A Serendipitous Visit to Wat Thep Phitak Phunnaram
While driving along Thanon Mittraphap (ถนน มิตรภาพ, Thai Highway No. 2) on the way to Mueang Nakhon Ratchasima one hot afternoon, I caught a glimpse of a glistening white thing mid-way up a mountainside that was enveloped in low-hanging clouds. I made for the nearest U-turn slot on the highway to investigate further.
Turning into the road leading to the place, this was what one would see. Notice that the road was very straight and aligned exactly with the white speck perched on the mountainside.
Getting closer, it became more apparent that it was a statue of the Buddha built on the mountainside. The U-turn actually took a while and by the time I was at the threshold of the site, the clouds had lifted although a hazy mist could still be seen.
From afar, the view of the Buddha was magnificent and beautyful! It seemed like it was floating over the tropical forest that covered the mountain (which I later learned to be Khao Si Siaat Aa). If one drove down this very straight road, eventually, one would reach an arch that serves as the gate of a temple complex. To the right of the archway was a large parking lot with basic amenities for travellers. On that afternoon, only one other vehicle was parked and there was a scattering of vendors, ostensibly local farmers, selling fruits and vegetables. Among those that greeted me were a flock of peacocks and peahens, a quaint detail because these fowl were not endemic to Thailand.
When I walked into the temple complex, some monks and a few other people were cleaning up the public dining area (it was around 2 p.m. by then). Apparently, this temple provided free meals to anyone who happened to be around the time the monks would be having their last meal for the day.
As it was mid-day, there were only a few souls wandering about the place (definitely not more than five) and doing some of the usual rituals that Buddhists and Thais call “making merit.” Down a small lane, one could see the monks’ huts and what I surmise are lecture halls for those studying to be monks.
At the center of the complex is a shimmering white Buddha mirroring the one midway up the mountain that could be reached by climbing a little over 600 steps (618 to be exact) on each side of the platform at the back of the more earthbound Buddha. Information that one could gather from the net would indicate that a total of 1,250 steps led to the Buddha on the mountain. Whichever of these was right, I would not find out because I did not have the time (nor the courage) to do the trek.
I recall the time I went with colleagues to a cave in Central Vietnam that entailed climbing about 1,200 steps to reach the entrance only to find out that just beyond the mouth of the cave, we had to go down another 1,200 steps to reach the floor of the cave. I was expecting that somehow, the exit would be somewhere at the end of that cavernous hall inside the cave only to be informed that the way out would entail climbing up and down those 2,400 steps again. Or, if we did not want to endure that, we could walk about 40 kilometers into the cave to reach an exit that did not require using those stairways! I now look back and wonder how we survived those 5,000 steps; to think there were even pregnant women among the crowd that visited that place that day. But that is for another post…
I was told by a Buddhist nun that people visit the place to make wishes at the shrine. Apparently, if one offered lotus flowers, lit candles and joss sticks (conveniently on sale at a stall near the earthbound Buddha) and fervently prayed for whatever it was that they were wishing for, it would be granted. Maybe that was the reason why people made treks to this place.
I was also told that this place was built by a former army soldier who wanted to do something spiritually meaningful when he retired. Judging from what I saw, it was a really busy retirement, indeed. But then, seeing the amount of work and dedication one had to put into making this shrine a reality, one could only admire the determination and zeal of the person behind it.
Following are a few more photos I took during this visit.
Though one could spend hours meandering all over this place and going up the mountain to see the big Buddha up close and take in the view of the Korat Plateau, this trip did not accord me with that luxury as it was all unplanned. On the way out, this peahen bid a colorful farewell.
What a beautyful goodbye!
Wat Thep Phitak Phunnaram Drone Video from Air Vision on YouTube
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Getting there is a challenge if taking public transport. As with most places in rural Thailand, the best way to travel is to rent a car either to drive on your own or with a driver. Rentals are reasonably priced and service is superb.
Scrolling through my phone’s photo album, I found this Tower of Tempura that brought back memories associated with this dish I recently had the joy of sharing with friends! The very beauty of the tower of battered tiger prawns reflects the beauty of having friends who are there not only to share so many dishes and plates of food with but also to share in life’s tribulations and celebrations.
Japanese food has always been associated with high prices and unduly consigned to be aspirational for those whose means do not match their desires. Of course, there are joints serving food masquerading as Japanese but, as they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating and, unfortunately, a lot of these places fail to provide the proof!
The most unpretentious pretenders to be purveyors of Japanese cuisine can be found among the plethora of fast-food joints that dot any major city in the world. Most, if not all, are sincere attempts at creating a semblance of being Japanese by borrowing specific and conspicuous elements of the cuisine such as liberally coating various food morsels with flour batter and deep-frying them in whatever local fat is predominantly used in cooking. (Gets me thinking, could it be that they use clarified yak butter in Tibet and Mongolia to come up with their versions of tempura? Or, while at it, rendered whale or seal blubber in Alaska? Btw, Japanese use sesame oil, a light oil that does not distract the diner from the flavor of the food.)
The saving grace of these joints is that they also have unpretentious prices making their fare within reach of the hoi polloi giving the latter a faint idea and notion of what Japanese cuisine might be.
What really can be aggravating are those joints that believe their fantasy and consider themselves to be paragons perched on the ivory tower of Japanese haute-cuisine with the lofty prices to match their haughtiness when in reality, they won’t even make the grade at being a cheap izakaya in a little lane of a non-descript tiny Japanese hamlet.
But I digress. The tower of tempura that brought memories of the fun time with friends is surprisingly good; procured from an unpretentious food stall at a pseudo-food court at a reasonable price. The batter is light and crunchy owing to its being cooked at correct temperatures (cold batter, hot oil) that makes the batter explode into a puffy shell coating the food (in this case tiger prawns).
My only misgiving is that the accompanying dip is on the sweet side, which to my knowledge is not the way a tempura dip should be. Tempura sauce is made from a mixture of soy sauce, sweet rice vinegar, and a broth made with dried bonito and kelp. At the table, grated daikon (Japanese radish) is added to provide a dash of freshness. The resulting dip highlights the flavor of the tempura rather than overwhelm it; which is not the case with the dip that accompanied this tower of tempura.
Being more of a purist in terms of flavor, I tend to like food as prepared without masking or revising the flavors with dips and sauces. It is through this sparing approach that one gets to experience the nuances of the dish prepared by the cook. It is such a delight to capture hints of the various ingredients and spices used in the dish one is having and trying to deconstruct the flavor harmony created by combining various elements of the dish. (Is that tarragon or thyme or dill? Is it lemon or lime? Is it gouda or emmanthaler?)
For those who are more inclined to capture the essence of the food ingredients, another traditional dip for tempura is simply salt; a way of eating tempura that is very rarely seen outside of Japan. I had my share of the Tower of Tempura and ate it plain, not even complementing it with salt. To my delight, the portion I had tasted of pure prawn with a hint of its natural sweetness, perfectly steamed in its own juices within the enveloping crunchy flour batter that provided a counterpoint to the prawn’s delicate texture. This is the second time I had tempura from that stall and it was done perfectly well each time. They must have mastered their technique to be able to consistently deliver the same quality. Now, if only they could improve on their tempura sauce…
Tempura is so fundamentally representative of Japanese cuisine showcasing the purity and essence of, not only the cuisine, but of the culture and philosophy of Japan. Lots of people will be surprised to learn that this quintessential of Japanese dishes actually traces its origins to both China and the West (specifically Portugal and Spain).
Fried food was brought to Japan by Chinese Buddhist monks about a thousand years ago in the form of Togashi, a fried sweet delicacy used as temple offerings. Buddhism having become widespread in Japan, the people refrained from eating meat and eventually devised various ways of making plant-based food more palatable and enjoyable. One of those methods was frying vegetables and its derivatives (e.g. ground chickpeas, tofu, tauhu, etc.) to make them more robust tasting and also to create faux-meat dishes.
When the Portuguese and Spanish missionaries and traders landed on Japanese shores in the 16th century, they brought with them a method of cooking whereby ingredients were coated with a flavored flour batter which would be akin to present-day fritatas or fritos. The flavored batter was a bit too heavy for Japanese tastes, though, and hence, a truly Japanese innovation was incorporated by stripping it of flavor and sticking with the essential ingredients of flour, salt, egg, and water. This modification adhered more to the Japanese predilection to focus on the flavors of the ingredients rather than “enhance” with flavorings and spices; which, to the Japanese palate translates to masking the essence of the food.
Tempura’s etymology is vague and some attribute it to the Portuguese word “tempora” or “tempero;” the former referring to the the method of preparation and the latter with the practice of temperance by avoiding the consumption of meat. Whatever it is, the word “tempura” is now internationally known as synonymous with fried batter-coated seafood and vegetables.
I found NHK’s Begin Japanology video entitled “Tempura” on YouTube. It has a plethora of information and trivia on, you guessed it, tempura!
Going back to the Tower of Tempura, my friends and I had a great time, surely made more fun by having that plate of tempura to share. It was so much fun we had another serving to cap the night! Beautyful!
Bari Oishi, stall at the Pioneer Street Market on Reliance St., Highway Hills, Mandaluyong City, Philippines. Open from 10 a.m. till 10 p.m.
Project S: Side by Side may seem like a typical youth-oriented drama about two adolescents passionately pursuing their dreams of grandeur in the world of badminton sports. I choose however to delve deeper into the chaotic interrelationships of the four main characters of this drama as they face life and each other as a unique family.
Nothing is ever simple when it comes to family matters. Things are undeniably never black or white as far as choices are concerned. Most of the time, we end up making decisions seemingly against our better judgment in our pursuit of pleasing the people we love.
Side by Side is actually a tale of a love that eventually conquers all. It is a story of acceptance between two sisters who loved the same man, a story of the never-ending saga between a mother and son forever seeking love and attention from each other, a story of love between brothers whose bonds are tried and tested by the tangled circumstances of their family.
Taeng is a gifted badminton player whose career regrettably ends when she falls in love with her sister’s husband and bears a love child during a moment of weakness. The guilt and embarrassment she feels for her mistake subsequently defines her lifelong actions and spurs her to devote her every waking moment to her sister’s autistic son to repay for her sin.
Elder sister Tum portrays your stereotypical self-sacrificing matriarch of the family willing to do everything to keep the family together. She focuses mainly on providing adequate financial support in an effort to avoid facing the more difficult but essential emotional needs of the family.
Dong, Taeng’s kind-hearted child, obediently takes on the role of the understanding son and responsible brother but who eventually questions life as he comes of age and discovers the true nature of his existence.
And finally we have Gym, the autistic son of Tum who naturally expects everyone to revolve around his self-centered world. He is introduced to badminton to help improve his social skills and the sport becomes the driving force for him to cope and have a more meaningful life despite his condition.
The drama is quite engaging as one almost unconsciously empathizes with the different characters because of the familiar situations. The gamut of emotions shown by the four leads – betrayal, anger, resentment, hopelessness, frustration, jealousy… the list goes on, takes you on an exciting yet tumultuous rollercoaster ride. In the end, how do they resolve these different challenges and dilemmas life brings all of them?
Can Tum forgive Taeng’s betrayal of trust? Why does she agree to support Taeng and Dong – who is an ever-present and grating reminder of her husband’s infidelity and sister’s treachery? Can she give in to the utter hopelessness of Gym’s unrelenting hatred and disgust for her?
Taeng’s emotional baggage is quite heavy in the same way. Can she ever let go of the unrelenting guilt in her heart? Will she realize how much she has made Dong suffer as a result of this guilt to make up for it in time to save her relationship with her son?
And can we blame Dong for rebelling against his mother after being such an obedient son and understanding brother to Gym? Can he easily accept the truth of the identity of his father? How does he cope with forever being second fiddle to Gym for his mother’s affection?
Innocent and simple-minded Gym is not spared from his teenage angst as well. Can he control the violent tantrums he lets go when faced with defeat or disappointment? Is he able to capitalize on his strengths and become a more mature individual despite his reduced mental capacity? Will he be able to learn how to care for others over his own selfish needs?
Side by Side clearly depicts Man as by nature truly good. Faced with all these typical adversities, he still would strive to do what is right and best especially for the ones he loves.
We witnessed Tum’s incredible capacity to forgive and embrace what was more essential. She refused defeat when it was so tempting to give in to utter despair, opting instead to persevere and continue on for the sake of her family.
Taeng’s overzealous devotion to Gym might have salved her conscience but it almost cost her losing Dong. Open communications finally led her on the way to their reconciliation with the respect and confidence she gifted Dong to enable him to grow and mature.
Perhaps it was Dong who was maligned the most as everyone continually demanded from him the love and understanding they all needed even as he never got much in return. The good son and brother that he was, it took him much courage and firm resolve to decide to stand on his own and give himself the opportunity to grow and prove his own worth. The love he felt for his whole family remained despite his independent journey to discover himself.
It was heart-warming to see Gym slowly break free from his complete dependence on his nuclear family and gradually realize his significance to the society. The struggles he sought to overcome to counter his selfish countenance wrought mainly by his autism clearly evidenced triumph of the human spirit. His innocent view of the world empowered him to fully appreciate what mattered most in his life.
So many life questions ultimately resolved by just one emotion: LOVE. Tum, Taeng, Dong and Gym conquered all by the simple act of loving each other. They chose to stay side by side through thick and thin, despite all odds because of their unconditional love for each other… A love that could not be restrained clearly because Family matters.
The story of brother and sister Seita and Setsuko Yokokawa touches on the very core of human nature at its best and worst in times of great hardship and danger.
The 2005 film “Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no Haka)” is set in Kobe at the latter part of the Second World War until the defeat of Japan. It is the live action version of Isao Takahata’s animated film from 1988 based on the original short story written by Akiyuki Nosaka in 1967.
The story revolves around brother and sister Seita and Setsuko Yokokawa and touches on the very core of human nature at its best and worst in times of great hardship and danger.
Seita (played by Hoshi Ishida), the son of a naval commander, is a 15 year-old middle school student at the Kobe 1st Middle School who is thrust into the role of head of the family when his father is deployed into battle in the Pacific from which the latter will not return. Before his father left, Seita is told that he should take care of and protect his mother and sister and look after their welfare best that he can. Seita promises to do his best to fulfill his father’s expectation.
On the way back from sending off his father, Seita and his family meet Hisako Sawano (Nanako Matsushima), a long-lost cousin of his mother, who is also returning from the harbor with her family after sending off her husband to fight in the war. The two families reestablish ties and in one conversation, Seita’s mother and Sawano agree to shelter each other’s family should anything happen to either of them.
Soon after, the fire-bombing of Kobe by the American forces is in full swing and, in one of the raids, Seita’s mother suffers fatal injuries while at a bomb shelter. Seita and Setsuko (Mao Sasaki) are delayed going to the bomb shelter because Seita buried provisions in their backyard with the intent of salvaging them later. On reaching the shelter, Seita learns that his mother is one of those injured in the bombing raid. He leaves Setsuko with Hisako,whom they happen to meet outside the hospital, while he goes to see his mother. Seita’s mother dies soon after and Seita asks Hisako not to tell Setsuko about their mother’s fate.
After retrieving the provisions he earlier buried in their backyard, Seita takes Setsuko to Hisako’s home to live with the latter’s family. While living with them, the siblings develop close relationships with Hisako’s children especially with 16 year-old Natsu (Mao Inoue). As the hardships and deprivation of the war take their toll on the now merged families, Hisako undergoes radical change in her disposition. From a caring and affectionate aunt to Seita and Setsuko, she slowly transformed into a heartless person focused on preserving her family at all cost even to the point of refusing to provide a modicum of nutrition to Seita and Setsuko.
Apparently justifying her acts to herself with the pragmatic logic that anything spared by starving the siblings, she can feed to and keep alive her own family especially her asthma-afflicted only son Teizo. The maltreatment continues despite the remonstrations of Natsu who is old enough to see through her mother’s ruses.
Unable to bear the continuing maltreatment, brother and sister Seita and Setsuko decamped to a cave beside a forest clearing and try to survive by their own wits. On a specially melancholy night, Setsuko finds comfort in the fireflies that inhabit their cave and the forest around them turning their miserable accommodations into a nighttime magical world. Mornings, they find dead fireflies all over the place and Setsuko decides to create a final resting place for them; each grave complete with names that she christened them with.
As the war reaches it end, Setsuko succumbs to the ravages of malnutrition and exposure. Seita who has been on yet another desparate attempt to find any sustenance for themselves discovers Setsuko lifeless. The disconsolate Seita cremates Setsuko’s remains and gathers some of the bones and places them in a sweets tin that Hisako gifted Setsuko with in happier times. He then set out for the city where, alone and broken, he dies at the central train station.
In the opening scene of the movie, Hisako and Natsu were scurrying around the central train station in a desperate attempt to find Seita and Setsuko. They meet janitors cleaning up the place and one of them recalls seeing a boy fitting Seita’s description and informed the mother and daughter that he is dead. Natsu blames her mother and tells the latter that she killed them through her acts of selfishness.
“…finding in it both an atonement for her behavior and a salve for her conscience.”
On the way out, Hisako discovers the sweets tin in a grassy plot just out of the station and realizes it was the same tin that contained the sweets she long ago gave Setsuko. On opening the tin, she finds pieces of bone and she realizes that Setsuko, too, is dead and that Seita kept her bones in the tin. A pair of fireflies emerges from the tin, momentarily pausing before her and finally flies off into the void. Hisako intreprets this as a message of understanding and forgiveness from Seita and Setsuko and she whispers, “thank you;” finding in it both an atonement for her behavior and a salve for her conscience.
The movie is a heart-rending story that delves on the primordial urges of self-preservation inherent among humans. It also highlights the precedence of the nuclear family over all else. This is evident not only in the behavior of Hisako who descended into depths of selfishness to ensure that her family survives the deprivation brought by the war but also in the self-sacrifice of Seito and his desire to keep Setsuko alive even if it means his own death.
In this age of seeming plenty and abundance, we still are witness to misery, hunger, and deprivation with nary a soul caring enough to ease them.
We sometimes think that our basic humanity and civility will always be our beacon in looking after our fellowmen; however, the stark reality is the opposite. In this age of seeming plenty and abundance, we still are witness to misery, hunger, and deprivation with nary a soul caring enough to ease them.
People who purport to be deeply concerned about alleviating the stark social injustices that abound are only paying lip-service to such a mission. This is especially evident among those who are elected as representatives of the people and then proceed to be first-class abusers and deniers of social justice goals on which most societies are founded upon. Even amongst those who are supposedly the representatives of God or a Higher Being are not exempt from the malice of selfishness, greed, and avarice; their conspicuous consumption and fondness for material comforts bearing witness to such malevolence.
The rapacity that we witness in times of peace and prosperity makes it even more despicable and revolting in light of the absence of any justification of being driven by the instinct for self-preservation. One can only imagine how these people will behave if placed in a situation similar to the one endured by the characters of the movie. I shudder to think that such people will not hesitate to eat their own Setsuko’s carcass, nay, even slaughter her to ensure they do not go hungry.
This movie challenges us to look deeply into our own character and into our hearts and reflect on our own humanity. It is a stark reminder that our self-concept of our own humanity and dignity is but a veneer of our base instincts; that, in the face of adversity, our nature will emerge and take over. This is a reality that most people will disavow when confronted owing to how we all are programmed from when we are young and impressionable of what is expected of a “human” being.
It is not to say, though, that we are consigned to revert to the basest of our instincts when the conditions exist for them to reemerge. Seita’s behavior in the claws of despair proclaims that the human spirit can triumph over nature and transcend the chains that tie down humanity to an existence no more elevated than that of the lowest creatures on the planet.
It is worth contemplating that the circumstances that brought about the situation that the characters of the movie were put into are but the result of the dark side of humanity. The great war that decimated nations across the globe and killed untold millions is a result of the inhuman characters of people placed in positions of power. Through the acts of a few, millions were consigned to enormous suffering and death.
In the end, we should seek redemption and find the beauty and soul of the human spirit in ourselves. Simple acts of interposition when we see behavior that go against basic human decency and the common good will go a long way in preventing the forces of malevolence from hijacking the collective project of humanity to create a better, gentler, humbler, and more caring world for all.
If the human race fails to build a world where the poor, the down-trodden, the dispossessed, the weak, the sick, and the victims of injustice will feel safe, secure, confident, and proud of their place in this world; then, we are collectively consigned to the cesspool of an atavistic jungle where the mutual destruction of all is assured.
Let us all aspire to build a beautyful lyfe for all by expunging the blot of anything that deviates from that beauty!
In 2008, Nippon TV Japan released a reprise of the live-action TV movie “Grave of the Fireflies.” This retelling of Seita’s and Setsuko’s story deviates from the 2005 version in details but is generally consistent with how the human character and its flaws and strengths are explored. The 2005 version also deviates from the 1988 animated feature in a similar manner.
I have a certain predilection for noodles, whether in soup or dry. And as you would have guessed, my photo book would have pictures of different noodle dishes and I found this irresistably beautiful bowl of udon I had at a Japanese joint in Bangkok.
Udon is very different from ramen; the noodles are heavier, chewier, and more filling. The textures are also very different and udon can be eaten hot or cold. Generally, popular udon dishes have very mild soups or dressings but still these dishes are as delectable and enjoyable as any good noodle dish one can have. The Japanese, however, have a thousand and one ways to prepare udon dishes and the flavors range from the very mild to really strong.
This interesting documentary on udon provides a ton of information.
Watch “Udon” at NHK World’s Begin Japanology Plus on YouTube
Much has been said about the spectacular sunsets of Manila but not many of the city’s residents get to see it. I, myself, rarely had the experience of witnessing sunsets in Manila since I went to university. Just like everybody else, I got caught up in the hustle and bustle of growing up into adulthood and almost always was indoors when nature’s spectacle unfolded.
As a small child, I had a lot of opportunity to spend early evenings along the boulevard by the bay when my family lived a few blocks away and I recall seeing fiery sunsets with the mountains of Bataan framing the entire canvas. What made it even more interesting was the clear outline of the cross atop Mt. Samat that could be clearly seen in the distance.
Sunsets have been associated with dispositive notions such as “sunset of one’s life” or, “sunset industry;” all indicating situations of decline. Manila’s sunsets are of such spectacular beauty that they are uplifting to the spirit and exhibit the omnipotent power of nature; it evokes very strong emotions and feelings of wonderment as it unfolds before one’s eyes. Rediscovering Manila sunsets, it now holds for me a far more different meaning. It signals a celebration of wonderful times and a promise of even greater things in the future; it seems that a Greater Power is capping a great day with such blazing glory just like we mortals mark success with a grand celebration.
The magnificence of Manila’s sunsets also makes me think why Mother Nature has chosen Manila as a place for such an amazing show every single opportunity it has. We have been rewarded with such beauty and yet, we hardly ever notice it while trudging on with the drudgery of life.
It will be worthwhile to take a pause and bask in the wonderful glow of the sunsets on display in Nature’s Manila canvas. For once, allow yourselves to be assaulted and be enraptured by its beauty!
One of my favorite things to eat is ramen; mainly for its exquisite flavor and the symphony of tastes and textures that harmonize into something very pleasing to the palate. Every so often, I would crave for a bowl of hot ramen and would go to a ramen shop and generally walk away satiated. Until I again crave for another ramen fix.
In recent times, I picked up the habit of “photo before meals” just like the hordes of people doing the same at most eating places. I was browsing through my photo files and realized that ramen are things of beauty – Beauty in a Bowl.
My interest piqued, I yearned to learn more about ramen. I found this great video that provides quite a load of information on ramen noodle soup. It is of interest that the Japanese put a lot of effort into making a simple bowl of noodles into a thing of beauty!
Watch “Ramen” from NHK World’s Begin Japanology on YouTube