February 26, 2007

 

VANCOUVER to HONG KONG - DELAYS & DELAYS

Today we started our 21-day "Amazing Race" style trip to Asia.  How fitting that we watched Rob and Amber finish first again on Episode 2 of "The Amazing Race All-Stars" on TV just hours before heading to the airport!  Unfortunately, our trip did not start out well.  We were stuck with old-fashioned paper tickets which meant that we could not use Online Check-In for any of our 10 flight legs (with this many flights we wanted to bypass the regular check-in lines which can be ridiculously long).  We went to the airport earlier in the day in hopes of changing to E-tickets and/or getting nice bulkhead or Emergency Exit row seats, but to no avail, as our flight to Hong Kong was extremely full (it was coming from New York with a planeful of post-Chinese New Year travelers).  We arrived at the airport shortly after midnight only to learn that our 1:45am flight had been delayed nearly 3 hours to 4:40am due to inclement weather in New York!  Further, this meant that we would miss our connecting flight and have a long 4 hour layover in Hong Kong before continuing on to Seoul, and that we would not arrive in Korea until almost 7:00pm.  Sadly, this basically eliminated our plans to ascend the N Seoul Tower and take a night tour.  Cathay Pacific did give everybody a $10 voucher for food at YVR which would have been great in the daytime, but in the middle of the night only Tim Horton's and Burger King are open!

 

February 27, 2007

 

HONG KONG to SEOUL - MORE DELAYS!

After sleeping on the benches at YVR, we finally got on our plane and we arrived in Hong Kong "on time" at 10:15am and went to the upstairs food court to grab a bite to eat.  We had a 4-hour layover before our new connecting flight to Seoul.  Fortunately, the Hong Kong airport is very new, with lots of shops and free WiFi now, so the layover did not seem too long.  However, to continue our string of delays, the flight to Seoul was delayed half an hour at the gate.  So by the time we touched down in Seoul Incheon Airport we had been delayed a total of 5˝ hours and we were simply exhausted.  The first thing we noticed was that the Koreans are really aggressive movers - pushing to deplane, driving the luggage carts, etc.  The Immigration officer didn't greet us or say anything to us, nor did the woman selling transfer bus tickets, and even the Tourist Information Desk didn't offer a greeting or any information other than what we specifically inquired about (i.e., a basic Seoul map).  We hoped that the lack of friendliness would not be typical for the rest of our stay!  We hopped on the "Airport Limousine Bus" #11A which transferred us from the airport to our hotel, The Renaissance Seoul.  The traffic was congested in the city (even at this hour!) but the driver was a very fast driver, which was great, because we got to our hotel (and into bed) quickly.

 

February 28, 2007

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - GYEONGBOKGUNG, INSADONG, and AS MUCH AS WE COULD CRAM IN

Doug was up at 5:00am due to the 19-hour time difference between Korea and Vancouver, and soon we were off to the Yeoksam Metro Station.  We took the Metro to Gyeongbokgung Station and then walked to the restaurant Kkhangjang jip.  We got lost along the way but a friendly passerby stopped and offered help in English, and directed us to the correct building (it was right in front of us).  We had no idea how to order but fortunately we had read about the restaurant on a blog called Fatman Seoul.  The staff at the restaurant were also very friendly.  We enjoyed kkhangjang stew (stew made of spicy soybean paste and cooked with squid and diced pork served with rice, lettuce, bean sprouts and leeks) and kkongchi ttukbaegi (spicy saury [a type of fish] stew). 

Seoul at daybreak

Kkongchi ttukbaegi

Kkhangjang stew

 

Next, we walked to the Gyeongbokgung Palace and joined the 9:30am free English guided tour.  Gyeongbokgung is one of the Five Grand Palaces built in Seoul during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910; one of the world's longest running monarchies at five centuries!).  It was the largest of the five palaces and housed most of the important royal and administrative buildings.  Unfortunately, it was nearly completely destroyed by the Japanese Empire after its invasion in 1911.  Today, only 10% of the original buildings remain, and another 30% are undergoing extensive rebuilding and restoration to be completed in 2008.  The tour was excellent and we learned about the different rooms and the "radiant floor heating" of the day.  The Gyeonghoeru Pavilion, which stands on an artificial lotus lake and rests on 48 granite pillars, is featured on the Korean banknotes of 10,000 won.  Outside of the back exit of the palace is the Cheong Wa Dae, or Blue House, which is the presidential residence.  It is heavily guarded and access is limited mainly to tours which need to be booked two weeks in advance (we didn't have time for a tour of it).  We watched the hourly Changing of the Guard at 11:00am and then Doug tried on one of the guard's uniforms!  Our ticket to the Palace also included admission to the National Folk Museum and the National Palace Museum.  We walked through the latter and looked at some of the 20,000 interesting relics, clothing, and accessories of the Joseon Dynasty. 

Gyeongbokgung Palace

Gyeonghoeru Pavilion

Doug as a Guard

 

Outside of Gyeongbokgung Palace, we joined the Seoul City Tour Bus, a hop-on hop-off tour bus and drove past sites such as the Seoul Station (large train station with adjacent shopping mall), War Memorial, and Yongsan Station (electronics area).  We got off the bus at the Namsan Hanok Village which is an wonderful free attraction where traditional Korean houses (Hanok) have been removed from their original sites across the country and relocated to this Village.  These plain wooden houses from the Joseon Dynasty, in contrast to the ornate palace buildings, are representative of where common Koreans of five different classes used to live.  We tried some traditional Korean games such as neolttwigi (see-saw jumping), tuho (arrow throwing), and yunnori (traditional game of throwing wooden yut sticks).  Gloria tried on a traditional Korean outfit (hanbok) for some photos and we even saw a film crew shooting a movie!  Inside the village is also a Time Capsule, which was built in 1994 to commemorate Seoul's 600th birthday.  Inside it are 600 items representing Seoul and its citizens and it is scheduled to be opened in November of 2394. 

Namsan Hanok Village

Gloria in Hanbok

Time Capsule

 

We were starting to get hungry so walked to nearby Myeongdong, which is the high-end shopping and fashion district.  In behind the main road, there were side streets filled with restaurants.  After wandering up and down the street looking at mouth-watering food in the windows, we decided on a traditional kimchi restaurant called Samkim.  Not being able to read Korean, we surmised that the kimchi served at this restaurant is special because it is made from organic cabbage.  We ordered a kimchi stew, a kimchi egg roll, and kimchee noodles.  To our surprise, the kimchi stew was served in a metal pot and required prolonged cooking at our table (Doug found out by biting into a piece of half-cooked pork).  In contrast and even more surprisingly, the kimchi noodles came cold and in a bowl with shavings of ice.  It was very cool and refreshing, and definitely something that we had never tried before (we're not sure if one can even get that sort of dish in Vancouver!).  The egg roll was larger than expected and everything was quite tasty. 

Kimchi Stew

Kimchi Egg Roll

Cold Kimchi Noodles

 

After our meal, we took the tour bus up Namsan Mountain to the N Seoul Tower.  The bus dropped us off at the base and then we proceeded to hike up a hill with a 65 degree incline which took us 10 minutes.  At the top of the hill, we were treated to a very nice view of Seoul from the lobby terrace (making it unnecessary to pay to go up to the observation deck).  After relaxing and enjoying the views of Seoul we headed back down the hill to take the bus to our next destination - Changgyeonggung Palace.  We were lucky to make it to the Changgyeonggung Palace 5 minutes before the last ticket was sold.  Changgyeonggung Palace was built for the outgoing King Taejong (1367-1422) when King Sejong (1397-1450) came to power.  It is the oldest of the Five Grand Palaces.  The invading Japanese converted it into a zoo and botanical garden, which was removed in 1983 when the palace was restored.  It is noted for its beautiful "secret" garden which only the royal family used to enjoy.  The gardens are now used by many Korean newlyweds for photographs, although not much was in bloom at this time of year.  We wandered the palace grounds and even stopped at a conservatory housing beautifully groomed bonsai and orchids.  Of note, there is a stone figurine of a turtle (Seongjeongtaesilbi) marking the place where the placenta and umbilical cord of King Seongjong was buried.  He ascended the throne at the early age of 12 in 1469 and ruled for 25 years.  Apparently all the placentas and umbilical cords of all the Joseon Kings are buried somewhere in Korea - kind of freaky and weird!

View from N Seoul Tower

Changgyeonggung Palace

Seongjeongtaesilbi

 

At this time, we were again starting to get hungry so we made our way to Insadong.  En route, we watched as a motorbike rider lost his balance while trying to pass the tour bus and crash into the side of the bus, leaving a huge dent!  Insadong is an area where there are many art galleries and shops selling ceramic pottery, art supplies, antiques, and handicrafts.  Also, the main streets are lined with food carts.  Doug quickly spied a cart making bungeo pang (carp cake) which is a pastry filled with red bean.  We have had these before in the Korean area on North Road, and knew they were tasty.  We only ordered one and it was gone within minutes.  As we walked further along, we saw an enormous line for what looked like donuts.  Seeing this, we immediately waited in line.  Thirty minutes of queuing later we had our hoteok (pancake filled with brown sugar, cinnamon powder, black sesame seed, and apple) in hand and were munching away.  Delicious and well worth the wait!  After having our tummies padded with "appetizers" we started to look for a place for dinner.  Tucked away in a hard-to-find alley is a restaurant established in 1971 named Gung which is renowned for its mandu (Korean dumplings).  We ordered boiled mandu and joraengi ddeokguk (a soupy dish containing mandu and mini rice cakes that looked like tiny bums).  They luckily had menus with pictures and English.  During our meal, Gloria noticed the people next to us talking to the waitress very sternly.  It appears that they found a piece of glass in their mandu soup!  Fortunately, we didn't notice any foreign objects in our food and happily finished our enormous-sized mandu.

Bungeo Pang "Fishies"

Hoteok - After 30 Minutes in Line!

Mandu and Mini Rice Cakes

 

With our bellies full and warm we made our way to the Dongdaemun Night Market via Metro.  On our way out of the subway we saw an unconscious man lying face down in a small pool of blood!  However, the man had a group of friends who casually waived us onwards.  We hoped that this meant help was on the way.  At the exit, we were greeted with throngs of vendors selling various items of clothing and sporting equipment.   The Dongdaemun Night Market is one of the most famous night markets in Seoul.  It is a place where a lot of young people go to buy cheap fashions.  With 26 shopping malls, 30,000 specialty shops, and 50,000 manufacturers it truly is a clothing shopping mecca.  One could easily spend several days shopping here.  There were also many food stalls but we were too full to try out any of the food.  We wandered around a while, absorbing the atmosphere, and saw what looked like a hip hop performance on a stage outside of a department store on the street.  It looked like a sophisticated gig with blaring music, flashing lights and even smoke!  By this time, the long, busy day finally hit home and we decided to head back to the hotel and call it a night, as we had an early day upcoming.

 

March 1, 2007

SEOUL to TAIPEI - DR. SUN YAT-SEN MEMORIAL, TAIPEI 101, BEITOU HOT SPRINGS and SHILIN

We were off again at 6:05am aboard the KAL Airport Limousine Bus to Incheon Airport where we checked in and awaited our flight to Taipei.  We landed on time but then waited over 35 minutes in the Immigration line.  We collected our luggage and then went to the Tourist Desk where we picked up our Youth Cards (luckily for us, we are still considered youths for a few more months!).  The Youth Card gave us discounts at several different stores and attractions.  We located the "Free Go Bus" (sometimes spelled 'Fe Go Bus') which is ironically not really free but costs NT$135.  It is so named because its Chinese name ("flying dog") sounds a lot like "Free Go" (hence the Dalmatian on the side of the bus).  Unfortunately, the bus did not stop in front of our  hotel on the way in from the airport so we had to take a taxi to the hotel from the drop-off point.  We checked in and then walked to the National Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial and caught the Changing of the Guards.  Dr. Sun Yat-sen is revered in many parts of Asia and is thought of by many as the "Father of Modern China," although the significance of his role in the overthrow of the Imperial system is debated.  Inside the building is an enormous statue of Sun Yat-sen.  Then we walked to nearby Taipei 101, currently the world's tallest building.  It is so named because of its 101 floors, and holds additional records for having the greatest height between the ground and the roof, between the ground and the highest occupied floor, and also for having the largest countdown clock on New Year's Eve!  We ate in the food court and then went up the tower.  The elevators to the 89th floor, designed by Toshiba, arrives in only 37 seconds at a speed of 63km/h, which is also a world record!  Unfortunately, it was an overcast day and the views from the top were not that great.  After Taipei 101, we took the complimentary shuttle to the MRT station and then proceeded to Xin Beitou, which is famous for its natural hot springs developed during the Japanese era (1895-1945).  This area was also at one point a red light district, but had been cleaned up in the late 1980s by the government.  We walked 20 minutes up a very steep incline past the Beitou Hot Springs Museum (which is housed in the building that used to be the main public bath) to the Spring City Resort, a five-star hot springs resort at the top of the mountain.  We rented a private bath and soaked for an hour in the sulphurous and acidic water, which was rejuvenating.  Afterwards, we took the hotel's shuttle back to the MRT station and headed to Shilin Night Market, which houses the largest and most famous night market in Taipei.  We tried some Taiwanese favourites: fried chicken cutlets, fried buns (sheng jian bao), tapioca jelly, and oyster omelet.  We would have eaten more except that we both found the smell from the famous stinky tofu extremely nauseating, and quickly lost our appetites (and almost our dinners!).  We decided to take the MRT back to the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial station and then took a cab the rest of the way to our hotel and called it a night.

National Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial

Taipei 101

Sheng Jian Bao at Shilin Night Market

 

March 2, 2007

TAIPEI, TAIWAN - DIN TAI FUNG, ICE MONSTER, CKS MEMORIAL, TEMPLES, and HSIMENTING

We woke up and walked to the Core Pacific Living Mall, one of the largest shopping malls in Taipei.  Inside there are endless activities: you can eat, shop, bowl, watch movies, play pool, roller skate, and sing karaoke.  When the mall was built it was open 24/7, but unfortunately, on our visit it was 10:30am and most of the mall was closed.  Feeling hungry, we decided to take a taxi to Din Tai Fung, a world-famous restaurant for juicy pork buns (xiao long bao; steamed pork dumplings).  The restaurant was fantastic - excellent service, non-smoking, air-conditioned, spacious - and the food itself was superb.  The juicy pork buns had paper-thin skin, delicious filling, and tons of bubbling hot juice.  We also tried other dumplings and a Szechuan beef noodle, which were both tasty.  The restaurant now has outlets in Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Jakarta, Shanghai, and even North America, although reviews report that the original in Taiwanese outlets are still the best.  Din Tai Fung was once ranked as one of the Top 10 Restaurants in the world by the New York Times, and we could clearly see why.

The Dumpling Chefs at Din Tai Fung

Without Question - Best Xiao Long Bao

Piping Hot!

 

Next we turned the corner and headed down the famous Yongkam Street, known for its many restaurants.  We stopped at a famous dessert place named Ice Monster.  Their specialty is a plateful of shaved ice topped with a special syrup, on to which three different types of fruit (strawberry, mango, and kiwi) are piled.  Condensed milk and some other syrup are then placed on top of this.  The result?  An absolutely refreshing, delicious and unparalleled dessert!  After wolfing down our dessert we crossed the street to try a green onion pancake (cheung yaio beng) and then went to another restaurant on Yongkam Street to enjoy even more juicy pork buns (however, this place was not nearly as good as Din Tai Fung). 

Ice Monster - So Refreshing!

Lots of Food on Yongkam Street

Green Onion Pancake

 

After thoroughly stuffing ourselves, we walked about 15 minutes to the National Chiang Kai-shek (CKS) Memorial Hall where preparations were being made for the annual Taipei Lantern Festival.  This memorial hall was completed in 1980 in memory of Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Kuomingting (KMT) party (and protégé of Dr. Sun Yat-sen) who was forced out of China by the communists led by Mao Zedong.  In Taiwan (which is today still known as the Republic of China), he established the KMT as the ruling government and declared martial law.  In 1975, when he died at the age of 89, revelers around the world donated money to build his memorial, which truly is an impressive set of buildings set on 240,000 square meters of prime real estate.  We walked through the Memorial Hall and the two surrounding, and equally impressive, buildings - the National Concert Hall and National Theater.

CKS Memorial Hall

"The Gate of Great Centrality & Perfect Uprightness"

Taipei Lantern Festival

 

Most people who have traveled to Taipei will report that they visited dozens of temples, and our next two stops were a Confucian temple and a Buddhist temple.  We arrived at the Yuanshan Station, grabbed a bubble tea, and within 5 minutes we were at the Confucian Temple.  Confucianism is not a true religion, but is rather a code of discipline and way of thinking.  Confucius was born in 551 BC into a poor deposed noble family.  Records indicate that he was conceived out of wedlock, with his father being 70 and his mother only 18 at his birth.  He grew up in poverty but eventually became a Justice Minister in his later life.  His many teachings, which were compiled after his death in 479 BC, have been a major influence of Chinese and Asian life and thought for over 2000 years.  Sadly, his ideas were not accepted during his lifetime.  This particular temple was very peaceful and serene.  In contrast, the Bao-an Buddhist Temple across the street was large, ornate, and extremely busy.  Dozens of people were making offerings and prayers (we think it was some significant day in the Buddhist religion).  This Taoist temple is devoted to the god of medicine.  It was built in 1830 to house the statue of the god brought to Taiwan by early immigrants from Fuijian province in China in the late 18th century.  After visiting these two famous temples, we took the MRT to Shunglian station where we ate famous Taiwanese beef noodle soup at the winner of the 2006 noodle competition - Lao Don Beef Noodle Soup.  We ordered one original and one tomato beef noodle soup.  The beef was tender and the noodles had great texture, but we did not enjoy the soup that much.  Our Cantonese palates are perhaps unaccustomed to Taiwanese flavours.

Bao-an Buddhist Temple

Original Beef Noodle Soup

Tomato Beef Noodle Soup

 

The MRT next took us to the Longshan Temple, which is a Buddhist and Taoist temple built in 1738, also by settlers from the Fujian Province in China.  This temple has been destroyed and rebuilt many times, and it was even bombed by the Americans in WWII, who believed that it housed hidden Japanese armaments inside!  We stayed briefly here before walking to Hsimenting, a pedestrian development with many theaters, shops and restaurants.  This area is also the heart of Taipei's youth scene.  We ate another chicken cutlet and also had some cold drinks.  Following this, we took the MRT back to Longshan station and visited the Hwasi Tourist Night Market.  This place is famous for its snakes and other exotic animals.  One can sample snake soup and drink snake bile amongst other rather unappetizing snake products.  We were not so adventurous and just tried a Yuangfeng Steamed Sandwich (bun with filling).  Now at the end of a long day, we decided that we needed to relive our morning meal so took the MRT back to CKS Memorial station and walked back to Yongkam Street.  We had more juicy pork buns at Din Tai Fung and another shaved ice dessert at Ice Monster before returning to the hotel and calling it a day.

Longshan Temple

Hwasi Market (Snake Alley)

Lanterns Lit Up at CKS Memorial Hall

 

March 3, 2007

 

TAIPEI to TOKYO - "WHERE CAN I GET RAMEN?"

We enjoyed breakfast at the hotel (Doug bargained with the manager to get this for ~$5 per person, since the television in our room was not working properly) and then took a taxi to the Taipei domestic airport where we were able to catch a shuttle to the Taoyuan International Airport for our flight to Toyko.  They had just implemented the 100mL liquid and plastic Ziploc baggy restrictions at the Taipei airports and we were warned to get to the airport 3 hours before flight time due to the resultant security chaos.  We arrived early and found that there was no lineup!  We boarded our flight to Tokyo and soon we arrived at Narita Airport.  We took the Airport Limo Bus into town which, in traffic, took 2 hours!  Apparently Narita Airport is cursed by many world travelers for the significant time and expense it takes to get to the city.  At the end of March, Japan Rail is implementing a new combination "Suica" card which will include half-priced train tickets from Narita Airport as well as ~$10 of travel aboard the city's trains, subways, and buses.  The public transportation in Tokyo is extensive but is truly a dizzying array - there are the government-operated Japan Rail train lines, 6 subway lines operated by Tokyo Metro, 4 subway lines operated by Toei, and a number of independent lines to further confuse matters.  At the time of our travel, there was not one ticketing system that would allow transport on all lines, nor were there true transfers between systems.  This was scheduled to all change by the end of the month when a universal card - Pasmo - is to be introduced.

 

When we arrived we found that our hotel room at the Crowne Plaza Metropolitan in Ikebukuro was absolutely tiny, with a small double bed pushed up against the window.  To our amazement, we were told that we had already been upgraded to a larger room!  We headed out into Ikebukuro and weren't able to find an alley filled with ramen shops as described by a guide book.  We ended up asking the SEGA mascot who walked everywhere with us but could not find it either!  We ended up eating at a delicious and cheap ramen shop and also enjoyed a massive takoyaki-looking ball.

Lost? Ask a SEGA Pig!

Delicious Ramen!

Giant Takoyaki Stand

 

March 4, 2007

TOKYO, JAPAN - MEIJI JINGU, HACHIKO, SUMIDA-GAWA CRUISE, ASAKUSA, and ROPPONGI HILLS

We grabbed breakfast at Mos Burger, the second largest franchise in Japan after McDonald's.  While we found the original Mos burger to be tasty, the real treat was a rice burger with seafood inside - very appetizing!  After breakfast, we jumped on the subway and headed to the Meiji Jingu Shrine.  At this Shinto shrine, which is dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken (who transformed medieval Japan into a modern state), we were fortunate enough to see a traditional wedding ceremony.  The large torii (gates) leading to the shrine are made of 1700-year-old cypress trees from Ali Shan in Taiwan.  The area around the train station (Harajuku) is also fascinating, because it is the home of teenage fashions and on Sundays, the teenage girls come out in full force with their Goth and Punk apparel and make-up (Cos-play-zoku = costume play gang).  We walked down the Takeshita Dori, which is one of the main teen shopping streets.  It leads to Omote-sando street, which houses some of the fanciest designer houses (including the world's largest Louis Vuitton store and a stunningly black glass building that is home to Prada) and very smartly dressed people.  We ate lunch at a famous tonkastsu restaurant - Maisen - which is located in a former bathhouse.  We tried two different types of tonkatsu - regular, and kurobata, one made from a special type of Chinese black boar which has less fat and a sweeter taste.  The three accompanying and tangy sauces on the table are all made in-house as well!

Mos Rice Burger

Meiji Jingu Shrine

Tonkatsu at Maisen

 

After eating some really fantastic tonkatsu, we headed back onto the subway towards Shibuya, the third-busiest train station in Tokyo.  We found the Hachiko exit and with some difficulty located the Hachiko Statue.  As legend has it, Hachiko was an Akita dog who walked to the Shibuya station with his owner (a University professor) each morning and met him off the train again in the evening.  Unfortunately, his owner died of a heart attack in 1925 but for the next 7 years, Hachiko would continue to come to the station and wait, until at last he too died.  There are some who say that Hachiko was loyal, some call him stupid, and yet others contend that the real reason he kept returning to the station was for food - apparently, he was found post-mortem to have yakitori sticks in his stomach!  Regardless, touched by such loyalty, the people of Toyko paid for the bronze statue outside of the station.  The Hachiko exit is also home to the craziest intersection in Tokyo - the so-called Scramble Kousaten, where traffic is stopped in all directions and people then walk (in an orderly fashion) in every direction!  We walked across this intersection and then went up to the Starbucks across the street for the best view.

Hachiko Statue

The Calm Before the Storm...

Unbelievably Orderly Pedestrian Traffic

 

After enjoying our drinks in the very hot and stuffy Starbucks (almost every interior building in Japan seemed to have the heat blasting and ambient temperature far too hot), we set out to Hinode Pier to take a Sumida-Gawa River Cruise to Asakusa.  We initially wanted to take the anime-inspired Himiko boat (no joke - this thing was designed by the anime artist Matsumoto Leiji), but unfortunately it was out of service.  Instead we took a regular boat underneath 12 different bridges to Asakusa.  This area is known as "traditional Toyko" and its main attraction is the Asakusa Kannon Temple, also known as the Sensoji Temple.  Legend has it that a golden image of Kannon, the Goddess of Compassion, was miraculously fished out of the nearby Sumidi-gawa by two fishermen in AD 628.  Therefore, a temple was built to house the image (whether the ancient image of Kannon really exists inside is a secret - it's not on public display).  To get to the temple, we walked through the Kaminarimon Gate (Thunder Gate) into the very busy Nakamise Shopping Arcade where we enjoyed many varieties of sembei (savoury rice crackers) made fresh on the spot.  In front of the temple is a large incense cauldron, whose smoke is said to bestow health.  We both rubbed smoke onto ourselves along with hundreds of other visitors, before heading into the temple and then to the adjacent street lined with food carts where we enjoyed a cup full of large pieces chicken for only 200 Yen ($2)!  The Asakusa area is also famous for its tempura, and we walked to the restaurant Edokko.  Our biased opinion: the tempura rice (ten-don) cost about $19 and honestly did not taste that good!

Nakamise Shopping Arcade

Fresh Rice Crackers Asakusa Kannon (Sensoji) Temple

 

Leaving Asakusa, we made a brief stop at Akibahara Electric City -  a stretch of several blocks where electronic and electrical parts shops are located.  In total there are more than 600 stores, some only six feet wide, dealing in electrical parts and gadgets of all kinds.  However, perhaps the most mind-boggling were the teenage males dressed in skirts, looking like anime characters!?!  After Akibahara, we took the subway to the Tokyo Tower where we also had a look at the Zojoji Temple.  This temple is dedicated to Jizo, the patron saint of travelers and departed children and today people still dedicate a small Jizo image to pray for the souls of children who died before birth (usually by miscarriage, stillbirth, or abortion).  We took some photos of the Tokyo Tower, which is a replica of the Eiffel Tower.  It is actually 13 meters taller than the Parisian version, making it the largest freestanding iron structure in the world.  Off on the subway again, our final tourist stop of the day was the Roppongi Hills Development.  This area is home to many gaijin (foreigners) and the development is very well laid out with commercial, residential, retail, and fine arts facilities carefully planned.  We finished the day by going back to eat in our neighbourhood - first at a great yakitori bar called Akiyoshi, then at our favourite ramen shop, and finally we also had a delicious banana/strawberry crepe on the street.

Zojoji Temple & Tokyo Tower

Rowdy Yakitori Bar

Banana/Strawberry Crepe

 

March 5, 2007

 

TOKYO, JAPAN - TSUKIJI FISH MARKET, GINZA, THE IMPERIAL PALACE, and SHINJUKU

The wake-up call came at 5:30am and soon we were off on the subway towards the Tsukiji Fish Market.  In a country where fish consumption is mind-boggling, Tsukiji is home to the world's largest fish market and provides 90% of Tokyo's fish supply.  The fresh tuna is auctioned off first, and then the frozen tuna.  We got there in time to see the frozen tuna getting carted off, and also thousands and thousands of other fish.  As the wholesaler's market is a working market, there are dozens of very fast moving motorized carts that transport the newly acquired fish at the risk of running over tourists.  After seeing the dizzying array of seafood, we walked to Uogashi Yokocho, an adjacent area lined with stores that sell knives, trinkets, fruits, vegetables, and lots of sushi shops, many with significant line-ups.  Since we are not big on raw fish even on a good day, we simply could not stomach eating sushi or sashimi this early in the morning.  Instead, we enjoyed the most delicious charcoal-barbequed jumbo scallop with extremely tasty juice and also ate a Japanese fast food establishment called Yoshinoyo (they also have outlets across Asia and in North America). 

Fresh Tuna at Tsukiji Fish Market

$30 for 12 Strawberries?!?!

Really Fresh Scallop

 

We next took the subway to the Ginza area, known as the Fifth Avenue of Tokyo.  Laying claim to the world's most expensive real estate, it houses several enormous department stores, designer stores such as Gucci, Prada, Hermés, Tiffany, Chanel, and Louis Vuitton, and the Sony Building.  Unfortunately, none of these stores were open (in Asia, most places open at 11:00am) so we headed to the ATM (it's far too easy to spend money in Japan) and then the nearest Starbucks to get our infusion of caffeine and to people-watch.  As the stores opened, we headed past the Wako Department Store (one of the few classical buildings remaining in Ginza that were not destroyed in WWII) to the Sony Building.  The newest gadgets including HD camcorders and Bravia screens were on display.  They even had a newer (but Japanese-only) version (KDS-60A2500) of the SXRD television we bought in September.  To make us homesick, the TV was playing a Blu-Ray disc about Whistler and Vancouver!  After lounging in the store, we set out on foot past "Yakitori Alley" (a small area under the train tracks where there are many yakitori stands) to Hibiya Park where there is a peaceful lake and some tennis courts.  We got a good laugh at the park map which indicated a section entitled: "Shelter for People Who Cannot Go Back Home."  The Japanese are really the most polite people in the world, even when describing their most unfortunate!  It's not quite cherry blossom season yet in Japan, but in Hibiya Park we did manage to see one confused tree with hundreds of cherry blossoms!

Ginza

Sign at Hibiya Park

Cherry Blossoms at Hibiya Park

 

At 1:30pm, we went to the Imperial Palace where we joined the free guided tour of the inside which we had booked in advance.  The current Imperial Palace (Kyuden) is located on the site of the former Edo Castle and is the residence of Japan's Imperial Family.  Edo Castle used to be the seat of the Tokugawa shogun who ruled Japan from 1603 until 1867.  In 1868, the shogunate was overthrown, and the country's capital and Imperial Residence were moved from Kyoto (the Imperial capital for over 1000 years) to Tokyo.  The palace was completely destroyed in WWII by Allied air raids and it was rebuilt in the same style afterwards.  The 1-hour walking tour took us to the Fujimi-yagura (Mt. Fuji-view Keep; one of the oldest remnants of Edo Castle), the rather unimpressive Imperial Palace Building, and the Meganebashi (Eyeglass) and Nijubashi (Double) Bridges. 

Fujimi-yagura Imperial Palace Building Meganeshi (Eyeglass) Bridge

 

After the tour we hopped onto the subway and headed to Shinjuku, one of the western suburbs of Tokyo.  Shinjuku was once the main red light district but has now been cleaned up and is the "new city" with many skyscrapers and shopping plazas.  We ate an Italian restaurant called Capricciosa, which has many locations across Tokyo.  The Japanese seem to really like Italian food!  The portions were large but the meal was expensive.  They had a most interesting dish called "cheese rice ball" which was actually quite tasty.  After having dinner, we headed out to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office where the twin towers completed in 1991 offer a free observation deck on the 45th floor.  It was extremely windy and it started raining but fortunately there is a covered underground pedestrian walkway that goes for nearly 1km from Shinjuku station to the base of the towers.  It was an overcast day and we were not able to see very far (it's said that one can see Mount Fuji on 1 out of every 5 days from these towers) but we did see the city light up for the night.  After sitting a while at the top, we headed back to the Shinjuku subway station where it was rush hour (rashawa in Japanese).  Shinjuku is the world's busiest station with over 3.3 million commuters passing through each day!  To help visualize how staggering that number is, imagine that every man, woman, and child in Greater Vancouver PLUS an additional 1 million people were transiting a Skytrain station each day!  This is quite a spectacle as there are thousands of people trying to get home after work and on each train platform there are people-pushers whose job is to ensure that the trains are packed full of as many bodies as possible.  They move everybody in, give a final shove to let the doors close, and then bow as the train pulls away!  We finally made it to our hotel in Ikebukuro and turned in early, in preparation for the next long day.

 

March 6, 2007

TOKYO to KYOTO and OSAKA - NIJO CASTLE, RYONAJI, KINKAKUJI, GINKAKUJI, KIYOMIZU, and GION

Up at 4:30am, we were off to the Shinegawa station to catch the earliest shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto, a 2-hour journey at 300km/h.  En route we had an excellent view of Mount Fuji.  We arrived in Kyoto just after 8:00am and wanted to stow our bags at the "Left Luggage" area.  However, it wasn't open until 9:00am so we went into the station's McDonald's to wait.  When the "Left Luggage" office opened, we stowed our bags but then realized that the office closes at 8:00pm.  Therefore, we had to turn back and retrieve our luggage (fortunately they gave us a refund) and then stowed it in 2 adjacent lockers nearby.  We headed to the Tourist Information Office and picked up a great bus map and a 1-day bus pass - a real bargain in Japan at only 500 Yen ($5).  Kyoto is incredibly tourist friendly - millions of tourists pass through each year.  Our first stop was Nijo Castle.  This castle was used by the shoguns who held governing power until 1868 when it was relinquished to the Emperor.  During the time of the shogunate, the Emperor was the figurehead leader of the country and was seen as divine, but had no real political or military power.  The castle is very impressive, and we enjoyed the main building (Niomaru Palace) where we learned about how the shoguns lived.  With 33 rooms and 800 tatami mats, this building has specially designed "nightingale floors," so named because they were built in such a way as to make noises resembling Nightingale bird calls when stepped upon.  This was important as part of the protection of the shogun (in the event that the moat and stone walls were inadequate).  There are also dozens of hidden alcoves where samurai would hide and be ready to spring out to defend the shogun.  Further, in the shogun's private living quarters (where he had dozens of concubines), there were also samurai guards hidden - but these ones were female since only females were allowed into this building.  We also had the good fortune of viewing Honmaru Palace, which is a secondary castle built within Nijo.  It is only open during certain times of the year.  The grounds of Nijo Castle, including the extensive gardens, were equally impressive.

Niomaru Palace at Nijo Castle

Moat at Nijo Castle

Honmaru Palace

 

After the Nijo Castle, we hopped on the bus to Ryonaji Temple, home to probably the most famous Zen rock garden in all of Japan.  Consisting of 15 rocks set in waves of raked white pebbles and surrounded on three sides by a clay wall and on the fourth by a wooden veranda, it was laid out at the end of the 15th century.  We also walked around the 1000-year-old pond which was beautifully landscaped.

World-Famous Zen Rock Garden

Inside Ryonaji Temple

1000-Year-Old Pond at Ryonaji Temple

 

Our next stop was Kinkakuji (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion) which is one of Kyoto's best-known attractions.  This temple was initially constructed in the 1390s as a retirement villa for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu and its main feature is a 3-storery pavilion covered in gold leaf with a roof topped by a bronze phoenix.  In actuality, what we saw was built in 1955 since a disturbed student monk burned down the original in 1950.  The pavilion had been re-covered in gold leaf in 1987 at 5 times the thickness of the original coating.  We headed back onto the bus towards the Kyoto Imperial Palace and grabbed some ramen for lunch.  We had pre-booked a 1-hour walking tour of the Palace for 2:00pm but we weren't able to make it in time and therefore we could not enter the palace grounds.  However, outside the palace, the cherry blossoms were starting to bloom and many people were taking photos.

Kinkakuji

Entrance to Kyoto Imperial Palace

Cherry Blossoms at the Imperial Palace

 

Ginkakuji (The Temple of the Silver Pavilion) was our next stop.  This structure, which was built in 1942, was to be the retirement home of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who was the grandson of the shogun who built the Golden Pavilion.  He intended to coat Ginkakuji with silver foil, just like his grandfather had done with Kinkakuji, but he died before this could be accomplished.  Therefore, the Silver Pavilion is not silver at all but remains a simple, 2-story wood structure which is today considered one of the more beautiful structures in Kyoto.  Outside the pavilion in the garden is a mound of sand, shaped to resemble Mount Fuji.  We enjoyed some takoyaki on our way to the bus stop, and then hopped on the bus bound for Kiyomizu Temple.

Ginkakuji (Not Really Silver)

Mound of Sand Representing Mount Fuji

Takoyaki

 

Kiyomizu Temple is definite must-see in Japan.  This temple is a candidate for the New Seven Wonders of the World and is the temple seen in many of the advertisements and guidebooks of Japan.  It is constructed high up on Mount Otowa, with its main hall overlooking a steep cliff and offers amazing views.  To the Japanese, the idiom "jumping from the veranda of Kiyomizu Temple" means that they are about to undertake some particularly bold or daring adventure.  Other interesting sites at the temple are the Jishu Shrine (the dwelling of the god of love and matchmaking) and its "love-fortune-telling" stones.  It is said that if you're able to walk with your eyes closed from one stone to the other placed 30 ft. away, your desires for love will be granted.  Dozens of Japanese were also lining up to get a taste of the water from Otowa Falls, which is known for the purity of its water (kiyomizu translates as "pure water").

Absolutely "Must-See" Kiyomizu Temple

Gloria Walking for Love

People Lining Up for the "Pure Water"

 

We were keen to visit the Heian Shrine next but the sightseeing bus had stopped running at 5:00pm!  Instead we took a bus to Gion, the area famous for geishas.  We were fortunate enough to see at least half a dozen geishas (or were they maiko - training geishas?) walking all to one central building, obviously to some event.  We next went to Gion Corner, which is a theater for tourists, where we watched the 7:00pm show which showcased traditional Japanese tea ceremony, Koto music, flower arranging, Gagaku (Court Music), Kyogen (Ancient Comic Play), Kyomai (Kyoto style dancing), and Bunraku (puppet play). 

A Genuine Geisha?

Kyogen (Ancient Comic Play)

Kyomai (Kyoto-Style Dancing)

 

We were initially very concerned when we saw Kyoto's weather forecast for the day calling for showers, but it turned out to be a mainly sunny (but frigid) day.  It was the coldest day of our entire trip, with temperatures hovering around 3°C and at times with hail and snow!  Fortunately, all the vending machines in Japan dispense hot beverages in cans! We enjoyed lemon tea and green tea out of the vending machines, and at one of the machines we even had an ice-cold grape drink (with real crushed ice).  There are about 5.5 million vending machines in Japan, which means that there are at least 4 vending machines per 100 individuals, and in the cities this ratio increases to 1 per 30!  Why can't our vending machines be so sophisticated? 

 

Now thoroughly exhausted and cold from a really full touring day that started 17 hours earlier, we headed back to the train station, unlocked our bags, and then headed on the train to Osaka.  We located our hotel, the Hilton Osaka, and grabbed a quick bite to eat (including famous Osaka takoyaki - there are dozens of stands selling these all over the place, and apparently many Osaka residents own their own takoyaki grill) before heading off to bed.

 

March 7, 2007

 

OSAKA to PHUKET - FROM FREEZING COLD TO HOT AND HUMID

This morning's wake-up call was not nearly as brutal at 6:00am, and we grabbed breakfast in the hotel before heading on the Limo Bus for the 1-hour ride to the Kansai airport.  After a 4-hour flight, we had a short layover in Hong Kong before boarding our Dragonair flight to Phuket.  We thought of Dragonair as a low-budget airline run by Cathay Pacific, but it turns out that we had full service with comfortable seats with a meal that included Häagen-Dazs ice cream, Chinese tea by Fook Ming Tong, and butter cookies from Denmark by Kjeldsens! 

 

We arrived in Phuket (31°C instead of 3°C in Osaka) on schedule and took a taxi to our gorgeous hotel - the Sheraton Grande Laguna Phuket.  The view during the ride was a bit disheartening as we saw a lot of poverty on the island.  Thailand is interesting in that it is the only Southeastern Asian country which was never colonized by a European power.  The current era of Thai history began in 1782 following the establishment of Bangkok as capital of the Chakri dynasty under King Rama I.  The absolute monarchy was overthrown in 1932 in a bloodless revolution but still today Thais highly revere their U.S.-born and Swiss-educated monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is the 9th king of the Chakri dynasty (Rama IX).  He is one the longest reigning monarchs in current day history, having recently celebrated the 60th Anniversary Celebration of His Accession to the Throne in 2006.

 

March 8, 2007

PHUKET, THAILAND - RELAXING ON THE BEAUTIFUL ANDAMAN SEA

This was our first truly relaxing day on this whole trip and we decided we would do pretty much nothing all day.  We started by sleeping in and then exploring some of the nearby resorts.  The Sheraton is one of 5 resorts in the area (collectively called the Laguna Resort) all connected by a series of canals and lagoons and having a common bay and beach - Bang Tao Bay.  The Banyan Tree is the most exclusive of the hotels, with rooms starting at US$300/night.  Prior to development, the area was a deserted tin mine with an unused beach.  A sixth hotel is now under construction and yes, they did try to get us to go to their "90-minute" timeshare presentation with a "free" 4000THB ($140) to spend anywhere in the resort.  We resisted the temptation as offers in Thailand that are too good to be true generally are exactly that!  All the resorts seemed very empty and we pretty much had the beach all to ourselves!  We enjoyed a fresh chilled young coconut, local mangoes (super sweet and soft, with tiny flat pits), and local pineapples, and took a stroll on the beach.  For lunch we ate at a Thai restaurant on the beach (all by ourselves!) where we had Thai fish cakes, green curry, pad thai, and pineapple fried rice served in a pineapple.  It was delicious and cheap (by North American standards - probably really overpriced for locals!). 

Gloria and the Hotel's Baby Elephant

Ice Cold Young Coconut

Bang Tao Beach

Thai Mangoes - Cheap and Delicious

Pad Thai Eating Lunch on the Beach

 

After an afternoon nap (it was 35°C outside at high noon and we escaped into the air-conditioned room), we lay on the beach for a while, strolled in the sand, and then had a sunset dinner on the beach at a local Thai restaurant.

Eating Dinner on the Beach

Fruit Ice Made From Real Fresh Fruit

Phuket Sunset

 

March 9, 2007

 

PHUKET to BANGKOK - FROM SAND TO SPRAWLING METROPOLIS

We had lunch again at the beachside restaurant before checking out of the hotel.  We found the whole transportation business very suspicious.  The taxi driver who took us to the resort tried to sell us tickets to the FantaSea show, but surprisingly he was not willing to pick us up for the return journey to the airport, describing the resort as "the mafia."  We asked the concierge to arrange a taxi for us - quoted at 600THB - and an unmarked vehicle with no meter showed up with a youngster who looked like he was into street racing.

 

We arrived into Bangkok and grabbed a taxi to our hotel, the Westin Grande.  Bangkok (translates into "village of wild plums") is a sprawling metropolis with over 9 million residents (over a tenth of the Thai population) and is home to over 80% of the country's university graduates.  In fact, its correct name is not even Bangkok.  This name was initially given to the area west of the Chao Phraya River (present-day Thonburi) and what is called Bangkok by foreigners today was actually founded in 1782 and is known to the Thais by its proper name, Krung Thep (translates into "city of angels").  For further complication, Krung Thep is actually an abbreviated form of the entire Thai name: Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit.  According to the Guinness Book of World Records, this is the longest place name in the world!  Surprisingly, some Thais are able to recite the entire name off by heart!

 

The legendary traffic snarls in Bangkok were truly awful.  Fortunately, our hotel was located at the edge of the city, close to the expressway leading from the brand new Suvarnabhumi airport.  We checked in and then took the BTS Skytrain to Siam Paragon, which is one of Asia's largest malls.  This upscale mall completely changed our perception of Thailand as this was the polar opposite of what we saw in rural Phuket island!  The ground floor of Siam Paragon has an amazing food court with a marketplace that looked almost like Harrod's in Kensington.  The people walking around were stylish and were toting the latest designer clothes and accessories.  We ate at a Thai restaurant and then to our joy we saw a display of many different types of mangoes, including R2E2 mangoes which we had encountered (and loved) in Australia.  We bought two of each type (six mangoes in total) and headed back to our hotel to enjoy them.

 

March 10, 2007

BANGKOK, THAILAND - GRAND PALACE, WAT PHRA KAEW, WAT PHO, WAT ARUN, and VINANMEK

We headed off on the BTS Skytrain towards Sapham Taksim, the station by the Chao Phraya River, and bought a 1-day tourist pass aboard the Chao Phraya River Express Boats.  We hopped on the special tourist boat (with English commentary) and were told that they run every 30 minutes throughout the day.  We were also told that the boat stops in front of the Royal Barges Museum, whereas the regular boats stop a distance away and one has to walk there.  Our first stop along the river was the Grand Palace and the Wat Phra Kaew on its grounds.  Along the way, many people tried to sell us boat tours and one even stopped us to tell us that Doug could not enter because he was wearing shorts (there is a dress code inside Royal property).  Fortunately, we had read all about these scammers who tried to divert you away from the main attractions and into their stores where they sell you overpriced gems, so we kept walking towards the main entrance.  If you do get to the main entrance, there are signs from the Tourism Authority of Thailand advising you to ignore and avoid the strangers who are offering this and that, as they are not to be trusted.  Once at the entrance, Doug was loaned a pair of blue track pants so that he could enter.  The Grand Palace complex, with over 100 brightly coloured buildings, golden spires, and glistening mosaics, dates back to 1782 to when Bangkok was founded.  It is truly a spectacle and on this day was absolutely swarmed with tourists of all types.  We walked around and saw the Phra Si Rattana Chedi (claimed to hold the ashes of Buddha), a miniature model of Angkor Wat (Cambodia used to be part of the Thai empire), the Palace itself (no longer used as a royal residence), and of course, the Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha). Wat Phra Kaew is Thailand's most important and sacred temple.  Inside, it houses the tiny (2-foot) "Emerald Buddha" that is actually made of jade, and not emerald.  This Buddha is thought to have been made in the 15th century and is considered a talisman by the Thai people.  It wears 3 different robes throughout the year (which are changed by the King himself) - a diamond encrusted gold robe during the hot season, a solid gold robe during the cold season, and a gilded monk's robe in the rainy season.  When the statue was first found in 1434 it was covered in stucco.  Years later, the stucco started to crumble away and several miracles occurred, giving the Buddha a reputation for bringing good fortune.  Inside the temple are also many interesting murals depicting the stories of Buddha.  Wat Phra Kaew is unique also in that it is the only temple in Thailand that does not have resident monks.

Grand Palace Guardian

Gloria Fitting In at the Golden Chedi

The Grand Palace Complex

 

We exited the Grand Palace and walked south in the blistering 35°C heat (Doug's neck got burned) to our next destination, Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha).  This is the largest (20 acres) and oldest (over 400 years old) wat in Bangkok and houses the greatest number of Buddha images in Thailand (over 1000) as well as the country's largest reclining Buddha.  The enormous 151-foot gold-plated reclining Buddha shows the passing of Buddha into nirvana.  The feet and the eyes are engraved with mother-of-pearl decoration, depicting 108 signs of Buddha.  Wat Pho is also famous as Thailand's first university and is center for traditional Thai massage.  We were too hot and sweaty to want any massage, and moreover we've been told that the genuine Thai massage is hardly gentle!  We instead opted for a chilled young coconut - a bargain at 20THB ($0.70).

Inside Wat Pho The Reclining Buddha Mother-of-Pearl Decoration

 

We crossed the Chao Phraya River to our next stop, the Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn).  This is one of the most published images of Bangkok and consists of one large 341-foot prang (Khmer-styled tower) surrounded by four smaller ones.  It is decorated by bits of porcelain which had previously been used as ballast by boats coming to Bangkok from China.  It was chosen as the royal temple and palace by King Taksin as it was the first place in Thonburi to catch the morning light. It also used to house the Emerald Buddha before it was moved to Wat Pho. 

Wat Arun

Central Prang

Ordination Hall at Wat Arun

 

We took the cross-river ferry back to the eastern side of the river and then jumped in a taxi to Dusit Palace, the current residence of the Royal Family.  Most of the palace grounds are closed off to the public but we did have the opportunity to visit Vimanmek Mansion (the taxi driver initially started heading back towards the Grand Palace - most of the drivers do not speak or read any English and we had difficulty with communication). This 81-room mansion is the largest teakwood mansion in the world and was constructed in 1900 by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), and it housed his substantial number of wives and children (over 100).  The entire building was constructed in Thai style - without using a single metal nail.  It had been abandoned from 1908 until 1982 when it was revived for the 200th anniversary of the city.  We went on the guided tour and were taken to many different rooms - all very western in style (Rama V loved all things western).  One interesting story was about one of King Rama V's 77 sons - Prince Chakrabongse - who became second in line to the throne after his brother, Crown Prince Vajirunahit, died suddenly at the age of 16.  However, to his parents' disapproval, Prince Chakrabongse (who was educated in St Peterburg) secretly married a beautiful Russian ballerina and therefore gave up his right to the thrown.  Prince Vajiravudh, his elder brother, would eventually succeed his father and become King Rama VI.  Prince Chakrabongse and his farang (foreigner) wife would had a son (the first mixed blood royal member), but he sadly passed away at the tender age of 27 without fathering any children.  After touring the mansion, we were tired and hungry and decided to eat in the complex's cafeteria.  Most eateries at tourist attractions are notorious tourist traps, but we couldn't believe how good the food was at this cafeteria where everything was cooked to order.  It was also remarkably cheap - pad thai was only 30THB ($1.05) and fried rice with large prawns was only 50THB ($1.74)!

Ananda Samakom Throne Hall

Vimanmek Mansion

The Expansive Dusit Palace

 

After eating, we hopped into a taxi and told the driver to take us to the Royal Barges Museum.  Unfortunately, this fellow could not speak or read English, and had no idea where we wanted to go, even after showing him on the map (the English maps don't have Thai on them, making them useless to the taxi drivers).  He ended up taking us near the Grand Palace (this seems to be the default location when taxi drivers are unsure where to take you) and so we had him drop us off at the nearby Tha Tien pier in order to try to reach the Museum by boat.  At the pier, we kept an eye out for the tourist boat which was supposed to stop at the Royal Barges Museum but it was nowhere to be seen.  Fortunately, our day passes allowed us to take the regular express boats as well, and so we took the boat to the nearest pier to the Museum.  After walking half a kilometer and getting lost twice before locating the sidewalk-less bridge we were supposed to cross, we decided to call it quits and head back.  We wanted to go to Chinatown and the Wat Traimit (Temple of the Gold Buddha) but it was already 5:00pm and the wat was already closed.  We therefore called it a day and headed back to the hotel.

 

March 11, 2007

 

BANGKOK, THAILAND - SNAKES, WAT TRAIMIT, and ERAWAN SHRINE

Our first stop today was the Snake Farm, or Queen Saowapha Memorial Institute.  We headed out on the MRT towards Sam Yan station and then walked a short distance to this excellent site.  This snake farm is affiliated with the Thai Red Cross and houses a number of different venomous snakes found in Thailand with the purpose of developing anti-venom serum for treating the victims of snakebites (which is frequent, since most of Thailand is rural).  We watched an informative (and graphic) slideshow on the different types of venomous snakes and learned how the anti-venom serum is made at the large horse farm in nearby Hua Hin.  Then we went outside for the demonstration.  We saw different species of cobras and vipers in very close proximity and our presenter indicated that every handler in the facility had been bitten at least twice by snakes.  In fact, he himself had been bitten by a Siamese cobra in the right hand, which caused severe necrosis to his wrist, and the dorsum of his hand needed a large skin graft from his forearm.  We watched as he milked venom from a viper and also force-fed it chicken, and then we had the opportunity to take a photo with a non-venomous snake.

Extremely Venomous Snakes Milking Venom From a Viper

Non-Venomous Snake!

 

We then hopped into a taxi and headed to Chinatown.  By the 14th century, Chinese merchants had set up important trading centers in Thailand and were the only foreigners allowed to live within the walls of Ayutthaya.  The Chinese were already well-established in Bangkok when King Rama I built his capital on their grounds in 1782 and moved them to the current location of Chinatown.  We walked down Yaowarat Road where we saw dozens and dozens of gold shops selling 24K yellow gold, and for this reason it is called "Gold Street."  We also walked along Sampeng Lane (a bustling and narrow alleyway which before Yaowarat was the main street) and into Nakorn Kasem, the so-called Thieves' Market (named because it used to be the place where all the stolen goods were sold).   Apparently Thailand's Chinatown is very famous for shark's fin soup and a "natural aphrodisiac" - bird's nest soup (made from the saliva and secretions of a small swift that makes its home in the southern islands of Thailand).  We did not try either but instead continued on to Wat Traimit (Temple of the Gold Buddha).  This wat houses a 10-foot Gold Buddha which at 7.4 tons in weight is thought to be the largest golden Buddha image in the world.  The sculpture, made in Sukhothai in the 13th century, was covered with stucco to protect it from the Burmese invaders of the 18th century.  It was not until 1955, when workmen moving the Buddha image to a new building saw through some cracks in the stucco and noticed something shining beneath the surface, that it was discovered to be a gold Buddha!  The statue is currently valued at nearly US$60 million(!) and there are several bits of stucco on display beside it.  By this time we were getting hungry, so we took a taxi to Siam Paragon and ate at the food hall again.  After exploring the upscale mall, we took the monorail to the Erawan Shrine.  The shrine was erected as a spirit house connected to the Erawan Hotel.  However, the forces of the typical Thai spirit house didn't seem effective enough during the building of the hotel, so spirit doctors advised that it be replaced with the four-headed image of Brahma.  There have been no further hitches since then, and the shrine has become famous for bringing good fortune.  Lots of people were offering colourful flower garlands, lotus flowers, incense and candles at the shrine.  For those who had a wish granted, the spirits are supposed to be thanked by donating teak elephants or commissioning the classical dancers and live orchestra.  Over 95% of Thais practise Theravada Buddhism, and the Erawan Shrine attracts Thais old and young, including fashionable younger women in the latest Western designer clothes, who kneel down to perform the same traditional rites.  For dinner, we were too lazy to venture far and had McDonald's for dinner.  It may sound silly to eat at McDonald's when you can eat it anytime at home, but you surely can't get a "Samurai Pork Burger" at the Canadian McDonald's and in Thailand even Ronald McDonald gives a traditional Thai greeting!

Sampeng Lane in Chinatown

Erawan Shrine

Thai Ronald McDonald

 

March 12, 2007

BANGKOK to SINGAPORE - ESPLANADE, MAKANSUTRA HAWKER STALLS and NIGHT SAFARI

After checking out of our Bangkok hotel, we grabbed a taxi and headed to the Suvarnabhumi airport.  The plane was full of loud mainlanders but the flight was short and soon we said our goodbyes to Thailand and arrived into Singapore on time.  Singapore derives its name from the Sanskrit term Singapura, which means Lion City.  Malay legend has it that the island was so named when a Sumatran prince mistook a tiger for a lion on the island in the 14th century.  However, it was not until the 19th century that the city really came to life under the direction of a British Civil Servant by the name of Sir Stamford Raffles.  In 1965, Singapore gained independence from Britain and in 1959, a third-generation Straits-born Chinese by the name of Lee Kuan Yew became the first prime minister.  Under his paternal reign, Singapore pursed an ambitious and highly successful program of defence, health, education, pension, and housing schemes.  Singapore truly is a modern-day "economic miracle" - it is a tiny place of only 683 km2 with no natural resources which has become entrenched as a prominent Asian financial center.  Today, the city is a fascinating multicultural mix of 77% Chinese, 14% Malay, and 8% other ethnicities living under the strictest of governments.  There are even four official languages - Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, and English!  That's if you can even understand their English (aka Singlish), which is such a mix of the official languages with novel words and a thick accent that it can be quite difficult to understand.  For example, Singaporeans often say: Can? (Is that OK?), Can! (No problem, that's cool with me!), and they often add lah to the end of every sentence!

 

We grabbed our luggage and then took the MRT to our hotel, the Swissotel, The Stamford.  We walked towards the Esplanade - Theatres by the Sea which is a fascinating arts building shaped like a durian.  Others have described the look of the buildings as a flies' eyes or melting honeycombs, but in our opinion, the resemblance to durian is undeniable.  Speaking of smelly durian, the public transit corporation has funny "no durian" signs (durian with a red diagonal line) all over the place, and the hotel specifically forbids durian in its rooms!  This Esplanade arts and theater development opened in 2002 as the cornerstone of a government program to turn Singapore into an arts hub.  It was built on reclaimed waterfront land at a cost of $600 million.  Since the whole thing sits on a humungous rubber slab, it took two years to prepare the site to support the building.  The theatres were then built from the inside out.  Nearby, we ate at the Makansutra Gluttons Bay hawker stalls.  Known as the food detective, flamboyant TV food detective Makansutra tracks down elusive hawker stalls and food centers in search of Singapore's best and brightest.  His company brought together 12 of Singapore's best hawker stalls to an open-air plaza next to the Esplanade.  The main cuisine in Singapore is a very interesting mix known as Peranakan (Straits-born Chinese-Malays).  We enjoyed some Singaporean specialties - char kwao teow (fried flat noodles with chili, prawns, a type of mollusk called cockles, egg, bean sprouts, and Chinese chives) and satay beef and chicken skewers (tasty and cheap!).  For a drink, we tried an Indonesian dessert called iced chendol, which is a strange but tasty concoction of shaved ice, coconut milk, red beans, palm sugar and a green starch jelly which looks like spaghetti, all topped with condensed milk.  A number of years ago, Singapore cleaned up its hawker stalls and relocated them into hawker food centers, where there can be hundreds of stalls.  They are regularly inspected for cleanliness and each stall is assigned a health rating (A being the best).  Surprisingly, most of these tiny stalls at Gluttons Bay had a B or even the occasional A rating. 

Esplanade - Theatres By The Sea

Char Kwao Teow

Satay Beef and Chicken

 

After enjoying our dinner, we took a taxi to the award-winning Night Safari.  This was a very interesting attraction where a tram takes you on a "safari" to see the zoo's animals.  It's like going to the zoo, but at night instead of during the day, and the ambient lighting makes it a slightly different adventure.  The park also had some fire performers (not as good as the ones at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii) and also a nightly show called "Creatures of the Night" (which was not that great).  After the show, we took a shuttle back along Orchard Road (the famous Singapore shopping street - one of the world's densest shopping areas) and then walked back to our hotel, which was easy to spot in the distance since it's Asia's tallest hotel.

 

March 13, 2007

SINGAPORE - LITTLE INDIA, CHINATOWN, MERLION, and EAST COAST SEAFOOD CENTRE

It was scorching hot today as we started off our day by visiting the Fountain of Wealth at Suntec City.  This development, completed in 1995, was designed with an emphasis on feng shui.  The five buildings and the convention center are arranged so that they look like a left hand when viewed aerially, and the Fountain of Wealth looks like a golden ring in the palm of the hand.  As the fountain, which is the world's largest, is made of bronze, it is believed that the balance of metal and water paves the way to success.  During the daytime, the fountain is turned off and we had the opportunity to walk around a mini fountain at the center of the fountain's base with one hand touching the water for good luck.  Incidentally, the Fountain of Wealth was featured in season 3 of The Amazing Race.  We also walked a bit down the reclaimed waterfront and caught a glimpse of Merlion Park.

Fountain of Wealth

Touching the Water for Good Fortune

Singapore Waterfront - Merlion Park

 

Next we hopped onto the MRT for Little India.  Sir Stamford Raffles divided his city of Singapore into different ethnic enclaves and administrative/financial regions, and these divisions in most part still persist today.  For lunch we ate at a famous restaurant called Banana Leaf Apolo.  Here we tried their famous fish head curry which is served not on a plate but on a banana leaf (scooping with your hands is optional).  We also tried their calamari curry.  Both of these dishes are generally washed down with ice-cold calamansi juice, which tastes a bit like lemonade.  We walked around Little India which we didn't find that impressive - probably because we are used to walking down Fraser Street in Vancouver anyway!  We briefly visited the Tekka Centre wet market but we were too full to eat!

Eating Off a Banana Leaf Fish Head Curry Little India Arcade

 

Our next stop was Chinatown.  Being just 1° north of the equator, the year-round heat and humidity of Singapore was truly blistering and we purposefully went the wrong direction on the MRT in order to get more air-conditioning!  In fact, air conditioners account for one-third of Singapore's electricity usage.  Singapore has an enormous Chinese population, most of whom speak Mandarin as well as their local tongue.  The Hokkien, Teochew, and Hainanese form three-quarters of the Chinese population while Cantonese and Hakka people account for the remaining one-quarter.  Exiting the cool Chinatown MRT station, we walked down Pagoda Street to the Sri Mariamman Temple.  This colourfully-decorated Hindu temple, which is Singapore's largest, is ironically located in the city's Chinatown.  We then walked a short distance to the Maxwell Food Centre where we had drinks and chicken curry puff.  We hopped back on the MRT (yes, going the wrong direction on purpose again) and eventually ended up at Lau Pa Sat.  Built in 1894, this hawker center is the largest remaining Victorian filigree cast-iron structure in Southeast Asia.  We enjoyed a shaved ice dessert but unfortunately the most famous food stalls behind Lau Pa Sat - the ones selling 50-cent sizzling satay skewers cooked over a charcoal flame - were not open until later in the evening!  We took the MRT to Boat Quay and then walked to the Merlion Statue (fictional half-lion, half-fish figure designed for the Singapore Tourism Board in 1964) for a close-up look.  One of five approved merlions in Singapore, this one has porcelain skin and red tea cups as eyes!  At this point, thunderstorms hit and we hid underneath a bridge for a while before walking along the colonial waterfront past landmarks such as the Cavenagh Bridge, Raffles Landing Site, City Hall, the Supreme Court, and the Old Parliament House before freshening up at the hotel.

Sri Mariamman Shrine Lau Pa Sat Merlion Statue

 

For dinner, we took the MRT and then a taxi to the East Coast Seafood Centre which is a three-block food center in East Coast Park.  Along the beachfront are several major large, local seafood restaurants.  We were sad that we could only eat one meal here!  The two most famous dishes are chili crab (the unofficial national dish of Singapore) and black pepper crab.  We chose to eat at Jumbo Seafood Restaurant, which is most famous for their chilli crab (the black pepper crab is said to have been invented by the adjacent Long Beach Seafood Restaurant).  For an appetizer, we had large and tasty scallops wrapped in soft yam paste, which were deep fried and served with a special Ngoh Hiang sauce.  The hard-shelled Sri Lankan crab was cooked perfectly in a thick gravy with a tomato chili base and the delicious gravy could be mopped up by the accompanying man tou (steamed buns). 

 

Whole Scallops Wrapped in Yam Ring

Chilli Crab: The Unofficial National Dish

 

We had the most friendly taxi driver who took us back to our hotel, where we walked to nearby CHIJMES, which is a converted Catholic convent but now houses popular restaurants, shops, and a function hall.  We also took a look at the historic colonial-style Raffles Hotel, which is known for its luxurious accommodation, superb restaurants, and celebrity guests.  It is also said to be where the drink "Singapore Sling" was invented by bartender Ngiam Tong Boon in 1910.

 

March 14, 2007

 

SINGAPORE to KUALA LUMPUR - MORE PERANAKAN DELICACIES and a FIRST-CLASS COACH

We headed out to Raffles Center for our Singaporean breakfast of Kaya Toast at Ya Kun Kaya Toast (a large franchise with 24 stalls in Singapore and franchises in Indonesia, Taiwan, and South Korea).  Kaya is a special jam made from eggs, sugar, and coconut milk and is usually served with soft boiled eggs and kopi (coffee) prepared the traditional way - with a cloth filter!  There were all sorts of funny posters on the wall of this place: "Screw the French Press - We've got the sock!  Coffee prepared the same way since 1944," "Want a skinny latte?  Stop at half a cup! One size.  One coffee.  Since 1944," and "How would you like your eggs? Wet and runny, or runny and wet?  The same menu since 1944."  We topped off our breakfast with some roti prata and curry laksa.  We also had the good fortune that the Food and Beverage Fair 2007 was occurring at the Suntec Convention Centre from March 14 until 18, with free admission.  We entered and tried a katong laksa (a special type of Singaporean laksa with more coconut milk and cockles that is so thick one eats it with a spoon only, and said to originate at the East Coast Seafood Centre where we ate the previous night).  We also ate dim sum rolls with mango filling, chicken satay (10 for only $3), iced calamansi juice, and even one of our Taipei favourites - Ice Monster!  However, this Ice Monster was not nearly as tasty as the one in Taipei.  After stuffing ourselves, we checked out of our hotel and then headed by taxi to the Golden Mile Complex, where one catches the bus to Malaysia.  There are many options for the journey to Kuala Lumpur including train and buses, which range from very cheap to full-fledged luxury.  We had pre-booked the latter - a gorgeous 16-seater coach by Transtar with only one row of massaging seats on either side of the aisle, individualized 10" LCD screens with video-on-demand (100 movie titles and music videos), music, and games, and even a hostess, hot meal and drinks, and two drivers! 

Food & Beverage Fair

Curry Laksa

Transtar First Class Bus to Kuala Lumpur

 

We picked a great day to travel as it rained the entire 5.5 hour trip to Kuala Lumpur, with one stop in between to use the washrooms.  We arrived at the Pasarakyat Bus Terminal in Kuala Lumpur at about 8:00pm and tried to find a taxi to take us to the Renaissance Hotel.  Despite being illegal, nearly all the taxis in Kuala Lumpur refuse to use their meters.  We managed to bargain our fare down to RM15 and got to and checked into our hotel, the Renaissance.  We took the Monorail to Sungei Wang Plaza in the shopping area of Butik Bintang.  We were very surprised to see that it was almost entirely closed!  We ended up eating Shanghainese food and then walked around the outdoor market before heading back to the hotel.

 

March 15, 2007

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - TWIN TOWERS, BATU CAVES, and COLONIAL KUALA LUMPUR

The alarm went off at 7:00am and we were quickly off to get into the lineup at the base of the Petronas Twin Towers to get tickets for the Skybridge tour.  The office didn't open until 8:30am and by the time we got through the line to the ticket office, it was 9:00am and we were able to get a 9:15am tour time.  They restrict tickets to only ~1300 daily, and they are generally gone by 10:00am.  Apparently during peak tourist season people are lined up at 6:00am!  We looked at some of the exhibits describing the tower (how it was built, how it sways only 75cm even with 160km/h winds) and then watched a 3D presentation about its owner - Petronas, which is Malaysia's predominant oil company.  The Twin Towers, at 88 storeys and 1483 feet tall, are now the world's second tallest buildings (the tallest building in the world is now Taipei 101, which we visited 12 days ago).  They were completed in 1998 at a cost of US$2 billion.  The area where the Twin Towers are located is the new city center for Kuala Lumpur, which consists of a shopping and entertainment complex, office blocks, and a park with fountains.  The towers and Skybridge were featured and made famous by the 1999 movie "Entrapment" starring Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones.  Soon we were on the Skybridge about 41 floors up and to be honest, it was nothing all that impressive.  However, it was a nice clear day and we could see out to the Batu Caves, our next planned destination.

Twin Towers: Day Twin Towers: Night View From the Skybridge 276X Taller

 

For lunch, we ate at the food court of the gorgeous Suria KLCC Shopping Centre attached to the Twin Towers.  We tried two types of laksa - Nonya (Peranakan) and Assam.  The Nonya variety has coconut milk and tasted similar to the ones we had in Singapore (but not as good).  The Assam laksa has no coconut milk but is made from tamarind (assam = Malay for tamarind) and therefore it had a very sour taste to it.  We weren't particularly fond of either variety.  A lot of people were also eating roti, so we tried two types.  The regular variety - roti canai - is one we enjoy regularly in Vancouver but the curry tasted a bit different (more like an Indian flavour).  The other kind - roti badai - was made with egg and had a different curry which was spiced but not spicy.

Suria KLCC Mall Assam (Tamarind) Laksa Roti Badai and Roti Canai

 

The Batu Caves, located 13km north of the city, stand out against the line of limestone hills in which they have formed.  They were discovered in 1881 by William Honaby, an American explorer and they were at one time a picnic spot for colonials and even a hideout for communist opponents of the occupying Japanese forces in WWII.  Today, the caves are a center for the worship of the Hindu gods.  The large gold statue in the front is the world's largest representation of Lord Murugan (god of war).  We had initially planned to take the LRT to its terminal station and then a taxi to the caves, but we couldn't cross the road to the Dang Wangi LRT station!  It was absolutely ridiculous - we were standing in the hot sun for 5 minutes waiting for the pedestrian light to change.  Except the pedestrian light was completely useless - they should just replace the button with a sign that says, "Pray, and then run!"  We decided to curb our losses and hopped on the first air-conditioned bus we could find.  It ended up at the Central Market where we got off and walked around.  Central Market was built in 1936 and was the city's main wet market selling groceries and produce, but was shut down in the late 1980s.  After a long campaign to save it, a new plan was made to create the equivalent of England's Covent Garden and now it mainly caters to tourists with many shops, fortune tellers, portrait painters, and antiques.  We went in to ask how to take the bus to the Batu Caves and later returned to explore the market.  Our bus journey to the caves took an hour in terrible traffic but the bus was air conditioned, comfortable, and cheap at RM3 ($0.67).  We arrived at the Batu Caves and began our ascent up the 272 narrow and steep steps to the top.  En route were dozens of grey monkeys - Long-Tailed Macaques, or also known as Crab-Eating Macaques (a misnomer, since these monkeys would eat just about anything)!  We walked around the caves and on the way down a thunderstorm threatened.  Fortunately, we were able to duck for cover and it passed quickly.  We stepped outside and the #11 bus arrived within 1 minute and it was an uneventful ride back to the city.

Central Market Batu Caves Long-Tailed Macaque Eating Coconut
Shrine Inside Batu Caves More Macaques Murugan Statue

 

We got off the bus at Merdeka Square.  This was the heart of colonial life and currently is the symbol of independent Malaysia.  In its center is a 310-foot flagpole (one of the highest in the world).  It was here that the Union Jack was lowered in 1957 and the Malaysian flag was hoisted for the first time.  Nearby are also many interesting colonial buildings such as the Sultan Abdul Samad Building (now the Supreme Court) and Royal Salangor Club.  We walked back to the Central Market and went to the upstairs food court, where we enjoyed pan-fried spicy lalas (soft-shell clams with juicy and tender flesh) served on a hot plate and delicious chai tow kway, or "carrot cake."  This is a combination of white radish (white carrot), soy sauce, eggs, garlic, spring onion, and dried shrimp.  What a bargain - all this food plus two drinks for only RM14 ($5)!

Merdeka Square

Pan-fried Sambal Lalas Chai Tow Kway

 

Fully satiated, we walked down Petaling Street (Chinatown).  This is the place to buy fake anything from Prada hangbags to fake mosquito coils!  Apparently the quality of the fakes is second to none, but all we bought were some more mangoes (which we later discovered were all sour and nothing like the delicious ones we enjoyed in Thailand and Singapore).  We took the LRT back to the Suria KLCC and walked around before having dinner at The Little Penang Cafe.  The food was only so-so, and we had the most odd and nasty tasting "Really BEST Penang Rojak a la Gurney Drive" which was described on the menu as local fruit and cuttlefish salad with tasty and authentic sauce.  The Kari Hantu Set (Penang-style beef curry, Lobak - tender chicken strips rolled in Soya bean skin, and Ju Hu Char - turnip cooked with prawns and slivers of dried cuttlefish) and Penang Curry Mee (vermicelli and mein noodles in coconut-based spicy soup with cuttlefish, prawns, fish balls, and cockles) were more edible.  After eating, we watched the fountains outside and then went to the Tourism Information Center and booked an evening tour for the following day.

(Odd Tasting) Penang Rojak

Penang Curry Mee

Kari Hantu Set

 

March 16, 2007

 

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - LAKE GARDENS and KAMPANG KUANTAN FIREFLIES

We headed out to the Suria KLCC to eat at the food court before hailing a cab to take us to The Lake Gardens.  Laid out in the 1890s by a British State treasurer, the Lake Gardens consist of 257 acres of sculpted parkland built around an artificial lake.  We visited the free Orchid Garden which has 3000 species of orchids, with 800 species from Malaysia alone!  It was a shame that we could not bring any back home with us - they were selling orchid plants which could easily go for $30 back home for just RM3 ($1)!  We then went to the adjacent Hibiscus Garden.  The hibiscus flower is the national flower of Malaysia and this garden has over 2000 varieties of hibiscus plants.

Beautiful Orchid

The Orchid Garden

Hibiscus - Malaysia's National Flower

 

We walked across the street to the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park, which is the world's largest covered aviary at 8 acres and contains more than 2000 birds including large pheasants, native hornbills, and many more.  We watched the 12:30pm bird show featuring parrots, which was entertaining but not as good as the show at Parrot Jungle in Miami.  We walked around the park and saw dozens of hornbills, peacocks, and other interesting tropical birds, many of whom roam free in the park.  Our next destination was to be the Deer Park which houses mousedeer (the smallest hoofed animal) but we arrived to find the park closed.  Apparently it has been closed for some time, as there are no deer anymore.  We had been wondering how deer could survive in such heat!  Therefore, we took a taxi back to the hotel to freshen up before our night tour.  It was far too hot to venture out again so we just grabbed a quick bite to eat at the hotel.

Parrot Show at KL Bird Park Hundreds of Peacocks Roam Freely Flamingos at KL Bird Park

 

Our night tour picked us up at 3:30pm and we were off to Kuala Selangor, which is a coastal town located about 67km from Kuala Lumpur.  We were joined by a couple from Adelaide, Australia who were working in London and traveling the world in between contracts.  We passed by many palm tree plantations, as Malaysia is the world's top exporter of palm tree oil, which is used for cosmetics, butter, and cooking.  We visited Fort Altingberg (originally called Fort Melawati), which was once used by the British as a military fortress and then later by the Japanese.  It afforded a nice view of the Malacca Straight and the Andaman Sea.  All that remains now at the fort are a few nonfunctioning cannons and a lighthouse, but far more interesting are the monkeys that reside here!  We saw two main species - the Long-Tailed Macaques (also found at Batu Caves) and the friendlier Silver-Leafed Monkeys.  These latter monkeys have offspring with orange fur that turns to black when they become adults.  Unlike the mischievous and aggressive Long-Tailed Macaques, the Silver-Leafed Monkeys were gentle and polite.  We next had dinner at a Chinese seafood restaurant (Kuala Selangor is primarily a Chinese town - full of Chinese fishermen who go out into the open sea) and we had fish, prawns, and chili crabs.  After dinner, we headed to the highlight of our evening tour - the fireflies of Kampang Kuantan.  The fireflies in this part of Malaysia can only be found here in the brackish waters of the Selangor River.  They live only in mangrove trees where they eat the leaves.  We could see thousands of them flashing their lights, like on a Christmas tree!  These fireflies are actually beetles and measure just 6mm in length.  They "glow" because of a special chemical reaction, and its purpose is to attract the opposite sex for mating.  After the 30-minute boat ride, we headed back into the city where we packed for our final destination - Hong Kong.

Orange Fur Silver-Leafed Baby Monkey

This Friendly Monkey Wasn't Shy At All!

Kampang Kuantan

 

March 17, 2007

KUALA LUMPUR to HONG KONG

One of the taxi drivers from yesterday offered to take us to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) for RM70 ($21) which is the same price as the express train, and so we agreed to it and he was waiting for us at the hotel at 10:00am.  The ride to KLIA took one hour without any traffic and we passed by Putrajaya, which is the brand new city which is being built to become Malaysia's capital.  We ate some not-so-good Malaysian food at the airport and soon we were on our way to Hong Kong along with more loud mainlanders.

 

Once in Hong Kong, we took the Express Train into the city and then located our hotel in Yau Ma Tei.  We ate dinner at the Langham Place Shopping Centre, which was absolutely bustling with people since it was Saturday night.  One thing we didn't miss about Hong Kong was the eating side-by-side at the same table with complete strangers, and the obvious lack of personal space!

 

March 18, 2007

 

HONG KONG, CHINA - BIG BUDDHA

We had a late breakfast at a cafe near the hotel called Tsui Wah.  One of the changes instituted in Hong Kong since we were last here about a year ago is a smoking ban in all public areas, with a hefty fine of HK$5000 ($750) for violators.  This was particularly obvious as we could enjoy our meals without inhaling secondhand smoke!  Our only destination of the day was the Big Buddha on Lantau Island.  This is the world's tallest outdoor seated bronze Buddha and was formed out of 202 separate pieces of bronze.  We first stopped off at the Airport Express Train's Kowloon Station to check in and secure good Emergency Exit seats on our long flight home to Vancouver the next day.  Then we boarded the Tung Chung line and headed to Lantau Island.  Last year when we were in Hong Kong to do wedding errands, we didn't have time to see the Big Buddha.  Now, one year later, it has now become super convenient to see it.  In September 2006, the Ngong Ping 360 Skyrail was completed along with the Ngong Ping Village with shops and facilities.  The cable car took us up to the Buddha in just 25 minutes!  We climbed the 268 steps the rest of the way to the top of the Buddha and also watched the village's Chinese Acrobatic show.

Ngong Ping Lookout on Lantau Island

Crazy Glue or Chi Qong?

Big Buddha

 

We stopped at the local Café de Coral for a quick bite before heading back to Hong Kong.  We hurriedly went the Marks & Spencer at Ocean Terminal to buy their delicious Shrimp Cocktail Snacks.  Sadly, they were out of stock and so we decided to visit the larger store in Central the next day.  We rounded out the day by having dinner with Gloria's Hong Kong family.

 

March 19, 2007

 

HONG KONG to VANCOUVER - TO THE PIT STOP OF THIS LEG OF THE RACE...

We met up with Gloria's aunt and uncle this morning before heading on the bus to Central.  Our target - to get Shrimp Cocktail Snacks at Marks & Spencer!  To our disappointment, we were told that our snacks were out of stock!  We went back to the hotel, checked out early, and headed to the airport for our uneventful 11-hour journey back to Vancouver.  It had been a long 21 days but we had seen and done so much!  Doug really liked Japan and Gloria enjoyed Southeast Asia the most, so we will certainly be back for longer stays!