A travel and photography blog by Loke Chee Meng
About the title shot :
In the autumn of 2009, I found Little Bugsie, of all places, on a toilet sink in the Days Landscape Hotel located at the foot of Changbaishan, Jilin, China. I invited Bugsie into the room. I gave it the 'red carpet' welcome and took the shot above with a Panasonic DMC-LX3.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Vista of West Lake from Wushan

Somehow, my piece on 'Circumambulating the West Lake' has been in the works for a while.    I thought I might just put up something short and simple on the West Lake in the meanwhile.

Hangzhou's West Lake is surrounded by mountains that stretch from the northwest to the southeast.  The stretch from the north to the east is flatland wherein lies Hangzhou city itself.  Two structures on the mountains are visible from the bank of the Lake.  In the north and closer to the Lake is the Baoshu Pagoda.  On the south eastern side and a little further from the lake is the Chenghuang Pavilion on Wushan (Wu Mountain).  Incidentally, there are many Wu mountains in China.

During my last visit to the West Lake, I decided to go up the Chenghuang Pavilion on Wushan to take a look at the West Lake from a different angle.  I was rewarded with a 360 degrees panorama of not only the entire West Lake but also the entire Hangzhou.  I believe not many visitors have seen the West Lake from this vantage point.

You have to pay an entrance fee to enter Chenghuang Pavilion which houses a tea house and a restaurant.  There were scarcely any visitors at the time of my visit.

The following are vistas from the top of Chenghuang Pavilion.

View of Broken Bridge and Bai Causeway
View of the Small Yingzhou Islet in the middle of West Lake

View of Leifeng Pagoda

Roof of Chenghuang Pavilion in the foreground and tiny Leifeng Pagoda in the background
As you can see from the photos, the sky was heavily overcast and it fact it was still drizzling when I took those shots.  It was the best I could do in such a weather condition.  I hope to return in future to shoot the glorious sunset from this vantage point.  Also, I must come with an ultra-wide angle lens and perhaps try to stitch together a panoramic shot otherwise I will not be doing justice to the view.

In my post The Blue Sky of Beijing, I have a shot of the glorious sunset over Beihai Park taken from a vantage point on the Jingshan Hill behind the Forbidden City.  I look forward to doing a similar one on the West Lake.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Travel tip #8 - How not to lose your luggage?

My colleagues and I had checked into the Seoul Plaza Hotel, Seoul at about 9 pm after a long flight from Singapore.  Only then did one of them who goes by the moniker of 'Eagle Eye' realised that he had carried the wrong luggage all the way from the airport to the hotel.   Apparently, he had exchanged luggage with someone else as his luggage could not be found in the airport.  Two wrongs don't make one right!  We were scheduled to have a business meeting the next morning and the attire was business suit.  So Eagle Eye had to go out to do some late night shopping.  He ended up buying an ill-fitting beige coloured suit which was probably the best he could find at that time of the night.   That made Eagle Eye looked like a lizard in the meeting the next day in a room where everyone else was wearing dark coloured business suit.

I was told of this case that happened recently.  Mr X was flying into Singapore and his luggage was overweight.  At the departure check-in, he did what most people would do.  He pooled his luggage together with a fellow passenger except that this fellow passenger was a total stranger.   To make things worst, his luggage check-in counterfoil was with the fellow passenger.  On arrival at Singapore, this fellow passenger had problems with his visa and was eventually turned back.  Poor Mr X was practically left with only the shirt on his back! 

So, how not to lose your luggage?

The obvious thing to do is to made your luggage look unique and distinctive.  Most people do this by tying a red ribbon round the handle of the luggage as red is an auspicious colour in many cultures.  No one wants a white or black ribbon!   I do not want to discourage anyone from doing that but if you think that that is good enough, you are dead wrong.   Great men think alike and fools don't differ.

A more distinctive way is to tie a luggage belt round your luggage.  I find it strange why so many people are not doing it.  Luggage belts come in all kinds of colours and patterns. It is certainly more distinctive than a ribbon.  Besides identification purpose, a luggage belt makes it easier to haul your luggage and helps to bind your luggage together in case it opens up during handling.  

These days, shrink-wrap services are available at some airports for travellers to shrink-wrap their luggage in cellophane sheet.  Great idea, great service.  Not really!  Firstly, it is very difficult to handle a shrink-wrapped item (especially after it gets wet).  Secondly, good luck to you if airport security requires you to open up your luggage.

At some point in time in the past I used to paste stickers on my luggage.  But let me caution you if you want to do that.  Please ensure that your stickers are completely and absolutely innocuous.  Nothing should be culturally, religiously, socially and politically biased!  Not even your favourite football club.  The best sticker to put is the 'Fragile' sticker you get from the airport check-in counter.

Now, one more very important thing to do and yet people are not doing it;  take photographs of your luggage at the airport check-in counter.  The advantages are obvious.

And finally, NEVER pool your luggage with strangers and DON'T help to carry the luggage for any strangers.  Ignore the damsel in distress.  

Friday, 24 April 2015

Travel tip #7 - Watch what you say and do!

When you travel overseas, whether on departure or arrival, there is a very powerful person you have to come face to face with.  He is not highly educated, not highly paid, not high up in the organisational structure, does a very simple job, yet very powerful.  He is the immigration/customs officer.  Please respect him,  observe the rules and don't say or do anything usual.

You might have heard of the case of a family which was travelling overseas for holiday.  At the security gate, they like all the others were having their luggage scanned.  The child asked the father,  'Why are they scanning our luggage?'  The father replied, 'They want to see if we have any bombs inside.'  On hearing the word 'BOMB', the security team activated the emergency procedure, locked down the area and detained the family for interrogation and a detailed search.  The family's holiday was ruined.

Very often we do not say the right things and/or use the right words.  This is a case of a person not using the right words at the immigration.   This person was sent on a business trip by his company to its subsidiary in Denmark.  The immigration officer asked him what was the purpose of his visit.  He dutifully replied, 'To do some work.'  On hearing the word 'WORK', our innocent visitor was invited to a special session with the immigration officer and I believed he was eventually turned back!

Yet there was this case of a colleague who was visiting our company in Shanghai.  She wrote on her health declaration form that she was 'coughing'.  At the immigration, she confirmed with the officer that she was coughing.  She was duly led away by immigration officers and people in white coat.  I found out later that she was given a free medical examination.  Satisfied that she was no health hazard to the country, they eventually let her in. But she got a fright of her life and precious time was wasted.  She did in fact had a slight cough, a throat irritation that a cough drop would have done her good, not SARS or HxNy!  (I say 'x' and 'y' because I have lost track of how far the numerals have run.) But we Singaporeans are very honest people.  When you have a cough, you declare that you have a cough.  You cannot say otherwise.

There was one trip when I arrived at the airport in a East Asian country and was proceeding towards the baggage claim area.  Then I noticed an immigration/customs officer approaching a lady who was brandishing a copy of the Lianhe Zaobao in her hand.   The lady was duly whisked into a room for a chat with the officer.  Well you might not be aware that in many countries, you are not allowed to bring in foreign publications!  This lady has certainly violated a customs regulation.  So, please don't bring with you those complimentary newspaper you read on the plane when you alight.

Oh, yes, before I forget, please remember that while you are queuing up for immigration clearance, DO NOT use your mobile phone or take any photographs.  It is STRICTLY PROHIBITED.  Don't incur the wrath of the very powerful person/persons.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Travel tip #6 - What's for lunch?

Many Singaporeans when travelling overseas will invariably asked for chilly during meal time. Some want chilly sauce, some want cut red chilly, some want cut green chilly, some even ask for samba chilly.  And of all places, in western countries.  I think the restaurants and so on must be finding us very difficult to serve.  Anyway, I am not talking about this today.

When I travel overseas for holidays, I usually skip having lunch.  What I usually do is to take a couple of musli bars and down it with mineral water especially when I am on the road for the day.  If I do take lunch, it will be a light one or something I feel relatively safe, such as KFC or MacDonald.  Yes, I know even MacDonald or KFC may not be safe in some places.  It just goes to say that if KFC and MacDonald are not safe then what about the others?

Think of it, if you take a full lunch even in a restaurant, what if you have stomach upset after that and you are a 4-hour bus journey or somewhere up the mountains?

Monday, 20 April 2015

Travel tip #5 - Making sense of travel tips

I came across a couple of articles in the newspaper last week teaching people what to bring on their travel. I cannot help but cringe at some of the recommendations.  Let me point out what I think is not right or useful.

1) First, it recommended 'take enough of clothing to wear for a week'.   Now, what is enough for a week? To some people, that is half a wardrobe.  Then it recommended that the traveller should bring a few T-shirts and jeans.  Jeans?  Do you know how long it takes a pair of wet jeans to dry?  How heavy are they when they are wet? Jeans are out these days, please.  And cotton T-shirts do not dry easily.  These days we have quick-drying fabric!

3) It recommended bringing diarrhoea medicine, medicine for allergies and medicine for motion sickness.  Diarrhoea medicine is correct.  I bring that too.  But what type?  I bring 'charcaol'.  Medicine for allergies?  Hey, there are a thousand and one kind of allergies.  Medicine for motion sickness?  You either have motion sickness or you don't.  If you are not susceptible to motion sickness, then why bring?  Now, one very common medicine that is so useful and yet the article made no mention of it; PANADOL!

4) It recommended bringing a book to read, a thick one to last you through your whole trip.  Now, I don't think that is a wise thing to do.  If you are killing time at the airport or train station or bus stop, or cafe or restaurant, please do not read. It is a dangerous thing to do.  You need to be specially alert at these places .  You have to look and observe what is going on around you.  And what is your objective of visiting a place?  To look at things and people there, not to read a book.

5) It recommended bringing a mobile phone with you.  Oh, come on, who doesn't leave home without a mobile phone these days?  What is useful is to remind people is to bring the charger and universal adapter.  If you have a power vault, bring it along too but do not put it in your check-in luggage. It is NOT ALLOWED!

I really wonder how many times writers of such articles have travelled before they started giving advise.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Travel tip #4 - Get your mapping right!

We live in a small country.  We have our unique perspective with regards to spatial dimensions.  If you live in Ang Mo Kio and work in Shenton Way, you say your place of work is very far away from home.  If you work in SGX Centre (in Shenton Way) you would only go to Lau Pa Sat for lunch because any other place further than that is too far.  That is what we mean by far and near.

Now apply this perspective when travelling overseas, the likelihood is that you are going to get into trouble.

I had my first taste of perspective disorientation when I first visited China some 25 years ago.  I was staying at the Shangri-La Hotel Beijing located at the Haidian district in Beijing.  Over the weekend of my stay, I decided to visit the Beihai Park, 'near' the Forbidden City.  I looked up the tourist map and decided to take a slow leisurely walk there as the route looked pretty straightforward.  You go straight along Zhizhuyuan Road, then continue on Xizhimen Road and Pinganli Road; somewhat like walking from Orchard Hotel to Botanic Garden.  I was right in one aspect.  The journey did turn out to be a slow walk.  After two hours, I was still on the road. For sure I did not lose my way except that the road just never seemed to end!  I had to make a decision; to push on or turn back.  I decided to push on because turning back meant that I had to walk another two hours and yet not reach the Beihai Park.  Perseverance paid off.  Eventually I reached the Beihai Park after almost 3 hours of walking.  25 years after that 'epic journey', I measured that distance between Shangri-La Hotel and Beihai Park on a scaled map; it is some 10 km as the crow flies.

After reaching Beihai Park, I was too tired to explore the park. I have little recollection of the park then except that I saw someone fell into the lake and I had a bottle of 'Micky' Cola. It was so delightful though it tasted like cough mixture.  Today, we drink the real stuff; those days there were only imitations.  (I have subsequently revisited Beihai Park two more times over the years.)  Before you think that I must be darn stupid not to take a taxi, you must understand that during those days, Beijing was very different from what it is now.  There were no taxis plying the road.  As a matter of fact, there were very few cars on the road.  Visitors did not use Renminbi but Foreign Exchange Certificate (FEC), something that a lot of Chinese today don't know what it was.

The moral of the story is; be careful with tourist maps especially if they are not drawn to scale.  Find out the actual distance and don't made assumptions based purely on what we see.  Remember that our perspective is distinctively Singaporean.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Travel tip #3 - How safe is the safe?

Some years back, during one of my trips, I kept my passport in the safe in the hotel room; something that I occasionally did during those days.  On the last day,  I checked out of the hotel, boarded a taxi and headed straight for the airport, all in a swift.  Oh dear, after 10 minutes I realised that I didn't have my passport with me.  It then dawned upon me that my passport was still in the hotel room's safe.  I immediately turned back to the hotel to retrieve my passport.  Fortunately, I discovered it early enough. Had I discovered it nearer the airport, I would have certainly missed my flight.  The airport is some 45 minutes travelling time from the hotel.

From then onwards, I always make it a point to keep my passport in the pocket of my trousers.  Sorry, I don't know what to advise ladies except that putting it in your handbag is not advisable.  I also put my passport in a plastic bag first.  This is particularly important if you are on a hiking trip.  This proved to be the right thing to do during my Mt Fuji trek.  It was raining on Mt Fuji and I was completely drenched at the end of the day.

With regards to hotel room safe, try not to put anything in it if you can avoid doing so.  This brings to mind another encounter I had with hotel room safe.  I had checked into this hotel room and was trying to use the safe.  After fiddling with it for a while, I found that there is no way I could not lock it.  So I called housekeeping.  Shortly, the housekeeper came and she also could not lock it.  Then she said, "Don't worry, I will change the safe for you."  She then hauled up the safe and lugged it away with her two bare hands.  Amazing, isn't!  She did bring me another safe which she demonstrated to me could be locked safe and tight.  But I was very sure I did not need it anymore.  So, the next time you want to use the hotel room safe, make sure it is not one of those mobile ones.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Travel tip #2 - What is that round your waist?

I can never understanding why so many people like to put on a waist-pouch when they travel overseas.  Aren't they telling all the crooks, "Hi, I am a tourist.  All my valuables are in my waist-pouch here! Please help yourself to it.".  Some time ago, there was a case of a Singaporean tourist who was kidnapped overseas and when the kidnapper was finally arrested, he confessed that he identified his prey as a foreigner because of the waist-pouch he was putting on. The point here is that when we are overseas, we should try to melt into the crowd and not stand out amongst the locals.

Talking about melting into the local crowd, a friend once told me that he was walking on the road in Guangzhou, China, with his friend when they noticed they were being stalked.  As both of them are Cantonese speakers, they started talking to each other loudly in Cantonese and spicing up their conversation with typical Cantonese vulgarities. Their stalker left.  Vulgar language does have its usefulness!

Let's come back to the waist-pouch.  The waist-pouch tourist will tell you that he needs the waist-pouch because he needs to carry his wallet with all his cash and probably with a NTUC Passion card in it, his passport, his airticket, his hotel voucher, his sun glasses, his reading glasses, his Tiger Balm, his Axe brand medical oil, his sour plum (very useful in case he gets motion sickness), his tissue pack, a foldable umbrella, a bottle of mineral water and so many other things that he cannot leave home without.  Oh, yes, not to forget something very important; toilet paper!  Mr Waist-pouch heard that toilets overseas don't provide toilet paper.  He is right on the spot for this.

Coming to passport.  I realised that a lot of Singaporeans also bring their identity card along when they are overseas.  Whatever for?  A more useful thing to do is to make a couple of  photocopies of your  passport and keep it at separate locations.  Please leave your identity card at home!

Travel tip #1 - How high up are you?

There are always people giving travel tips and travel tips and travel tips.   Most of these I find are pretty common, obvious and mundane, for example, remember to check your passport, don't forget to bring sunblock, make sure you have your medicine with you and so on.  I am not saying that these are not important. I would prefer to call these 'reminders' rather than travel tips. A 'tip' is a piece of useful advice that should be based on the experience someone had gone through.

Now, here is one lesson I learnt recently and would like to share it here.

Very often when we stay in a hotel and when we find that it is too cold, we turn off the air-con. When I was in Lijiang recently, I was staying in a reasonably good hotel there.  As it was a reasonably good hotel, the air-con in the room was working reasonably well, that is to say, it was rather cold.
So, I turned off the air-con before I went to sleep.  Then in the middle of the night, I found myself gasping for air, an experience I never encountered before.  I thought I had fallen sick.  After an extremely uncomfortable night, I realised in the morning that I had turned-off the air-con.  It then dawned upon me that Lijiang is located at an altitude of 2000 m above sea-level! The oxygen level at 2000 m is thin.  By turning off the air-con in my room, I had cut-off the air-flow in an already oxygen-thin environment and aggravated the oxygen deprivation level.  That was why I was gasping for air.

So, the next time before you turn-off the air-con, think how high up you are first.  Oh, I mean the altitude of the location you are at, not which floor you are on in the hotel.

I will share more tips as I go along.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Seeing is believing. Or is it? A Copenhagen experience.

I used to have the following two photographs hung side by side on the wall in my office and I had often asked visitors who bothered to look at them what they thought of them.

Photo A

Photo B

These two photographs were taken using a Nikon Coolpix 4100 which has 4.0 effective megapixels. Yes, 4.0 megapixels!  This camera could probably qualify as an antique by now.   I used it recently and it still works.

These 2 photos were not displayed for their technical or artistic merits. So, I wasn't disappointed when nobody commented on those aspects.

Invariably, it did not take any observer much difficulty to say, 'Ah, it's the same place.'  'Yes', I said, 'But what else?'.  The observer would scrutinize the photos further, ponder a while and said, 'Yes, I know the difference; one was taken in summer and the other in winter!' And they were pretty sure about that.

The place in the photographs is Frederiksberg Have in Copenhagen, Denmark.  (So, don't say I only blog about travel in China.)

The observers were right to say that the two are of the same place.   However, they were WRONG to say that one was taken in summer and the other in winter.

Both photos were taken in springtime, April 2008.    More specifically, the second photo with snow on the ground was taken the morning after the first one.  So, it surprised a lot of people that green grass could be covered with snow overnight!  But that was exactly what happened.  I went to Frederiksberg Have, a nice serene park in the suburban area of Copenhagen one Sunday afternoon and took the first photo.  Then that night, heavy snow fell over Copenhagen.  Next morning, the snowing had stopped and I immediately took a train and rushed to Frederiksberg Have to roughly the same spot as the day before and took the second shot.  Frederiksberg Have was totally transformed into winterland.  When told that transition from photo A to photo B took place overnight, many people expressed surprise and some,  disbelief.

I like to use these two photos to illustrate the following learning points:

1) We should not use our conventional understanding based on familiar notions to look at things.  In the photos above, the conventional notion is that when there is green grass, it must be summer or spring.  When there is snow, it must be winter. Wrong!

2) For us living in the tropics, we cannot imagine such a transition could happen in so short a time.  But to the Danes, this type of transition is probably not uncommon.  Therefore, when dealing with matters across different culture, environment and context, we should look at things with respect to that context. Actually, in tropical Singapore, we do frequently experienced sudden transition from bright sunny sky to heavy downpour.  Changes can happen suddenly.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Moods and Expression

Photographing people is difficult.  The following are some of my attempts.

This shot would be good for a literacy promotion compaign.  Shot in Myanmar.
Fire-eating Miao woman.  Shot in Hunan, China
An Andy Lau-lookalike; a perfect shot for cigarette advertisement.  Shot in Xinjiang.

Ah Ma looking forward to another day.  Shot in Fujian.

Cigar chomping Ah Ma deep in thought.  Shot in Myanmar.

Wide-eyed innocence.  Shot in Sapa, Vietnam.

The blue sky of Beijing

Blue sky of Beijing! Can that be true?  Yes.

We have often heard horrid stories of pollution and hazy sky in Beijing, the capital city of China.  But that's not always the case.  See the beautiful sky over Beijing in the photos taken by me below.

Sunset over the Beihai Park, Beijing

North-west corner of the Forbidden City, Beijing

Tiananmen, Forbidden City, Beijing

North gate of the Forbidden City, Beijing