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Biking to Osaka Castle

A few days in Osaka was more than enough to see everything in the city–there really isn’t much to do there. It did, however, provide me with more time to relax before heading back to Tokyo. Besides, Ema, the Italian owner of Vitti Lodge, was quite friendly and made staying in a cramped hostel room more bearable. (I realized that hostel dorms in Japan are much smaller than what I’m used to.) He also provided guests with free bikes to ride around the city (and the bike was a million times more comfortable than the broken one I had to pay for in Kyoto).osaka-castle-moat

I decided to not make the same mistake as I did in Kyoto and walk a few too many miles to see the sights and took the the bike on about a three-mile ride to Osaka Castle (actually, the ride was probably longer because I wasn’t sure where to turn and ended up on the wrong street).osaka-castle

The park around Osaka Castle is beautiful, with plenty of locals and tourists enjoying the paths on a sunny day. There are also small festivals every now and then with performances and food–I was fortunate enough to find such food on my bike ride after walking around the castle.

Osaka Castle is a picturesque building that attracts every tourist to Osaka, because there isn’t much else in the city other than that and food. This is a modern reconstruction of the castle on a smaller scale. The original Osaka Castle, which was constructed in 1583, was burned down and the structures that surrounded it were also destroyed. Only a few other buildings have been reconstructed on the grounds.

The largest stone was too big to destroy

The largest stone was too big to destroy

The castle first burned down in 1660 when a supply of gunpowder was struck by lightning. It was also destroyed in the 1800s during civil conflicts. It was again damaged during an Allied bombing raid in 1945. Other than the outer walls and moat, there is nothing left of the original structure. There are some huge stones that make up the fortification walls. Still, it’s a beautiful sight to see on a clear day. osaka-castle-crowd

Visitors are instructed to go to the top of the castle for the panoramic views of the city before walking down to each floor for exhibits about the history of Osaka Castle and the families that went to war for control over the country. The views of the city are spectacular, but you have to go to the nearby museums to get a better view of the castle.osaka-from-castle

The museum is educational, but it can be difficult to go through all the exhibits with all the tourists visiting at the same time–it would be better to get there as early as possible to avoid the organized tours that pass through. Most visitors walk up to the top for the views of the city and quickly walk through the exhibits. Most Japanese tourists will read through the history on display.

Have you been to Osaka? What did you think of Osaka Castle?

Photos for World Food Day

“What you are eating is always the end of a very long story–and often an ingenious but delicious answer to some very complicated problems.”
-Anthony Bourdain

Yesterday was World Food Day. No, really, this is an official day because people obviously need a reminder to eat food instead of plastic. It actually commemorates the founding of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in 1945. It reminds me that on a family vacation we stopped in Morro Bay, California, and the only non-fast food chain near the hotel had a huge sign that said, “Real Food.” What does that say about the other establishments in town?

Amok with rice and Cambodian beer

Amok with rice and Cambodian beer

Anyway, I thought I’d share a few photos of food from Cambodia that I hadn’t posted before. Unlike it’s neighbors, Cambodia doesn’t use a lot of chili in its food–most dishes have lighter flavors. There’s a lot of grilled food and light curries around the country. They prefer to use a lot of lemongrass and basil to any overpowering flavors you might find in other parts of Asia. There aren’t any dishes that I would consider heavy or oily because they’d probably kill people with the heat and humidity.grilled-squid

One of the first meals I had in a real restaurant was amok, a lemongrass curry served in a banana leaf bowl, that I found in downtown Siem Reap. It’s generally served with fish, but there’s also chicken and beef for all the tourists who pass through. In Phnom Penh, the best food I found was at the Central Market–the crowded market that sells everything from clothes to tourist junk also has a great selection of local foods. I was tempted to eat everything in sight, but my stomach isn’t big enough for that.

Walking Hwaseong Fortress, Korea

After a few weekends of sightseeing around Seoul, I began to run out of important historic sites to visit. I had already visited the palaces and royal shrines and even a few interesting museums. As Seoul stretches out into the distance, engulfing towns that were once not part of the metropolis, there are other destinations of interest.hwaseong2

That’s when I found Hwaseong Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Suwon, which is almost an hour outside central Seoul. Construction of the fortress began in 1794 under the Joseon Dynasty by King Jeongjo to honor his father, Prince Sado, who was murdered by his own father, King Yeongjo. It was supposedly constructed in two years, which is impressive considering its size. Parts of the fortress have been restored as they suffered significant damage during the Korean War.hwaseong

The walls of Hwaseong stretch about six kilometers and can take about two or more hours to walk around, depending on how often one stops for photos.

Paldalmun Gate

Paldalmun Gate

The bus from Suwon station dropped me off in front of Paldamun Gate in the center of a busy roundabout. From there I walked in the wrong direction through the town and found a market that offered some food to tide me over until after my adventure around the fortress. hwaseong1

I had a beautiful clear day for walking around in late June. I did not, of course, arrive in Suwon early in the morning as I should have to avoid the summer heat. The heat wasn’t as oppressive as it can be in other parts of the world in the summer, but the lack of shade made the walk around the fortress a little more difficult. There were, however, some wooded areas to hide from the sun, but those were mostly at the start of my walk.hwaseong-trail

I stopped at the Suwon Hwaseong Museum for a respite from the heat–air conditioning is worth the price of admission in some cases. The museum wasn’t impressive and only took twenty minutes or so to walk through, but I took my time and enjoyed the cool air. Sometimes you need a break from all that walking and sightseeing.

Overlooking Haenggung

Overlooking Haenggung

I wanted to stay longer in the air conditioning, but I had one more stop before catching a bus back to the subway station. Within the walls of Hwaseong Fortress is Hwaseong Haenggung, the palace built by King Jeongjo when he supposedly planned to move the capital from Seoul. It’s a small palace and not nearly as impressive as the ones in Seoul, like Gyeongbokgung.hwaseong-haenggung

There was a corner of the palace that allowed visitors to dress up in traditional costumes, imitation weapons included for those who want to dress as warriors instead of royalty. I arrived too late to have my turn as they were closing up shop for the day. Sorry folks, no embarrassing photos of this traveler today.

Facing Reality While Traveling

“What a weary time those years were — to have the desire and the need to live but not the ability.”
Charles Bukowski, Ham on Rye

We travel for many reasons; we want to see history and art, experience culture, and eat exotic food. We witness life as it moves past us on our journeys, but most of us only see the sanitized lives of locals in tourist areas. Few of us see the world as the majority of locals see it.

When I visited Panama City, I saw a city in transition–it was similar to gentrification back home. Casco Viejo was being purchased by real estate companies and hotels and redeveloped into a grand destination for tourists. There were still some squatters in the more dilapidated buildings throughout the small section of the city; the building across from my hotel was entirely owned by long-time squatters waiting to be bought out. The American owners of the hotel told stories about finding bullet holes and casings everywhere when they first bought the building to transform it years earlier. They were happy to see the violent elements moved elsewhere, but they also desired a preservation of the original character of Casco Viejo. Much of the new construction on the other side of Panama City is empty–at night you can see how few buildings have lights. People I spoke with couldn’t explain who all the development was for or when enough people would move to the city to make it all worthwhile.

Most of Casco Viejo was a construction site

Most of Casco Viejo was a construction site

When tourists, businessmen, and expats move in, many of the original residents are left behind in an economic boom. Some of the locals will take advantage of the opportunities, but most are forced out due to a lack of education and the means to support a life that grows more expensive with the ensuing development.

Downtown Panama City

Downtown Panama City

After my sightseeing trip to Cambodia, during which I witnessed extreme poverty and exploitation of women, I returned to Hanoi. In the tourist center of the Old Quarter, redevelopment is slow. Businesses are certainly busy with the tourists providing enough money to keep it all running, and better educated Vietnamese are wandering through with more disposable income to join in the activities that are still mostly filled with foreigners. The majority of the buildings here are still crumbling and the utility wires are haphazardly set up in a way that can’t possibly be safe or efficient. But this is how life works in this part of Hanoi.

I'm not sure how this is supposed to work

I’m not sure how this is supposed to work

A few times I found myself eating in busy open air restaurants with walls that were covered in dirt, most probably from the constant traffic exhaust. I often drank at the local Bia Hoi that was obviously unsanitary, but I figured the beer killed the bacteria on the glasses and I didn’t dare eat the dog meat stew that I was offered by the locals as we drank our 33-cent Hanoi beer.hanoi-street1

I met up with a friend I made through social media a few months before I traveled to Vietnam–she happened to be traveling home to Hanoi at the same time I was visiting. I was introduced to other parts of the city that I still can’t name because I was never told where we were heading when we jumped into taxis or on the back of a motorbike. We wandered through alleyways between dreary Soviet-era apartment blocks with rusting metal bars on windows and paint that faded to grey decades ago (assuming the paint ever existed). We ate in the courtyard surrounded by such buildings and I felt I was finally eating an authentic Vietnamese meal that I hoped wouldn’t make me sick for the lack of sanitation.

I was then taken to a friend’s apartment in another area–she received phone calls throughout the day from friends she hadn’t seen in years, and I decided to tag along to meet more locals. My friend being part of the better educated 20-somethings in Vietnam, I expected to meet more of the same who might enlighten me about life in the country. Aside from my friend, only one other in the group of five spoke some English, so I was left out of almost all of the conversation.

The new development of Vietnam

The new development of Vietnam

To reach her friend’s apartment, we walked through a maze of alleys surrounded by construction sites until we reached a dark stairway. The apartment was the size of a large bedroom with mismatched wrapping paper and posters used as wallpaper that probably covered cracks and mold. A flimsy mattress was spread out on the floor in the back corner of room and served as a bed as well as seating for guests. There was one large window with bars on it, but no glass or screen to keep out insects and only a thin sheet to cover it for privacy. There was a single outlet that led to an outdated power strip next to the makeshift stove and propane tank. The dark and dirty toilet was down the open hallway–two stalls that required buckets of water to flush. I didn’t ask where the shower was for fear that it was the same room and require buckets of cold water.

The ceiling was an entirely new sight for me. It appeared as though someone had torn off the original roof, leaving uneven exposed-brick walls that were topped off by a patchwork of sheet metal, which left large gaps between the walls and makeshift ceiling. No part of this apartment would be considered livable in the developed world. Despite the lack of what many would consider necessities, the young woman who lived here had a job and even a smartphone. I didn’t know the circumstances that brought her to such a place.hanoi-street

This bare-bones apartment was enough to make me appreciate the places I have lived. Even the “hotel” in which I stayed the first night in Hanoi–the one I checked into and immediately walked out of at 10 pm in search of new accommodations for the following day–was a huge step up from this room.

I didn’t say anything about the room to my friend–it was the only home in Vietnam to which I was invited and had nothing with which to compare it. No one in the group seemed to think this room was undesirable as they chatted and shared a meal while seated on the bedding. I have since been shown pictures of other Vietnamese friends’ homes and realize that the one I visited was not typical. It is difficult for those of us who grew up in the developed world in a house with functional plumbing, electricity, and a backyard to comprehend the lifestyle of those who survive in such harsh conditions. It’s still difficult for me to understand, even after hearing lively conversations and seeing the smiles of people who call this home. I may never understand it, but I will remember it anytime I feel my own life is difficult.

What have you seen while traveling that changed your perception of life? 

Mr. Chiang’s Taipei

Everyone recognizes one structure in Taiwan, but that’s not the structure I visited–Taipei 101 is beautiful skyscraper that can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. Instead of paying a small fortune to ride an elevator near the top of that huge building, I opted for hiking up Elephant Hill for a better view of the city that included Taipei 101. Really, what other buildings in the city would you want to see? What other buildings are there to see from above?chiang-kai-shek-memorial1

That’s when I found the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial. It is flanked by the National Concert Hall and National Theater, which are indistinguishable but beautiful. I don’t imagine it’s such a sight to see from far above in Taipei 101, but all three are wonderful structures to behold and walk around for half a day–and it helped me to escape a bit of light rain. It is also more colorful to see at night with the lights, especially when the little pandas are on display for added cuteness.chiang-kai-shek-memorial-pa

The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall is a monument for the former president and military leader of the Republic of China who was driven out of mainland China along with the rest of the Kuomintang by Mao Zedong’s communist army. Chiang died in 1975, ending martial law in Taiwan. Direct presidential elections in Taiwan were not held until 1996. chiang-guards

While history surrounding Chiang’s rule in mainland China and Taiwan is controversial to say the least, he is still revered as a great leader on the island. He does not secure the same reverence, however, as his predecessor Sun Yat-sen.changing-of-guard

Arriving at the memorial hall at the top of the hour, visitors are treated to the changing of the guard–every hour of the day (seems a bit excessive). A carefully choreographed ceremony that involves twirling and tossing firearms and plenty of stomping of boots. As a taller tourist, it’s easier to stand in the back and hold a camera above everyone else’s heads to record the ceremony.chiang-kai-shek-car

Inside the museum beneath the huge statue of a seated, benevolent Chiang Kai-shek visitors can learn a bit of history of the former leader’s military successes and relationship with Sun Yat-sen. You can even have your picture taken next to Chiang’s Cadillac. There’s also plenty of whitewashed Taiwanese political history that’s probably intended for the mainland Chinese tour groups.

Painful Bike Ride to Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion

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

The ticket to Kinkaku-ji

The ticket to Kinkaku-ji

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

First glimpse of the golden pavilion

First glimpse of the golden pavilion

My first stop of the day was Kinkaku-ji, the temple that is home to the golden pavilion. It may have been my return to Japan, and I hadn’t been to any temples in a long time considering the month of churches I encountered in Italy, but I was already suffering from temple fatigue. Call it leftovers from my previous months spent traversing East Asia and visiting temples almost every weekend. At least Kinkaku-ji had one interesting aspect to make my bike ride and pain in my ass worthwhile.golden-pavilion3

Most of Kinkaku-ji is a beautiful Zen garden, but everyone visits to behold the golden pavilion–it’s a beautiful sight from any angle despite the crowd that descends on the temple.  The golden pavilion was the oldest building surviving from the original temple, which dates back to 1397, but the pavilion was destroyed in arson committed by a novice monk in 1950.golden-pavilion2

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

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

An English fortune for about a dollar. Why not?

An English fortune for about a dollar. Why not?

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

Typhoons of Travel

“The sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch,
But that the sea, mounting to the welkin’s cheek,
Dashes the fire out.”
-Miranda, from The Tempest, Act I scene ii

I’ve just survived another typhoon, this time in Tokyo. Phanfone passed over Japan last night and into this morning–it was a strong storm and the rain pounded outside my small apartment. Fortunately, I don’t live in a flood-prone area; the nearby stream has high banks. I saw it change from a mere trickle to a fast-moving river yesterday as I headed to the grocery store in the downpour.

Calm before the storm in Shinjuku

Calm before the storm in Shinjuku

The drainage in Tokyo is much better than in other places in which I’ve lived through typhoons and hurricanes. The last I experienced was Hurricane Sandy in Jersey City–that more-powerful-than-expected storm that caused chaos in the New York City area. The low-lying areas of the city have poor drainage, which makes flooding worse, and there’s been little done to improve the situation since that hurricane. When I lived in Shenzhen, we had a few typhoons that flooded the streets, sometimes making roads impassable despite bus drivers’ best efforts to turn the buses into boats.

Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

I’ve attempted to avoid visiting certain countries during monsoon and typhoon seasons; unlike Japan, some places I desire to visit are not well equipped to handle natural disasters, even the less catastrophic kinds. As much as I’d enjoy visiting some of the more remote islands of the Philippines, I’d prefer to go there after November when there is less threat of a typhoon–the same goes for much of Southeast Asia.

Even when natural disasters aren’t life threatening, it’s not much fun to be caught in the middle of them while traveling. There is still a need to be prepared in case of emergencies. It also helps to have alternative activities for those times when you can’t head out because of the weather. Typhoon Phanfone gave me an opportunity to watch Netflix and write. Speaking of writing, I have finished what I hope to be the first of many Booze, Food, Travel e-guidebooks, which is now available on Amazon.

Have you been caught in a natural disaster while traveling? How do you prepare in case of such emergencies?

Beer in the Park

“While we were sober, three shared the fun;
Now we are drunk, each goes his way.
May we long share our odd, inanimate feast,
And meet at last on the Cloudy River of the sky.”
-Li Bai, Drinking Alone by Moonlight

This week marks the 61st anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. The National Day holiday is the second-longest holiday of the year after Spring Festival. When I moved to China in 2005, I arrived three weeks after the holiday. It wasn’t until the following year that I took a short break from Shenzhen for the national holiday. After seeing all the main sights the previous year, I decided to not go too far and ended up on a bus to Zhaoqing in Guangdong Province–it was almost another hour past Guangzhou.PBRpark

One of the more unusual sights to behold in Zhaoqing was the park in the center of the city around Star Lake. There was a dried up fountain that had an oversized can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, the same beer that is so popular with hipsters and was recently purchased by a Russian company. When I returned to Shenzhen, I discovered the reason for that giant PBR can; the beer is brewed in Zhaoqing for the Chinese market, which is a large market for the company.

After I departed China, PBR came out with a limited-edition brew for the Chinese market–a $44 dollar bottle of oak aged pissy beer. No matter what they did to “improve” upon the traditional PBR, I was certain that it would still cause a hangover before the bottle was empty.

Drinking in Korea

Koreans like to drink. They drink a lot. And the prevalence of bars and alcoholic beverage vendors reinforces the fact that Korea is the largest per capita consumer of alcohol in Asia. According to a recent Bussiness Insider article, Koreans consume twice as much alcohol as Russians, but that was only in reference to liquor. From what I saw, Koreans prefer beer (or maybe it was a summer thing considering I was there in June and July).

I figured Korea would be similar to Taiwan in beer quality. I at least enjoyed a couple beers in Taiwan, but there was very little variety. I wasn’t about to go near the liquor because I remember some painful mornings after drinking baijiu in China.  Anyway, Korea was a pleasant surprise in the alcoholic beverage department.

There are more than enough bars throughout Seoul to keep anyone busy. Some are rundown and dingy, while others are new and trendy. There are even some unusual bars with an eclectic collection of memorabilia. And sometimes if you go alone to a bar they’ll seat you with a companion who doesn’t talk much.

Worst bar conversation ever

Worst bar conversation ever

Usually, people think of soju when talking about Korean alcohol–it’s certainly the most widely sold alcohol in the country and it’s cheapest option for drinking in most places. Soju can be a bit harsh–there’s a bit of variety to this spirit distilled from rice, wheat, or barley, which can range from 20-35% ABV. Some of the lower-alcohol soju is more pleasant; it doesn’t have as much of a bite to it. Generally, soju should be drunk with friends, which makes it difficult to drink when traveling alone.

The second option for drinking, which also isn’t expensive in most cases, is the cloudy rice wine called makgeolli. This is more of an acquired taste; I wasn’t sure what to think of it the first time I tried it with my coworker and her friend. Most makgeolli is sweet, though the sweetness can vary considerably, and it has a natural carbonation. The beverage is traditionally drunk from small bowls rather than glasses, which I found rather fun.

Lotus makgeolli

Lotus makgeolli

While walking around Daehagno I came across a friendly bar/restaurant called Do You Know Makgeolli? Of course, I had to try it. This little establishment on a quiet street has a fridge full of makgeolli–there were at least 40 varieties. My server tried to help me choose a bottle in our broken communication, and suggested a lotus-flavored makgeolli. It was light and not too sweet–a refreshing beverage for the humid evening. He came back later and offered me a taste of a chestnut makgeolli that was a little too sweet for my liking.

While just about every establishment in Seoul serves beer, soju, and makgeolli, there are also small sidewalk stands that serve cocktails, sometimes in ziplock bags with straws sticking out. I had to try it once. They had no whiskey or rum, and the drinks weren’t strong but tasted much too sweet for my palate–I drank half and threw the rest out.

Sidewalk cocktails

Sidewalk cocktails

Then there was the beer. A few years ago, The Economist proclaimed that beer in South Korea was boring. The major beers like Cass and Hite are boring, but I’d still choose them over Budweiser and Miller. I drank my share of the cheap Korean macrobrews–it was the thing to drink at most local bars. The major brewers have come out with some more appealing options in the last year as well. Hite-Jinro has its Black Beer Stout, which is actually a black lager that tastes pretty good as the only dark beer that’s widely available. The brewery also makes Queen’s ale in blonde and extra bitter varieties–the blonde has much better flavor than the bitter (it was the beer of choice for my day at the ballgame). Oriental Brewery also has it’s Aleston brown and black ales, which are alright but nothing I’d go out of my way to drink again.

Sunset over Noksapyeong, Seoul

Sunset over Noksapyeong, Seoul

After a couple weeks in Seoul, I discovered the brewpubs in the city that have opened in recent years. Most are located in Noksapyeong, a trendy neighborhood of bars and restaurants just a short walk from the foreigner-haven of Itaewon.

I was first introduced to CraftWorks Taphouse, which has some pretty good hot wings for half price on the night I sampled their beers that are named after local mountains. The IPA was decent, but nothing special, while the dark ale was lighter on alcohol but had a pleasant malty flavor. My friends who introduced me to the brewery ordered the porter, which was bland and definitely not worth ordering.

Weizenhaus Stout at Room H

Weizenhaus Stout at Room H

Just down the street from CraftWorks is Room H, which serves Weizenhaus beer. This is an American brewery that also brews in Korea. Their stout was rich and flavorful with hints of coffee. The industrial interior and open storefront made this brewpub more appealing.

Around the corner from the other brewpubs is Magpie, the original Seoul brewpub. They have a small room on street level that’s only open until 10 pm, when they tell patrons to head to the basement bar to avoid annoying the neighbors with excessive noise. The basement bar can get crowded, but it’s a cool place to hang out if you get a seat. The most impressive beer I tried at Magpie was the lavender ale, which was light for the summer heat and humidity. I was skeptical, but the lavender didn’t overpower the light hops and added a relaxing aroma to a beer to enjoy while hanging around a dim alley in the middle of a metropolis.

Platinum Oatmeal Stout

Platinum Oatmeal Stout

Over in Itaewan, I found my favorite basement bar in the city: Four Seasons Craft Beer Bar. I introduced three local friends to this rather quiet bar that devoid of the annoying expat crowd–it attracts locals and well-behaved expats in the area. The beer menu changes and has a nice balance of Korean and international microbrews. I stuck with the Korean beers like Seoulless Ginger and Noul Red Rye, the latter of which had some sharp hops.

Noul Red Rye at Four Seasons

Noul Red Rye at Four Seasons

The last brewpub I sampled was Platinum Brewery. I stumbled upon this one while wandering the crowded streets of Hongdae on a Friday night (a huge mistake with all the university students roaming around after a week of classes). Although I only tried the oatmeal stout and strong pale ale, I found Platinum to be the most consistent brewery–both beers were smooth with enough flavor to keep me interested as I drank. Despite the bar being empty, I was inspired to order my second beer.

Platinum Strong Pale Ale

Platinum Strong Pale Ale

Have you tried Korean microbrews or makgeolli? What did you think? Do you have a favorite?

Protests and Police

“And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go”
-Bob Dylan, Desolation Row

On this Monday morning I’m still catching up on the chaos in Hong Kong. The Occupy Central and pro-democracy movements came together on September 28, marching through the business districts in Central. The peaceful protest even attempted to leave at least one lane of traffic open but couldn’t contain so many people who joined the march. Police took action later in the day, demanding that the protesters disperse or risk being fired upon. Then the tear gas was fired, and the police response was harsh. Foreign Policy has a more in depth explanation of what’s going on in Hong Kong.

As I browsed Twitter last night to read the accounts of the police response and view some of the photos, I remembered how many protests I witnessed during my time in Asia. While I was in Cambodia there were worker strikes and political protests in Phnom Penh, but all I saw of it was police in riot gear guarding main streets while I rode in my tuk-tuk on the way to the airport. That particular day was filled with violence in the streets of the capital. The majority of the protests in Cambodia were for an increase in the minimum wage for factory workers–many make less than $100 per month, and fashion retailers recently agreed to raise the minimum pay to about $100 per month.

Guess I won't have that relaxing walk through the park today

Police barricades in Peace Park, Taipei, Taiwan

When I reached Taiwan, the student movement had occupied and effectively shut down the government. I visited the protest site at the Executive Yuan only a couple days before the police “evicted” the students with water canons and batons. A couple weeks later I stumbled on a peaceful march near Peace Park, which was surrounded by temporary barbed-wire barricades. I again found myself in the middle of a protest while walking around at night not far from my apartment–a smaller march converged at a major intersection just a short walk from the government buildings and blocked traffic for about 20 minutes.

Protesters and TV news at the Executive Yuan in Taipei

The protests were quite organized and not too difficult to navigate through the crowds

I arrived in Korea a short time after the Suwol ferry accident, and encountered many small anti-government protests in relation to the accident. The government was blamed for a lack of oversight and enforcement of safety regulations. The ferry accident led to the prime minister’s resignation.

The protest in Seoul was small and surrounded by police

The protest in Seoul was small and surrounded by police

The protests were small and confined to parks, but there was always a large police presence. I lost count of the number of police buses parked along the roads–there were easily a hundred. These protests had a few dozen people, but there were hundreds of police to ensure that the protests didn’t get out of hand.

This seems necessary for a small protest

This seems necessary for a small protest

I have witnessed the protests and even some of the police responses to those protests, but I have no participated in the actions. As I am not a citizen or even long-term resident of any of these places, it was not my place to stand in solidarity with the protesters even though, for the most part, I supported their causes.

Have you ever encountered protests or political unrest while traveling? How did you handle the situation?

Touring a Vietnamese Prison

From a half-mile away
trees huddle together,
& the prisoners look like
marionettes hooked to strings of light
-Yusef Komunyakaa, from Prisoners

Tours around parts of Southeast Asia usually include lessons in modern history–the brutality of colonialism and war, and the struggles for independence. Nowhere else is the brutality so prevalent or recent than Cambodia, but Vietnam has its own horrors showcased for the world’s tourists to view.

The entrance to the Hanoi Hilton

The entrance to the Hanoi Hilton

There are more than a few museums dedicated to the Vietnam War that display the inhumanity of the weapons used on the citizens; the War Remnants Museum in Saigon has a floor dedicated to Agent Orange and its long-lasting effects on the environment and people. Of course, visitors have to be aware that certain details about the war are left out in an effort to properly retell the official Vietnamese government narrative of the illegal activities of the evil colonialists destroying the poor nation’s desire for peaceful unification.

On the day before my week-long trip to Cambodia, I headed to Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi–it was a short walk from my hotel in the Old Quarter, but took a while to get to because of the traffic that sometimes blocks all attempts to navigate the narrow streets and unusable sidewalks. The exterior of Hoa Lo isn’t what one would expect of prison that housed the horrors of colonialism and war–it’s a large wall along the street that happens to have an entrance with a small ticket booth and sign indicating that it is some sort of tourist attraction. Had I not intended to visit this site, I probably would’ve walked right by it.

Memorial to the revolutionaries who fought against the French colonialists

Memorial to the revolutionaries who fought against the French colonialists

Most of the museum that was the prison focuses on the French colonial period. There are stories of those who were imprisoned for organizing their fellow countrymen to fight for independence, including some who were imprisoned multiple times after escaping through sewers. Their stories are meant to inspire visitors with their dedication to the cause for an independent and unified Vietnam.hoa-lo-art

There are also depictions and replicas of the torture methods employed by the French.hoa-lo-cells

And the dingy cells that were packed with emaciated prisoners.

Toward the end of the self-guided tour through Hoa Lo Prison, visitors are introduced to the Vietnam War era, when the prison was used to house POWs. Everything in this part of the museum focuses on the treatment of the American POWs by the Viet Cong–how everyone who passed through the doors was treated according the Geneva Conventions. There are even photos of American soldiers playing volleyball and decorating a small Christmas tree. If the photos tell the narrative of the POWs during the Vietnam War, then it isn’t ironic that it was dubbed the Hanoi Hilton.mccain-suit

They even have Sen. John McCain’s flight suit that was recovered when he was pulled out of Truc Bach Lake in 1967. McCain was held in Hoa Lo for five years, during which time he says he was severely tortured. All evidence of torture by the North Vietnamese has been removed from local history.

It may be full of propaganda, particularly for the latter part of the prison’s history, but Hoa Lo is still a worthwhile stop on a journey through Hanoi.

Silent Temples

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

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

Stillness on the moat crossing into Angkor Thom

Stillness on the moat crossing into Angkor Thom

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

The guardians of Angkor Thom are allowing me to pass

The guardians of Angkor Thom are allowing me to pass

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

Looking past the stone guarding

Looking past the stone guarding

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

Canals without Gondolas

And Polo said: “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.”
-Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

 

Being in Venice felt a little strange to me. When I studied abroad in London, I was housed in an area known as Little Venice. Years later, I visited Zhouzhuang in China, which is sometimes known as the Venice of the East. This summer I finally made it to the original.

Watching the gondolas in the Grand Canal

Watching the gondolas in the Grand Canal

I have to admit that Venice is as beautiful as many people before me have said it is. As usual, however, I encountered more than a little scaffolding and reconstruction work. The canals were cleaner than I had heard years ago–I was told Italy has been cleaning up the canals, which certainly makes it more appealing for tourists.grand-canal

No matter how you view the canals of Venice, they’re beautiful. Alright, there are some that aren’t as pleasant to see–graffiti and ill-maintained homes abound in some areas. Still, it is a beautiful city in which the tourists outnumber the residents and the prices are astronomical for those of us on a budget.

Venetian parking lot

Venetian parking lot

I was warned against riding in the gondolas before arriving in Venice–even the Italians think their cheesy and expensive. I didn’t find them cheesy; they’re works of art in the form of a boat. They are ridiculously expensive though. From what I saw, a gondola ride costs 80 euros for a half hour, but you can have multiple people on that gondola. Of course, after the slow and sometimes crowded boat ride through the canals, the gondoliers will also ask for a tip. Even if I was traveling with someone (or three) to split the cost, I probably would’ve said no to the gondolas and just saved my money for a decent meal.

Looks like a traffic jam

Looks like a traffic jam

Have you been in the gondolas of Venice? Was it worth the price? Where else have you been that was ridiculously overpriced?

Seoul Food

This is long overdue. I ate a lot of food in Korea, but it was mostly at home because eating out in Seoul can get a little expensive. I did eat out every weekend so I could try the wonders that Korean cuisine offers.

Delicious Korean barbecue

Delicious Korean barbecue

One of my favorites was Korean barbecue. I went out twice with friends for this because it’s not a meal you can eat alone. Our orders included a nice helping of thick-cut bacon–I mean about four slices of bacon that weigh close to a pound. There’s a variety of marinated bacon you can order and I have no idea what we ordered either time because I only know a few words of Korean. Along with the bacon, we had mushrooms, kimchi, potato, shrimp, and tofu (which tastes better mixed with the grilled kimchi).

We added rice to the mix at one of the Korean barbecues

We added rice to the mix at one of the Korean barbecues

I found it a little unusual that the bacon was cut with scissors while cooking, as were some of the large pieces of kimchi. One of my friends asked if I’d ever seen scissors used during food service. I’m fairly certain I’ve only seen it used to cut masses of noodles stuck together in Vietnam. Whether or not you cut the bacon with scissors doesn’t change the wonderful taste you get to enjoy. And it goes great with beer, soju, or makgeolli.

Ginseng chicken soup

Ginseng chicken soup

One of my first meals with my former coworker was samgyetang (삼계탕), or ginseng chicken soup, in Itaewon before heading to the craft beer bar. The ginseng flavor is light and mixed with a bit of ginger and sweet rice. It took a while before the clay pot stopped boiling so I could taste the soup–might as well order a beer and wait for that bowl to cool off to avoid burning your mouth. There’s a whole small chicken in that bowl, so it’s quit filling before a nice night out with beer. It’s also considered a summer soup because of the ginseng, but I think it’d taste pretty good in the winter as well.

Dumpling and rice cake soup

Dumpling and rice cake soup

Speaking of soups, before visiting the Joseon Royal Tombs I stopped off for some dumpling and rice cake soup. Tteok manduguk (떡 만두국) is two separate soups in a meat (probably pork) broth mixed together. It’s another filling meal. As someone used to dumplings in China, Taiwan, and Japan, the Korean dumplings were a surprise–there were only three in the bowl, and they were huge. Korean dumplings are also the best I’ve ever had. I’m not sure what’s in them, but they have a lot more flavor than anything I’ve had in other Asian countries. I got desperate and bought some frozen dumplings to make in my tiny apartment and even they were awesome.

Fried flounder

Fried flounder

As I visited the local market often, I began to grow curious about the prepared food being sold. One night after work I decided to try the fried flounder, which came is a dipping sauce akin to light soy sauce. This was the same market at which I tried a whole fried chicken after my hike in Bukhansan National Park. It was the best food decision I could’ve made for about $6, but it created horrible temptation for the rest of my stay in Seoul.

Jokbal with a bowl of makgeolli

Jokbal at the market

Because I enjoyed drinking makgeolli, one of my friends suggested I try jokbal (족발), pig trotters cooked with soy sauces and some spices. I tried this at the local market, but it was the one meal I can say I didn’t enjoy at all. I was told that it should’ve come with some slices of meat from the legs, but all I got was bone, cartilage, fat, and skin. I was disappointed and just drank my bottle of makgeolli.

Won't you take me to Toppoki Town?

Won’t you take me to Toppoki Town?

Another meal I didn’t enjoy too much was toppoki (떡볶이), spicy soft rice cakes, which is really disappointing because I lived just down the street from Toppoki Street. The sauce is a little salty for my taste, but more importantly I didn’t enjoy the consistency of the gluttonous rice. I admit that the reason I don’t enjoy certain foods is more because of texture than flavor.

I had a lot more to eat besides that, but I don’t remember exactly what they were; sometimes I had no idea what I was even ordering at the restaurants. I have to admit that Korean food is some of my favorite in Asia.

What are your favorite Korean dishes? What would you like to try?

Eats and Drinks in Florence

I stayed in a hostel in Florence for a few reasons, the top being that I wanted to save money. I also wanted to meet people. Combining the two meant that I could find people in the hostel to go out for meals and drinks–and I’d still be able to afford those things because I wasn’t spending a fortune on accommodation.

Mercato Centrale

Mercato Centrale

Along the tourist trail in Florence, there isn’t much in the way of food that I would recommend. Most of the restaurants are overpriced and don’t look so appealing (this is a theme around Italy). However, there are a few exceptions.

I met a fellow American tourist at the hostel to go around with for a bit after a day of sightseeing. Our first stop was McDonald’s. Usually I have to be drunk to even consider going there, but in Italy they serve Peroni for one euro. We had to go have a beer at McDonald’s just so we could tell everyone that we had a McBeer.

Peroni and McDonald's

Peroni and McDonald’s

Our next stop was Mercato Centrale, which is a tourist and local destination not far from the train station–and it’s worth visiting (but I advise avoiding the souvenir hawkers outside). My hostel companion thought the market was just the souvenir crap outside; he didn’t realize there was a whole grocery market and hipster food court inside–the food court looked like something that came straight out of Brooklyn. It also gets rather lively and crowded in the evening. Had I stayed in Florence longer, I probably would’ve spent more time at the Mercato–there was also espresso in the downstairs market for less than one euro.

Second floor of Mercato Centrale

Second floor of Mercato Centrale

We started with pizza, which was sold by weight, because it looked good it. The anchovies were delicious. It was some of the best pizza I had in Italy. After that we had some cocktails–I introduced my new friend to the spritz, which is made with Aperol (sometimes Campari or Select), prosecco, and a little tonic. After our first drink, we wandering into the crowd for something larger to eat. I ended up with some fried seafood and vegetables–the seafood was good, but the vegetables were unseasoned and bland.Mercato-Centrale-Pizza

At Birrifico Mostodolce, down the street from the station, I found Italian microbrew. I decided to try the Black Doll stout. It was a decent beer, but like most in Italy it was nothing special. The bar at seemed like a nice place to hang out, but I was there too early to enjoy much (I intended on waking up early for sightseeing anyway). They had other beers, but nothing that appealed to me at the time. I opted for a cheap bottle of wine back at the hostel instead.black-doll-stout

Just before I left Florence, I went in search of lunch prior to hopping on the train for Perugia. I wasn’t overly hungry, so I searched for something light–I was actually hoping for a salad. I managed to find one on the way to the station with my luggage. It was better than any salad I had seen in Italy–it was a smoked duck salad with balsamic vinegar. The thin slices of smoked duck made the meal (I find most salads in Italy rather boring).

Smoked duck salad

Smoked duck salad

I’m sure if I had stayed longer in Florence, I would’ve found plenty more to eat and drink, but I only had two and a half days before I had to head back to my temporary home in Perugia.

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