I’d been to Japan in 2007, zipping through the country on a Shinkansen to Kyoto, Hiroshima and Tokyo, so this time, while I planned to return to Tokyo, I also wanted to visit a new place. Osaka, the third largest city in Japan, is a base to see a lot of the historical sites.

My Osaka walking tour started in a rain storm, so we spent the first hour in Osaka’s Dotonbori district, a lively area with restaurants, bars and neon lights brightening the walkways on either side of the canal when it’s not pouring. The iconic symbol of the city is the Glico running man, a local chocolate company’s symbol who has been running and welcoming visitors since the 1930’s:

Osaka’s main cultural site is Osaka Castle, a replica of the original 1583 one which was destroyed in 1645, then rebuilt and destroyed a few more times including during WW2. It was reconstructed in 1997 and is an example of Edo-style architecture.

Just 30 minutes away by metro is Kyoto and I wanted to see two sights, the first being the Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine with about 1,000 red torii or gates leading up winding paths around a mountain to the shrine at the top. The gates are donated by local businesses as a means of securing good luck; the deity inari looks after rice and business:

After climbing around the mountain and through the gates, I was ready for a flatter surface. A train ride later, I arrived at the Bamboo Forest, so named because it is a forest made up of bamboo trees:

Next stop was Nara Park, an old capital of Japan and home to some impressive, and original, temples and shrines including the Todaiji Shrine with a gigantic Buddha inside:

The real stars of Nara Park are the Nara deer, hundreds of feral deer who greet all comers looking for food. Vendors sell deer friendly crackers, but I was warned if I started feeding one to a deer, a whole herd would follow me until they were satisfied I had no more, so I passed on the feeding:

Himeji Castle, in the city of Himeji, is the largest and most visited castle in Japan. Started in 1333, it has undergone rebuilds and restorations but is largely intact and remains the best example of Japanese castle architecture.

Inside, there’s a lot of wood and not much more. I was ushered along the visitor route, up 7 flights of slippery, steep stairs then down 7 flights of slippery, steep stairs with no chance to escape. I guess I should appreciate the exercise.

Osaka is famous for its cuisine and I embarked on a food tour to sample some of its finest. Takoyaki is the most famous – little chunks of octopus immersed in a wheat flour ball and deep fried:

Let’s just say it’s an acquired taste. We sampled 9 other local dishes – pork and bean sprouts wrapped in an omelet, deep fried shrimp, chicken wings and some ramen noodle soup- along with lots of sake. It was all good, but nothing I’m inspired to try cooking at home.

After 5 days, lots of castles, shrines and deer, it was time to depart.


After 8 weeks of history, temples and old castles I took a different tact to sightseeing in Tokyo: I would see nothing that hadn’t been constructed this century. In Tokyo, which embraces all things new and modern, this was easy to do.

My first stop was the Tama Centre trees, a yearly illumination of trees:

A bit underwhelming, but the next attraction definitely delivered. TeamLab Planets creates immersive art exhibits, along the lines of the popular Toronto Van Gogh Immersive Art exhibit, but without a focus on a famous artist. After entering, you’re required to take off your shoes and socks and roll up your pants – your feet are going to get wet.

After a few warm- up exhibits, you walk into a room filled with knee-high water dancing with sparkles and fish:

It took me a few minutes to realize the fish were just lights. A few exhibits later, I walked into the Chrystal Room:

My favourite exhibit was the shooting flowers, a room where I lay on my back and watched as computer generated flower images danced and flew across the ceiling:

Other exhibits, all designed to challenge conceptions of both art and how we see the world, were equally interesting.

Next up was the Suginami Animation Museum, devoted to exploring the Anime/Manga ( cartoon and comic books) culture in Japan. Though the first anime shorts in Japan started in the 1930’s, the subject felt modern enough to meet my sightseeing criteria.

The museum walks through the history and development of anime, its impact on Japanese society and vice versa, along with the principles governing anime and, of course, a theatre running the best of the medium:

Needless to say, I didn’t understand too much.

Far more comprehensible was my fish day. Beginning at 5:30 am, I made my way to the newly constructed Toyusu Fish Market to watch the daily tuna auction. The old market used to allow anyone onto the trading floor, so tourists could get very close to the often chaotic, and smelly, action. The new place is larger and much cleaner, but spectators are limited to watching from a glass enclosed section a floor above. Still seeing these giant tunas hauled around is mesmerizing:

The Tuna Auction

The former fish market was at Tsukiji, where a cottage industry had developed of sushi stores and restaurants, most tiny little booths. I ate a fabulous tuna and salmon sashimi lunch there.

Tiring of seeing so many dead fish, I made my way to the Art Aquarium Museum where thousands of live goldfish are displayed in unique installations:

The Japanese imported the custom of watching goldfish from the Chinese over 200 years ago. The collection includes some very rare goldfish:

Not much more to say about goldfish. The rest of my Tokyo days were spent walking around some of its famous areas, visiting gardens and going to noodle street at the Tokyo Station for ramen noodles.

It seemed fitting to end my time in Tokyo visiting one of Japan’s most loved devices- a toilet- and I don’t mean your average run-of-the-mill toilet. For my time here I had been delighting in the toilets; heated seats, automatic wash and dry functions, noise disguising sounds, etc. I walked to the transparent Shibuya Toilet, which is designed to be fully visible until someone enters, then goes opaque automatically when in use. The thinking is you can check the toilet’s cleanliness before committing to going in:

Unfortunately they didn’t seem to be working and my non- existent Japanese suspects the signs on the door say “ Out of Order”.

After 9 weeks in Asia it was time to return to Canada. So until my next adventure, thank you for visiting and reading.

Liking Laos

There are very few countries I have visited that I would say I hate, but top of the list is Laos. This was based on a trip in 2007 with my son to the island of Don Khong. After 2 relaxing days, we asked the hotel proprietress for help getting us to Siem Reap in Cambodia. What ensued was an hours long negotiation about price between the proprietress, a restaurant owner and us, the former in cahoots with each other. In the end, they promised us a single vehicle, one day ride to Siem Reap for $35.

What followed was an hour ride to the border with a demand by the border guards to pay the Sunday overtime charge ( it was Monday at 8:00 am), a change of vehicles to some town in Cambodia where the driver told us no further ride would be available until the next day. Me, and a mass of other Westerners, protested and eventually a rickety mini-van was produced which ferried us to Phnom Penh, but only after I forced Stefan to sit in the stairwell for lack of seats. At the outskirts of Phnom Penh, we were met by a bunch of scooters, anxious to take us into the city. Given our heavy suitcases, motorcycles were out of the question. Finally, a taxi took us to a hotel on the Mekong, where the next door’s discotheque pounded music until the wee hours. It was one of my worst days and the duplicity of the hotel proprietress left a bad taste in my mouth about Laos.

Time made me realize it was unfair to condemn an entire nation based on the lies of two people, so I decided to give Laos another try. My arrival without the necessary visa was met with a few shrugs by the immigration officer who pointed me to the visa line where one was quickly obtained and I was welcomed to Laos.

I was in Luang Probang, the ancient capital, Laos’ second city and a magnet for tourists seeking a relaxing, meditative experience. Its peacefulness, compared to Thailand, was palpable. Motorists did not honk horns, there was no garbage strewn about and the sidewalks were wide and regular.

Some history is in order. The Laotians are generally regarded as a subset of a Thai tribe that migrated from the Chinese highlands in the 13th century and settled in the area that is now Laos. Its greatest kingdom governed from the 1350s to the 1700s with Luang Probang as its capital. Suffice to say its borders contracted and expanded depending on the outcome of battles with the Thais, Vietnamese, Burmese and Chinese. In 1750, the Siamese took over until 1890, when it ceded Laos to the French in exchange for Siamese independence.

The French period is regarded as “ soft colonialism”, with the Laotian people mostly being used as cheap labour for French projects in Vietnam. Cries for independence started following WW2, but was only granted in 1965 following the defeat of the French in the French/Indochine war. During the Vietnam War, the USA carried out its secret war in Laos, covering the country with bombs in an attempt to halt Vietnamese arms transport along the Ho Chi Minh trail. The USA left a trail of destruction, death and land mines which still explode occasionally today.

Following the North Vietnamese victory in 1975, Laos, too, was taken over by a Communist party, which has retained control through to today.

Luang Probang offers a number of sites and experiences for the tourists and I engaged in most of them. First off, the requisite sunset cruise along the Mekong River aboard my private boat:

It was a bit cloudy, so I’ll spare you the not so spectacular sunset photos.

Next up, seeing the temples, of which there seemed to be hundreds:

Quite frankly, after the first dozen or so, they all started to look the same and, really, how many photos do I need of pretty, gold coloured temples.

The night market, along a Main Street blocked every evening, has the usual array of local crafts and tacky souvenirs:

Luang Probang has one unique experience high on every tourist’s list and that is the march of the monks. Every morning, before dawn, the orange robed monks leave their dorms and walk down the streets toward the temples as locals and tourists give them rice- their sustenance for the day. It is highly recommended and I wanted to see it, but…,

The bane of my time in Luang Probang was this bridge:

To get from my hotel to the center of Luang Probang, I had to either call a taxi tuk-tuk and pay $16 to go the 15 minutes via the new bridge or I could walk over the old bridge’s planks for free and be there in 5 minutes. The problem is I get vertigo and have a strong dislike of rickety old bridges so every time I had to walk across it was an unpleasant chore.

I finally compromised and decided I’d walk across the bridge in daylight, but use the taxi after dark. And since there were no taxis waiting at the hotel at 5:00 am, no amount of promised fantastic experience could convince me to walk across the bridge before dawn, so I didn’t see the monk’s march.

I couldn’t leave Luang Probang without visiting one of its many nearby waterfalls. An hour’s drive away is Kuangsi waterfall, a popular picnic point for locals and tourists alike:

Pretty, but quite busy. More serene was the the nearby butterfly park and, while there were many beautiful butterflies there, getting a decent photo was near impossible.

Vientiane is the capital of Laos and to get there from Luang Probang involves a $150 flight on Lao Airlines, a 9 hour minivan ride through mountains and winding roads or a $35 ( after commission) ride on the newly built Chinese railroad. The problem is that train tickets go on sale only 3 days before and require personal attendance to buy them.

I opted for the train ride and happily paid the commission for the agent to stand in line at 4:00am 3 days prior. My hoped for business class ticket wasn’t available but a regular seat was procured. On the appointed day, I arrived at the stark, newly constructed station and settled in ( after 2 passport and 1 security checks) for the ride. I’d read the scenery was spectacular but the first hour was filled with so many long tunnels it was hard to see much, but what was visible was quite pretty:

Vientaine is considered a quiet, relaxing capital, which it was. I hired a private driver, found a list of top things to see and crossed most of them off in two hours. They included a few temples, a few temple museums and the Patuxai Monument, commemorating those who died fighting the French and later, the non-Communists:

I could bore you with descriptions and photos of more temples, but I will spare you and move on to my Vientaine highlight, Buddha Park. It’s a built for tourists park containing in excess of 150 Buddha and Hindu statues. Here are just a few:

I appreciate this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but after enjoying the monument park in Budapest ( displaced Communist statues), I couldn’t resist another one. Yes, it’s kooky and slightly irreverent, but it was jolly good fun seeing all these Buddha statues poking up everywhere.

And thus ended my time in Laos. It had mostly redeemed itself ( until I went through the security check at the airport but that’s for the next blog). I didn’t love Laos, finding it a bit too laid back for my liking, but it is no longer on my “hate” list.

Next: Vietnam

A Tourist in Taiwan

I just spent 10 days touring Taiwan and I leave with what is best described as ambiguous feelings. Yes it was nice and some parts are extraordinarily pretty, but it’s a newish country and while it’s current politics are fascinating, it’s a little short on history.

So let’s delve into the history. Taiwan was first settled by Polynesian peoples 5,000-8,000 years ago. Today, these aboriginals make up about 500,000 of the island’s 23 million people.

In the 1600’s, Chinese from the mainland first settled and in 1694, the Ming dynasty incorporated the island into Greater China. For the next two hundred years, Europeans, – Dutch, Portuguese ( who called it Formosa) and British – colonized it along with the Chinese, who variously ruled it or retreated.

1894 is regarded as a seminal year. Following the loss of the Sino-Japanese war, the Chinese ceded Taiwan to Japan, beginning 50 years of colonial Japanese occupation. The Japanese suppressed dissent, but also modernized the country with railroads and mandatory education. During WW2, Taiwan was bombed by the Allies as it was considered part of Japan.

Meanwhile, back on the mainland, the Republic of China (ROC), under the leadership of Chiang Kai-Shek, had taken charge but were fighting a civil war against Mao’s communists. In 1945, the writing was on the wall for the ROC, and with the urging and promises of support by the USA, the ROC and its army eventually fled to Taiwan and set up the ROC on the island.

Chiang Kai-Shek was a polarizing character. He is regarded as the father of the country and immortalized in a giant memorial and statue:

But he was a brutal dictator who declared martial law and killed hundreds of dissidents. It was only upon the death of his son and successor in 1984 that Taiwan embraced democracy.

Today, both China and Taiwan claim to be the rightful rulers of a unified Taiwan. In Taiwan, it’s two major parties focus on the relationship with China. The Green Party advocates for an independent Taiwan while the Blue Party wants to reunify with China but only with it as the governing party.

I expected what the West perceives to be growing China aggression toward Taiwan to be a major topic, but my tour guides only referred to it briefly as “the tensions”. I could detect little immediate concern, although I did run into a peaceful protest against the proposed land mining of the west coast. Military service for men was recently increased from four months to a year and temporary runways were being built along the major highway. Granted my inability to understand Chinese hindered my observations but it just seemed to me that everyone was going about business as normal. Then again, I’m not sure what might one see if a country is preparing to be invaded. Maybe a run on toilet paper and generators?

What was a surprise to me is how “ Chinese” the island is, reminding me very much of Hong Kong. Its vibrant food industry is all about Chinese food. The tv is full of mainland Chinese stations. Temples are in the Chinese style- either Taoist or Confucius.

I visited the National Palace Museum, reputed the best in the city. An impressive array of Chinese treasures, most brought over by Chiang Kai-Shek, were on display including jade, Ming vases and a famous stone carved to look like a piece of pork:

The jade carved to look like a cabbage leaf was away on loan but I could look at its photo:

The other major museum is the Taiwan History Museum where I thought I might learn more about the aborigines. The standard dinosaur fossils and exhibits about fauna took up the main floor but I was directed to the third floor for the aborigines exhibits. Oddly, the focus was on the documenters of the aborigines- a photographer and writer and a carver of aboriginal figurines, with scant mention of the aborigines themselves.

To get a bird’s eye view of Taipei, my options were to pay $25 to be whisked by elevator to the top of the tallest building in the country, Taipei 101, hike 500 steps up Elephant Mountain or take a cable car up Maokong Mountain. The lesser of three evils won out and I found myself riding the cable car. A haze of pollution obstructed the view of Taipei 101 in the background:

Taipei wasn’t all temples, Memorial Halls and museums. The Lunar new year had just ended and to celebrate the year of the rabbit, cute oversized bunnies hopped out all over the place:

For me, the most endearing sight in Taipei was…….the pedestrian walk signals. Don’t walk is the standard red person but the walking signal starts with a green man actually walking. As the time runs down, the green man speeds up to a run. Apparently every 20,000 steps, the walk man trips and falls but I didn’t see this. It’s hard to photograph the running man but he was:

I splurged on a 4 night, 5 day bus tour promising to circle the island and show us the best of Taiwan.

Our first attraction was Sun Moon Lake, a popular resort area with a beautiful lake and lots of fabulous walking trails:

The day was spent visiting various temples around the lake and admiring the views. The next day, we left the lake and went to the Fo Guang Shan Monastery, one of the islands largest. It also houses a university, hotels and plenty of souvenir shops. The tradition here is to erect a statue of every monk who serves in the monastery, so there is a plethora of statues:

The original monastery dated to the 1950’s – the head monk had been a soldier in Chiang Kai-Shek’s army- but it had been destroyed by an earthquake in 1999 so the current structure is pretty new.

Days 3 and 4 were spent driving the Pacific Coast Highway, the western equivalent of the USA’s Pacific Coast Highway, with equally impressive vast vistas of the ocean:

The highlight of our final day was the Taroko Gorge where the Liwu River carved out magnificent cliffs in the sandstone:

Wonderful walking paths, tunnels and bridges carved out by idle soldiers from Chiang Kai-Shek’s army make for some great viewing:

Thus ended the tour and my time in Taiwan. As I mentioned, I left with ambiguous feelings. I was surprised by the country’s lack of an extensive history separate from mainland China and how much of it, in architecture and atmosphere reminded me of any large Chinese city. But I was impressed by all of its green space, its national parks and rugged coastline.

Next: Cooler weather awaits.

Seeing Seoul

I ended up in Seoul, not out of any deep rooted desire to visit it, but due to the quirks of airline pricing which made it much cheaper to fly Seoul to Tokyo to Toronto rather than Tokyo directly to Toronto.

Thus I found myself one coolish February day in Seoul with little knowledge of South Korea’s history other than the war with the north and no real plan as to what to see or do other than a tour to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which separates the two Koreas.

A few YouTube history documentaries, a review of TripAdvisor Things to Do and a wander around the National Museum of Korea gave me a fair idea of its background and some not to be missed sites.

First a bit of history. Peoples have inhabited the Korean peninsula for over 8,000 years but the first kingdom came about in the 2nd century BC.

Various kingdoms came and went but the most famous and long lasting was the Joseon dynasty which governed a united Korea from 1392 to 1897. King Sejong the Great ( 1397 -1450) is credited with creating the Korean alphabet, a moving clock and the printing press, amongst other accomplishments and his statue is prominently displayed on the Main Street:

The Joseons were prolific builders and 5 of their palaces have been carefully reconstructed on their original sites in downtown Seoul. The originals, mostly made of wood, were destroyed by fire or the Japanese. The new palaces, although true to the originals, are now made of red pine imported from Canada. Here’s what just a small portion of Gyeongbokgung Palace looks like:

A lovely feature of the palaces in Seoul is if you wear a traditional costume, entrance is free. Thus, plenty of locals and a few foreigners went to the many costume-for-rent stores by the palaces and donned the Hanbok:

Beside the palaces lies the village of Bukchon Hanok. Built to house the administrators employed in the palaces starting in the 15th century, nearly 900 of the houses still stand, interspersed among todays apartments and garages:

It’s said that Korea’s worst problem is its geography. With China, Russia and Japan as its neighbours, its estimated to have been invaded over 3,000 times. The Joseon Dynasty dealt with these invasions by alternatively sealing its borders and becoming a hermit kingdom and opening up to foreigners to develop ways of getting rid of unwanted armies.

In 1894, following China’s defeat after the Sino- Japanese War, the Chinese left and in 1904 the Russians were driven out after losing their war with Japan. Thus began one of the darkest periods in Korean history when Japan annexed Korea and colonized it. Numerous atrocities were committed by the Japanese towards the Koreans during this occupation, the worst of which was the taking of the “comfort girls”, 15 and 16 year old girls who were used as sex slaves by the Japanese soldiers during WW2. A pretty sculpture pays tribute to those girls, of whom only 6 are still alive today:

Little love is lost between the Koreans and Japanese. Tourism between the countries is minimal, there’s not a lot of Toyotas around and no one seems anxious to establish better relations.

After WW2, Korea became a proxy for the Cold War. The Russians installed a former guerilla fighter as president of North Korea and, along with China, heavily armed it. In the south, a puppet of the USA was made president. On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded the south and advanced to Seoul.

For the first time, the UN, heavily backed by the USA, sent a military force to protect a country’s sovereignty. The Korean War waged on for three years until the Secretary General of the UN and North Korea signed a ceasefire agreement establishing the border at the 38th parallel. The war has never officially ended and South Korea does not consider itself bound by the ceasefire agreement it never signed.

The DMZ serves as a buffer zone between the countries. Originally 2 kilometres on each side, it is now a 1.2 strip per side that runs about 155 miles across the peninsula. No arms are allowed inside the DMZ, but each side is heavily guarded.

It was against this backdrop, and a few passport checks, that I was expecting something somber and grey on my bus tour to the DMZ, so I was a little surprised at our first stop beside the DMZ to find, you guessed it…..a theme park complete with food fair, a cable car ride, a movie theatre an amusement park: and a giant parking lot for tour buses:

Our second stop on the tour was a little more serious. The North Koreans had, at various times, burrowed four tunnels designed to quickly move 30,000 soldiers into the South. The tunnels were discovered, blocked and now provide tourists like me the opportunity to get as close to North Korea as possible. The one I walked through ( they are quite large and about 2 metres high) is 75 metres underground.

On our final stop, we went to an observation tower where we could clearly see the DMZ and across the border, North Korea’s third largest city. Using the powerful binoculars, I could make out a single North Korean sentry walking around the guard tower. Photos through the binoculars were not possible, but this is what the DMZ looks like:

North Korea as seen from South Korea

Our tour guide, a mid -30s local lady explained what she thought about reunification “it’s our parent’s issue, not ours. We’ve never known a unified Korea and we’re a little afraid of the heavy price we’d have to pay to absorb the much poorer north. As for North Korea and its missiles and nuclear threat? We think they’re more of a nuisance than anything else. It’s a way for Kim Jong-un to get attention. Nothing more”.

I visited the war memorial commemorating the 5 million soldiers and civilians who died during the Korean war; unfortunately the museum was closed the day I tried to visit. I walked through a few of Seoul’s noteworthy neighborhoods and tried a variety of Korean foods. I walked to the Hangang River which bisects the city and was forced to listen to K-pop, Korean hip hop, for two hours at a protest beside my hotel.

It was all very pleasant, but without meaning to sound dismissive of Seoul, after five days I had seen all I wanted to see and was ready to move on.

Next, Japan.

Vietnam Ventures

My only prior visit to Vietnam, in 2007, was limited to Hanoi and Halong Bay. Both were fabulous, but I didn’t really feel like I had seen enough of Vietnam, so I booked myself a two week trip there, stopping in 4 new-to-me cities.

Ho Chi Minh City is the country’s second largest and the former Saigon, occupied by the Americans until their ignominious retreat in April, 1975. The American War (what we refer to as the Vietnam War) is recalled here in the War Remnants Museum. I was greeted by a sign promising “ the honest story” about the war.

Well you know the saying “history belongs to the victors.” It was fairly evident in the museum, with the Viet Cong referred to as martyrs and patriots and the US as imperialists and propping up a puppet government. US interests in the region were scarcely mentioned, but in retrospect, other than a vague desire to uphold democracy and stop the spread of Communism, I’m not sure the motives are much deeper.

The museum identifies the key events leading to the war and the players, but then focuses on the horrors committed by the US – the My Lai massacre where US military killed 500 civilians for no apparent purpose, the Napalm attacks and the effects of Agent Orange. Two exhibits were devoted to photojournalism; one on the many journalists who lost their lives during the war and another showcasing their work. Finally, I returned to the courtyard which was decorated with US hardware; taking selfies beside a tank seemed to be a thing but I managed one picture without getting photo bombed.

Continuing the war theme, I embarked on a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels, where the Viet Cong dug an elaborate series of tunnels near US bases to smuggle both arms and soldiers and to attack the Americans. There, the guide showed us the many booby traps used to capture US soldiers and the ingenious entrances to the tunnels:

We could walk through some tunnels, enlarged to accommodate fat tourists and try our hand at shooting AK-47s on the conveniently located firing range. I passed on both, but left with the sense that the Vietnamese were proud of the ways in which they seemed to outsmart the Americans at every turn.

Having had enough of the War, I joined Qwi for a Vietnamese cooking lesson. It was held in the kitchen of a high rise apartment block; she had lost her restaurant during the pandemic. She was a great teacher and we made spring rolls, Vietnamese pancakes and the iconic Vietnamese dish, pho. All were delicious.

Travel sometimes entails leaving one’s comfort zone and in Ho Chi Minh City, I left mine far behind when I signed up for a city tour with a student on a scooter. I’m basically petrified of motorcycles and have never been on one in Canada, but a scooter in Vietnam, where they are so ubiquitous, seemed sensible.

Timothy, my guide/ driver was an English literature student who spoke with a proper BBC accent. After giving me a helmet, we proceeded to scoot around the city, joining the other 4 million scooters zipping in and out of traffic, deftly missing pedestrians and giving way to honking trucks and buses. I was enjoying the wind in my face and thought I could get used to this until I read a few days later that Vietnam has a very high fatality rate amongst scooter riders:

From Ho Chi Minh City, I flew to the central city of Hue, the formal capital of the newly unified Vietnam between 1802 and 1945, when the French exiled the last king.

The kings were famous for building tombs, most of which survive today. I visited two, the serene yet fantastic tomb of the 4th king, set in a park like setting and the more ornate, nearly gaudy one of the 12th king:

I also signed up for a street food tour. Led by Ruby, we scooted around Hue in search of the best local street food. I indulged in a Banh Mi, Pho, a dry noodles dish and a jellied rice dish. All were good, but I’m getting tired of Asian food and dreaming of fajitas.

In addition to the tombs, Hue is famous for its Imperial City. Modelled after the Forbidden City in Beijing, it was a walled, planned city for the royalty to live in. Some of the buildings were destroyed during the war, but many still remain or have been reconstructed:

From Hue, Hoi An is a two hour taxi ride. It started as a trading port, attracting Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese mariners and merchants and their history is evident today in the many Temples, Assembly Halls and old houses I visited in the Old Town. The most famous landmark is the Japanese Covered Bridge:

It was basically impossible to get a photo of it without a ton of tourists; Hoi An has done a good job of marketing itself as a tourist destination and the crowds were huge. Walking around the Old Town felt like shuffling through a crowd at a baseball game:

The lantern festival, held monthly on the first night of the lunar calendar, was dreamed up by the Hoi An tourist board. Basically, you buy a lantern for about $1, light the candle, make a wish then set it on the water and watch it sail away. I, along with thousands of others, couldn’t resist:

It’s quite beautiful but hard to photograph all the lights in the dark.

If you’ve made it this far and aren’t completely bored by all the history, jump with me to the 21st century and my visit to the Bana Hills. Originally developed in the mountains outside DaNang by the French seeking relief from the heat, it lay abandoned until about 1991 when it was developed into a theme park.

The French used to be carried up there by the Vietnamese; today the world’s longest single rope cable car whisks you up in about 10 minutes and the newest attraction- The Golden Bridge- comes into view:

Another short cable car ride deposited me in the French Village, complete with a Cathedral, European garden, of course, a Loire Valley inspired castle:

It’s very busy with both local and foreign visitors, a testament to the skills of the marketers. Despite the craziness of walking through a French village in Vietnam, the imagination of the Golden Bridge designers or the indoor theme park, my favourite part of the day was the cable car ride. Despite being basically terrified of cable cars, this one started in the misty plains, then went through the clouds before stopping in glorious sunshine. From atop, I was able to photograph the clouds below:

Mother Nature trumped mankind!

And so ended two weeks in Vietnam.

Of Temples and Trains: Thailand

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Bangkok three times prior, so I’d been to the usual tourist attractions: the Royal Palace, the Emerald Buddha, a cruise along the river. This time, I had two objectives.

First, I wanted to learn more about the history of Thailand. I booked a day tour to the ancient city of Ayutthaya, located about 90 minutes from Bangkok. The Siam dynasty succeeded the Khmer dynasty in 1351 and constructed Ayutthaya as its capital city, still mostly in the Khmer style which explains its resemblance to Angor Wat in Cambodia. Siam ruled the area for 400 years, battling the Burmese and Laotians. Finally in 1730, the Burmese ransacked the city and the Siamese decamped to the newly built city of Bangkok.

We went from temple ruin to temple ruin:

They were quite beautiful, but after the fourth or fifth one, they all started blending into each other. Our guide, with hard to understand English, offered little explanation and very few of the signs were in English so much of what I learned about the area was from Wikipedia.

My second goal was to visit the train market. I’d seen photos of one in Hanoi, where the train runs very close to market stalls, but as Hanoi is not on my current agenda, I wanted to make a point of seeing the Thai equivalent.

After an hour drive out of Bangkok, my tour group was dropped by some train tracks along with hundreds of other tourists in the middle of nowhere. A few minutes later, a train appeared, we boarded the rickety old commuter train and settled in for the half hour ride.

At the 28 minute mark, the guide yelled “get ready”and we all looked out the windows to see market stalls just inches away. Standing below were camera toting tourists anxious to take a photo and high-five the train passengers – we were that close:

It was jolly good fun and everyone laughed as the train inched its way along the track. After it stopped, we disembarked then stood behind the red line to watch as the vendors packed up their stuff as the train made its way back up the track:

A visit to the floating market, indulging in Thai street food, a foot massage and a $12 haircut completed my time in Bangkok. In my younger days, I would have taken the 12 hour train to Chiang Mai, but I’ve lost patience for that so I flew to my next city, Chiang Rai.

Chiang Rai is the northernmost city in Thailand, near the border with Laos, and having a population of about 200,000. One of its highlights is the Blue Temple:

As you can see from the photo, it is quite blue. Inside, it is also blue:

Not to be outdone by the Blue Temple is the White Temple. Construction began in 1997 by a local artist and it is absolutely gorgeous;

Both inside and out are intricate carvings, all in white:

It really is magnificent; a fitting memorial to an artist’s imagination and aesthetic that, in my mind, ranks with the Taj Mahal as one of the world’s most beautiful buildings.

Needing a change of scenery from all the temples, I went on a 30 minute hike to a nearby waterfall, the Khun Korn waterfall. As I started, I was greeted with this sign:

Fortunately I saw no green pit vipers, or any other snakes, and made my way to the waterfall without incident.

A comfortable 3 hour bus ride landed me in Chiang Mai. The second largest city in Thailand, it’s advertised as a quaint, quiet town with few tourists and an old town replete with walls and hundreds of temples.

Well, there is a wall and lots of temples, but I wouldn’t describe it as quaint or less touristy. The old city is a warren of tiny streets, a temple on every corner and impromptu market stalls on every spare inch of sidewalk:

As for fewer tourists, that’s debatable. Although there was an absence of Chinese and Russian visitors, there were plenty of Europeans and Israelis. Cheap massage parlours, express tailors and food stalls abounded. Touts hawked treks to the nearby mountains and elephant sanctuaries promising “no riding” were heavily promoted.

I choose to do a cooking class at the Simple Organic Farm. It started with a quick stop at a market, than a ride to the farm, actually a well organized cooking school with dozens of individual cooking stations. We each choose 3 Thai dishes and with the excellent instruction of Natty, chopped, pounded, diced and cooked the ingredients. I made Green Curry Chicken, Holy Basil Chicken and Hot and Sour Soup. I managed to eat most of it, but forwent the mango ice-cream for dessert.

Chiang Mai is famous for its plethora of temples. I found a “10 great temples list” on the internet and, with the help of Google Maps, started walking to each one. They were all beautiful:

But after finding 6 on the list, and dozens not on the list, the temples were becoming indistinguishable from one another and I was having a hard time appreciating each temple’s beauty. I’d had enough.

So I consoled myself with a $8 massage and a pedicure, had some pants made, got laundry done and ate too much delicious Thai food. It was time to move on.

Next up: Laos

Sweating in Singapore

Determined to avoid another cold Canadian winter and thanks to the kindness of my dog sitting cousin, I embarked on a two month journey to East Asia one cold, January morning.

My first stop was Singapore. I had previously visited in 1994, emptied my pockets of chewing gum, duly drank a Singapore Sling in the Raffles Hotel and spent too much time and money in the shopping Mecca that is Orchard Road. But the tourist board and the travel writers promised a new and more vibrant Singapore and I was eager to see what the city had to offer these days. Besides, its temperature is a fairly constant 30 degrees which would keep me nice and warm.

My first stop was to a traditional site; the UNESCO world heritage Botanical Gardens with its marvellous outdoor orchid garden:

Beautiful as the orchids were, my highlight was being asked for ID to establish I was eligible for the senior’s discount entry fee. Good to know I don’t look over 60.

After enjoying real flowers, I made my way to the Gardens by the Bay, a fabulous garden complex constructed on recently reclaimed land. The Supergrove is its star, a complex of giant metal trees which treat everyone to a dazzling sound and light show every night:

Not to be outdone is the nearby Marina Sands, which offers a nightly water dance; music plays as scores of fountains spray and splash and circle about in a spectacular array of lights and colour:

Often described as the third modern wonder in Singapore is Changi Airport, with its Jewel containing the world’s largest waterfall. However, when I went there was no water:

I decided to console myself by going to the Changi Airport Butterfly Garden, but after searching for half an hour, was dismayed to learn it was only available after clearing security in Terminal 3. Since I arrived at Terminal 1 and was departing Terminal 4, the butterflies were not to be. My trip to Changi was a bust.

Not so my visit to Haw Par Villa, a theme park offering 150 dioramas depicting different exploits of Chinese gods in vivid colours:

Imagine 150 such scenes and you get the idea it’s a sort of “ you’ve got to be kidding” moment, reminding me of all the floats at the Mardi Gras Museum in Mobile, Alabama. But more illustrations awaited as I entered the Hell’s Museum where an additional 10 dioramas showed the 10 step progression through the Chinese purgatory:

Seeking something slightly less colourful, I took a free ( before tip) walking tour with Just, a local guide anxiously awaiting the return of the Chinese tourists who used to make up nearly half of all visitors. We walked around many of the older, British legacy buildings: the Victoria Theatre, the Supreme Court Building and the formerly whites-only cricket club.

Singapore had been little more than a marshy swamp when Stamford Raffles founded the city in 1820 as a trading port along the Singapore River. Britain colonized it, subjected its local Chinese, Malay and Indian inhabitants to the usual humiliations of colonization and did the usual British stuff, laying railways, building churches, speaking English.

In 1942, Britain unceremoniously surrendered the city to invading Japanese forces and left. Though they returned in 1945, the locals did not forgive them and the independence movement took shape. Granted independence in 1965, Singapore has been ruled by the benevolent dictator Lee Kuan Yew and his son ever since.

The remnants of the British colonialism and its tendency to segregate different ethnicities is found in the various neighborhoods: Little India, China Town and Arab Street. I walked around each, but as I live in a very multicultural city with its own ethnic neighborhoods, the ones in Singapore were underwhelming, filled mostly with tacky souvenir shops and self- proclaimed trendy bars and restaurants. I didn’t linger.

The one exception is the hawker centers. Best described as a conglomerate of independently owned food stalls serving mostly cheap Chinese food, I made my way to a few of them for lunch and dinner, enjoying roast duck and fish soup meals for a few dollars.

But the culinary experience highlight was eating at Tai Hwa Pork Noodles, the only Michelin starred food stall in the world.

I waited in line for over an hour before ordering its signature minced pork over noodles dish:

The pork was okay but the noodles and sauce absolutely delicious.

And thus ended my time in Singapore.

Up next: Thailand

Driving Germany’s Romantic Road

The Romantic Road was a term dreamed up by PR types trying to entice tourists back to post-war Germany. It’s a pretty enough route, but I failed to find any love interest on my week long journey around it.

After picking up a rental car in Munich, my friend Cathy and I drove to our first town, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe, replete with timber framed houses and an old town square fronted by the Town Hall:

It’s one of three walled towns still existing and wall walking is a common pastime, so we indulged:

A must-do is to take a walk with the Night Watchman, who regaled us with stories of life in medieval Germany. Then, the place stank due to lack of plumbing, plague and other diseases ran rampant and the church controlled every aspect of one’s life. Hardly a paradise;

The Night Watchman

For a change of scenery, we drove 35 miles to the second walled town of Dinkelsbuhl. It too had timber framed houses, ramparts and a town square. Rather than repeat our Rathenberg ob der Tauber experience, we started on our second quest, eating lots of good German food. Thus, we sat in a cafe near the Cathedral and ate a delicious piece of Apple Strudel:

The third of the trio of walled towns is Nordlingen, which has the usual medieval attractions but also the Ries Crater Museum, which as its name suggests, is about craters and more specifically about the 25 kilometre wide crater where Nordlingen rests, created when a meteor crashed into the earth about 15 million years ago. The museum was a welcome change from all things medieval, focusing on how the universe and earth were formed.

Another diversion from the 15th century was a detour to Stuttgart and the Mercedes Benz Museum. Housed in an elliptical building, the museum whisked us to the 8th floor in a pod like elevator. From there, we slowly walked down, with exhibits about Mercedes Benz intertwined with world events. Daimler patented the first motor car in 1885, but it wasn’t until the Paris World Fair in 1889 that his car really took off; it being one of the main attractions there after the Eiffel Tower:

The Museum was full of interesting tidbits. The name “Mercedes’” was adopted when one of Daimler’s engineers christened his race car after his daughter “Mercedes”. Benz and Daimler never met; financiers forced the two companies to merge in the wake of the financial crisis in Germany in the 1920’s. During WW2, Mercedes Benz used over 30,000 forced labourers, mostly prisoners of war and concentration camp victims. It has apologized for this but no mention was made of reparations.

In furtherance of our food hunts, I finally was able to enjoy white asparagus, loved in France and Germany every spring. It’s white because it is grown completely underground so it lacks chlorophyll but served with Hollandaise sauce and weiner schneitzal makes for a very hearty meal:

Part of the romance part of the Romantic Road is the plethora of pretty castles. We visited Hohenzollern Castle, an 18th century Gothic Revival castle built by Crown Prince Frederick William IV of Prussia on the remains of a much older castle:

Inside, it was as opulent as one would expect a palace to be. Unfortunately due to a mix up in castle names causing me to buy tickets for Hohenschwagua not Hohenzollern castle, the only tour available was in German and the only thing I understood was “stay on the carpet” so my information is a little thin.

On our way to our final castle, we passed through the Bavarian Alps, beautiful in their thick forests, lush green grass and glacier fed lakes:

If you look closely in the picture above, you’ll see Hohenschwagua castle on the right, which we did eventually find on route to Neuschwanstein Castle but having already shelled out 30€ to try and visit it earlier but went to the wrong castle, we didn’t try and visit it again. The tickets had very strict date and time entries and we’d missed both.

So on to the ultimate castle, Neuschwanstein Castle. Conceived by King Ludwig II of Bavaria in the 19th century as his version of a medieval castle, its setting is spectacular:

We managed to buy the correct tickets for the English tour and were led through the castle by the guide who explained King Ludwig’s masterpiece. Frustrated by his limited constitutional powers, Neuschwanstein was built so King Ludwig could engage in his vision of a medieval king; omnipotent, a brave warrior, etc. To this end, he had a room that looked like a cave and another one pained with scenes of his favourite stories of Parzaval and Lohengrin. Alas, no pictures were allowed inside.

The castle is the subject of many rumours, most of which were ignored by the guide. It is said to have inspired Disney’s Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. It was also said to have been built for the German composer Richard Wagner. King Ludwig was also supposed to be mad, which our guide did address, but his take was that King Ludwig just liked to visit an alternative reality, no different than today’s kids playing video games. So rather than being mad, the king was just ahead of his times.

Believe what you like, I found the castle enchanting, a monument to one man’s dreams. And thus ended our Romantic Road journey.

Armenia: The Third Caucasus Country

The problem with doing a 3 country tour is that once you get to the last one, you feel like you’ve seen it all before and the prospect of visiting yet another medieval church or seeing another stunning mountain vista becomes more of a chore rather than something to look forward to.

Thus, I entered Armenia after visiting Azerbaijan and Georgia a little tired, a little jaded, planning to go through the motions rather than truly embracing it. Of course, I was wrong. Armenia has plenty of novel attractions to satisfy my quest for unique and interesting.

To be sure, my tour stopped at quite a few churches, not surprising as Armenia had been the first country to adopt Christianity in 301. The man responsible, St. Grigor the Illuminator, is remembered in a monastery partially carved out of a cave and set against the Caucasus mountains:

I also visited the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, the seat of the Armenian Orthodox Church and generally considered the first Cathedral in Europe, dating to 301. Unfortunately it was under renovation and scaffolding so we could not enter.

But Armenia offered plenty else. Many of its buildings are constructed from tufa, a limestone formed by lava with lovely hues. In the second city of Gyumri, most of the center’s buildings are tufa, including the still under construction main church:

Gyumri was close to the epicentre of the 1988 earthquake which devastated the country, killing 25,000, leaving 500,000 homeless and levelling 60% of Gyumri. Most of the buildings destroyed were of the bland, Soviet era variety, while the replacements are the Armenian tufa style:

In the capital city of Yerevan, I visited the Genocide Memorial, commemorating the 1.5 million Armenians living in nearby Turkey who were killed between 1895 and 1925.

The archeological museum contains treasures from Armenia’s golden period, from the 9th to the 4th century BC when it stretched 400,000 kilometres, covering parts of modern Turkey, Iran, Georgia and Azerbaijan. A 20th century nationalistic movement seeking to regain part of Greater Armenia was exploited by Stalin and his mass relocation of different ethnic groups and is the root of the territorial dispute with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region which has seen three wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan since 1991.

To satisfy the need to visit something quirky, I went to the Temple of Garni, a Soviet era reconstruction of the Greco-Roman temple to the sun king Mihr. It’s a sign of pre-Christian pagan Armenia, which might explain why the Soviets rebuilt it, the original having been destroyed in an earthquake in 1679.

The Matenadaren, or Manuscripts Museum, is the largest depository of Armenian manuscripts, many dating to the 4th century. Painstakingly translated and drawn by Armenian monks, the western world has these translations to thank for preserving many famous works by the ancient Greeks and Latins after the originals were destroyed at the Great Library at Alexandria in one of its purges. Alas, no photos were allowed inside.

Like Georgia, Armenia is a grape growing region with delicious wines. However, it was its brandy (or cognac) which our tour focused on at the Ararat Brandy facility. A brandy tasting followed the facility tour. My favourite? A 7 year old vintage sipped after slowly eating a piece of dark chocolate:

Although located in Turkey, Mount Ararat, of Noah’s Ark fame, is visible on a good day from the capital. It’s only 40 kilometres away. So important is it to the psyche of the Armenians that all of Yerevan was designed so the mountain would be visible from everywhere in the city. We had mostly cloudy days, but managed one clear early morning sighting:

Mention must be made of the current political climate. Armenia is a close ally of Russia, so I didn’t see any Ukrainian flags. Of more importance to many Armenians was the signing of the Russian brokered treaty with Azerbaijan whereby Armenia was giving up its rights to the Nagorno-Kharabakh region. Protests in opposition to this treaty erupted everyday in Yerevan, snarling traffic and making access to some points difficult. But, so far, the protests have been peaceful and the protesters’ tent city almost had a carnival atmosphere:

After 4 days I left Armenia. A short visit but one which gave me a taste of the country. Next up, something more romantic.

Georgia: Wine, Monasteries and the Russians

Georgia is known for its wines and, as if to prove the point, our group was met on arrival at the Tblisi airport by our tour guide, whose first act after introducing herself was to hand out small bottles of Georgian wine to enjoy on the bus. This country was off to a good start.

Georgia is considered the birthplace of wine, with some wine resins dating back 8,000 years. Just outside of Tblisi, we began to see vineyards where some of the 500 different varieties of grapes in Georgia are grown. We enjoyed a wine tasting at the Khareba Winery, deep in one of the 13 kilometres of tunnels, learned about the difference between Georgian wine making technique (the skin and seeds remain throughout the fermentation process) and the European technique. And of course, we sampled many of the local wines at all of our meals in Georgia.

Georgia was the second country to adopt Christianity as its state religion in 326, after St. Nino cured the Queen of ill health. Many churches/monasteries date from this 4th century, but Georgia’s glory period, between the 10th and 14th centuries saw the construction of some glorious churches by such monarchs as David the Builder and Queen Tamar. Many of the churches escaped destruction by various invaders – Persians, Mongols, Turks, Russians- unlike other grand palaces and universities, which were uniformly razed.

If I had a favourite, it was the modest church in the Vardzia cave city. Originally carved by monks in the 12th century, the 13 story high cave city expanded to house up to 50,000 inhabitants and contained amenities such as stables, water pipes, stores and a church, everything needed to hide out for a few years:

An earthquake struck in the 13th century, leaving much of the cave fronts open, but the city was reinforced and used for another two centuries. During the Soviet period, it was a museum but off-limits to most people.

Now, about the Russians. Situated right above Georgia, Russia has had its eyes on Georgia for centuries as a buffer between it and the Persians/Ottomans. In 1783, it signed a treaty with the Georgian King in which Russia took over Georgia’s foreign policy. A few years later, in 1803, Russia invaded the country and occupied it until 1918. In the chaos of the Bolshevik revolution, Georgia declared independence, but it was short-lived when Russia again invaded in 1920, brutally put down the independence movement and annexed the country, making it a republic of the USSR.

In the capital Tblisi, the National Museum dedicates a floor to the Soviet occupation, with graphic illustrations of executions, the gulags and the repression of free speech and political parties. The great purge of 1937 saw aristocrats, intelligentsia, political prisoners and rich peasants tortured and killed.

Independence movements began in the 1980’s; it was declared initially in 1989, suppressed but finally granted in 1991. Nonetheless, it remains precarious with Russia arming two breakaway republics, both of which have declared independence, recognized by nobody except Russia.

As a result, over 20% of Georgia territory is currently occupied by Russian forces and people fear that Russia will turn its sights on Georgia next after Ukraine. Its strategic position, along with rumoured reserves of oil and gas and rare earth minerals and Putin’s desire to return Russia to the glory days of the USSR, make it a tempting target.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the invasion of Ukraine on Georgia; its effects were all around. Although the country’s largely ceremonial president has spoken out in favour of Ukraine, it’s prime-minister prefers Russia. And little wonder as his biggest supporter, and former prime minister, is a major shareholder in the Russian petrol-giant Gazprom.

So Georgia walks a tightrope. Flags supporting Ukraine are everywhere:

Large numbers of Russians and Belarusians, unable to remain in their home countries, have fled to Georgia, where they await visas for Western Europe or North America. Two whom I met both proclaimed they would return home “when Putin is dead. ”

But not all Georgians welcome these Russian dissidents. There is great dislike and distrust of all Russians, regardless of political persuasion.

A controversial exception, but only to some, is Georgia’s most infamous citizen, Joseph Stalin. Born in a rented two room house in Georgia’s second city of Gori, he initially studied to be a priest but failed to finish likely due to his political dissent activities. He was arrested 7 times and was sent to Siberia, where he managed to escape 6 times. Eventually, he befriended Lenin and Trotsky and rose through the ranks to become the Soviet leader until his death in 1953.

All this and much more is documented in the Stalin Museum in Gori. I toured it with an English speaking guide, who delivered a matter-of-fact commentary about Stalin, neither flattering him nor referencing his atrocities.

She focused on his ” damaged arm”, always out of sight in official pictures, his refusal to exchange his prisoner of war son (who was executed) and his personal possessions, like his pipes.

The museum has his birth house on its grounds and his refurbished train. Apparently Stalin was afraid to fly. Inside are his meeting room, security office, bedroom and bathroom, all furnished in a mock Art Deco style. I wonder how he would feel having loads of western tourists snapping photos of his toilet. I did but I’ll show the whole train instead:

Another inescapable consequence of the Ukrainian/Russian war is the plethora of trucks on the Georgian highways. As soon as Russia invaded, all surrounding countries except Georgia closed their land borders. Thus, the single open border into Russia has a line- up of trucks over 150 kilometres long. It takes a minimum of 4 days to cross:

Thankfully, I was not in a truck trying to cross into Russia.

Next stop, Armenia.