Sri Venkateswara Temple: Week 198

Detail from the main entrance of the Sri Venkateswara Temple: Helensburgh, Australia

The site in Helensburgh was declared divine because, “it is said the gods always play where groves are, near rivers, mountains, and springs and in towns with pleasure-gardens.” – Brihatsamhita

In the late morning light, the gleaming white surfaces of the Sri Venkateswara Temple glowed bright and stark against the surrounding forest. Barefoot worshipers and tourists scrambled across the hot marble terrace.  They posed for photos in front of the towering main entrance and retreated inside when their feet began to burn. Across the way, in the shade of eucalypts, visitors placed their shoes on tiered wooden racks. Sulphur-crested cockatoos shrieked in the highest branches overlooking the small northern gardens.

Courtyard of Sri Venkateswara Temple: Helensburgh, Australia

Barret, Shweta, Bryan and I followed the steady flow of people from the hot courtyard into the cool hallway where the dense aroma of incense hung in the air. Although Barret and I had never been in a Hindu temple before, there was something very familiar and comforting in that scent. It reminds me of cluttered Catholic churches in Dublin and the ash-covered shrines in Macau.

Inside the Sri Venkateswara Temple were shirtless priests with gold necklaces and bright cloths wrapped around their waists. They assisted worshipers with certain poojas (prayer rituals) and, when not called upon, performed their own duties or relaxed on benches scattered throughout the building.

Postcard from the Sri Venkateswara Temple shop: Helensburgh, Australia

Outside the main hall was a chart that listed the various costs of priest-assisted poojas. Depending on who one prayed to, the benefits ranged from ‘considerate improvement in education’ to ‘eventuate auspiciousness and/or to accomplish righteous things.’ Every church has their way of collecting funds from their worshipers, but there was something about this chart that reminded me of a home-improvement project and the priests flitting about the temple were helpful associates at a hardware store.

My friend Shweta wanted to perform an Archana pooja for Lord Vishnu. Archana is a shorter pooja in which the names of one’s family are recited for blessings. The four of us went up together and Shweta gave a metal bowl filled with fruit, holy basil, flowers and incense to a priest who had been seated against the wall. He asked for our names and began to chant.

At the end we cupped our hands to waft the smoke of burning incense over our face and then the priest poured a small amount of sweet water into our hands for us to drink. He pointed out two pots of sandalwood paste for us to use for the tilaka. However when Barret and I hesitated, he stepped towards us to put a tan dot on our forehead and followed it with a scarlet one.View from Stanwell Tops: Australia

It’d been awhile since the last time Shweta visited the Sri Venkateswara Temple, but she fondly remembered one of the most beautiful places to visit afterwards- Stanwell Tops. We were sitting on the grassy bank that overlooked the beautiful coastline when I noticed a family that I’d seen at the temple.

Varahamihira, the author of the Brihatsamhita, was also an astronomer and mathematician who discovered some of the trigonometric formulas I studied in school. Given his talent and numerous contributions to the court of the legendary ruler Yashodharman Vikramaditya, I think it’s safe to say that Varahamihira knew what he was talking about when he described the kind of land that gods love to play in. The Sri Venkateswara Temple could not have been built in a more heavenly environment.

Barret outside the Sri Venkateswara Temple in Helensburgh: Australia

How to get to the Sri Venkateswara Temple: Take the train from Central Station to Wollongong and get off at Helensburgh Railway Station. From there it is about 2 km to the temple. Buses leave from Helensburgh Railway Station every hour from 9.00 am till 4.00 pm.

Bangkok & Sukhothai: Week 139

View of Wat Arun from the Chao Phraya: Bangkok, Thailand

“Was that dock eight?” I asked the woman standing at the bow of the ferry. She was holding a small square microphone that perfectly distorted every announcement she made. The boat had only stopped for less than a minute before veering back into the mocha waters of the Chao Phraya, the aorta of Bangkok.

“Where did you want to go?” she replied.

“Wat Arun.”

“AH! This is why I tell people to line up at the back! I always tell people! You. Have. To. Line. Up.” She threw the microphone down in disgust; finally I could understand what she was saying. “You have to be very fast!”

My sister and I got off at the next stop.  As the hull drew alongside the dock, the intercom was a flurry of urgently scrambled reminders. People jumped on, people jumped off; the transaction was over in twenty seconds.

Grand Palace: Bangkok, Thailand

Nan and I were left standing on the Grand Palace pier. From the concrete pontoon, wooden planks led into a small building with low ceilings. For some reason the planks continued throughout the building so that everyone walked a foot and a half above the floor. A cat was curled up in the middle of the walkway, just under the lowest part of the ceiling.

Just outside the dock the vendors had set up shop almost on top of each other. In the middle of the market were the makeshift restaurants. Their tables were low and covered with sticky plastic tablecloths and jars of spicy sauces.

Grand Palace: Bangkok, Thailand

The most beautiful wats in Bangkok are scattered along the river like glass marbles.

Grand Palace: Bangkok, Thailand

Grand Palace: Bangkok, Thailand

Mural inside the Grand Palace: Bangkok, Thailand

Grand Palace: Bangkok, Thailand

The Temple of the Emerald Buddha in particular is completely covered in small glass tiles. From a distance the walls shimmer like sunlight on water, up close the mirrored pieces have small dark splotches like liver spots.

A woman in traditional costume outside Wat Arun: Bangkok, Thailand

Across the Chao Phraya is Wat Arun, also known as the Temple of Dawn. The central tower, or prang, is decorated with ceramic tiles. Unlike glass, the ceramic pieces are cut from special bowls so that they have a delicate curve. The main prang is about 250 feet tall and is reached by steps so steep, it feels like you are climbing a ladder.

The gold-leaf-covered hand at Wat Si Chum: Sukhothai, Thailand

Sukhothai is several hours north of Bangkok and well known for its expansive temple complex. During better times, the historic center was enclosed within three concentric walls. Nowadays, you can move about freely with a moped and a handful of tickets.

The most famous Buddha image (or at least the most recommended) is Wat Si Chum. Built in the 13th century, this seated figure is slowly turning gold. As a way to gain merit, worshippers in Thailand purchase small ½ inch pieces of gold leaf to transfer onto statues of Buddha. Putting gold on the back of the Buddha refers to doing a good deed without seeking attention.

A seated Buddha image at Wat Saphan Hin: Sukhothai, Thailand

Just outside the western end of the Sukhothai Historical Park is a quiet uphill road lined with the ruins of smaller wats. At the crest of the hill is Wat Saphan Hin, a brick ruin with a large standing Buddha and a view of the whole complex.

A small figurine at the foot of Wat Saphan Hin: Sukhothai, Thailand

By the time Nan and I had hiked up the slate steps, dusk was approaching and we were the only visitors. Even out in the middle of the woods, people had thought to bring a few pieces of gold leaf or a glittery figurine in prayer. It seemed a strange thing to take on a hike (water bottle- check, trail mix- check, gold leaf- check), but I guess if your afterlife is on the line nothing is out of question.

About: Bangkok (where even the skyscrapers look like temples)

A tower with a temple-like facade in Bangkok, Thailand

About: the Grand Palace

About: Sukhothai

Macau: Week 138, Part 2

Two women walking outside the entrance of the Grand Lisboa, Macau

“There is no night life here,” Mikayla said with a frown.

I was having a hard time believing her; the tour guide in my hand was open to the entertainment section. “But it says that Macau’s nightlife is famous for its variety, frantic pace, and constant change,” I quickly pointed out. “What about Avenida Sun Yat-Sen? Have you been there?”

Mikayla shot me a deadpan look. “They’re lying.”

For the last eight years she’d been alternating between visiting and living in Macau. If anyone was familiar with the city, it would be her. So whether or not I was ready to accept it, Mikayla was right- Las Vegas’ biggest competition doesn’t let its hair down.

Grand Lisboa, Macau

If Hong Kong is the life of the party, then Macau would be the parents who are out of town. Of course there are the luxurious hotels, restaurants, cocktail bars, and couture shops; but the focus remains undeniably and explicitly on gambling. And you know what? You can’t gamble if you’re dancing.

At the Venetian Macau, the casino floor is inside a large hall that’s enclosed behind a partition. It has the visual appeal of a heavily guarded convention and only the most determined of gamblers would want to be there (unlike the packs of roving ‘bros’ in Vegas that wear untucked dress shirts and keep one eye on their cards and the other on the women).

Obviously the casinos know their market though; according to Bloomberg, as of October 2013, gambling revenue in Macau jumped to $4.57 billion USD.

A small altar outside a shop in Senado Square, Macau

However, unlike Las Vegas, Macau is a former Portuguese colony rich in heritage and UNESCO listed. Senado Square, the historic heart of city, is just one of many places where the curious mixture of Chinese and Portuguese culture is apparent. The beautiful black and white stone tiles (that also famously pattern the beaches of Rio) are fringed with knee-high altars for good luck and prosperity.

A man performs a choreographed piece of Chinese opera inside Mount Fortress, Macau

Overlooking Senado Square, Mount Fortress combines the rugged charm of a European fortress with the other-worldly twang of Chinese opera.

A building inside Old Taipa Village, Macau

Across the harbor, pastel green colonial buildings are pasted with red and gold charms.


For outwardly being less sinful than Las Vegas (based only on the fact that Macau doesn’t have a night club which encourages women to compete for breast implants), there are a lot more religious shrines. Perhaps Vegas doesn’t feel the need to atone for much, but take a stroll in any direction in Macau and you will run into one shrine after another.

Visitors lighting incense inside the frint gate of A-Ma Temple, Macau

The moment you step inside the famous A-Ma temple, a dense cloud of incense will smack you in the face. Move too slowly and the burning hot ash from a 6ft joss stick will blow onto your shoulder. Move too quickly and you will miss the details: the quiet rituals, the bored gaze of the bald man behind the incense stall, the men in suits finalizing their business deals under a spray of pale gray ash.

Master planned community of the north shore of Taipa Island, Macau

About ten years ago, while working at McDonald’s, I was in the kitchen washing the breakfast cooking equipment. There were several steps, all of which I did too thoroughly, but the last one in particular was a pale pink disinfectant bath. The moment I caught a whiff of it, I knew it smelled like something familiar. I just couldn’t place it right away.

Then it hit me- it was the same scent as the well water of my childhood home in Florida. Not that I claim to be a water connoisseur, but it had a very specific scent because it was so hard and had so many minerals. All the white laundry slowly turned cream and my hair strawberry blond.

Inside Pak Tai Temple: Old Taipa Village, Macau

That’s kind of how I feel about Chinese incense now. As soon as I smell it, it reminds me of a small dark temple with incense coils hanging from the ceiling. The air is heavy, but cleansed, and behind the screen of smoke there glitters gold toned urns and paper charms.

Sculpture from the Sacred Art Museum at St Dominic's Church, Macau

St Dominic’s Church, in Senado Square, is one of the most famous examples of 17th century Baroque architecture in Macau. While it lacks the excitement of dodging hot ash and it feels much more touristy than the A-Ma Temple, it makes up for it with religious sculpture. In the Sacred Art Museum above the church is a box of oddly severed and disjointed body parts.

Booth at the Festival da Lusofonia, Macau

Macau was a Portuguese colony from the mid-16th century right up until 1999, which made it the last remaining European colony in Asia. Considering the longevity of the occupation, it’s interesting to note that only about 2% of the population is Portuguese. Despite that small percentage, Mikayla and I stumbled across the Lusofonia Festival on my first night.

It was a celebration of Portuguese-speaking culture from across the globe- from Brazil to East Timor to Sao Tome & Principe. Each country had its own booth and very different ways of introducing its culture. Brazil had creepy black mannequins and cachaça; another country had a sandy pond filled with drowning turtles (Mikayla advised the owner to put some rocks in the pool so the turtles could rest).

Strolling down the Avenida da Praia, on my left were the candy-colored Taipa Houses Museum and on my right, in the distance, was the Venetian Hotel. A high-stake future, a colonial past, one endearingly eclectic mix; I was really enjoying Macau.

­About: Macau

How to get to Senado Square: Macau Island, Buses: 2, 3, 3A, 3X, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8A, 10, 10A, 11, 17, 18, 18A, 19, 21A, 26A, 33

How to get to A-Ma Temple: Macau Island, Buses: 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 10A, 11, 18, 21A, 26, 28B, MT4

How to get to the Taipa Houses Museum: Avenida da Praia, Old Taipa Village -Taipa Island. Buses: 11, 15, 22, 28A, 30, 33, 34

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