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Wandering through Myanmar’s Shwedagon Pagoda

Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun.”
Rudyard Kipling, From Sea to Sea and Other Sketches, Letters of Travel

It was the only must-see tourist sight I planned for my stay in Yangon–the rapidly developing major city doesn’t have a lot of sites to visit. Shwedagon Pagoda (ရွှေတိဂုံဘုရား), the iconic image of Myanmar, was on every itinerary suggestion, and it lived up to expectations.Shwedagon pagoda

I had little time to explore Yangon, particularly because I did not plan the trip as well as I should have. That left me with fewer options for sightseeing–the top destination was more or less it for my limited stay.

Taxi to Shwedagon Pagoda

I took a taxi for a few dollars from my hotel near Sule Pagoda through the mess of crawling traffic. I understood then why taxis charge a flat rate instead of running meters–the idle time would increase fares exponentially. Along the way I got to witness Yangon at a snail’s pace.

Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda through the cracked taxi windshield

It can take more than a half hour to go just a few blocks in Yangon’s infamous traffic. It doesn’t help that there are a lot of narrow one-way streets that can be difficult for cars to fit through. I was fortunate that my hotel was near two main roads (one of which led to the airport) as well as two minor tourist destinations.

I would have liked to have been dropped off right in front of my destination, but after sitting through the light multiple times in front of Shwedagon and only moving a few car lengths, I decided to pay my fare and walk. I doubt my driver cared whether I got out early. I arrived at my destination well before my taxi ever reached that intersection.

A Little History

Shwedagon Pagoda is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar, as it is believed to contain relics of the four previous Buddhas of the present kalpa, or period of history. The golden pagoda in the center of the temple complex is  99 meters (325 ft) and was was built by the Mon people between the 6th and 10th centuries. However, according to legend, the pagoda was constructed more than 2,600 years ago.shwedagon pagoda

The pagoda has been damaged by natural disasters and wars over the centuries. The worst damage was caused by an earthquake in 1768 that brought down the top of the stupa, which was later raised to its current height by King Hsinbyushin. The Dutch and British both stole bells from the temple, and both bells were accidentally dropped into the river. The bell that was pillaged by the Dutch was never recovered, but the other was saved by locals and returned to its rightful place.

King Singu's Bell

King Singu’s Bell

This was also the location of some major protests by Buddhist monks in 2007 in the run up to democratic reforms in Myanmar.

Entering the Temple

As soon as I arrived I found a long hallway leading up the hill to the pagoda–it was so long that I couldn’t see the end from the entrance. I paid a tourist entrance fee that included a space to leave my shoes (you must take off your shoes at all temples in Myanmar, no matter how much dirt is on the ground).

shwedagon pagoda hallway

That’s a long hallway

The long hallway was lined with souvenir vendors as well as those selling incense, flowers, and other offerings for people to leave at the temple. There were also more than a few beggars along the way.

The hallway was a welcome respite from the heat–little sunlight enters the area and there’s a decent breeze to keep everyone slightly cooler. I breezed past the vendors as I wasn’t about to buy anything on my way in, but I figured I’d have a look on the way out (of course, everything is a bit more expensive at Shwedagon than in places like Bogyoke Aung San Market). As I left the pagoda around lunchtime, most of the vendors were taking a midday nap and didn’t want to be bothered by tourists.

Once I entered the actual temple grounds, I was blinded by the sun gleaming off the gold pagoda as well as off all the white stupas, tiles, and shrines.shwedagon pagoda

I knew this temple would be impressive and large, but I was unprepared for the size of it. Shwedagon Pagoda itself is huge–the base of it stretches 1,420 feet around. And then it’s surrounded by hundreds of small stupas and shrines.

And all around Shwedagon Pagoda and the small stupas and shrines are filled with additional shrines with numerous Buddha statues.shwedagon pagoda buddha

It begins to feel like sensory overload, but it could have also been heat stroke. It was a desperate attempt to avoid taking photos with the crowds in the way while also trying to find a little shade to avoid melting in Myanmar’s holiest site (I may or may not have seen an incident of spontaneous combustion that wasn’t so spontaneous given the temperature).

shwedagon pagoda

The crowd around Tuesday Buddha (my day)

Of course, after wandering through the grounds all the stupas and shrines begin to look the same. Or maybe I walked around the perimeter of the pagoda more than once. So much of the place blends together after baking my brain in the sun that I wasn’t sure which direction I was facing.

I’m fairly certain I took one more quick tour around the grounds to find my exit to make the trip back to the hotel easier. I wasn’t sure what was on the other sides of Shwedagon Pagoda, and I didn’t feel like getting lost in the heat and/or traffic of Yangon.shwedagon pagoda

Getting out of Shwedagon

It wasn’t easy finding my way out of the temple complex. The pagoda is symmetrical, so you can’t judge which side you’re on looking at it. This leaves visitors with only the surrounding stupas and shrines to guess location.shwedagon pagoda

I had enough foresight to take a picture of the first shrine I saw. Of course, after taking a hundred or so more photos within Shwedagon, I had to flip through a lot just to find where that one picture was.

On my way out of Shwedagon, I decided to walk down the street away from the heaviest traffic before flagging down a taxi to take me back to my hotel. Along the way, I stopped off for a light lunch and the largest bottle of cold water the restaurant sold. The restaurant was open air but out of the sun near Happy World Amusement Park, which featured a statue of Rambo.

rambo myanmar

When did Rambo get to Yangon?

I also stopped across the street at Maha Wizaya Pagoda, which has an interesting interior mural. By the time I finished with that pagoda, I was exhausted from the heat and sun and in desperate need of air conditioning and water.

I would have enjoyed Maha Wizaya more had it not been for the long unshaded walk to get in. It’s a relatively new temple with relic donated by the King of Nepal. The center of the pagoda is painted with trees and nature scenes–it’s not the typical Buddhist stories that are painted on so many other temples.

Maha Wizaya Pagoda

Interior of Maha Wizaya Pagoda

My only regret when visiting Shwedagon was that I didn’t see it in the evening–a few people have mentioned that it’s even more impressive with lights shinning after the sun sets. As usual, missing something minor like this provides me with a reason to revisit Yangon.

Buddha’s Giant Feet at Wat Pho

Every visit to Bangkok feels like I’m here for the first time.
-Andrew Zimmern, Bizarre Foods

Sometimes you encounter a sight–it may even be considered a tourist trap to some–that leaves you in awe. In some cases, you’re prepared for the beauty of a destination as you’ve perused the guidebooks and checked out photos online. Other times you’re simply struck by the sight because you didn’t know what to expect. And other times, the sight exceeds the expectations set by those who introduced it to you.Wat Pho

My stop at Wat Pho in Bangkok was the latter of those experiences. I had read a bit about it and heard from friends who had been there before me. But I wasn’t prepared for the sight of the largest reclining Buddha in Bangkok.

Wat Pho is one of the more important temples in Bangkok, and therefore in Thailand. It’s also a major tourist attraction, which means that it is surrounded by hawkers and scammers (“The temple is closed today because [insert excuse]”). Ignoring the people along the route to see the three major sights of Wat Pho, the Grand Palace, and Wat Arun, I stopped first at Wat Pho–coming from the area around Khao San Road makes this the easiest first stop. Wat Pho Buddha

While one of Bangkok’s oldest temples is a sight to behold for its grandeur–it is a royal temple afterall–it’s the Buddha that attracts so many visitors. The reclining Buddha and the temple that surrounds it were built by Rama III in 1832, although the original parts of the temple complex were supposedly built during the reign of King Phetracha in 1688–1703.Reclining Buddha

There was nothing more inspiring than looking at the enormous feet of the reclining Buddha, inlaid with Buddha images in mother of pearl. It’s almost impossible to even take a photo of the entire Buddha (I wish I had had a panoramic camera at the time). Of all the temples I visited in Thailand, I took the fewest photos of Wat Pho. That doesn’t mean, however, that I found the temple less interesting than others–sometimes you have to step away from the lens to appreciate what you see. Much like the Giant Buddha of Leshan, it’s difficult to fully portray the experience of being there.Buddha feet

The reclining Buddha is 15 meters high and 46 meters long. The feet are 3 meters high and 4.5 meters long–not quite the size of the feet of the Giant Buddha of Leshan, but still impressive.

Have you visited Wat Pho? Did it meet or exceed your expectations?

The Streets of Osaka, Japan

No matter where I go in the world, although I can’t speak any foreign language, I don’t feel out of place. I think of the earth as my home.
-Akira Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography

As I wander through cities, I sometimes try to take in too much at once. The sights, sounds, smells of a city are what give me a sense of place–it tells either tells me that this is not a place I’ve been before or this is someplace familiar in a way. And the streets of Osaka were in the former category.

Dotonburi canal

A quiet path along the canal near Dotonburi

Osaka overwhelmed me from the moment I stepped off the train from Kyoto–I got lost searching for the exit that should’ve been nearest my hostel. I only got more lost when I exited Namba Station and found myself at a five-way intersection with a map that wasn’t oriented with north on architecture

Despite wandering and getting lost, I found the area where I stayed in Osaka to be walkable. Of course, it was even better when I rode a hostel bike around the city.

Dotonburi crowd

Crowds at Dotonburi

However, near my hostel in Naniwa Ward was the most intriguing Shinto shrine I’ve seen. Nanbayasaka Shrine is quite small, but is home to a fearsome lion’s head that encloses a shrine–certainly grabbed my attention as I walked by.Nanbayasaka Shrine

There is a lot to see along the streets of Osaka. Despite the history, the city is home to some of the more interesting contemporary architecture I found in Japan (alright, so I only saw metropolitan Tokyo (including Yokohama), Kyoto, and Osaka). These were not buildings I expected to see on my trip, but I was certainly impressed enough to stop and admire what I found.

Osaka architecture

My favorite building in Osaka

Of course, the main attraction for walking in Osaka is Dōtonbori–a touristy area for food. Of course, locals eat in the area, but it is crowded around dinnertime. The appeal in Dōtonbori isn’t always what’s on the plate, but what’s on the building above the entrance to the restaurants.

Dotonburi blowfish

I assume this is the place to get some fugu

Giant mechanical seafood to entice customers, perhaps? Or cartoonish depictions of Japanese culture and food. Either way, this area is fun to wander through as long as you don’t stare up too long and cause a traffic jam. It would be easy to walk with your head tilted skyward to admire the artistry of Dōtonbori, but it would most likely end in an accident. This section of the city has a kitschy appeal, but it’s well worth wandering through–there’s a reason it’s popular with tourists. Dotonburi restaurant

While the city is centered on Osaka Castle, everything surrounding it is contemporary–it’s rare to find a street with older structures, but there are some hidden away from the crowds that wander the streets.

Osaka Castle

View from the moat at Osaka Castle

Although at times I seek quieter avenues to escape the overwhelming feeling that comes with the crowds, those bustling streets are almost a requirement to get a better understanding of the city. Watching the people in the streets from a coffee shop window, or gazing at the buildings from all angles provides me with a sense of place–an image to associate later on as I recall my journeys through these cities.

dotonburi octopus

Takoyaki restaurant or anime shop?

Of course, with all this wandering through streets of a major city, food is desired. Osaka is known for okonomiyaki and takoyaki, both of which I had in Tokyo and was desperate to try again. Unfortunately, as I was unemployed at the time, my budget did not allow me to enjoy everything Osaka had to offer on a plate–I still managed to eat at one of the popular okonomiyaki restaurants.dotonburi canal

As it isn’t a long flight from Taipei, I could easily plan another weekend getaway to wander the streets of Osaka again and enjoy the architecture and culinary delights that the city has to offer. It doesn’t feel like as much of a tourist city as other places I’ve been, but there is still plenty to enjoy.

The Road to Picturesque Prambanan

[T]he farther they are removed from European influence and foreign intercourse, the better are the morals and the happier are the people.
-Sir Thomas Raffles, The History of Java

After awaking only hours after arrival in Yogyakarta to watch the sunrise at Borobudur, I headed back across the city to the other UNESCO World Heritage Site — Prambanan Temple Complex.

Prior to booking my trip to Yogyakarta, I didn’t know what there was to do besides Borobudur. In the days leading up to this trip, I searched online for ideas — and I found more temples. Fortunately, my hotel at Tiga Lima could easily book a driver to take me everywhere I wanted, at least that’s what I was told when I emailed them a couple days before arrival. It was a bit more expensive than I expected, but it was convenient and, hell, it was my birthday. The driver was also friendly and suggested stopping at some smaller temples scattered along the route between Borobudur and Prambanan.

Candi Pawon view

The view from Candi Pawon

After watching the sunrise and then drinking a second cup of coffee as part of my small breakfast that was included in the Borobudur sunrise ticket, I found my driver to head to the next temple. He told me to relax and sleep as the next temple would be more than a half hour away. I couldn’t sleep at this point–I was excited despite my exhaustion.

The smaller temples along the way to Prambanan were nothing exciting–mostly ruins in a field surrounded by houses. But they were still worth stopping off to see. As fewer tourists frequent these sites, it offers a tranquil walk to stretch your legs on the drive between the major tourist attractions of Yogyakarta. There’s also the added fun of watching the locals’ chickens running about (I’m not sure how they keep track of the livestock without fences).

Candi Pawon

Candi Pawon, a small shrine outside Borobudur

The first stop was Candi Pawon, which is only a short drive from Borobudur. It’s only a small temple surrounded by a few residential buildings. It’s an easy stop before crossing the Progo River on the way back to Yogyakarta and other temples.

Candi Mendut Buddha

Buddha inside Candi Mendut

Not far from Pawon is Candi Mendut, which is a bit larger and attracts slightly more tourists. At one time there was more to Mendut, but those pieces are now scattered in a field for research and possible reconstruction.

Candi Mendut

Candi Mendut

Just outside Mendut is a Buddhist monastery, aptly named Vihāra Mendut (Mendut Buddhist Monastery). The monastery itself isn’t much, but there are some beautiful stained glass windows, which I’ve never seen on any Buddhist temple.

Mendut Monastery

Stained glass at Mendut Monastery

Finally, I arrived at Prambanan.

Candi Prambanan

Candi Prambanan

The grand 9th century temple is also the largest Hindu temple in Indonesia. The buildings within Prambanan tower above the surrounding the trees, greeting visitors with intricately detailed stonework.

The size and location of the temple were likely planned to welcome Hinduism’s return to Java and overshadow nearby Borobudur and Candi Sewu. Use of the temple only lasted a little more than a century as the government moved away from the region to East Java, possibly due to an eruption at Mt. Merapi.Candi Prambanan

An earthquake destroyed much of Prambanan in the 16th century, and while it wasn’t an important religious center, it continued to be recognized as a symbol of the region for locals–it mixed into local legends and myths. It wasn’t until 1918, and later in 1930, that the Dutch began reconstructing the temple. The work was completed in 1953, though some smaller shrines were not rebuilt because the government required reconstruction to use at least 75% original masonry. The original temple complex contained 240 shrines, but only a few remain today.

These shrines have not been reconstructed

These shrines have not been reconstructed

It’s beautiful to see this enormous Hindu temple restored. Each one of the shrines is similar, though with a different deity. The central shrine, dedicated to Shiva, is much larger than the others surrounding it as well.

Prambanan Shiva shrine

The shrine to Shiva

As with all of the ancient sites around the region, it can be painfully hot to wander around at midday. Fortunately, it was before noon, so I had some shade (though I felt my water bottle was close to boiling). Despite being prepared for the heat, it still took its toll. I was too tired to take my time to truly admire the stonework of Prambanan–the symmetry of the structures and stone reliefs in the shrines are some of the most amazing I’ve encountered (of course, with reconstruction work, they’re a bit more finely polished than what I saw around Angkor Wat).Prambanan relief

In the evenings, Prambanan is illuminated with colorful lights for Ramayana ballet performance (not every night). There was a performance while I was there, but I decided not to go as I was exhausted after my early day in the sun. Plus I would’ve had to book another driver and get tickets, and I didn’t bring quite enough cash for all that (I also saw a similar performance at Uluwatu in Bali years ago).Candi Prambanan

The most interesting of the smaller temples was Candi Sewu, which is within the Prambanan Temple Complex grounds. Candi Sewu, despite being mostly ruins, is the oldest Buddhist temple in Indonesia, dating back to the 8th century. While I was there, I noticed some reconstruction work going on to restore at least part of the original temple–and they were using original stones that remain at the site.

Candi Sewu

The guards outside Candi Sewu

Sewu is a bit of a walk from Prambanan, even though it’s in the same park. This makes it less visited by tourists who pay the entrance fee to the temple complex. It also means that it’s an incredibly hot walk back under a cloudless sky to the parking lot as there isn’t enough shade along the roads leading back (I chose a longer route because there were more trees).

Candi Sewu

The ruins of Candi Sewu

On the way back to Yogyakarta, we made one more stop (besides for lunch at little restaurant that was basically someone’s home). Candi Kalasan is a crumbling temple along the main road from Prambanan. The highlight of Kalasan is the guardian statues at the doorways. Of course, at this point I was tired and hot–I really just wanted to go back to sleep–so I didn’t hang around to admire the temple much.

Candi Kalasan

Candi Kalasan

With that I more or less passed out in the car on the way back to Tiga Lima and then slept for a few hours, after having a cold shower of course.

And for those wondering why there are no photos of me at these magnificent temples around Yogyakarta, it’s because not only am averse to taking numerous photos of myself, but I’m certainly not as willing to take a photo while coping with heat exhaustion.

Calm Lake at Banteay Srei, Cambodia

It was a beautiful walk through Banteay Srei, a 10th century temple north of Angkor Wat, on my second day in Siem Reap–I had decided a tour would allow me greater opportunity to meet people, possibly find some people with whom to celebrate the New Year the next day. Instead, I met a Dutch expat living in China who agreed to take a 40-mile bike ride along the dirt roads around Angkor Wat. I also had my picture taken by a monk with a cell phone.Banteay Srei lake

On our way back to the tour bus, we exited the back of the temple and wandered along quieter paths devoid of other tourists. Along the way we paused by the lake for photos and to enjoy the quiet before heading back to the crowds around Angkor Wat and Siem Reap during the high season.Banteay Srei boat

It was a moment of calm in the rising heat of the day. Had I not been on a tour with a set itinerary, I may have sat staring out at the lake for longer before heading to the next destination. This spot offered a great frame for the photo and an opportunity to play with some of my camera settings–not all the settings worked out well and I’ve had to delete a few photos.

Where have you found calm while on a tour of a major destination?

Biking through Bagan

You fools who ask what god is
should ask what life is instead.
-Ko Un, Asking the Way

Most people see Bagan in a day or two while on tours through Myanmar. Due to my careless monetary planning (and bank foul-ups), I got five days in the land of pagodas.

On my first day, I rented an e-bike as I had to take a long ride to find the bank that supposedly would exchange my US dollars or possibly accept my debit card (there was another branch closer to the hotel that I didn’t see until my final day). That day I learned just what the tour books meant by bumpy roads in Myanmar. I thought about how people use GoPro cameras and what an adventure the ride through the dusty streets of Bagan would be to watch. Alas, I have no such camera nor any device to mount a camera on  a bike.bagan pagodas

After breaking down far from my destination after taking a wrong turn on one of the four main roads in Bagan, I found the Nyaung U Airport Hotel. The friendly staff helped call the people I rented from to come fix the e-bike–they also offered me a place to rest and some water.bagan pagodas

Later in the day, I met Erin, an American living in Ireland who was on an extended journey through Asia. She had similar banking problems as I had. She also chatted with me while I waited again for help with my broken-down e-bike. After I was ready to go again, we headed around to find a spot for sunset. As we ran low on time, we stopped at the first pagoda with stairs to a terrace for slightly obstructed view.

For the next two days I rented mountain bikes, which were quite a bit easier to ride through the sand-paved roads that branched off those four main roads toward the pagodas and villages. I turned down whichever path that passed for a road caught my attention, sometimes with beautiful results.Bagan Pagodas

I headed out early in the day to avoid the intense midday heat, along with the crowds, though I usually stayed out well past lunch to see a bit more. I rode out again to watch the sunset from various points in the area (my favorite was from a restaurant at the end of Kayay St. overlooking the Irrawaddy River in New Bagan, probably because it was the clearest sunset of my stay as well as the least crowded).irrawaddy sunset

I avoided riding bikes much after sunset as the streets are poorly lit within the towns, even with my bike light that I was grateful to have remembered to pack as bike rentals do not include such necessities for nighttime riding. Even walking at night wasn’t the easiest and required me to carry that little LED light as a safety precaution.

It’s easy to fall in love with Myanmar while riding a bike–the moderate pace in the heat as the sun gleams off the ancient pagodas, making them appear golden, brightens the spirit no matter how difficult the situation may be (or even if you’ve managed to screw up your travel plans). The expanse of the plain with the endless pagodas is as beautiful as any scene I’ve witnessed in my travels, and finding the quiet perches atop some of the less visited pagodas only improves the view.

Pagodas sans tourists

Pagodas sans tourists

Just like the e-bike I managed to break down, but only once after sunset when I got a flat tire and the front wheel locked up–it was only a ten-minute ride back to my hotel, but I couldn’t even walk the bike back with a locked wheel. Fortunately, multiple locals stopped to help me out–one tried to fix the bike, another called the people I rented from, and two more offered help that I no longer needed (I couldn’t imagine people anywhere else being more friendly and helpful).

A pagoda different from all the rest. No others had animal sculptures outside

A pagoda different from all the rest. No others had animal sculptures outside

On my first day of biking around with an aimless agenda, I took turns onto the sandy roads leading away from the sparse tourist crowds. At one pagoda, a family showed me the food they were preparing for breakfast–they even invited me to join them in a little while. I had just finished a huge hotel breakfast not long before, and I wasn’t sure about cleanliness of food prepared along the road, so I politely declined. I was, however, tempted by the spicy sauce they prepared.

It looked and smelled delicious. I was tempted to return for dinner

It looked and smelled delicious. I was tempted to return for dinner

As I rode toward what I thought were interesting non-pagoda structures, I encountered a new friend on a solo bike ride through Bagan. Klara, who runs a tour organization in Prague (Prague Extravaganza Free Tour), joined me for the rest of the day on our dusty journey through pagodas and vistas.

I was checking out this abandoned building before I met my new friend

I was checking out this abandoned building before I met my new friend

If it wasn’t for Klara, I might not have known how to get to Myuk Guni and reach the top terrace to watch the sun. She led the way for sunset, which became my alternate destination for sunrise the following day.

We rode around Bagan aimlessly–through various streets and paths, occasionally walking the bikes through the soft, deep sand. We had time to see everything that wasn’t on the official tours, though we still stopped at the larger temples.

View from Myuk Guni before sunset

View from Myuk Guni before sunset

We parted ways after our sunset view with other tourists at Myuk Guni. It wasn’t until my final day in Bagan that I ran into Klara again–I was riding an e-bike past the market on the way back from Nyaung U when I spotted her on a bike in the opposite direction. I shouted her name to get her attention. We ended up having lunch at a vegetarian restaurant in the market before she had to head back to the airport.

Road through Bagan

Road through Bagan

We shared adventures from the previous two days–the advantage of digital cameras. When I mentioned bringing something back to share with my coworkers, she suggested buying a huge bag of tamarind wafers that handed out everywhere in Myanmar (how could I go wrong with such a simple gift?).

The rest of my time in Bagan was spent semi-aimless riding with stops at nearly every pagoda I came across. I met plenty of tourists who wandered through some pagodas with me, but none who seemed to be headed in the same direction afterwards.

View from Myuk Guni

View from Myuk Guni

I didn’t mind riding alone through the sand of the town–it provided time to reflect on my travels and take in the atmosphere at my own pace. It’s the same with hiking–quiet contemplation and the ability to go faster or slower depending solely on my mood. I was able to ride down whichever side streets I wanted and admire the construction of the local bamboo houses, as well as get lost in the aisles of the Nyaung U market as I searched for souvenirs with my leftover kyat on the final day.

This bike served me well, and deserved a Mandalay beer afterwards

This bike served me well, and deserved a Mandalay beer afterwards

On my final day of biking (I rented the e-bike on the last day in Myanmar because I was too tired), I ended my day with a stop at an open-air restaurant just on the edge of New Bagan at the opposite side of the town from my hotel. At this point I was just looking to relax with a cold beer–I wanted to try Mandalay Beer, but almost all the restaurants in town only served Myanmar Beer. The owner of this restaurant went out to get a bottle of Mandalay Beer for me. It was a fitting end to all of my biking through Bagan.

Birthday Borobudur Sunrise

What ever became of my youth?
I wanted to stop a stranger and ask.
“It went into hiding,” said an old woman
Who’d read my mind.
“Swimming with sharks,” a drunk concurred
-Charles Simic, from The Stray

There wasn’t much time to prepare. I had a long overnight layover in Kuala Lumpur on my way to Yogyakarta–a three-day trip that required five days because of travel time.Borobudur-stupa-sunrise

As I was exhausted upon arrival, I figured I’d probably be able to wake up early on my first full day to watch the sunrise at Borobudur, the main reason I chose to visit Yogyakarta. What I didn’t realize was that Borobudur is located about an hour outside the city, meaning I had to leave my hotel almost two hours before sunrise.

First glimpse of the sunrise

First glimpse of the sunrise

This temple visit was different than others. This one was special, not because Borobudur holds great significance to me but because this was the first time I had taken such a trip on my birthday. It was a way to celebrate having a new job for a few months that offered vacation time that I had to use before the end of the year. I had never watched the sunrise (or sunset) on my birthday. This was reason enough for me to drag my butt out of bed at 3:30 in the morning to climb some ancient stairs for a view of the sun breaking through the clouds and mist.Borobudur-mist-2

Borobudur is a 9th century Buddhist temple with nine stacked platforms and huge central dome surrounded by 72 Buddha statues inside stupas–the platforms and central dome represent attaining nirvana. It is the single largest Buddhist temple in the world. For comparison, Angkor Wat dates back to the early 12th century. While the Angkor Wat complex is much larger than Borobudur, no single temple within the complex is as large.borobudur-stupas

The temple was supposedly abandoned around the 14th century as Islam swept across Indonesia. It wasn’t until British rule in the early 19th century that the temple was “rediscovered.” Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the governor of Java, was introduced to the temple by locals, and he shared the information with the world in his book The History of Java in 1817.

Buddha inside the stupa

Buddha inside the stupa

The Indonesian government has made efforts to restore Borobudur to its original glory with the help of UNESCO. Of course, this means that tourists must pay an admission fee, which is quite a bit more expensive for a sunrise visit that includes a very light breakfast on the way out.Borobudur-detail

By the time I reached the top of Borobudur, dawn had broken through the clouds–I wondered why ticket office handed me a flashlight when it was light enough at that hour to see my way (I needed more signs pointing in the right direction for the entrance as I was still rather bleary-eyed).Borobudur-mist

The sun was already high before 5:30–the mountains surrounding the temple were illuminated as I watched the mist hang over the trees and smoke from morning cooking fires rising before the day’s heat settled in. The stones of Borobudur shone brighter as the sun escaped from behind the clouds–the cool morning air with the sun shining through made this sunrise a wonderful birthday gift to myself.

Who needs a selfie stick when your camera has a timer?

Who needs a selfie stick when your camera has a timer?

I sat by a stupa and reflected on turning another year older and considering my theory that birthdays abroad don’t count and, therefore, I’m still only 27 (despite repeatedly celebrating my 25th birthday because it was the last one I celebrated before becoming an expat for the first time).Borobudur-mountains-2

After wandering through the temple in the daylight to take a closer look at the intricate stone carvings that surround this enormous temple, I walked back down to the entrance to have my “free” breakfast (it was part of the inflated admission fee) and a cup of coffee before meeting my driver and heading to a few smaller temples on the way to Prambanan on the other side of Yogyakarta.

Sunrise Bike Ride in Bagan

What’s the one thing everyone does in Bagan? Watch the sunrise over the pagodas.

Plenty of people go for the sunrise balloon ride over Bagan, and I admit that I wanted to do the same. That is, until I saw the price tag. $350 per person. And those are US dollars, not Canadian or Australian. I had planned on splurging on this trip (up until the point that I realized I couldn’t get any more cash), but there was no way I could justify that expense.

If it wasn't prohibitively expensive, I'd be in one of those balloons

If it wasn’t prohibitively expensive, I’d be in one of those balloons

If it had been $100, I would’ve taken it (assuming I could’ve put it on my credit card or actually used an ATM in Burma). Instead, I settled for watching the hot air balloons float above the temples as the sun broke through the dust and haze of the morning.

And the view I found in Bagan was not the one I had planned.

Not a bad view at all

Not a bad view at all

On my second day in Bagan, I ended up at a large pagoda off the main road–it was past another slightly larger one, but no one seemed to visit this one. The view from the top of the pagoda was beautiful. I made up my mind to head there for sunrise–it was near New Bagan, so it wouldn’t require a long ride and I could quickly return to the hotel for breakfast and a nap.

I forgot where the pagoda was. I couldn’t find it in the predawn darkness.

I met a German tourist on a bike while searching. We came across one temple with people on the roof, but we couldn’t find the stairs up; we were confused how the group made it up. We went to a large pagoda nearby, but the upper levels were locked–the German guy climbed around the barbed wire fence to go higher, but I decided to turn back.

I'm not climbing around that for a view

I’m not climbing around that for a view

I headed for Myauk Guni (North Guni) where I had watched the sunset the day before. It was just past Shwesandaw Pagoda, which is where a large group of tourists stops for sunrise and sunset. By comparison, Myauk Guni only has a handful of people and the view is just as good.

Rather than taking a 15-minute bike ride to watch the sunrise, I had to ride more than a half hour. And I was fortunate enough to make it to Myauk Guni just before daylight broke. But it sure made the ride back to the hotel on an empty stomach more difficult.sunrise-myauk-guni

Unfortunately, I don’t have the best luck when it comes to sunrise views–my sunrise over Angkor Wat was rather disappointing. Bagan was better than Angkor Wat, but it wasn’t clear enough for the more impressive photos I’ve seen.

This is the downside to Myanmar opening up more to foreign investment and tourism. As more tourists flood the main attractions, the views will become more obscured. Fortunately, locals emphasize keeping Bagan clean and promote the use of electric bikes, bicycles, and good old mule cart to control pollution. However, that doesn’t stop larger tours with buses and people hiring taxis or renting cars. Because the roads aren’t paved, and many are entirely sand, the increased traffic simply sends more dust into the air. Even the mule carts kick up plenty of dirt on the roads.

Balloons over Bagan

Balloons over Bagan

At least with the lack of traffic the air around Bagan is still decent. The sunrises and sunsets may get a bit hazy, but they’re still beautiful and well worth seeing.

Is a sunrise balloon ride worth the money or is it better to take the less expensive dirt road?

Watching the Sunset Over Tō-Ji in Kyoto

“We all want to forget something, so we tell stories. It’s easier that way.”
-Commoner, Rashōmon

Before setting out to Kyoto with my limited itinerary, I read that the sunset was beautiful around Tō-Ji, Eastern Temple. Or maybe I read that it was meant for sunrise, but I wasn’t about to wake up that early.

Tō-Ji pagoda

Tō-Ji pagoda

I figured it would be easy enough to visit the temple because it was a short distance from the train station, which wasn’t far from my cramped hostel. As I mentioned before, objects on the map appear much closer than they really are; fortunately, Tō-Ji wasn’t that far.

The temple dates back to 796 and was one of three Buddhist temples in the city when Kyoto was the capital. It is the only of those three to have survived, though plenty of other temples are now a part of the city’s cultural heritage. It’s also one of many UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto–they’re all pretty much lumped together in official listings.

Tō-Ji pagoda and miedo

Tō-Ji pagoda and miedo

The only part of the temple that people really visit is the five-story pagoda that stands out in this part of the city–there isn’t much else of this height in area. It is also the tallest wooden structure in Japan. Don’t plan on entering the pagoda because it’s only open a few days each year, and I was not fortunate enough to be there on one of those days. Of course, I was also there late enough in the day that the other buildings were closed; I couldn’t enter the kondo or

There are other buildings on the grounds of Tō-Ji, but nothing was all that inspiring. It could’ve been that I had walk a few too many miles in the sun on that hot day in September and only reached the temple before wandering in search of a decent dinner (note: the area surrounding Kyoto Station does not have much for dining options). There were beautiful gardens at the temple, which were relaxing with the light crowd milling about in the late afternoon.


The camera settings made this one look like an old postcard

As there wasn’t much else to see at Tō-Ji and I wanted to stay at the temple longer, I played with my camera’s settings to see if I could capture more colorful photos of the pagoda and garden.

Some settings certainly work better at different times of day, as I’ve discovered in the last year. It’s rare that I alter the settings to create brighter colors, but the effects are sometimes more interesting than

I found a spot to sit and relax while awaiting the sunset with the pagoda in the background. I think others were waiting as well. But we were kicked out of the temple. That’s right, the temple grounds close just before dinner. I tried finding an angle from outside the gate to set up for a sunset photo, but there wasn’t a good enough spot. There also wasn’t a seat in the shade to wait for the sunset.

Tired and defeated, I headed out for food, which ended up being a quick meal at the chain shop Yoshinoya. I gave up on planning sunset photos for the rest of my time in Japan, though I did manage to photograph a few around Tokyo.

Distorted sunset outside Tō-Ji

Distorted sunset outside Tō-Ji

Have you ever been disappointed by a sunset or missed an opportunity to watch one from a comfortable location?

Finding Nature in Tokyo at Mt. Mitake

As the weather cooled in autumn, I searched for new outdoor activities around Tokyo–it was almost late October and the foliage was beginning to change with the season. I hoped for a better view of the fall colors than I had the previous year.mitake-view

The previous year I hiked Mt. Takao and Mt. Oyama and even spent days in most of the parks throughout the city. I searched for hikes that weren’t too difficult or too far from my suburban apartment–most destinations were at least an hour from that home in Kanagawa.mitake-river

I decided to head to Mt. Mitake, which is part of Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park (a fact I didn’t know at the time), because it wasn’t too far out of the way and wouldn’t be too crowded (or so I had read). I was also inviting a friend to hike along with me, so I didn’t want to find anything as challenging as Mt. Oyama.mitake-bridge

It was a bit of a walk from the train station to the trail–a cable car was required to get to the trail; it was insisted upon by my hiking companion. We walked along the road in the hope that it led in the right direction–it was a while before we saw a sign that sort of pointed in the right direction; the sign came after we crossed the footbridge over the river.mitake-cable-car

We wandered from the cable car through a town along the way that had some old-style houses that were mixed with newer additions for remodeling.

House in town near Mt. Mitake

House in town near Mt. Mitake

Before embarking on the adventure through nature, we stopped at Musashi-Mitake Shrine, which seemed to be intended for dogs and dates back to 1307 (though most of it was built much later). This shrine is at the summit of the 3048-foot mountain.


From the Musashi-Mitake Shrine we hiked into the forest, away from the few people who were spending the day in the park (mostly with their dogs).

A stone dog at Musashi Mitake Shrine

A stone dog at Musashi Mitake Shrine

We didn’t really choose a path through the wilderness on the outskirts of Tokyo; we just followed the nearest trail that sounded interesting–it claimed to lead to waterfalls and a rock garden. We had no idea how long the hike would take us or how difficult it might be. We wandered up and down some hills and hoped that the next turn around the mountainside would take us to our scenic destination.mitake-waterfall

The hike felt like it took longer before we reached Nanayo Falls. It was a pleasant stop at the small waterfall before heading back to the cable car; we didn’t even make it to the rock garden and second waterfall. Had I been hiking alone, I might’ve taken a longer route through the park in an attempt to find Mt. Otake and probably would’ve gotten lost along the way.mitake-forest

It was probably best that we departed Mt. Mitake when we did as evening was approaching with the early autumn sunset. We boarded the train for central Tokyo where I could change lines and head back to the suburbs and my hiking companion could do the same but in the opposite direction (and much closer). The long train ride felt good on my legs (though not so much when I had to stand again). I slept for a significant portion of that ride that took me close to two hours.


The entrance to Musashi Mitake Shrine

After numerous hiking adventures on my own, it was a different experience having someone with me. It was more fun to have someone to talk with along the way, but more difficult to go at my own pace. Sometimes I prefer to be alone with my thoughts in nature–the cathartic experience of hiking.

Is it a better experience to hike on your own or with other people?

Lost at a Taiwanese Temple

The other day I headed out for an afternoon of art at the Kuandu Museum of Fine Art in northern Taipei’s Beitou District. I had some rough directions thanks to Google Maps, which still hasn’t fixed its maps here (MRT line 3 was on the map when I arrived back in late November, but it disappeared after a couple weeks).Hsing Tien Kong

As I wandered along the street outside the MRT station in search of the street that I assumed would take my the National Taiwan University of Art, I walked much too far–the street sign was not visible from the sidewalk. I ended up walking up another street that took me to a large temple.Hsing Tien Kong

Xingtian Temple (行天宫), which was founded by master Hsuang Kung who constructed temples in Taipei with his own money in the mid-20th century. The temple is part what is called True Faith, which appears more closely aligned with Taoism than Buddhism judging from the Five Saviors enshrined. The main savior is Guan Sheng Dijun who was born in 160 and is supposedly recognized in Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Guan is the patron of businesspeople and scholars, which means I should probably take notice if I want better luck in business world and academia.Hsing Tien Kong

After a quick tour of Xingtian Temple, I encountered a monk who spoke fluent English. He gave me an English brochure that explained the temple and beliefs and then sort of pointed me in the direction of the university and museum. Unfortunately, I thought he meant for me to go up the road alongside the temple–that road just led straight up the mountain.ibid

About to give up as I wandered back down the mountain, I decided to walk around the area. I noticed the road I had been looking for earlier and decided to head that way to my intended destination. It was another hike up the mountain (or maybe a different one). I managed to find the museum and see Alec Shepley’s exhibition that was inspired by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. I wasn’t impressed by the exhibit, but there were others at the museum that were much more interesting, like the paintings from the Living in Chengdu exhibition.shepley-ibid-exhibit

Have you ever gotten lost on the way to a destination only to discover something that made the journey more enjoyable?

Staring at the Lion’s Feet in Shanghai

“Sometimes we don’t even realize what we really care about, because we get so distracted by the symbols.”
Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Back in 2006, just before my first Spring Festival celebration in China, I wandered the streets of Shanghai. My travel companion was busy most days with her friend, so I was usually pointed in a direction to sightsee and attempt to not get too lost (with my limited Mandarin ability at the time, I probably would not have found my way to the usual meeting point). Most of the days’ activities were centered on the Jing’An area of Shanghai–the temple that has since been remodeled to the point of being unrecognizable and the enormous mall at which I had my morning coffee while waiting for my travel companion who couldn’t contact me because I had no mobile phone.lion's feet at Jing'an Temple in Shanghai, China 2006

I set about wandering the nearby area as I waited each day and took photos of what was interesting, or at least the angles I found interesting. I was lost in my camera viewfinder as I gazed at buildings and life that moved past, ignoring the noise of the shoppers going in and out of the posh shops of Nanjing Road. I took this photo from the foot of the lion guarding Jing’An Temple.

Cao Dai: A Different Kind of Temple in Vietnam

“Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.”
-Thích Nhất Hạnh

As part of my tour of the Củ Chi tunnels outside Vietnam, we stopped at the Cao Đài Temple 60 miles outside Ho Chi Minh City. As I searched for tours to take outside the city, I came across this relatively new religion with a rather interesting temple. I had never heard of Caodaism before I checked out day-trips from Saigon, but I found the concept of it intriguing.cao-dai-temple

The history of Cao Đài only dates back to the early 20th century when Ngo Van Chieu had a vision and began the religion. Caodaism was formally established in 1926, incorporating elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Catholicism. Caodaists created their own army that fought against Japanese occupation in 1943. The religion was repressed by the Vietnamese government in 1975, but regained legal status in 1985. Today, the religion claims to have about 6 million adherents worldwide.cao-dai-temple1

To add to the inclusiveness of Cao Đài, the religion’s saints include Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, Muhammad, Pericles, Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo, and Sun Yat-sen. I can’t really argue with a religion that accepts a literary figure as a saint, though I could think of other writers more deserving of sainthood.cao-dai-saints

The extravagant temple resembles a cathedral with elements of Buddhist and Taoist temples, particularly in the design of the pillars.cao-dai-temple-interior

While walking around the open space around the temple that provided little shade from the heat of southern Vietnam in winter, we entered the colorful temple with the large crowd of tourists before the Caodaists entered for their prayer service.cao-dai-temple-procession

Tourists were pushed to a gallery area above the main floor of the temple to watch the midday prayer–traditional Vietnamese music playing as the practitioners walked into the temple in their white, red, yellow, and blue robes. The yellow represents Buddhism, the red Christianity, the blue Taoism, and the white is for the ordinary adherents.cao-dai-temple-service

It feels awkward taking photos of religious ceremonies–I usually ask before I take pictures at any religious site–but after seeing everyone else taking photos, and more or less encouraged to do so, I snapped a few. I still avoided taking photos that could identify specific people inside the temple as it might be offensive.cao-dai-temple-man

Because Cao Đài Temple is such a large tourist destination, it seems that Caodaists just accept the gawking hordes as a way to promote the religion.

Sunny Sensoji & Sumida River Walk

A friend from the Taipei Beer Lovers meetup came to visit Tokyo–my little apartment has a futon, so I could offer a little space to save money on travel (even with the expensive train ride from the suburbs to the city, it’s a large chunk of change to save on a hostel). We didn’t have much in the way of plans for the weekend–I came up with some sightseeing options depending on the weather, but we mostly planned for wandering the city for food and drinks, of which we had plenty in Shimokitazawa.

sensoji temple

The crowd at Sensoji

In lieu of hiking with the crowds of Japan, we decided to head to Asakusa and Sensoji Temple–the same temple I visited in a downpour on my first day in Tokyo last year. This time around the weather was beautiful–the crowd was another story. It’s a long metro ride, with two train line changes, from my apartment (this is why I usually bring my Kindle on the trains).sensoji temple

As beautiful as Tokyo’s oldest temple is, we decided to escape the crowd and walk around the area, which isn’t all that interesting. Actually, there are some nice streets and interesting shops, but those are on the so-crowded-you-can’t-walk-faster-than-a-tortoise streets. The combination of tourists and locals makes Asakusa almost unbearable in pleasant weather.sake-ice-cream

We stopped for a bit at a vendor to try the sake and wasabi ice cream. Not sure which flavor I enjoyed more as they were both delicious.

sumida rive tokyo

View of Tokyo from the Sumida River

To escape the crowd, we took the riverside walk along the Sumida River toward Akihabara to see a bit of the weird side of Tokyo. Akihabara isn’t all that weird, really, but it does have a bit more of what tourists expect to see in respect to fashion and products in Tokyo.akihabara cosplay

Aside from the the first steps down to the river walk, there isn’t much of a view of the city. But it’s also not at all crowded–there were surprisingly few people on the quiet path for a sunny Sunday

We did see a few of these James Bond-esque boats along the river–we expected them to submerge, but it never happened.

As we arrived in Akihabara, we wandered the streets and browsed shops filled with anime figures and tech products that do who-knows-what. Seriously, I have no idea what that thing does.akihabara-electronics

We ended the day with a stop in Shinjuku for an evening view of the city from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. Once again, I managed to arrive at the building with no line for the elevator and no crowd to block the view of the night

It was an exhausting day of walking, but well worth the views and the few snacks we found along the way.

Painful Bike Ride to Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion

On my second full day in Kyoto I decided to rent a bike from my closet hostel to see the sights as I had walked too many miles the day before. I saw a sign that said the bikes were 500 yen, but it turned out to be a late-day rental price; I had to wait until 9 am when the front desk opened so I could rent a bike at the full-day price of 1000 yen.

kinkakuji ticket

The ticket to Kinkaku-ji

The bike rental didn’t go as smoothly as expected. The bike was so rusted that I had a difficult time raising the seat to an appropriate height. I realized then that all bikes in Japan are about an inch too short for me to ride comfortably all day (I’ve had this experience with three other bikes), but I struggled through the discomfort in my knees. Unfortunately, that was not the only discomfort I experienced during the day–after riding my first 10 miles and walking around my first temple of the day, I discovered that beneath the cover on the seat was an exposed spring, which would explain the sharp pain in my ass.

golden pavilion

First glimpse of the golden pavilion

My first stop of the day was Kinkaku-ji, the temple that is home to the golden pavilion. It may have been my return to Japan, and I hadn’t been to any temples in a long time considering the month of churches I encountered in Italy, but I was already suffering from temple fatigue. Call it leftovers from my previous months spent traversing East Asia and visiting temples almost every weekend. At least Kinkaku-ji had one interesting aspect to make my bike ride and pain in my ass worthwhile.kinkakuji

Most of Kinkaku-ji is a beautiful Zen garden, but everyone visits to behold the golden pavilion–it’s a beautiful sight from any angle despite the crowd that descends on the temple.  The golden pavilion was the oldest building surviving from the original temple, which dates back to 1397, but the pavilion was destroyed in arson committed by a novice monk in 1950.kinkakuji

The golden pavilion is covered in gold leaf that shimmers in the sunlight and creates a beautiful reflection in the pond that surrounds it. Visitors, however, cannot enter the pavilion, probably because so many tourists would put a serious strain on the structure.

There are other shrines at Kinkaku-ji. One of the shrines allows visitors to swing the rope to ring the gong for luck after prayer. There are even vending machines for fortunes–and they dispense English fortunes for tourists like me who can’t read Japanese. Kinkaku-ji provided me with the best fortune I’ve received from a temple, but it still was more or less a meh-quality fortune (it was better than the one from Sensoji Temple that told me I’d have to work to succeed).

kinkakuji fortune

An English fortune for about a dollar. Why not?

I returned my bike a few hours later–I made a couple more temple stops (to be written about later) before heading back to the hostel in the hope that I could return the bike. Of course, the hostel front desk was closed from 11 am to 3 pm, which left me with time for a nap while wondering where to go should I procure a more comfortable bike (an unlikely event because my ass was in such pain that even a more comfortable bike would be painful). I managed to get another bike when I found a hostel employee before 3 pm, and I went out for another ride.