What happened to this national relic?

This site hosts a national relic. It marks of one of the most famous events in the history of the nation. Now, it is nothing more than an empty space beside a highway bordered by construction mesh.

This small site just outside of Katoomba in the Blue Mountains of NSW hosts the Explorers Tree – or it used to. The Explorers Tree is a famous landmark etched with the markings of famous explorers Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson, who were credited with opening up the region and creating a path from Sydney through the mountains to the flat lands to the west. The three explorers are commemorated in the suburbs Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth Falls in the mountains, and feature in the Australian school history curriculum.

Of course, like most conventional historical accounts in Australia, this story ignores the fact that the Indigenous people of the mountains already knew how to travel between Sydney and the western plains; they’d been doing it for years. The Dharug and Gundungurra people have been living in the Katoomba region, and the Megalong Valley below, for thousands of years. Some accounts even go so far as to say that the explorers such as Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson ‘discovered’ the region. Aboriginal people knew it was there, they’d been living on the land for at least 50,000 years.

Where is the tree now?

According to Blue Mountains City Council, the remnants of the tree were taken to a Transport for New South Wales depot in Lawson. At least it lies in a suburb with some connection to the people who made it famous. The tree was removed in late February this year for fears that it would slide away in heavy rain and land on the highway. The tree, the degraded base and the fence were removed. All that’s left now is an interpretive display further off the highway. According to TfNSW, the tree may feature in a cultural interpretation strategy for the planned upgrade of that stretch of the Great Western Highway.

Why is it significant?

Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson are said to have marked the tree during the first crossing of the Blue Mountains in 1813. History tells us that a tree was marked by someone, at some point, somewhere near a site called Pulpit Hill, some time in the 1800s, when the region was being explored by Europeans. Pulpit Hill is just a short distance from the current site of the tree. No one can say for certain that the tree which stood proudly beside the highway for so many years, and the tree which was removed just a few weeks ago, is actually that tree. Nevertheless, that particular tree was set aside as a site of national significance, and the platform and fence were built around it, while a plaque was laid nearby detailing its importance.

That said, the tree wasn’t very spectacular before it was removed. Like any living organism, it started to age, and the Explorers Tree was looking more like an explorers stump. Most motorists flew by the landmark on their way to Medlow Bath and beyond without a second thought, and for a long time the site had been bordered by flimsy orange construction tape – it was a rather forlorn view. What’s more, the tree was mostly concrete. Many years ago, the rotting trunk had been filled with concrete in an effort to protect it, and metal rings circled its base and top.

A sign next to the site also indicates that Blue Mountains City Council had planned to take action as far back as 2012. It’s now 2021. Perhaps the councillors just put the numbers in the wrong order.

The Explorers Tree tells us a lot about Australian history. It tells us how that history is recorded, prioritised and sustained.

Generations of Australians accepted that the tree on the platform had been marked by famous explorers, despite no empirical evidence to prove this. I remember stopping to view it as a child during a family trip through the mountains. I don’t remember every detail, but I do remember that it was actually a tree, not a sad looking stump.

The tree demonstrates the prioritising of certain historical events. The preservation of the tree exalted the exploits three Caucasian males who did something Aboriginal people had been doing for thousands of years before them – crossed the Blue Mountains. The Explorers Tree demonstrates how the efforts of male colonisers were mythologised and recognised far more than the actions of other Australians.

Now, long-accepted truths are being questioned. Historians and other Australians are staring to challenge the traditional narrative of colonial history, and to ask questions such as:

Were the explorers’ achievements as impressive as we were led to believe?

If they wanted to know how to cross the mountains, why didn’t they just ask the Aboriginal people?

Why aren’t there more stories about Australians who are not white males?

Should we spend taxpayers’ money to preserve a tree that probably isn’t real?

Only time will tell what happens to the site currently sitting empty beside the highway just outside of Katoomba.

What about Sydney?

Where are the Emus in Emu Plains,

Did they run off to Emu Heights?

How many red ferns remain in Redfern, and

Were other body parts thrown in Liverpool?

Was the view ever beautiful at Bella Vista?

Do learned gentlemen ply the waterways at Wiseman’s Ferry?

Does life smell sweeter at Lavender Bay, and

Is it Christmas year round in Merrylands?

Do coral reefs fringe Blair Athol, and

Is the water still fresh at Freshwater?

Can I go skiing at Glen Alpine, and

Is Neutral Bay popular with the Swiss?

Will I see acres of greenery at Greenacre, and

Are many children conceived at Rooty Hill?

Are horses still fed at Haymarket, and

Will I get shot at Hunters Hill?

Where is the forest in Frenchs Forest, and

Must I speak French in La Perouse?

How many real men live in Manly?

How many Roses grow in Rose Bay?

What time is Mass at Quakers Hill, and

Do they shear sheep at Warwick Farm?

Do any black heathens live in Blackheath, and

Will I find love at Kissing Point?

Can Skippy be spotted at Kangaroo Point?

Do whales still frolic at Whale Beach?

What’s so great about Alexandria, and

What’s new in Newtown?

Will a field of lilies great me at Lilyfield?

Do any banksias thrive in Banksia?

Can I take lunch at Breakfast Point, and

Does Morning Bay’s beauty wane by midday?

Has all the rush been cut from Rushcutters Bay?

Does anyone care about Sans Souci?

Do any republicans live in Queenscliff?

Should I avoid Edgecliff if I suffer from vertigo, and

Is adrenaline promised while traversing Ropes Crossing?

Are there any orchards at Orchard Hills,

or any wattles at Wattle Grove?

Do high achievers live in Pennant Hills, and

Does the world end at Ultimo?

Australia’s biggest fear.

Australia is afraid. It is home to the world’s deadliest snakes, to poisonous marine stingers and deadly crocodiles. It suffers through annual floods, fires and cyclones, and dangerous spiders lurk in its undergrowth. But something else terrifies Australia: History.

Australians are afraid of their own history. A deep fear of acknowledging its past paralyses Australia and prevents the majority of its citizens from making public statements about the colonisation of the land and the suffering of Aboriginal people.

Politicians are afraid to acknowldge the truth of Australian history.

The current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, is afraid. In 2020, he publicly declared that there was no slavery in Australia. He later qualified the statement with obfuscation in order to extricate himself from a PR disaster, but he never acknowledged that slavery did exist in Australia.

On a separate occasion, the PM dismissed the suffering of indigenous Australians when he said,

“You know, when those 12 ships turned up in Sydney, it wasn’t a particularly flash day for the people on those vessels either.”

He was referring to the First Fleet, which carried colonisers from Great Britain and began the dispossession of Aboriginal land in 1788. There were only 11 ships.

Scott Morrison is not stupid. He attended an academically-selective high school and he holds university qualifications. He is also a master of marketing (many Australians argue that’s all he is). Morrison knows the consequences of telling the truth. He knows he has to appease the ignorant, racist, lowly-educated constituency which keeps him and his party in power.

Slavery occured in Australia. It was called ‘Blackbirding’ in some places, and called ‘education’ in others – it was never called slavery.

Blackbirding lured indigenous Australians and people from islands north of Australia to the mainland with the promise of work and high wages. Upon arrival at the farm, the workers were not paid for their work, were treated horrendously, forced to work in stifling tropical heat and horrible conditions, and were prevented from leaving or returning to their homelands.

When indigenous children were stolen from their families, they were ‘educated’ in the ways of the white man then sent to work for white families. Girls were normally set to work as domestic servants, while boys were forced to be farmhands. They were not paid. This is slavery.

Wave Hill walk-off

Another example of exploitation led to the Wave Hill walk-off. Some Australians learned about it in their history classes, some learned about it through the Paul Kelly song: From Little Things Big Things Grow.

The original inhabitants of Wave Hill, the Gurindji people, sustained the vast cattle station. In return, children under 12 were forced to work, accommodation and rations were inadequate, Aboriginal women were sexually abused and forced into prostitution for rations and clothing. There was no safe drinking water, nor sanitation or rubbish removal. In August, 1966, the Gurindji walked off under the leadership of Vincent Lingiari.

Furthermore, many indigenous Australians are still trying to recoup unpaid wages to this day.

The Prime Minister is not the only politician with a selective memory. The current opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, recently omitted a crucial paragraph from a speech about indigenous Australian soldiers. Albanese recognised the indigenous Australians who have fought in many wars for Australia, but it was later discovered he had omitted the following paragraph:

“A continent for which their ancestors had fought so desperately during the frontier wars-wars we have not yet learned to speak of so loudly.”

Albanese was happy to mention overseas wars, but left out the paragraph about the war on Australian soil between British colonisers and indigenous people. He left out the paragraph which concedes that Australians do not talk about colonisation – do not talk about the truth of our history.

Why have we not yet learned to speak of it so loudly?

Albanese’s office later claimed the omission was unintentional. Maybe it was, or maybe Albanese and the Labor party also feel desperate to appease the racist majority-especially since a federal election is expected this year. Thus, the current leaders of both of Australia’s major parties have failed to publicly acknowledge the truth of Australians history.

The national broadcaster is also afraid. The Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) initially referred to January 26 as Invasion Day and not Australia Day in 2021. The label Invasion Day recognises the colonisation of the land, as opposed to the peaceful settlement myth perpetuated in some history books. The ABC soon removed Invasion Day from all official publications and replaced the term with Australia Day.

History is political

Politicians determine the curriculum taught to Australian school students. Until recently, Aussie school kids learned that Aboriginal people were ‘primitive’ and ‘savages’. That they were simply ‘nomads’ who wandered the continent living hand-to-mouth, devoid of science, culture or technology. Students were also taught that Australia was ‘settled’ and not ‘invaded’, that the British were ‘settlers’ and not ‘colonisers’.

Textbooks soften the truth. Many Australians learned that indigenous people died in large numbers due to the introduction of disease for which they had no immune system, and not as a result of murder. Many politicians fought, and continue to fight, to keep this version of history in the school curriculum, and while the teaching material has changed, it is not always becoming more truthful.

Apartheid

Apartheid existed in Australia. Most Australians don’t know, or don’t want to admit, that this is true. The incident at Moree pool proves the existence of apartheid. Aboriginal people were officially excluded from the public swimming pool in the rural NSW town of Moree. Summer gets very hot in Moree. A group of Aboriginal activists visited the town in 1965 and attempted to enter the pool with local indigenous children. Three hours of debate and tension followed, during which fights broke out and non-Aboriginal locals threw eggs at protestors.

Moree Council eventually rescinded the by-law and Aboriginal people were allowed to swim at the pool. Aussies are happy to criticise South Africa for its apartheid, but are largely reluctant to admit its existence in Australia. Or, as one white South African once told me,

“South Africa is not the only country with apartheid, the mistake they made was giving it a name.”

Why is Australia so afraid of its history?

Why are so many Australians afraid to tell the truth about their past?

Racism.

Australia is a racist country, and the worst of this racism is directed at indigenous people. Racism justified the invasion of Australia by the British. The notion of Terra Nullius, or uninhabited land, justified the dispossession of the land from the original inhabitants. If no one lives here, they believed, then it can’t be stolen – it belonged to no one. Terra Nullius is supported by notions of cultural and racial superiority. The colonisers saw people on the land. They interacted with them. However, they claimed the land was uninhabited because it was devoid of structure and buildings which in European minds constituted habitation.

Racism is not going away. News outlets carried images of a large group of Caucasian Australian men celebrating their membership of a neo-Nazi group on Australia Day weekend this year. Many citizens and even elected politicians have publicly declared their support for Trump and his rhetoric. Fringe political parties with a platform of racism and bigotry, such as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, are winning more votes in elections – which is why mainstream parties are so keen to appease the racists.

Lies

Australians are also fed lies about the consequences of telling the truth. Australians have been convinced that officially acknowledging the truth will cost them their homes, as indigenous people will make endless land rights claims and take back possession of suburbs throughout the nation.

Image:www.worldatlas.com

A birthday in Teotihuacan.

If you or a member of your travelling party celebrates a birthday on the day you visit San Juan Teotihuacan, be sure to remember a cake. It need not be a big cake. In fact it is advisable to pack a small cake, as you will be lugging it up and down ancient steps for hours, and said steps sit at over 2000m altitude.

Don’t forget candles and a lighter. And don’t forget the words to ‘Las Mananitas’, because if the birthday girl is Mexican, ‘Cumpleanos Feliz’ will not suffice.

Of course, ‘Las Mananitas’ should, according to tradition, be sung on the stroke of midnight, but making your way into the UNESCO World Heritage Site, scaling the temple and lighting birthday candles is difficult – and illegal. Thus, you shall have to content yourselves with a daylight ceremony, perhaps at 12 midday.

Ascend the ancient and well-trodden steps to the summit of the pyramid of the birthday girl’s choosing – the Pyramid of the Sun or the Pyramid of the Moon, and perform a ritual that has been performed on this sacred ground for centuries and centuries.

For optimal results, choose a day without strong winds, or the candles will struggle to stay alight for the duration of the birthday tribute, especially at such lofty heights. If wind persists, invoke the spirit of the gods who inhabit this super structure, or the spirits of its ancient inhabitants who were both exalted and sacrificed on these very steps.

Bestow your best wishes upon the birthday girl and call upon the ancestors to grant her a long and propsperous life – before or after you traverse the Avenue of the Dead.

Main Image: Abimelec C

Bondi Beach closed to the public?

Bondi Beach was once almost closed to the public, and it had nothing to do with the COVID-19 pandemic. Australia’s most famous beach was nearly lost to the public as far back as the 1880s.

Bondi Beach did close for a period of time in 2020 when many public spaces throughout Sydney were closed, and after hundreds of people flocked to the beach during warm autumn weekends despite requests from health authorities to stay at home and stop the spread of the coronavirus.

The last time Bondi and nearby beaches had been hidden behind wire fences was during WWII. The mere notion of closing a beach incensed many Eastern Suburbs locals and fellow Sydneysiders, who regard beaches as an egalitarian sanctuary and a birth right to all Australians.

Their fierce reaction to the COVID closures reflects their emotional attachment to sand and surf. These feelings are put in context when considering that not even WWII closed Bondi. Military fortifications such as barbed wire, concrete tank traps, wire coils and iron stakes were installed on the golden sands, but swimming was still permitted. Swimmers at Bondi did have to negotiate a wire maze which was nicknamed the ‘rat run’, but they were not banned from entering the water in the 1940s as they were during autumn 2020.

Many swimmers must have regretted their decision to take a dip during the war, because Japanese submarines later breached a defence boom and launched bombs which exploded at Bondi, Rose Bay and Woollahra. Many swimmers were also rushed to Bondi Beach Public School first aid post to be treated for cuts and bruises.

Temporary closure

Short-term closures are not uncommon at Bondi. In August 2018 the beach was closed after the body of a whale calf washed ashore and had to be removed. The presence of the whale calf also increased the risk of shark activity and the sighting of the ocean’s apex predator will often close beaches.

Bondi lifeguards are cognisant of the dangers of big swells and strong currents after five people drowned and hundreds had to be rescued on February 6, 1938, which has since been known as Black Sunday.

Permanent closure

Whale carcasses, shark sightings and dangerous surf have closed Bondi Beach temporarily, but not permanently. A permanent closure almost came into effect in the 1880s.

The land around Bondi Beach was originally granted to road builder William Roberts as far back as 1809. In those days, Bondi was far from a tourist haven and an exclusive Sydney suburb. Limited access and transport meant that very few people ventured to the beach. Even in 1851, the beach was still sat a long way from the city, so Edward Hall and Francis O’Brien were able to purchase 200 acres in Bondi which encompassed most of the beach frontage. Modern-day Sydneysiders would die for such water views. The new owners named the land ‘The Bondi Estate’.

Perhaps this is the first recorded evidence of ‘Brand Bondi’

Between 1855 and 1877, O’Brien began buying sections of the estate from Hall, who was his father-in-law. Soon, O’Brien owned all of the land and renamed the area ‘O’Brien Estate’. Initially, the new owner was happy to share the property and the beach with the public and it became popular as a picnic ground and an amusement resort.

Then problems arose.

O’Brien felt that the beach and the surrounding area were becoming too popular and he threatened to stop public beach access. After much discussion among the people of Sydney, the Municipal Council contacted the government with the message that the beach must remain open to the public. As a result, Bondi Beach became a public beach on June 9, 1882.

The public were allowed to enjoy the beach, but it didn’t mean they would swim. In fact, daylight bathing was considered immoral and scandalous behaviour until the ban was lifted in 1903, and Bondi Surf Club was not established until 1906.

Since the tramway to the beach was completed in 1884, visitor numbers have increased year after year and Bondi is undoubtedly the most visited beach in the country. In 1929 it is estimated that 60,000 people were visiting the beach on any given Saturday or Sunday in summer.

Interestingly, Waverley Council currently faces another challenge to keep the entire beach open to the public. A business groups wants to establish a private, European-style beach club at one section of the beach in 2021, which would charge about $AU80 per person for entry.

While the private club would restrict entry to only about 2% of the famous stretch of sand, the proposal has divided opinion among Bondi locals and Sydneysiders. Some people believe the club will boost the local economy and add vibrancy to the space after the restrictions of COVID-19, while others claim that forcing people to pay to go to a beach is simply ‘UnAustralian’.

Sydneysiders will soon find out if they must once again fight to keep Bondi beach open.

Image: http://www.timeout.com

Skulls and Bones in La Quemada

Do you have a fascination with the dead? Do you find yourself contemplating your own mortality or possess a penchant for the macabre?

If so, you can indulge your morbid cravings at Zona Arqueologica La Quemada, an archaeological site in Zacatecas, central Mexico. On an elevated site outside of the city lies an excavation and display of many human skulls and bones.

La Quemada translates roughly as ‘burned or ‘the burned’, and refers to the burnt human remains which were discovered when the earth was moved during the construction of a hacienda on the site. It is also suspected that the settlement which occupied the site was eventually destroyed by fire.

Historical research indicates that the original inhabitants occupied the site between 350/400 AD to 1150 AD, and the site is regarded as the most important historical settlement in north central Mexico due to its architecture. Archaeological digs have discovered the grand columns from the former plaza, a field for playing a traditional form of football and a series of pyramids dominated by the pyramid Votiva, as well as sites for the worship of deities.

And the skulls?

Numerous historians believe the inhabitants engaged in human sacrifice. The Salon de las Columnas is thought to have been a large structure, of which only the columns remain, and historians theorise that this is where various forms of human sacrifice took place.

A short walk from the Salon de las Columnas leads to the Piramide de los Sacrificios, which clearly translates as the Pyramid of Sacrifices.

Detecting a theme here?

Evidence would suggest that human sacrifices were made on this site to please the deities. It does make one wonder how people were chosen for sacrifice.

Were locals persuaded that being sacrificed was an honour – perhaps in the same way that young men have historically been persuaded that giving their life in battle for their nation is an honour.

Were the sacrificed slaves or captives from other settlements or cities?

Did a caste system operate?

This is a source of conjecture and debate. What is more definite is the preserved remains of these people, which are on clear display to every visitor to La Quemada.

Shot by His Own Camel.

John Ainsworth Horrocks died from a gun wound caused by his camel, and despite other notable deeds during his life, this is how he shall always be remembered.

The pastoralist and explorer hadn’t offended the camel in any particular way, apart from loading it with supplies on the long and arduous trek into the unforgiving landscape of northern South Australia in 1846. It was in fact the first camel to be introduced to Australia and is often cited a proof that Horrocks pioneered the use of animals for the exploration of the country.

Horrocks had long regarded the camel as temperamental and obstinate, as it was said to be constantly biting people and other animals, but he had never considered it murderous or vindictive.

The cantankerous camel joined six horses and twelve goats, as well as Horrocks’ travel companions, on a journey from the pastoralist’s property of Penwortham into the northern expanse of South Australia. The journey began on 29 July, 1846 and would take the party through the Flinders Ranges.

Six men set off on the trek which Horrocks initiated and funded because he simply felt the need for adventure. He had already amassed considerable wealth as a sheep farmer and is credited with establishing the first vineyard in the Clare district near Adelaide, which is now one of Australia’s most famous wine districts.

It was his sense of adventure and independence which led to his pastoral success. Horrocks did not wait in Adelaide for the completion of official land surveys, but followed the advice of explorer Edward John Eyre and, at just 21 years of age, explored land near Hutt River north of Adelaide. Finding it to his liking, he established a village in 1839 and named it Penwortham after the village of his birth in England.

Records indicate that when Horrocks arrived in Adelaide, on his 21st birthday, he bought with him a family servant, a blacksmith, a shepherd, four merino rams, sheepdogs, tools, sufficient clothing for five years…and a church bell.

The farming supplies and the personnel were put to good use, and even though he was only granted title to some of the fertile land that he was farming, he persisted and grew his flock to 9000 sheep.

The same restless spirit had prompted Horrocks to run away from school in Paris in 1833 and rejoin his family in Vienna. Thus, it was not entirely surprising that the young man announced his intention to take the camel and a groups of explorers into the outback, claiming,

‘I want a more stirring life’

The specific purpose of the journey was to search for new agricultural lands near Lake Torrens for the ambitious young Englishman, who was described as being 6 ft 2 ins (189 cm) tall, dark haired with blue eyes and possessed of a ‘rugged constitution’.

Despite Horrock’s rugged constitution and the camel’s inherent ability to survie in the harsh expanse of the Australian desert, the travelling party ran into trouble. The horses had been without water for two days when they reached Depot Creek, an old campsite of Eyre’s, on August 21.

The campsite provided an ideal base and the group remained there while making several exploratory trips into the surrounding region. One of the locations they visited was Lake Dutton, and this is where the camel became more than a nuisance and caused Horrocks’ demise.

On September 1, Horrocks loaded his rifle and took aim at a bird. The kneeling camel moved while Horrocks was attempting to reload his gun and the cock caught. This caused the gun to discharge and the round tore off the middle finger of his right hand and removed a row of teeth. Suffering from his injuries and stuck out in the middle of nowhere, Horrocks was rushed back to Penwortham as quickly as possible. He arrived on September 19 but doctors were unable to save him, and he died on September 23.

Horrocks remains buried at Penwortham and his former home is now an interpretive centre. John Horrocks Cottage is also is the oldest stone building north of Gawler, SA.

What happened to the camel?

While on his death bed, Horrocks ordered it to be shot.

Image: http://www.trove.nla.gov.au, Mads Severinsen

All this for one family?

The Summer Palace in Beijing is a grand conundrum. It is an enormous private residence built for one family, in the capital city of the world’s most populous nation.

Various emperors and royal families have occupied the site since construction began on the palace in 1153, and each ruler added their own personal touches to the area. The result is a tourist attraction that is large and interesting enough to occupy an entire day of exploration.

The lake itself, Kunming Lake, occupies 2.2 square kilometres and dominates the palace. These days, of course, it is not reserved solely for the royal family and visitors can enjoy the lake and the grand historical buildings.

Locals gather at the palace for recreation, relaxation, eating, drinking, socialising and challenging each other to games of chance and intellect.

Chasing the sun

A palace named in honour of summer should rightly be bathed in sun, but the severity of the air pollution in modern day Beijing means that the sun is rarely spotted in all its glory. A constant haze hangs over the imperial palace and makes rare appearances to remind locals and visitors that the earth’s life source does in fact exist.

The photo below indicates the first glimpse of the sun in Beijing since the Ming dynasty.

The palace is said to be the best preserved imperial garden in the world and it certainly invites contemplation and a picnic. It is a dream location for photographers who could spend, days, weeks or months capturing its natural, architectural and historical beauty.

Closer inspection reveals amazingly intricate detail and craftsmanship on every edifice which is painstakingly preserved.

Boating is a great way to experience the lake. Being so vast, the lake takes a long time to circumvent on foot, so numerous waterborne craft are available. Boat tours in elaborate boats with dragon motif are available, and tourists can hire small pedal-powered craft to carry them from shore to shore. Be advised that the lake is quite large, and if the wind picks up it can be hard work to get back to your starting point.

The famous marble boat is not going to set sail anytime soon.

History

A visit to the Summer Palace is a journey through history. Many rulers and their families have taken ownership of the site, including Kublai Khan, and their influence on the palace is documented in the archival displays found throughout the palace.

Winter wonderland

Somewhat ironically, the Summer Palace looks spectacular in winter, when the lake and the buildings are blanketed in snow and locals take to the lake with ice skates.

The Summer Palace, a fine day out in Beijing.

The Forbidden City.

The Forbidden city in Beijing evokes thoughts of ancient Chinese dynasties and powerful rulers who reigned over vast swathes of East Asia. It conjures up images of an amry of servants and layer upon layer of restricted dwellings which were guarded like few other buildings in history.

Much of the original structure remains to this day and makes for a fascinating walking tour through various eras in China’s history.

The architectural beauty of the buildings is undeniable and is the first impression upon entering the gates. Every building is grand and ornate and the craftsmanship and sheer ambition of their creators is clearly evident. A closer examination and a study of the building methods reveals a mastery of construction which matches their beauty.

Upon closer inspection, the casual visitor can admire the intricacy of the design and decoration in hidden corners, rendered all the more impressive when considering that this intricacy is replicated throughout the enormous city.

Of course, The Forbidden City is more than an architectural masterpiece, it is a window into Chinese history. For this reason, a guided tour or a self-guided audio tour is essential, to save the visitor from simply wandering aimlessly through an endless assemblage of impressively-restored buildings.

The incongruous image of Chairman Mao looms large over the entrance to the city. Incongruous because the city was the masterpiece of ancient emperors and the ruling class of China, the very same people Mao and his communist party revolted in order to overthrow.

The Forbidden City is vast. Visitors are advised to set aside at least half a day to enjoy a complete appreciation of the site, and to allow for the inevitable crowds and the extreme weather which characterises Beijing – sultry, hot summers and freezing cold winters.

Allocating a few hours to the inspection of this historic and architectural wonder enables the visitors to snake their way through a deliberately constructed grid of servants and masters quarters all dedicated to the service, protection and exaltation of the ancient emperors.

Ayutthaya. A City of Ancient Wonders.

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The allure of Ayutthaya is its history.

The ancient city is steeped in tradition and centuries old monuments, whose crumbling facades and cultural significance transport visitors back to a time of distant wonders.

Majestic temples dot the city and can be visited on foot, via tuk tuk, by bike or boat.

Ayutthaya is hot – always. The attendant humidity dictates a visitor’s schedule to early morning or late evening, which is also the best time to avoid the inevitable hordes of tourists. Large groups can destroy the serenity of your visit and find their way into THAT photo, of the Buddha ensconced in the tree at Wat Mahathat.

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Large groups can also prevent you from contemplating the lives of those who inhabited the more popular temples, although they do provide the opportunity for a free History lesson – if you just happen to walk behind the group in earshot of the guide.

Official, guided, multi-lingual tours are available at the entrance to the monuments and are a worthwhile choice for visitors who may otherwise question their passage through a pile of old bricks.

Cruising from Wat to Wat on a bicycle is popular and achievable in Ayutthaya, whose gradient makes it accessible to anyone with a reasonable level of fitness. Most bikes are in reasonable condition and can be easily hired through most hotels or close to the minivan terminal for those alighting from Bangkok. Just be ready to sweat.

Tuk Tuks are everywhere in Ayutthaya and can even be hired, for a negotiated price, to carry you to one site and wait for you before departing for the next temple on your list. Tuk Tuks alleviate the strain of cycling, but be mindful of this option if you are tall – you may need a Thai massage after a day hunched in the back of a TukTuk.

Afternoon and evening tours afford the visitor the opportunity to meander the river by boat, as the sun sets and the day cools. Tours typically visit three or four designated temples, where visitors are given sufficient time to stroll, contemplate, pray and photograph. Some tours may include a visit to Wat Phutthaisawan, although one wonders why. The stark, glass covered entrance resembles an auto parts shop and the resident guides take the form or underfed, mangy, threatening dogs. Completing the horror film tableau are the rows of menacing, child-like figurines, whose mocking eyes follow the visitor down the path like a frenzied Mona Lisa.

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Perhaps Wat Phutthaisawan serves to offset the next and final temple of the boat cruise, Wat Chaiwatthanram. The setting sun dances off the archaic, peaceful, weathered structures which are surrounded by lush green grass and are begging to star in your Instagram feed.

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Many boat cruises finish near the night food market – just in time for dinner. Try the famous Kuay Tiaw Reua.

Transport from Bangkok:

Minivans ply the route from Bangkok to Ayutthaya every day, leaving from Mo Chit Bus Station. They are reasonably inexpensive, easy to find – the touts will find you – and the journey lasts about 1 hour. The journey follows the highway, which reveals little more than Bangkok’s rapid urban sprawl.

Train: The rickety old train lurches from the charmingly rustic station in Ayutthaya and through scenery far more bucolic than the view from the window of the minivan. Trains leave from Hua Lamphong Station in Bangkok.

Boat: Many Bangkok based tour companies provide one day boat tours to and from Ayutthaya.

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