Chinese mosque

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As we prepare to leave Ipoh for good and return home to New Zealand we’ve been trying to see things here that we’ve not yet got around to. One of these was a visit to the Chinese mosque or Masjid Muhammadiah. This beautiful building is unique in Malaysia – a mosque of 100 per cent Chinese design. The roof, which was imported from Longyan, is the most striking feature and is complemented by the pink and red of the walls and pillars. The mosque is surrounded by lovely gardens and plenty of shade. We’ve become accustomed to taking various scarves and sarongs around with us so we could cover up and enter the mosque precinct. There was a group of women and girls having a social function in the women’s part of the mosque and a group of men scrubbing the tiled ablution area to the side. They are clearly used to tourists and as long as you are suitably dressed, this is not a problem. It is definitely worth a visit.

Rude awakening

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For the last two mornings I have woken up with a start at 5 a.m. It takes me a minute to orient myself and realise I am back in Ipoh and what has woken me is the amplified sound of one of the local mosques. And then I remember with a pang that I am no longer in Auckland. Why 5 a.m. today when the official time for the first call to prayer is 5.47 a.m? I have asked some of my neighbours why this particular muezzin begins at 5 a.m, which is at least 45 minutes before the required time, but have received no coherent answer. By the time the other two mosques within hearing range start their calls, I am wide awake and thinking about my first cup of coffee.  I guess I’ll become accustomed to it and sleep through as I did before my recent trip home.

Chiang Mai

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I’m not sure how many temples there are in Chiang Mai but it seems like there’s one on every street corner! And each one seems more splendid than the last. The temple in this photo is Wat Phra Singh, which we visited first because it was closest to our hotel. Our guidebook says it houses the most revered Buddha image in Chiang Mai and that it is an excellent example of Lanna architecture. It is certainly very impressive with its bright gold stupa and immaculate, peaceful gardens. We visited many temples on our walk around the old city and it was awe inspiring. The displays in the Lanna Folklife Museum expertly explain the religious beliefs and customs of the northern Thai people. After our visit there, we were better informed about what we were looking at in the temples. The people watching was good too: robed monks mingled with locals bringing their offerings and saying their prayers as well as tourists from all over the world. It is all very relaxed and inclusive.

Churches in Old Goa

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Sé Cathedral is the largest church in Asia and is only one of numerous churches in Old Goa. It is a magnificent structure and must have been truly spectacular when the interior was still richly decorated and not white-washed as it is now. The remaining bell tower (the other one having been struck by lightning) houses the huge bell, which once tolled during the unspeakable autos-da-fe held during the Inquisition in this outpost of the Portuguese empire. Those are distant memories for the hundreds of Indian Catholics who were attending mass at the nearby (and wonderfully named) Basilica of Bom Jesus the day we visited. This was in preparation for the feast of St Francis Xavier, whose “incorrupt” body is kept in this church. We had a fascinating morning visiting some of the churches and museums as well as the Viceroy’s Arch with its commemoration of Vasco da Gama.

Shrines

Although most Vietnamese people are not very religious (surveys indicate that only 20% identify with a particular faith), we were struck by the shrines we saw everywhere.  Most of them are well-maintained and many have burning candles and incense sticks, which are lit and tended to. We were wary about taking photos in case this was offensive but were assured that it was not. The little reading I’ve done on the subject reveals that many Vietnamese subscribe to Tam Giao, which is a fusion of Chinese (Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist) beliefs and ancient Vietnamese animism. The state, of course, is Communist and we were granted our visitor’s visas by the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam.

Hari Raya

Hari Raya

Muslims in Malaysia celebrated Hari Raya last weekend and we all enjoyed a four-day break. Hari Raya is the end of Ramadan and many Muslim families mark the holiday with ‘balik kampung’ (going back to the village) so the roads are very busy. The symbol of Hari Raya on many posters and greeting cards is the ‘ketupat’, baskets woven from coconut palm leaves which are stuffed with rice and then boiled. Not surprisingly food is central to Hari Raya and family gatherings. We were invited to an evening meal on the third night by our Muslim neighbours. The table was beautifully laid with all sorts of traditional dishes, many of them deliciously spicy. There was another table filled with sweet dishes. We tried to to do justice to it but when we got up the dishes were scarcely dented. Our neighbours had all their children and grandchildren staying over and the house was filled with the excited chatter and laughter of the children, dressed in their shiny new clothes. They were enchanting.

Sightseeing in Kuala Lumpur

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Instead of going down to Kuala Lumpur and back in a day when Jim has meetings down there, we went down last Sunday, did some exploring and spent the night, ahead of Jim going into the Shah Alam office on Monday morning. KL is a huge, bustling, bewildering city so we decided we’d find a shopping centre, park and then use public transport to get around. We drove into the frenetic Bukit Bintang area and parked in the first underground parking building we came across. On leaving the lift, we found ourselves in a hellish shopping centre, full of tiny shops and kiosks and hundreds of people, with no indication of where the exits were. All the overhead signs said “Shops” or “More shops”! We knew we were on the ground floor but, when we asked someone how to get out to the road, he said we had to go down two more levels. So “ground floor” didn’t mean we were at ground level! I have never been more thankful to leave a building. Things improved rapidly after this. We found a wonderful bakery, which also smelled of the coffee they served, and then got onto the monorail. This is an efficient, cheap way of getting around the centre of KL. From the monorail station, the sight of this beautiful mosque (see pic above) greeted us. It is the India Mosque and was built in late nineteenth century. Since only worshippers are allowed in, it was as well that we also came across St Mary’s Cathedral (see pic below), where evensong had just begun on this Easter Sunday.
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Perak Tong

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Perak Tong is a temple created in some limestone caves just north of Ipoh. It was the life’s work of Chong Sen Yee and his wife, Choong Chan Yoke, and is maintained by their descendants. Chong Sen Yee came to Ipoh from Guangdong province in China to work in the tin industry here. When he saw the possibilities of the limestone topography, he applied for a development permit from the Perak government and spent the next 50 years developing the caves into a temple. The temple spaces are sculpted out of the rock and the walls are decorated with paintings, murals and calligraphy. There are numerous Buddhist and Taoist statues, including a 13-metre high gold Buddha (see pic below). It is a breath-taking place to visit. Then there are the 450 steps that lead you through the temple and up to the top of the limestone cliff (see pic above). There are views over Ipoh from the top and numerous stone benches in shady spots for taking a rest.

Perak tong

Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Mosque

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This is the largest mosque in Malaysia and the second largest mosque in the world. It is named after the late Sultan who commissioned the mosque when he declared Shah Alam, where the mosque is situated, as the capital of Selangor. It was built between 1982 and 1988. I visited this impressive building yesterday and was given an enveloping cape and head scarf to wear. A charming volunteer took me around and explained the history of the mosque and the significance of some of its features. All the marble used for the expansive floors was locally sourced – they gleam and are very warm under your bare feet. There are high windows of coloured glass that catch the light and intricately carved wooden panels. But the most impressive sight is the huge dome, which is more than 50 metres in diameter. There were very few men praying in the mosque while we were there but it has a capacity of 24000 and is much busier on Friday afternoons. We were staying in Shah Alam because one of Jim’s offices is nearby. My guide was surprised to learn that we lived in Ipoh and even more surprised that we had stayed in the nearby Grand Blue Wave Hotel (is that not a marvellous name!). Clearly these are things that Westerners don’t often do but I am glad we did.