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That’s Why the TSA Wants to Give Me a Free Colonoscopy

Some of us get a little more attention than others when walking through airport security. Of course, this happens a lot more often in the US than in some other countries.

The TSA has a bad reputation, and for good reason with so much of the negative press it receives. I have to admit that I have had some almost pleasant experiences with the TSA at Newark airport (yes, really). There have been other experiences in other US airports that were less than pleasant–fortunately, none of them ended with a search of various orifices or a visit to a lonely dark room.

This is how it sometimes feels going through airport security (from MacRitchie Reservoir, Singapore)

This is how it sometimes feels going through airport security (from MacRitchie Reservoir, Singapore)

Have you ever wondered why you of all people got singled out “randomly” for that special search and friendly pat-down? Well, wonder no more. The Washington Post reported that an anonymous source released the secret list of behaviors the TSA notices that could get you that free colonoscopy.

All you need is four points on the board to receive your visit to the dank room where authorities are sure to forget about you for hours while you desperately need to use a toilet because you drank a liter of water in an attempt to empty that bottle before going through security so you could fill it back up at a water fountain before boarding your flight because airlines no longer even give you a cup of water.

Some airports outside the US try to help travelers relax (Incheon)

Some airports outside the US try to help travelers relax (Incheon)

The TSA actually looks at your face to see if you’ve recently shaved a beard. That’s bad news for people like me who need to shave almost every day. I need to remember to shave the day BEFORE I travel through the US again to avoid having one point against me.

And if you think making jokes or complaints about the long security lines or ineptness of some security staff will go unnoticed, think again. It’s just another sign that you might deserve that special treatment.

Seriously, the TSA assigns one point for people who appear stressed. I wonder if the TSA agents can tell the difference between stress, frustration, and extreme annoyance? Do they assign points to passengers who roll their eyes at drone-like instructions security personnel excrete while all we want to do is get through the metal detector and grab some overpriced food before our flight?

And if you think you should appear happy about your ensuing vacation, think again. Whistling in line will earn you another point. All I can think of is Jasper teaching Lisa Simpson’s class; he explains all the behavior that will result in “a paddlin’.”

They’ll even assign points to passengers in a rush to make their flight. Good thing security at Incheon airport didn’t have this system in place–I arrived three hours early and had to wait two hours just to check in for my flight; they put me in an express security line so I could get to my gate with about 10 minutes before departure (and no, I wasn’t flying on a holiday).

While the TSA relies on these indicators to keep all the travelers safe and agitated, according to the Washington Post article, “The Government Accountability Office questioned the usefulness of behavioral detection techniques in a 2014 report, saying it found no solid evidence that they are effective.”

This makes the process seem less crappy

This makes the process seem less crappy

I prefer the polite approach to airport security. Some of the friendliest staff I’ve encountered was at Changi Airport in Singapore–security personnel actually smiled! Hell, they even have these nice sectioned bins for you to place your laptop, phone, and change (and they didn’t mind me taking a photo of it; they were a little surprised to hear that I’d never seen anything like it before).

What behaviors do you think should be on the list? What common behaviors are likely to get you some special attention before your next trip?

Finding Nature in Tokyo at Mt. Mitake

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

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

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

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

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

House in town near Mt. Mitake

House in town near Mt. Mitake

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

Musashi-Mitake-Shrine

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

A stone dog at Musashi Mitake Shrine

A stone dog at Musashi Mitake Shrine

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

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

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

mitake-gate

The entrance to Musashi Mitake Shrine

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

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

An Extended Hike Through MacRitchie Reservoir in Singapore

“Silence, I discover, is something you can actually hear.”
Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

On my second day in Singapore, I decided to take a hike to make up for my previous day’s failure. That first day I attempted to go to the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, a large rainforest park in the outskirts of Singapore, only to discover that the park was undergoing renovations (supposedly they were improving the trails or something like that). That’s when I decided to head for the MacRitchie Reservoir, which is a much larger park than I expected.macritchie-reservoir

MacRitchie Reservoir, which was created in 1868, is popular among locals–there are numerous trails for people looking for little exercise. I saw groups of people out for a stroll as well as those jogging around the reservoir and surrounding forest trail. There were even a lot of people renting kayaks.macritchie-reservoir1

I originally thought I could walk to the reservoir from the MRT station, but I was definitely wrong. After a failed attempt at getting a bus (I was on the wrong side of the street), I checked out the stops listed on the bus stop but didn’t see a stop for MacRitchie. That’s when a kind local came up and offered some assistance–she told me which buses I could take and where to get off; she even took the same bus and pointed me in the right direction after I got off.

As I arrived at the reservoir, I headed for the trail around the water before turning off onto the forest trail. As I entered the park, there were a lot of monkeys playing in the trees and plenty of people watching them (there are signs in parks in Singapore reminding visitors to not feed the monkeys or carry plastic bags that monkeys might mistake for food). Along the trail I also noticed some small monitor lizards (I’m disappointed that I didn’t see any of the larger ones).macritchie-monkeys

The sign pointing to the forest trail said it was about 5 km to the TreeTop Walk, which is sponsored by HSBC (nice to see them doing more than laundering money for drug cartels).

What I didn’t realize is that the trail to the TreeTop Walk doesn’t go around the reservoir–it’s a trail through thick woodland, so you can’t see the reservoir. I also didn’t realize that while it’s 5 km to the destination, it was more than 5 km to finish the loop and then find the way back to the park entrance. I somehow found an exit along the way to the main road and bus stop nearby that would take me back to the MRT.

The forest trail through MacRitchie Reservoir

The forest trail through MacRitchie Reservoir

I was only a short distance into the forest trail–the noise of Singapore had already disappeared in the distance–when it started to rain (it is a rainforest after all). There are plenty of shelters along the trail, so I managed to find one before I got soaked with my camera. It cooled the weather until I made it to the TreeTop Walk, but it heated up considerably after that and I was desperate to get out–there were others I encountered on the trail who wanted to get out faster as well.

The HSBC TreeTop Walk

The HSBC TreeTop Walk

the TreeTop Walk had a beautiful view, especially considering the air cleared after the rain. After walking through the humidity after the rain, the view wasn’t as energizing as one would hope–I was sweating so much I felt like collapsing on the bridge (and it only got worse when I saw the signs for more than 5 km back out of the rainforest in either direction). The route I took back out of the rainforest took me along a country club golf course, which made the experience a little more surreal in my humidity-induced delirium (maybe it was a mirage).

View from the TreeTop Walk

View from the TreeTop Walk

I was tempted to stay on the bus to see where it went just because I was exhausted and thoroughly enjoyed the air conditioning on the ride to the MRT station.

Instead of heading back to my hostel to shower again and possibly take a nap, I decided to head farther from my hike to Bayfront. I wandered around the Marina Bay Sands mall to cool off in the air conditioning (and with the hope that I could find some affordable food (nope)) before dragging my tired legs to Gardens by the Bay, which is a story for another day.

View from the TreeTop Walk

View from the TreeTop Walk

I got to end my day with dinner at a little sidewalk buffet restaurant in Little India where I met a Dutch tourist and a few locals who ordered plenty of beer and even more food. I even met the owner of the restaurant who joined us for some of the beer and food. Somehow I paid less than half of my bill–certainly nothing to complain about.

Despite a hot and exhausting day, it was the kind of travel exhaustion I needed to rejuvenate myself (though my feet would disagree).

Feeling Underwhelmed at Thang Long, a UNESCO Site in Vietnam

The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site within Hanoi; the only other nearby UNESCO site is Halong Bay, which I visited my first weekend in Vietnam. I wandered upon it late in my stay in the northern Vietnamese city–long after I was already exhausted from life in the Old Quarter. The highlight of this historic site at the time was that it wasn’t crowded and there was no one inside trying to sell me things I didn’t want.thang-long-gate1

I wasn’t specifically searching for the Imperial Citadel, but I had seen it mentioned when I browsed UNESCO sites, so I was subconsciously keeping an eye out for it as attempted to escape the crowds in Hanoi. I came across this piece of Vietnamese history after a morning of wandering around the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and presidential palace.lenin-hanoi

The citadel is next to the military history museum, but I didn’t bother visiting that one–I was tired and wasn’t really interested. It’s also just across from a park with a statue of Vladimir Lenin–I’m sure he’d appreciate the teenager lounging at his feet and the couple dancing nearby.thang-long-gate

The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long was first built as a palace and other structures by the Lý Dynasty in 1010 and expanded by the Trần, Lê and Nguyễn dynasties. A more modern citadel still remains at the site, including the flag tower that was built in 1812 under King Gia Long, but most of the original structures were destroyed over the centuries. thang-long-flag-tower

The remains of the original imperial city were discovered in 2008 when Ba Đình Hall, the old parliament building, was torn down to make way for a new one.

Today, there isn’t much to see around the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. There are active archaeological dig sites and some protected ruins, but not much to actually see–these are not like the ruins of Rome. While I was there, I saw a group of students who appeared to be taking graduation photos (I guess they were taking the photos a semester early as this was early January).thang-long-archaeological-di

As I didn’t know much of the history of Thang Long at the time, I didn’t find the citadel as awe inspiring as other palaces I’ve visited–it certainly isn’t as the palaces in Bangkok or Phnom Penh, or even the Forbidden City when it isn’t shrouded in scaffolding. Unfortunately, historic sites in Vietnam haven’t yet developed educational self-guided tours (aside from the propaganda at the war museums), but I hope more of this will be developed for Thang Long as more of the palace is unearthed.

Have you ever visited an historic site only to be disappointed until much later when you learn more about it?

Preconceptions and Reality in Singapore

“We sail tonight for Singapore
We’re all as mad as hatters here”
Tom Waits, Singapore

Last year when I considered taking a trip to Singapore I thought of a million reasons to not go, most of which stemmed from the little I knew about the country.

Maybe it all goes back to 1994–I was finishing middle school and a 19-year-old American named Michael Fay caused an international incident by being sentenced to a caning in Singapore. Americans were in an uproar over the punishment Fay received for vandalism. I thought he was an idiot. But that ordeal left me, and many others, with the impression that Singapore is a brutal police state.

It’s not.

singapore-skylineYes, there are tons of laws to follow, and the punishments for breaking the law can be harsh (mostly steep fines now). The laws governing day-to-day activities, however, don’t really register with tourists. No spitting! Ok. No littering! Fine, where’s the trash can? It really isn’t any inconvenience.

And when it comes to all the restrictions, no one seems to care about jaywalking. People cross the streets when they want, but they make sure no traffic is coming first (this isn’t Hanoi). Drivers are polite enough to stop for pedestrians, but I don’t imagine they’d be as happy if those pedestrians walked in front of their cars.singapore

I always thought Singapore would be immaculate with all the rules they supposedly enforce. It is quite clean, but there are plenty of messes–there was a public restroom at an MRT station was foul (still better than any public restroom in the US). There were a few others that weren’t much better. And at the outdoor food courts, there are plenty of messes–I saw no trash cans because everyone just leaves dishes and trays on the tables for staff to clean up. I’m sure if I stayed out later, those same food courts would get a bit messy.

For a country that some might regard as a police state, there isn’t a police presence. I was there for Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral, and there were long lines of people paying their respects, so there were some police around to mostly help with directions. The police were quite friendly and helpful.

Clarke Quay at night

Clarke Quay at night

That level of friendliness and helpfulness expanded to the general population. I’ve said before how polite and friendly people in Taipei are. I found people in Seoul and Tokyo to also be polite, though not nearly as friendly. People in Singapore are more than that–they’re helpful and accommodating.

Example: I wanted to purchase a three-day metro ticket (which is not for a full 72 hours because the ticket offices aren’t open early enough), but the ticket office was closed when I arrived at Changi Airport. An MRT employee apologized because the office closed early in honor of Lee Kuan Yew. She then helped me buy my ticket and made sure I knew where to go. When I finally got to buy the three-day ticket, the ticket office was going on lunch break. There were three people ahead of me and they all desperately wanted to get things done now (I didn’t want to wait another hour either). The employee stayed to help us, but turned anyone else away. In Japan and Taiwan employees wouldn’t be so flexible.

I certainly worried about the weather in Singapore–I know it’s hot and humid year-round. But the heat wasn’t unbearable. Afternoon downpours were inconvenient, but they felt great. I had expected the city to be fully air conditioned, like in Hong Kong. We used to joke that Hong Kong was 5 degrees cooler than mainland China–I swear it got colder as soon as I set foot across the border at Luohu crossing. If I visited Hong Kong in the summer I went from frigid temperatures indoors to oppressive heat and humidity on the streets (my glasses would fog up if I went indoors for more than 5 minutes before going back outside).

supertrees-night

Supertrees at Gardens by the Bay

Singapore manages temperatures better. There was a progression to temperature changes that prevents people from getting sick and acclimates the population. It was hot and humid outside, and it got cooler as I got further into the metro stations–the buses and subway cars were quite cold, but I was prepared for it with the progression. The ticket area of the MRT was a few degrees cooler than outside; the waiting area for the train was a little cooler; and the trains were even cooler than that. The progression of air conditioning means that the city is more energy efficient than Hong Kong.

Another preconception I had was that Singapore is just a huge city. While that is true, there is also plenty of green space. The city is so well planned and covered in green. And all the plants along the streets and in the parks are well maintained. It’s not like in China where they rip out a plant just because a leaf is turning brown.

MacRitchie Reservoir

MacRitchie Reservoir

I went for a hike at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve only to find the 400-acre reserve was closed for trail renovations. There were some other trails nearby though; they just weren’t as interesting. There’s also the MacRitchie Reservoir, where I took a more than 10 km hike (I thought the hike was only 5 km). And there’s still the Gardens by the Bay and the Botanic Gardens. There is a lot of room to breathe in Singapore.

Singapore impressed me.

Have you ever visited a place with a preconception that was quickly broken?

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.

Memories and Travel

“Elliot had in his memory so many jokes
They seemed to breed like microbes in a culture

Inside his brain, one so much making another
It was impossible to tell them all:”
-Robert Pinsky, Impossible to Tell

Sometimes our memories fail us. We don’t remember things as they happened, and sometimes we have false memories. Lately, I’ve had faded memories, or rather blending memories.

A wholly unremarkable street in Rome. Where was I going at the time?

A wholly unremarkable street in Rome. Where was I going at the time?

After a year and a half of wandering around Asia (and that little bit of time in Italy), things have started to look and feel the same. For most of the first year I had a set routine during the week–work all day and go for a walk around the neighborhood in the evening, and then take in the sights on weekends. Most of those days spent wandering around with little direction led to wandering thoughts along the streets.

A game of croquet in the park in Seoul. I forgot about this until I perused my photos

A game of croquet in the park in Seoul. I forgot about this until I perused my photos

I’ll find a spot in a city and believe that it’s familiar–it looks like somewhere I’ve been before, but I haven’t been to this place, have I? I’ve returned to Tokyo and Taipei, so I’ve revisited neighborhoods, but are these the same? And how have neighborhoods changed since my last visit?

I know this is Osaka because it's saved in my Osaka folder

I know this is Osaka because it’s saved in my Osaka folder

When I wander neighborhoods, I rarely pay attention to street signs (assuming they even exist in some places) and I never carry a map around. This makes it difficult to identify where I’ve been–I have dozens of photos of places I can’t recall; they’re surrounded by identifiable tourist sites, which gives me a general idea of location.

This feeling of déjà vu of sorts happens more now than it used too. I’m lost in thought and something in the surroundings catches my attention and brings me back to memory of a place and time that is not recognizable. Sidewalks along rivers as traffic flows past and children play in the nearby park–the river is from one journey, the park another, and traffic is everywhere.

Bet you didn't know Saigon had such a pleasant riverside walk

Bet you didn’t know Saigon had such a pleasant riverside walk

I know that much of the problem is that I’ve been traveling mostly around Asia–the temples and mountains look the same, and even the languages and cultures have similarities. Was I walking through Saigon that day or was it Seoul in summer? Did I see that in a market in Siem Reap or Taipei?

These memories and moments of travel déjà vu bring me back to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and the impossible stories of non-existent cities Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan. There are impossible, or improbable, tales travelers tell to audiences–over time those stories become blurred and we associate one story with another, thus leading to the confusion of places. It’s not the image of the place that we always remember when reminiscing; it’s the experience of that moment in the surroundings and the internal monologue we have when there’s no one around to share that experience.

Shanghai People's Park in 2006

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

There are stories of places and experiences that I have yet to write on this site. Those stories float in my consciousness but haven’t yet materialized on the page. Perhaps in time they’ll return for another story for you to read, or maybe they’ll fuse with other stories and turn into tales of what may or may not have happened on the journey.

How do you remember everything while traveling? Do you wonder if your memories betray you when telling stories?

Remains of the Vietnam War

“So I guess every generation is doomed to fight its war, to endure the same old experiences, suffer the loss of the same old illusions, and learn the same old lessons on its own.”
Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War

My friend Lonnie at Veteran Traveler reminded me that this week marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Vietnam War.

Poster outside the War Remnants Museum in Saigon

Poster outside the War Remnants Museum in Saigon

I visited some of the memorial sites in Vietnam–the Hanoi Hilton, the War Remnants Museum, the Presidential Palaces in Hanoi and Saigon, and the Cu Chi tunnels. I also learned a lot about the horrors of the war across the border in Cambodia while visiting the Landmine Museum in Siem Reap. While the museums in Vietnam had plenty of propaganda, there was also truth in the portrayal of horrific acts of war–the long-term effects of Agent Orange were on display in the War Remnants Museum, and the pictures were difficult to even look at. Of course, Vietnam overlooks its own treatment of POWs during that time, but that’s par for the course around Asia (e.g. Japan’s actions during WWII, China’s actions in Vietnam and at home).

Most likely used by Vietnam during its invasion of Cambodia and the subsequent war with China

Most likely used by Vietnam during its invasion of Cambodia and the subsequent war with China

But I didn’t plan to write about the museums and perceptions of the Vietnam War. The idea was to reflect on the war and the people affected by it. There are still people suffering from that era–US veterans with PTSD, Vietnamese and Cambodians born with deformities due to Agent Orange. People in Cambodia are still dying because of landmines left behind by multiple countries that littered the country with the explosive devices–injuries related to such explosive devices increased 35% in Cambodia last year.

There were many more similar signs around Cambodia

There were many more similar signs around Cambodia

And while reading the news today, it appears that we have not learned from history. Our governments are still controlled by military arms manufacturers–just look at the bloated military budgets.

Collection of landmines recovered by the Landmine Relief Fund

Collection of landmines recovered by the Landmine Relief Fund

According to Veterans Affairs, 30% of Vietnam vets suffer from PTSD. Another 11-20% of the most recent Iraqi War veterans also suffer from PTSD. There has been a 50% increase in diagnosed cases in the last year.

There is more than enough pain and suffering to go around.

If you’d like to help relieve some of the suffering, you can check out these organizations (and I’m sure there are many more worthwhile ones out there):

Walking Among Cats in Houtong, Taiwan’s Cat Village

“Well, some go this way, and some go that way. But as for me, myself, personally, I prefer the short-cut.”
Cheshire Cat, Alice in Wonderland (movie, 1951)

I hadn’t planned on going through the cat village of Houtong, but I was pushed to it nonetheless. During the Spring Festival holiday, I wanted to go to Pingxi, a town farther outside Taipei that supposedly has some great hiking. When I got to Ruifang to buy a new train ticket to get to Pingxi, the crowd was ridiculous–apparently everyone returns to the area a little early during the holiday and takes a trip outside the city. I took a walk around Ruifang while deciding my options.

Cat and people crossing

Cat and people crossing

Ruifang is not an impressive town. There are some cool semi-dilapidated Japanese colonial-era buildings, but not much else. There’s also a lot of street food that’s difficult to get with huge crowds wandering the streets.

The line for the bus to Jiufen

The line for the bus to Jiufen

As I saw the line for the train and the bus to Pingxi, I made my choice to head to nearby Houtong instead. At least the lines for Pingxi and Houtong weren’t nearly as long as the one for the bus to Jiufen, which wrapped around the block and require police to direct traffic.houtong-river

Houtong is known for having a lot of stray cats that are cared for by the locals. Much like Jiufen, this town was once a mining community in the mountains outside Taipei. Unlike Jiufen, Houtong was a coal mining town instead of gold mining. It was originally known for the monkey cave, which apparently housed a lot of monkeys (no word on whether those monkeys were used for mining coal). The once-prosperous town began its decline in 1990, but was revived in 2008 when a cat lover organized the community to care for the strays in the area. Tourists followed the cats, and vendors outside the train station sell cat food to gullible tourists.

Put those kids to work in the Monkey Cave

Put those kids to work in the Monkey Cave

This should be a model for the decaying coal mining towns in the US–just dump some stray cats into the town and open some cafes and art galleries and wait for the tourists to roll in. Of course, you could probably do the same with some friendly dogs or even rabbits.

Cat houses (no, not THAT kind of cat house) in Houtong

Cat houses (no, not THAT kind of cat house) in Houtong

The ruins of the Ruey-San Coal Dressing Plant, which opened in 1920, still remains outside the train station. An shell of the plant and encroaching plants are all that can be seen today, but it provides an interesting photo opportunity at some angles.

Probably not the safest place to work

Probably not the safest place to work

The town is still in disrepair, but it’s obviously starting to redevelop with the help of art galleries and cafes that cater to the tourists. There’s even a restaurant called Miners & Hobbits, but they were closed for the holiday (would’ve been a great experience to go with my dinner at Dream of Hobbiton in Taipei). Next to the Monkey Cave is a souvenir shop that also sells medicinal liquor that reuses various liquor bottles (who wouldn’t want to drink liquor made from roots and herbs out of a Glenlivet bottle?).

Sure looks tasty for about $10

Sure looks tasty for about $10

With all the tourists in town, it appeared that many of the local cats were hiding. There were plenty of others wandering about for the crowds to pet and feed. There were even a few hanging out in the train station.

My new drinking buddy

My new drinking buddy

The only cat I sat with for any length of time was the one that jumped on the table at Empress Gallery Cafe as I drank a cat-themed beer from North Taiwan Brewery.

Come pray to the cat god and maybe you'll get a clean litter box

Come pray to the cat god and maybe you’ll get a clean litter box

After that beer, I wandered the streets of Houtong and got back on the train bound for Taipei–it was much too crowded and I had to stand the entire hour and a half. For the first 45 minutes, I only contemplated how miserable the train journey was a dozen times each minute. It certainly wasn’t as comfortable as the bus from Jiufen.

Have you been to the cat village? Did they crown you the Cat King (or Queen)? 

Hiking through Spirited Away

“Once you do something, you never forget. Even if you can’t remember.”
– Zeniba, Spirited Away

Just before the Chinese New Year, I took a day trip to the far reaches of New Taipei, to the old mining town of Jiufen (九份). I headed out on a long bus ride from central Taipei to this small town in the mountains–the hour and a half ride cost less than $4 and I was fortunate enough to have a seat (on heavy travel days plenty of passengers have to stand for the entire ride, which wouldn’t be much fun on the winding mountain roads).jiufen

I met a few expats and visitors while waiting for the bus–I had just missed it; it turned the corner as I exited the MRT station, so I had to wait 20 minutes for the next one. Two of the expats were showing a relative around and had been to Jiufen before; they told me where to get off the bus and which direction to head from the stop (I ran into them again on the way to the bus back to Taipei).Jiufen Old Street

Jiufen has some interesting history, which began with nine families calling the village home, giving the town the name that translates to nine portions. The mountainside settlement became a mining town with the discovery of gold in 1893. Allied POWs were sent to work in the mines during World War II. When the mines were closed in 1971, the town faded into history. In 1989, A City of Sadness, about the 228 Incident in which the Kuomintang massacred anti-government protesters and began the White Terror in Taiwan, was filmed in the town and led to some increased interest in Jiufen. However, it wasn’t until Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 Academy Award-winning animated film Spirited Away that tourism began to revive the town. Jiufen was the inspiration for the town in Miyazaki’s film, which led to greater interest from Japanese tourists. Jiufen Old Street

Once off the bus, I headed for the old street, which is the touristy thing to do in Jiufen as well as in all the other little towns of New Taipei. The narrow streets lined with souvenir shops, food stalls, and restaurants was crowded with tourists who walked much too slow for my liking. As soon as I saw an opening that led to empty streets, I wandered off the tourist path.Jiufen

As I wandered through winding streets, I escaped the people. After continuing on a path that I only led up, I found myself at the top of the mountain at Lutou (露頭) overlooking Jiufen to the north (it was difficult to make out the characters on the faded sign, which made it difficult to locate on a map). I saw no one along the trail. I did find a broken, discarded motorbike and wondered how it ended up there with no road and all the steps up the mountain.

View from the trail to Lutou

View from the trail to Lutou

I rested at the peak and watched the clouds roll through between Jiufen and the surrounding mountains. It was then that I realized I had forgotten to bring a bottle of water with me–that was my next stop when I finally reached the town again.

Boozy coffee before setting out on a second hike

Boozy coffee before setting out on a second hike

After a break for water and some boozed-up coffee on Jiufen’s old street (how could I pass up some caffeine with Amarula Cream?). I wandered with my coffee through other, wider roads that lead to who-knows-where (maybe I should’ve picked up a map when I arrived).  That’s when I saw a sign for yet another hiking trail–to Keelung Mountain.

Almost at the top of Keelung Mountain

Almost at the top of Keelung Mountain

I figured Keelung Mountain (基隆山) wouldn’t be too difficult of a hike as I noticed other tourists there. The distance listed on the sign didn’t seem imposing, so I figured I’d take another hike and find another angle to view the town. It wasn’t as easy as I had expected. It was a lot of stairs straight up the mountain.jiufen-harbor-2

This trail would provide an amazing view for the sunset and to watch the lights of the town in the evening. I, however, was not fortunate enough to have a decent sunset or a flashlight to help me down the unlit stairway. More clouds rolled through and it looked like it might rain–the sun was blocked as it began to set behind the mountains. I could just make out the harbor leading to the East China Sea in the distance, but it was disappearing from view.jiufen2

As I looked back at Jiufen, I saw more elaborate tombs on the side of the mountain than homes. Many of the houses are in disrepair while the family tombs are well maintained.

Tombs around Jiufen

Tombs around Jiufen

I headed back to town as the sun set and had a quick bite to eat and more water at the convenience store. I waited a half hour to get on the crowded bus (I was fortunate to have a seat again) bound for Taipei. The next day my legs were sore and I had difficulty getting out of bed, but it was worth the pain of muscle recovery.

Have you visited Jiufen? Where were the best views?

What Do Androids in Taipei Dream of?

“The electric things have their life too. Paltry as those lives are.”
Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

On the final day of the Chinese New Year holiday, I headed to the main shopping area–ATT 4 Fun, which is the large mall that attracts locals and tourists with its shops, restaurants, bars, and clubs. They had plenty of displays set up for the Year of the Sheep. This one had me contemplating the Philip K. Dick classic that was turned into Bladerunner with Harrison Ford.electric-sheep

Seriously, what does this sign really mean? Are these electric sheep? Will I be electrocuted if I pet them? And do Taipei’s androids dream of electric sheep during Chinese New Year?

Happy Year of the Sheep

新年快乐, dear readers! February 19 marked the beginning of the Chinese New Year (as well as other Asian nations’ lunar new year). This is the year of the sheep/goat/ram and it happens to be my year, so I should probably go out and buy some lucky red underwear (seriously, this is a thing in China/Taiwan).

This sheep was a little too fat to fit through the coin at Taipei 101

This sheep was a little too fat to fit through the coin at Taipei 101

I didn’t make any special plans this year–Taipei emptied out for the first few days of the holiday as everyone traveled back to their parents and other relatives. I didn’t see any of the chaos that I witnessed during Spring Festivals past in China. I kind of miss the days of baijiu and beer with a meal that took hours to finish followed by fireworks set off haphazardly by revelers too drunk to be trusted with explosives.

Probably the creepiest sheep I've ever seen

Probably the creepiest sheep I’ve ever seen

I managed to keep some traditions alive this year–I purchased a whole fish and frozen dumplings from Carrefour. The fish is important because the character 鱼 (yú)  has the same pronunciation as 余 (yú), meaning “extra.”

After that I took a YouBike ride out to a wonderful bar called Beer & Cheese. It was a quiet evening at the bar with some really good beer from Evil Twin. I also had the friendliest taxi driver at the end of the night–he was quite happy to talk to a foreigner in Chinese and wished me a happy new year in English as I got into the cab. Somehow even with the New Year surcharge, the cab home was only a little more than the last time I came home from that bar.sheep-travel

In years past, I have eaten the animal for the zodiac year–for year of the rabbit the Sichuan restaurant in Jersey City served spicy rabbit head; they also had an array of eel dishes for year of the snake. But this year was different with a lack of lamb in Taipei. Had I been in mainland China, I would’ve sought out a Xinjiang restaurant for grilled lamb skewers or even a whole roasted lamb like I had for my going-away party years ago.

Lamb kabob vendor at Heavenly Lake in Xinjiang

Lamb kabob vendor at Heavenly Lake in Xinjiang

I wish my friends and family a healthy and prosperous year of the delicious sheep/goat/ram. Wait, that came out wrong. Maybe I need more baijiu and fireworks.

How did you celebrate the Lunar New Year? Did you eat plenty of lamb?

Discovering New Beer in Taiwan

In honor of reaching 500 unique brews on Untappd (I started using the app to log the different beers I drink in August 2012), I should write up another beer post. And my New Year’s resolution is not to reach 1,000, or even make a conscious attempt–I’d rather relax and enjoy my time with or without a new beer.

Last time I was in Taipei, I lamented the lack of local beer. I had found a couple decent beers, but nothing beyond that. When I returned, I was introduced to more local brews that I had either missed or that had finally become available in bars nearby.

Redpoint 台PA

Redpoint 台PA

North Taiwan Brewing, the brewery that I found with a pretty good abbey ale back in April, has a lot more beers. Unfortunately, most of them are fruit beers (I accidentally bought Apparallel Universe and it tasted like medicine). They did come out with a mildly hoppy brew called CHTHONIC. It’s definitely a beer worth trying, but not something I’d go out of my way for (but the label is pretty cool).

The beer has gotten better as I’ve stayed in Taipei longer–one friend introduced me to Redpoint, a beer brewed out in Hsinchu, which is a long, slow train ride west of the city, when I went to visit him and visit the beer haven iBeer. This was one of the better beers in Taiwan–it was a hoppy, but not overpowering, IPA (or I should say 台PA; that character is pronounced “tai”). The brewery also makes Long Dong Lager, which is a decent lager, but nothing special.

At the end of my adventure along Taiwan’s east coast, I tried the most unusual beer in Jiaoxi, a town renowned for its hot springs. At one of the hotel hot springs (I didn’t bother putting my feet in the outdoor pools) was a vendor for Barley Farm Manual Beer. There was not much English, so it was difficult to figure out what the beers were, but one of them claimed to be a green algae brew. It tasted like a Japanese barley tea.

What an odd color for a beer

What an odd color for a beer

Another beer from Hsinchu, which I think is the best beer in Taiwan, is the 886 Brewing’s Magnum PIPA (seriously, why isn’t this brewed in Miami?). I had this beer at my hostel in Wai’ao on a weekend trip along the east coast, north of Hualien. They also make a brown ale that’s light enough to drink all night.

Tom Selleck would be proud

Tom Selleck would be proud

Most recently I tried 55th Street’s amber lager, which was a little on the sweet side because it’s brewed with dried longan (a fruit related to lychees). This was at a new bar in Taipei called Something Ales, which feels more like a cafe than a bar–certainly not a place I’d return to often for the prices they charge.

55th Street Amber with dried longan

55th Street Amber with dried longan

When I headed back to Revolver, a bar that once had a shrine to Mick Jagger (why is it gone!?), near Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, I found another local brew: #23 Brewery. They make a pale ale and a blonde. I happen to think the blonde tastes better as the pale ale is a little bland. I’d certainly have either them again depending on what else was on tap, but the blonde ale would be the preference as it has more flavor.

Steve's Lager

Steve’s Lager

Finally, I met the brewer of a new beer brand–he’s established in Taipei and Wisconsin. Steve’s Kraft Beer is a bit more innovative than the rest in the area. Steve tries to brew his beers with Taiwanese tastes in mind, which is why his amber lager is slightly sweet. I’d prefer a more hoppy blend, but I’m not his target market. Most brewers here are going for more traditional brews to introduce to the Taiwanese market, while Steve is trying to attract the market to his beer. I also got to taste his black lager, Black Hole Beer, which is more my taste–it’s a little on the lighter side but still provides the flavor a schwarzbier should. I didn’t get a chance to sample the rest of his beers yet, but I’m sure I will soon enough. His Area 51 Alien IPA is supposed to be available in 7-Eleven soon.

Have I missed any of the local brews worth trying in Taiwan? I’m sure there are more to come.

Lost at a Taiwanese Temple

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short Stay in Phnom Penh

“Behind them were the lights of the market, the lanterns and candles and witch-lights and fairy glitter, like a dream of the night sky brought down to earth.”
Neil Gaiman, Stardust

The New York Times reminded me of what to see and do with their “36 Hours in Phnom Penh” feature. The video online talks about the food and people being the best reason to visit, but they show high-class restaurants with foreign chefs–these are restaurants that Cambodians can’t afford. The article makes Phnom Penh seem like a trendy city full of great food and nightlife while neglecting the other side that most people encounter, unless they ignore poverty and prostitution. I understand NYT’s intention in such articles is to promote luxury travel, but you can’t ignore the rest of Cambodia.phnom-penh-traffic

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my time in Phnom Penh, but it’s not an easy city to experience. There’s still a large seedy side; there are still major problems throughout.

During my few days in Siem Reap, I stayed in a nicer hotel–not quite luxury, but close. I chose the Angkor Riviera hotel because there was a problem with the hostel I had originally booked and I needed something last minute; I decided to give myself a treat for a little less than $50/night. It was great and comfortable, but felt detached from the society just steps from the door–it’s the same reason I felt a little uncomfortable on Pub Street.

Pick up some tasty treats at the night market. Can you identify any of it?

Pick up some tasty treats at the night market. Can you identify any of it?

I went with something less appealing when I got to Phnom Penh.

I was fortunate enough to have a contact in the city to show me around one night. Paul took me out to one of the nicer bars, Metro Hassakan, that could fit into any American or European city (and the prices weren’t too bad, but still unaffordable for most of the local population). I also got to see the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC), which shows its age but exudes character and charm. Given more time to enjoy the city, I’d probably head back to the FCC for the views of Phnom Penh–we had to sit at the bar because there weren’t tables available by the windows facing the city or the river.

Get your Angry Birds on a stick to eat

Get your Angry Birds on a stick to eat

One attraction in the city that was missing from the New York Times piece is the night market. It’s unlike the street night markets in Taipei or Hong Kong–it’s set up in a square across from the Tonle Sap River on Sisowath Quay. It doesn’t have the same draw as the historic Central Market, which has a great food market for lunch and snacks during the day, but it has a more friendly vibe.phnom-penh-night-market

I skipped the stage performance and the stalls selling clothes and souvenirs and headed to the back of the market for food. The food vendors are set up around the dining area, which is just some bamboo mats and carpetson the ground–you have to take off your shoes to eat in the area. There’s a variety of delicacies ranging from grilled who-knows-what on a stick to full plates of chicken or fish with rice. After ordering, some vendors will deliver the food to you on the bamboo mats and carpets.

My meal at the Phnom Penh Night Market

My meal at the Phnom Penh Night Market

The dining area is more of a social event for locals–they order plenty of food to share as they talk and listen to the musical performances on the other side of the market. Sitting there with my food was the experience I sought; it was boisterous and friendly–I was warned about safety, particularly in crowds in Phnom Penh, but it felt comfortable in the evening warmth. I felt more at ease in that night market than I did in any of the markets in Vietnam.

What do you think? Can local night markets be a part of a luxury tour of a city? What are some of your favorite markets?

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