Tag Archives: street art

Travel Guide: Leipzig

Many years ago, so many that I don’t remember quite when it started, I fantasized about moving to Europe and travelling around by train. Each time I have had the opportunity to sit on a train with a book in my hands and watch the world go by, I have smiled at the hopes and dreams we have when we are young. And then, this time, it happened: I have moved to Europe and I was travelling by train.

Located in the state of Saxony, Leipzig was first known as a merchant town in the Middle Ages. It later became the centre of East German life after the Second World War, and is now a home for history and culture, telling a story a thousand years old. It’s an hour and twenty minutes from Weimar on the regional train (no changes) and slightly faster with the ICE train (but there’s a change in Erfurt). A city of 600,000 people, Leipzig made for a nice change of pace and far broader food choices.

I left early and arrived just after 9am, which gave me time to get a coffee and something to eat before joining the free walking tour (I have so many good things to say about this in so many cities). It’s always a pleasure to wander, but wandering becomes something different when you know what you’re seeing. I will not relay the history of Leipzig here, but I will say that much of the old town has been reconstructed because two-thirds of it was destroyed during the war.

Leipzig University is a good example of the story architecture can tell. There was once a church here, the Paulinerkirche, which was destroyed in 1968. The reconstruction pays homage to what was while honouring the different values university communities often hold today.

Another prominent church is Nikolaikirche, which I came across on my own before our tour guide explained Leipzig’s experience as part of the German Democratic Republic (former East Germany). It made my heart soar when I first saw it, and even more so when I learned that this church was the site of the peace marches that signaled the end of communism and the beginning of a new era of life and politics. I have a great appreciation for any religious community that stands for what it preaches – justice, peace, and a better world for us all.

This mural tells the story better than I can:

Through a discussion with the tour guide, I learned that Leipzig has the largest Jewish community in central Germany and that there is also a tour of Leipzig’s Jewish history. I will have to return for this because it’s only offered once a month, so in the meantime I walked over to the Holocaust memorial. Situated on the site of the old synagogue, this memorial brought to mind not masses, but individuals. The modern restaurants and apartment buildings surrounding it demonstrate what I continue to find the most fascinating aspect of humanity – the world turns and life goes on.

Later in the afternoon, I walked south into a neighbourhood called KarLi, nicknamed for its main street. It did not surprise me that this is where many students live. Students have a way of developing areas to suit them, or perhaps it is the neighbourhoods themselves that have called students there. I currently live in a student neighbourhood and while my annoyance at their penchant for late hours is a clear reminder that I have left that world behind, I am grateful for the positivity, energy, and spirit that comes from being young and imaginative. These are, after all, the people who make the world go round.

I saw many examples of activism throughout Leipzig and that was heartening. There’s a lot to be active about right now, and while I’m aware that actions speak far louder than words, most actions begin as words. Even a whisper is better than standing idly on the sidelines.

My time in Leipzig lasted just over 24 hours. I was glad to be around more people, hear more languages, and taste different food. I appreciated the time in a new place, the ease of travel, and the excitement of learning something new. Leipzig is just down the road and there’s a literary festival in March – I suspect I’ll be back.

Travel Guide: Yogyakarta

Yogyakarta, also known as Jogja because it’s easier to say (according to the local guide who answered my question about that), is located on the Indonesian island of Java. It’s the only Javanese city still ruled by a monarch and is home to Indonesia’s best universities. A large student population, special government status, and a unique heritage and culture make Jogja a lovely place to spend a long weekend. I’ve been wanting to visit for some time and I was really glad to finally have the opportunity to do so.

We arrived early in the afternoon and started off with a walk to get our bearings. Jogja is bright, sunny, and hot and we were happy to take the suggestions of a few locals who stopped us to chat. They sent us to a couple batik art galleries and told us about cultural events taking place over the weekend. As we walked, we saw quite a few murals, which is always a highlight for me.

We walked along Jalan Malioboro, a very busy central street lined with shops and street sellers selling souvenirs and batik clothing. It was entirely too hot and overwhelming to be there during the day and we decided to go back in the evening. Jalan Malioboro is very tourist-oriented and the real local markets, which we saw by car the next day, are located a few streets over.

The primary reason for our visit to Jogja was to see Borobudur and Prambanan, two very famous temples. We went on a Friday to avoid weekend crowds and that actually worked out really well. Borobudur dates back to the ninth century and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s the largest Buddhist temple in the world and designed so that visitors follow the path of Buddhism from the base of the temple, symbolising the world of desire, up to the top of the temple, symbolising the Buddhist cosmology of forms and then of formlessness.

It was amazing to see how much had been reconstructed, as well as how much hadn’t. Indonesia experiences frequent earthquakes and their effects are present here as much as elsewhere.

Borobudur is about an hour and a half away from Jogja and our driver pointed out interesting spots along the way, told us about Indonesian farming, and answered our questions about life in Jogja and the rest of Indonesia. On our way back to the car my friend commented that it’s interesting how the best-known part of Borobudur, the stupas at the top, are hidden until you get there. I mused that this fit into the design of the temple – you have to do the hard work on the individual self before reaching that point of clarity.

Our next stop was Prambanan, Indonesia’s largest Hindu temple and also a UNESCO site. It’s about two hours from Borobudur and, just like the first temple, took us about two hours to explore. I was really glad we went because the two temples were completely different. The architecture was noticeably different, in keeping with the typical style of each religion, but so was the feel. There was a sense of mystery at Prambanan that I had not experienced at Borobudur.

Prambanan tells the story of the Hindu Ramayana epic and has temples dedicated to different Hindu deities, the most important of whom are Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Protector), and Shiva (the Destroyer).

The ruins here were even more prominent than at Borobudur, too, due to significant damage from a 2006 earthquake.

The grounds around Prambanan are home to yet more Buddhist temples. We stopped to look at Lumbung . . .

. . . and Bubrah . . .

. . . and spent some time wandering around Sewu, which was definitely the coolest of the three. It was actively undergoing renovation, but empty other than us and the workers. It’s weird to wander a temple complex removed from crowds. Borobudur wasn’t busy but there were people around every corner. At Sewu, we were keenly aware of being alone and aware of the novelty of the experience.

The following day we visited Batik Winotosastro, an active batik workshop that also hosts batik classes for visitors. Our experience there was fantastic and I highly recommend a visit. A lovely woman introduced us to the workshop and set us right to work. We chose patterns to trace onto our cloth and then she moved us over to real batikers. We learned how to hold the dipper that contains the wax (I’ll be honest – I found this really difficult) and proceeded to trace the lines we’d just penciled. The batikers were working on additional layers of colour beyond the base layer and it was amazing to watch them and see how intricate, detailed, and precise their lines were. They prettied up our wax outlines while our guide showed us around the workshop.

Batik can be hand drawn or stamped, we learned. The stamps are copper and have been around a very long time, but the hand drawn batik are more expensive. When our batik were prettier than we’d left them, our guide took us over to the woman responsible for dyeing . . .

. . . and the man who boiled off the wax . . .

. . . and finally to the women with sewing machines who hemmed the edges to finish off.

It was a real pleasure to learn from such a knowledgeable person and to experience how an actual batik workshop operates. Watching a traditional process in action was a great learning experience and says a lot about Jogja’s desire to maintain its heritage. I am always glad to support places like that.

Our afternoon destination was a quick trip to the Water Castle, which is located on the grounds of the royal palace. The only section preserved today is the bathing complex where the sultan and his ladies would relax.

I really liked the neighbourhood around the Water Castle, too. It was bright and colourful, though very quiet. We noticed that people in Jogja tended to avoid the outdoors in the middle of the day, which is not what I have seen in other places with similar weather but definitely something that I understand.

For our last evening, we headed back down Jalan Malioboro to experience the night market. It was busy and crowded and still rather overwhelming but I’m really glad we went.

I was particularly taken by the street food stalls that opened up and attracted just about everybody.

And furthermore, we were in Indonesia. They take coffee very seriously here. Filter coffee from a street cart!

Before going to the airport the following day, we went back to the royal palace, the Kraton Ngayogyakarta Hadiningrat. The palace hosts cultural performances daily so we got to hear some Javanese music and see traditional dance.

The palace also has several museums explaining different traditions and rituals. There are a few artifacts on display throughout the complex, as well.

After another cup of coffee from Tanamera Coffee, a local roastery and café that we visited a couple of times, it was time to go. We had a lovely long weekend in Yogyakarta and I would definitely recommend it for lovers of history, art, and culture. Happy travels!

Travel Guide: Seoul and Around

My friend and I took a high-speed train from Busan to Seoul and immediately on arrival I noted the cooler weather and the need to don my trench coat, which was really exciting. I hadn’t been in real fall (or autumn, if you prefer) for a long time!

We were staying in Insadong in order to be at the centre of the action. The neighbourhood is a wonderful mix of contemporary art galleries and traditional crafts, restaurants, clothing stores, dessert cafés, and the Ssamzigil shopping mall that specialises in handicrafts. Food vendors line the streets alongside vendors of yet more crafts and souvenirs.

Insadong has a pretty robust night life, too.

An evening walk took us to Jogyesa Temple, which was celebrating its Chrysanthemum Festival. Jogyesa is the main temple of the Buddhist Jogya Order and, like many temples in Korea, hosts a templestay program in which visitors can spend a day or more at a temple to learn about Korea Buddhist practices and living. (If I have the opportunity to return to Korea, I’d be interested in taking part.) Not having expected anything like it, we were surprised and delighted to see the chrysanthemums in the dark.

The next day was possibly my favourite day of our nine days in Korea and definitely the most unique. We took the metro to the train to the ferry until we arrived at Nami Island, an island in the middle of North Han River. Nami Island considers itself a nation, the Naminara Republic, and has its own passport, stamp, and currency. All of these can only be used on island but the symbolism struck me. Unfortunately, the officials did not stamp our passports after we paid the visa fee before boarding the ferry.

We spent the day enjoying the fall colours; I didn’t realise how much I’d missed them until they were right in front of me. I also really enjoyed the trees, flowers, plants, and animals that we don’t have in Singapore. Nami Island is famous for its appearance in K-dramas, which I don’t know anything about, but I appreciated it as a charming escape from a big city.

Nami Island has a beautiful emphasis on, in its own words, imagination, fairy tales, and nature itself. It also hosts the Nami Concours to highlight and celebrate picture book illustrators. The island was filled with signs of how the Naminara Republic fashioned itself and I enjoyed it very much. Nami Island also has artists workshops, galleries, and souvenir shops, as well as art on display across the island. It was very pleasant to walk around, especially since the sun came out over the course of the day.

This is also the first time And of course, I enjoyed the ferry very much. (I do really miss working on boats.)

We organised our time in Seoul around day trips, so we spent every other day in or out of the city. After Nami Island we were due for an urban day. Accordingly, we spent the morning at Gyeongbokgung Palace, the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty built in the late fourteenth century. Luckily, we arrived just in time for the changing of the guards!

Like much else, the palace was destroyed by the Japanese during the twentieth century occupation but had also been destroyed by fire in the 1500s. The palace is the size of a small city and covers about 410,000 square meters, which is only a fraction of its original size. Today, the grounds are open for visitors as are individual buildings and two museums.

Anyone wearing the traditional Korean hanbok entered the palace for free and we saw all kinds of people in traditional clothes. There were rental studios in every touristy area and it was refreshing to see men, women, and children of different nationalities and body types dressed up. I was initially very resistant (insert self-critical thoughts here) but we ultimately decided to do what everyone else was doing and I’m really glad we did. We returned to the palace two days later in our hanbok.

After our first visit to the palace, still deep in discussion about wearing the hanbok, we walked over to Bukchon Hanok Village, a collection of hilly streets with traditional houses. There were a few restored homes open to visitors as well as a handicrafts centre offering short sessions on different types of crafts.

Still steeped in tradition, we headed back to Insadong to experience a traditional teahouse. This one was built around a courtyard with a room of low tables and floor cushions and a second room of tables and chairs. Tea was served hot or iced with traditional Korean sweets. We chose dried persimmon stuffed with walnuts and Korean rice cakes, as well as iced balloon flower citrus tea and iced cinnamon tea. The presentation and flavours were different from any tea we’d had (and high tea is a common social activity in Singapore) and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

We spent the evening in Hongdae, a neighbourhood near Hongik University. As predicted, it was full of all the quirks of a university neighbourhood, including street art!

Hongdae’s shops were eclectic and fun, densely packed, and extremely popular. It’s very entertaining to see different trends and the lifestyle that goes along with them. In Korea, fashion and cosmetic trends are as popular for men as they are for women and there seems to be relatively little convention around fashion choices. Everyone clearly has a style, but the style itself comes from anywhere under the sun. Contact lenses are even sold like any other type of makeup – as an enhancement of what is already there.

There was a Halloween street party in Hongdae, too, and it was fun to watch the set up for that. It appears that Korea is just like it’s shown in the movies and people really do perform K-pop in the streets!

After a day in the city it was time to get out of Seoul again and take the train 30km south to Suwon. Seoul’s metro system is so sprawling that one train took us all the way there. Suwon is Korea’s last completely walled city and the primary reason to visit is to walk the 5.4km wall of the fortress. It was lovely to spend yet another day outside in cold wind and bright blue sky.

It was really neat to watch the skyline unfold as we climbed higher, too. Korea is a hilly country and the fortress rolled along with the land.

After a day in Suwon we had one final day in Seoul. As discussed and investigated, we rented our hanbok for ₩10,000 for two hours, which gave us plenty of time to return to Gyeongbokgung Palace to take photos. We’d worried about feeling silly and out of place for dressing up, but it quickly became clear that people from all over the world do this because it’s fun! As soon as we walked out of the rental shop a woman stopped us to chat about our experience in Korea. Later on, different people offered to take our photo. It was a lot of fun and a nice little confidence boost.

Just like our first day at the palace, we went back to Insadong for traditional tea, this time in a tea house that opened into a cozy room with plaster walls lined with benches, stools, and tables. Different teas and desserts and a similarly lovely experience.

In sharp contrast to traditional clothes, the palace, and Insadong, our next destination was Gangnam across the Han River, which runs through Seoul. We stopped first at the COEX library in a mall . . .

. . . and then walked through the business district until we reached Gangnam Square and all of the entertainment around it.

It was fun to experience traditional Seoul in the morning and modern, glittery Seoul in the evening. That was something I noticed throughout our trip – the infusion of traditional and modern culture everywhere we went. There was an ease to being in Korea that I hadn’t experienced before, a sense that being whoever you were was just fine and that we should treat others accordingly. The world could do with more of that.