A Travellerspoint blog

Detour

We would ask for you prayers, friends. We found out earlier this week that Lynn's brother-in-law, Mark Allen, has passed away after a long battle with amyloidosis, a cancer-like disease that has been destroying his heart for the past year or so.

So today, we head back to Tokyo. Tomorrow, we have to find funeral attire, since our ratty travelling clothes won't really be appropriate. Then on Sunday, we fly Tokyo to Beijing to San Fransisco to Phoenix and drive to Tucson for the memorial service on Tuesday. We will stay in Tucson for a week or so, and the following week fly with Lynn's sister Gail to Stuttgart, Germany, where she and Mark lived (he was ex-Air Force and worked for European Command) to help her pack up so she can move back. Finally, we will fly from Germany to Seoul, Korea, some time in mid-October to pick back up with an abbreviated second half of our trip.

Thank goodness for travel insurance.

Sometimes the detours are as interesting as the main route...

Posted by Bwinky 17:21 Comments (3)

Toky-uh-oh

Dazed and confused in Japan’s “urban rabyrinth”

semi-overcast 29 °C
View Asia '08 on Bwinky's travel map.

First of all, let the record show that the above subtitle is NOT a politically incorrect ethnic slur: the letter “L” really does not occur in Japanese, and really does get switched for an “R” in borrowed English words, my favorite example of which is the word for a mid-level corporate drone: sarariman. Sound it out if you have to, with the emphasis on the first syllable, substituting an “L” for the first “R.”

Besides, I dare you to say “urban rabyrinth” out loud, and not giggle. It’s funny, OK -- lighten up.

Anyway.

So Tokyo is big. Really, really big. You may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts compared to Tokyo (apologies to Douglas Adams). It was the largest city in the world for some time; now I think it’s been passed up by Mexico City and Sao Paolo or something, but anyway, it’s still really, really... REALLY big.

Like, this big:

6247.jpg
No end in sight...

It’s also exceptionally confusing for the first time foreign visitor. English signage is limited, and there are fewer people who speak English than you might guess. I’m not sure we would have figured out how to get from Narita airport into the city if a very kind young woman named Yukiko, who spent some years studying in Topeka, Kansas, had not taken pity on us and spent the morning helping us figure things out. She was a real God-send. She even showed Lynn the intricacies of Japanese toilets, which is a story for later...

Now, you have to understand that I pride myself on my sense of direction and my ability to figure out my way around any city and its public transportation. But Tokyo has been my nemesis. There are hardly any street signs, because most streets do not actually have names; addresses are something like “1-11-2-4 Ginza, Chuo-ku,” which is area number, block number, building number and floor, area name, ward. And the numbers are not necessarily consecutive, because prior to the 1950s, they were assigned by building construction date.

I shudder for any poor fool attempting to become a taxi driver.

More specifically, I have developed a severe phobia of Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station. Shinjuku is the largest hub in the city for Japan Rail, the Tokyo Metro, and various private rail lines, and it is one of the largest and busiest train stations in the world. I’ve been in some big railway stations: Grand Central, Victoria, Gare du Nord, Termini... Nothing prepared me for the organized chaos of Shinjuku. I’m used to walking into the main hall of a station and seeing a big Arrivals/Departures board with platform numbers, and a bunch of ticket counters and stores. In contrast, Shinjuku looks like this:

6314.jpg
”Umm, which way do we go now?”

That’s one small segment of a very long, very wide maze that runs through the center of the station -- which is three floors high, incidentally, and takes over 20 minutes to walk through. Branching off of this very crowded central hallway are lots of smaller areas for different rail lines, like this one:

6315.jpg
”If that little old lady in a kimono can find her way...”

As a side note, those yellow lines on the floor have patterns in them so blind people can follow them. How on earth they figure out where to go, I have no idea...

Tickets for the metro and suburban rail lines are purchased from automated machines, like this one, in front of large rail network maps -- which frequently do not feature English translations!

6316.jpg
”One of these red ones is Ikebukuro, I think...

This leads to such misadventures as spending $50 on what we thought were two multi-use passes that turned out to be a single-ride tickets we used to go two stops (and should have cost $1.60 each).

I find myself waking in a cold sweat just thinking about it. After several days here, I started finding routes that specifically avoided Shinjuku, prompting Lynn to taunt me: “C’mon, Brad, what are you... Chicken? Caw-cuh-caw-cuh-caw!”

(Right now, our Mercy Hill friends are falling off their chairs laughing at the visual image of Japanese commuters staring at Lynn doing the Arrested Development chicken strut in the middle of a station...)

All that said, the Tokyo metro and rail system is quite effective. Sure, the map resembles nothing so much as an accident at a pasta factory, but once you get the hang of it, it’s not so bad. Yes, at rush hour it is extremely crowded...

6277.jpg
Did I forget my deoderant this morning?

...but at other times it’s nice for a little snooze.

6274.jpg
Must wake up when we get to Asakusa...

The stereotype of the Japanese as hard workers is most definitely based in fact, and we wondered when they actually find time to sleep -- until we saw it with our own eyes. Amazingly, they sleep through a dozen stops and then wake up just in time for theirs. I have no idea how this gets programmed into their brains.

And how do you get to the subway station?

6291.jpg
Dang, I know I left it here somewhere...

So. From all of this kvetching, you might think that we do not like Tokyo.

You would be dead wrong.

Tokyo is confusing, confounding... and absolutely amazing. It is everything that you expect, and total surprises. A dynamic mix of the modern and the ancient...

6252.jpg
Shinjuku by night

6263.jpg
A traditional 18th century house near where we stayed

The classic and the crazy...

6224.jpg
Out for a pizza

6221.jpg
Teens strutting their stuff in Harajuku

The peaceful and the chaotic...

6273.jpg
The Imperial Palace gardens

6242.jpg
Ginza crossing, the world’s busiest intersection

The sacred and the profane...

6238.jpg
Senso-ji temple

6256.jpg
The Kabukicho “entertainment” district -- full of host and hostess bars for women and men looking for company

The sublime and the ridiculous...

6251.jpg
Cocktails atop the Tokyo Metropolitan Building

6228.jpg
Need I say more?

We spent our nights in Tokyo at a distinctly less-than-traditional kind of place: Yuji Hidemura’s apartment.

6262.jpg
Yuji, the man, the legend

For the record, some of you may be wondering about this whole “staying with people” thing. We are members of The Couch Surfing Project, an international hospitality organization that matches visitors with locals who like to host international travellers. We’ve been members for three years, and have hosted people in our home about a half-dozen times. Well, we’re nothing compared to Yuji, who is a bonified Couch Surfing legend. Yuji lives in a two-bedroom apartment in this building on the outskirts of Tokyo:

6313.jpg
Yuji’s place

6279.jpg
Yuji and Marie at the stove

Last year, Yuji hosted over 700 people. At any given time, there might be a half-dozen or more international travellers crashed out on the tatami (wall-to-wall woven straw mat) floor in Yuji’s extra bedroom:

6278.jpg
Home sweet home

We shared the bedroom with Marie, from Sweden, and Maxime and Deborah from France while we were there. Yuji has a whole system worked out because he works crazy hours as a Yamaha piano salesman: he sends you an email with picture directions, and if you don’t come while he’s home, someone else will be there to let you in. He has a fridge and computer for surfers and a notebook full of advice on everything from where to do laundry to martial arts. Unlike most couchsurfing hosts, he asks for a small donation, since hosting 700 people per year has a major affect on his water and electric bills.

One night we were there, we went shopping with Marie, who made Swedish pancakes. Yuji decided to take them with fruit and blueberry whipped cream, and make them into sushi. He used to be a sushi chef, so I guess it’s in his blood...

6280.jpg
”It’s not exactly seaweed wrap, but I think this can work...”

6281.jpg
”Mmm... better than wasabe!”

6282.jpg
”Swedish Pancake Fruit Sushi! Hai!”

6283.jpg
Frushi, anyone?

And after that bit of weirdness, I have nothing more to add on the subject of Tokyo. From there, it was off to the mountains of Hakone... in search of Mount Fuji.

Posted by Bwinky 15:07 Archived in Japan Tagged train_travel Comments (1)

Fruity 'n' Fishy

Getting adventurous with Alan and Daphne in Kuala Lumpur, and Jacob and Amelia in Melaka

rain 32 °C
View Asia '08 on Bwinky's travel map.

From Kuching, it was a short flight across the South China Sea to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital city. We only spent one night there before heading south to Melaka, because frankly KL is a big city and not real long on must-see sights -- not unlike Jakarta, but a little nicer.

6154.jpg
The Kuala Lumpur skyline, dominated by the Petronas Towers

There’s the Petronas Towers, which were the tallest building in the world for a few years before the Taiwanese decided to outdo them, a few strangely Indian-looking colonial buildings left over from the days of British rule (guess the Brits figured if it was part of their colonial Empire in Asia, it deserved to look Indian...), and a fantastic museum of Islamic art. But beyond that, we didn’t find it too thrilling.

What was a thrill, however, was meeting Meng Kiat “Alan” Tiong and Ping Yi “Daphne” Tan, a Chinese couple that hosted us for the night we stayed. Alan is an executive at a company that builds gasoline storage tanks, travels all over Asia, and speaks about a dozen languages (I am not exaggerating). Daphne is an executive assistant in Johnson & Johnson’s contact lens division. We really hit it off and had a great evening with them, despited being delayed getting home by a downpour of Biblical proportions -- when it rains in Asia, it can really rain. Alan is a worship leader at their church, and we had a great time playing guitar together and singing old worship songs from the early ‘90s.

6167.jpg
Alan Tiong and Daphne Tan

Incidentally, we learned a few interesting tidbits about Chinese culture from them. When Alan and Daphne married, they became “the Tiongs” and you might call Daphne “Mrs. Tiong,” but when referring to her individually, she is still “Daphne Tan.” Also, I did not realize that the Western names many Chinese use are given by their parents along with their Chinese names.

But the most fun we had with Alan and Daphne was learning about Asian produce. Daphne picked up a bunch of interesting fruit for us to try, and Alan took us out to pick up the king of Southeast Asian fruit, which I’ve been dying to try: the durian (previously mentioned in the post about Jakarta). Here’s a few of the highlights:

6160.jpg

This is a pulasan. It looks like a purple sea urchin, and you twist it apart to reveal a white rubbery fruit that looks sort of like a peeled grape with a big pit.

6162.jpg

This is a mangosteen, which you crack open between your palms to reveal wedges of fruit.

6164.jpg

And this is a duku langsat (which I can’t help thinking sounds like a villain in Star Wars), which looks like a nut and cracks open to reveal a little white fruit.

What do all of these taste like? Well... umm... grapes, kind of. Hard to describe.

And then there is the durian. This thing looks like a little spiky green cantaloupe. It only grows in Southeast Asia, and it doesn’t travel well, so you can’t get it anywhere else. In fact, I seem to recall that Queen Victoria offered a huge reward to anyone who could get one back to London. The first thing that you notice when you’re around one is... the stench. They honestly are about the worst-smelling thing that has ever crossed my nostrils. Some people describe it as smelling like rotting flesh. I don’t know, I think it smells more like an old towel left in a high school locker room in the heat of August. Let’s just say it’s really stinky.

And yet, someone chose to crack one open, taste it, and declare it a delicacy. Some Asians are addicted to them, others can’t stand them -- and Daphne is one of the latter. But she kindly acquiesced, and so our mission to taste durian was fulfilled. Inside the spiky rind are little sacks of creamy yellowish pulp, kind of like slightly stringy custard.

6155.jpg
Durian, in a to-go box

And so, we had a durian-eating party on the balcony of their apartment overlooking the city...

6156.jpg
Lynn, going for it. Hold your nose and swallow!

6157.jpg
Alan is a fan. Daphne -- not so much!

6158.jpg
C’mon Daphne, open wide!

6165.jpg
I can eat anything with a view like this!

And the verdict? We didn’t care for it much. The taste wasn’t bad, sort of vanilla-ish yet fruity, kind of like over-ripe banana, but the stench keeps rising up your throat even after you swallow it and into the back of your nose, which in case you weren’t aware works just as well in reverse. We’re glad we tried it, but once was enough.

The next day we took the bus a couple hours south to Melaka, a smaller colonial city on the west coast of the Malaysian penninsula.

6194.jpg
Melaka’s colonial Town Square

Melaka has quite an illustrious history. Founded by a Sultan, conquered by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and finally handed over to the British, it was the trading center for the spice market for centuries. It’s full of beautiful old colonial buildings, most of them painted a beautiful red.

6187.jpg
Foogie and Amelia, our new friends in Melaka

We stayed with Foo Guan “Jacob” Sim, aka Foogie, and his girlfriend Qiu Xuan “Amelia” Li, who are both computer security students at Multimedia University in Melaka. Amelia just moved into an apartment of her own but was still paying rent at a dorm apartment, so we were able to sleep in her old room.

We did a lot of walking around the city at night, and it’s quite spectacular: many of the buildings are lit up red, reflecting the look of the day time.

6175.jpg
Melaka by night, reflected in the canal through the city

Jacob and Amelia introduced us to a lot of great food, some of it Baba-Nyonya, or Straits Chinese: cuisine that developed independently among the Chinese living in Melaka through the centuries. One meal that is particularly memorable was at a little family-run outdoor cafe on a back street, where they served plates of steaming seafood -- snails, cockles, clams, squid, you name it -- all for about a buck a pop. Really good.

6179.jpg
If you cook it, they will come...

6178.jpg
Lynn’s looking awfully happy considering her spinach came piled with squid on top!

We made one final quick stop on the Malaysian penninsula: Singapore, just for an afternoon. I didn’t plan more because my impression of Singapore is that it’s a big, sterile modern city that’s great if you like expensive shopping.

6205.jpg
Singapore, Southeast Asia’s Manhattan

Well, that was a mistake -- Singapore is actually quite fascinating. The downtown riverfront is beautiful...

6199.jpg
Kind of reminds me of Chicago...

...and there is a lot of history from the British days, when Sir Stamford Raffles watched over the colonial city. This guy governed Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, plus established the London Zoo before dying at 34. Makes me feel like a slacker. He now has a famous hotel named after him, where they invented the Singapore Sling.

6203.jpg
”Stammy”?

The Asian Civilizations Museum is one of the best in the world -- we had only two hours, but could have spent two days. But we had a flight to Tokyo to catch, so we had to leave Singapore’s ultra-clean streets behind.

Anyway, it’s a little fascist for my tastes -- they ban durians from the subway.

Posted by Bwinky 05:28 Archived in Malaysia Tagged food Comments (2)

Well, They Don’t Call It A SUN-forest, Do They?

Hiking through Santubong in the rain

rain 29 °C
View Asia '08 on Bwinky's travel map.

Whenever I travel, I always keep a diary. I inevitably get behind. This has now happened with our blog as well... But I'm still trying to post every 3-4 days, it's just that there's so much! Plus, I'm kind of going in thematic order rather than strict order of time.

On Saturday, August 23rd, we headed down the Sarawak River from Kuching for Santubong, a rainforest-blanketed penninsula to the north. The name “rainforest” was certainly applicable based on the weather, which alternated between light drizzle and hard downpours.

6067.jpg
Mount Santubong rising above the Sarawak River

We spent a couple of much-needed days resting at the Permai Rainforest Resort, an eco-resort tucked into the rainforest above Damai beach. It’s a beautiful place, and was a perfect break within our trip. It was rustic without being nasty (we’ve had plenty of nasty already; did I mention our disgusting place in Kuta?), and we had a lovely treehouse that was a great place to sleep in, hang out, and read and write.

6093.jpg
6139.jpg
Our tree-top castle

With our batteries recharged, we did venture into the rainforest for a strenuous and very drippy (from sweat -- even when it isn’t hot, it’s so humid you still wind up drenched) hike.

6113.jpg
Don’t look down, just keep moving!

6112.jpg
”Honey, we’re gonna need a bigger bottle of wine...

The Santubong penninsula is also home to the Sarawak Cultural Village, an outdoor folk museum where they have assembled traditional tribal longhouses from all over the area.

6070.jpg
The Sarawak Cultural Village

We really love these kinds of places, and it was a very enjoyable afternoon (in the rain, again) checking out the various artistic styles of the Iban, Bidayuh, and other local tribes, who live in communal dwellings where each family has a room that opens onto one long central common area. Nowadays, they are mostly constructed with tin roofs and satellite dishes, of course, but the traditional wooden ones at the Village were fascinating.

6071.jpg
6084.jpg
Various longhouses

They also have costumed staff who describe their native crafts, as well as a dance show that mostly cool and only a bit cheesy.

6092.jpg
Iban woman demonstrating cutting bamboo strips for weaving baskets

6075.jpg
Iban dancer, with characteristic tattoos

Now in Kuching, they actually run tours to the real longhouses that the Dayak tribes still live in. You can go upriver and visit the longhouses, and even stay there overnight. We were going to do that, but we only had time for a daytrip, and the closest one where they all go sees a lot of visitors, so we ultimately decided against it. We got lazy and just settled for the "culture in a can" route at the Cultural Village.

As is so often the case after a rainy day, the sun broke through just in time for a beautiful sunset -- just before we left.

6116.jpg

Posted by Bwinky 04:22 Archived in Malaysia Tagged tourist_sites Comments (2)

Barry

Eating our way through multi-cultural Kuching

overcast 29 °C
View Asia '08 on Bwinky's travel map.

If there is a country on Earth that rivals the United States for its delicious ethnic stew of cultures, Malaysia would be a top contender. Straddling the South China Sea on the Malay pennisula and the north coast of the island of Borneo, Malaysia boasts large populations of Malays, Chinese, and Indians, as well as native Dayaks in Borneo. It is a rapidly modernizing nation that is just a short step from joining the developed world, and an easy and rewarding place to visit. Our two-hour flight from Bali took us to Kuching, the capitol of Sarawak province in northwestern Borneo.

61431.jpg
Kuching from across the Sarawak River

The modern state of Malaysia was granted independence by the British 50 years ago after a century of crown rule. But Sarawak was a unique case; it had never been an official part of British Malaya. In the early 1800s, the British adventurer James Brooke helped the Sultan of nearby Brunei put down a rebellion, and was given Sarawak as his own personal kingdom. He and his descendants benevolently ruled Sarawak as the White Rajas, including tribal leaders in their government and discouraging European exploitation, until the Japanese invaded. Following the war, Sarawak was integrated into greater Malaysia, with Kuching as the state capitol.

The largest ethnic group in Kuching is the Chinese, and we are staying with Jee Kiun “Barry” Chong, a Chinese chef who runs a food court with several partners.

6149.jpg
Barry Chong, our host in Kuching

His ancestors, who come from southern China, have lived in Kuching for generations. The Chinese were invited to Sarawak by the Brookes to work in mining and agriculture, and over time they have come to dominate the economy. And certainly the restaurant industry -- there are enough Chinese markets, food stalls, and restaurants here to feed all of Beijing, I would think.

6033.jpg
Chinese shops in Kuching

The night we arrived, Barry took us to the Kuching Food Festival, which runs for three weeks every August.

6018.jpg
The Kuching Food Festival in full swing

It’s an outdoor park of food stands, full of Malaysians happily munching their way through the country’s multi-ethnic cuisines.

6017.jpg
Meat on a stick -- it’s the univeral culinary language

In the past, Barry and his friends have run a stall selling doughnut-like desserts, but this year they decided not to due to the cost of the stall and the increased price of flour. We walked around, sampling various goodies like fried squid balls with a sweet sauce, as well as, umm, stranger things...

6021.jpg
Tastes like chicken!

In the morning, Barry took us to his food court, where we breakfasted on roti, Indian fried flatbread.

6025.jpg
Barry’s food court

6027.jpg
Breakfast with Barry

Most of the people there were having Sarawak’s culinary obsession: laksa.

6026.jpg
The breakfast of champions, Sarawak-style

This is a bowl of noodles, bean sprouts, shredded chicken, and shrimp, all swimming in a bubbling red hell-broth of coconut milk and chili paste. And yes, they eat this for breakfast.

6022.jpg
Mmmmm... Laksaaaaaah...

I had a bowl for dinner at the food fair, and while it was delicious, it left me requiring some intimate time with the thunder bucket the next day. I can’t imagine what it would do to my guts first thing in the morning!

Speaking of which, it is worth a quick detour to mention that we are now solidly in the land of the Asian squat toilet.

6024.jpg
Watch your sneakers...

Think what you want about it, but there is something to be said for this toilet architecture. The position it puts you in is actually quite physiologically advantageous for the task at hand. And it has additional bonus features: we have noticed that most Asians have really beautifully toned thigh muscles, and if you are a habitual bathroom reader, you will find that you have noticably more time in your day for other pursuits.

We spent the rest of the morning walking around Kuching, which has a lovely waterfront promenade and a beautiful colonial area.

6029.jpg
The gate to the market

6031.jpg
Notice the sign on the right: “Tan Heng Thai: Speical [sic] Maker For Fancy Coffins”

Kuching means “cat” in Malay, and the city fathers have built statues of cats all around the city. There’s even a cat museum. It’s kind of corny, but rather endearing as well. Assuming you’re not a mouse, I suppose.

6023.jpg
Meow, welcome to Kuching, meow meow.

But the highlight of the day was unquestionably a trip for the afternoon feeding at the Semenggoh Wildlife Center, where they rehabilitate orangutans and reintroduce them to jungle life. Of all the meals we experienced in Kuching, theirs was definitely the most memorable.

6049.jpg
6036.jpg
6050.jpg
6051.jpg

One other memorable thing we experienced in Kuching with Barry: we got to visit with a group of Chinese theatre people. Barry is part of the Cicada Drama Company, the first Chinese Buddhist theatre company in Kuching, founded by Taiwanese movie director Tsai Ming Liang, whose movies have received some international acclaim (I’ve never heard of them, but I don’t follow Chinese cinema much). Barry was very excited to find out that we were theatre people, so our final night with him, he invited his friends over and we talked theatre -- running a company, communicating to audiences, etc.

6146.jpg
6147.jpg
Talking shop with Barry and Sheau Fen “Jean” Lai

We watched a video of a recent performance of theirs, an original play called “I Want To Fly Away Into The Sky,” which was about dealing with terminal illness. It was quite interesting to watch even though we didn’t understand the dialogue, and had some very touching moments.

It was a fun night, and an unexpected treat at the end of our long taste of Kuching.

Posted by Bwinky 21:04 Archived in Malaysia Tagged tourist_sites Comments (3)

(Entries 21 - 25 of 38) « Page 1 2 3 4 [5] 6 7 8 »