A Boat Trip to Bluff Island

As a port city that has drawn much of its cultural identity through the sea, Hong Kong’s history of junk boats goes back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). Originally referring to Chinese wooden sailboats, which are still in use, nowadays “junk boat” is a blanket term for any charter boat in the Harbour City. Private companies and individuals alike hire them to host parties, touring the secluded beaches that make up Hong Kong’s outlying island. With winters here only reaching 15 degrees Celsius at its worst, junk boats can be enjoyed year round.

Growing up in Hong Kong, I slowly began to see summers as being incomplete without a “junk trip”. Comprising of a day out on a rented boat, junk trips usually comprise ten or more people spending the day bathing in the sun, swimming in the cerulean blue waters, or enjoying various water sports. And of course, a day out in the summertime would be incomplete without a veritable feast and ice-cold alcoholic drinks to keep the spirits as bright as the sun shining above.

Our trip took sixteen of us to Bluff Island (Chinese: Sha Tong Hau San沙塘口山, also known as Ung Kong甕缸). More than a perfect title for a spy novel, Bluff Island is located in Port Shelter, a habour south of the Sai Kung Peninsula. It is the key fragment of eight separate areas that form the Hong Kong Global Geopark, a UNESCO natural site. On a perfect day, there is much to enjoy and admire about the secluded island. Its southern side holds Sha Tong Hau Cave, which is one of the four biggest sea caves found on Hong Kong’s eastern waters. Rolling mountains stand sentry behind the narrow beach strip. The rocky coastlines zigzag in height, with the tallest at approximately 140 metres. These columns take on the form of hexagons, staggering to create the remarkable impression of multiple entryways into the island’s lush hills. As Hong Kong’s highest sea cliffs, more and more divers flock to the island to enjoy the high elevations and explore the marine life that thrives here. From above, this natural wonder bears striking resemblance to a swimming turtle.

Most of Bluff Island came into being roughly 146 – 145 million years ago, in the Late Jurassic Period. Waves of magma activity occurred in the area, breaking through stacking fault and pressure points underwater until it came to surface. Huge volcanic eruptions occurred, and the amazing explosions oozed lava onto ancient rock. Ash and fume danced in the air as fires burned below. As the lava cooled, rocks as wide as 400 metres were formed. They connected in a honeycomb pattern, leading to the multi-level hexagonal rock columns that dot the island’s perimeter. Hong Kong faced four stages of volcanic activity, which is sorted into four groups: the Tseun Wan Group, the Lantau Group, the Repulse Bay Group, and the Kai Sai Chu Group, the last of which formed Bluff Island.

I started the day bright and early. Though we weren’t meeting until 9 – 9:30 in the morning, I woke up at 6am. Living on the opposite side of Hong Kong, it took around two and a half hours for my sister, her husband and I to arrive at the meeting point in Sai Kung. After caffeinating at both Pret a Manger and Starbucks, we joined the others at the main pier. After boarding, the boat sped off into the horizon. Quickly, Sai Kung’s low-level buildings became the size of pinpricks.

Two other junk boats left the pier as we did. Cutting through the waters, the heavy storm clouds bothered none of us on our day off. The sun peeked out every now and then, promising occasional reprieves. This was more than enough for us. We anchored a ways from the shores of Bluff Island, joining two junk boats that were already settled there. After inflating the paddleboard, rafting tube, and inflatable mattress, a number of us headed off to enjoy the ocean. I used this time to take photos of the merry makers and sneak in a few crisps between shots. When the sky burst open and the rain beat a steady tattoo on the water’s surface, everyone laughed and screamed out in surprise. Surprisingly, everyone stayed as they were – enjoying themselves on either the dry boat or the rolling waves.

Thankfully, the sun decided to have mercy on us. Winds pushed the heavy clouds away, and warm rays of light reflected on the water. It was then that I joined those in the ocean. First joining the sun-soakers on the rafting tube, I switched to swimming with a colorful noodle before finally asking for a turn on the paddleboard. One impressive athlete had spent a significant portion of the afternoon encouraging others to try the sport, teaching them techniques and offering supportive words. Following the advice I had heard her dole out to others, I utilised my core and kept my knees slightly bent. For my first time on the paddleboard, things weren’t too bad. I fell all of twice and got back on by myself, even accomplishing two circuits around the junk boat. Without the aid of my glasses, on the second circuit I overestimated the boat’s distance and accidentally paddled to a different boat! The partygoers on the stranger ship were very understanding, encouraging me on as I slowly and steadily course-corrected back to my group.

We spent the rest of the day in typical junk trip fashion, eating foods we had all brought and drinking what had been prepared and purchased. Homemade tortilla wraps, chocolate and vanilla cake, sushi rolls, copious bags of crisps, cold beers, champagne, prosecco, and sangria all came together to form the most perfect food babies in our stomachs. Exhausted from the sun, the sport, and the food, the boat headed back to shore at around six in the afternoon.

Spending over six hours together, the time flew by in easy conversation, good food and great weather. At only 6,500 HKD (around 830 USD) for all sixteen of us, the day’s value was far more than the money we all put into making it possible.

The Seaside Wonder of Haedong Yonggung Temple

A visual masterpiece overlooking the East Sea, Haedong Yonggung Temple is a unique complex that stands in contrast to the typical temple located among mountain ranges. From the fresh sea-salt air, to the exquisite statues and structures that can be found within the complex, here are Five Reasons to Visit Haedong Yonggung Temple.

Location, Location, Location

Many Hindu and Buddhist complexes factor in the number 108, and visitors – knowingly or unknowingly – experience this. Haedong Yonggung is no exception. In Buddhism, the number 108 has several meanings. It is the number of earthly desires mortals have, the lies they tell, and the delusions they harbour. In the seaside temple, there are 108 steps leading to the centre at Daeungjeon Main Sanctuary.

One of a few seaside temples in all of South Korea, Haedong Yonggung occupies part of the rocky cliffs that make up Busan’s northeastern peninsula. Its unique location provides stunning views of the sunrise and sunset, which is one reason that attracts scores of visitors to the distant temple.

Two Divine Visions

Like countless places of worships, the temple was built as an answer to social struggle and human suffering. A drought plagued the entire country, leading to failed crops and a terrible famine. Feeling betrayed by the gods for not providing rain, the people started to turn away from Buddhism, which was already struggling under rampant corruption within the religious community.

According to legend, the idea came to Meditation Master Naong Hyegan in a dream. Visited by a sea god, Naong was told that if he built a temple on the edge between a specific mountain and the sea and prayed there, the people’s sufferings would be lifted. And so the now former royal consultant set off on his task. When he reached the site, Naong felt the auspicious energy of the environment. In accordance to the principles of pungsu-jiri-soel, the Korean principle of harmonising all aspects of nature, in 1376 he began work in earnest. The mountain that the sea god specifically noted was dubbed Dongrae, a reference to the pure state of mind that is gained through total isolation. The temple was called Bomun, in honour of the Gwanseum-bosal, the Goddess of Mercy.

Hundreds of years later, in 1974, a deity appeared once more. Jeong-am, newly appointed as the temple’s head monk, was dedicated to his practices of jeong-geon kido (“100 Days of Intensive Prayers”). In his devout worship, a vision of the Goddess of Mercy came to him. Dressed in a white gown, the goddess appeared on the back of a dragon. Behind them, a colourful stream of light shone brilliantly. When his intensive prayers were complete, the complex was given its current name, which means Dragon Palace Temple.

The Twelve Zodiac Statues

Before entering the temple complex, visitors are met by a neat row of statues. These are the Twelve Deities of the Oriental Zodiac. Representing the ultimate truth of the universe, the physical stone statues originated from China. Guardian deities who protect mortals, the anthropomorphic statues have human bodies and are differentiated by their animal heads.

In Buddhist legend, Gautama Buddha, the Founder off Buddhism, requesting an audience with all the animals of the world before he left this earth. All of twelve came to see Gautama. As a reward for their devotion, he named a year after each of the animals, resulting in the ever-revolving zodiac years. The years were given in the order of their arrival, with the rat arriving first and the pig last to give Gautama his well wishes.

An Abundance of Wishing Opportunities

Speaking of wishes, Haedong Yonggung has many opportunities for visitors to toss a coin and shut their eyes tight.

Walking the 108 steps that lead into the temple, visitors are greeted by the sight of miniature Buddhas. Just past the grand entrance gate sits a squat Buddha statue. Bald and beaming, the statue’s tummy is darkened from years of hopeful patting. He is the “Buddha of Granting a Son”. Further along, a series of Buddhas are comfortably protected underneath a makeshift tin roof. At their feet are rosaries, coins, and small gatherings of wildflowers. They are the “Buddhas of Academic Achievement”.

A staggering three-section wishing pond holds three shallow wells and two smaller basins. Visitors aim for the smaller basins, each held by a statue of a monk, equating the challenge with greater chances of their wishes coming true. Throwing your offering over an ornately carved stone bridge, another popular choice for aiming your coin is the farthest well. In the middle of it stands a statue of Buddha, glowing in its gold painted exterior. A towering stone wall surrounds the right side of the pond. Situated on top of the wall, twelve monks and a rabbit observe the scene below, watching as hopes and dreams fall into the small space.

Past the bridge are three notable golden figures. A larger-than-life statue of Maitreya Buddha, a figure that will appear in the future to succeed Gautama, sits comfortably with a cheery smile on his plump cheeks beside Daeungjeon Main Sanctuary. Close to Maitreya are two golden pigs. Comparably rotund and content, the happy pair are said to bring good fortune to those that pet them.

All around the complex, miniature monks sit on rocks and tree branches, similarly decorated with offerings of money and religious relics. A great portion of these monks can be found behind the statue of the Goddess of Mercy.

The Goddess of Mercy and the Beautiful View

A steep incline of stone steps guide you up to the grand sight of Gwanseum-bosal. Intrigue surrounds this monument. Very little snow has settled among the goddess in the temple’s long history, and arrowroot flowers still grow here in the cold winter months. Three days after it was settled, it is said that stunning lights, similar to those from Jeong-am’s vision, appeared out of nowhere and bathed the goddess in their brilliance.

From the Goddess of Mercy’s platform, visitors can also experience a full view of Haedong Yonggung and the surrounding East Sea. For lovers of panoramic views, the Goddess of Mercy statue, and the sunrise viewing platform, are top of the Busan to-do list.

Things to Know Before You Go

The Long Journey Ahead

Approximately an hour away from the city centre, Haedong Yonggung Temple is a popular site that can be reached by public transportation or taxi. If you show metro workers, bus drivers, or taxi drivers a map or the Korean for the temple name, they will happily point you in the right direction.

Feed Your Snacky Mood

Visited by Koreans and foreigners alike, local businesses thrive in the immediate vicinity. You can purchase fresh smoothies, grilled and skewered meat, sweet fruit, and much more to keep that hangry mood at bay.

Wear Comfortable Shoes

For the sake of your safety, leave fashion for the day, at least where your feet are concerned. The steps are steep at parts, the trail diverges onto winding dirt paths, and the bridge connecting the steps to the temple complex is a perfect circular curve. While great for photos, it can be a bit of a challenge for the feet.

A site that offers visual marvels both manmade and natural, Haedong Yonggung Temple is a great place to visit for all that appreciate art, architecture, cultural history, and sheer grit and determination of our ancestors!

The Long-Ago Charms of Valletta

Starting off our island vacation with the slow, easy pace of a turtle with time, we began our first full Maltese day at noon. Leaving our accommodations, the weather was wonderful. The sun was high in the sky, warm rays of light causing us to shed off our coats. A strong wind kept things interesting. In response, our steps were steadier, filled with the determined purpose of people with places to go and things to see. We joined many others in waiting for the ferry to Valletta. Arriving every fifteen minutes, we had just enough time to spread our arms wide and engage in photosynthesis. Even in the middle of December, many people were exploring the beautiful island. I couldn’t blame them. While temperatures remained comparable to Europe, the sun and the stunning sights made it feel like summer. The ferry ride was all we could have hoped for. Short and stunning, at the low cost of 2.80€ for a return ticket, we certainly got our money’s worth simply by wandering around.

Valleta is a district to be enjoyed at all angles. From street view to sky, there is always something to captivate you. The rolling nature of Valletta’s steep streets gave us a proper workout. We were both glad to have worn shoes fit for the task. Our walk around the district comprised of many short breaks. Stopping to admire and capture the beauty of its architecture, the day was spent discussing our favourite parts of each building and imagining the charmed lives of the people who had the good fortune to call this island home.

Alongside exquisite residential architecture, Valletta is a place proudly preserving its cultural past. Of these gems, our favourite was St. John’s Co-Cathedral. Located in the city centre, the Roman Catholic Co-Cathedral was constructed in the late 16th century between 1572 and 1577. Unique to St. John’s are its inlaid marble tombstones. Covering most of the flooring, these tombstones celebrate the lives of Knights of the Order, as well as illustrious aristocratic families of Europe. Immaculately preserved, these marble slabs are cordoned off, lest the details get worn away over time.

Most impressive were the portraits detailing the ceiling. Framed in gold and with shocking detail and expressive colours noticeable even at ground level, the ceilings were a tribute to the artistic talents of the 16th century, a solemn nod to the painters and carpenters that made such awe inspiring works bring even more life and admiration into these houses of worship.

After a day of admiring the beauty that Valletta had to offer, we stepped back in time for dinner. A space enshrined in the beauty and simplicity of the 1940s, Jubilee’s Café was exactly what we needed. Reasonably priced, most of the dishes came at under 10€ each. I ordered the lampuki – a fish native to Malta’s waters , more commonly referred to as mahi-mahi – pie and an infusion of ginger, lemon, and green tea. After a long day of walking and photographing, this hearty meal hit the spot. So hungry after our wandering, we finished our meals in half an hour, heartily thanking the staff for the energising meal.

If cities that belong in fantasy novels are your cup of tea, Valletta is definitely a place to see.

The Romance of Classic Stationary: Oxford’s Creative Gem

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Taking its visitors into a world that blends the beauty of English and Italian design; Scriptum Fine Stationary has proudly showcased the best of independent European craft in the world of stationary since 2003. Moving to Turl Street, their current location, which I happily lost myself for an hour, Scriptum’s dedication to classic craftsmanship is something to be revered.

Selling personal stationary largely sourced from small businesses in England and Italy, the romance of its timeless objects emanates throughout the cosy space. On the first floor, feathered ink pens, dyed marbles, leather bound journals, and ornate magnifying glasses bring to mind polished oak desks and wide windows overlooking the countryside.

The aesthetic joys continue on the second floor. Hanging models of hot air balloons hover overhead. Venetian masks, in a myriad of colours and sizes, are neatly arranged on a wooden shelf in the side. Decorated papers intended for personal letters are bordered with neat swirls and blooming flowers. Most exciting, a series of vibrant folios stand on display.

Their spines decorated with swirling text and enchanting illustrations, it’s difficult to ignore their siren call. So I didn’t. Choosing Volume One of Andrew Lang’s Fairy Tales from Around the World, I left looking forward to the fantasy realm Scriptum had made available to me.

Going Around the Getty: A Beautiful Day Seeing Art in LA

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With the sky a perfect shade of blue and the occasional breeze complimenting the warm rays of the sun, my Saturday in LA was too lovely to stay indoors. Easily making my way to the hillside site of the Getty Centre, a free tram system led visitors from the foot of the hill to the museum entrance. Even though I arrived half an hour prior to opening time, the line was considerably long. People mostly came in groups, and all wielded a camera to capture their favourite pieces for posterity.

What I enjoyed most about the museum was how it shifted between eras and genres of art; from Renaissance theistic art to Roman-Greek statues, furniture from Versailles, a modern installation on the changing nature of the written word, and even a cactus garden. There was something for everyone, and not a soul I passed was without a smile.

There is always something to be gained from exposing yourself to the past. In art, something fantastic and awe-inspiring can be discovered in any and all forms. There is always wonderful to be discovered within weird. Through enjoying varieties of art, maybe you’ll find a way to enjoy parts of yourself you’re less certain of.

Wandering Around Oxford: The City’s Best Walking Route

During my fleeting four-day stay at Oxford, every single adventure began and ended with walking. Though I was staying at a friend’s house that was almost an hour from the city centre on foot, I didn’t tire from all the traipsing around. There was too much to see, from the classic architecture to the variety of life being lived in this fine university city. Students rushing from class to class, tourists armed with expensive cameras and comically large guide maps, stall keepers selling jewellery and collectibles designed to catch the eye, and crooning buskers who gave a smile to anyone who stopped and took the time to listen to the music.

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With all this walking, naturally my mind decided upon its favourite routes taken. Funnily enough, these three routes were all taken on the same day, one leading directly into the other.

The Oxford Botanic Garden & Arboretum, charging a small fee to visitors and students alike, is well worth the price of admission. Glasshouses hosted flora originating from tropical climes. The gardens were coloured with a myriad of flowers and herbs. Sturdy trees, their leaves expressed in the form of either a wide umbrella or arms lazily swaying in the air, provided plenty of shade and comfort. Everyone I passed by was in good spirits, enjoying this little piece of heaven tucked away in the city corner.

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Leaving the gardens, I headed along Dead Man’s Walk. So named for its medieval history as a processional path for Jewish funerals, its sombre past did nothing to diminish the peace and tranquility of the walk. Trees lining either side of the wide path kept the afternoon glare of the sun away. What light managed to filter through the leaves created wonderful shifting patterns on the dusty path.

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Christ Church College greeted me at the end of the short walk. Perfect for lovers of history, fantasy, and beauty, Christ Church was one of the filming sites for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, its grand staircase utilised in the scene where harry met Draco Malfoy for the first time. In the College’s Great Hall, another fantasy world is brought to life. Housing the infamous Alice Window, all of Lewis Carroll’s most popular characters are immortalised in stained glass, from Alice’s signature sky-blue dress to the Dodo Bird’s brilliant plumage.

To all who have little time to enjoy the fascinating city of Oxford, I highly recommended walking along this path.

Woolsthorpe Manor: Not Just About the Apples

Located near Grantham, Lincolnshire in the village of Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth, Isaac Newton’s childhood home is perfectly preserved for generations to walk through and appreciate this little piece of history. Lush countryside surrounds the humble estate. A sturdy apple tree grows near the entrance, offering a sneak peek at what’s to come. Wild mushrooms with tabletop heads bend and flow, in much likeness of the mushrooms from Carroll’s Alice. Surrounded by all these natural splendours, it is no wonder Newton’s mind was a creative and expansive resource.

Before entering the quaint house, we pass by a pay-what-you-can bookshop. Located in the former stables, the timber-enforced ceiling, combined with stone walls and floors, create a space that is at once rustic chic and a perfectly cool oasis from the summer sun. Heading into the house, we headed right into the kitchen. Typical of most yeoman farmhouses, the kitchen had a large space that would have served as the stove – cooking area, and banisters above your head where vegetables and meat would be hung. Like the rest of the household, the kitchen was arranged with furniture comparable to that of the seventeenth century.

The dining room and the study were decorated with simple wooden furniture. Several windows peered into the rest of the estate. All of the windows were plain in design, offering unimpeded looks into the world outside. Most notable of these views were the ones into the garden. The famous apple tree associated with Newton’s law of universal gravitation lives on. By growing a tree with part of the original, Newton’s legacy lives on.

Not only is Newton’s tree preserved, but so are his doodles. What would have us yelled at by our parents is carefully protected by the National Trust. Sketches, carvings, and notes written on the wall have been uncovered by archaeologists over the years and fiercely safeguarded by the use of glass cases overlaying these historical gems. Newton was notorious for scribbling on surfaces and objects that were not meant for writing. His mind was a whirlwind of ideas, working too fast for organised thoughts of parchment and ink. One notable sketch, the first on the left, depicts what National Trust guides suggest could be a soldier, as Newton would have seen them marching by.

Setting our thoughts on Newton back down to earth, Woolsthorpe Manor was an enchanting look into a great figure’s past.

Renewed Life in Peng Chau

In the island town of Peng Chau, the entrance to an artistic secret garden lies, unassuming, between two shop buildings. Leather Factory, so named for formerly being the location of two leather factories, is a cosy world-unto-itself primarily consisting of art formed from recyclable material. From the narrow passageway leading you into the space, graffiti lines the walls. Colourful paper cups are arranged on the ceiling in circles imitating the sun. At the end of the passageway is a series of photo collages. Titled Symbiotic, this piece by Nicolas Lemal explores human perception through intimate and tasteful shots of unidentified peoples.

Once past the entrance, marvellous curiosities are aplenty. To the left sits a chair fit for a giant. Painted a royal blue and towering over visitors, this grand seat is definitely BFG approved. To the right is the self-declared Concrete Jungle. Creatively utilising the empty spray paint cans that must have coloured the walls, bicycle parts, children’s toys and so on, Concrete Jungle forces viewers to reconsider how objects take up space and how their meanings are transformed when presented in ways atypical of their function.

Behind Concrete Jungle sits a darling little garden. Bursting with carefully arranged fauna and one side providing a cool respite from the glaring sun, the garden is an ideal hangout spot. A sinewy statue of found metal objects desperately reaches out to the sky, in likeness of the Tower of Babbel. Glowing rays light up the structure, drawing the eye to its myriad of unique lines and curves.

Across from the garden is a stunning work that speaks to the desire for success that is inherent in all individuals. Starting from the ground level, a link of cycling vehicles – all coloured in the same burgundy hue – make the brave climb up the wall and towards the heavens.

With plans to renovate part of the space into a B&B, Leather Factory is a unique spot to visit on a trip to Hong Kong. Its one-of-a-kind displays are the perfect way to get out of your head, excusing your mind from self-doubt and worry and diving into the wonder and intrigue of contemporary art and how it can affect and interact with the environment. Visiting Leather Factory also kept me well-grounded. The second instalment in Kevin Kwan’s addictive trilogy, China Rich Girlfriend had me dreaming of Gastby-esque fortunes and feeling irrationally sorry for my current place in life. Beautifully expressed and demonstrating that money isn’t everything, Kwan still made the internal struggles of the rich sound like suffering in the best sense.