Asian market. Behind it all, you can see the high rise buildings of new Macau. I only wished that I could have seen this church before its destruction. At that moment, the sun broke through the crowds and offered up an even better view of the ruins. At that moment, I was convinced that Macau would continue to be one of my favorite travel destinations– and a place I would want to see again in the future. As much as I loved Hong Kong, I did not encounter these types of cultural treasures during my two days walking the streets of China’s other Special Administrative Region.

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My friend and I did not stop there. We visited the fort adjacent to St. Paul’s to see another Portuguese legacy in this part of the city. The key component that helped the Portuguese stave off a Dutch invasion  in 1622, Fortaleza do Monte offered more stunning views of the Macanese skyline and helped emphasize the unique fusion of East and West, new and old, that Macau has to offer to even the historical novice or casual day traveler. 

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In between a stop at the Grand Lisboa and taking in a show at another casino, my friend and I also ventured to Taipa to see some more colonial sites and take the chance to sample some Macanese and Portuguese food on the streets. As well preserved as the Senado Square district was, I thought Taipa was even more well preserved. Whole blocks were painted to period colors. Colonial artwork and buildings dominated the landscape. There were even numerous Portuguese restaurants lining the streets. This type of neighborhood is another site you would not be able to find in Hong Kong because of the development and expansion the city saw since the change in economic policy in the 1970s. We even stumbled upon a Lusophonic festival in this part of the city.

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Of course a day in Macau is not complete without a trip to the Grand Lisboa to gamble and a trip to Taipa Island to see a show, but I wanted to focus this post on all of the unique historical sites that Macau has to offer, making it one of the most interesting and memorable places I have ever visited. Growing up close to Gettysburg, Washington, DC, Antietam, and Harper’s Ferry, I have always had a deep appreciation for history and historical preservation. When I came to Macao, I expected much of Portuguese colonial legacy to be eliminated for a host of reasons, but I was pleasantly surprised to see much of it in tact, preserved for future generations to appreciate. Something about the cobblestone, the mosaics, the buildings, and prevalent appearance of Portuguese give the world’s most densely populated city a different vibe. This fusion of cultures, languages, foods, and architecture makes Macau a photogenic city with so many unique experiences around each corner. I loved Macau for very different reasons than why I loved Hong Kong, but it is a very worthwhile destination in the region. I went to Macau skeptical about how good of a place the island would be, but I left knowing it was an amazing experience that I will never forget.   I will put a post in the future about how nice the casinos and Macau Tower were, but this post is dedicated to why Macau is as good as Hong Kong and why any traveler to Hong Kong has to take at least a day trip to Macau if they have the time. It is an unforgettable destination.