नमस्ते   السلام عليكم

“Namaste” and a  “As-salāmu ʿalaykum”   to all of you!

 

 

This page is still evolving. Ultimatelythis page will include essays and photos from tourists who have gone on our trips. Please be patient as we are still working on this. This website is still relatively new so we are still in the process of adding videos and travel essays and photos from tourists. For now, I ( Aman Waseem Ben Ali) have used my photos and essays until I secure some from some of our loyal customers. Please contact me if you are interested in submitting either essays or photos at 1(646)299 6696 or billalitour@billalitour.com

On 05/19/2013 I decided to finally take a trip to the famous Nong Nooch Garden in Sattahip, Thailand.

Nong-Nooch: Where The Mandala Of Imagination Unfolds

Here is a garden that seems like an imagination of a Tibetan monk unfolding.  Parts of the garden seemed as they were part of a mandala painted in sand, the ones you see in Tibet.
The garden is not only imaginative but well orchestrated as if it were a symphony well planned out with textures from different plants and stones against other plants and at just the right moments colors from different tropical flowers added their punch. But this is true about most botanical gardens, right? When you visit Nong-Nooch garden you will visit a garden that is uniquely Thai. It is their version and a version well worth the trip.  This mystical and even surreal imagination had its flaws but the awesome parts made up for the little errors in design by far.

What I loved was their ability to create epiphanies within a botanical setting.  For example you had to walk up wards and upwards before seeing an awesome collection of temples which dotted an expansive and rolling labyrinth of low-lying gardens.  The color combinations of the well manicured shrubs and low-lying flowering gardens created a feel as if they were trying to invite some extraterrestrial or godlike blessings through the usage of wonderful patterns like the strange patterns we see from space on the Andean mountains wondering what were the ancient’s true motives?

 At times the garden was even bizarre but always beautiful.  I say that it is an imagination unfolding because  this colossal garden is unfinished and they are ever expanding it with cultural shows, environmental and ecological educational shows and more and more of what they are best at : creating undulating and flowing gardens as if it were a giant coral reef.   Nong Nooch Garden gives you a magical, labyrinthine, and an Asian Wizard Of Oz like feeling.

 It is a place to visit early in the morning and a place to remain all day.  The garden is built to get lost in and built to hold you there until you discover something.  I do believe that the creation of an authentic labyrinth for meditation like the ones you find in Cathedrals would really fit in here.   Nong Nooch is blessed with acres of land so it would truly be a wonderful labyrinth if it does manifest.  Nong Nooch is at its  best when it creates their signature mandala like patterns and even when adding their quirky a kitsch animals like colossal ants and figurines only your grandmother would put in her curio.

 

But isn’t that combination of quirky, mystical, religious and zany  what makes Nong Nooch garden unique?  I think so.   Nong Nooch is also at its highest when it isn’t trying to add Western influences like the Venetian style gardens with cupids spouting waters and it is at its highest when they focus on signature Asian- style giant mandala like patterns which seem as if they are an invitation to the gods for blessings or a thank you for past blessings.

I finally convinced my father to include South Pattaya which includes the Nong Nooch Garden in his upcoming “Jewels Of South East Asia and Indo-China Tour”.  Very few are even aware of South Thailand’s countless islands with blue waters that rival any in the Caribbean.

For a free brochure to be mailed to you please contact Bill Ali Tour at 1 ( 718) 674 6827
The website http://www.billalitour.com has not been updated with this tour as yet.

 

Sacred Path(Shen Dao); A Mausoleum for the 13 Ming Emperors

When anyone visits Beijing the first thing they rush to see is the The Forbidden City and of course the Great Wall. But something unusual happened to me which gave me some inspiration to to start with the Sacred Path(Shen Dao); A Mausoleum for the 13 Ming Emperors.

 

I was in the process of moving and I came across an old National Geographic magazine article which my brother has lying around. On the cover was an article on "Great Khans". The spectacular article (not unusual for National Geographic) gave a good introduction into the line of Khans from Genghis, Kublai and Ogedei. The Mongol empire was never my fascination but when I opened up the article and I saw the lone sentinel "Guardian Tortoise" in their capital of Khara koum, something rushed over me. I can't explain what feeling it was and words cannot describe it. But as I saw the only remnant of that vast Empire; a stone tortoise, I was amazed but also a little frightened. I must admit I have never seen it myself but the stone tortoise reminded me what I saw earlier this year when visiting the Sacred Path; a 7 kilometer long path. A path that was believed to lead these Emperors souls to heaven.

To say the Sacred Path is beautiful, tranquil, sublime is an understatement. A word that comes to mind is "understanding". It must not have been easy for those Emperors to plan for their deaths and to plan how things would be designed after their deaths with such meticulous precision and carefulness. While not as famous as Tianamen Square or the Great Wall, Shen Dao or the Sacred Path has a quiet power beyond the others because it takes true power and self control to plan for one's own death and after it.

The guardian animals that lined the pathway were a true wonder.

 

More than their artistic beauty was the the belief system behind it that leaves one in awe. The belief that these guardians would guide the deceased to the upper levels of heaven, stand guard and even switch places at midnight!

So what does the great tortoise guardian of the Mongol Empire have to do with the Ming Mausoleums of the Sacred path. There is no strong connection except that both tortoises have a slab on them with inscriptions.

One is beautifully housed in a stone Pavillion while the other lies naked outside in the outdoors. Both according to East Asian tradition symbolize eternity. Inside the Shengde Stele Pavilion a 100,000 pound stone tortoise sits acting like a king in a special chamber above the lions, horses and elephants and fast running animals. The reverence for the tortoise as one the celestial divine animals is clearly seen here but at the site in Karokoum, Mongolia it has even a little more power since it stood there as if Fate allowed it to stand there as opposed to careful pruning and care seen at the Sacred Path.

Everybody will have a different experience when visiting Shen Dao but like all fabulous mausoleums it reminds us about the shortness of time given to us.

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When we look at the Forbidden City the first thing we all need to keep in mind is probably the one facet that slips our mind; The Forbidden city is not meant for us to view. Within that aspect is another aspect; it wasn't meant for the majority of Chinese to see either and it wasn't created to impress us. Intention is everything when you consider the Forbidden Palace(City) because unlike the Taj Mahal it wasn't meant to create awe in the common eyes or a devotion of love; it was meant to bring a heavenly vision on Earth where the Emperor himself could be the "son of god". We must remember that this fabulous of palaces was inspired by a monk who was in meditation and saw a purple kingdom in heaven and the Emperor wanted this manifestation on Earth. In doing so the Forbidden City symbolized the "center of the Earth".

Aside from the beautiful colors and beautiful celestial guardians I was in awe at the names of the different parts of the palace; "Hall Of Imperial Zenith", "Central Harmony", "Gateway Of Heavenly Peace", "Hall Of Terrestrial Tranquility", "Imperial Garden", etc… I noted how important phrases are to the Chinese even up to today and even at differing levels of businesses or the simple take-out restaurants or stores selling jade or gifts; " Double Luck Garden", "China Star Restaurant", "99 goldfish luck" or even on the knives and forks which are sold in the billions across the world bearing the stamp; "Stainless China". Whatever anyone says it must work since it is one of the oldest civilizations that have SURVIVED and still dominate today thus auspicious names are important. I even took some photos of some lucky goldfish at the moat in the forbidden city.These goldfish are probably can be traced back hundreds of years when the Forbidden City was built around 1400 AD!

 

Not only are names of UTMOST importance but it seems that a lot of restaurants abide by even basic Feng Shui rules. A visit to the Forbidden City also gives you a glimpse into some foundational Chinese beliefs which can be seen today. We hear about Feng Shui all the time in the US and Europe but there is no better teacher than seeing it here at work in the Forbidden City, you will be awestruck at the "movement" of the stone and open air space. You can feel the flow literally.

 

When judging the Forbidden City within our minds one must keep in mind the founding Emperor(Yongle) and the monk who inspired this awesome architectural beauty(a legend so its not exact). When we look at this city and learn the story behind it you think about Hindu temples and their many tiered rows of statues and one wonders where did they get these ideas to create temples of such height and intricacy?
The answer is exactly the same as the Forbidden City; through a meditation. Many gurus have actually visited far more fabulous cities while in meditation. If one reads a little bit on cities found while in meditation they will be open to a whole new way of understanding the foundation of temples, stupas and fabulous kingdoms such as these.

 

We should be glad that to be born in these times to see this and many other things that would be off limits lets say if we were really born around 1300-1400 A.D.? Historical details abound on the internet if you but spend a few moments learning about the famous yet cruel Yongle(I will let you discover this one yourselves) you will want to learn more. If you do visit the Forbidden City please do keep in mind that most overlooked artist who was at the foundation for the idea behind this kingdom; the simple monk who discovered a purple heaven and an ambitious Emperor who wanted to bring it down to Earth and live in it. Be warned; to start reading up on even a little about these dynasties unravels another story and another and another and each story is addictive and before you know it you can be hypnotized by the spell of the Forbidden City, The Great Wall and the Sacred Path. I think this is how many historians start off. Like the Mughal Dynasty or the Ottoman Empire the Ming Dynasties will make you want to learn more and more. Endless history within these walls.

Part 2.
Our lives are simply one room leading to another room and another and another, filled with doorways and endless possibilities. Doorways are more than metal or wood, they are much more than beautifully hinged objects to keep people safe. Doorways, gateways and even the simplest thresholds are created every second. There are many doors that we don't see in the physical world. An example of that type of door can be birth, death, or any change can be looked at as walking through a spiritual door( I believe are these are the most powerful).

I noticed within these walls a deep respect and belief for celestial guardians. They are both beautiful and frightening at the same time.

Obviously they are here to ward off evil and protect the city but I believe they also work on the human subconscious, tapping into a pantheon of animism early Chinese and modern as well believe in. With the practice of Feng Shui by many westerners using some of these guardians it shows that these images do tap into a belief system that reaches beyond religion to a time when humans believed in the powers and respect for animals and the mere presence of their images to bring about a magical effect. You cannot come to the Forbidden city and not feel the effects of feng-shui geniuses at work. My words cannot even begin to comment on this but overall there is a sense of peace here despite the huge crowds that fill the square. The open air spaces, the curved waterways, the moats all lend to excellent manipulation of the natural elements.

 

At the same time one cannot overlook the generous usage of colors on the architecture. Of course there are beautiful colors but what was of interest to me was the fact that yellow or gold was considered a royal color. For westerners yellow is the color of cowards. Interestingly yellow or gold was not permitted to be worn by commoners. The color of our royal planet; THE SUN was only permitted for the emperor himself.

Thinking back to the emperors of the Ming dynasty I see them walking through these courtyards.
I have always thought what did the dead think about back then when they were alive? I feel something here that I always feel when visiting tombs (Taj Mahal) or empty castles of rulers or cities such as these; even with the most powerful guardians and the strongest doors their royal ancestral line would be erased through time. How many empires, corporations at the height of their power now cannot see their fate?

ear lots of comments in the US about low quality goods from China flooding the market but when you visit China your opinion will certainly change with some of the high quality craftsmanship in almost everything! Following are some photos of some stunning Chinese cloisonne vases at a workshop our tour went to. These are some of my favorites.

 

To witness the process, the workers working within the clay so skillfully and patiently and then to see agallery of the finished gems were some of the highlights of the tour.

 

 

 

 

Great Wall

 

The Great Wall winds around over mountains like a dragon, like an ancient river that has taken years to meander, like a fragment of the human brain that creates a symbol of war like no other. The Dragon which is one of the celestial animals of the Chinese has been inspired by the sages who meditated while looking at cloud formations and somehow throughout the millenniums that form which was inspired from the clouds found true concrete form on earth like no other. The Great Wall like its meandering body through forests, mountains, craggy peaks and even near oceans will cast a spell on you.

 

So what does the Great Wall have to do with my theme on "gates and doorways"? The entire Great Wall itself is a multifaceted gateway. It is a giant doorway that is constructed to lock out harmful influences. It is also the longest cemetery or mausoleum in the world due to the countless workers who died of exhaustion and were buried there. Like any cemetery it is a gateway into the afterlife. The thought of having a family member buried somewhere in the Wall and not knowing is mentally problematic and from reading the history it seems many families had to endure that pain of having family members dying and buried somewhere along the wall but knowing where. But if you can think of yourself as the current Warlord or Emperor the Great Wall was probably the only thing that was known at the time to keep enemies out therefore it was deemed necessary. Whatever angle you are looking at the situation you will be moved by walking along the Great Wall.

Let us not forget that the Great Wall was built mainly out of fear of the Mongols and Northern plain Chinese. I believe the fear must have been terrible because just look at the effort used in building this wall. I have a feeling not everything is told to us about what the Mongols actually did to cause this fear. But after all of that the only emblem left at their capital city is a stone tortoise. Amazing that a simple tortoise is connected to all that history.

 

 

Just think the Great Wall began before Christ and was repaired lengthened up until the Ming Dynasty (1500's). Even the thought that something so colossal in both time, size and history is worth a trip and probably more than one. The Great Wall or should we say Great Wall(s), since it is not really one wall built at one time but was actually built and rebuilt and made longer by whoever the current general or Emperor was. The Great Wall is not a "wonder" for its architectural beauty but it is a Wonder for 4 reasons; 1. The idea in building such a colossal thing 2. The amount of people that were used to build it (some say 500,000 and some say well into the millions) 3. The countless bodies that are buried within the cement of the walls(fact) 4. The peacefulness today and the calm surrounding the walls today.

 

Though not an official "Wonder Of The World" I can say it is. To stand on the wall and to look out and see this endless wall for as long as the eye can see generates multiple feelings all at once which are beyond words. I truly believe that only poetry, not movies or novels can describe the Great Wall for one reason; It is something beyond imagination and the only "art" that can truly capture it is poetry or song because it is an epiphany after epiphany. A premonition flashed though my mind as I was walking on the wall and staring out into the horizon; one day all the sites for ALL Nuclear weapon sites (open or covert) around the world will also one day become useless as means of defense as the Great Wall is, the best they can hope for is to vie for tourist dollars. How many things of war are being used today which will only be tourist destinations one day?

The Great Wall is truly "China". Whether you imagine what it must be like to be either one of the workers, a warlord, a conquering Mongol Emperor or the Ming Emperor himself or just a warrior guarding the wall there are millions and millions of voices on the Great Wall. So fabulous is the history behind the wall you wonder if it even happened. The only other sites that have left me awestruck like this are those in India. I feel that the Buddhist temples of Angkor will have the same effect on me. But the Great Wall is more than a "Wow" experience and many do come just for that but for me it is a spiritual bonding with a one of the human species greatest attempts to defend itself against a terrifying foe. To be here and to touch the stones and to walk up and down the wall is to connect with all those countless voices, to connect with an ongoing part of history that started since B.C.,it is worth a visit during ones lifetime.

 

 

Malaysia: Kingdoms within kingdoms
Part I.

There are numerous inspiring articles that abound on Malaysia and sites we will visit. This is an essay I developed from my travelog when I was on the Orient Tour. If you are pressed for time, you can scroll down to see the pictures and read the essay later at your convenience.

 

Before discussing the mysterious Batu caves in Malaysia I wanted to briefly mention the idea of "sacred sites". There are many sites across the planet Earth that have no church or house of worship on them yet when you step foot their you know their is a special energy there. One such example is Kaieteur waterfall in Guyana or the Angel Falls in neighboring Venezuela. They are not noted as a "sacred site" but the history around them does make them sacred and one would wonder what unknown powers these locations hold but not understood by us at this present time. Just because a site doesn't have elaborate temples doesn't mean there isn't great power locked within the natural surroundings. Another example are the Himalayas, Tibet and Lhasa.

Most of these mysterious locations are unknown.

 

The ones that are discovered are turned into the most fabulous shrines, temples, possibly mosques and even temples like Kukulkan's Pyramid on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. Some of these locations are obvious such as the magnificent Batu Caves of Malaysia which I visited in May and the focus of this travel essay. One such location that I believe would normally go unnoticed to many if it were not for the stones is Stone Henge or even the stone monuments of Easter Island. Why did they go through the effort and why did they pick that location above all? True, the Druids of that time are not around today and all we can do do is just wonder. Why were the Jain and Hindu temples of Kajuraho chosen to be there and not other locations? The ultimate question is: what makes a site sacred for a Shaman, Priest or religious group? Could it be a special individual did something at that site or even stepped foot there? Could it be the Yucatan peninsula where amazing Mayan temples were built and thousands were sacrificed was special because not too far away the legendary meteor that hit earth 65 million years ago is on that very location leaving a crater, lending some type of otherworldly power to that location? Or maybe a sacred site could be due to magnetic fields or things deep within the plates of the earth, again unknown to us but instantly felt by the spiritually attuned. I still believe that what lends power to a site being sacred is still in that nebulous world of the unknown, it something felt but not visible.

 

When you approach the Batu Caves and see the awesome Lord Murugan statue, you know you have reached a sacred site that has been discovered by one and many before. While there are numerous caves and probably fabulous undiscovered ones I want to talk about the most famous one which is the focal point for the Malaysian Hindus during the Thaipusam festival. Lord Murugan, son of Siva and Parvatie is certainly the star of the show here. The effect is so surreal that you feel as if Lord Murugan stepped out of the molten lava core of the earth still dripping in metallic gold or maybe stepped down from the Sun! But with all his brilliance it was actually walking up the 272 concrete steps where I felt the same feeling as I have when walking through labyrinths in some old cathedrals; purification of the mind. Walking up the 272 concrete steps had the same cleansing effect on the mind as when you walk around in labyrinths. The doorways or gateways you walk through are invisible to the eye but they are there. The design is different and one is more strenuous and linear than the other but for me I felt the same feeling on my psyche as I reached the top; a cleansing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Batu Caves like the title of the first part of this essay; Kingdoms within kingdoms offers you what great poetry offers; an epiphany within another epiphany, an "aha moment within another one". After climbing the steps and being greeted by armies of macaque monkeys and fruit bats darting in and out of their prehistoric stalactites you enter the mouth of the main area called the "cathedral cave". The feeling of seeing Lord Murugan towering in front of the prehistoric cave opening was not only surreal but what put you in awe was the mere thought that a man would devote so much time and effort on this, that alone makes it a true "wonder". Another set of steps leads you down inside the womb of this chamber and here are Hindu deities are situated all over the temple. The entire feeling I received after seeing the Lord Murugan statue, the temples inside and the sheer height of the entrance to the cave was just awesome. You couldn't find a better example of mankind venturing back into the womb and reconnecting with "the mother". One may think that elation couldn't be trumped but it was when I entered the last part of the cave chambers I found completion in this art form that combined nature and man-kind, earth energy and prayer or devotional energy; an area where an opening to the sky allowing a beam of light to enter into the dark cavernous area. Here there was another temple but I was focused on the shaft of light that came beaming down in the center of this cave. I was hypnotized by its presence. Here we find the primordial connection of the "father and the mother" or "sky and earth" united and its no wonder that the Batu caves is considered not only a sacred site but a true work of art. It is certainly a place not to be missed and one of the best sties to see in Malaysia.