Visiting Nepal

It was a good sixteen years ago, in October 2007, when I last visited Nepal on a trek with friends on the scenic Poon Hill trail. You can see the old video HERE. Things have changed considerably in Nepal. We paid toll to communist insurgents to trek through the areas they controlled. Now they are a legal political party currently in power. Once the beloved royal family was in power, but not anymore. Then there was the great earthquake in April 2015, a very painful scar in the memory of the Nepalese. Over 8000 lost their lives, thousands were rendered homeless, and the World Heritage sites I had visited had been damaged severely.

This time round, I visited Kathmandu, a rural village and hiked up to a remote mountain village. The conditions were starkly contrasting. Shopping shelves were filled with all kinds of foods and goods in the city, but in the village there were only tiny family-run provision shops selling essential foodstuffs. Cafes were abundant in Kathmandu, and you get a wide variety of cuisine, but mostly Western, to cater to the tourists, and oh at so affordable prices for us foreigners: SGD$1.80 for decent coffee latte. Taxis were easily hailed in the city but in the small village only two vehicles were available for hire…. and forget about cafes. Opportunities for good schooling and jobs are better in the capital then in rural and mountain villages. The differences were obvious to me. 

It’s a beautiful country of grand mountains, golden grains, and abundant rivers and streams. The people are beautiful too: a hospitable people albeit weighed down by systemic poverty. This became evident when I travelled outside Kathmandu and talked to locals about the standard of living for the majority of Nepalese. It became clear when I shared in their meals, slept in their mud-houses, and used their squat toilets in the outhouse. I have not known such conditions in my childhood. I was born into the era of SIT apartment living, precursor to HDB flats. As much as I felt uneasy, the inconveniences were bearable for it was for a mere two nights. I recall looking at the young people in the remote mountain village and bemoaning the lost potential if they remained stuck in the mountains. This convinced me that student hostels in Kathmandu are a key help for rural young people to have a better education, increased chances of employment, and some hope of helping their family break free from poverty. 

I also met with committed Christians and we were mutually blessed as we shared with one another. I learned several things: 

  • Casteism exists in Nepal (despite its ban) and those in the lower castes are responding to the good news of Jesus Christ.
  • Nepal has a largely Hindu population of 30 million and proselytizing is forbidden by law. However, there are people turning to Christ, and suffering persecution from family and community is not uncommon.
  • The sharing of the gospel was at times accompanied by remarkable healings and deliverances, leading to whole families coming to Christ. 
  • The Nepalese Christians were hungry to know God and his word. Their worship and singing were infectious and inspiring even though I could not understand Nepalese.
  • Sadly, casteism is so ingrained in the culture, that Christians have generally not completely broken free from it, especially when it came to marriage. 
  • The people of God in Nepal need the help, the come-alongside partnerships with the churches outside of Nepal. They need humble spiritual input and prudent financial support, without donor conditions of wanting control and naming rights. 
  • I was inspired to hear about God’s grace among the unreached people, to witness the deep commitment of the gospel workers, and the simplicity of a movement free from institutional barriers. It felt like the book of Acts has come alive in Nepal. 
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Taiwan Visit (21st -29th January 2023)

I have always wanted to visit Taiwan. This desire increased after I watched the Taiwanese drama “A Thousand Goodnights” during the pandemic. The beautiful and slow-moving story showcased Taiwan’s natural beauty and its interesting culture captured my attention.

I was happy to say yes when my god-daughter Adelene and Yip, her husband, invited and gifted my wife and I with a vacation in Taiwan. We were very moved and felt blessed by the Lord, who knew my heart’s desires. My wife had been there before for her sister’s wedding but this was my first time to Taiwan. 

I was excited as the day of the red-eye flight drew near. We landed in Taipei in the early Saturday morning of 21st of January 2023, Lunar New Year’s Eve, and Mr Huang, the driver-guide was there at the airport with his Volkswagon MPV, and our tour began immediately. 

We would visit cities and places near Taipei, then down along the western part of Taiwan: Taichung, Tainan, Kaohsiung and be driven all the way back to Taipei. We had a lovely, pleasant, enjoyable vacation with delicious food, good hotels, interesting places and things to do, and great and easygoing company.

Let me summarise some of the highlights of this trip:

Most Meaningful Activity

We picked strawberries, visited a museum and two art and cultural centers, and rode on the Old Mountain Line Railbike in Miaoli county (north of Taichung). 

But for me the most meaningful activity was the release of lighted lanterns to the sky. Shifen is in the mountainous Pingxi area east of Taipei. It is a railway station and on both sides of the tracks are lanes and alleys, homes and food and souvenir shops, and there are those selling the experience of writing your wishes on huge lanterns and releasing them into the sky. We wrote wishes and verses onto the lantern before lighting and releasing the lantern into the sky. 

Most Delicious Meal

Several of our dinners were night market snacks and food that were bought, shared, and eaten while standing or walking. The idea was to try many types but share the food so each of us gets to try a great variety – usually seven choices each night. 

However, my favorite meal was the Hakka set meal at Meinong Hakka Folk Village. The dishes served were deliciously simple and simply delicious!

Most Interesting Place

The Jingzaijiao Tile-paved salt Fields of Tainan was for me the most interesting place. Too much salt is bad for the body but is good for tourism. Thankfully it was not overcrowded and I loved walking around the salt fields taking photos and walking by the windy shore. It was so relaxing and refreshing. 

Best Hotel and Scenery

All the hotels we stayed in were very good but the best of the lot was the five-star Grand Li Lai Hotel in Kaohsiung. They gave us an upgrade and the view of the pier, harbour and Kaohsiung Music Centre was simply gorgeous at sunrise, sunset and at night. In the lobby of the hotel was a section which boasted the photographs of famous people who stayed in the hotel including the late Michael Jackson.

Most Instagramable Place

One is the MRT station (I forgot the name) at Kaohsiung. Although the art piece takes up a comparatively small area in the station, it makes such a big online footprint and impression. 

However, the Flower Home, a lovely and sprawling botanical flower garden in Miaoli County, where we stayed a night is a great place to capture portraits with exquisitely designed and manicured flower gardens in the background. For me this colorful place takes the prize for being Instagram worthy.

Best Memorial Sites

We went to the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall at Liberty Square but all the buildings and museums were closed because of the Lunar New Year. All we could do was walk around the huge square and take photos. What I preferred was the National Dr Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall, where we managed to witness the impressive change of guard hourly routines and learn more about this hero admired by countries on both sides of the Taiwan Straits. 

Best Night Activity

Without a doubt, visiting the various night markets in all the cities we were in was a treat. It’s about more of the same thing but I somehow did not get tired of “night markets”. Maybe it’s the food, or the festive feeling or family vibes. I tried my hand at night photography handheld and found it challenging but fun anyway. Always learning new things about photography. By the way, photos in this post are not all mine but also Adelene’s.

Most Horrible Experience

We were brought to the Taiwan Glass Temple and Glass Gallery in an industrial area in Changhua county, near Taichung. We saw some pictures of this place on the internet and it looked impressive. But those were pictures taken at night. In daytime the Mazu Temple looked awful, an ugly and badly maintained glass paneled structure that had seen better days. I walked out as quickly as I walked in. A big disappointment. I did not even want to take pictures of it.

Final Thoughts

Of all the countries I would not mind visiting again, Taiwan would certainly be up there together with Japan. Taiwan is forty times bigger than Singapore and I love the space and can now understand why Stephanie Sun and JJ Lin can live and work there for many years without complaints. The people are gentle and polite and very helpful. My only regret is that I do not know Mandarin and wish I had a reasonable command of the language. I would have loved Taiwan much more. Nevertheless, God willing, I will be back for another visit.

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Why Play Pickleball: Ten Reasons

What is this sport that is a craze in New York? What is pickleball? How would I usually describe it to friends? “Imagine a badminton court. Bring the net down to the height of the tennis net. Replace the racquet with what looks like an enlarged table tennis paddle made of plastic. The ball is plastic and bigger than a table tennis ball but smaller than a tennis ball. 

Why did I consider picking up this sport? I was persuaded to try this sport by my wife Jenny. She has been playing this for many years. Now that I have retired, I could join her. I grew to like it and now it has almost displaced my hiking and cycling hobbies. Here are a few reasons why.

First, it is fun. The fun is in the play, the people, the pleasure you feel when you execute a shot well that you never thought you had in you. Even if in the end the match was lost, you still felt good. 

It is challenging. It is an easy sport to pick up and start playing, but to master it and play well is quite a challenge. There are many skills to learn, each of them difficult to master at a high or consistent level. It can be frustrating when your progress is slow but exhilarating when others notice the improvement you have made.

You exercise without feeling like you are exercising. The first game I played I was totally out of breath. Now, after a year, I can play continuously for an hour without worry. My fitness has improved. I exercised without realising it because all I was conscious of was the fun of the play.

It brings you into contact with people. You get to be acquainted with a lot of people, mostly seniors, even though now this sport has captured the attention of the younger people. It is an opportunity to broaden your friendship circle and get to know more people who are of different social circles and religion from you. 

You can play this sport into your 80s. Some sports become unsuitable as you age. This sport can be played even into your eighties. I have seen two elderly men playing at the age of eighty and beating others younger than them. I could not believe they were in their eighties. Regular play in this sport keeps you young at heart.

It develops strength, flexibility and endurance. You get stronger in your legs and arms and core. You become more flexible as you will need to stretch every now and then before and after the game (warm ups) and during the run of game. Endurance is built up over regular practices over a period of a few months. You become agile and your reflexes are improved.

It is a team game. It is usually played in doubles format so there are four persons in every match of eleven points. The dynamics become interesting depending on who the two persons are. Having a partner to play with lessens the amount of running and coverage of the court. It also makes you more aware of the other’s playing style.

It is available free of charge for seniors. If you are above sixty, you do not have to pay for the use of the courts. For those below sixty the fee is about $18 a month (2022). However, by internal arrangement, we pay an agreed nominal amount for purchase of shared balls. 

You need to use your brain. With time and practice, skills and stamina can be developed, but what will help most is brainwork: learning strategies that will help you in your game. Knowing your opponents and their strengths and weaknesses helps you to play better against them. It is thus a thinking game too. Like most other team sports. 

Now for the tenth and final reason: It is not expensive to begin. All you need is a paddle. A new beginner paddle can be purchased for about $40 to $80. If you are willing to use a pre-loved paddle owned by someone in the pickleball group, this same amount may get you an intermediate or advanced paddle. The next investment would be to buy court shoes which are more suitable than running shoes (which most participants begin with). This money and time are well spent when you consider it as preventive health care. Better to invest your time and money in this sport than in medical care from poor health. 

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A Visit to Sembawang Hot Spring Park

My neighbour’s daughter used to go there as she searched for relief from the pain in her joints. That was the first time I heard about Sembawang Hot Spring. I also read in the newspapers that they had done something to enhance the surroundings and make the natural hot spring more accessible and give the place a relaxed atmosphere. I had thought of visiting that place at least once but never did it. Until last month. Out of a whim, I asked Pastor Eng Hwa if he would like to cycle around his neighbourhood, and bring me around.

Soon I was in the MRT with my folded Brompton, traveling from Jurong East station to Sembawang station on the North-South line. I met him there and the first place we cycled to was the Sembawang Hot Spring Park.

I was impressed with what the National Parks people have done. Clean and systematic as the water moved from the hottest temperature at the chest level to the warm temperatures at lower levels where we could soak our feet comfortably. The weather was humid but the waters were inviting. I could not smell any sulphur or minerals but some people came to collect water in pails because the spring water was special in some way.

We did not stay long but dried our feet and continued our cycling to Sembawang Park. I cannot say the ride was very picturesque or interesting but we put in a good distance to our ride before we had lunch and talked about what’s going on in our lives.

We skipped the ride to Ulu Sembawang as the clouds began to look dark. I was glad I went to Sembawang – this journey to the north. It fulfilled a desire to visit the Sembawang Hot Spring. Maybe the next time I will bring some eggs along to boil in those special hot water.

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New Routes & New Bike

Ride to Gardens by the Bay

I wonder if it is gradually becoming a monthly affair, this cycling with other pastors? In April, we tried a new route. We met at my home in Jurong East at 8.30am and used the Ulu Pandan Park Connector to get to Ghim Moh Hawker Center, where we had a light break. Most of us had breakfast already, but we sat around with coffee and tea and chee cheong fun. Mostly talking about whats going on in life. Then we connected to the Rail Corridor starting from near the Buono Vista MRT. We cycled all the way to the old railway signal building at Tanjong Pagar, and carried our bikes across some drains, to use the road leading to the Gardens By The Bay.

The return route was new to me. We went back to Jurong East via the West Coast, passing by Harbourfront, the Marina at Keppel Bay, Labrador Park, West Coast Park and linking back to Jurong Circular Bridge and back home through the International Business Park. We reached my home at around 3.30pm, a good day of cycling, exploring and fellowship with pastors. It was a good workout, and fun to visit new places, try a new route, and to connect with one another. Must do another cycling trip, another day.

Ride to Sentosa

Pastor Richard Wong suggested Sentosa, and I never cycled there before, so why not? Others were game too. Furthermore, one of us, Rev Vincent was gifted with a new Brompton, a black beauty, by his wife, and we wanted to see him riding in it. We met early, or at least I was the earliest, at Seah Imm Hawker Center. It is always good to start with warm up with breakfast. I took a bus and was there earliest, and next was Richard. We had our roti prata before the others trickled in. We were impressed with the black beauty of Vincent’s new Brompton, and he certainly looked cool in it!

This trip proved to be eventful. Richard was our guide because he had cycled there a few times. But we were struck with disaster straightaway as Richard’s bicycle chain broke at Harbourfront Centre. He told us to go ahead. Thank God he managed to find a repair shop at Telok Blangah and took a Grab taxi there (another advantage of foldable bikes). We were blessed because Pastor Eng Hwa also knew Sentosa quite well, so we went off and later linked up with Richard at Sentosa beach.

The slopes were not easy for us seniors. Vincent was enthusiastically test his Brompton up the slopes, and frankly, with this new bike, he was faster than any of us. Thankfully our bikes had good gears and that helped. However, at one sixty degree incline I could not continue and sat down to rest with Vincent. By then, Eng Hwa had already reached the top. I have learned through hiking that when you are out of breath and your heart is pounding, its best to stop to rest – which was what I did.  You have to admire those who take part in the 23 day Tour de France! For me, I know my limits and live accordingly. We went down after I had sufficient rest.

There is a direct bus for me from Jurong East Interchange to Seah Imm bus stop. Again, I delighted in riding to the interchange, folding my bike, bringing it on the bus, and comfortably arriving to my destination. It was as easy coming home. I love the idea of riding foldable bikes! I do not have to ride all the way to any particular destination. I could take a train or a bus to a location from which I can cycle the route I wanted.

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