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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?

Traveler Reads: The Body by Hanif Kureishi

“I’d been alive a long time but my life, like most lives, seemed to have happened too quickly, when I was not ready.”

I was introduced to the work of Hanif Kureishi when I studied in London–a course on colonial literature included his first novel, Buddha of Suburbia, which I found thoroughly entertaining. It’s been 15 years since I read it, so I don’t remember everything about it, but it was interesting enough for me to pick up another book by Kureishi when I came across it.

The Body is a novella accompanied by seven other short stories that delve into similar themes about the self and self-perception. The novella sets out with the premise that a successful writer named Adam with failing health is approached with an opportunity to extend his life indefinitely. Adam decides to take the opportunity as a short-term experiment–a holiday from his own self in a way.The Body by Hanif Kureishi

The attraction to the experience of another life within the life he lives is similar to what we do as travelers. Many solo travelers will admit that they’re different when traveling–many are more introverted when at home. This is the experience Adam has as he travels outside London in his new self. He learns about himself and others, the things he missed out on in younger years and the pop culture he no longer understands. He finds that he has to relearn life while retaining the knowledge and experience of his age.

The other stories also focus on the idea of the self and how we see ourselves and others. “Face to Face with You” in particular shows the insecurity we feel when we encounter something or someone too similar to ourselves. It’s how we react when face the small details that we can’t recognize until they’re point out. A couple that lives a fairly routine life finds that their new neighbors are almost exactly the same as they are–names included. It’s an attempt to ignore or avoid the parts about ourselves that make us uncomfortable or question our abilities.

Through all of the stories, Kureishi maintains a wit to keep the philosophical undertones humorous–it’s existentialism mixed with overt comedy through descriptions and metaphors. As his narrator in The Body says, “consciousness was the thing I liked most about life. But who doesn’t need a rest from it now and again?”

The Body and other stories are a quick read while traveling–the perfect book to read on a long flight.

Recalling Winter

“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.”
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

While friends and family have endured the winter storm that wasn’t in the New York/New Jersey area, I’m reminded that I haven’t experienced winter since the beginning of 2013 (unless you count the couple days I recently spent in Seoul, which welcomed me with some flurries). winter-highline

The last winter I had in New Jersey was pretty bad, but not as awful as the previous one. That was the year of the brutal storm and freezing temperatures that prevented anything from melting while residents pretty much refused to even shovel out their cars to make street-clearing easier. It didn’t help that I had to walk to work at the community college every day on icy sidewalks that weren’t cleared.Jersey-City-Winter-storm

What was the point of this post again? Oh yeah, I hate winter and I’m glad I’m living in a subtropical region that requires a jacket on occasion. Alright, I’ll admit it, I miss watching the snow. I just don’t like walking to work in it.

I actually enjoyed some of winter on my trip to Iceland–but that was more because of the landscape. I certainly didn’t enjoy the icy rain that Iceland enjoys more than snow in the winter. It was even worse to arrive home to even colder temperatures. Good thing I made a point of buying insulated winter boots for that trip so I could wear them upon my return to frigid New Jersey.iceland-winter-landscape

I’m not gloating about the current weather in Taipei–it rains too much for my liking and I know I’ll be miserable when the heat and humidity turn me into a lethargic puddle on the streets in the summer. Still, I don’t mind missing winter.

Do you ever feel like you miss the weather at home while traveling?

Travel Necessity: Making Coffee on the Road

and the cool air off the hills
made me think of coffee,
so I said, “Coffee would be nice,”
-Kwame Dawes, Coffee Break

One of the greatest expenses on the road can be coffee, especially for addicts like me. When I worked overnight in New Jersey, I would regularly make a full 10-cup pot of coffee. Plus, I’d drink tea later in my shift. (Note to coffee companies: You can sponsor my travels.)

In some destinations coffee can be expensive. In touristy parts of Italy, a cup of coffee will set you back at least EUR 3. I got spoiled going to my local used bookstore for good coffee for $1.75, with free refills, which usually convinced me to buy yet another book to read (one addiction feeds the other).venice-coffee

Before I set out on this journey I worried about my ability to find coffee at the grocery stores–I remember how difficult it was to find non-instant coffee when I first moved to China in 2005; I practically wept when Carrefour and Jusco moved in near my apartment in 2008  with a consistent supply of coffee and cheese. I was so desperate back then that I would travel an hour and half on a bus to the foreign import store and buy a tub of Folgers for more than $10 when I knew it was much less expensive back home.melita-coffeemaker

Fortunately, my parents’ friend had a Melita cup-top hand drip coffeemaker. It was the best going-away present I could receive (well, other than money for future plane tickets). Because I didn’t want to have to always go out to find new filters as I traveled, I set out in search of a reusable coffee filter–the stores didn’t have the specific one for this Melita product, but I managed to find one that fit.

More than a year later I’m still making my morning coffee with this. Fortunately, there’s a Carrefour near me in Taipei and I can buy 1/2 lb. of ground coffee for NT$99 (about $3). It’s not great coffee, but it’s good enough. If I buy really cheap coffee, like I usually did in New Jersey, I just add some cinnamon to the grounds as I brew my cup–it tastes better and the cinnamon helps the body regulate blood sugar.carrefour-coffee

Of course, I still enjoy going out to coffee shops. I went to a few in Seoul–they weren’t difficult to find as the Korean capital has more Starbucks than any other city in the world (plus a few dozen other coffee chains). During my second trip to Japan, I spent a lot of time at Starbucks working on my China Survival Guide and other writing and ramblings–I usually avoid Starbucks, but there wasn’t anything else near me. I was forced into a few coffee shops in Hanoi when the power went out at my hotel while I was working. Plus, I had to try the egg coffee–it was good, but a little too sweet for my taste.egg-coffee-hanoi

In Taipei, I sometimes go out to Cama Coffee, a chain that serves great coffee in very small shop spaces. They also have whiskey hot chocolate–you can’t taste the whiskey, but the hot chocolate is really good. There are plenty of other options around the city at varying prices (most don’t have seating though).

How do you feed your coffee addiction while traveling? 

Staring at the Lion’s Feet in Shanghai

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

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

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

Witnessing Changes in Shanghai

“Even if we could turn back, we’d probably never end up where we started.”
Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

I first visited Shanghai during Spring Festival in 2006–I had turned 26 a few months before and I had only arrived in China at the end of October. I was mesmerized. This was a destination I had to see.

Check out that clear sky behind me in 2006

Check out that clear sky behind me in 2006

I was confused by Mandarin–I knew a few words and phrases then, but I couldn’t hold a conversation or read a menu (I was still in my point-and-pray phase of ordering at restaurants).

I returned nine years later on a 72-hour transit visa for an interview. I had a little time for sightseeing, but there wasn’t much I wanted to see this time around, mostly because I was exhausted. I wasn’t quite prepared to return to mainland China–I wasn’t sure I’d ever see the country again.bund-2006

What I saw during my overcast daytime walk brought back memories–something that feels a lifetime past. It was almost shocking to see the changes across the Huangpu River in Pudong–the city had changed; I had changed. I was overwhelmed on my short walk along the Bund–I tried to recall what it was like nine years prior with my different self. I gazed across the river at the now-crowded skyline with even taller skyscrapers.Pudong-Shanghai

I am not the same 26-year-old who experienced Shanghai for the first time with a travel companion I had only met a few months earlier. And Shanghai is not the same city–it has matured in some ways, and I swear there’s more construction than there was in 2006.bund-shanghai-2015

I was able to meet up with my friend Expat Edna (last time I saw her was at a meetup with former China expats in New York in 2009). This is her second stint in Shanghai, and I took the opportunity to ask about life in the city. She told me there are more expats and many more services to make life easier (there’s even non-Chinese beer to avoid the boredom of turning Tsingtao into Skittlebrau (yes, I have done this)). It’s not the Shanghai either of us remembers.

I don’t expect things to stay the same as I travel–particularly not in China–but it’s still a shock to the system to witness the changes.

Have you ever revisited a place only to be surprised by how much it had changed?

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