Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Kutná Hora

For visitors to Europe, churches, cathedrals and chapels are common sights and many are attractions in their own right. But perhaps one of the most interesting and unique chapels I've visited lies in the Czech Republic.

In the town of Kutná Hora, there is a small chapel known as the Sedlec Ossuary. Centuries ago, an abbot from a monastery returned from Golgotha (a holy site in Jerusalem) with a small amount of earth which he sprinkled over the grounds of the abbey cemetery. News soon spread and the cemetery became a very popular burial site. On top of that, the Black Death plague at that time resulted in even more burials in the cemetery. Further down in history, a church was built on the cemetery grounds and a chapel beneath it. During the construction, all the bones from the graves had to be exhumed, and the chapel was then to be used as an ossuary. So what was so special and unique about all this?

Well, in 1870, a woodcarver named František Rint turned all the bones in the ossuary into an unbelievable piece of art. The whole interior of the chapel is now decorated by bones - in fact, some of the furnishings are constructed by these bones (and skulls). Notably, there is an enormous chandelier made entirely of bones, and it's supposed to contain at least one of every bone in the human body! All in all, an estimated 40,000 people's bones are now used inside the chapel.

Kutná Hora itself is also worth a visit as its town centre is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Most famous is the Church of St Barbara, with its impressive spires and beautiful interiors. It is easily reached via train or bus from Prague, and so, can be done just with a day trip.

Do check it out when you visit the Czech Republic. Highly recommended!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Beautiful Light in Bagan

For visitors to Myanmar, Bagan is a definite stop in the itinerary. For visitors who are avid photographers, Bagan is a dream stop in the itinerary. And for me, the best stop for landscape photography!

Bagan is an ancient city on a site containing over 2000 temples, pagodas and stupas. During its heyday as the capital of the Kingdom then (11-13th century), there were as many as over 10,000 temples etc. Now, while majority seems to be in a state of ruins, many have been restored and maintained. For those interested in the historic and cultural aspects of Myanmar, the temples provide fascinating glimpses into Buddhism in this part of Asia.

What captivated me however, is the golden light during sunrise and sunset. Cast onto the dusty and misty plains, and dotted with the spires of the pagodas and temples, the scene is stupendous. There are a couple of ways to tour the sites. Most backpackers would hire bicycles to visit the attractions. You could also hire a car or a horsecart for the whole day. For photographers who want to catch the sunrises and sunsets (yes you should!), the latter is recommended. Especially if you want to take the sunsets from some temples that are off-the-beaten-path. The roads there are bad, and after sunset, it would be completely dark and cycling at those conditions are certainly not recommended. In fact, some horsecart drivers were also reluctant to go to some of the further temples for sunsets. Remember to check with your drivers! The most common site for sunset viewing is probably Shwesandaw but I went to Pyathada (which is more remote). For those who have a little more budget, you could also have sunrise viewing and photography atop the hot-air balloons! I would imagine the scene would be absolutely fabulous!

And even back in Nyaung U town, the morning light provided wonderful ambience to the local market. Go between 7.30am - 8.30am, and with the tree foliage around the market area and the dusty air, the resultant light rays add plenty of opportunities for good composition!

As mentioned earlier, Bagan is one of Myanmar's top attractions. So there are plenty of options to get to Bagan, from buses and rail, to air and boat! And there are 3 areas for acommodation options - Old Bagan, New Bagan, and Nyaung U. The latter is where most of the budget options are. Whichever the options, Bagan is my favourite sunrise/sunset location in Myanmar!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Taunggyi Fire Balloon Festival

Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State in Myanmar, and a transport hub for travelers to Inle Lake and Nyaung Shwe, also plays host to one of Myanmar's biggest and rowdiest festivals - the Fire Balloon Festival!

Held annually, usually in November, and lasting a week to coincide with the full moon day, the festival attracts hordes of visitors from all over the country. In 2012, the festival was held from 21-28 November. During the festival, contests are held whereby huge balloons are constructed by teams from associations and groups from neighbouring towns etc, to compete in 3 categories. In the day, the balloons take the form of dragons, elephants, pagodas etc, but I'm unclear how the judging is made - presumably on how ornate the balloon is designed (note that these balloons are huge!). However, it's at night where the competition heats up (literally)! The balloons are generally huge oval-shaped hot-air balloons, carrying a basket full of carefully arranged fireworks. These balloons are launched by their respective teams, and when the balloons are in the air, the fireworks are released systematically. The balloon that goes up the highest, and with the most spectacular fireworks would be judged the best! Finally, there is another category where the balloons would be decorated with candle-lighted designs. The candles are lighted and placed onto the balloon only during launch, and requires quick and organised coordination by team members.

And while all these are going on, the festival grounds is one huge carnival. Lanes and lanes of makeshift foodstalls compete for attention. Carnival favourites like the merry-go-rounds and ferris wheels take up substantial portion of the area with frenzied activity - they are all human-powered, even the ferris wheels! To complete the festivities, another huge area is set up as a concert ground, where live bands and singers perform for the night. No doubt one of the biggest festivals I've seen.

However, a few notes of precaution. Myanmar's tourism infrastructure is still struggling to cope with its recent influx of tourists, let alone such a hugely popular festival with the locals. So accomodation options are extremely limited for foreigners (esp budget ones). The nearby town of Nyaung Shwe has more accommodation options since it is the access town for Inle Lake. Even then, its limits were tested. I could not find any accommodation when I arrived and had to settle for some floor space on monastery grounds. Transport between Taunggyi and Nyaung Shwe were limited to private taxis as public transport does not quite get to the festival grounds, and the festival lasts till past midnight. And finally, even as alot of fire was involved in the celebrations, I'm sure the festival would not pass any safety awards. As the balloon rises into the sky, the pyrotechnics spewing down onto the festival ground is as exciting as it gets. Your run for cover during paintball games is literally kids play compared to this! And then there's the bad news. Not all the balloons have successful flights... some do come crashing down................... 

Nevertheless, everyone is out for good fun as evident by the turnout. A definite highlight on my trip to Myanmar!