On Friday, June 8th, we embarked on our third journey together to another “A” place: no, not wild Africa, nor adventurous Australia, but to exotic Asia. After a bunch of umpteen hour flights, we finally arrived in Beijing on Saturday evening, June 9th. We were met by our young student guide, Zoey, who spoke great English, despite Mandarin Chinese being her first language.
Although we were zonked, we still had many questions. (Especially me) Beijing is the capital of China (Some still call it “Peking”-but same difference) It lies in the northeast corner of the country and is the host of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. The city is most proud of that fact and you can see signs for the event, everywhere. Of course, this event also means that urban sprawl has taken over and construction is everywhere. Beijing also has a horrific smog problem, due to that urban sprawl and the fact that China is not a very eco-friendly place. The people of the city are divided in feeling, between the revenue the games will bring and the forever loss of many traditional hutongs and neighborhoods. (More on that later)
So we rested and were up early the next morning to head to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. We drove about an hour outside of Beijing and arrived at a boulevard with hagglers and street vendors on both sides, selling shirts that said “I Climbed the Great Wall” along with dried fruits and silk robes, fans and junk of all sorts. Wowsa, talk about cheap stuff- it was souvenir paradise! We then took a tram car that shimmied us up a mountain and when we got to the top, we actually walked to an opening of the Wall and began our walks from East to West. Not very steep; just as long as you can imagine. The Wall was built by various Chinese dynasties to keep out Mongol invaders. It is over 4,000 miles long and we still never got an exact answer to if it can truly be seen from space..lol We walked around and drank bottled waters like camels in a parched desert. The heat was intense and the crowds were pretty light. (Summer is low season for travel in Asia)
After the Wall, we got back into our AC bus and were driven to a local restaurant, where we were given plates with heaps of genuine Chinese food. (Not what we see on our menus at home) All of the dishes were proudly served by young girls placing the items on a giant Lazy Susan. Food is eaten family style in many Asian countries. We sampled fish fried in its entirety (Mario ate the head) and some funky dessert made of rice, fried dough and colored sprinkles. Contrary to belief, the food in China (and all over the continent) was excellent and we never had one upset tummy along the way. Although we were smart enough not to eat any bugs or street food being sold everywhere we went.
After lunch, we drove to the Temple of Heaven; a Temple where various Chinese Emperors would pray and perform rituals and we ended on a high note by actually traveling to a “hutong”; or one of the last remaining traditional neighborhoods of China. Surrounded by canals and tiny winding streets, homes were lined up tightly on either side of the roads, with rickshaws or pedicabs carting us about. We saw birds in cages (songbirds are a prized possession of Chinese men and the men actually take their birds out for “walks”, daily) and children playing and women with craggily lines in their faces selling various items in the alleyways. The canals were lined with boats and cafes along sides. Really a highlight!
That evening, Ruth, Mario and I went on the advice of my Frommer’s travel guide and ate dinner at a local take out place: “Oscar’s” and ha, you can imagine the dead silence as the three of us walked into this local joint with young Asian people eating about and where the menu had nothing in English. We pointed to some pictures on the menu of what looked “good” and our patient waitress brought out the most delicious, tender, honey-ginger sweet chicken we ever had! Grr, I don‘t think I will ever find that exact taste in the US!
The next morning was the Forbidden City and Tian An Men Square. The plaza is the world’s largest public square and was the site of the horrific shooting in 1989 of students protesting political events in China. As “modern” as China is, or at least Beijing, talking about politics there is still a hushed topic. You could even sense this in our college-aged, liberal guide Zoey. Mao Zedong is still revered in China and posters of him are everywhere; as much as Tom Cruise and Paris Hilton are in the US. He is called “The Chairman” and the Chinese talk about him with hushed tones and reverence in their voices.
That afternoon, we got on our flight to Macau; a small island off the coast of Hong Kong colonized by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Macau was the first European settlement in the Far East. Gaining in popularity for its gambling, Macau is soon to become the world’s biggest gambling venue. It is the only place in China where gambling is legal. Shrouded in fog when we arrived, the humidity was intense. We got to our hotel in the midst of the “city”. (The whole island is only 28 square miles) and began to explore. While we did see signs of “Vegas”; like the Wynn Hotel and the Mandarin Oriental; the island, we thought, was just a dump. Dirty, muggy and cheesy. And I don’t mean the good “Vegas cheesy”, either; just outdated glitz with dilapidated hotels. We made the best of it, showered (a waste of time) and went out and about. An unusual highlight was seeing a “restaurant” selling various live fish, turtles, crabs and lobsters where patrons pick out what they want to eat and the cook prepares their dish right before them. As much of an animal lover as I am, Asia is NOT to be known for their compassion of anything alive, sadly. L We ate dinner at a local place we heard good things about and sampled “African chicken”; a dish influenced by Africa and the Portuguese. A spicy mix of ginger, garlic, onions and having an almost peanutty-coconut flavor, this poultry over rice is something I would love to have here at home!
The next morning we walked to the symbol of Macau; St. Paul’s Church; a Christian church built in 1602. Since a fire in 1835 burnt down the church; all that remains is the magnificent stone facade. Drenched in sweat, we walked up the stairs to the site, watched people pass, saw birds being walked by aged men and took photos of a bride and groom. The area strongly smelled of incense burning. (A common scent in Asia) We hurried back for our ferry ride into Hong Kong.
The ferry ride was about an hour. Our guide, Yvonne met us immediately and we transferred to the Hong Kong Peninsula- ooooh wee! Lovely hotel. We were situated right in Kowloon with a view of Victoria’s Peak. Hong Kong is separated by Victoria Harbor and both sides (Hong Kong Island and Victoria) are lovely. I have never been to a city that reminded me so much of New York. Just, well….cleaner, but definitely not as diverse. Of all of our stops, this city had a buzz going on.. more so than Bangkok or Tokyo. The light drizzle did not stop us from Yvonne taking us on a whirlwind tour of some very interesting sites. We first went to Won Tai Sin; a popular temple combining three traditional Chinese religions; Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. While the temple itself was a striking gold and red filled with gold leaf and lanterns hanging, more interesting were the events surrounding the temple. People were displaying various fruits on the tables near the temple; lighting incense sticks and then, shaking a container of bamboo sticks until one would fall out of the container. A number on the stick corresponds to a fortune, which is interpreted by one of the temples’ soothsayers. Again, the smell of incense permeated all the grounds. We then walked through the flower market and enjoyed the various scents and views enveloping us, to the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden, which was a Mecca of birds of all sorts! Basically, a pet shop and outing area for those who have interest and birds as pets (and there are many in China) People come here to buy items for their birds; everything from crickets, gold cages and mealy worms. The songs of birds I had never seen nor heard before, surrounded us. We had dinner at the rooftop restaurant in the Peninsula and the views were awesome. After dinner, we trudged around in the light rain to the Temple Street Market; a bustling area perfect for buying junk. “Fortune Cat” was my particular favorite; you may have seen “him”: a white ceramic cat with a waving arm inviting customers in to Chinese businesses, bringing good luck. Lotsa mah-johng novelties, too. Afterwards, Mario and I were in the mood for an ice cream and wound up spending 15 bucks for 2 cones at the local Haagen Dazs-ouch.
The next morning was taking the tram up to Victoria Peak. It’s Hong Kong Islands’ tallest hill but rarely clear. Although the Peak was cloaked in mist, the temperature was incredibly warm. It began to downpour and we ran through the showers and tried to get as many photo ops as possible. One particular shot was a man in a rickshaw situated at the top of the Peak; not for giving rides, but he had figured out he made more cash by allowing tourists to sit in his rickshaw for a fee, rather than sweating it up by running them around in his vehicle! Ha, nothing like Capitalism in a Communist country!
We then took our bus along the coast of Hong Kong; stopping at Aberdeen fishing village, where sadly, the livelihood of communities living entirely on boats is down 90% since yesteryear. Lastly, we stopped at Stanley Market, strolling around to pick up some souvenirs.
We were then onto our next stop: Malaysia. Malaysia encompasses a few countries: Borneo, Brunei, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur (or as I was calling it, “Koala Lumpy”) We flew into Kota Kinabalu; on the Northeastern tip of Malaysia. We just used this spot as a gateway to fly into Sandakan. Note that Malaysia is a Muslim country, with certain seemingly minor offenses to the law, punishable by death!
In Sandakan, we went to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Facility. We watched about 10 primates from platforms have a breakfast of bananas and milk. The animals are usually orphans that are rehabilitated and after years, can be sent back into the wild, as Borneo is one of the last places on earth where orangutans live in the wild. But the cool part is the animals can come back anytime to the feeding platforms for food and comfort, even after being “set free”. After Africa a few summers ago, however, we were disappointed, as this center had a “zoo-like” feel to it and did not seem very wild; not to mention there were over one hundred other viewers that day trying to catch glimpses of the animals. After lunch at a local hotel, we then took a 3 hour boat ride into Sukau on the Kinabatangan River in Northeastern Borneo. On our boat was our guide, Wan and some other tourists from Holland. We found that Malaysia is a very popular spot for folks from the Netherlands and the UK. We were one of the few Americans on this entire trip, which was fun and a little intimidating all at once.
Journeying on the Kinabatangan River, we spotted huts on water and birds along with mangrove after mangrove. We did see man encroaching onto these areas, since palm oil production allows for clear cutting and deforestation. It is a catch-22 situation; the people of Borneo need revenue and clear cutting the trees and making room for palm plantations is one way to get it. But many areas are protected and it still seemed so wild and vast. I know I have said this before, but this truly was the most remote place I have ever visited. We stopped about two hours into the boat ride (on a clear, blazingly sunny day!) at a little village. We spotted gardens and chickens and children running about who seemed just as curious about us as we were to them. It was awesome to see signs of the World Wildlife Fund coming there and helping out the community by making them realize the importance of conservation. The children were so amazing; open smiles and literally, living in almost squalor and not caring anything about Facebook and ipods; but just being thrilled to have one ball or a stick of gum. We spotted a young boy, about 6 or 7, paddling a canoe all alone, and he was showing off for us! It made me realize how truly privileged Western children are and how some of our 6 year olds cannot even go to the bathroom by themselves, let alone ride a canoe alone.
We arrived at the Sukau Rainforest Lodge which was a “green hotel”; meaning that the facility was run in an eco-friendly way. But wow, it was almost like being in camp. The rooms were so primitive and the towel (yes, one) stunk. And holy bugs, Batman! I mean, I know this was Borneo, but ouch. We all got especially jealous when we spotted a nearby lodge with AC (we had none) and one television set (we had none) We all laughed at just how bad our living arrangements for the next few days, were. But what could we do? The people were supremely friendly and the area was teeming with wildlife. One particular character was “Winston”, the resident naturalist. He must have been at least 70 and weighed only about 110 pounds and wore Coke bottle eyeglasses. We never saw him without a Tiger beer; even at 9 am! We went on the first of many river cruises and spotted everything from bats, millipedes, centipedes (which pack some sting) monitor lizards, tons of jeweled birds, wild orangutans, pygmy squirrels (and one little black squirrel- kind of the hotel mascot, who ate out of my hands!) macaque monkeys, proboscis monkeys and yellow and black cat snakes. We were taking our malaria pills, and thankfully, the mosquitoes were not too out of control, as we had been warned. We went on one night cruise, where we sailed out into black open water. I honestly think this was the creepiest thing we had done since crocodiles were rampant on the river as well as Asian elephants and Sumatran rhinos and we were sailing straight up onto the embankments with only one itty bitty flashlight. Our canoe held about 8 people and easily was only one foot above the surface of the water. Our breath was taken away when our guides spotted Buffy fish owls and the glint of the flashlight reflected off their eyes and we saw them from feet away, as well as kingfisher birds who were “asleep” and we could touch them they were so close. We did spot a few crocs, but the biggest was only 3 feet or so. Disappointing and relieving all at once. The most magnificent part though was seeing how many stars there were in the sky. No pollution here folks, and the sky looked like a sparkly velvet blanket with just the glow of the moon. On one of our nature hikes, we walked into the steamy jungle and stood side by side with elephant footprints next to ours, but grr, no elephants! The heat was intense and our guide, Wan showed us how leeches sense body temperature and latch onto humans as they pass by vegetation. It was awesome to see the little buggers “dancing around” as we walked past them. We had special “leech socks” on to avoid this, but we still wound up with little suckers here and there. Skinny and about an inch or two long; but totally harmless. Mario had two near his groin; no comment.
Honestly, we were thrilled to get out of Borneo and back into the diva 5 star hotels with some AC! We flew into Bangkok and were met by our guide, Kenny, who escorted us to the Bangkok Peninsula where we got rooms on the 20th floor, with awesome views of the city. We also were welcomed with garlands of jasmine flowers that smelled incredible! Tired and knowing we had to get up early, Mario, Marco and I still ventured out into the famed “Red- Light” district. (Hey, we wanted our “One Night in Bangkok” as the song says….) We walked around the district and were stopped by sellers of everything from pirated DVD’s and CD’s to cheapo T-shirts. The US dollar goes a pretty long way in Thailand! Lotsa food vendors also; but the grossest one we saw was one man hawking teriyaki crickets, beetles and grubs for human consumption. I honestly would have tried a cricket but our guide Kenny told us that they put the “old ones they have not sold for 3 days at the top of the pile” and I didn’t want to ruin a good thing of me not getting sick thus far, so I passed. We saw rats everywhere and even one running over a woman’s foot, as she sat down at an outdoor café. The recent drizzle had made the streets filthy and stuffy. We peeked into the infamous bars where the girls were scantily clad and dancing around to pretty darned good karaoke singers. Men outside would thrust a card into your hands, advertising what unusual things the girls could do with their bodies. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to feel sad for them. Along with mopeds and taxi’s, Bangkok has these vehicles called “tuk-tuk’s”, named for the sound they make. They carry a few passengers and look like electric colored golf carts.
We woke up the next morning ready to go to the Damern Saduak; a floating market about an hour outside of the city. This is where hundreds of small wooden boats cram together paddled by vendors in huge straw hats who sell anything from locally produced fresh fruit and vegetables to hot noodles and cold beer, hats and scarves to spices and souvenirs. It was really fun and exciting and Mario broke the “rules” by buying some coconut patty cakes and a coconut cracked open to drink- YUM! To get to the market, we hopped into a “James Bond” boat; called that for the spy film made in Bangkok in the 70’s where Roger Moore used one of the boats to speed through the canals of the city. We bought more items and then headed back to the city to get into another “James Bond” and channeled through the Chao Phya River and Klongs. Houses on stilts were on either side of the narrow waters and we spotted children bathing in the water, men fishing and even, huge monitor lizards (who are considered lucky to be seen) sunning themselves on the rocks along the canals. We stopped at a dock to walk to the Golden Palace and Emerald Buddha Temple. This place looked like a gilded Disneyland; with round and pointy gem colored temples and sparkly triangular shaped buildings, with the sun glinting off every possible crevice of the architecture. The Palace is now just used for royal ceremonies. Kenny then took us to a local restaurant where we had some delicious Thai delicacies. I must have eaten at least 10 spring rolls! The whole meal cost $25 for 6 of us J
That evening, we flew to Ko Samui; (Koh Sa-mwee) a coastal beach resort on the Eastern shore of Thailand. It was on the exact opposite side of where the 2004 tsunami hit. Ko Samui was all one would picture a beachy resort to look like; lots of sun, mopeds and flip flops. On the downside, the beaches were rocky and we had to rent a car to travel around the island to get to more sandy shores. This day was our true one free day. We rented our own little Jeep and headed out to explore the area. Ko Samui is small; only about 10 square miles. Our first stop was an elephant sanctuary, where we rode giant Asian elephants with little pink spotted ears. They really had little smell, as many people asked, but I think that is because they have no fur; just sparse little springy black hairs sprouting up from their sandpapery hides. They trumped through Thai forests with a guide on their backs at times, and others, just us alone on the creatures. We wound up giving them clusters of mini bananas at the end of the ride, as a treat. We then heard about an awesome waterfall not far from the elephants and parked our car at the foot of a steep mini-mountain. Again, the temperatures had to be in the high 90’s with a sticky humidity and the sun raging down upon us. We all began the ascent to the waterfall but soon realized it was further and steeper than we had first imagined. Therefore, it was not safe for Ruth to climb to the top and Marco and Griselda found a great oasis of a cool, sandy pool to chill out near, while Mario and I were curious about the top to splash in the actual falls. Some Thai men and boys wait alongside the mountain for novices like us, to aid in the climb to the top. Barefooted and smelling of stale alcohol, our guide was a pro. Not one word of English but he and Mario pushed and pulled me when I thought I would plotz. Finally reaching the summit, the climb was truly worth it. A pool of azure, clear water awaited us with a plunging falls disappearing into that pool. Mario and I flopped in and some Swedish family filmed us with our own cam. I lost my flip flops on the way down. (Yeah, rea-lll brilliant to wear those on a climbing day, Lisa) I also saw a wasp that had stung a furry spider and was dragging him across the ground and I also picked up a large frog who was must have been lazy from the heat, for he let me scoop him up easily. We descended down, ambitious to see beach! We drove to the West coast of the island and stopped at “Big John’s” to eat right on the beach. Typical thatched roof and very Jimmy Buffet Key West style awaited us here, with us being one of the few patrons of the eatery and the beach. After a late lunch we jumped into the waves and were basking in the warm, bluish green waters. Had a lovely dinner that night and did some more shopping throughout Ko Samui.
We left for Siam Reap, Cambodia the next day. Arriving at night into Siam Reap, all I remember is jumping crickets and grasshoppers! This is the cricket and grasshopper capital of the world, folks! Our guide, Sitar picked us up and transported us to our beautiful hotel and we slept till morning, ready to head out to Angkor Wat. On a side note, Southeast Asia summers are usually rainy and steamy, but all we were experiencing thus far was the steamy. We had been very lucky and had not really seen much rain at all; just blue skies!
Sitar gave us a quickie history of Cambodia; stating how corrupt the government was/is and how the terrorist Khmer Rouge infiltrated the country in the 70’s and how the country was still reeling and trying to gain a place in the world after that horrific time. Angelina Jolie is like a goddess over there; she bringing light to all of the still unexploded land ordinances (land mines) placed there by the Khmer Rouge, in which many are still active. Clearing them is not so simple, as they were made by a few different countries and to un-detonate them, each has to be determined where it came from first, etc.. she also filmed Tomb Raider at Angkor Wat and adopted her first child there, so she really is an icon in Cambodia.
Angkor Wat was built for a King the early 12th century as his state temple and capital city. It is a foundation for 2 religions— first Hindu, then Buddhist since India and China and France all had a part in the past in being in Cambodia. (Hence the name, “Indo-China) You can even see the Cambodian people do not look “Chinese”; many look like they come from India, with very dark complexions and their food being influenced by the country as well. Angkor Wat was not even discovered until the late 1800’s and since then, it has become a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag and it is seen as the largest religious site in the world. Exploring it all is nearly impossible and we only had one day! We first walked into it and passed a bunch of sitting men playing haunting music. Sitar told us they were all victims of exploding land mines and as we passed them, you could see missing limbs and blinded eyes. These men were not the last we saw like this. We gave them a donation and kept walking in. It was incredibly sad as well as inspiring. While Angkor Wat was incredible; with monstrous trees supporting stone and seemingly secret doorways ands passageways leading to mazes and confusing labyrinths, it was also overwhelming. Grayish green and emerald jade colors blended together the entire afternoon. Scaffolding was up in some areas, but the “workers” looked like they moved at a snail’s pace. Some areas were preserved well and covered with thick moss and others were just a jumbled mess of stone. Sitar told us that the area is constantly looted and it is difficult to prevent. The obvious signs of Cambodia being a Third World country were everywhere. As we walked out of each palace or area, masses of children would run up to us asking us to purchase their trinkets. As stone faced as you try to be, you cannot help but succumb. And boy- are they crafty! We were told English speaking backpackers come through the areas and teach the kids all the “facts” of well known countries. So when they ask where you are from and you tell them the US, they jump to say, “Oh, George Bush is your President!” and they know the capitals of all 50 states. They ask your name, why you won’t purchase their items and they have a retort for every “No” you give them. It was impressive. It just angered and hurt me that these super intelligent kids were dirt poor and had zero and were excited by the prospect of 50 cents for a handmade flute. I promised Mario I would not adopt one, as Angelina did, although we all sure helped a bunch that day. Although Thailand was a souvenirs paradise, Cambodia knocked Thailand from that list, with us buying items for ridiculously cheap prices. We went back to the hotel late that afternoon and all went to the hotel pool, which was decorated with lily ponds and frangipani trees, which smelled amazing!
We took an early flight out of Cambodia the next morning in hopes to catch an earlier flight to Tokyo; our last stop, but to no avail- we had missed it already so we had to stick with our original flight. We got stuck at the Bangkok airport for 12 hours. Ugh, Griselda said she now knew what it felt like to be one of those travelers stuck due to inclement weather. We drank coffee, played dominoes, ate lunch and I had my hair blown out for 10 bucks. By the 12th hour, we were all a little stir crazy.
We landed in Tokyo at 7 am and took a 90 minute bus ride into the city. We were so exhausted that none of us even took in any sights around us on the ride in, since we were all dead asleep. Plus, it was raining, which added to the hypnotic drone of it all. (Oh well, we broke the sunny sky streak)
Once we got to our hotel, we crashed for a few hours and met at lunchtime to take it some sights. No guide in Tokyo; we navigated on our own. Trust me; this is a city that is NOT easy to navigate. Not much is in English and in Tokyo; nothing has a set “address”. Very confusing- we were somewhat Lost in Translation- ha! Anyway, we got some basic directions and after a bento box lunch atop a business skyscraper building, we left for the Shinjuku Train Station and took the metro (which was so clean and welcoming!) to the Asakusa area. We were shocked to see uniformed schoolchildren of no more than 6 years old, riding the trains alone! We were told this is because Tokyo is such a safe city as well as this exercise being a lesson in independence from parents for their children. In Asakusa, we shopped along the Nakamise Dori, another souvenir Mecca. But one big difference, the Japanese do not haggle. The price is what it is. Japan is NOT cheap; but we were told this going in. It is just as pricey as New York, San Francisco or London. We walked along the slick street and bought more things and later that evening, went to the infamous Roppongi District, where the nightlife is. We ate a delicious dinner in a funky little place and took photos of the Hard Rock Café and Tokyo Tower; a structure larger than the Eiffel Tower now used for TV and radio satellites. Then, we took the metro to the Kabuki-cho; a more “crazy” nightlife area teeming with Japanese massage parlors, karaoke clubs and young Japanese guys hawking this club or that.
The next morning we got up to get picked up by our guide, Eva, for a one day excursion to Kyoto, a more traditional area of Japan. We headed toward Tokyo Station to the bullet train, or “Shinkansen” train, 2 and a half hours to Kyoto. The train goes almost 200 miles an hour but you don’t even feel the speed, as the track is almost perfectly straight, to maximize velocity and to decrease any feelings of high speed. We arrived in Kyoto and once more, were met with a perfect day. Our first stop was to the Nijo Castle, a residence for powerful past Shoguns. One of the most striking features of Castle was the “nightingale floors” in the corridors. To protect the occupants from sneak attacks and assassins, the builders constructed the floors of the corridors in such a way as to squeak like birds when anyone walks on them. Way cool. Golden Pavilion was next, a Zen temple for Buddhist monks laid amongst beautifully landscaped gardens. A small lake was filled with koi, turtles and a large egret. Many middle school students were on a trip excursion and enjoyed taking photos with us and asking us where we were from. Lastly, we stopped at Nishiki Market, where fish and silks and all Japanese gifts were being sold. Lunch that day was at a true sushi place and at this point, fish and rice and Udon noodles were getting kind of old for us (Mario was the only true fan) so we wound up eating at a Sizzler steak house for dinner and wow, we realized how we sure missed Western food!
Our last excursion on the morning of the day we were to leave was to the Harajuku neighborhood, made famous by Gwen Stefani and her “Harajuku Girls”. This area on Sundays, teems with young Japanese kids dressing in crazy fashions; to break free from their rigid school uniforms and school attire for the week. Popular were girls wearing thigh high stockings and having vibrant colored hair as well as young Japanese guys dying their hair blonde with it spiked straight to the sky. On our way to the neighborhood we stopped at Meiji Shrine; a temple dedicated to a beloved Japanese emperor and empress. The loveliest part was witnessing a genuine Japanese wedding taking place, amidst hundreds of wooden prayer cards, strung up in a tree in the temple garden.