We Spent Six Hours At The National Museum in Bangkok, Thailand

Thailand has a rich and colourful history, and it’s chronicled incredibly well at the National Museum in Bangkok.  From the early days of its ancient Buddhist kingdoms of Sukhothai, Lan Na and Ayutthaya to the more modern eras under the Rama kings, the museum offers visitors a look into the history and various facets of what makes up Thailand today – and it’s absolutely fascinating. N and I spent six hours exploring the vast museum grounds, and would have spent more if it wasn’t for the fact that we had other items on our itinerary to go to :’D

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The museum was about 1.5 kilometres from our hostel in Rambuttri, and it was packed with tourists, locals and students, despite being a weekday. From the outside, the museum didn’t look very large, but there were actually many buildings within. There was an entrance fee of 200 baht (RM27) for foreigners.

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Our timing was excellent as the museum was running a temporary exhibition, “Qin Shi Huang: The First Emperor of China and Terracotta Warriors” during our visit. The showcase included historical artefacts and items from the rule of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, some of which were flown in from Xi’an.

QSH was a bit of an obsessive personality and during his lifetime, drank mercury in an attempt to prolong his life (mercury was believed to be the secret to immortality back then). When he died (presumably from mercury poisoning), he was entombed in a necropolis, complete with 8,000 life-sized terracotta warriors. The mausoleum, which was designed as a reflection of a palace / city so that QSH could continue ruling in the afterlife,  has never been fully excavated due to fears of possible damage.

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Although it said ‘life-sized’, I felt like the sculptures were actually taller than normal, averaging about eight feet.

The original statues that were discovered were actually coated in paint, so they weren’t all grey and dull looking. The paint evaporated into the air after the mausoleum was excavated.

 

 

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Terracotta horse-drawn chariot.

Beyond just his odd practices of drinking mercury and burning books, SHD was an extraordinary figure who united China’s many warring factions under one banner. The exhibition also detailed this, explaining the economic and political reforms that took place during his rule, as well as cultural and historical impact that can still be felt two millennia later.  On display to tell the narrative was advanced weaponry, decorative statues, household items, ritual objects, and more.

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A distinctive stone armour worn by soldiers, made up of hundreds of interlinked stone pieces connected by bronze wire to offer more flexibility.

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Decorative / ritual objects in the shapes of farm animals like horses, cows, goats, pigs and sheep; or scenes from everyday life like a rice mill, shrines and small houses.

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N was fascinated, and I had to literally drag him out to the main courtyard (lest we stay there the entire day). We next ventured into the Buddhaisawan Chapel. Built in the early 18th century, the main hall houses one of the most sacred Buddhist images in all of Thailand, the Phra Buddha Sihing.

The vast hall had sleek wooden floors, with a red ceiling and walls decorated with images of the Devas, as well as old paintings telling Buddha’s story. Some of these were faded with age and were difficult to discern, but you could still see the meticulous attention to detail poured into creating each one.

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The entrance to Buddhaisawan Chapel is guarded by garudas – mythical creatures in Buddhist and Hindu mythology that sport avian and human features.

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Another building you can check out within the museum is the vibrant-looking The Red House. Constructed from teak, it was originally the private living quarters of a princess. Today, it houses items used by royals in the past, including those of Queen Sri Suriyenda.

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A beautiful gold pavilion with intricate decorative features and exquisite detailing on the ceiling.

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The halls within the museum seemed to go on forever – there were just so many things to see. There were sections dedicated to Buddhist art from Thailand and neighbouring regions, the evolution of the country’s monetary system and currency, paintings, weaponry, clothing worn by royals, palanquins which were used to mount onto the backs of elephants, war drums, dioramas and much more.

 

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Royal throne. The colour gold is prevalent in Thai colour, as it is an important colour in both Buddhist and Thai culture.

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Life-sized replica of an elephant with a palanquin strapped to its back. Elephants are the national animal of Thailand.

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Students writing notes down as they observe a diorama, complete with war elephants, cavalry, foot soldiers and archers

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Thai royals were a fashionable lot, with ceremonial and everyday costumes featuring rich fabrics, elegant colours, beautiful detailing and patterns, and slim silhouettes.

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Everyone likes beautiful things – and there were sections detailing Thai art, such as how artisans apply mother of pearl to everything from furniture to sword scabbards; as well as a section for enamel pottery.

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Another impressive section was a hall containing numerous royal funeral chariots. Built from teak, the chariots were ornately carved, painted and gilded in gold, with mythical / religious figures and decorative fixtures such as nagas and devas.

Thais have deep respect for their royalty (they have some of the world’s strictest lese-majeste laws), and they revere them as much in death as they do in life. When a member of the royal family passes, the chariots are pulled by hundreds of men in a parade down the streets with the urn carrying the ashes of the deceased royal sitting atop a tall roofed shrine.

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Grand send off.

The Bangkok National Museum is, by far, one of the most impressive museums I have been to in Southeast Asia, and it’s definitely worth checking out if you love history and culture. Allocate at least half a day for the place if you’re planning to have a more in-depth experience.

BANGKOK NATIONAL MUSEUM 

Na Phra That Alley, Phra Borom Maha Ratchawang, Phra Nakhon, Bangkok 10200, Thailand

Opening hours: 9AM – 4PM (closed on Mon – Tues)

 

Union – Beijing’s Latest Bar – Opens at The Opposite House In Sanlitun

UNION – Beijing’s latest bar – opens at The Opposite House in the Sanlitun district, bringing with it a brand of elegance, comfort and the free spirit of an artist’s studio infused with a curated hospitality experience.

UNION bar view

With a 20th-century modernist sensibility, the beautiful space embodies the spirit of 1920s modernism with a showcase of artworks and objects reminiscent of the International Expos of the era, paired with drinks inspired by the ancient Silk Road.UNION was designed by leading, New York-based design firm, AvroKO.

UNION key visual

Seemingly whimsical in nature, UNION was created to have a clear social flow. Copper architectural frames and metal mesh sheets showcase artwork, sculptures and objects, drawing in and engaging guests, whilst hidden elements such as the bar trolley, spicery wall and DJ booths enable a seamless transition from day to night. The interiors are inspired by potter Lucie Rie’s studio – a beautiful yet versatile space well suited to living, working and socialising. The aim is to create a sense of belonging and discovery, evoking the sense of witnessing something for the first time. A carefully curated soundtrack allows the bar to seamlessly transition from day to night with the perfect eclectic mix of tempo, BPM, energy levels and genres.

UNION night time view

A sophisticated drinks menu consists of an extensive wine list made up of 60 bins that are all available by the glass, as well as selection of signature cocktails and alcohol-free drinks. The wine list changes monthly and whilst it features some well-known wineries the list is carefully curated to provide representation for lesser known producers, hard to find bottles and biodynamic wines.

As for the signature cocktail list, it encapsulates a diverse range of flavours inspired by international tastes; non-alcoholic creations include Spring breeze (a representation of Eastern Chinese flavours) which has pear, vanilla, coconut, citric acid and sea salt , whilst the traditional cocktail menu includes highlights such as Genghis Khan Martini (Mongolian representation) with French Gin, Mongolia Milk Wine, Dry Vermouth, Elderflower, Coconut and Sea Salt.

UNION sofa view

The Opposite House by Swire Hotels is one of four Houses in The House Collective. Located in Taikoo Li Sanlitun — a vibrant open-plan shopping, dining and entertainment destination developed by Swire Properties, The Opposite House was designed by Kengo Kuma, one of Japan’s most celebrated art and design geniuses.

The House’s 99 guest studios include nine spacious suites and a penthouse duplex with a 240-sq m roof terrace, all pet-friendly with special treats and amenities available for guests’ furry companions. More than half of all the studios are over 70 sqm and all are strikingly simple with natural wooden floors and subtle touches of Chinese décor. The Atrium of the House presents itself as a contemporary art gallery, showcasing art steeped in fresh cultural insights. The House has one restaurant and a bar, Jing Yaa Tang, which specialises in local fare including the famous Peking duck.

 

Historical Treasures @ National Palace Museum, Taipei

I think one of my biggest regrets on my Taiwan trip was not being able to spend more time at the National Palace Museum. We spent too much time at Tamsui, and by the time we got back to the city it was already 4-5pm. Granted, the museum closes at 9pm on weekends, but the group I was travelling with (a bunch of Aunties and a group of young students) weren’t too keen on looking at a bunch of artefacts and we had to leave early.

D:<

This is why I don’t want to go in a group. Even if a group trip is in order, one should always travel with like-minded friends/family.

Anyway, the National Palace Museum has one of the largest collections of ancient Chinese artefacts (close to 700,000!) in the world. Most of these were saved from China during the Japanese occupation, and were safely in Taiwan by the time of the Cultural Revolution.

Spanning across several floors and multiple halls, I’d suggest spending at least half a day here if you’re a culture/history buff like me. The items on display are sensitive to light so they don’t allow flash photography; and no photography after 6pm.

Hall with antique furniture. On the right is a Chinese ‘couch’. No cushions – people were used to sitting/lying down on wooden platforms back then. In the middle is a small portable table for tea, or playing chess. Can also be converted into a bed – how cool is that?

Another exhibition hall had a collection of Buddhist deities from various regions and different eras. Each had a unique ‘style’ reflecting the artistic/cultural sentiments of the time period.

An interesting piece: a golden lotus flower (the lotus flower is a prominent symbol in Buddhism) holding tiny Buddha figurines.

Seals. In ancient days, for a royal edict to be passed, it had to have the stamp of approval. Literally.

Painting and calligraphy. The characters were so painstakingly aligned they looked almost printed.

Ming vases, characterised by their trademark blue and white colours.

Coloured inks. To get the ink, one usually had to whet the ink stone to get the desired liquid and consistency.

Secret kungfu journals.. I mean, Imperial books.

That’s one giant paintbrush!

Intricate golden cups/trophies studded with precious jewels.

Block of jade.

Decorative items fashioned from white/green jade: Perfume and snuff bottles, vases, rings, bangles.. etc

Mini jade abacus

Decorative plaque

Unpolished jade block.

A special exhibition with a mini ‘cabbage jade’. The original jade block wasn’t a high grade one, but the artist skillfully turned it into a ‘cabbage’ shape to hide its flaws.

Beautiful lapiz lazuli plates and pendants. Great colour. 🙂

‘Go’ set made from semi precious stones.

Had to leave early, but we managed to catch a performance downstairs where a group of elderly personnel sang and played traditional instruments.

Back at our hotel, we had MOS Burger for dinner! Always wanted to try it coz we don’t have it in Malaysia.

The beef with bacon and egg was amazingly good !

Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, Taipei, Taiwan

Possibly one of the most recognisable landmarks/tourist attractions in Taipei is the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, dedicated to the former President of the Republic of China and whom many associate with the founding of modern Taiwan. So of course we couldn’t miss it while we were exploring the city! But first, a ride on the local subway…

Like in many major cities around the world, you purchase a subway card which can be topped up. London has the Oyster Card, Hong Kong uses the Octopus (what’s with all the seafood?), LA has TAP… and Taipei has its EasyCard. Self-reload stations are super convenient and easy to use – you simply place your card, put in the money, and it’ll top it up automatically. No small change? Don’t fret. There are staff-manned kiosks that will help you exchange your note to smaller ones.

Taipei’s subway system is divided into several lines, identified by colour. Be sure to get a map if you’re planning to use the LRT, coz it’s really quite useful and takes you to most attractions directly. For Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, we hopped onto the green line from Ximending and alighted two stops later.

If you’re unfamiliar with Taiwan’s history, this is a good place to get started. As some of you may know, Taiwan doesn’t have a very good relationship with China, since the latter considers Taiwan as part of China, while Taiwan wants to be recognised as a sovereign nation. This split can be traced back to the Chinese Qing dynasty, which annexed the island to Japanese rule in 1895. After the fall of the Qing and Japanese surrender came two groups fighting for control: the Communist Party of China, led by Mao Zedong, and the Chinese Nationalists (Kuomintang/ ROC), led by Chiang Kai Shek. In fact, Chiang was a popular choice, and before the infamous portrait of Mao was hung at Tiananmen Square, it was Chiang’s portrait in his place.

In-fighting resulted in the Chinese Civil War, and the ROC fled to Taiwan, where they continued to claim to be the legitimate government of China. They represented China at the UN until 1971,  until this claim was squashed when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) assumed China’s seat, bastardizing Taiwan’s claim.

Chiang Kai Shek served as the leader of the Kuomintang, and effectively ROC, from 1928 and 1975. Modern views are a mixed bag – some see him as a national hero who led the victorious Northern Expedition to subdue Chinese warlords (hence his popularity in China before) and achieving Chinese unification, while others see him as a champion of anti-communism. Less popular views of him come mainly from his political authoritarianism, charges of graft and ruling over a period of imposed martial law… which did not make him very different from the communist regime he was so against.

The memorial, a large white and blue building made from concrete and marble, is topped with a deep blue pagoda-like roof and smooth, squarish sides. There are 89 steps leading up to the hall, representing Chiang’s age when he died in 1975. The hall faces a large square, flanked on the sides by the National Theatre and the National Concert Hall.

 

The Front gate shares the same colour scheme and design.

The National Concert Hall. 

View of the square.

Inside is a bronze statue of Chiang Kai Shek, with a Taiwan flag on each side. We were just in time for the changing of the guards! (hourly)

The change was slow, deliberate and precise. It took a good 10 minutes. Aside from marching, they also did some gestures with their gun-bayonets (?) and military salutations.

Downstairs is a museum dedicated to CKS, with various memorabilia such as paintings, letters, official documents, and even the car he used to ride in to functions/events.

Sedan chairs used to carry Chiang while on visits to villages.

Replica of the President’s office.

I like how they have water stations at tourist attractions around Taiwan! 🙂

Passing by a small but nicely kept park while on our way back to the train station.

CKS Memorial Hall is one of those places you must go to to experience a slice of Taiwan’s culture and history. Entrance is free.

CHIANG KAI SHEK MEMORIAL HALL 

No. 21, Zhongshan S Rd, Zhongzheng District, Taipei City, Taiwan 100

Opening hours: 9AM-6PM

Book Review – Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang

Many women rulers have often been unfairly represented or demonised in history. In a patriarchal society, it is always easy to blame the woman, but hey: we’ve had two World Wars, genocides, countless atrocities, and I’m sure we all know who the leaders behind those were lol. In fact, my friends and I used to joke that if women ruled the world, we’d just have cold wars and not talk to each other for some time instead of sending armies to kill the shit out of each other.

Examples of such unfair representation: Cleopatra is made out to be a harlot who used sex to control powerful men in order to rule, while Mary I is remembered as Bloody Mary for her Protestant-killing campaign, even though many of her reforms paved the way for her half sister Elizabeth I to usher in England’s ‘Golden Age’.

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It’s only recently, thanks to the ‘feminist’ movement (I use brackets here because people are so sensitive about that word, it’s almost like an F-bomb lol) that the history of some of these women rulers  are being revisited, putting them in a whole new light.

One such figure is the Empress Dowager Cixi: a concubine who entered the palace at just 16 and rose to become a prominent figure in Chinese history. Following the death of her husband, she launched a coup to oust the powerful board of Regents, placed her own three-year-old son, Tongzhi, on the throne and established herself as the de facto ruler. She was only 25 years old.

Cixi inherited a lot of sht to deal with. The previous rulers were weak; the system was corrupt, and natural disasters such as famine drove the population to rebel (her husband, Emperor Xianfeng, died while dealing with Taiping rebels – the biggest peasant rebellion in Chinese history that lasted for 10 years and saw millions dying). She also had something else previous rulers did not have to handle: foreign powers flexing their muscles as they scrambled for power in Asia, as they knocked on China’s doors and demanded she open them for trade.

After the tragic death of her son the emperor at a young age, Cixi adopted and appointed her young nephew, Guangxu, to the throne. She continued ruling until the boy turned into an adult, handing over the reins of power before settling into retirement at her Summer Palace. Although he sought out her advice often, Guangxu was not raised with the same iron fist as his adoptive mother. He was a reformist; compliant to the wishes of foreign powers – and attempted to launch reforms that Cixi saw were too abrupt for China to adopt within such a short time.

Hearing of a plot by Guangxu and his allies to assassinate her, she launched a coup and put him under house arrest instead. She tried to keep his part in the plot under wraps, as China was already under siege from all sides – they did not need their people to lose trust in their royalty. The situation was delicate, and Cixi, coming out of retirement, had to manoeuvre through a dangerous minefield of politics and power.

Ministers and nobles were divided on who to support, there was foreign pressure to allow more Westerners in to China, while xenophobic locals became increasingly unhappy. This broke out into the Boxer Rebellion, where members of the ultra-nationalist Boxers burned and pillaged homes, attacking foreign legations, killing Westerners and missionaries. It was made even worse as Cixi’s own anti-West sentiments at that time drove her to officially support the Boxers. The Allied forces now had a reason to enter the capital by force, which they did – resulting in Cixi and Guangxu fleeing Beijing, and later, to pay huge indemnities – a sure blow to an already bleeding Chinese treasury.

Later in her years, she attempted to redeem herself in the eyes of the world by inviting ladies from foreign legations into the Palace and making friends with them: a monumental step for Chinese royalty as nobody had ever breached such protocols (the Emperors have ruled for hundreds of years by ‘Heavenly mandate’ – making them representations of Heaven on earth) To ‘lower’ herself to the foreign ‘devils’ must have required tremendous effort and open-mindedness. She also started implementing many modern reforms; setting up schools and systems according to Western models, now that she saw how China could benefit from the white man.

On her deathbed, she was still worrying about the fate of the nation, lest it fell into the wrong hands. On the evening before her death, she poisoned Guangxu with arsenic, making sure China’s Qing Dynasty would not fall into the wrong hands. (She would have turned in her grave to know that it fell anyway, in the next few years.)

I was moved by the story of this remarkable woman. Granted, she was no saint: she has had her share of political killings and disastrous decisions (supporting the Boxer rebellion, for example). People were murdered on her account, such as Guangxu’s favourite concubine Pearl, who was thrown down a well. She was ruthless and swift, ordering executions (sometimes of the innocent) as examples to others and staging a coup against powerful men, risking death. China was already crumbling by the time she came into power, but at least, with some of her reforms and policies, the inevitable was delayed… for some time. For a few brief years, it even brought in modernisation to the country.

But most of all, I felt sorry for her. The weight of the world is heavy on those who take on such burdens, and she did so at great personal cost. An Dehai, her servant, was killed because men of power hated her and knew that she had fallen in love with the young, ill-fated eunuch. She has had to watch her own son die from disease after securing the throne for him, survived an assassination attempt by her adopted son, and then gave the orders to poison him. Watching a dynasty she worked so hard to build crumble at the hands of foreign powers and incompetent leaders must have struck a blow in Cixi’s heart.

It was a breath of fresh air to read Jung Chang’s version of Cixi, as the public has often only read of her as a greedy, power-hungry consort who would do anything to stay on top (eg, in works of semi-fiction like Empress Orchid by Ancheemin). Even so, I felt that Jung’s ‘research’ was too subjective and emotional to be deemed a serious autobiography, and had a very romanticised view of the Empress Dowager. Cixi is portrayed as a kind and benevolent leader: murders are done because they were ‘necessary’ and simply brushed off as a casualty of war and politics, or ‘softened’ by implying that Cixi felt regret for some of her actions. Jung peppered facts with rationalisations of Cixi’s behaviour, even corruption.

Whatever the case, it was a fascinating read and a fresh look at the story of a woman who ruled one of the greatest dynasties of all time for over 47 years, from behind a silk screen.