Better Know A Holiday: Buddha’s Birthday

Laughing Buddha, Singapore
xcode, Flickr

AKA: Vesakha, Vesak, Wesak, Visak, Vixakha and many more derivatives.

When? The second Sunday in May OR the day of the full moon in May OR the Sunday nearest to the day of the full moon in May OR the eighth day of the fourth lunar month OR if you’ve decided all that calendric work is too much hassle, like the Japanese, April 8.

Public holiday in: Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, China, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, India, Nepal, Cambodia, Vietnam, Bhutan, Laos.

Who died? Nobody.

Reason for celebration, then? The birth of the Buddha, of course. Though for many, the Buddha’s birth, death and enlightenment are lumped together in one big holiday. So …

Who died? The Buddha.

Origins: Some 2,500 years ago, Queen Mahamaya of the Shakya Kingdom in modern-day Nepal gave birth in a grove of blossoming trees. As the blossoms fell around mother and child, they were cleansed by two streams of water from the sky. Then the baby stood up and walked seven steps, pointed up with one hand and down with the other – not unlike a Disco Fever John Travolta – and declared that he alone was “the World-Honored One.”

The rest is Buddhist history. The toddler, named Siddhartha Gautama, grew up to become the Buddha and the founder of one of the world’s major religions. He attained Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in what is now Bodhgaya, India. Later, after amassing many followers, he died, either of food poisoning or mesenteric infarction, depending who you ask, and reached Parinirvana, the final deathless state of Buddhism.

How is it celebrated now? Bathing little statues of the baby Buddha with tea or water, hanging lanterns, extended temple services.

Bathing Baby Buddha
Joint Base Lewis McChord, Flickr

Other ways to celebrate: Freeing caged birds, parades with dancers and illuminated lantern floats, temple offerings.

Concurrent festivals: The Flower Festival in Japan, the Bun Festival in Hong Kong.

Associated food: In many places, varieties of porridge, which commemorate the dish that Buddha received that ended his asceticism phase.

Associated commercialism: Certain companies like McDonald’s will even offer solely vegetarian options on Buddha’s birthday to stick with the spirit of the festival. Precious little, in fact. Though sales of lotus lanterns and baby Buddha statues rocket during this time, the celebrations are remarkably uncommercial.

Associated confusion: There is no reliable record for when the Buddha was actually born, thus the wide range of celebratory dates. This in no way puts a damper on festivities, but does result in a bit of awkwardness when there are two full moons in May, which happens regularly enough. Most recently it occurred in 2007, and Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Malaysia decided to celebrate during the first full moon of the month, while Singapore and Thailand celebrated at the end of May.

Best place to enjoy the festivities: Seoul really takes it up a notch, planning a week of events and celebrations in the lead-up. It kicks off with the Lotus Lantern Festival the weekend prior to Buddha’s birthday, when tens of thousands of Korean Buddhists parade through Seoul’s main roads under colorful lanterns, bringing the city to a standstill. The municipal government really pulls out all the stops, offering music, dance and theater performances in public places that are jammed with revelers. Take a look at the celebrations in Seoul and elsewhere around the world in this gallery:

%Gallery-188546%

International Adventure Guide 2013: Singapore

Contrary to popular belief, Singapore offers more than just skyscrapers and street food. In the last few years, the Asian city-state has transformed itself into a premiere destination for adventure and nature lovers. Singapore doesn’t just have gardens; it is a city within a garden. Plus, its tropical climate makes it the perfect place to indulge in outdoor pursuits year round.

What does this mean for adventure travelers? The unique opportunity to indulge in world-class adventures from the comfort of one of the world’s most well ordered cities. Care to go under the sea? Reef diving is available just 30 minutes off the coast. Looking to be airborne? Try zip-lining on Sentosa Island.

For Singaporeans, active pursuits aren’t just a luxury; they are seen as crucial for a higher quality of life. As a result, the city has invested heavily in outdoor attractions in recent years. Last year saw the opening of Gardens By The Bay, a horticultural theme park with futuristic “supertrees” and conservatories. And this year, the team behind the popular Singapore Zoo and Night Safari will unveil River Safari, Asia’s first river-themed wildlife park featuring recreated habitats from the Yangtze to the Congo to the Mighty Mississippi. Also in 2013, Singapore will host the World Street Food Congress, with celebrity chefs and foodies from around the globe – an adventure of a different variety, but an adventure nonetheless.

Adventure Activities

Hiking: Westerners tend to view Singapore as more of a concrete jungle than an actual one. But the truth is, Singapore contains miles upon miles of lush greenery, some of which is primary old-growth rainforest. One of the largest patches is in the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, a .6-square-mile national park that contains 40 percent of Singapore’s flora and fauna. Trails range from easy to moderately difficult, and most can be completed in less than two hours. Or, get a bird’s-eye view of the rainforest from the TreeTop Walk, a 820-foot freestanding suspension bridge connecting the two highest points in the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. Hiking there and back is a moderate to difficult 3.7-mile trek that can be completed in two to three hours. For a less intense hiking experience, try the Rainforest Walking Trail at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, which features 314 species of flora and fauna, 80% of which are rare or endangered. The 0.37-mile walk can easily be completed in 30 to 40 minutes. Admission to all parks is free.

Water Sports: It’s easy to forget that Singapore is an island, with miles of beaches and dozens of water sports up for grabs. The People’s Association Water-Venture is a good place to start, with reasonably priced courses and rentals in water sports like sailing, kayaking, power boating, sea rafting, windsurfing and dragon boating. There are nine outlets throughout the island. For diving enthusiasts, Pulau Hantu boasts bright corals and colorful wildlife, despite being just a 30-minute boat ride from the coast. The Dive Company offers one-day dive trips to Pulau Hantu starting at S$95 (US$76). Or, try something completely different at SKI360, Singapore’s first cable-ski park. This relatively new water sport uses a cable system to pull water skiers and wakeboarders around a man-made lagoon. Ski passes from S$32 (US$25).

Adrenaline Activities: Singapore has no shortage of ways to get your heart racing and adrenaline pumping. Thrill seekers flock to the Gmax Reverse Bungy, an attraction on Clarke Quay that propels riders into the sky at speeds of up to 200 km/hr (124 mph). If that’s too tame for you, try the recently opened GX-5 Xtreme Swing, which catapults riders 100 meters across the Singapore River. Each ride costs S$49 (US$39), or you can do both for S$60 (US$48). If you prefer diving downward, try iFly Singapore, a large indoor wind tunnel that simulates the skydiving experience. First-timers can give it a try from S$69 (US$55) for two dives. There’s also the MegaZip Adventure Park, with an aerial rope course, free-fall simulator and some of the most extreme zip lines in Asia. Admission from S$35 (US$28) per person.

Hotspots

Sentosa Island: This hedonistic resort is a veritable playground for adventure travelers. Whether your poison is extreme segwayingzorbing” or more traditional pursuits like swimming and lying on the beach, you’ll find it on Sentosa. Visitors can get to the island by foot over the recently opened Sentosa Boardwalk, by cable car or by public transportation. http://www.sentosa.com.sg/en

Gardens By The Bay: Opened last year, this expansive attraction is more a theme park for plant lovers than a simple botanical garden. Indeed, the more futuristic elements of Gardens By The Bay warrant comparisons to the movie “Avatar”: towering 16-story “supertrees,” gravity-defying suspended walkways, a Flower Dome conservatory simulating the Mediterranean and a Cloud Forest conservatory with a 35-meter “mountain” covered in rare vegetation. The outside gardens are open to the public, while entrance to the two conservatories will cost foreign visitors S$28 (US$22). http://www.gardensbythebay.com.sg

Pulau Ubin: Singapore’s man-made adventure attractions are certainly impressive, but sometimes they can feel a bit too … “Singapore.” In less-developed Pulau Ubin island, a quick 15-minute bumboat ride from Changi Point Ferry Terminal, the pace is slower and the vegetation more unruly. Once there, you can hike the island’s extensive system of nature trails, rent mountain bikes or just sit on the beach and take a breather from the frenetic energy of the mainland. There’s just enough activity to make for the perfect low-key day trip. http://www.pulauubin.com.sg

Hotels

Wanderlust: The Wanderlust hotel in Little India is intended for the “madcap voyager.” Designed by Singapore’s top design agencies, Wanderlust’s 29 themed rooms are bright, clean and funky. Adventurers will love sleeping under the faux branches of the whimsical “Tree” suite; as a writer, I’m personally obsessed with the industrial-themed “Typewriter” suite. From S$161 (US$129). http://wanderlusthotel.com 2 Dickson Road, Little India

Siloso Beach Resort: One of the more budget-friendly options on Sentosa Island, Siloso Beach Resort is a beachfront eco-resort surrounded by vegetation, wildlife and the longest spring water landscape pool in Singapore. Splurge on the Glass Loft “Tree House,” with floor-to-ceiling windows that make you feel like you’re in the middle of the jungle – despite the fact that you’re minutes from the madness of Sentosa. From S$180 (US$144). http://www.silosobeachresort.com 51 Imbiah Walk, Sentosa

Celestial Ubin Beach Resort: The only hotel on Pulau Ubin, the newly reopened Celestial Ubin Beach Resort is euphemistically described as “rustic.” In reality, standard rooms are small, dingy and not quite worth the price tag. The real treasures are the villas, which are situated right on the almost-private beach and can sleep up to five people. Standards from S$168 (US$134); villas from S$299 (US$240). http://ubinbeach.celestialresort.com 8V Pulau Ubin

Logistics

Seasonality: Peak tourist season is from December to June, and budget travelers can find less crowds and lower prices in the off-peak months of July and August. Temperatures are pretty consistent throughout the year, with a daily average of 81 degrees Fahrenheit. Expect cooler temperatures during the Northeast Monsoon season from November to mid-March, with the heaviest rains falling between November and January.

Safety: Singapore is one of the safest cities in Asia, thanks to strict punishment for minor offenses like chewing gum, jaywalking, forgetting to flush a public toilet, walking around your own house naked and even connecting to an unsecured Wi-Fi hotspot. While some of the laws may seem pretty absurd by Western standards, their result is a country that is incredibly safe and orderly.

Get Around: Singapore’s Changi International Airport is one of the best in the region, if not the world. Transportation options to downtown are plentiful, with a range of public transport, shuttle and taxi services. The best way to get around Singapore is by its extensive public transportation system. Choose between the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT), which connects the busiest parts of the island, and the bus system, which covers everywhere else. The fare depends on the distance traveled; be sure to pick up an EZ-Link tap-and-go stored value pass, which works on all forms of public transport. Singapore Public Transport also offers a handy PDF guide for tourists. Metered taxis are a relatively affordable option too; fares start at S$3 (US$2.40) with S$0.22 (US$0.18) charged for every 400 meters thereafter.

[Flickr Photo via digitalpimp]

Discovery Adventures Announces New Tours For 2013

Discovery Adventures offers new options for 2013The calendar may still say 2012, and I know we all have a busy holiday season to navigate yet, but it is never too early to start planning our trips for the new year ahead. To help us out with that process, Discovery Adventures has announced a host of new tours and destinations, adding even more depth to an existing line-up of stellar itineraries.

For 2013, Discovery has unveiled 13 new tours to 11 new countries, offering diverse and unique experiences in some of the most amazing places on the planet. Those new destinations include Malaysia, Bhutan, Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Iceland, Colombia, Chile, Israel and Singapore. The trips are designed to immerse travelers in the local culture and provide opportunities that aren’t easily found anywhere else. For instance, on the new Moroccan Dreams itinerary, visitors will camp in the desert and explore remote mountain villages, while the Malaysia & Borneo Adventure will provide contrasts between the bustling urban settings of Kuala Lumpur with the tranquil and serene rainforest. Other options include a visit to Iceland‘s lava fields, learning to cook in India and searching for the Big Five on safari in Kenya and Tanzania.

As the travel arm for the very popular Discovery Channel, Discovery Adventures feels that it has an outstanding reputation to live up to. That’s why the company is so selective about the destinations and tours that it offers. These new additions to their catalog bring the total number of trips to just 34, which is in sharp contrast to some other companies that offer dozens of options.

Their commitment to providing high quality tours for their guests doesn’t end there, however, as the company has also announced a new policy that guarantees that 100% of its trips will depart as scheduled. The new policy begins in January of next year and ensures that clients will be able to both book, and travel, with confidence.

[Photo Credit: Discovery Adventures]

Video Of The Day: Rummaging Through Singapore’s Thieves’ Market

This short documentary film about making personal connections at Singapore‘s Thieves’ Market is a little different from Gadling’s usual Video of the Day, when we often feature time lapses and quick glimpses of cities or neighborhoods. Filmmakers John Clayton Lee and Jaspas Deck capture a place often avoided by tourists: Sungei Road, the largest and oldest flea market in Singapore.

People in Singapore come together at the market to buy and sell second-hand goods, much like a giant community yard sale. It’s known to locals as “Thieves Market” because contraband goods are also widely available, and refunds or returns from any seller are impossible because someone who peddles you an item one day may not be there the next (and its not likely you’d get a receipt in the first place).

The long look at the market and its inhabitants is a reminder that people and places aren’t always what they seem to be, and many times are best taken in slowly. Have you ever visited somewhere in your travels you were told to avoid, and ended up having a great experience?