Skip to Content

Tag Archives: tours

Witnessing the Scale of the Terracotta Army in Xi’an

Fluttering from place to place I resemble,
A gull between heaven and earth.”
– Du Fu, Nocturnal Reflections While Traveling (旅夜书怀)

During my first summer vacation as an expat, I took my parents on a four-city three-week tour of China. It was my family’s first time in Asia and it would be my first trip to all but one of the four cities (my second time in Chengdu). Our final stop on the tour was Xi’an, a city known mainly for the ancient Terracotta Army (兵马俑), the mausoleum of the first Qin emperor.terracotta warrior

There’s much more to Xi’an than the warriors that were buried more than 2,000 years ago and only rediscovered in 1974 by a farmer, but this was the highlight for tourists.

Rather than haggle for a taxi to take us around for the day, we opted for a tour from our hotel that included the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda. But the tour started at a workshop that the guide claimed was the only authorized manufacturer of replica terracotta warriors–it sounded like we would not otherwise be able to purchase replicas anywhere else, but understanding that this is China, I knew there would be cheaper options. Of course, the replicas were even caked in local dirt for that appearance of authenticity.

Terracotta Army

Some of them are missing heads

The Terracotta Hawker Army

As soon as we arrived at the museum and airplane hangers that house the Terracotta Army, we were welcomed by throngs of hawkers carrying souvenirs, most of which were miniature sets of the warriors caked in dirt. For much of the time wandering between buildings, I ignored the hawkers.

At one point I decided to haggle for a set of five warriors. The hawker said, “Twenty dollars,” to which I replied, “Twenty RMB?” Of course, he expected US$20 for each one in the set. I set a firm price of RMB20 (about $2.50) for the whole set and walked away, with the hawker shouting lower and lower prices as I walked until he finally agreed on RMB20 for the set. I was then stuck with carrying the set around for the remainder of the tour.

terracotta army

The first view of Pit 1

People on my tour were so impressed by the haggling that they asked me to help buy sets for them. I also tried selling my set back to the hawkers who seemed confused when I asked them for more money for the set in my hand (at least one hawker thought it was funny and jokingly pulled out a hundred yuan note).

The Actual Terracotta Army

I knew that the Terracotta Army was big–I had seen photos in magazines–but I was not prepared for the real size of the army. If you think my photos make this place look large, you need to expand your field of vision.terracotta army

The main archaeological dig site is housed in an airplane hanger–that’s how large of an area the army covers. That single site is home to more than 6,000 figures (soldiers, horses, chariots). In total there are estimated to be 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses.terracotta army

Much of the Terracotta Army remains uncovered because the original figures were painted in bright colors. When the army was uncovered, the paint faded and flaked–it can supposedly disappear from the figures in four minutes. This has prevented further excavation of the site until experts can find a way to preserve the paint. The single archer on display in a case still has a small amount of paint for visitors to see.

terracotta archer

A little paint remains on the archer

Of course, many of the warriors are also smashed as disgruntled citizens rose up and took out their anger on the Qin Emperor’s tomb. There are also accounts that the tomb may have been plundered, though there is no evidence.

terracotta army

Soldiers being pieced together

There are pits with shattered figures, though there are efforts to piece them together for display.

Terracotta warrior

The archer

I gazed in awe at the expanse of Terracotta Warriors. The history our guide provided faded into the background as my eyes wandered the pit for details on each figure. From a distance they all appear similar, but the faces and hair vary slightly because each figure was supposed to represent an individual soldier.

terracotta general

One of the generals on display

The Terracotta Army is not only a magnificent piece of history, but also a work of art. It took hundreds of thousands of laborers to create this army and the tomb that housed them, and it is an impressive feat to behold. When combined with our visit to the Giant Buddha of Leshan, that first summer holiday around China was a marvel.

Overcoming Church Fatigue in Venice

As the flames of sacrifice
From the marble shrines did rise,
As to pierce the dome of gold
Where Apollo spoke of old.”
– Percy Bysshe Shelley, from “Lines Written among the Euganean Hills”

When traveling around Italy, it’s easy to get bored of visiting churches. There’s a church at every turn in every town.

“Hey, look at that cool building. Oh, it’s another church,” every traveler says, “We don’t need to go in.”

St Marks Square

St. Mark’s Basilica and Campanile

But then there are a few exceptions along the way.

During my final few days in Italy, I headed to Venice to experience the beauty and history of the tourist city I had been desperate to visit since I was a child. During my time wandering the city in search of something that wasn’t outrageously expensive, I found myself at Basilica di San Marco, St. Mark’s Basilica.

St. Mark's Basilica

Crossing to the main dome inside St. Mark’s Basilica

Before deciding on paying to see the Doge’s Palace, which was well worth the entrance fee, I had a look around St. Mark’s Basilica. I was already in the square and I figured I could walk in and out rather quickly. I had better luck than that as I happened to show up at the church a few minutes before the free English tour began (I’ve managed to show up in time for English tours at more than a few tourist destinations without even checking info).st mark's mosaic

It church is at the end of San Marco Square, which is one of the main tourist destinations in Venice, though I saw relatively few people during the times I was there. It’s surrounded by overpriced restaurants, the Doge’s Palace, the Campanile of St. Mark’s Church, and beautiful views out into the waterways.campanile di san marco

St. Mark’s Basilica is impressive from the outside as well as the inside, but my luck when traveling remained consistent and part of the exterior was shrouded in scaffolding. The domes are difficult to see from the square, which is one more reason to pay to go up the Campanile, but half of them were covered during my visit. Still, I was able to see most of the ornate exterior design depicting the life of Christ that draws visitors into the church. There are also sculptures alongside the mosaic artistry.

st mark's basilica

Look at that beautiful…scaffolding

Much like the encounter at Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi, with a sense of awe, my eyes lit up upon entering St. Mark’s Basilica. This church is a work of art from floor to ceiling. There are mosaics inlaid in the marble floor (most of which are protected from the feet of stampeding tourists), paintings on the walls, and even more bright mosaics on the arches and domes.

st mark's basilica floor

Mosaic on the floor. The only angle for an unobstructed photo was upside down

The ceilings are covered in intricate designs–bright gold mosaics depicting more of the life of Christ shine down on visitors. With the crowd of people, it can be difficult to avoid bumping in to someone while craning one’s neck to gaze at the arches and domes. There’s more than 8,000 square meters of mosaic here and I probably only noticed a fraction of that.st mark's basilica dome

The tour itself was almost a distraction from admiring the artwork of the church, but it allowed me to see a little more than most people would. Plus, how could I pass up a free tour? Even with the worst tour guide in the world, it would be worth the money not spent.

st mark's basilica

More mosaics on the ceiling

I departed St. Mark’s Basilica with a renewed appreciation for church architecture, which certainly improved my final opinion about my month in Italy before I departed for a return to Tokyo. The wonder that is the beauty of Venice was best saved for the final days of my journey in the country–I departed with a sense of remorse that hadn’t seen enough.

Where did you find a renewed appreciation for religious architecture? Did it change your perception of a city as well?

In the Company of Elephants at MandaLao Elephant Sanctuary

Well, all that money sounds mighty tempting, Marty, but I think I’m gonna have to go with the elephant.
-Bart Simpson

While wandering around Luang Prabang in search of day tours that would take me to my destinations outside the town, I noticed a disappointing trend. Most of the tours included elephant rides.

laos nature

Fields that surround MandaLao Elephant Sanctuary

I demanded to see tours that excluded riding elephants because I’ve read enough to know that this is not healthy for the animals. Moreover, it’s likely that elephants are abused in the name of tourism. I would not take any part in that.

Then I came across an elephant sanctuary office–the Elephant Conservation Center. I talked with the person working there to find out more about tours, but discovered that I didn’t have time. This elephant sanctuary had a minimum two-day tour.

Manadalo elephant sanctuary

The view from the boat while crossing the river at MandaLao

Fortunately, just nearby was the office for MandaLao, a newer elephant sanctuary that offers half-day and full-day tours. While they don’t provide as much education and interaction with elephants as the Elephant Conservation Center, they still allow enough interaction for a pleasant day with the animals. As I wanted to relax in the town on my last day in Luang Prabang, I booked the half-day tour for $99, though I think I would’ve enjoyed the full day more as the four others in my group were nice to talk with.

The day started with picking up local fruit at a market on the way to the sanctuary–bananas, pineapples, mangoes, and some other fruit that we got to feed to the elephants. The amount of fruit we were told to pick up (MandaLao paid) wasn’t enough for even one elephant, but it was a way for our guide to educate us on the elephants’ diet.manadalao elephants

At the sanctuary, we were given coffee while we received an education on the center, the elephants, the culture of domesticated elephants in Laos, and, of course, safety. We were told what certain motions of the trunks meant and reminded not to walk too close behind or to the sides of the elephants as those are blind spots and we might get kicked.

While listening to our lesson, we got to watch another tour bathe a second group of elephants that included the sanctuary’s baby–a year-old elephant named Kit.

manadalo elephants

Kit is somewhere in that river, possibly hiding

The sanctuary is situation among organic farms, mountains, and rivers just outside Luang Prabang. MandaLao has deals with the local farmers to help provide the elephants with food, though the center also grows its own food to feed them as well as to cook for guests. The views from the center overlooking the river and mountains is beautiful–and it only gets better when the elephants walk to the river for a bath.

Manadalao elephants

Meeting the elephants on the riverside

While visitors are not allowed to ride the elephants, the sanctuary does employ mahouts who ride them. The center would prefer that the mahouts only lead the elephants through the grounds, but changing the culture that dates back centuries takes time. They have managed to limit the amount of time mahouts ride the elephants, however, and they have eliminated harsh training practices used to domesticate the animals.

Our first task as visitors to MandaLao was to greet and feed the elephants by the riverside. We met three female elephants who were a bit greedy when it came to food. If we didn’t break off a banana fast enough, their trunks darted for the whole bunch and we had to step back.

As it was my first time being up close with an elephant, it took some time to get comfortable–I didn’t have travel insurance and I had no idea if my Taiwanese health insurance would cover elephant-related injuries. We were told that there have been incidents, the most recent of which was the baby elephant headbutting a visitor in the back.

bathing elephants

I’m looking fashionable as I threw buckets of water at the elephants

After feeding the elephants and leading them into the river for their twice daily bath (they need an extra one during the dry season), I became a little more comfortable. I was given a rough cloth to scrub the caked mud off them–just throwing buckets of water on them wasn’t enough in some cases, which is why zoos use hoses with higher water pressure.

It was fun to throw water at the elephants–we were told not to worry about splashing their faces and they supposedly enjoy it. I was a bit sore afterwards as I hadn’t had such a workout in a while.laos elephant

After their bath, we led the elephants back along the trail to their home–the elephants have a routine of a circular walk each day so they become accustomed to their home. The trail cuts through organic farms, which I learned grow things like mustard as a natural insect repellent to protect other crops.

elephant feeding

Happy elephants getting fed for the second time

As the elephants walked ahead of us, we were told more about their daily routines and were able to ask questions. It was an educational walk through the forest. Fortunately, MandaLao provided me with some special boots to wear that were definitely better than sandals with all the mud and elephant poop.

Halfway through the hike, we stopped for a snack break–we had more bananas to feed the elephants. While they were standing in the stream, we were above on shore, forcing them reach up with their trunks to grab bananas from our hands.elephant trunk

While we weren’t on a tour that included meeting the year-old elephant Kit, we were fortunate enough to run into the baby and his mother on our hike. MandaLao limits the number of people who can interact with Kit each day, and tours were already booked for my time in Luang Prabang.

baby elephant laos

Kit, his mother, and the matriarch with their mahouts

As everyone else was on the full-day tour, I was taken back to the main building after walking with the elephants until noon. I was treated to a local organic lunch, which was much too big for one person, while overlooking the river and mountains. It was a calm, quiet scene that I would’ve liked to enjoy longer–it was by far the most relaxing moment I had on my trip through Laos. And they didn’t mind if I sat to enjoy the view before heading back to Luang Prabang where I could spend the rest of my final day exploring the food and drinks of the town.

mandalao lunch

All this food is just for me?

Have you visited an elephant sanctuary? What was your experience like?

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?

Introverted Travel or Social Avoidance?

“Be Yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
-Oscar Wilde

Sometimes I wonder what illogical black hole media pulls ideas from when they come up with pointless stories like the “18 Essential Tips for Introverted Travelers.” This brilliant (and I use the term loosely) piece of travel advice comes from the same editor who brought you “How to Spot an American Anywhere in the World.” (Note to Yahoo!: These pointless articles are great for generating a negative response. If you’d like more thoughtful articles, you can contact me.)

I’m by no means an extrovert, but I’m also not quite an introvert.

I just hate small talk, unless it’s in Chinese because that’s most of the Chinese I know; it’s how I met so many friendly Chinese travelers in Iceland. I enjoy talking with people most of the time, but I need a reason to start a conversation–without a reason for the conversation to begin, I’ll just stand aside and watch. I prefer to have other people start the conversation for me.

Damn tourists always get in the way

Damn tourists always get in the way

The Yahoo! article is more of a how-to guide of traveling and avoiding people. While I don’t always want to interact with people, I by no means want to avoid interactions. Where’s the joy in traveling if you can’t talk about the places you’ve been? And I don’t understand how taking an aisle seat is better for an introvert. If you want to sleep, take the window, and if you enjoy scenery on a train or bus, you’ll also want that window.

The entire does have some (obvious) good advice.

I agree with a few points that the article makes, but those points with which I agree are meant more for all travelers. I definitely encourage people to travel with literature–hell, I bring my Kindle to the bar in case I don’t find anyone to talk with (yes, some people think I’m crazy for reading in a bar). I also like the idea of taking an extra day off between returning from vacation and going back to work because I like any excuse for more time off from work.

An introvert goes to a bar in Seoul

An introvert goes to a bar in Seoul

There’s also tip #13: bring a journal. It’s definitely a good idea to bring a notebook–it helps you to remember what you’ve seen on your trip. It’s more of a writer’s tool for me–one of my grad school instructors told us to always have a notebook to write down ideas or record conversations. I also find a notebook is handy for writing down new words and phrases in another language. People in bars might also write down some recommended places to visit.

Because I took a tour on my second day in Siem Reap, I met a Dutch guy who lives in China who agreed to take a 40-mile bike ride the following day. Because I offered to move over one seat in a crowded restaurant in Tokyo, I made friends who took me out for yakitori and beer. Because I used Airbnb for the first time in Halifax, my hosts took me out to the farmer’s market. And because I stayed in a hostel dorm in Boston, I met a friendly Brazilian who wandered the city with me–I even introduced her to Xinjiang lamb kabobs that I got overexcited about (pretty sure I scared her when I stopped and exclaimed, “Oh my god! Yang rou chuan!”).

Sometimes I get to take pictures with people I meet in Tokyo

Group photos are inevitable after you offer your seat in a crowded restaurant

Back to the Yahoo! article and all that it emphasizes about introverted travel.

Order room service? Get your own room when traveling with friends? Set a time limit for group activities? With all this advice, an introvert won’t speak to anyone for the entire time. Not all introverts avoid social interactions–they just don’t enjoy certain social interactions (I can’t blame them; I’ve met enough people I wish I could’ve avoided).

Sometimes we all need a conversation fish

Sometimes we all need a conversation fish

I understand the desire to avoid large crowds and hawkers in tourist areas, but why would anyone actively avoid interacting with everyone?

Over the years I’ve read plenty of blog posts from self-proclaimed introverts (or semi-introverts) who travel. The takeaway from all of those posts is that travel forces them out of their comfort zones and into adventure–sometimes it includes meeting new people who end up as long-term friends. I have made some wonderful friends on my travels, and it’s all because I forced myself to interact with the people around me.

Solitude at Mt. Tamalpais State Park, CA

Solitude at Mt. Tamalpais State Park, CA

There is nothing wrong with taking some time for yourself while traveling–this is why I take solo hikes and bike rides–but not interacting with the world around you takes all the fun out of travel. Travel is supposed to encourage you to try new things and change how you normally live. You can always return to your introverted ways when you return home.

What is your advice for introverted travelers?

Walking Through Seoul’s Secret Garden

I had purchased a combo ticket when I visited Gyeongbokgung and I had the month to visit the palaces included on that ticket–I took my time. I could’ve visited the palaces in a weekend had I checked the map and realized just how close some were–combining two in one day would’ve been easy, but I wandered without much of a plan.

The entrance to Changdeokgung

The entrance to Changdeokgung

That lack of a plan almost backfired as I headed to Changdeokgung, which was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. I checked the times for the free tour of the Secret Garden at the palace, but did not make a reservation, which is encouraged as space is limited. I was told to wait and see if there was enough space on the English tour for me (fortunately, there was).changdeokgung

Changdeokgung, which means Prospering Virtue Palace, is not as impressive a palace as Gyeongbokgung, but it is one of the more impressive places to visit in Seoul and well worth visiting. I think it’s a bit more colorful than Gyeongbokgung, mostly because of the natural surroundings. It does, however, have the amazing garden that is only accessible on a tour. It’s an adventure through a quiet forest in the middle of one of the largest cities in the world.

The small pavilion in the secret garden. Also my first successful tilt shift photo

The small pavilion in the secret garden. Also my first successful tilt shift photo

Construction of Changdeokgung began in 1405 during the Joseon Dynasty and was completed in 1412, but it was mostly destroyed during Japanese occupation as were most other historic imperial structures in Korea. It was first burned by the Japanese in 1592, but reconstructed in 1609. It was destroyed again in 1623 by a political revolt. It was a the second palace constructed in Seoul and incorporated the natural surroundings, which culminated in the Huwon, or rear garden, that was used as a retreat within the palace grounds.changdeokgung-seoul

The garden, which for tourist reasons is known as the secret garden in English, is a wooded area covering 78 acres. Part of Huwon includes the Forbidden Garden, which was only to be used by the king and his invited guests. There are a lotus pond, pavilions, and even a small rice patch for the royal family to maintain a connection to the farmers of Korea.

The royal rice field

The royal rice field

On a tour with 20 or so people is never my idea of fun, but it is the only way to wander through the garden at Changdeokgung. With all the people and a guide who didn’t speak loud enough, it was easier to ignore most of the stories told and walk to the fringe of the crowd to take photos of the pavilions and ponds without the other people in the way. I made a point of walking ahead of the crowd to get the first pictures and then waiting around for more.changdeokgung-doorway

I managed to find some angles I liked for the photos that avoided the other people on the tour. It would’ve been easier with fewer people wandering about, but nothing I could do about that. At the end of the tour there was a 750-year-old tree, but I couldn’t get a decent photo between the crowd around me and the tour guide rushing us to the exit.

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.

Silent Temples

“Nature is a temple in which living pillars
Sometimes give voice to confused words;
Man passes there through forests of symbols
Which look at him with familiar eyes.”
Charles Baudelaire, from Correspondences

Among the cities I’ve visited, watching the fashionable crowds scurry past beneath the shadows of skyscrapers that block the sun, memories of quieter destinations flood through. The clamor of busy life pushes me back to places I’ve longed to see–quieter places, spiritual places. Seeking a sanctuary of sorts in a sprawling city of more than 20 million is not easily achieved unless one is a Houdini-like escape artist.

Stillness on the moat crossing into Angkor Thom

Stillness on the moat crossing into Angkor Thom

I think about one of the most beautiful, peaceful days of tourism I’ve experienced. That first exhausting day as dawn broke at Angkor Wat and I escaped the crowd that gathered to watch the sunrise that was hidden behind clouds and haze above that inspiring temple.

The guardians of Angkor Thom are allowing me to pass

The guardians of Angkor Thom are allowing me to pass

I walked along the bridge to the empty south gate of Angkor Thom. Looking out at the still moat and the thin veil of fog that hung above it that humid morning in late December, I saw nothing but stillness. No people or animals stirred. The monkey that surprised me on the trunk of my taxi as it drove through the gate to leave me in peace had wandered off into the trees. The three people who arrived ahead of me were out of sight and earshot. I was alone with the stone guardians of the bridge to Angkor Thom.

Looking past the stone guarding

Looking past the stone guarding

I took my time to inspect the stone beings that watched me pass through the southern gate on my way to Ta Prohm, the wild temple that nature nearly devoured beneath its tree roots. I didn’t want to depart that quiet spot as I may never again find such a place.

Look! More Ruins in Pompeii

Remember when I said that all the ruins in Rome start to look the same? Well, the same can be said about Pompeii.

On the advice of my friend from grad school, I told my parents that we should find a tour of Pompeii. It would be more organized and we’d get to see the Herculaneum on a full-day tour. Then we discovered that the full-day tours are only available twice a week, neither day was one that we were in Sorrento. We settled on the the half-day tour to just see Pompeii.

pompeii

We figured it was worth the price just to avoid riding the Circumvesuviana again. Even the Italians believe this train is a piece of shit. It took almost an hour and a half from Naples to Sorrento along 30 stops on this privately-run train that was probably constructed by Mussolini and still uses the same cars with no air conditioning. The New York City subway looked better in the early 1980s. Yes, I got spoiled by the amazing trains in Japan, Taiwan, and Korea.

Mt vesuvius

Mt. Vesuvius in the distance

Instead of watching the wasteland pass by on the Circumvesuviana, we saw the coastline from the comfort of a tour bus. Our guide was friendly and humorous–he even made a point of telling us to not buy any souvenirs other than books. I didn’t bother buying anything, unless you count the free map at the entrance.

The portion of Pompeii that is open to tourists is large and only accounts for a small part of what was once a thriving city. Due to a lack of funds and local interest, the rest of Pompeii remains unearthed, but there have been promises made that sometime in the future excavations will resume (probably when the Circumvesuviana is replaced by something more modern like a donkey cart).

pompeii forum

Pompeii Forum

Most of Pompeii is streets lined with what used to be shops and homes that are all more or less in the same state of ruin. There are few, if any, identifying features remaining in any of them. “And this here is a what used to be some sort of business. Over here is the same thing. Etc.” The first one was nice, the second was curious because it was so similar, and then it turned to boredom. That is, until we arrived at the brothel.

pompeii penis

Yup, it’s a sidewalk penis

Our guide pointed out the slightly visible ancient Roman penis in the sidewalk that pointed visitors in the direction of the brothel district, which today is the most intact portion of the ruins of Pompeii. It’s such a popular destination that every tour stops there and has to wait for the tour ahead to move along before entering.

pompeii brothel

That might not be moss growing on the brothel bed

In Pompeii’s red light district, visitors can see the original stone bed used by prostitutes that still retains its crabs and syphilis (Mt. Vesuvius must have had a part in the preservation). Inside the brothel are frescoes that depict which sexual act was performed in each room (they had to cater to the illiterates among the population).

pompeii brothel

This looks like an interesting room for a break

Throughout the hot day we encountered many more historic ruins that pretty much looked the same. A few of the temples and the amphitheater stood out, as did the forum. Aside from the brothel, the public bath was also fairly well preserved, proving that the Romans had their priorities in safeguarding particular aspects of society from certain destruction.

pompeii tribunal

The Tribunal was still in decent shape

The roads still have large stones that served as crosswalks so residents wouldn’t have to walk through the sewer that was the street. These same stones had gaps that allowed carts to freely maneuver through the waste. I suppose because the people only bathed once every few months, the stench from their roads/sewers wasn’t noticeable.

I knew Pompeii was a thriving trade center in ancient Rome, but did know just how large the city was. I also didn’t know that prior to the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, the sea was right next to the city (it’s now miles away). Fortunately, with the clear weather, it’s easy to still see the volcano that buried the city almost 2,000 years ago.

pompeii street

One of the narrower streets

Toward the end of the tour, we passed the gated section of Pompeii that houses artifacts, including the preserved bodies that most of us have seen in history books or National Geographic. With exhaustion from the intense sun setting in and the crowds gathered around, I only took a brief glance at what I thought would be better displayed. I had incorrectly thought that the artifacts and preserved residents would be displayed throughout the ruins of Pompeii. It’s not the first time I’ve been wrong, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

All jokes aside, Pompeii was an impressive half day out of Sorrento. It would’ve been better with a full-day tour though.

Have you visited Pompeii? Have you ever seen a more impressive prostitution district?

Touring Banteay Srei

I’ve been contemplating Cambodia lately–I’ve been in contact with a non-profit there and will start to help out online, but I’m considering moving there to help out more in my spare time after work. There still isn’t much of a plan as I’m still looking into my options for the next few months or so. Nonetheless, there are great memories from my all-to-brief trip through Cambodia.

baneay Srei

Once the people get out of the way, every angle of Banteay Srei is beautiful for a picture

On my second day in Siem Reap, I took a group tour to Banteay Srei and a few other temples. I was fortunate to meet a Dutch expat living in China on the tour who agreed to take a rather long bike ride through the countryside around Angkor Wat the following day. banteay srei

Banteay Srei, a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva that was constructed in the 10th century, is much further from the main temples of the Angkor Wat complex–it was a long way past the Landmine Museum, which was about 20 miles from Siem Reap. This was the temple at which a monk used a cell phone to take a picture of me–and I still think is one of the funniest moments I’ve had while traveling.banteay srei

More importantly, this temple is remarkably well preserved–the sandstone artwork is better defined than at other temples in the area. Of course, much of it has also been reconstructed.

Gyeongbokgung: First Palace Visit in Seoul

On the second weekend in Seoul (the day before I hiked Yongmasan and Achasan), I headed to Gyeongbokgung and the The National Palace Museum of Korea. I figured I needed a bit of history and culture to get better acquainted with this city–I was feeling a bit overwhelmed after all. This day out, along with the hike the following day, helped make me feel a bit more comfortable in my new surroundings.Gyeongbokgung

I had already seen the main gate of the palace on my first day in Seoul. Gwanghwamun is easily recognizable among the crowds on a main thoroughfare through the city. It also looks more impressive at night.

Gwanghwamun

Gwanghwamun, the main gate to Gyeongbokgung

Gyeongbokgung, which means greatly blessed by heaven palace, is the largest and most centrally located palace in Seoul. Just down the road from the main gate to the palace is Chonggyecheon Stream, which makes for a pleasant walk when there aren’t too many flies about. Gyeongbokgung was first built in 1395, but was destroyed in a fire during the Japanese invasion at the end of the 16th century. It was rebuilt during the Joseon Dynasty in 1867. Empress Myeongseong was assissinated here by the Japanese in 1895. It was again mostly destroyed by the Japanese in the early 20th century when it “annexed” the Korean peninsula. (If you haven’t noticed, there’s a lot of brutal history involving the Japanese in Korea.)

gyeongbokgung

Quite a crowd visiting Geunjeongjeon, the throne hall, before the rain

Korea is still reconstructing the palace.

gyeongbokgung seoul

Gyeongbokgung is surrounded by more than just the mountains around Seoul

I arrived at the ticket booth just in time–a free English tour of the palace started less than 10 minutes after I bought my ticket. I also found that I could buy a combination ticket to the other palaces and Jongmyo Shrine for only about $10, which ended up saving me about $2 overall. More importantly, having those tickets that were valid for 30 days was a constant reminder that I had to do more sightseeing in Seoul.

gyeongbokgung

Gyeonghoeru Pavilion, used for banquets

Walking in a large group can make getting decent photos a little difficult at times. I had to disengage from the group a few times to get the pictures I wanted, which meant that I missed some of the explanations being given by the guide.

gyeongbokgung seoul

Inside the throne hall, Geunjeongjeon

Having shared culture and Confucian philosophy with China, the design of Gyeongbokgung is similar to quite a few historic structures in China. The palace certainly isn’t as colorful or impressive as China’s Forbidden City, but that may be because of all the reconstruction. As mentioned in the tour, the Joseon emperors practiced Confucianism  and believed that they shouldn’t live in luxury–there was more of a compromise in that their luxury wasn’t that far above the people of the city (or so the history books claim). Assuming the reconstruction of the palace (and other palaces in Seoul) is accurate, then the Joseon emperors were far more modest than their counterparts around Asia.

gyeongbokgung seoul

Mountains surrounding Gyeongbokgung with people flowing into the palace in the rain

The National Palace Museum wasn’t as interesting at Gyeongbokgung, but it was free and it was raining, so walking around inside for an hour or so was worthwhile. The museum houses numerous artifacts from the Joseon Dynasty, most of which were once part of the palace. Having spent so much time in China, a lot of the artifacts weren’t all that interesting to me–I’ve seen plenty of similar items museums around China. There were, however, a few that stood out to attract interest.

The Chinese character for water written with characters for dragon. The water dragon was supposed to ward off fires

The Chinese character for water written with characters for dragon. The water dragon was supposed to ward off fires

I also arrived in Korea at the right time. It seems that the US held a few artifacts (supposedly for protection during the Korean War) and recently returned them to Korea–they were returned home on April 25, 2014.

This statue was in the subway station at the palace

This statue was in the subway station at the palace

Also nearby is the (again, free admission) National Folk Museum of Korea, most of which is geared toward children–and there were a lot of them visiting while I was there. There is quite a bit of cultural history in the museum that doesn’t feature the Joseon Dynasty.

Halong Bay in Black & White

I took a lot of photos during my two-day trip to Halong Bay. I was fortunate enough to have fairly nice weather for both days, and the haze that many tourists have complained about was not pronounced enough to shroud the best views of the karst islands that jutted up around the ships in the bay.halong-bay-b&w

Out of my 120 photos from the two days, I managed to take a few black & white photos that are worth sharing. These were taken before I realized that my camera has a second black & white function that produces clearer images (fortunately, Photoshop usually helps rectify that problem).halong bay sunset

While the karst islands made for amazing photography subjects, I found it more interesting to include the boats in Halong Bay–there were more than just the tour boats as well.halong bay boatsThe views of the floating village were of particular interest, and they would’ve been better if I had had a waterproof case for my camera to take it along in the kayak.halong bay floating village

Night Markets of Taipei

One of the great things about traveling around Asia is the night markets. Every city has them. Some cities are better known for them than others. They’re always the best places to find local food, interact with people, and buy some cheap items that you might want or need.

wheel cake

Wheel cakes, a custard or red bean-filled dessert that’s found everywhere in Taipei

Taipei is home to numerous night markets of varying sizes–some more popular than others. And because there are convenience stores on every block, it’s easy to stop in 7-11 or Family Mart for beer while you walk around and sample the delicacies. My apartment is about a mile from Ningxia Night Market, which I discovered on one of my wanderings after work.

frog eggs night market

No, it’s not real frog eggs. If it was, I would’ve ordered it.

Ningxia Night Market is full of food. Unfortunately, there’s very little room between the stalls to walk and even less seating area as only a few stalls provide seating. I also found that trash is only at the end of the night market, so you have to carry your garbage as you order more food.taipei night market

Ningxia is not the largest night market, but there’s plenty of variety–stinky tofu, deep-fried shrimp and egg stuffed buns, and squid balls covered in spices. There are also plenty of restaurants on the street if you’re tired of walking between the food stalls.

Mmm...grilled squid

Mmm…grilled squid

As I read on more than a few websites, the place to go is Raohe Night Market. Fortunately, I road my YouBike past there a while ago and knew where it was–it’s not that close to my apartment or convenient to a metro station.

raohe night market

Welcome to Raohe Night Market

As all the YouBikes were taken at Linsen Park, I had to find a bus to take me to the night market. I arrived around 7:30 to a very crowded night market that was mostly filled with tourists (yeah, sure it’s the locals’ night market). I was greeted by these creepy owls at the entrance to the night market.

Not the most welcoming statue

Not the most welcoming statue

I found a greater variety of food, plus many more clothing vendors than at the other night markets I visited in Taipei. The first thing I tried was fried milk–it sounded like something that I’d find at county fair in the Midwest. It tasted like solidified vanilla yogurt.

fried milk night market

Really, they fried milk

More impressive were the grilled squid and mini baozi (steamed stuffed buns)–I even got to use toothpicks as mini chopsticks.

baozi night market

Mini baozi. Just as good as regular-sized baozi

By the time I was finished walking through the crowd at Raohe, I had had enough. I headed south to Gongguan to get some local beer to wash down all that wonderful food that my doctor probably doesn’t recommend I eat. There are plenty of other night markets around Taipei, but these were the most memorable (I also prefer avoiding the crowds, so I tend to eat elsewhere).

Have you visited night markets in Taipei or elsewhere? What are you favorite night markets and night market foods?

 

Into the Clouds in Taroko National Park, Taiwan

The highlight of my three-day trip to Hualien on Taiwan’s east coast was a trip through Taroko National Park. After asking about the weather forecast for Saturday and Sunday, I decided Saturday would be the best day to visit the park (Sunday turned out to be the day with sunny skies). The day started with watching mountains around Hualien disappear behind clouds and continued with light, intermittent rain and brief moments of sunshine.

qingshui taroko

The first stop at Qingshui Cliff

My plan was to rent a motorbike in town and ride through the park on my own. Unfortunately, when I arrived at my hostel, I was told I needed an international driver’s license so I had to book a group tour instead. Later, as I talked with the owner of the hostel, I was told she could arrange a motorbike without the license, but it was already too late.taroko national park

While riding a motorbike along the mountain roads would’ve given me a few more hours and fewer crowds, I probably would’ve missed out on some parts of the tour. It was also easier to get dropped off along the road and then meet the van further up as I walked to take pictures.

taroko national park

Entrance to Taroko National Park

The only problem with taking a group tour through Taroko is that most of them are geared toward mainland Chinese tourists and follow the same route, which means that every stop is fairly crowded. Although I was on such a tour, my guide spoke fair enough English to point out some things to me–he also spoke to me in Chinese every now and then. Also, unlike other Chinese tours I’ve been on, this one never stopped for any shopping (of course, a few of the scenic stops had vendors, which is to be expected).taroko gorge

The winding roads through Taroko Gorge provide beautiful scenery–the mountain forests and rocky cliffs along the coast are what attract so many tourists to the area.

taroko gorge grotto

Roads running through the mountainside at Taroko Gorge

The roads are carved out of the side of the mountains–there are some tunnels that are concrete, but most are unreinforced caves that look out into the gorge. It’s not easy to find a photo opportunity without tourists around, but I image it’s possible if you arrive early enough.taroko gorge road

Along the road into the park, visitors are offered free helmets in case of falling rocks that appear to be rather common. Of course, for more than a small rock, the helmet will not protect you. Signs everywhere advise visitors to keep moving. If those signs weren’t ominous enough, the one before the first tunnel on the way to the Baiyang Trail and water curtain cave should be warning enough for some to not travel alone.taroko-warning

Aside from the caves and stop by the rushing river, there isn’t much along the Baiyang Trail. There was more after the water curtain cave, but it’s been closed for safety reasons (too many rocks falling from above). I managed to bring my camera into the cave underneath the poncho the tour provided, but it was difficult to get any decent photos without getting soaked. This is another reason so many people spend money on a GoPro.

Water Curtain Cave

Entrance to the water curtain cave

Despite not stopping at more places, like the temples we passed, the tour stopped at a lot of the most photogenic spots in the national park. There were definitely advantages to taking the tour instead of the motorbike, but I’d still like to try riding through the area on my own.

This is reassuring

This is reassuring

I was warned to bring food along with me as there aren’t many restaurants or food vendors in Taroko National Park. The tour stopped for lunch at one of the few places with enough seating for tours. The food was mediocre and slightly overpriced, but the outdoor seating provided a great view of the mountains. I also had a pleasant time talking with a few members of my tour who happened to be mainland Chinese students studying in Taiwan–it was a great opportunity for me to brush up on my Mandarin.taroko gorge

If I head back to Taroko National Park, I’ll definitely rent a motorbike and head into the park well before the tours arrive. I really should see about getting that international driver’s license to make things a little easier.

Mekong Delta Traffic Jam

mekong-boatsDuring Tet I booked a tour out of Saigon–the city was too quiet to do anything and I figured it would do me some good to see some nature. I had originally planned to book a full weekend tour of the Mekong Delta, but I was told that the floating market was closed for Tet, which meant the second day of the tour was pointless. Rather than sell me on the worthless extra day, the agent at Vietnam Adventure Tours suggested I book the day-trip instead.

There wasn’t much of great interest around the Mekong Delta other than a lot of tourist boats. There was very little history or culture to experience on the tour. However, we were served fresh fruit with some traditional Vietnamese music before lunch. I also got to taste the snake and scorpion rice wine.

A quiet channel of the Mekong Delta

A quiet channel of the Mekong Delta

As part of the tour, we were taken in smaller boats through the narrow channels of the Mekong Delta. Of course, with all the tours arriving at the same time, it created quite a traffic jam with boats knocking against each other. It created quite a scene with all the boats attempting to move through the crowd–it was almost as bad as rush hour traffic in Saigon.

Traffic jam on the delta

Traffic jam on the delta

While it wasn’t such an interesting day-trip, the day on the Mekong Delta was relaxing. I also enjoyed talking interacting with people in the group. My tour guide for the day was great–very friendly and spoke better, clearer English than any guide I’ve had. If I knew how you could request him for private tours, I would tell everyone.

Mekong Delta fish farm. There aren't many of these

Mekong Delta fish farm. There aren’t many of these