About Carol Rolnick
Carol Barbier Rolnick grew up in Japan and Southeast Asia, traveling extensively as a child through Asia, the Mideast and Europe on family vacations. Travel has continued as a priority through raising kids and continuing into retirement, extending adventures through the Americas, southern Africa, Asia, and repeat trips throughout Europe. Carol and her husband, Michael spent four summers based in Utrecht, The Netherlands, which has become like a second home. They are (still) aiming towards Australia-New Zealand and Antarctica to round off their continental travels.
Latest Posts by Carol Rolnick
Inle Lake in Myanmar is notable for its beauty and unique way of life. One of the most distinctive practices on the lake is their method of fishing. Men balance on one leg on the stern of their long, narrow boats, using one hand, aided by the other leg, wrapped around a long oar, to propel the craft, while holding a cone-shaped basket in the other hand, as in above. Once positioned where they have spotted fish, the man thrusts the woven basket into the shallow waters, capturing fish within the barrel of the basket. There are several variations, all performed with such effortless skill and symmetry that you can believe you are witnessing a unique ballet.
But as anyone who’s every attempted to stand on one leg can attest, this form of fishing requires immense strength, balance and control. And as pictures really can show far better than words can tell, I’ll simply share some of my pictures taken on the lake.
A synchronized ballet.
Heading out into the early morning mists.
A contemplative moment — or prayer.
Inle Lake lies in the center of Myanmar (formerly, Burma) in the hills and heart of the Shan State. While only the second largest fresh-water lake in Myanmar with a surface area of about 45 sq. miles, Inle is unique: many of its native flora and fauna are not found anywhere else in the world. However, as the recently “opened” Myanmar attracts increasing numbers of tourists, Inle’s fame rests these days more on its indigenous people and their crafts than on the rarity of certain fish species. During our recent visit to Inle Lake we were continually amazed at some of the indigenous crafts of the lake’s denizens, as well as the sheer beauty of the lake.
A visit to a local lotus fabric work shop absolutely stunned us. We’d never known you can make actual thread and cloth from the fibrous threads of a lotus plant. With Inle so shallow (7-12 ft. depending on the season) lotus plants abound. The long interior fibers of the stalk are stripped from the tougher husk, worked together into a thread, then spun onto a bobbin or reel. While men do the most of the reaping of the lotus plants out on the lake, the processing of the lotus fibers is done exclusively by women. The tradition and techniques of creating, spinning, dyeing and weaving the thread are usually handed done from one generation of women to the next.
Young girl strips fibers from the husk of the lotus stalk.
She cuts the usable portions of the fibers and blends them onto a spool of raw fibers.
Woman blending several spools of fibrous thread into a thicker, stronger thread for weaving.
The entire process is exceedingly labor-intensive with almost no mechanization. A small scarf can take over 4,000 lotus plants and a month to make, from stripping the fibers to the finished garment. The three robes of a monk (about 30 meters or 100-plus ft. of fabric) can require 220,000 lotus stems and months to process from raw lotus fiber to dyed thread to woven fabric.
The spun, washed thread in its natural state is a dark cream to beige color, and nearly all of the thread is dyed before being woven into fabric. Historically, the women used natural dyes derived from flowers, fruit, bark, and other materials. These days it seems more expedient to use commercial dyes.
Shanks of un-dyed lotus thread. Note the tubs of dyes below.
The dyed thread is hand-spun onto large spools, then the warp threads are affixed to a loom, and the actual weaving – the interlacing of the weft threads across the warp – is completed by an experienced weaver. The resulting fabric could be a solid maroon color, appropriate for the monks, or intricately patterned multi-color fabric. Very often the lotus thread is intertwined with silk thread to provide a smoother, finer fabric.
Weaver at work.
At the time of our visit, our guide told us lotus cloth weaving originated at Inle Lake over a hundred years ago: a woman wanted to perform an act of reverence for a local, prominent Buddhist abbot, so she spent months creating lotus thread, then spinning and weaving the cloth into robes for the monk. During her travails, she enlisted the help of female family members, teaching them her methods of spinning and weaving the lotus fabric. The abbot who received the robes was so impressed with the woman’s skill and workmanship that he blessed her with the name of Madame Lotus Egg. The woman continued to teach her female children and grandchildren the art of spinning and weaving the lotus thread, and thus the craft continues on at Inle today.
In researching for more in-depth information about this craft, I found this tale came from a 19th century Buddhist text, and is oft-cited by the Burmese to explain the origins of their craft. However, it seems that lotus weaving began far earlier than 100 years ago, and was once wide-spread throughout Southeast Asia. Today, this craft can be found in regions of Thailand and northern Cambodia as well as in Inle Lake.
That the lotus itself is one of the most important symbols of Buddhism, there is no doubt. In fact religious reverence for the lotus actually pre-dates Buddhism as the lotus plays a role in one of the Hindu creation myths. In most sects of Buddhism, the lotus is tied to the Buddha’s birth: upon emerging from the womb the Buddha began to walk immediately, and blooms of lotus appeared with each step he took. The lotus flower also represents to Buddhists that each living being can surpass his or her origins and condition, and reach their potential and strive for enlightenment, just as the lotus flower grows from its mud-bound roots and blooms on a stalk above the waters that give it life. Thus, while the craft of lotus-weaving may now exist in only a few areas of Southeast Asia, the lotus symbol can be found virtually everywhere, carved into temples and stupas or depicted in paintings and temple murals. Throughout our travels we saw several statues of the Buddha standing on a lotus blossom, or sitting on the flower meditating in what has become so well-known as the “lotus position.”
The cheroots are made from various herbs, both with and without tobacco. This enthusiastic saleswoman is displaying one of the mixtures, as well as the finished product.
While any smokable item with tobacco in it usually turns my stomach and has my lungs screaming for air, a visit to a cheroot “factory” was a rather interesting and aromatic experience. A friendly woman with a great sales pitch explained the particulars to us.
Star anise leaf used for the “skin” of the cheroot.
The dried leaf of a star anise plant is filled with an assortment of dried herbs and plants and usually just a touch of tobacco. These “fillers” can be a wide variety of fruit or herb leaves, some sweetened with honey, ground cloves or aromatics, and rolled into thin cylinders. From watching the women work, it seemed they used multiple leaves overlapping one after the other to create cylinders several inches long.
Rolling the cheroots. Note the tubs of herb mixtures in front of each woman.
The final product.
The cylinders were cut into cheroots of about 6-8 inches long, and the tips snipped down at both ends. And voilá: a cheroot. The taste (yes, I tried one) was fruity and mild, but not something I’d care to puff on a daily basis.
One of the more interesting crafts was a black smith who used varying types of scrap metal to form tools, knives and ornamental metal wares. The day we visited, the smith was using steel parts from the underside of a car to shape into machete-like knives. At the time of our arrival, the smith had already melted and hammered strips of metal into a machete-like shape. Several of these blades lay in or next to the open flames of the furnace.
Melting vehicle undercarriage parts for re-use as knives or machetes.
The “furnace,” an open fire within a stone and mortar pit, seemed to use wood or a type of long-burning charcoal as fuel. Periodically, one of the smith’s assistants would pump up the flame with a hand bellows.
Reheating partially shaped knives for the next step.
The most interesting part of this operation was the pounding down of the thick metal pieces into thinner, knife-shaped forms. The process then required three of the assistants to hammer the glowing blade with sledgehammers. The chief smith used pincers to hold the red hot blade against a small, silo-shaped anvil as the young men swung and hammered rhythmically. Somehow, each kept within an alternating rhythm that delivered a maximum number of strokes to the glowing blade without braining each other with the hammers.
A ballet of rapid hammering the molten blade into the desired thickness.
Once the blades had cooled and been fitted with wooden handles, the smith hand-sharpened the blades with a primitive looking rasp. The result, large knives and machetes honed to a wickedly sharp edge. Look out Henckels!
Honing the cooled blades to a razor edge.
Silver Smith Workshop
In days of yore, a silver smith would incorporate all the phases of silver production from extraction of the silver from ore, purification of the metal, fortifying the pure silver with alloys, its casting into ingots or bars, hammered into sheets, or “pulled” into wire, and, finally, the crafting of the metal into jewelry, coins, ornamental and service ware, utensils, or other objects. These days, it seems that most silversmiths work their craft from spools of wire, pre-fabricated jewelry parts, or silver sheet all mass-manufactured elsewhere.
The smith’s wife walked us through the process, demonstrating the small stove and tools her husband and apprentices used to melt down and extract the metal from ore. Unfortunately for us, the smith wasn’t smelting that day; it would have been fascinating to watch the process.
The woman explained that the extracted, molten silver is poured into molds that cooled into ingots of varying sizes. Depending on what the smith planned to make ultimately determined how much copper and other alloys were added to strengthen the silver, one of the softest of metals. This particular smith specializes in fabricating certain jewelry items as well as the beautiful silver bowls used by local monks to collect alms or placed by worshipers on altars with offerings. Each bowl is created by hammering silver sheets, then shaping the bowl to a decorative mold. Although alms bowls used by both monks and worshipers are more often made from lacquer ware or pottery, silver bowls are very popular during festivals and special occasions — and a favorite tourist purchase.
The smith smelts the silver into small ingots.
The smith hammering and flattening an ingot as a young apprentice looks on.
At the time of our visit the master smith was demonstrating to an apprentice his own technique in hammering and shaping silver into alms bowls.
The smith’s various tools. Note the several completed silver alms bowls and the bowl in process on the mold (at top center of picture).
Another apprentice was hand-pulling silver wire through increasingly smaller holes of another mold to prepare wire thin enough to be used in filigree and in the coiled wire earrings that are another specialty of this workshop. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to see how the initial preparation and thinning of the wire take place; the apprentice was working with wire that had been hand-pulled earlier from thicker strands.
The mold for shaping the silver wire as it is hand-pulled through.
Pulling the soft silver wire through increasingly smaller holes can shape and thin the wire to the desired thickness.
In a different section of the smith’s shop, artisans worked with small beads, wire, chains and small lengths of hammered silver to craft earrings, bracelets and necklaces.
Various small pieces of silver, both cast and hand-formed, to be used in jewelry making. Note the coiled wire earrings which are a trademark of this smith (bottom,center on the business card). Also note the bead mold at far left, center.
One-legged Lacquer Painter
While we are big on learning local crafts and watching artisans at work, we are definitively not browsers and shoppers. Unfortunately for us, the entrance way to nearly every temple we visited throughout Southeast Asia was lined with hawkers displaying their wares, usually cheap touristy souvenirs, but occasionally genuine crafts. On our way up a very long hill to the Shwe Inn Dain Pagoda we spotted this man painstakingly painting using his one and only limb – his left foot – to paint simple designs on lacquer ware.
The sight brought both of us to a dead halt. I’m almost embarrassed to admit we probably gawked. Our guide explained that this man had been born with only one leg, and had taught himself how to paint these simple border designs on trays. The blank trays and more intricately painted lacquer ware came from elsewhere in Myanmar, probably near Bagan, but the man supported himself by painting borders on the trays and selling the other lacquer objects.
This artisan paints with one foot what most of us are incapable of doing with two hands.
Fascinated, we asked him how long it would take him to paint a specific design on a tray for us, and with a shy smile, he told us he could have it done in about 20 minutes. When we returned from visiting the temple, our little tray was ready for us. The price? The man shyly proposed a price of only $7 USD — and we were truly dumbfounded for the second time that day. We gave him $10 and I still felt like we were taking advantage of him. Below is a close-in picture of the decorated tray, followed by a picture of how we are using the tray, as a display stand for my Cambodian Buddha head – an appropriate pairing, in my mind, of art, religion and culture.
The tray, as painted by the artisan.
The tray now displays my Cambodian Buddha head. Together, the display brings tranquility and smiles to a corner of our house.
Luwak eating coffee berries
Part of the fun of traveling is to experience new foods and beverages. Part of the mystery of Asia is to discover exactly what it is you’re consuming, as the name may be misleading.
Take kopi luwak, for instance. A luwak is a civet, a member of the weasel family found in Indonesia. Normally weasels’ major contribution to humanity is small rodent control or fur (think minks) but in Indonesia, luwaks are prized for their feces. Yup, those little nuggets of luwak feces are as valuable as gold. Kopi luwaki is a highly praised and tasty coffee made from the fecal pellets of coffee. I know because I’ve drunk it.
The nocturnal luwak dines on ripe coffee berries. Somehow the civets’ digestive process gives the berries a robust, tasteful flavor — once the berries have been separated from the fecal matter and roasted, that is.
How did weasel shit become a worldwide phenomenon? Short History Lesson (SHL) #1:The Dutch controlled much of present day Indonesia for centuries. Among the spices and foods that made the Dutch East India Company the richest conglomerate in the world was the discovery of coffee. Soon coffee plantations sprouted all over Indonesia, and the natives, who formerly enjoyed cups of this tasty beverage while relaxing in the sun were transformed into near-slaves working the plantations while their Dutch masters enjoyed their coffee in the sun. In order to maximize profits, the Dutch forbid the Indonesians to consume any coffee.
At some point the workers noticed that luwak poop contained partly digested coffee berries which they collected, cleaned, roasted and brewed into a delicious tasting coffee. Kopi luwak or weasel coffee was born. Now it is an industry in Indonesia, Vietnam and other areas of Southeast Asia.
Nocturnal animals, luwaks snooze most of the day.
Kopi luwak is not without its production issues, however, not the least of which is animal abuse. In order to maximize their profits, Indonesians began to capture and keep luwaks in cages in order not to have to waste time searching for those small weasel pellets in the jungle. Often these cages are highly restrictive and the luwaks are forced to eat nothing but coffee berries, sparking a rash of protests from animal rights activists. From the natives’ point of view, caging luwaks is expedient.
Besides, there are poisonous snakes and other venomous creatures out there in the jungle, just waiting to nab some poor guy scooping up weasel poop from the jungle floor.
For the average Indonesian, luwak poop is a highly profitable commodity: one cup of this brew can sell between $30 to $100 in the U.S. Roasted and bagged for sale in the Western markets, the beans can sell for as much as $650 a kg (about $340+ per pound).
A pile of luwak feces with partially digested coffee beans. The beans are separated from the fecal matter, cleaned and roasted and are ready for brewing into “cat-poo-chino.”
Roasted coffee beans
Thankfully, the voices of activists have been heeded and many luwak coffee “growers” are providing more humane treatment of their captive luwaks or just plain harvesting the coffee dung the old-fashioned way.
One of the plantation’s luwaks awake near dusk and rarin’ to go…
Putting aside my scruples, however, I drank a cup of luwak coffee in Bali after forking over $5 USD, what is in Indonesia an outrageous sum. Yes, it was tasty, but so is a cup of well-brewed French or Italian roast coffee. The coffee plantation workers who were leading our tour and hawking the various coffees to us were somewhat amazed that any of these weird white folk were actually drinking weasel fecal-processed stuff, but hey: they were the ones pushing “Cat-poo-chino” as proclaimed on their T-shirts and menus.
Personally, I thought “Crap-pu-cino” had a snazzier ring to it but hey, I’m the consumer, not the marketer.
Egg coffee at Coffee Long in Hanoi
A more innocuous, coffee-based drink is the egg coffee consumed in northern Vietnam. While in Hanoi, we drank this delicious concoction. I’d expected coffee with curdled egg mixed in it, kind of like a a coffee-based egg-drop soup. Thankfully, the egg coffee was far more pleasant – very rich and sweet.
As recipes go, it couldn’t be more simple: brew some good, strong coffee, let it cool slightly, add sweetened, condensed milk and one egg yolk, and stir: egg coffee. Loved it.
Snakeskin fruit or salak in Bali
Snakeskin Fruit, Durian, Dragon fruit and Vietnamese Glutinous Wine
In the past five weeks of our Southeast Adventure, Michael and/or I have tried various other local delicacies. I ate some snakeskin fruit (salak in Indonesian) in Bali. The name is derived from its formidable looking skin which does resemble that of a brown snake. The cream colored wedges inside taste both sour and sweet at the same time with a nice crunch, not dissimilar to a slightly unripe pear.
Dragon fruit is upper left fruit in this Buddhist altar offering, Hoi An, Vietnam
Clockwise from top left: orange, dragon fruit and passion fruit
Dragon fruit looks quite formidable, earning its name. Inside, dragon fruit is white with tiny black seeds and a sweet, soft crunch. I eat it for breakfast almost every morning, along with passion fruit, if available. Passion fruit is a bit more of a visual-taste challenge. The seeds are encased in a glutinous jelly that reminds me of frog eggs. Once I got past the image, I could eat the pulpy mess which also tastes both sweet and very slightly sour.
Fresh durian with processed durian chips.
Durian is a challenge I’ve never mastered. People either love it or hate it. The majority of westerners fall into the latter category, but it’s worthy of note that Singapore bans open durian from any form of public transportation. When opened, durian stinks to high heaven. Processed into candied fruit bites or chips, however, it’s palatable.
Vietnamese “glutinous wine” causes pause when first encountered on a drinks menu. However, it’s just rice wine; whether it has a milky or glutinous quality depends on how well it has been distilled. Home-brewed rice wine will be both milky and quite glutinous with characteristics I really didn’t like to contemplate and that I’m sure were never in the glossary in a sommelier’s curriculum.
Cooked rice dumped out on a tarp before distilling in a Hoi An shophouse.
Home still for brewing “glutinous” (rice) wine in Hoi An, Vietnam
We actually sampled the rice wine from this still, then allowed ourselves to be “persuaded” to buy a bottle. I was a bit perturbed when the shopkeeper fished a filthy plastic bottle out of a bucket of other used bottles, then filled it for us from the still, but we paid the one dollar and took it. I fed the fishes with it later.
And I thought that home-brewed plain old glutinous rice wine was revolting…
Snake wine: cobra and other snakes fermenting in rice wine. Blood from the snakes give this wine its reddish-brown color.
The one local product I absolutely refused to sample was snake wine. The preferred snake in this type of rice wine is cobra, but smaller snakes usually are added to the brew.
Our guide poured snake wine fro this teapot after filling it from the jar of snake wine behind her.
Michael, however, was game. Quite honestly, I could barely take the pictures, but to the guide’s amazement, he downed the entire cup she poured for him.
As it turns out, Michael didn’t just drink snakes-fermented-in-rice-wine. He had “snake blood wine,” where the snakes’ bellies are slit to allow blood to seep into the mixture, giving the liquid that reddish tinge.
Michael drinking snake blood wine.
And, no, Michael didn’t go puke in the bushes afterwards. He wanted to buy some. I threatened divorce. (I think he sneaked some into his back pack so look out, friends.)
As we head off to Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Korea, I can only imagine what additional gustatory challenges await. But I know one thing: if it’s reptile, I ain’t touching it. Michael, go for it, babe!
Komodo Island, famous for its giant monitor lizards, is one of the thousands of islands comprising the Indonesian archipelago. Whether it is one of 1,700+ or 1,300+ Indonesian islands depends on if you’re including uninhabited islands and atolls in the count. Nevertheless, the ratio of inhabitants to dragons on Komodo is about 1:1, with the dragons winning because they’re allowed to occasionally maul and/or kill a villager whereas the hapless human inhabitants can’t touch the dragons: they’re protected by the Indonesian government as an endangered species and “national treasure.”
The majority of Komodo Island’s 300+ square kilometers is a National Park. Most of the park beyond the village and nearby Pink Beach is fairly rough terrain but is hikeable. Park and government regulations require that all visitors must be part of an organized tour led by an officially-approved guide, and no one is allowed in the park without at least one of the rangers to lead the group.
Tourists make their way to Komodo for one or both reasons: see the dragons and/or go scuba diving. Unfortunately, we were unable to go diving as our cruise’s allotted time in port wasn’t sufficient. But, I did organize a combined “dragon trek” and snorkeling tour which was a lot of fun. The guides and Komodo National Park rangers were very knowledgeable and great to talk to, and we learned a lot about the dragons and island.
For starters, the majority of the islanders are descended from convicts exiled to the island in the 19th century by the sultan of nearby Sumbawa. The dragons live here naturally, as well as on the nearby islands of Flores and Rinca. This small area of the Pacific is the only area in the world where the Komodo dragons naturally exist. The islanders are a mix of Muslim, Christians and Hindus. The dragons have no known religion, other than cannibalism…
Dear old Mom
In fact, these giant monitor lizards are not great parents. The female will lay about 15-30 eggs once a year; gestation is about 9 months. Like many reptiles, the female alone will guard the eggs initially, but once the young dragons emerge, the hatchlings have to take to the trees to avoid being eaten by Mom and her relatives.
Dragon hatchlings live the first couple of years up in the trees to avoid being eaten by more mature dragons. They hide out in holes pecked out by birds.
The first written recording of these giant lizards was about 1910 when Dutch sailors reported seeing fire-breathing monsters of up to 7 meters long (about 23 ft.). An exploratory expedition by the local Dutch Colonial Administration established the lizards were usually about 2 meters long, and could find no evidence of them breathing fire. The largest dragon on record was 3.1 m. (10.3 ft.), but these days the average male dragon usually measures much less than 2 meters, and the females are slightly smaller. While they don’t truly breathe fire, their saliva is toxic and can kill a good-sized human. They have an exceptionally keen sense of smell and can particularly hone in on blood. On board we were repeatedly warn not to shave the day we landed in Komodo, and menstruating women were not allowed on the island. (How that applies to villagers somewhat baffled me.)
Ironically, the first Komodo dragon I saw was at the ranger station, just about 100 feet from the beach – and it was trying to get away from the tourists as quickly as possible. I managed to snap this photo before it disappeared under one of the local’s houses.
Another fascinating feature about the dragons is their digestive process. They eat their prey whole, or at least in large chunks if it’s big enough, but their gastric juices are so powerful that they can digest almost everything, including the bones. Thus, in their scat, all you see is a mucous-like puddle with some whitish congealing which is all that’s left of the bones.
Dragon scat with dissolved bone material
Another major attraction in Komodo is Pink Beach, whose sand is a mixture of ground white and red corals from off-shore – which gives you an idea of the beauty of the coral and other underwater sights. Our snorkeling expedition off Pink Beach was a bit daunting do to an unusually strong current. However, there was enough coral and fish to make the effort worthwhile. In all, a unique island to have visited.
Especially the dragons.
Temple of Tanah Lot, southeastern Bali
Reflect on Bali, and near-mystical images spin through one’s mind. The mist hanging on smoking volcanic cones, people laying offerings by roadside shrines, ancient temples, solemn cremation ceremonies, gracefully peaked, ornamented houses, terraced rice paddies: all these scenes are a part of Bali that is timeless and untouchable. Yet, even as all these ancient scenes and settings are still plentiful here, so are the tourist-clogged mega malls, the surf hangouts and the tawdry bars. By comparison, images of South Pacific seem nostalgic. Thankfully, the “new” Bali is still somewhat contained in the southeast quarter of the island while “old” Bali can still be found within an hour or two drive of the 21st century hedonism that seems intent on drowning this ancient culture.
Bali, the first island east of Java in the Indonesian archipelago, is one of the most spiritual places on earth. And it is because of Bali’s spirituality that this island maintains its unique place in our modern world. By spirituality, I don’t mean strictly religious practice, although religion is not only present, but an ingrained part of Balinese life. “Religion” in Bali is a seamless melding of early Hinduism, Buddhism (also with origins in India), ancestor worship, and native animism. Life in Bali is not just about nominal participation in certain ceremonies at specific phases or benchmarks of life, or require participation in the occasional ceremony.
To the Balinese, religion is part of the living belief system, the daily acts of life, from rising in the morning, preparing food, going about pedestrian chores, to just being alive – and always remembering and honoring the multitude of gods, ancestors and spirits that surround and form daily life. For a Balinese, placing an offering at a small shrine on a median strip in the middle of a congested roadway is as natural and part of life as crossing that street.
Laying another small offering seemingly randomly in a passageway or entrance is a quotidian act of appeasement for any ground-based demon spirits that may lay lurking nearby. Of equal dedication and spirituality is the daily ritual of placing small packets of fruits, rice and other offerings to household gods and ancestors in the family temple.
Small shrines are found in every Balinese courtyard, on the roadside, in rice paddies.
Small offerings of rice or fruit are laid on paths, in doorways, or sidewalks to appease any evil spirits.
Traditional Balinese homes have their own family temples within the home kampong.
Temples abound in Bali, whose origin may have from the ancient Hindu religion, but have evolved over the centuries as just one source for the uniquely Balinese religion of Tirta. “Hindu” is a brand only recently given Tirta, but delve past the for-tourist-patter and you will find the differences. Yes, there are familiar Hindu-inspired gods nearly everywhere, but Tirta is so much more.
I am no expert in any of the multiple religious origins comprising Tirta but I will name some differences I’ve noticed. Unlike Hindus and some Buddhist sects, Balinese eat meat: chicken, beef, pork, seafood – all are part of the Balinese diet. An exception is the priests; they cannot eat the flesh of a four-legged animal. And while some animal-human figures, such as Ganesha, the Hindu god with the elephant visage, are honored, no animal is considered sacred, as in India. In fact, a favorite Balinese sport is cock fighting.
But the most important aspect of Balinese Tirta is water. Water is both life-giving and purifying, a blessing and a necessity. Some of the most important Balinese temples are either dedicated to specific bodies of water or are placed at specific conjunctions of land and water, such as the temple of Tanah Lot, the first picture in this posting.
At this point I will halt the verbiage and share mostly images of some of the shrines & temples we saw during our 3 day stop in Bali. Without a doubt, the temple of the holy water spring was my favorite and which I found so moving to witness.
Roosters bred for cock fighting are kept ratan cages to prevent unplanned skirmishes.
Entrance to the temple of the holy water, Pura temple Empul, built about 960 A.D.
Pura Tirta Empul’s purifying pool, fed by the holy water springs.
Young women praying in the pool, going from spout to spout, dousing themselves in a purification ritual.
Pool into which the two holy water springs feed.
Tirta priests, dressed completely in white, lead ceremonies within the sanctum of the Pura Tirta Empul.
Pura Dalem, temple in the midst of the Ubud Monkey Sanctuary.
Entrance to temple Uluwatu in the southernmost part of Bali
One of the temples at Uluwatu, perched on the mountainside.
A different viewpoint, demonstrating the height of the cliffs Uluwatu is perched upon.
In ending, I will simply share that my own interests in “religion” have gravitated more towards the “spirituality” of humankind, where there is a stronger tie to mutual acceptance of certain universal, benevolent precepts of how to conduct your life and less emphasis on monotheistic dogma. As a girl of 16 the Balinese perception and interaction with the universe made a great deal of sense to me. Nearly 50 years later, I’m so glad to find Tirta is still strong and an integral part of Balinese life.
I would like to thank Ketuk Singer for being the most wonderful guide in the 3 days we recently spent in Bali. Through is patience and thoughtful answers, I rediscovered the Bali I’d loved so much so many years ago.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Southeast Asia travel is to experience the dazzling weave of ethnic groups, languages, religions and customs, all blended yet distinct.
Penang Island, strategically poised at the head of the Straits of Malacca, has been endowed by geography and shaped by trade for centuries. Beginning with the Malays, other peoples have lent their influence (by whatever means) into the mix: Arab traders, Hindu and Chinese immigrant laborers, the European traders and colonists — Portuguese, then Dutch — and finally – British, both before and after World War II’s Japanese occupation. Sometimes it seems that only the Roman Empire has not left its genes and culture in the region.
View to the east of George Town, Penang Island, Malaysia
Still a lively port city, Penang of today shows most clearly the influence of four different cultures: Chinese, Malay, Hindu and British. However, despite being a region of Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim nation, Penang clearly reflects the culture, architecture and religion of its southern Chinese majority from the mid-19th century up to today.
Since its independence from Great Britain, the Malaysian government has “re-balanced” the Penang population so that the numbers of Chinese and Malays are now fairly even at 46% and 43%, respectively. Additionally, the inevitable blend of Chinese and Malays over the centuries has resulted in a unique culture, Peranakan, both in Penang and in other “Straits” cities such as Malacca and Singapore.
The Chinese influence is still quite visible in today’s Penang, especially in Chinatown and the more urban areas of the island, by the number of merchants and shops, and, not least, the number of Buddhist temples on the island. (Buddhists comprise 36% of the population, second only to Muslims at 45%.)
Tek Lok Si
Main temple at Kek Lok Si
Tek Lok Si is not only the largest Buddhist temple complex in Penang, but the largest in Southeast Asia. Also known as the “Chinese Buddhist Temple” and “Temple of 10,000 Buddhas,” Tek Lok Si is dazzling in size and beauty. The main temple was begun in 1890, with additional edifices constructed over the years.
The cavernous main temple is dominated by three golden statues of the Buddha in meditative pose. In a ship-board lecture series on Buddhism, I learned the symbolism of a three Buddha display: the center statue is of the current Buddha, the one who most Westerners think of as the Buddha, Sidhartha; the Buddha on the left depicts the future Buddha, while the one on the right represents the Buddha of the past.
The current Buddha
The Past Buddha
The Future Buddha.
The walls were lined with niches containing far smaller statuary of the Buddha. (We didn’t attempt to count them all!)
Kek Lok Si’s walls are rows of niches containing small, gold Buddha statues
The Wishing Tree
Incense wafted through the cavernous hall, where various folding tables displayed offerings for purchase to lay before the Buddha of choice. A “Wishing Tree” stood in one area, festooned with colorful ribbons upon which various blessings and wishful outcomes were written.
Elsewhere within the temple complex stands the seven-story Pagoda of the 10,000 Buddhas, along with additional prayer halls and plenty of stone and painted statuary nestled into the hillside. In addition to its height, the pagoda is unique in that it combines three different cultures’ temple architecture: Chinese, Thai and Burmese.
Another interesting feature is the 30 meter (99 feet) statue of Kuan Yin, an East Asian Buddhist deity of mercy and compassion. Most often Kuan Yin, also known as “Guanyin,” is depicted as a woman, although this statue seems more androgynous.
Reclining Buddha Temple
Wat Chayamangkalaram, better known as the “Reclining Buddha Temple” or “Thai Buddhist Temple,” holds the 3rd or 4th largest statue of the Buddha in a reclining pose, depending on your source. At 33 meters (108 ft.), the statue is quite imposing, especially as the Buddha’s robe is gold-plated.
A common misconception among Westerners is that the reclining figure of the Buddha shows him at rest or asleep. The reclining pose actually depicts the Buddha in his last illness, near his death.
Reclining Buddha at Wat Chayamangkalaram. At 33 m in length, this is one of the largest Reclining Buddhas in the world.
The Standing Buddha Temple
Directly across the street from the Reclining Buddha is Wat Dhammikarama, or the “Burmese Buddhist Temple.” Heavily ornate in its exterior, the simpler interior hall is dominated by the serenely calm “Standing Buddha.” Built in 1803, Dhammikarama was the first Buddhist temple in Penang and reflects the Burmese influence on the island at the time. Dhammikarama is also the only Burmese Buddhist temple outside of Myanmar (Burma).
Lion outside Standing Buddha;note detailed filigree on portico & roof
Gate to Burmese Temple
Selamat Tinggal, Penang*
The city of George Town and Penang Island have many more Buddhist and Hindu temples, mosques, and other natural and man-made wonders. Unfortunately, our port of call was only a half day, and these three temples were the only ones we managed to get to. On the more secular end of sights, we drove across both of the two bridges connecting Palau Penang (Penang Island) to the Malaysian mainland. (The newest, just opened in 2014, is the longest bridge in Asia at 27 kilometers.)
We also took the incredibly steep funicular up to the top of Bukit Bandera (Penang Hill). Regrettably, afternoon rain clouds had rolled in so the spectacular view from 800 m. (2,730 ft.) was obscured by the mists. The gardens on the Hill are beautiful, though, and splashes of color made up for the lack of a view.
Choco Pies, the favorite treat of both Koreas
Visiting a foreign country for the first time brings a certain amount of dissonance: new sights, unfamiliar language, different dress – certainly unusual smells and unknown dishes, even vastly different ways of eating. Even a seasoned traveler who has “prepped” for a new country can be thrown by incongruent sensory inputs. Even Choco Pies.
Much as I’d heard and read about “the two Koreas” and had lived as a child growing up in Asia, I’d never visited. So I prepped with a variety of political and cultural sources, scoured travel guides for ideas of where to go, what to see. I could even identify a few palaces or temples in the wall murals as we walked through Incheon International Airport.
Nevertheless, Korea managed to wag my tail and give me a few surprises.
First were the airport golf carts zipping through the terminal throngs, blaring “Fur Elise” like windup box toys converted from Swiss music boxes. What? Go-carts programmed with Beethoven?
With echoes of Für Elise around us, within about 40 minutes we’d cleared Immigration, retrieved our bags, struggled with the ATM’s questionable English version, gave up on the free shuttle and flagged a taxi to take us to our hotel in the Incheon Peninsula. Having received some recommendations upon check in, we went in search of a restaurant. We found Mama Nin’s and stood in the anteroom, staring at the dozen or so pairs of shoes line up on the floor, then peered through the lattice door at the low –very low – tables inside. Cultural awakening blossomed.
“Oh, Jeez,” I muttered. “I forgot. We’re in Korea.” (BIG “Duh.”) “We’re supposed to take off our shoes before entering. I guess that’s why there were those slippers at the door of our bedroom.”
Shoe overflow from storage bins at restaurant.
At this point, I’d been awake over 22 hours, a victim of my chronic inability to sleep on airplanes. To say I was fatigued and jetlagged wasn’t an understatement. But we were both hungry so we shucked our shoes and ungracefully lowered ourselves to the floor mats at the indicated table.
We noticed right off that our table, like all the others, featured a built-in wok. Several of our dining companions were busily stir-frying their dinners from dozens of little plates. Surveying the “English” version of the menu, we decided to order beef soup (there was a menu picture) and rice wine so as not to further embarrass ourselves as cultural morons. (Besides, neither of us could figure out the menu’s translations of various dishes, much less attempt to cook them.)
Traditional Korean restaurant. Note the flat metal disks in center of table. These are covers for the unused woks. Servers bring a pail of coals to place under wok to heat the pan for food preparation.
Meanwhile, the restaurant’s cell phone blared Für Elise with each incoming food order – and there were a lot of calls. And, nearly every person who wasn’t stuffing himself with food was staring into a cell phone – including about 7 young men who’d just been seated in one of the banquet rooms. In South Korea, which has the highest ratio of cell phones to population in the world, that’s a lot of cell phones. The combination of the non-Western restaurant ambiance and cell phones-with-Beethoven was a bit jarring.
Upon sitting at this banquet table, every man began to use his cellphone.
“Interesting décor,” I commented, looking up at the ceiling. “Those silver tubes extending from the ceiling look like they’re made of air duct piping.”
Michael glanced up and around and hissed, ”They are air ducts. For the cooking. They’re air vents for the woks. You pull them down – see?”
And as brain-dead as I was, I finally noticed some of the oblong smoke vents lowered over steaming woks. After futile attempts of claiming travel fatigue failed to wipe the smirk off Michael’s face, I steered my comments to a topic that wasn’t half as embarrassing.
“Did you know that North Koreans are crazy about Choco Pies?”
Choco Pies: the Weapon of the Wes
Choco pies have emerged as the most unpredictable weapon in the battle of the South (Korea) and the West (the U.S. and rest of the world) against the North (Korea). These innocuous, chocolate and marshmallow confections, a rip-off of the Moon Pie (sadly, an American invention), are revolutionizing the North. First introduced 10 years ago to North Korean workers as a form of wage compensation at a North-South joint venture factory in Kaesong, Choco Pies were sold or bartered by the workers for other necessities in the North. Hoarded then resold at exorbitant prices on the black market, fetching as much as $10 apiece – a veritable fortune in the impoverished North – Choco Pies became a dominant form of “currency,” and turned the North Korean economy on its ear.
The response of the North Korean government was predictable: Kim Jon-un, beloved, third-generation dictator, has banned Choco Pies.
Rise of the Choco Pie
The story behind the Choco Pie is so wonderfully a combination of capitalism and Korean culture and politics.
A visiting Korean businessman fell in love with Moon pies in a visit to the U.S.; this gustatory rapture spawned an “Ah ha!” moment, and by 1974 the Orion Company was manufacturing the confection in South Korea. Called “Choco Pies” in attempts to ward off yet another round of patent infringement accusations from Best Bud U.S., these chocolate covered cookies with a marshmallow filling became a huge hit among South Koreans.
Choco Pie, the brain child of Orion. Sound like “Oreo” to anyone?
Spin the dials forward to 2004: the two Koreas agreed to a joint manufacturing-industrial venture in Kaesong, NK, with the North supplying the labor and the South the facilities and managerial know-how. The Pyongyang (Northern) government selected almost exclusively women to work in these factories, with strict limitations on the amount of exposure and interchange with the South Korean managers. Moreover, the North wouldn’t allow the South to pay the workers directly, requiring the wages earned be remitted to the North to then be distributed to the workers. However, the Pyongyang government only paid their people about two-thirds of their earnings. The Southern managers began using Choco Pies as bonuses and incentives in 2005, and as the workers developed a taste for the treats, increased the number of cookies per day to as many as 20 per worker.
The women began to realize that if they loved the Choco Pies, their literally famished compatriots would as well. Thus began the illicit Coco Pie black market that nearly ruined the North Korean economy, such as it had devolved. Within five years, Pyongyang had denounced Choco Pies and closed down their “cooperative” involvement in the Kaesang experiment. By 2014, Kim Jong-un had banned Choco Pies.
The South Shall Rise Again
Not to be outdone by the North’s ban on their favorite, now politically-viral treat, South Korean activists, in response to the ban, sent airlifts of 10,000 Choco Pies to their northern brethren via helium balloons. (They also put anti-Pyongyang pamplets and other tasty goodies in the “gift” baskets.) A recent “airlift” received quite a bit of attention in the Western press. (Personally, I think the press was intrigued by these condom-shaped balloons, reminiscent of Woody Allen’s movie Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex. But maybe that’s just me.)
Photo by Ahn Young-Soon, AP
I can’t really imagine how horror-struck the retro hard-line government of Pyongyang must have been, seeing thousands of Choco Pies raining down on North Korea. If only South Korean ingenuity can be properly matched with Western dollars or euros or yen and plenty of Choco Pies as ammunition, there finally might be a downfall of the most repressive government existing today. One can only hope.
Who’d’ve thunk it? Choco Pies.
Note: The whole Choco Pie story is real. Just Google this confection and you’ll find it all. If you’re interested about how the North Korean government operates and still manages to exist, read The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future by Victor Cha.
The coda to this tale is that once in Korea, I embarked on a quest for a Choco Pie. One disgusting bite later, I had a hard time understanding Koreans’ fanaticism for this “treat.” Michael, on the other hand, finished it off, no problem.
I think I’ll leave Choco Pies to the Koreans.
With one look my husband fell in love with Dutch…cows. “They look so happy!” Michael exclaimed on our first train trip through central Holland. I pointed out he probably meant they appeared to be well-fed and watered, and thus are probably physically “content,” because it’s really not possible for human’s to assess an animal’s “happiness,” especially from a whizzing train. But, being Michael, he refused to budge from his anthropomorphic assessment of hundreds of bovines’ mental state.
“Cows in Holland are happy cows.”
Drawing on lessons from Psych 101, I canned logical argument and attempted to draw out his “reasoning” with an encouraging “Uh-huh?”
“The cows here are happy, because the grass is so green, there’s water everywhere, their udders are huge – and they look so happy!”
I summoned my nominal bovine knowledge and replied, “Full udders mean they need to be milked and the cows are probably wishing for nothing more right now than to get back to the barn, get out of this damn rain, and get milked so their udders won’t be so painful.” He, of course, ignored me.
And so he began calling the rain-soaked, canal-ringed-and-riddled, mostly-below-sea level Netherlands (italics are a clue, folks) “The Land of Happy Cows.”
So much for psychology.
To exacerbate my annoyance with such anthropomorphism, Michael began to “document” why Dutch cows look happy. He claims several people told him (I’ve not met one) the Dutch had passed laws years ago that restricted the amount of time cows could be kept penned within barns. In other words, lots of rain, fresh air, lush grass, and water produce healthier cows, which results (theoretically) in a higher quality of milk from which the fabulous Dutch cheese is made. And, as Michael insists: “happy cows.”
Mind you, Michael is New York City born and bred and just because he learned to fix a tractor and ride a horse does not necessarily make him a Bovine Authority.
Being the curious sort, I finally got around to doing an internet search on Dutch laws concerning cows’ rights to stand out in the rain all day chewing their cuds. I found general laws on livestock husbandry, but nothing to indicate that the Dutch have embraced bovine grazing rights as banner legislation. In fact, I found the exact opposite: according to two 2013 reports, grazing among dairy cows is rapidly decreasing in Western Europe, including the Netherlands.
So — where’s the cow?
Cows are everywhere in Holland. You find them in the darnedest places.
The Bar Cow at Cafe Belgie
Trust the Dutch to decorate their bikes with cow pix.
And if you can’t find cows in the middle of Utrecht, you can bring along your own inflatable cow.
First, a bit of History of the Dutch Dairy Cow. All those cud-chewing, udderly fat cows that Michael claims are so happy are all Holstein-Friesian cows, usually called Holsteins, the hands-down best milk-producing bovines on the planet. And, of course, these cows developed in…Friesland, in northern Netherlands! Early Dutch settlers brought some Holsteins with them in the 1600’s when they settled in New Amsterdam (currently New York City) and upstate New York. As other colonists discovered the attributes of the breed in milk production, additional Holsteins were imported. By the late 19th c., the Holstein became the foundation of U.S. dairy production.
These black and white cows initially were bred to thrive on the native grasses of northern Netherlands, but on modern dairy farms, their diet is no longer exclusively grass. They are given feed supplements of both grain and dried grasses (hay), especially in the winter months.
A typical Holstein cow.
The Dutch Dairy Board website is chock-full of fascinating information about the dairy industry, including their “thematic goal” of maintaining grazing “at least at its current levels.” Having cows graze 6 hours per day, 120 days per year seems to be part of the “grazing goal.” However, while they note that 73.6% of dairy cows meet this “grazing goal,” 18.8% never graze at all, and the remaining 7.7% have an unspecified, “other type” of grazing.
What the Dutch do seem to regulate quite well are the limitation of unnecessary antibiotics, prohibition of hormones to increase milk production, the types of minerals (e.g. fertilizers, and other grass “enhancers”) put into the soil, veterinary “treatments,” as well as milk processing from milking to end dairy product – all good activities for consumer, bovine and environmental well-being.
So, in answer to the question heading this paragraph, nearly three-fourths of Dutch Holstein cows of today spend a lot of time standing in pastures during the months of April to November. They don’t seem to mind the rain, which is a good attribute, and despite the time of day, their udders always look full-to-bursting from all that lush, rain-soaked grass.
For a cute but short video of happy-looking cows being released from their barn in springtime, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rDvnUiO-LAk.
But as noted by the Dutch Dairy Board, this picturesque pastoral scene of contentedly grazing cows is rapidly changing. The small-holder dairy farms are facing increasing economic pressures and competition from larger “franchises,” and many solo farmers have been swallowed by these milk-production conglomerates.
So, Michael, enjoy your “happy” cows. For the foreseeable future we can both continue to call the Netherlands “The Land of Happy Cows,” and toast these joyous bovines who produce such good cheese.
Some Peripheral Information on Dairy Cows
If you’re sick of reading about cows and dairy production, skip “Dairy Facts” and go straight to “Famous Cows.” The latter is amusing, I guarantee it.
I know I get carried away in researching my blogs, but some of what I found out about the dairy industry, particularly in Holland, is interesting:
- According to a 2013 report by the Dutch Dairy Board, “Dairy is the engine of the Dutch economy.”
- There are 18,500 dairy farms and 1.97 million dairy cows in the Netherlands which produce 12 billion kilos of milk annually (about 26.45 billion pounds).
- 56% of Dutch dairy products is cheese.
- Dairy products accounts for 9% of the Dutch economy’s trade surplus.
And in the U.S.:
- The World Dairy Expo is the international trade organization for dairy cows is held annually in Madison, Wisconsin. It’s the largest dairy trade show in the world, but features dairy cattle from the U.S. and Canada.
- Black and white Holsteins (there is a recessive line of red and whites) have won “Supreme Champion” honors at the World Dairy Expo 32 times in the last 42 years, far more than any other breed of dairy cow.
- There are over 9 million dairy cows in the U.S., and 90% of them are of Holstein descent.
Famous Cows: (This is why blogs were invented….)
- A Canadian Holstein named Missy is the most expensive cow in the world, bringing $1.2 million in after being named “Supreme Cow” at the World Dairy Expo in 2011.
- A Holstein cow named “Ever-Green-View My 1326-ET” (no lie) won the world record for milk production in 2010 by producing over 72,000 pounds of milk in one year. The average Holstein produces 23,000 pounds of milk per year. Of note, “Ever-Green” is a Wisconsin cow.
- President William Howard Taft had not one – but TWO – pet cows at the White House. When the first official “Presidential Cow” Mooley Wooly died, Senator Isaac Stephenson of Wisconsin donated “Miss Pauline Wayne,” a Holstein from his farm. “Miss Wayne” served as “First Cow” for three years. She became popular at dairy trade shows where her milk, in miniature bottles, was sold as a novelty for 50 cents. (Talk about a cash cow…) When Taft left office, “Miss Wayne” was returned to Stephenson’s farm.
- “Miss Wayne” narrowly missed an ignominious death in 1911. She was returning from an appearance at a dairy show when her private train car was accidentally attached at a rail switch to a train of cattle cars found for the Chicago slaughter houses. Telegrams were sent throughout the land and a group of cow-loving vigilantes saved Miss Wayne. Apparently, they had a tough time convincing the stockyard that they were about to slaughter the President’s pet cow.