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Impressions of Yangon

This is Burma and it is unlike any land you know about.
-Rudyard Kipling, Letters from the East (1898)

It was my first stop in Myanmar–the city called Rangoon during British rule. After spending so much time in more developed cities around Asia, it was interesting to see a major city undergoing such rapid change–the entire city felt like it was under construction. Unfortunately, with limited time, my impressions of Yangon may not be the most complete.

Yangon Region Court

Yangon Region Court from Maha Bandoola Garden

It was easier to form opinions of Yogyakarta as it was a smaller city; Yangon is much larger and spread out. I also only had two days to see anything in the former Burmese capital (it was moved to nearby Naypyidaw in 2006) before heading off to Bagan and realizing that my ATM card wouldn’t work in the country.

The modernization process is evident at every turn in Yangon–there’s construction everywhere. And much of that construction is adorned with Chinese, Japanese, and Korean company names because they’re the ones investing heavily in Myanmar’s development. This is a city, and nation, that is rapidly adapting to technology–mobile phones are still new to the population, but they’ve already become ubiquitous.

Arriving in Yangon

My arrival in Yangon got off to a rocky start as I was dropped off at my hotel that I had booked for the first night. The traffic from the airport was rather miserable, but I didn’t mind much as the taxi was air conditioned and I could watch city life pass by. However, upon arriving at my hotel, I was informed that it was full and my room wasn’t available. The staff assured me, along with an irate Thai couple in the same situation, that they had a second hotel nearby and they’d drive us there. I worried that I’d have a similar experience as in Hanoi, with the awful hotel that locked me out at 11pm as I searched for other hotels.

The second hotel was fine–it was the same company and probably just as comfortable (same price too). It was a smaller hotel and the lobby wasn’t as nice as City Star Hotel, but there was less traffic on the street. I quickly discovered that some of the streets are nearly impossible to navigate by car and it’s best to find a taxi heading in the right direction on the most convenient road; if a taxi needs to go around the block to turn around, you’re more or less screwed out of a half hour. Fortunately, taxis operate on flat fees.

Yangon construction

Development of Yangon

The staff at Clover City Center Hotel was friendly and helpful, though sometimes it wasn’t easy communicating with them–they’re still learning English and how to deal with tourists, but they certainly tried their best to help out. Only real downside to the hotel was that they couldn’t book tickets for buses, trains, or flights–I had to find a larger hotel nearby that had its own travel agency for my flight to Bagan (the overnight buses were sold out).

Checking out the sights & people watching

After checking into my hotel and resting for a few moments, I headed out to Sule Pagoda, which was only a short, hot walk from the hotel. It took longer than it should have because crossing the street is as difficult as it is in Vietnam (and I wasn’t sure about the whole pacing to cross as I learned in Vietnam). As Sule Pagoda sits in the middle of a busy roundabout with no traffic light, it’s not a destination for fearful tourists; I survived, but it took a while to cross the street.

Sule Pagoda

Waiting to cross the street to Sule Pagoda

At Sule Pagoda, I noticed that while there were plenty of tourists, there were equally as many locals. Many were there to sell goods, but most were there to pray or mingle with neighbors.

Samosas Yangon

I should stop here for a snack

After my first pagoda visit, which was covered with bamboo mats for restoration work, I wandered around to the nearby Maha Bandoola Garden. I wandered through the park, watching the mostly young people relaxing in the grass; many of them were taking selfies or picnicking. I walked along the surrounding streets, around the old bus terminal, and stopped off for samosas on the sidewalk.

Independence Monument

Independence Monument at Maha Bandoola Garden

One aspect of the crowds of people in this area of Yangon that struck me was the presence of Muslims. Considering the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar, I was surprised to see such a large Muslim population. Unlike the violence that fills the news stories about the Rohingya, everyone in Yangon appeared to interact peacefully. Of course, I can’t comment on the ethnic background of the locals because I didn’t have a chance to really interact with any.

Other things I noticed about the people was that they’re colorfully dressed. There was definitely more bright colors, particularly for women, in Yangon than in Bagan. Of course, this isn’t uncommon around Southeast Asia with the batik industry in Malaysia and Indonesia. But Yangon felt more colorful, or maybe it was just wandering through the market with all the fabric vendors.Yangon fabric

I wandered farther away from my hotel in search of dinner. Somehow I ended up in Chinatown. I found a large, busy restaurant overlooking the city–I figured a view of life while I ate would be a great option. I ordered my beer and food and waited. It took about 10 minutes for the beer to arrive. 20 minutes later, as I was halfway through said beer, I asked where my food was. I asked again 10 minutes after that. After I finished my beer 10 minutes after my second request for my food, I walked up to the counter and paid for my beer. I was told that the food was on its way, but I flat-out refused to acknowledge the existence of the meal at that point.Yangon traffic

As I later discovered in Bagan, food service is incredibly slow in Myanmar and it’s fine to continually ask staff for updates on the food (it might even speed up the process in rare cases). Myanmar’s service sector has yet to catch up with the tourism boom.

I ended up back near my hotel at a little cafeteria-style restaurant for a light meal–at this point I was more tired than hungry. After wandering around a bit more in search of travel agencies that I hoped would be open (I ended up going back the next day), I found a small busy restaurant close to Sule Pagoda that served my first Burmese beer. As the evening wore on (it was only closing in on 9 pm), the crowd on the streets grew younger.  This is a rather young city to begin with, but it felt even younger after dinner. This could be a mindset of the older generations after decades of authoritarian rule and curfews.

Yangon nightlife

Nightlife near Sule Pagoda

The only thing about Yangon, and Myanmar in general, that actually repulsed me was the prevalence of betel nut. It was worse in Bagan than in Yangon, but it was still obvious everywhere I walked–the sidewalks were covered with red betel nut spit. This is a habit that’s still fairly common in Taiwan as well, but it isn’t nearly as noticeable. I found it difficult to talk with people whose mouths were coated red betel nut juice. Fortunately, they’re respectful enough to not spit in the temples where everyone has to be barefoot. People were even kind enough to offer me some betel nut to me (I politely declined).

Other than the betel nut chewing, there’s also the pigeon population. At times I thought I was in a Hitchcock film. Seriously, what’s with all the freaking pigeons in Myanmar?

Yangon pigeons

The birds

Overall impressions of Yangon

As I noted, I don’t feel like I spent enough time in the city to get a real feel for life and the people; I only had superficial encounters with locals. There were also plenty more sights to see–I would’ve liked to spend time along the Yangon River or in the parks.

From what I experienced, I found a city transitioning into a business hub and coping with the rapid changes. Yangon certainly isn’t a city in which I could see myself living–the traffic alone would drive me insane. But like the rest of Myanmar (or so I was told by the expat I met at the airport), the people are friendly and honest. For such a busy city in Southeast Asia, it felt safe as long as you discount the issues with crossing streets.

Sule Pagoda Yangon

Sule Pagoda and traffic

Had I stayed longer, I might have sampled a bit of the nightlife, but I know there isn’t much of that yet. As I didn’t get to see enough of the country due to my own lack of planning, there’s a good chance I’d plan another trip to Myanmar with another stop in Yangon.

Have you been to Yangon? What are your impressions of the city?

My No Good, Very Bad Weekend in Tainan

I’d hate to think that all my current experiences will someday become stories with no point.
-Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson

I feel guilty writing this, but I don’t like Tainan at all. Actually, I pretty much loathe the city after my three-day weekend there. I’ve never experienced such a dislike for a place before, and it’s unsettling to admit it, but I hope to never return to Tainan.

Some may say I’m overreacting, but I honestly found few redeeming qualities during my time in the city. And it all started when I booked the high-speed rail (HSR) to Tainan Station only to discover upon arrival that Tainan Station is nowhere near the city. There’s another Tainan Station, which is a half hour on the slow train from Tainan Station. At least when I traveled to Kaohsiung, the station wasn’t called Kaohsiung Station and it was still close to the city center. Hell, the Tainan HSR station wasn’t even on the tourist map available at the information desk.

Tainan from the hostel rooftop

Tainan from the hostel rooftop

In my frustration, I grabbed a bite to eat in the station and managed to forget my umbrella, which just added to my overall feeling about the weekend.

Upon arriving at Tainan Station from Tainan Station, I found an old and crowded train station that didn’t exactly tell me which side of the station to exit (I guessed right). As I walked the 20 minutes down the main street to the Easy Inn Hostel, which I will admit was quite nice, I realized that there wasn’t much to see. More than that, there wasn’t much usable sidewalk as motorbikes and cars use the sidewalks for parking and businesses regularly create barriers to force pedestrians to walk in the busy streets.

Most sidewalks looked like this, but worse

Most sidewalks looked like this, but worse

It wasn’t just this area of Tainan that had unusable sidewalks–it was everywhere. I came close to just walking on top of the cars and knocking over the motorbikes, but I managed to control my anger in that case.

It's a miracle! A clear sidewalk!

It’s a miracle! A clear sidewalk!

I did not control my anger directed toward drivers who nearly hit me at almost every turn. I’m not just talking about close calls–I had multiple cars and motorbikes run stale red lights as I and others entered crosswalks (and that was in the first few hours of my stay). I even had to move out of the way because a car was about to back over me as I stood on the corner waiting for the light to change–because the driver wasn’t looking, he would have run me over had I not moved. Had that driver’s window been open, I probably would’ve dragged him out and beaten him senseless. As it was, he didn’t seem to give a damn that he wasn’t looking while driving.

I felt safer crossing the streets in Vietnam!

I'm not standing in line for that

I’m not standing in line for that

Then there was the public transportation, or lack thereof. I managed to take two buses–one with some other hostel guests to the far reaches of Tainan and then back to the tourist area (I had to wait 20 minutes for the second bus). However, I saw no buses on my back to the hostel (a good three-mile walk after walking for hours throughout the day). According to the bus schedule, they only run once every 45 minutes or so (assuming they’re on time with the tourist traffic on the one-lane road to the only area that tourists actually go along Anping Rd.).

An extended walk due to a lack of public transportation gave me a chance to take some photos

An extended walk due to a lack of public transportation gave me a chance to take some photos

And don’t plan on getting a taxi. On my first night, I headed back around 8 pm and I managed to walk halfway to the hostel before I even saw a taxi. The next day, I walked the whole way back because I saw neither a bus nor a taxi.

Thought I'd go to the night market. This was as close as I got

Thought I’d go to the night market. This was as close as I got

My main goal in Tainan was to eat because everyone claims how wonderful the food in Tainan is. There are few restaurant recommendations online because everyone just eats street food. It’s also a mecca for bubble tea lovers (I find bubble tea disgusting).

Milkfish dumplings were pretty good

Milkfish dumplings were pretty good

Now, I’m not a great fan of Taiwanese food–I tend to think of it as some of the worst of Chinese cuisine–but I expected better from Tainan. I became disillusioned quickly. I’m fairly certain I developed diabetes over the course of a weekend because almost everything is overly sugary.

Danzai noodles are pretty good, but particularly nothing special

Danzai noodles are pretty good, but nothing special

I had read that zongzi were a specialty in Tainan. I hadn’t had any since I lived in China, but I recall being indifferent to the glutinous rice-filled dumplings. I ordered a huge one from a popular sidewalk restaurant near my hostel only to discover that I find zongzi to be disgusting. It was gooey from the glutinous rice and filled with gritty salted pork and peanuts and covered by a sauce that was sickeningly sweet.

The fabled zongzi

The fabled zongzi

The best meal I had in Tainan was milkfish-filled dumplings. Oddly enough, even these dumplings tasted slightly sweet. I also had rum ice cream, which isn’t exactly a traditional Tainan snack. The danzai noodles and coffin bread (I can’t see that becoming popular in the US with such a name, but it is a cool idea) I had at Chih Kan Peddler’s Noodles (赤崁擔仔麵) were decent. The restaurant was more interesting than the food. And I had better coffin bread at the night market in Hualien.

Coffin bread at Chih Kan Peddler's Noodles

Coffin bread at Chih Kan Peddler’s Noodles

Some of the touristy area of Tainan seemed interesting, but getting there was miserable. The hostel was excellent–I would highly recommend staying at Easy Inn if it was only in another city. And Beer Bee was a relaxing little bar with excellent beer (Mikkeller Beer Geek series!). The highlight of tourist sites in Tainan was the Anping Tree House (a house engulfed by trees). But I struggle to think of any other redeeming qualities of the city after my three days. mikkeller beer geek

As I said, I feel like I shouldn’t completely write-off the city as I have, but it was just a miserable weekend that I had hoped would be a relaxing escape from Taipei. If someone were to convince me that there is more to the city that I need to see/experience, I may be willing to give it another shot. But, as it stands, I have no interest in ever returning to Tainan.

Anping Tree House

Anping Tree House

Have you ever had an experience that completely turned you off to a travel destination that others rave about? How did you react? 

 

Experiencing the 72-Hour Visa-Free Stay in Shanghai

“Look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else.”
Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

I had planned to take a weekend in Hong Kong–the flight was cheap and I didn’t want to wait until my visa-free stay in Taiwan expires just before Chinese New Year when the ticket prices will skyrocket. Instead, I got an email and Skype call about a prospective job in Shanghai. I was excited and checked on flights to mainland China to schedule an in-person interview and editing test. It was easiest to just go immediately.

Hong Kong from the airplane

Just passing through Hong Kong this time around

I thought about the 72-hour visa-free stay that China now allows in a few cities, including Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou. I only knew it existed, but I didn’t read all the details close enough.

As I got on the phone with Cathay Pacific to see about cancelling my flight to Hong Kong, I thought I should see about just changing my flight to include Hong Kong on the way back from Shanghai. I mentioned the 72-hour visa over the phone while talking with customer service. Everything seemed fine.

Then I got to Taoyuan International Airport.

“This ticket is no good for the transit visa,” the Cathay Pacific agent told me.

I was confused. I asked multiple questions.

“You need a third destination after Shanghai.”

“But I have a third destination. I’m going to Hong Kong before returning to Taipei,” I said.

“That doesn’t count.”

Technically, Hong Kong and Taiwan count as third destinations even though they are still China according to the mainland Chinese government (and despite having different passports, stamps, and visa requirements). The problem wasn’t that my third destination was Hong Kong; the problem was that Cathay Pacific always stops in Hong Kong on the way to anywhere else. This made Hong Kong my point of departure.Hong Kong from the airplane

But what if I just got a direct flight back to Taipei? Well, I couldn’t do that either, and certainly not with Cathay. The problem with that plan is that Taipei is my point of departure. Yes, my point of departure was Taipei…and Hong Kong. Are you confused yet?

So, unable to coax any sort of refund out of Cathay for this massive early-morning headache (before I had even had my coffee), I booked another ticket from Shanghai to Seoul to Taipei on Korean Air. “That works,” the agent said, “but how will you get the ticket as proof?” “How about you print it for me? I can put it on a flash drive.” No, they couldn’t do that. But they would get Korean Air to fax the ticket to them, which took so long that it left me 15 minutes to check in for my flight and run through immigration and security.

Shanghai People's Park in 2006

Welcome back to Shanghai (the air was only this clear 9 years ago when the photo was taken)

I had arrived at the airport in Taipei early–I figured I could relax and enjoy some coffee on the way to my flight. I ended up needing every minute of it to deal with the Cathay agent who was entirely unhelpful. I also didn’t get coffee in Hong Kong because that hour layover meant running from one end of the airport to the other (and going through security again) to be the last person to board my Dragon Air flight (one of the worst flights I’ve ever had).

As I departed Shanghai (I have to admit the immigration officers in Shanghai are so much more polite than the ones I remember in Shenzhen years ago), I asked the immigration supervisor on duty about the 72-hour transit visa. He confirmed the third destination regulation. However, he wasn’t sure about my original flight plan–it was too confusing. And if I had re-booked a direct flight back to Taipei, they probably would have accepted it.

To add to my frustration, my hotel in Shanghai insisted I take a taxi to the airport at 4:30am for my 8:00am flight. They said it was too far to go at 5:00 or 5:30. I arrived at the airport at 5:00–Pudong International Airport doesn’t even open for check-in until 6:00.

It turned out to be a much more expensive trip than originally planned. The original ticket to Hong Kong was $157. That turned into about $300 when I added Shanghai (still not bad). It was another $375 for the trip to Seoul. I’ll call it an experience–I need to be less hasty when booking tickets before ensuring I know all the details involved in the trip.

Have you ever made a costly travel mistake? How did you handle it?

MiniMetro Musing

“The coach I got in was about as dignified as a match-box. The train rambled on for about five minutes, and then I had to get off. No wonder the fare was cheap.”
-Natsume Sōseki, Botchan

Before I arrived in Perugia, I researched public transportation in the town of fewer than 200,000 people. I really only wanted to find out how to get to my apartment from the train station–the town wasn’t all that big, but there was a significant distance to walk between the station and the apartment with all the luggage I had (e.g. my hefty backpack and medium-sized suitcase). What I found was that the university town has what is known as the MiniMetro.perugia minimetro

This automated, single-car public transportation system is limited to one line that runs from the center of town on top of the hill down to the train station and into the outskirts of town for total length of 2 miles and seven stations. The MiniMetro cars run every 90 seconds and can carry up to 25 people, though I wouldn’t expect it to be comfortable with more than 10. Although most of the town is concentrated in the old center on the hill, which takes about a half hour to wander through, Perugia is spread out over 173 sq. mi.

Traveling slowly through the tube

Traveling slowly through the tube

I took this small cable car two stops to the train station on my trip to Florence–it’s like riding a roller coaster that goes at a snail’s pace. When I returned, however, I found that the MiniMetro, which started operation in 2008, was suspended for annual maintenance for the next three weeks–I wasn’t able to take it again until I departed for Venice. Fortunately, there are plenty of buses around the town that are more convenient in some cases.

Reflection in the MiniMetro

Reflection in the MiniMetro

I had a difficult time understanding the necessity of such a transportation system with the buses in town and the size of the population. I only met a couple people who took the MiniMetro on a semi-regular basis.

First Impressions: Taipei

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial on a rainy afternoon

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial on a rainy afternoon

I feel like I’ve been here before. The sights, sounds, and smells are all familiar. But something is different.

I see signs in Chinese and hear the language, but it’s not all the same—they use traditional characters instead of the simplified characters I learned in mainland China, but that’s ok because I’m used to seeing those same characters in Hong Kong and Macau. However, there’s more English on the signs than in mainland China and Macau, which gives Taipei a feel that’s more similar to Hong Kong. But this still doesn’t quite feel like Hong Kong, and it’s not just because I don’t hear Cantonese everywhere or see throngs of mainland tourists.

Taipei has a metropolitan feel like Hong Kong, but lacks the chaos of the former British colony with its winding narrow streets. Most of the streets here are a grid, like in Manhattan, so it’s easier to navigate without a map, which is great because I don’t have a map.

nanjing road taipei

Looking down Nanjing East Road

Transportation in Taipei

I haven’t had much experience with the metro yet, but so far it has been easy to navigate, cheap, and efficient. It’s also rather crowded most of the time. But when almost every ride from my station to anywhere else in the city costs less than $1, I find the Taipei metro to be a blessing. Buses are also nice, plentiful, and, in some cases, have English announcements (I’ve only been on one bus and I was shown where to go, so I can’t speak for all of Taipei’s bus system yet).

god hair salon taipei

I even found God in my neighborhood, and it happens to be a hair salon

There’s even public bikes everywhere. You have to have the EasyCard metro card, which gives you a 20% discount on subway rides, to rent the bikes, but they’re free for the first half hour. Weather has prohibited me from riding anywhere, but I will definitely take them out when the sun returns.

Speaking Mandarin in Taipei

With all this convenience, language continues to challenge me here. Aside from the traditional vs. simplified Chinese characters, speaking the language isn’t always easy. The vocabulary is different–Taiwan uses different words than I learned in mainland China. Some of these are simple like sandwich and potato, but all of it adds up to confusion.

Ronald McDonald was speaking Chinese to children across the street from an nuclear power protest

Ronald McDonald was speaking Chinese to children across the street from a nuclear power protest

And then there’s the fact that almost everyone speaks to me in clearly spoken English–after months of playing charades in Japan and Vietnam, this has come as a shock to me. It’s not that I don’t appreciate people speaking my native language well, but it throws me off as I prepare myself to communicate in their language. A few times I’ve completely frozen and I forgot which language to speak.

Some of the sculptures outside Zhongshan Station

Some of the sculptures outside Zhongshan Station

Accommodation in Taipei

Of course, none of this relates to my first drowsy morning in Taipei after my overnight flight from Ho Chi Minh City via Kuala Lumpur. I figured I had a great little apartment reserved via Airbnb for my time here–it was only a 10-minute walk from Zhongshan metro station, and near a park. But I had a different impression of the neighborhood as I turned down the alley to my new home.

I saw nothing but signs indicating a great many bars with names like Mistletoe, T Night, and Yuki. I even recognized a recruitment sign seeking “beautiful female servers.” As I soon discovered, my neighborhood is known for Japanese businessmen and supposedly high-end prostitution. And yet, my apartment is rather quiet in the evening (and it has nothing to do with soundproof windows). There are some things that don’t get mentioned in Airbnb listings, which also explains why there weren’t any photos of the outside of the building.

There’s still much more of Taipei to explore and plenty of time.


Have you been to Taipei? What did you think of it?

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

Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na…Bat-Tuk!

I saw a lot of interesting tuk-tuks around Siem Reap. I should’ve taken more photos of them because they were nicer than any tuk-tuk I ever had in Thailand–they were really clean too. But I saw a lot of tuk-tuks that wanted to be Batman. I guess it’s one way to attract more foreign tourists.

Prototype for the Batmobile?

Prototype for the Batmobile?

I’m not sure if these were all from one company or that everyone just wanted to decorate their tuk-tuks like this. Some were pretty simple with the paint jobs, while others wanted a bit more. And a few should’ve checked with a proofreader. Unfortunately, none of my rides was with the Dark Knight.

Watching Cambodia Float By

I wasn’t sure how to get from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh–the train lines around the country haven’t run since 2009, when it was finally shut down, and are only now slowly being rebuilt. My options were to hire a taxi, get on a long bus ride, or take a speedboat. After talking with a grad school friend online, her son suggested that I take the speedboat. How could I say no to that suggestion?

tonle sap boat

Speedboat heading in the opposite direction to Siem Reap

The speedboat costs $38 and takes about six hours, which is the same amount of time as the bus but about twice the price. I also figured it’d be more scenic.

The van picked two other hotel guests and myself up from the Angkor Riviera Hotel about a half hour late on New Year’s Day. I figured this was going to take us straight to the boat, but I was wrong. We were told to get out on the side of the street where a group of other foreigners were standing with their luggage. “Oh,” I thought, “they’re going to just get everyone on a single bus to get to the boat.” Wrong again.

tonle sap village

The view that awaited us on the boat

After waiting for about 10 minutes with no one having any idea of what was going on, an oversized pickup truck stopped in front of us and someone told us to get on as they loaded our luggage. We climbed onto the back of the truck with the low rear gate–we were packed on and had almost nothing to hold onto. The 15-minute ride would’ve been fine if the road was straight and completely paved. We were all convinced that the locals on the street were laughing at us for being so stupid as to ride on the back of a truck like this. One fellow passenger said, “We’re packed in here like cattle,” to which I responded, “No, cattle is usually secured in the truck.”

cambodia transportation

Transportation to the port

Fortunately, there were no casualties by the time we arrived at the dock–just some legs that turned to jelly. I quickly realized after getting off the truck that I needed to buy food and water for the boat ride–fortunately there were a lot of vendors walking about the docks trying to force overpriced food on everyone.

As we set off much later than advertised, we watched the floating villages–houses, schools, and even a temple.

tonle sap temple

The only floating temple I’ve ever seen

I was originally told that there was a top deck with seats, which provided views and a nice breeze along the way. That top deck didn’t really exist. There was a small area with a low railing at the bow of the speedboat. There was also the roof of the boat for anyone who wanted to sit there, but there was no railing alongside it. I stuck with standing toward the bow so I could at least have that low railing for support.

tonle sap boat

Just hanging out on the side of the boat

As we passed the floating villages, Tonle Sap Lake opened up–it was huge. The coast disappeared behind us and there was nothing but water in any other direction. I was told this lake dried up significantly towards the end of winter, at which point the floating villages also move to be closer to the fish (and probably the tons of poisonous snakes I was told inhabit the lake).tonle sap boat

For hours, there was nothing to see on the ride and I was able to sleep in my empty row of seats–the boat was about half full, so everyone had plenty of space.

tonle sap boat

Looks pretty empty in this boat

Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and was named a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1997. The flow of rivers into the lake also reverse twice a year (something I didn’t even know was possible). It is an important part of Cambodia’s fishing industry and home to the Mekong giant catfish, which I’ve heard goes great with cajun seasoning.

tonle sap

View from the boat a nine-year-old told me to take in Cambodia

The views from outside the boat were beautiful as we came across submerged forests and villages.

floating village

The first floating village on the way to Phnom Penh

And the final view of Phnom Penh as approached the dock was better than the views I had during my stay in the city. There were also some different views of more typical life in the city that most people don’t see.phnom-penh-shacks

After I arrived in Phnom Penh I met with former China expat and current Cambodia expat Paul (@wisebartender) for some drinks. I was the only the person he and his friend have met who actually took the speedboat between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

Glimpse of Mt. Fuji from Enoshima

enoshima-cave-coastI’ve been enjoying the weekend weather lately–after a rainy start to my stay in Japan, the sun has come out for my weekend excursions. I decided to take the Odakyu Line website’s advice and headed for Enoshima and the surrounding area on the Freepass, which includes discounts to some attractions and free rides on the local Enoden train line that is an old two-car trolley.

There’s Mt. Fuji in the distance!

The first thing I noticed as I exited the Enoshima train station, besides the cool facade of the station, was the sight of Mt. Fuji in the distance. Unfortunately, my photos prove that I need to go out and spend a few hundred dollars more on a better zoom lens. I would guess that if I had arrived earlier in the morning, the view of Mt. Fuji would be clearer–as it got later, the mountain disappeared into a bit of haze.

I swear, that's Mt. Fuji on the right side of the photo and not just some weird cloud

I swear, that’s Mt. Fuji on the right side of the photo and not just some weird cloud

I took a small boat to the island of Enoshima (there’s a road to get there, but I decided this would be the easiest route to walk around the island before heading back to town for a trip to Karamura). The boat let us off on the rocky coast with fishermen along the edge. It all led to the rather small Iwaya Caves, which hold religious significance to the area supposedly dating back to 552. The most interesting part of the visit was that one section of the caves provided visitors with candles to carry.

The candle for Iwaya Caves

The candle for Iwaya Caves

The rest of the island is quaint despite the weekend crowds. There are plenty of shops and restaurants along narrow streets that wind through hills.

Fishermen at Enoshima

Fishermen at Enoshima

There is also Enoshima Shrine and a few small shrines and temples scattered about–you can tell I’m already suffering from temple fatigue because I’m not even noticing the differences in the ones that I’m visiting.enoshima-shrine

The views from the island made the day worthwhile–the other stops in the area didn’t provide as many great views. The hills of the island and the distant mountains made it impossible to keep walking without stopping to enjoy it. The only thing preventing me from taking more photos was the intense sunshine blinding me.

The view from Enoshima Shrine

The view from Enoshima Shrine

From Enoshima, I took the local trolley to the end of the line at Kamakura. In my search for the tourist destination, I followed the crowd and ended up on a busy tourist shopping street. After some wandering to get away from the shopping, I found my way toward what I wanted to see.enoshima-street

At Turugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura, I was approached by a group of five young women who offered to take me on a tour of the shrine. They were all students at a nearby college studying to work in the tourism industry, and this was their way of practicing. This shrine was a much smaller version of Meiji Shrine, but it held similar importance.

Turugaoka Hachimangu Shrine

Turugaoka Hachimangu Shrine

Finding Buddha at Kamakura

As I thought the main attraction of Kamakura was near the station, I almost missed out on what I came to see: the second-largest Buddha in Japan. It may be the second-largest in Japan, but it was only the third (maybe fourth) largest that I’ve seen–the Giant Buddha of Leshan and Tian Tan in Hong Kong are much larger, and there were a few large ones in Thailand.

Buddha at Kotokuin

Buddha at Kotokuin

To see the Buddha, I had to take the trolley three stops back toward Enoshima to Hase station. From there, I walked about 15 minutes to Kotokuin Temple. The more than 13 meter bronze Buddha was impressive, but mostly because you can go inside. I didn’t go in because the line was a bit too long (and I was a bit tired from walking all day). There were even windows on the Buddha’s back.

The Buddha's windows

The Buddha’s windows

There was another temple nearby, but it was closed by the time I was finished at Kotokuin.

The area also has a few microbrews that I was surprised to see. Kamakura beer is rather popular, but there were a few other brands. Unfortunately, I didn’t try too many of them as they were about $6 a bottle and I had a lot more walking to do before sunset. I managed to buy a bottle to bring back at the Lawson convenience store outside the train station and tried another one just before getting on the train.

Adventures in Bus Travel

In addition to my train travel adventures, I’ve taken a few long-distance bus trips. Some were tolerable, but others were absolutely miserable–so miserable that I no longer wish to take a bus unless it’s part of a tour.road to songpan

My first real bus trip was during my semester in London. The university arranged a trip to Amsterdam–it was 12 hours overnight, and wasn’t comfortable enough for sleeping. After my semester, I took a bus to Edinburgh because train service at the time suffered from a few problems, causing significantly longer travel times–the bus wasn’t much slower and cost a lot less than the train. Again, overnight buses weren’t comfortable enough for me to get much sleep.

I didn’t take another long bus trip until I moved to China five years later.

sichuan china

A rest stop in Sichuan Province

During my first May holiday, I set out on a long journey from Chengdu to Jiuzhaigou National Park. I would’ve liked to take the short flight to Huanglong airport, but it was a bit out of my budget for that trip. I was told the bus to Songpan, a brief stopover along the way, was a second-class bus. I maintain that to be second-class, it would require the bus to have some class. It was hot and humid in Chengdu, but the bus had no air conditioning. There was still snow on the ground when we reached mountains, and the windows wouldn’t close. Along that 12-hour bus ride, at least 10 men chain smoked (never stopping for a breath)–and this included the bus driver sitting beneath the “No Smoking” sign.

Terraced fields of Sichuan Province

Terraced fields of Sichuan Province

Along the route to Songpan, our full bus stopped a few times to pick up more passengers–not that the bus company would approve, but the driver and ticket taker needed to make some extra cash. These passengers sat on the floor and were told to hide when we reached checkpoints because it was illegal to have an overloaded bus. I don’t know what the authorities would’ve done had they discovered the illegal passengers.

View from the bus in Sichuan Province

View from the bus in Sichuan Province

The only worthwhile part of the smoke-filled bus through the winding mountain roads of Sichuan was the scenery. There were beautiful views of terraced fields, roadside villages, and rivers. The bus also stopped a couple times for bathroom breaks. At each of those stops, there were also some local vendors selling tasty treats like dried yak meat. On the way back, I even got to sit on a yak.

Stopping for yak on the way back to Chengdu

Stopping for yak on the way back to Chengdu

I only used the rest stop for a bathroom break once on that trip. I paid 5 jiao (about 7 cents) for the privilege of walking into a wood shack converted into a public toilet. I knew public toilets in China were generally dirty, but this one was on a different level. I walked on the creaking floor to find the hole in the floor in which to urinate. As I looked down, I discovered that I had just paid to pee off a cliff. There was no plumbing, just a hole that gave a great view down the side of the mountain. I paid to do what I could’ve done outside.

We drove on to Songpan, the driver and passengers continuing their chain smoking, and arrived a couple hours before sunset to enjoy a little of what the town offered.

The bus station in Songpan

The bus station in Songpan

Fortunately, the bus back from Jiuzhaigou a few days later was more modern–it even had air conditioning. Of course, it still had a few passengers who insisted on smoking during the journey, which was exacerbated by the fact that this bus didn’t have windows that opened.

It certainly turned me off from ever taking a long bus ride again. But, I’ve been known to make the same mistakes, and a bus ride through a foreign country is probably one of those repeatable mistakes.

What are some of your bus trip horror stories (or maybe comedic stories)?

A Ride with Mr. Beer

DoiSuthepRdIt was our second day in Chiang Mai and we wanted to try something different. We spent the previous night discussing our plans—checking through Lonely Planet and the tourist maps. We decided to rent a motorbike and ride up to Doi Suthep. It sounded like a beautiful day trip with the royal palace, temples, and the mountain summit views.

I was a little weary of renting a motorbike in Thailand—driving didn’t seem all that safe. And I hadn’t driven a car in more than a year and a half, or been on a bicycle for more than 20 minutes in two years. But, this option was significantly cheaper than taking a taxi or the tuk-tuk–I was also informed by hotel staff that it would be difficult to find a taxi or tuk-tuk for the ride back without pre-arranging a pickup.doisutheproadside

The Sumit Hotel rented automatic motorbikes (more like a scooter with a lawnmower engine) for 200 baht per day. While waiting in the hotel lobby for the bike, I asked the travel agent for directions to ensure I didn’t get lost. The bike arrived, looking in fairly good condition but without any gas. I was told to fill up the tank for about 70 Baht–I was even directed to the nearest gas station on the way toward Doi Suthep.

As I sat on the bike, I noticed the receipt with the company name: Mr. Beer. This is supposed to be one of the major suppliers of motorbikes in Chiang Mai. I doubt that anyone in the US could get away with such a company name.

It was a fairly easy ride to the gas station, although I was a bit nervous navigating the lanes of traffic without getting hit by a car. It didn’t help that traffic runs the British way in Thailand.

The tank was filled and I checked the map to ensure the directions were still correct (I couldn’t rely on street signs as they are mostly non-existent). The bike sped up the diagonal highway to the zoo and then further along to the mountain of Doi Suthep and the views of Chiang Mai.

The lush gardens at the palace at Doi Suthep

The lush gardens at the palace at Doi Suthep

Once out of the city of Chiang Mai, it’s a beautiful ride—peaceful and quiet save for the lawnmower engine noise. The traffic is light during much of the day. There are plenty of turn-offs from the road to rest, have a snack, or take in the mountain views.chiangmaipalacefountain

We passed Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep and continued on our way, deciding to stop at the temple on the way down the mountain. The first stop was the royal palace. Parts of the palace were closed due to a royal visit, but there was still plenty to see in the vast gardens. As we walked to the reservoir, I thought I might be entering a James Bond movie set with the fountains spinning to classical music.

Hill Tribe Village at Doi Suthep

Hill Tribe Village at Doi Suthep

After a short break for a light lunch, we were on our way to the Hmong Hill Tribe village before continuing to the summit. We quickly discovered that the village was a waste of time—it was nothing more than metal shacks set up as tourist-trap shops selling the same souvenirs as the Chiang Mai night bazaar. As we rode further up the mountain we came to a gate with a fork in the road. The park officer spoke no English and couldn’t answer any questions. It appeared that the road to the summit was closed and the road toward the campsites was being paved. Slightly disappointed, we headed back down the mountain to the wat.

A lot of stairs to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep

A lot of stairs to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep

There was quite a crowd in the afternoon at Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep.  The serpents greet the visitors along the stairway up to the gate—at which point all foreigners must pay admission. After seeing so many watsuthepStupatemples in Bangkok, Ayutthaya, and Chiang Mai, most of the sights become repetitive. However, looking out into the mountains and over the city is well worth the time to enter this one.

As we coasted down the mountain with the engine off, I spotted a side road and decided to take a look. Down this road was a small temple, Wat Si Su Dat. This temple is home to many monks of the Miao minority (who share the same ancestry as the Miao minority of China). The purpose of the temple is to teach the young monks about social work so that they can return to their villages to teach. As with many other small temples, there was a monk who spoke English and explained much of the history and importance. The monks were eager to speak with us as few tourists ever stop by.

We left Doi Suthep feeling that we had a relaxing day in the mountains. Unfortunately, I had forgotten where to turn to get back inside the city walls of Chiang Mai. By some miracle, I had managed to the street that headed toward the hotel.

Entrance to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep

Entrance to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep

I returned Mr. Beer’s motorbike with about 3/4 of a tank of gas. I quickly understood why the rental was so cheap–the company makes money from siphoning off the excess gas. I didn’t feel bad about returning the bike early or with excess gas; there’s nothing like the feeling of speeding along the Thai roads at 20 mph.

Train Travel Adventures

panama_canal_railwayAfter reading Unbrave Girl’s list of why she loves taking trains in the US, I thought about my own experiences on trains. As much as I like taking trains, they’re not exactly convenient or reasonably priced in the US.

I didn’t take a train (that I actually remember) until I was in high school and wanted to see a concert at Madison Square Garden. It was easy enough to take NJ Transit to Penn Station, but it was a bit difficult to get to and from the station–there really wasn’t any public transportation to get to the station. I took that train a few times, and it unfortunately stopped running just before midnight.

Other than the PATH between Jersey City and Manhattan, I didn’t take another train trip until my first year in China. At the end of my first Spring Festival holiday, I took an overnight train from Shanghai to Shenzhen. It wasn’t unpleasant; there was enough space in the room with the other passengers, but it was rather boring for 24 hours. After the first couple hours, I didn’t want to go anywhere near the bathroom.

I would recommend an overnight train in China as long as you’re with someone else to help keep track of your luggage. It’s also important to stock up on food and drinks to avoid price gouging.

Bangkok Railway Station

Bangkok Railway Station

The only other train trip I took in China was with my parents between Beijing and Tianjin. We took the high-speed train on the way back, which only shaved about 15 minutes off the already short trip, but it was a more comfortable train. The more modern trains in China are definitely worth riding–it’s nice to see what the US doesn’t have (although I’ve heard plans for a high-speed rail network for the last 20 years).

railway-bangkokMy second train adventure in Asia was in Thailand. The first trip I took was a short one to Ayutthaya–only about 45 minutes from Bangkok. I quickly learned that Thailand’s trains are always late, and there are no announcements. The other trip in Thailand was an overnight train to Chiang Mai–I had a top bunk that was not large enough for me (and I’m 5’10”), and had constant overhead light. Same as the overnight train in China, this one had a rather disgusting toilet after a few hours–and I could watch the tracks through the hole in the floor.

Ayutthaya's train station is a little underdeveloped

Ayutthaya’s train station is a little underdeveloped

The overnight train back to Bangkok was more of an adventure. After waiting for more than 45 minutes for the late train, I decided to inquire as to its whereabouts. I’m not 100% certain, but I swear I heard the woman at the ticket booth say, “It fell off the track.” It took me a while to figure out the next move. I ended up exchanging my ticket for a regular train that did not have beds but departed in another two hours. It gave me time to sit outside the 7-11 across the street and eat grilled chicken from the street vendor.

My final train trip was on Amtrak during the summer of 2011. I decided to take a three-day weekend in Montreal. The ticket cost about as much as it would to drive, but I wouldn’t have to pay for parking. The drive would take about five or six hours, but the train took at least 11 hours.

It is a scenic train ride through upstate New York, but it isn’t as pleasant knowing that the train is traveling at about 20 mph. Worst of all was that we were stopped for a half hour by US customs on our way out of the US. We were stopped for almost two hours on way back into the US.

View from the train in upstate New York

View from the train in upstate New York

For the convenience of arriving five or six hours earlier, I would happily drive to Montreal next time and pay for parking.

There’s a chance I’ll take another Amtrak trip to Washington and/or Boston this spring. I just hope it doesn’t take longer than driving.