Our final final trip, just last weekend, was a short jaunt to Xi’an—formerly known as Chang’an, capital of the ancient Chinese kingdom, and eastern terminus of the Silk Road—to see the terra cotta warriors (“and horses,” our guide would always add, as if we were giving the whole site short shrift by not mentioning the warriors’ equine colleagues).
We started the day on the Xi’an city wall, which is really quite lovely.
Lovely decorations, slightly less lovely haze of pollution.
We were not alone.
The Year of the Snake, you see.
Guard towers were built 120m apart because the range of the crossbow at the time the wall was built was about 60m.
The highlight, of course, was the warriors (and horses!) themselves.
One thing that made this trip a bit more challenging, though, was the that the temperature was over 100 degrees, and the buildings that house the warriors (and horses!) are not air-conditioned. And since—you’ll be surprised to hear—there are more than a few people visiting, this made for some steamy touristing. Nonetheless, we persevered.
There are three pits. Pit 1 is the most famous, and the largest: it’s over 250 yards long and almost 70 yards wide. There are approximately 6,000 warriors (and horses!) in it, of which about 1,000 have been fully excavated. When you see photos of the warriors (and horses!), they’re almost certainly of Pit 1.
Our competition for the prime photo-taking spots.
I want to work at that desk, even if it is not terribly private.
Pit 3, where they’ve left the roof on (for now).
There are a few warriors in glass cases that you can see up close. Note the detail on the bottom of the shoe.
Our final big trip (but not our final final trip) was to Vietnam. I was attending the annual conference of SEAMEO (the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization) at the Vietnamese regional training center (RETRAC). Hence, in a flurry of acronyms, I spent a few days at SEMEO RETRAC. It sounds like some kind of ridiculous military shorthand from a Tom Clancy novel, but no: it’s for real.
But after the conference, we spent a few more days in Saigon—Ho Chi Minh City, if you insist—and then headed north to the beach.
The legacy of French occupation was very clear in some of the sights close to our hotel.
The cathedral. Classic French style.
It’s hard to beat the neon-blue statue of the BVM just inside the door.
Plaques of thanksgiving date from the 19th century to the present.
The central post office.
Clear indications of the French roots.
Uncle Ho watches over all postal transactions.
What used to be the phone booths have now, quite cleverly, been turned into private ATM compartments.
Another piece of French Indochinese history.
A less happy piece of history is Reunification Palace. It’s built on the site of the 19th-century residence of the French governor of Vietnam (then known as Cochinchina), which then became the head of government of the State of Vietnam after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. In 1962, two Vietnamese pilots bombed the palace in an attempt to assassinate Ngô Đình Diệm, who in 1955 had set himself up as an autocratic president of the Republic of Vietnam through a fraudulent election. The attempt failed, but it did destroy the palace.
Construction on a new palace began soon thereafter. The new palace was inaugurated in 1966 and looks totally mod. Nine years later, it appeared in photos as North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the gates and occupied the site during the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.
As this effectively ended the division between north and south Vietnam, the building is now known as Reunification Palace.
It has the feeling of a place that was abandoned all at once, and quickly—since it was. Walking around is actually kind of spooky, even with lots of other visitors there.
A replica of the tank that crashed through the palace gates on April 30, 1975.
One of the many formal rooms for receiving guests and diplomats.
The red circles (part of the second is visible at right) mark the spots where Nguyễn Thanh Trung, a Vietnamese pilot and Communist spy, bombed the palace (largely ineffectually) on April 8, 1975.
The basement houses the command center, which still has the tactical maps on the walls.
Check out the “speed dial” buttons on the bottom. One of them is marked ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam—i.e., the South Vietnamese army).
Oh, just your usual shooting range.
Slightly surreal was the realization that half a block from our hotel room was the building—22 Gia Long Street , now known as Lý Tự Trọng Street—that housed USAID workers and (on its top floor) some CIA offices, immortalized in this photo from the Fall of Saigon. (There’s a fascinating article in the New York Times about the fact that this photo is usually described as the “final flight” from Saigon, evacuating Americans from the US Embassy; in fact, it’s none of those things.)
This is not, as is commonly reported, the US Embassy.
We had a pretty good view of it from our hotel room.
Even more off-putting and strange is the War Remnants Museum, formerly known as the Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes. While some of the top floor is dedicated to the deeds of French colonialists, the majority of it is devoted to the United States.
On the grounds outside, there’s a whole suite of captured American military vehicles.
Inside, the rhetoric is heated. Unlike, say, the Peace Museum in Hiroshima—which offered a very balanced view—this one is unrelenting in its indictment of America. Unremarked upon is the South Vietnamese resistance to the North—a single, unified Vietnam is assumed (unsurprisingly).
It’s tough stuff to see. There are copious photos of the effects of Agent Orange, war atrocities, and so on.
On a lighter, more festive, note we also had a nice day trip in the Mekong Delta.
Shortly after getting into one of these boats for a quiet paddle down the river, the skies opened up on us.
Don’t worry, they’re friendly.
Neon Mary, meet Neon Buddha.
After several days in Saigon, we needed a break, so we took a quick flight to Da Nang (where they are still cleaning up Agent Orange, by the way) and a short ride to Hoi An. There we enjoyed these views:
Now you know why they call it an “infinity pool.”
The view from the lunch table.
A short drive away was Hoi An Ancient Town, the entirety of which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Japanese Covered Bridge, the icon of Hoi An.
I don’t know what to say about this, except that it reminds me of Henry.
Now that’s iconic.
Cate is shopping for Ali Baba pants.
Hoi An is famous for these beautiful bamboo lanterns. Here they are as works-in-progress.
It took us a while, but we finally made it to Beijing a few weeks ago. We hired a tour guide for the three days we were there, knowing that the traffic is absolutely nuts and public transportation gets you only so far. We saw all the highlights.
Tiananmen Square was kind of overwhelming because it’s so iconic, and because there is a strong, strong sense of being surveilled. There were police and other security everywhere, though perhaps that was more heightened than normal because we were there in the days leading up to 6/4. Standing in Tiananmen Square was also the first time we realized that Western tourists are a small minority of those in Beijing. That makes a lot of sense when you think about it; most everyone in the US at some point makes a trip to Washington, D.C., and so of course many Chinese at some point visit their capital city.
Tiananmen Square. Obviously.
Inside the Forbidden City, which is now forbidden only to those who haven’t paid the admission fee.
We quickly found that what we had been told was true: many Chinese have never seen a Westerner in person before, so they took great interest in us. And, like you do whenever you find something interesting, you get your picture taken.
Cate had all kinds of people coming up to have their picture taken with her.
This group at the Temple of Heaven was particularly finicky. It took about five minutes for them to get all the photos they wanted, in part because the woman in the brightly colored top kept berating her boyfriend/husband for his photographic abilities and kept insisting that he do re-shoots. Meanwhile it’s raining and we’d like to continue our visit, but we (principally Cate) endured nonetheless, in the spirit of intercultural exchange and world peace. We do what we can.
OK, so a photo with her first.
Now one with her friend.
Okay, now could we get one with both, please?
Here’s an alley in the hutongs, the narrow streets characteristic of old Beijing.
A crowded Beijing street lined with food vendors selling all kinds of unexpected things. See below.
These guys were still twitching a little, which seemed cruel.
The store directory in the mall near the hotel where we stayed. Surprisingly, I was not very tempted to shop for clothes in a store called Hot Wind (though I’m David had a certain charm to it).
And now a few photos from the Temple of Heaven.
I wanted to get my picture taken with this pretty Western lady.
The Echo Wall: seriously cool. I could say something at a normal speaking volume and Cate (that tiny white dot in the distance) could hear me with no problem. The sound seems to be coming out of the stone wall next to your ear.
After a day of sight-seeing, nothing hits the spot like Beijing roast duck, which we enjoyed in this awesomely wacky restaurant. The tables are arranged in a ring, inside of which is a pond, inside of which (at the center) is the duck-cooking kitchen, which is staffed by a small army of busy chefs.
How ’bout that bright blue LED mood lighting?
Walking back from dinner to our hotel, we found a shop that sells luxury soy sauces. We thought Hey, that might make a nice gift for someone. Sorry, everyone. When they say luxury soy sauce, they mean it. This bottle is 19,800 RMB (about US$3200).
And we saw some more recent iconic stuff too, such as the Olympic “Bird’s Nest” stadium. Our guide said that they had to relocate entire neighborhoods to make space for this. We asked how the residents felt about that. She said that they were very happy to be moved, and appreciated the government looking after them. Hmmmm.
The 798 Art Zone was unexpectedly fascinating. It’s mostly decommissioned military factories that have been turned into beautiful loft spaces and galleries, and there are also many nice cafés and restaurants too.
But the highlight of the trip—at least for me—was (duh) the Great Wall. It helped that the weather was stunning, maybe the most beautiful day we’ve seen all year.
The characters on the side of the hill say “Long live Chairman Mao.”
Perhaps you are vaguely familiar with it from its commitment to “Gross National Happiness,” which its previous king declared would be the nation’s pursuit instead of Gross Domestic Product. Hence its tourism policy is one of high-value, low-impact. It’s strictly regulated—unless you’re a citizen of India, you can’t get into Bhutan without working directly with an in-country tour company, which arranges for all lodging, transport, food, etc., all for a government-set rate—in order to ensure that it doesn’t get over-run with tourists.
It’s the only place we’ve been this year that had not a single trace of Western business, or even non-Western chains. No Starbucks, no KFC, no Burger King, no Zara. It’s clear too that the gap between the country’s richest and its poorest is much, much narrower than in other countries. There just aren’t any obviously opulent residences (or even commercial buildings) to contrast with obviously sub-standard ones. Everything’s pretty modest. (Though this NYT op-ed does make a convincing case for not over-idealizing the country.)
It was totally unlike any other place we’ve been. First of all, it’s remote. It’s nestled at the eastern end of the Himalayas, next to Nepal, China, and India, and the only way to get there is on the national airline, Druk Air (‘druk’ means ‘dragon’). They operate a grand total of six planes between Paro, Bhutan and a number of nearby international cities, most in India: Delhi, Bangkok, Singapore, Kathmandu, and so on.
So we went from Hong Kong to Bangkok one afternoon and checked into the airport hotel. Our flight to Bhutan left Bangkok at 4:45am, necessitating that we check in at 2:45am. That’s early. Really early.
The flight to Paro was only a couple of hours, and features some fantastic views of the Himalayas from the plane.
Landing in Paro is also interesting. It’s one of the world’s more “extreme” airports. According to this article, only eight pilots in the world are qualified to land there. (By now, it’s probably up to a dozen.) Landings are allowed only during daylight hours, and only during the best of weather. Pilots have to make a purely visual approach, without instrument guidance. Why? Because they basically have to thread a needle between mountains in order to line up with the runway.
Those interested in a shaky and terrifying and perfectly normal landing in Paro will enjoy this video. At the 1:30 mark, note how close the plane is to landing and how not at all aligned with the runway it is.
Here’s a photo of the airport after we arrived.
You will note that there are no taxi-ways. After a flight has landed, it uses the extra concrete (at the right side of the near end) to do a U-turn, then taxis back down the runway to the terminal. There aren’t many flights arriving—this ain’t JFK—so that’s evidently no problem.
Would you like another video? I have one. Here’s a quick vid I took of a plane landing, taken from a high spot behind the airport. See how the plane kind of appears out of the mountains? I also included, near the end, some footage of the plane doing its 180.
Here’s what it looks like when you step out on the tarmac.
After driving a couple of hours from Paro to Thimpu, we stopped at a school that teaches traditional Bhutanese art techniques: weaving, carving, painting, etc.
Then we went to see the takin. Here’s a map of where they live.
Wait, what’s a takin?
The national animal of Bhutan, friend.
And these guys! Or maybe they’re girls! Who knows!
Temples are one of the main cultural attractions in Bhutan. Bhutan is largely Mahayana Buddhist (as opposed to Theravada Buddhist, which one finds throughout Southeast Asia), influenced by but distinct from Tibetan Buddhism.
Cate getting a primer on prayer wheels from our guide, Passang. In short: spin with only the right hand, and only clockwise.
A prayer wheel in need of repair. On the outside is typically written Om mani padme hum, the mantra of compassion. It’s also written on the paper inside. Spinning the wheel is thought to be as spiritually efficacious as reciting the prayer aloud.
On one of our first days, we went to the northern end of the Thimpu valley to visit the Cheri Dorji Dhen monastery. It was built in 1620 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, the first ruler of Bhutan. Just getting there, via a covered bridge in the middle of the valley, was stunning.
Mini stupas arranged on a larger stupa.
On the way back, we stopped at this sacred spring.
Archery is the national sport of Bhutan. We saw competitions underway with both traditional bows and compound bows. Here’s a photo of the former.
You need to see how far away the target is. Check out this photo. The target is identical to the one in the front center here (the white thing that looks like a narrow tombstone, with the colored fabric flanking it). Of course, these guys are shooting at one way, way downfield from them. It’s amazing that anyone ever hits it, especially given the wind.
Here are some street scenes in and around Paro and Thimpu.
A typical city building.
A giant Buddha under construction in Thimpu.
A Thimpu cobbler.
Allegedly Thimpu is the only capital city in the world that doesn’t have stoplights. This guy stands at the one intersection that needs direction, and he takes his job very seriously.
Funny story: on our final day in Bhutan, we were shopping at a store that sells traditional Bhutanese fabrics (which are amazing). There was a very friendly and very beautiful woman helping us, all the more striking because her English was nearly flawless. She was super helpful and pleasant in attending to our various requests. (Something nice! Not too expensive! Not that one!) After we made our purchase and left, our guide told us that her name is Tandin Bidha, and she’s the most famous movie star in Bhutan. (It’s a small industry, if you can believe that.) Evidently her mother owns the shop, and she helps out when she’s not filming. So yeah, things are a little different in Bhutan.
We were on the road a lot in Bhutan. (We weren’t driving ourselves, thank god.) The roads are really windy and are constantly going up and down through valleys and peaks (it is the Himalayas, after all), and many of them are either narrow, in pretty poor condition, or both. On a particularly long day of driving, it took us almost six hours to go something like 35 miles.
But there’s lots to look at while puttering along.
There are monkeys.
And the trucks are colorful.
But the most “are you kidding?” aspect of Bhutanese roads are that they are lined with pot.
No joke—there’s weed everywhere. (There’s a reason they call it ‘weed,’ after all.) Interestingly, marijuana is illegal in Bhutan, but our guide told us that it’s not really a problem. No one uses it, apart from some teenagers.
One of the most memorable things we did was a hike through the rhododendron forest to Lungchutsekha monastery. We hiked for about 4.5 hours round-trip and saw not a single other person the whole time, apart from the monk at the top who made us tea, fed us butter cookies, and invited us to pet the monastery’s resident cat and three dogs.
Our guide kept telling us that there were rhododendrons, which didn’t really excite us because we were thinking of the staid American variety. But these were amazing: white, pink, and red, scattered throughout the trees, and creating a carpet of petals on the forest floor.
3500 meters, people! That’s high!
108 Chortens, established by the Queen Mother.
Prayer flags at the start of the hike.
More prayer flags.
A warm meadow halfway up the mountain.
The view from Lungchutsekha monastery. The really tall mountain is Gangkar Punsum, the highest in Bhutan (24,770ft/7,550m).
Prayer flags and Himalayas.
On the left is our guide, Pasang. On the right, the Buddhist monk who made us tea and gave us butter cookies.
We then spent the night in the Punakha valley. Here’s the view from our hotel. (Click to enlarge.)
The next day we went to the Punakha dzong, a famous, and famously beautiful, 17th-century building that was also the capital of Bhutan until it was moved to Thimpu in the mid-1950s. Dzongs are found all over Bhutan (and Tibet too, for that matter). They’re a kind of combination fortress, temple, administrative center, and also provide accommodations for monks. The Punakha Dzong, for example, is the winter quarters for the head of Bhutan’s clergy and his entourage.
The Punakha Dzong lies at the confluence of the Mo Chu and Pho Chu, the Mother and Father rivers.
A bodhi tree in the Punakha Dzong.
The entrance to the main temple.
Jacaranda trees along the river.
Now, moving on to a different kind of decoration.
The phallus is an important symbol in Bhutan, and it appears all over the place.
Just your standard house decorations.
What a bargain!
Top right: the lock on a restaurant bathroom door.
The above come from a particularly high concentration of phallus images, as they’re near the fertility temple Chimi Lhakhang, built in 1499 by the “Divine Madman” lama Drukpa Kunley. According to legend he “subdued” a demoness with his “magic thunderbolt of wisdom.”
Our guide told us that many people who conceive a child after visiting the temple will name him or her “Chimi” in gratitude. While we were in the temple, a family showed up—parents, grandparents, and baby—to pay their respects and offer thanks, and sure enough the baby’s name was Chimi. When we left Bhutan, our pilot, doing the usual pre-departure announcements, mentioned that his name was Chimi too. So there you go.
One of the most relaxing places we stayed was the glacial valley Phobjikha.
Our accommodations there were very comfortable and delightfully rustic. The only heat (and we needed it—it was cold) was from a wood stove (which they start by igniting a good-sized handful of sawdust that has been soaked in kerosene and then dried—potent stuff, and a bit scary).
The next day we took a hike through the valley up to (surprise!) another dzong/temple complex.
We made a friend right from the start.
That pooch was really glad to hang out with us. Listen to his cute sounds.
Here are some photos from the dzong we arrived at. Bhutanese architecture uses color like nothing else. (Southeast Asia uses color too, just differently.)
Bhutanese MOOC under construction.
The final day was spent hiking to the famous Taktsang Monastery, the Tiger’s Nest. As you can see, it is perched precariously on the side of a cliff.
It’s a bit of a hike, but we had gotten pretty used to the altitude by then. Fortunately, there’s a restaurant about half-way up which offers a nice place to have tea and take a rest.
You can see the Tiger’s Nest if you look very closely in the center.
Friends, if you are looking for a bit of an adventure, you should consider Bhutan. As the number of tourists rises, the set daily tariff gets raised, so go now while it’s still inexpensive!
Final batch of pictures from our Japan trip, these from Kyoto, the cultural capital of Japan.
On our first day, we went off to Kiyomizu-dera, a temple first built in the late eighth century but whose present buildings date from the seventeenth. On the way, we encountered a hillside full of bedecked Buddhas.
Before the actual temple precincts, we went into the Tainai-meguri, by which one symbolically enters a boddhisatva’s womb. What this means in reality is that you put your shoes in a plastic bag, then descend a stone staircase into a narrow, low-ceilinged passageway that is completely black. There’s a worn-smooth railing on the left, which you are instructed to hold at all times, as it’s the only way to figure out which way you’re going. And since the passage makes several 90-degree turns, if you let go of the railing you will almost certainly walk face-first into a stone wall.
I didn’t get a photo of the entrance, but someone else did.
It was a bit unnerving, but also genuinely womb-like (I guess). It feels like you are really, really deep underground, but of course you’re not. After a minute or two, you emerge into a small chamber with a dim light shining on a prayer wheel, which you can spin before heading up the stairs back into the light. Pretty awesome!
And here’s the temple itself, along with the requisite cherry blossoms. The day was rather overcast and so the colors got washed out a bit, but even still it’s all stunning.
There was evidently some kind of ceremony going on while we were there.
I’m not sure what they’re looking at, but it seems pretty compelling.
There were lots of Japanese there taking advantage of the various fortune-telling options and good-luck rituals.
We then walked down a couple of charming old streets (Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka) crowded with old wooden houses, shops, and people. We also encountered a trio of maiko (apprentice geishas). Cate thinks they were there for the tourists, but I insist, based on wishing-makes-it-so, that they were authentic. (I’m just saying, they weren’t selling anything, or even posing for pictures with anyone, apart from one imperious guy who clearly embarrassed the hell out of them [N.B.: I wasn’t that guy].)
And now a brief interlude of atmospheric images.
Noren are traditional Japanese fabric dividers. They hang in most doorways, especially restaurants (even in, say, the train stations) and traditional shops.
The post-work drinking-and-carousing beneath the cherry blossoms is a bit more fancy in Kyoto: more tables than tarps.
Cherry trees in Shimbashi, which, according to Lonely Planet, is “arguably, the most beautiful street in all of Asia, especially in the evening and during cherry-blossom season.”
Nishiki Market was an unexpectedly cool place: lots of food, crafts, and other fun stuff all under this awesome Lite-Brite roof.
That’s sunlight streaming in, not artificial light. Festive.
I’m sorry to say, I did not try one. It might as well have said ‘sushi waffles.’
Walking into a rice store in Japan is like walking into a wine store. Unless you know quite a bit about the product, you just look for something with a nice label.
Okay, now a brief foray into food.
Breaded, fried pork cutlet at a restaurant that serves only breaded, fried pork cutlets. Spoiler alert: it was delicious.
From now on, of course, we will only ever call potato salad “poteto sarada.”
The place setting at the tempura restaurant we went to, which seated no more than ten people.
The snack menu on the express train from Tokyo to Narita Airport. Starts out familiar, then takes a sharp turn into “Whhah?” with item number four.
There are so many reasons I won’t be shopping in this area.
In Japan, the vending machines offer wi-fi access.
Inside, surprisingly, everyone was quite calm.
I will close with another peaceful image, preceded by the warning we encountered nearby. I just love the “and so on” at the end. It’s like the ultimate legal disclaimer. “Look, we covered that clearly in the contract! See Section 1.4, which clearly states ‘in case and so on’.”
You know that awesome scene in Lost in Translation when ScarJo goes to Kyoto and witnesses a bunch of events and images that clearly illustrate for us, the viewers, just how alienating is the life she is temporarily leading in Japan while waiting for her ambitious-but-clueless photographer husband to stop flirting with vapid celebrities?
You know, where she walks from stone to stone at a temple? Here are the actual stones. Whoa.
Finally, some more photos from our Japan trip a month ago.
We took one day in Kyoto to do a day-trip to Hiroshima. It’s a bit of a ride, but a couple hours on the shinkansen (bullet train) is no big deal.
Hiroshima means pretty much one thing to most Americans, but it’s also a really cool city in its own right. They have an awesome public transportation system of trams that they call a “Working Museum.” Its fleet is composed of trains of all kinds manufactured in Europe and Asia during the past half century. So you’ll be on a relatively modern, 1980s train, chugging down the street, and see a ca. 1950 train waiting at the intersection. Continue reading →
After five nights in Tokyo, we spent one night in Kawaguchiko, which is near the base of Mt. Fuji. We hoped—maybe even expected—that we’d get a glimpse of that iconic view. So we grabbed our Japan Rail passes and hit the road. It took only a couple of hours on a couple of trains to get there. The second one—the local, if you will—was a private rail company that had the most fantastic trains.
Here’s the one we rode on the way there.
And on the way back:
Fujikyu Railway, at your service.
A nice looking rail car from the outside, to be sure. But check out the interior.
Those shelves on the left are an honest-to-god library (more useful to those who can read Japanese, but still). Those floors are real hardwood. Unbelievable! It was raining on the way back down the mountain, with very few people in the train, so it was like hanging out in a cozy study with a steadily changing view of the countryside. For example:
For much of the trip, there was a single track up the mountain. At a few points during the descent, we had to wait in the station for the train going in the opposite direction to pass us before we could continue. (And, being Japan, this meant that it was punctual to the minute.)
Kawaguchiko, when we finally arrived, was not exactly what we had expected. It was lovely, for sure. It reminded me of being on a lake in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
The view from our room.
Recognize that tree? Hint: it’s the same tree as the one in the photo above. But at nighttime. So it’s dark. Hence the darkness.
But the weather was not, as you can see, terribly clear. And evidently it is more often cloudy than it is clear, which isn’t great for the casual visitor. It used to be that one could sometimes see Mt. Fuji all the way from Tokyo. Nowadays, you often can’t see Mt. Fuji from, well, the foot of Mt. Fuji.
We nonetheless checked out our hotel’s observatory to see what we could see.
Har har har! We didn’t see that! It’s hard to believe that photo is real!
Here is the best picture I actually got.
See that faint ascending slope on the right, disappearing into the clouds? Mt. Fuji! Beautiful!
As an aside: the staff of the Fujikyu Railway was very apologetic that we didn’t actually get to see Mt. Fuji, so they gave us some picture postcards with, well, the iconic picture-postcard image of the mountain. We also got some sweet candies with pictures of trains on them. End of aside.
The town itself was kind of kooky. It was clearly a bustling and super-popular retreat in, say, the mid-20th century. There are several nice, if dated, hotels that haven’t really been renovated since they were built. The town has a smattering of mediocre restaurants and a lot of kitschy shops selling souvenirs and the kind of stuff that kids want while on vacation. Soft-serve ice cream was easy to come by, for example. And some kid-friendly watercraft.
We soon found out that the only dinner options in town appeared to be very expensive multi-course menus offered by the big hotels, which we weren’t really in the mood for. We figured we’d walk back down to the stretch of road that had the mediocre-looking lunch restaurants and grab a quick dinner there. So off we went down the hotel driveway, went to turn at the appropriate point, and found the street in complete darkness. Not a single restaurant was open for dinner. Gulp.
This was especially hilarious because of an earlier almost-snafu that would have left us penniless. Japan, you see, is a very cash-oriented society. The number of places that take credit cards is far smaller than you might expect. So we would visit an ATM pretty frequently just to make sure we had money for basic survival needs.
When we got to Kawaguchiko, we needed some more cash, so we went to a Lawson’s Depot (a chain of convenience store that, like 7-11, originated in the United States but is now Japanese, and which can be found all over the country) to use their ATM. Hey! Funny! It accepts only Japanese-issued cards! And there’s no other ATM in town! And the hotel has no suggestions! I really thought that we would have to have a dinner of whatever we could find at Lawson’s with our remaining $10.
Except there was, thank god, another option: at a 7-11 way out by the train station, which we found on our own. Whew. (Pro tip: All of the 7-11 stores in Japan have a “Seven Bank” ATM that accepts international cards.)
Anyway, the pitch-black street of restaurants was a real kick in the teeth after our earlier Triumph Over Adversity. Fortunately, after much walking around in the cold and dark, we finally found the one place that was open. It had distinctive decor.
Hey, nice wagon wheel. And stuffed Pooh. And stuffed dolphin. And whatever psychedelic artworks are on the wall.
The whole resort felt a little bit tired. Our room was perfectly fine, and fascinating in part because it was a Japanese/Western room: there was a Western-style bed, as well as a space where you could sleep Japanese style.
But it was also just a little old. And, coincidentally, it was the single most expensive place we stayed the entire time we were there. More expensive that Tokyo, more expensive that Kyoto. Go figure.
So we didn’t see Mt. Fuji, alas, but we had a rather nice and quirky and relaxing 18 hours in Kawaguchiko. It was a nice little palate cleanser between the Tokyo and Kyoto. The next installment of the Japan trip, coming soon: Kyoto.
So we recently got back from Japan, which was stupendous. Here’s Bunch of Photos, Part 1.
We went when we did because I had some time off due to Easter and, of course, Ching Ming. It happened to coincide with the cherry blossoms, though, which made for an extra-awesome visit since we got to take part in some serious hanami (cherry-blossom viewing). We had a heck of a time finding hotel rooms, even though we booked months ago, but when all was said and done it wasn’t nearly as crowded as we had expected. So, first off, some images of the cherry blossoms in Tokyo.
In the gardens of the National Museum.
In the gardens of the Imperial Palace.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden.
A view of Tokyo Tower from Sensōji.
Japan is, as we are not the first to observe, a very fastidious place. Every public transportation station has a bathroom, and it is immaculate. And yes, they really do have these awesomely fancy toilet seats. (Which aren’t cheap, by the way—they are upwards of $500.)
Our hotel room had one of the simpler models. Thank god.
Japan is also filled with vending machines. They are everywhere. The vast majority of them sell beverages (both hot and cold).
See, the drinks on the left (with the red stripe below them) are hot; the right-hand (blue) ones are cold. The Suntory Boss hot coffee in cans is surprisingly good.
It’s rare to encounter one that sells snacks (like candy bars), though on a subway platform we did encounter this one that sells fresh apple slices. Three different kinds of fresh apple slices, mind you. We tried them, and they were awesome.
And yeah, at some noodle shops you really do buy the ticket from a machine before approaching a server. This is very handy when, hypothetically, you need some time to figure out what the heck each dish is.
Here are some photos of Tokyo at its Tokyoist.
At the Suidobashi station.
Shibuya. This is the famous street crossing you’ve seen before.
Check this out—you can bet on a virtual horse race.
Akihabara. A huge number of electronics and game stores, and more manga than you would believe.
And a few others.
This memorial in Tokyo’s Ueno park has a flame lit from embers from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The colorful garlands flanking it are made of thousands of origami paper cranes.
The flame, close up.
The National Museum in Tokyo has this enormous fancy device for locking up one’s umbrella.
Sensōji, Tokyo’s largest Buddhist temple.
Fortunes. Cate wants me to point out that her fortune, drawer #13, was titled “The Best Fortune.” So we got that going for us.
These signs are a bit unnerving.
Nijūbashi bridge leads to the main gate of the Imperial Palace.
Behold, some pictures from our trip to Thailand. We had a great time during our 12 days there, and were fortunate to see several different parts of the country, from lazy southern beach to crazy Bangkok to a more subdued city in the north. We started off by flying into Bangkok and going directly to Hua Hin, a beach town about 3 hours southwest of Bangkok. (The country to the west there is Myanmar, which is pronounced “BUR-ma.”)
There is little doubt that you would like to see a map.
We did only a little—a very little—exploring of the town itself since mostly we were there to enjoy this view.
Nothing wrong with that.
After much relaxing and reading of books, we headed back to Bangkok. Bangkok is a very, very big city, with the efficient public transportation system and traffic problem typical of big cities. And, of course, some fabulous temples and other fun stuff. To wit:
On our first evening in Bangkok we walked through Lumphini Park and met some of its residents. I’m not sure which of the two pictured here is breaking the law, but as you can see neither one cared about their transgression.
Lumphini Park’s answer to muscle beach.
The Grand Palace.
Do not mess with him.
Part of the gorgeous murals at the Grand Palace, beautifully maintained. (Compare these with those from the palace in Phnom Penh, which were no doubt equally splendid in their time but which have suffered considerably from the ravages of time.)
Death by lacrosse stick.
A huge model of Angkor Wat at the palace.
Some decorative load-bearing figures.
A brief moment of repose during an otherwise very busy day.
The grand palace by night.
Wat Pho, home of this giant reclining Buddha.
The rarely seen back of Buddha’s head.
You may recall that President Obama visited here last fall. Photos and other memorabilia from that visit, like this autograph in the visitors’ book, are on prominent display.
An image from our tour of the canals.
More from the canal tour.
Our boat driver stopped the boat, cackling, to point this guy out to us. We saw a few more of these guys along the way, leading us to believe that this is hardly a rare occurrence.
We jumped out of the cab during a trip back to the hotel because of traffic like this. It’s literally not moving.
A panoramic view of Bangkok by night, taken from the rooftop bar of our hotel.
We then headed north to Phitsanulok, which is in the southern part of northern Thailand. (Pedantic aside for those who care: this more or less rhymes with “hits a new low.” The “ph” at the start, as in “Phuket,” is like a really aspirated /p/, as far as I can hear. It’s definitely not a /f/ sound, since it’s not a transliteration of Greek phi.)
Anyway. Are you just dying for a map?
Apparently this is not a super-popular destination, or at least not among people leaving Bangkok. Naresuan University was hosting a conference at which I was doing a teaching workshop, hence our travel there, but it’s also a good place—maybe the best place—from which to visit the ruins of Sukhothai. But when we were leaving Bangkok, we told the concierge at the hotel that we needed a cab to the domestic airport. He nodded and asked, just to be polite, “Heading to Chiang Mai?” (This is a very popular and, we’re told, beautiful city in the north.)
“No,” we said. “Phitsanulok.” He stared at us hard for a second. “Why?” Our answer, “for work,” seemed even more baffling. Later we had essentially the same conversation with the cab driver, except that the cabbie substituted raucous, sputtering laughter for incredulity and also noted that “the lady will not find very good shopping.”
First, however, a few views of and from the Phitsanulok airport.
The Phitsanulok airport (PHS). Yeah, finding our driver wasn’t too difficult.
Nok Air flies from Bangkok to Phitsanulok. Isn’t that just the cutest airplane you’ve ever seen? Evidently people who often fly Nok call it “No OK Air,” but we had no trouble. Our 40-minute flight included meal service: a small cup of water and an Auntie Annie’s pretzel. On United, that would cost $14, exact change only.
For unclear reasons, there is one of these ancient, rusty behemoths permanently installed at either end of the Phitsanulok runway, kind of like decorative aeronautical bookends. If they are meant to inspire confidence, well, they fail.
And here’s what downtown Phitsanulok looks like.
It’s a very un-touristy town that had some lovely and important things to see and two of the best restaurants we’ve eaten at this year. I actually didn’t get to see many of the sights because I was at the conference, but Cate took these pictures:
Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahatat Woramahawihan, built in 1357 and home to one of the most revered Buddha images in Thailand.
Also Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahatat Woramahawihan.
On the day before the conference, one of the organizers very kindly took us on a day-long trip to two fantastic sights near Phitsanulok. The first, Si Satchanalai historical park, is about a 2.5-hour drive north of the city. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, and there was practically no one there (apart from a few school field trips). Amazing.
Wat Chang Lom, built by King Ramkhamhaeng between 1285 and 1291.
We had the place to ourselves.
Offerings lined up.
One of the field trip groups, rolling through on their tram. They waved at us the whole time.
Even Buddhist monks need trinkets and ice cream.
One of the most striking things we saw was this dramatic Buddha sculpture. It’s contained within four walls and has only one small access point at the front. That door, though, is really more of an opening all the way up, which means that you can see part of the Buddha from a distance. To see the entirety, though, you have to enter the opening, at which point the Buddha towers over you. Very striking, very moving.
Finally, we went to Sukhothai, the ruins of the city that was the capital of Thailand in the 13th and 14th centuries (and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site). There are several temples arranged in three big groups. Unlike the Angkor temples in Cambodia, these are quite close together, and renting bikes allows you to very easily cruise from one to another.
Sukhothai, Wat Mahathat (13th c.).
Cate makes dog friends wherever we go.
Sukuothai, Wat Mahathat (13th c.)
Sukhothai, Wat Mahathat complex panorama.
Sukhothai, Wat Si Sawai (12-13 c.). Originally built by the Khmers as a Hindu temple (hence its Angkorian look).
Sukhothai, Wat Si Sawai detail.
Sukhothai: the moat around the Wat Mahathat complex, believed to represent the cosmic ocean and thus the outer reaches of the universe.
Bikes are the easiest way to get around among all of the temples, and it is perhaps the most pleasant thing you can imagine. That’s Wat Sa Si in the background.