New City, New Challenges

It took almost two weeks longer to get my Z visa to China than expected. The good news about that thoroughly frustrating situation is that I got to see more of my family and friends. The bad news about it is that I arrived in a new country only a few days before starting classes with my students. These two and a half weeks have been a blur of medical appointments, lesson planning, teaching, meetings, bank trips, trips to WalMart and IKEA to get my apartment set up, figuring out WeChat (which I am still working on because it is the main mode of communication and payment here – and I just figured out that it even translates messages!) and the simple process of learning the wheres, whats, and hows of a new country.

 

What is the best way to get to work?

Where do I catch the bus home?

How do I get a water dispenser in my apartment?

Where do I find food I can order when I don’t speak the language – who speaks English or, at least, has an English menu I can point to?

Where do I get coffee? Something I’m finding is hugely challenging unless you want to pay $4 at Starbuck’s!

Where is the bank?

A new city always means learning the basics – and a new city where you don’t speak the language creates its own set of challenges. I also discovered that the VPN issue in China is real. Without a VPN, many helpful websites are blocked. WeChat and a VPN are your best friends.

Fortunately, I live directly across the street from a WalMart and a mall so I have access to anything I need and won’t starve. These past few weeks – fighting jet lag, preparing for classes, and trying to get the paperwork for my residency – it’s just been hard to find the energy and time to get things done. But, thanks to a typhoon day and a few good nights of sleep, I am finally starting to feel normal.

I haven’t had a chance to see much of my new city other than the paths to and from work or other obligations, but the area I’m in is beautifully green. I love the trees that line the sidewalks and the water fountains placed in strategic locations and the street cleaners with their stick brooms and big hats to protect them from the glaring sun. I love the little kiosk huts that dot the sidewalks in place of the convenient stores that I became accustomed to in Taipei. And I have had no problem finding Western food if I am craving a good pizza or French fries or even a salad. But I’ve only found one street food cart serving buns and dumplings and feel as though I haven’t yet seen the true China.

 

Shenzhen is what I expected and not what I expected. There is construction going on everywhere as it is the fastest growing city here. There are tall, modern buildings near older, somewhat dilapidated buildings and others in between. There’s English but not everywhere or even as much as I found in Taipei. And there has only been a little bit of culture shock.

The first week here felt like a picture that was out of focus. The people looked different and dressed differently than in Taiwan. But the humidity and the heat were the same. The city smells different. The food is similar but different – more meat, less vegetarian options, less tofu, more potatoes and pasta. There aren’t 7-11s on every corner or drink shops side-by-side, but there are pizza joints and cafes and other restaurants everywhere! The people are kind but more aggressive with less smiles. The scooters are different, smaller and less prominent than the cars. The buses are a better option most of the time than the subway, at least where I live. And taxis don’t always have their light on when they’re available so you just stick your hand out every time you see one.

The picture is more in focus now. I’ve adjusted. I don’t expect it to be just like Taiwan now. I knew that intellectually when I arrived but, in my tiredness and in trying to adjust, I still emotionally expected it. I literally compared everything to Taiwan…and it always fell short. Now I am starting to look at it as its own city with its own pros and cons and not keep score. I can’t wait to see more of the city and discover what makes Shenzhen unique and special in its own right.

A new city and new challenges – I see good times ahead!

 

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Taiwan: Taitung and Dulan

My time here in Taiwan is going very quickly. A part of me didn’t expect to find a job in a different country for next year, and I thought I’d have another year to explore this beautiful country. As excited as I am about my new job and moving to a new country, I am just as sad to be leaving a country I have come to love.

With only a little bit of time left, I am attempting to see places I’ve already seen and loved and visit a few more of the places I haven’t been to yet. The rain thwarted my efforts this past weekend although I did find a new market (so fun!), but my fingers are crossed that I’ll have another chance to do some of the things on my list before I go.

One of the trips I took last year that I haven’t yet written took me to two of the few places I’ve been to outside of Taipei and the furthest south I’ve been – Taitung and Dulan. Jon and I planned to visit Taitung, Dulan, and Green Island, but we only made it to two out of the three.

We flew out of Songshan Airport to Taitung on Friday night. It’s a short and easy flight, but we still arrived pretty late. Our hotel was out of the town proper near a fishing port. It was a rainy, dreary night, and we were so hungry!

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View from the balcony of our room

We went looking in a misty rain on a dark night down alleys and around temples and discovered that, at 7:45 pm, everything was closed or closing except a tiny, local restaurant. When I say restaurant, I mean wooden shack. When I say tiny, I mean a room filled by with three little tables that seated two in front of a cooking area and a glass case with seafood for us to select for them to fry up.

Additional seating outside was occupied by a few people, but we bypassed them and went in. One of the young ladies followed us in a few minutes after we ordered and informed us that the place was owned by a husband and wife team who were incredibly sweet. I’m not sure where our new friend was from (I can’t remember now), but she spoke both English and Mandarin. The wife whom we had ordered from using the point and mime method did not speak any English, but the husband whom we had not yet met spoke a little.

The young lady told us she was staying nearby, had been to Green Island the day before and ahd gotten badly bitten by a stray dog. This was not reassuring to me since we were planning to go there Sunday, but she said it was an unusual thing to have happen. She’d had to extend her stay in Taitung, though, because of the bite and this couple had been very kind to her.

She sat and talked to us while we ate one of the most delicious meals of fried food, and the owner brought us the most delicious Taiwan beer I’d ever had. I wish now that I’d taken a picture of everything, but I was too tired that night to think of it. For a spontaneous meal on a night when we thought we’d be eating 7-11, we were off to a great start. We walked back to our hotel room – a suite on the top floor (three stories) with a huge bathtub where I planned to soak for the next hour.

Taitung:

The next day we took a taxi cab to Taitung Forest Park then walked around Taitung City, visited the Taitung Railway Art Village then had an amazing meal made specifically for us at a restaurant where one of Jon’s co-workers had a friend.

The park was lovely! There were so many different kinds of plants with everything labelled and described

The Taitung Railway Art Village was adorable. It had hot air balloons everywhere, little shops, an outdoor area with vendors selling crafts and t-shirts and jewelry, and, of course, an old railway station with trains!

We left there completely stuffed and wandered around the night market. For such a smallish city, the night market was packed! I took a million pictures and drove Jon crazy then we headed back to the hotel where I almost immediately began vomiting. Jon slept while I spent the night by the toilet throwing up every morsel of once-delicious food. Let me tell you, it was not as good coming back up.

We were supposed to leave for Green Island the next morning, but the boat trip over is notoriously rough. Having spent the night vomiting, I was still feeling queasy and definitely not up for a rough boat ride. I spent the morning in bed while Jon went out and explored some rock park in Taitung. By early evening, I finally made it out of bed, and we took a walk by the water near the hotel.

The ocean is so calming and always awe-inspiring. This area had people fishing and large fishing boats and lots of rocks which made it difficult to walk.

Dulan:

We hitchhiked the next day to Dulan, getting picked up within 10 minutes of putting out our thumbs. The couple who picked us up spoke a little English, were willing to drive us anywhere, and were disappointed we didn’t speak Chinese. We got our picture taken so they could post it on Facebook, presumably entitled “The Disappointing Foreigners.” They dropped us off at the Dulan Sugar Factory and continued on their way back to Taipei.

We took pictures, wandered into and out of a few shops, walked through the one-street shopping/restaurant area of town, got directions to the beach, and headed down. The beach was stunning. We spent a few hours in the water before hunger drove us back to the one-street town where we ate at a vegetarian Mexican restaurant, Pink Rosa. It was good, not great, but filling and the closest thing I’d had to Mexican food since I’d arrived in Taiwan in August!

After lunch, we decided to hike off our food and headed up the mountain. It was rural and awesome with fields of crops and fields of cows and the occasional truck or scooter passing us on the two-lane road. We were still in our bathing suits and getting burnt and getting chafed by our wet clothes. We found a clearing with some benches in the woods and quickly changed before heading back down.

We found our way back to the abandoned sugar factory and hitchhiked home. It took us a little longer this time to get a ride. A car pulled up with a little bit of room in the backseat with fishing gear, and we climbed in. We had a male driver with a female passenger again, but the female passenger spoke fluent English and talked our ears off the entire way back to our hotel, spending part of the time berating us for not knowing Mandarin and the other part promoting the driver’s band.

It was our last night in Taitung and, by now, we were exhausted. We showered, found another local restaurant to eat in, and fell into bed.

Living in Taipei doesn’t begin to give you a taste of what it’s like outside the city. In the city, there are places I can’t eat because I don’t speak the language but I can find another place a block over that does. I have many choices, and it’s easy to live here without speaking Mandarin. Also – public transportation is easy and takes me within walking distance of all the important places.

Outside of Taipei, it’s different. In the rural areas, it’s hard to find people who speak English and it’s harder to get around and there is no public transportation. We basically relied on taxis and the patience of people to understand our halting Chinese coupled with their usually slightly better English, Google translations, and hand gestures.

Keep all of this in mind when you decide to venture outside of Taipei. It’s worth it, but it’s definitely harder.

Wrap-Up:

Taitung is a cute, small town that is challenging to navigate on limited Chinese skills. We easily saw almost everything there was to see in one day.

Dulan is an even smaller beach town that has a beautiful beach and beautiful scenery, but that’s it. Go if you want to spend time relaxing at the beach with no other agenda.

All in all, it was a relaxing weekend, but I still regret that we didn’t make it to Green Island. *sigh* I guess there is no way to predict getting sick – and maybe I’ll be back here on vacation one day to see all the places I didn’t make it to while living here!

Taiwan Dragon Boat Festival

This weekend was the Dragon Boat Festival in Taiwan. This is a Chinese holiday that is attached to three different legends, all of which involve a dead body in a river and of which dragon boat racing came from.

The most popular legend surrounds the suicide of a famous poet in China, Qu Yuan. When people found out about his death, they got in boats to search the river for his body, feeding rice to the fish to keep them from feeding on his body. Now we have dragon boat racing and zhonzi (sticky rice dumplings) to commemorate the day.

I didn’t go last year so I made sure to visit Dajia Riverside Park today for the last day of races to see what it’s all about.

I walked there from my house which took almost an hour and wound up being more of an adventure than I anticipated as I was propositioned on the way by a man. This is the first time in the almost two years that I’ve lived here that I was treated this way by a man so I was rather shocked. I guess it happens everywhere. *sigh*

Anyway, I moved quickly away from him once I realized what he wanted, made it to the park, and got absorbed into the festivities and festive atmosphere.

The park had rides for the children, food and drink vendors, games for adults, music, and, of course, the main attraction with the races on the river. The teams wore matching shirts and many of them were warming up in the fields and open concrete spaces to get ready to row. As the teams would walk in front of the spectators, they would cheer them on.

The boats all look the same, but each team carries a flag with their team name and logo. They have a person in front with the flag, a drummer who drums the timing of the strokes, and a person at the back who uses an oar to directionally steer. When the gun would go off to start a race, the beat of the drums and the chants accompanied the rowers’ efforts. They were drowned out a bit by the music and announcements going on, but I could imagine what they were like when they first began.

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It was a hot, hot, hot day. The races were short and fast. I couldn’t imagine preparing for the race only to have it over so quickly, but it still looked fun!

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Today, all of the races were local teams, a few races with high school teams, but, on Sunday, there were expat races where everyone entered had to have a foreign passport. The races ran all day from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. Someone told me that the later the day and the later the time, the better the racers. I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but the racers I saw Sunday morning looked pretty good!

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While I took pictures, this guy drew the races and looked so absorbed in his work. It was a pleasure watching him.

I can’t wait to compare the races here to the ones in China. From what I’ve read, the dragon boats vary greatly in appearance from region to region and country to country in addition to the way they celebrate. I look forward to seeing the races in another place next year.

Taiwan: Fulong Beach

Since Taiwan is an island, I thought I’d be going to the beach a lot when I moved here. Um…no…because Taipei isn’t that close to any of the beaches and the trip to any of the beaches can be challenging with crowds. I’ve only been to a beach here three or four times now. Fulong Beach this past weekend was the best one I’ve been to so far because of the 2017 Taiwan Sand Sculpting Competition.

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Up until this weekend, I had only seen sand castles built on the beach by families. This was so far beyond that. This was art.

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I had the privilege of watching two men work on Spiderman, but I wish more people had been working. It was great. Sand sculpting is the right term, for sure. They treat sand like stone and sculpt it into shapes and figures and buildings.

They use water to make sure the sand if firm and stays in place then use a flat knife, a brush, and assorted other tools. The detail is amazing.

 

Like the eyes on this figure –

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And this angel’s wings and hair –

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Fulong, though, is more than just a sand sculpting competition. It is a beautiful beach with kayaks, sailboats, canoes, hiking trails, biking trails, fishing, surfing, paddle boarding, temples (this is Asia, after all!), people-watching, and a few restaurants. We got rained out so didn’t get to do much outside, but it is worth the hour or hour and a half trip from Taipei even to spend a few hours there. It’s also very inexpensive so it won’t break you to spend a weekend at a lovely and relaxing beach.

Check it out if you get a chance. It’s very quiet so don’t go there expecting a party! Go if you are looking for a quiet weekend surrounded by friendly people, the ocean, and the mountains.

Oh – and don’t forget the sunsets.

Japan: Kyoto

Kyoto, Japan is a mix of the old and the new – and I loved it!

The trip started when Blair, Sarah, and I found each other at the airport in Osaka and took the train to Kyoto. Figuring out the train system took all three of us. We had to take one train to get from the Osaka airport to Kyoto then find the right train to get to the stop where our Airbnb place was. But we did it.

And stepping off the train felt like I had stepped back in time.

We arrived in Kyoto around 10:00 pm on a Friday. Blair and I were starving because we hadn’t yet eaten dinner. We wandered around for a little while before coming to the sad conclusion that our only option was 7-11. Granted, the 7-11 had some awesome selections, but, still, we were kind of excited about eating authentic Japanese food.

No such luck.

The city had shut down for the night.

We got our convenience store noodles and followed Google Maps to the Airbnb place. A key was waiting for us in a lockbox that the owner had messaged to Blair, and we went up to the apartment that was ours for the next three days.

It was one of the tiniest places I’ve been in: teeny foyer area to take off and leave your shoes, narrow walkway with a kitchenette on the right and doors to the bathroom on the left (one door for a luxurious toilet with heating and bidet options and a built-in sink on the back, amazing, and another for a regular sink and shower area), then a closet and three beds.

We sat at the tiny table squeezed in by the closet and ate our cold noodles. Since it was closing in on midnight, we settled in for the night.

The next day we set out to explore. I was beyond excited. Japan was a dream destination for me, and I was practically vibrating with excitement. Everywhere I looked there were women, men, and children dressed in kimonos walking along behind women, men, and children dressed in the latest Japanese fashions. Everyone appeared so fashionable, even riding bikes or walking on the street.

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The bridge to Starbuck’s – isn’t it wonderful?!

After a quick caffeine fix and map download at Starbuck’s, we left for the first destination of the day – the Golden Pavilion. The Golden Pavilion, Kinkakuji, is a Zen Buddhist Temple set in beautiful gardens with a pond in front. The top two floors of the building are covered in gold leaf plating which literally glows in the sun. It’s absolutely stunning.

Sarah left us at this point because she had gotten a bad cold and was feeling horrible so Blair and I went to Nishiki Market which was a bit of a disappointment although the place where we ate lunch, Tiger Gyoza, was fantastic!

After that, we headed to another temple, Fushimi Inari-taisha. Fushimi Inari-taisha is an important Shinto shrine famous for its thousands of torii gates and fox statues which are thought to be messengers to Inari, the god of rice. Individuals and corporations pay for the gates, hoping to garner favor with Inari.

Walking through the gates at dusk had a surreal, reverent feel to it despite the many tourists surrounding us. The orange and black color of the gates cast a warm glow over everyone. Since it was getting dark, we didn’t walk too far before turning back to head to the train.

The walk to and from the train station was lined with food and souvenir vendors so it was a lively and entertaining walk. We met back up with Sarah in the room and freshened up for dinner. Deciding to walk around the Pontocho area and find a local restaurant, we found out that we should have made reservations. Nobody had anything available.

So, here we are, traipsing through narrow alleys (which were so cool!) and asking if we could eat at these tiny places that looked like you needed a secret password to gain entry. And nobody had any tables available. We finally found a Japanese barbeque place that had a table and sat down.

It was a tiny place, each table only sitting four people with a little grill on the table so there was very little room for a plate and drink per person. We ordered some meat and vegetables which we cooked ourselves and shared. It was pretty delicious, but we didn’t order very much. It felt cramped and was hard to relax on the tall stool with our feet dangling. We ate what we ordered and headed out.

Blair and I were still hungry, though. Sarah was starting to feel sick again and headed back to bed, but Blair and I set out to see if we could find something better.

We did.

We found a teppanyaki place. Heaven.

For dessert, we had a taste of home at a Baskin-Robbins.

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The next day was more site-seeing at Arishayama. I absolutely fell head over heels in love with this place. It was gorgeous! I wish we could’ve spent more time there because we only had time to go to the Monkey Park which was pretty great, but I wanted to go see the Bamboo Forest and a few other things.

And here’s where I messed up. I scheduled tickets for us to go on the Sagano Railroad then take a boat back down the river, but I scheduled us too late. We were able to ride Sagano Railroad, but the boats had stopped running by the time we arrived. I was so sad.

We made up for it that night when Blair found us the most wonderful, authentic, old sushi place for dinner. I literally think about this meal all the time. The place was small and crowded, and we sat around a kitchen area with an all male staff hustling around cutting and stirring and scooping. They didn’t crack a smile. They just worked.

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Our last day was a tour that Sarah had done before. It took all morning and was so great. I would recommend it to anyone. It was a walking tour with Waraido. There were people in the group from all over the world, including Japan. That made everything so much more interesting.

We walked for five hours. We went to the Higashi-Honganji Temple which I can’t even describe. It’s the main Buddhist Center in Japan and was so spiritual. People store their family’s remains there and go visit them and pray for their souls. There were many people visiting when we were there so we had to be very quiet in the main hall. The hall itself is beautifully designed with wood that naturally repels insects and has intricate carvings. Everything about this place is amazing.

We left there and went to several Shinto shrines, one especially for women which I loved!  We walked around Gojo-rakuen, a former geisha area, and housing the original Nintendo company. That was pretty cool. Apparently, Nintendo started out with just card games. I didn’t know that.

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We also went to several traditional workshops – for tofu, fans, pastry, pottery, and candy. The fan shop made gorgeous fans! I wanted to buy some just because they were so pretty – but where would I put them?!

It was a long day but so worth it. As we walked, everyone asked questions. One of the other guests on the tour asked what the Japanese thought of foreigners. She said they liked them as the country is so homogenous, but what is difficult is when they cancel reservations. It is an insult in Japan as everyone has worked hard to prepare for you. It’s not about the money; it’s about the pride they take in their work and presentation.

Presentation came up multiple times: when we browsed handmade ceramics and she discussed the different dishes used for meals; when we went to the candy shop and had tea; when we went to the first temple and learned what different bows mean.

How old things are – the shops that have been in families for centuries. This isn’t old. It’s only been around since about 1865. Ha, ha!

Kyoto is the original capital of Japan; Tokyo took the capital by force and is the modern-day capital. People from Kyoto still consider it the true capital. Note that Kyoto and Tokyo have the same letters which are actually two names – Kyo and To then To and Kyo. Kyoto means Imperial Capital or Western Capital depending on who you talk to while Tokyo means Eastern Capital. So interesting to me.

And we walked by a toilet company. The toilets in Japan are AWESOME and the Japanese take great pride in them. They have heated toilet seats, music to play while peeing so others can’t hear, sinks on the back of the toilet, and more. Fancy toilets – who knew that was a thing?!

By the time the tour was over, we were done, exhausted, ready to head back to the airport and home. And we had the long trek back to the airport first. We got a last meal of ramen on the way, bought Tokyo bananas (gourmet Twinkies!) to take back to Taipei, and finally got on the plane.

It was a wonderful trip – and we packed a lot into two and a half days!

Taiwan: Keelung City

Keelung City is a major port city on the northeastern side of Taiwan. I visited Keelung on a holiday weekend, and a friend of mine showed me around. Ruru has lived there since high school and was able to give me history and tell personal stories that made the city more interesting than it would have been otherwise.

My trip started out with a hiccup. When I got on the bus in Taipei to head to Keelung, my EasyPass card wouldn’t work. The bus driver tried to talk to me in Chinese, but I didn’t understand a word. A kind passenger leaned in to translate and offered me money when he saw I was short on change to pay. I was rattled and rushed to my seat without properly thanking the stranger for his help.

The good news is that the trip is only about 30 minutes long and costs about $50 TWD which is less than $2.00 USD. The bus is more comfortable and a little fancier than the local city buses and only made one stop before Keelung from the Fuxing stop where I got on. It was a quick, easy and comfortable trip once I made it on!

Ruru met me at Keelung Harbour where the bus from Taipei dropped me off. Because of the Tomb Sweeping Holiday, the port area was dressed up with balloons and music and windsock flags. It was colorful and fun and crowded! We only stayed a few minutes before heading up to see Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, in Zhong Zheng Park.

The walk up to Zhong Zheng Park was, of course, stairs – many, many stairs that passed a temple, a playground, and a graffiti image of Totoro that many locals come to take their picture with. Of course, we had to get our picture there as well! It’s too cute not to. Apparently, it just showed up one day and lines of people showed up for pictures. Since then, the crowds have died down, but there was still a short line we had to wait in.

We climbed more stairs and arrived at Zhong Zheng Park which had several vendors out front including one for peanut ice cream rolls which love! I treated myself to one; after all, we had just walked up several hundred stairs. I had earned it, right?!

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We walked up more stairs to enter the Zhong Zheng Park which had a temple, a giant statue of Guanyin, a bell you could make a wish and ring, a wishing well, and a fabulous view of the port. There were also some food vendors and activities for children: art tables, electric cars and electric animals to ride around. It was busy!

We climbed up Guanyin then, when we got back to the bottom, we saw a small altar. You could pay $10 TWD which is about $0.33 USD to ask a question and a ticket comes out with an answer. We both did it; I did not get the answer I wanted. And, it’s funny, even though I know it’s like visiting a fortune teller and doesn’t mean anything, I was still disappointed. Ah, well.

Next, we went and rang the bell while making another wish. I secretly hoped to offset the bad news I got from Guanyin by whatever powers ran the bell. I’m not sure how that works, but I tried. We’ll see what happens. So far, Guanyin was right.

As we left, Ruru got us fried turnip cakes to eat on the way down. They were divine although I burned my tongue on the first one. I had eaten these little cakes before, but I never knew what they were. For some reason, they tasted better now that I knew what I was eating.

Fried Turnips

I had to stop and watch the children playing on the slides. There are slides here are built into the hill and made of cement. They looked painful, but the children slid down with no problems and looked like they were having a good time. Well, one little boy was scared and inched his way down – but they mostly had a good time!

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Since Ruru is vegetarian and I am doing my 30-day vegetarian experiment, we decided to eat dinner before we went to the night market because vegetarian options are limited. She took me to a Buddhist temple that has a vegetarian restaurant.

We had a rich soup with monkey head mushrooms (which have the texture of meat), carrots, thick homemade noodles, and other vegetables. We also got an order of marinated burdock root and a cheesy tofu casserole. We shared everything, and it was one of the best meals I’ve ever had.

It was getting dark now, and we headed to the night market. Holy cow! The night market was PACKED. We had to go in through the side because we couldn’t get in through the main entrance. There were too many people. We walked our way through market, jostled and moved along slowly by the waves of people around us.

Crowd of Night Market

I was happy we had eaten already because I didn’t want to stay long. The food vendors did look good but were meat-heavy. Since Keelung is on the coast, there were a lot of seafood vendors. I love seafood, but I have lost my taste for meat since eating vegetarian. They didn’t appeal to me much. Other people didn’t feel the same way. The food vendors were as crowded as the interior walkway.

We made it all the way through then veered off to go to Ruru’s family’s Chinese medicine shop. Her brother was running it, and we stayed there and talked for awhile. He showed me the herb that is the best-seller and looked like tree bark then served me a horribly bitter tea that people drink when they are hungover. I swear, if I drank that to cure my hangover then it would be the last time I ever needed it. I almost spit it out! Afterward, he gave me some delicious sweet tea. They said every medicine shop has their own tea recipes.

Ruru and I went and got some coffee after that and talked for awhile before I caught the bus home. All in all, it was a wonderful afternoon and evening. Keelung is a vibrant town, and I was fortunate to have perfect weather and a fabulous tour guide!

In about six hours, I think I saw pretty much everything there is to see including the night market. I would get there in the afternoon so you can go to the night market for sure. It’s not usually as crowded as it was the night I went so I would recommend you stay away on holiday weekends! But absolutely worth a visit if you can make it.

Thailand: Unforgettable Trip

The Set Up 

This post is incredibly overdue – but, to date, it is truly the best trip of my life! I went to Thailand over Chinese New Year 2016. The holiday fell during our Winter Break at school so I spent 11 days in a country I’d dreamed of visiting. My brother, Ricky, flew over from Savannah, GA, to meet me. Ricky had never been to Asia before so everything was new for him; I had been living in Asia since August 2015.

We were approaching this from two vastly different perspectives, and I knew this would create some challenges. Also, I had been planning this trip for months, and, for me, a lot of thought, research, and anticipation went into it. For him, a lot of anticipation and worry went into it, but he had no idea what to expect. He left all the details up to me.

The Meet-Up 

The trip started out at Suvarnabhumi Airport, one of two airports in Bangkok. I had a three and a half hour flight, and he had a 22-hour flight. Our flights were scheduled to arrive at the same time. We decided I would find him in the baggage claim area for his flight and, if we hadn’t found each other in an hour, then we would find our own ways to the hotel. Being me and a bit of an optimist, I had no doubt we would find each other.

My flight got delayed. I tried not to worry, but I constantly checked my watch. Ricky is afraid of flying so I knew he would arrive in Bangkok tired and anxious and grumpy. I wanted to be able to find him quickly. If I was late, that couldn’t happen! My flight left about 20 minutes later than scheduled, and I sat in a ball of nervous energy the entire way. On landing, the customs line was long and slow. I kept anxiously looking around people and around the customs’ desks to try to spot my brother.

I made it through customs at 11:50 pm. Our deadline was midnight. Undecided about whether to go to his baggage claim area or mine, I stood still wasting precious time. Then I saw him – tired eyes and a huge smile on his face. I started laughing. Of course, he found me even though I was so sure I would be guiding him around the country with all my knowledge and research.

When he saw my luggage, he said, “That’s all you have?” He looked at his giant suitcase dwarfing my small suitcase and duffle bag. “I feel stupid. But I needed all this stuff.” I said, “Okay. I didn’t want a ton of luggage to carry.” And we trudged tiredly through the airport to figure out how to get a cab.

The Cab Ride 

Our next adventure was the cab ride. Good lord. I had been told to be sure the taxi driver turned on his meter so I made him flip it on before we left the airport. He did not seem happy about it. He weaved in and out of traffic, slowed down where he seemed to have plenty of room then zoomed around cars once it got crowded. Lines in the road and speed limit signs are apparently only a suggestion in Bangkok; suggestions that our cab driver decided to ignore. We got out of the cab with wobbly legs and relieved sighs and paid the fee he told us that was above the fare on the meter – so much for asking him to flip the meter on at the airport.

Bangkok Explorations 

TheBKK next day we ventured out of the hotel and walked into absolute madness and a wall of heat. People were everywhere, swarming narrow sidewalks. Taxi drivers accosted us every block asking if we wanted a ride somewhere. And we weren’t sure where to go. We were hungry and hadn’t made a firm plan for the morning other than to explore the area and get our money exchanged.

After walking around for about two hours, we did get some breakfast eggs from a street vendor, not the eggs we wanted since she spoke no English and we spoke no Thai, but they were still delicious. We munched as we walked. Fifteen minutes later, we finally accepted a ride from a tuk tuk driver. He asked if he could take us to a place to shop where he would get a fee for bringing us; we didn’t have to buy anything. We agreed then changed our minds. He tried to persuade us, but we held firm. He finally turned around and drove.

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Tuk Tuk driver who probably legitimately hated us!

After a five-minute ride on busy roads, he turned into an empty lot and began driving into a seemingly deserted area. My anxious brother freaked me out by whispering that he might be taking us somewhere to be beaten and robbed. This thought had never occurred to me. I nervously watched every turn we took, repeatedly asked him if we were going the right way, and breathed a sigh of relief when I recognized a store that I’d read our destination was near. The driver delivered us safely to our destination and left, I’m sure shaking his head at the crazy farangs (foreigners) as he drove away.

TukTuk

 

After exchanging our money, we found a place to eat lunch then decided to take a river ride to see some temples and other tourist spots. Did I say it was hot? It was HOT. It was hard to believe it was February as we dripped sweat and the sun beat down on us. Before we reached the docks, I had to pee. A dirty-looking restroom stood on the side of the street. As I headed in, I realized I had to pay to get toilet paper. When in Bangkok…I forked over the 5 baht.

The line for the boat to get to the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew looked long but moved quickly – a blessing since the air was still and hot on the dock. We crowded onto the boat and were lucky to find a seat. I was tired and hot but still practically bouncing on the hard plastic – or bouncing and sticking to plastic. The views on the river were exotic with old and mildew-covered buildings changing to temple roofs glittering in the sunlight, barges and longtail boats and tourist boats all around us. I was enthralled. The water splashing on me and the wind from the ride was a welcome relief.

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Disembarking the boat took us to a dark market with vendors on either side selling food and clothing and other trinkets to take home. We bought some snacks from the vendors and ate outside before walking. A nearby park had more pigeons than I had ever seen in one place, fat pigeons, and I spent at least 20 minutes taking pictures of them. They covered the ground and the statues, foraging for dropped or thrown food. It was a veritable smorgasbord for them due to the sheer number of people milling about, many of whom were willing to provide food.

Although I was happy to be here and to see everything, I was disappointed at the Disneyland feel of the area. In Taipei and Hong Kong where I visited temples, there was a reverence to them. I didn’t get that feeling outside the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew. It felt like a tourist attraction. I didn’t go inside as it was too hot and crowded and late in the day so it may feel differently inside. Outside, it was bedlam.

Smelly and sweaty, we took the boat and skytrain back to our hotel to shower. We had dinner in our room and fell into bed – refreshed and exhausted.

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The next morning, we checked out the Silom area on the way to a cooking class I had booked about a month ago. It was less touristy and crowded than the Siam area where our hotel was located. The people watching and street food were awesome! Nervous about being late, we went early to the building for the cooking class then found a nearby cafe to get some drinks and relax. The heat alone took the energy right out of you, and my brother was jetlagged on top of that.

We met at Silom Thai Cooking School for our cooking class on time and had an absolute blast! We started out at a market to get our vegetables and spices then piled into a series of tuk tuks to head to the class. We had three rooms we worked in – the preparation area, the cooking area, and the eating area. We had four courses – appetizer, soup, meal, dessert. My favorite part of the meal was the mango rice dessert even though I could barely fit it in after all the other courses!

Menu: spicy sour shrimp soup, fried noodle Thai salad (pad Thai), fried fish cake with sweet chili sauce, red curry with chicken, and sticky rice with mango

We met people from all over the world in the class. The teacher called everyone by their country so we had Mr. China, Miss Argentina, Mr. Germany, Mr. Phillipines, and so on. The teacher did a great job – infusing lots of humor and personality with a ton of information, most of which went over my head as I am an extremely amateur chef. We left there with very full stomachs and cheeks aching from smiling. It was a wonderful experience that I would recommend to everyone.

Krabi/Railay

The next day we got up super early to head to the other airport in Thailand – Don Muang Airport. We checked in for our flight to Krabi. I was practically vibrating with excitement. It was a short flight but felt like forever! We landed, found a bus going to Ao Nang, and piled in. I’d never been in a bus like this – luggage literally stacked in the front area of the bus then seats behind. We waited until every seat was taken then lumbered away.

The trip took over an hour with multiple stops. The driver had stacked the luggage in a way that made it easy for him to get each person’s bags as we went, and I was very impressed with how organized it was. We finally arrived at the last stop which was our stop at a restaurant on the water. Ricky and I had no idea what to do next. We followed the crowd to a little hut outside the restaurant that was selling boat tickets to various destinations. We purchased two and were given no directions from there. Now what?

We looked around and followed people to the edge of the restaurant where we stared in puzzlement at a vast expanse of beach with boats anchored in the water, not at the shore. A couple next to us noticed the same thing, spoke to each other in another language then promptly stripped down to their underwear and changed into shorts and t-shirts. Ricky and I looked at each other, I trying not to laugh and he in complete frustration. No way was that an option for us.

After about 10 minutes, someone came up and started speaking in Thai to everyone and we followed the crowd again down the beach. Ricky had brought a very heavy suitcase that he now regretted having as he lugged it over the sand and over his head to wade through water to the boat. Good times. We settled into the longtail boat – hot, tired, and hungry. Once the ride began, though, everything fell away. The wind and water spray cooled us down, and the views took our breath and thoughts away.

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We anchored offshore again at Railay West Beach and lumbered awkwardly through the water to shore, suitcases and shoes held high. Once there, we found our way through narrow concrete sidewalks poorly marked to our hotel. Fortunately, the hotel was as nice as I had hoped from the internet pictures so we dropped our suitcases and headed out for food.

The food in Thailand did not disappoint me even once on the tasty scale. Every meal was the best meal I’d ever had. Unfortunately, one meal or one item did not agree with us and we both got sick. Ricky got VERY sick – in the middle of the night – and, after him throwing up for about four hours, I called for a doctor. The hotel sent one up, and they hooked him up to an iv, gave him fluids, antibiotics, anti-nausea medication, and Tylenol intravenously. He was running a fever which was higher when they came back to check on him in the morning. By that afternoon, his fever had broken, but I was feeling sick. They told me to take his medicine if I got sick, and I wound up vomiting for a few hours that night as Ricky slowly recovered his strength.

The next day, I was feeling a lot better and went by the clinic to replenish our me
dication. Ricky was still miserable so I spent the day wandering around without him as he lay in bed. I ran into some friends from Taipei who were also there, but they Blair and Mewere going on a boat trip which my stomach was still not quite up for so they went without me.

I observed rock climbers on various walls with varying levels of difficulty. It looked so fun, and they all looked so fit with their back muscles and leg muscles flexing with each movement they made. My favorite was watching them dangle at peaks and hook up to the next handhold. I kept looking around myself in awe at the beauty around me. I felt like I was standing in the middle of a postcard and wanted to pinch myself to make sure it was real.

Sunday we had a rescheduled snorkeling and island-hopping boat tour. What a day! We were picked up at about 9:20 am and found ourselves in the front of the boat with three other people. Turns out that riding in the front on a windy day is a wild ride! We bumped around and laughed for the next few hours as we went from island to island. We got to see beautiful beaches and adorable monkeys and colorful fish. Snorkeling was a little sad to me because the corral appeared to be dying. It wasn’t a surprise. The area was so crowded and they had so many people out snorkeling and gave very little instruction.

Kanchanaburi

We left the next day for Kanchanaburi. The trip was a boat ride from Railay to Krabi, a taxi ride from the dock to the airport, a plane ride from Krabi to Bangkok, then a three-hour taxi ride from the airport to Kanchanaburi. Fortunately, our hotel was within walking distance of some local restaurants as well as the Bridge over the River Kwai. We ate more delicious Thai food then headed to the bridge. There were people everywhere, posing for pictures in places where I wanted to take shots, and the sun was just setting. Despite all the people in the way, it was a picturesque view.

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The next day was our trip to Elephants’ World where we spent the day feeding, cleaning food for, cutting sugar cane down for, and washing the elephants. We didn’t work as much as I expected, but it was rewarding all the same. Just being that close to the elephants, being able to observe their behavior and feed them, was an unforgettable experience. They are the most remarkable animals. We watched a short film about elephants and learned why the animals there needed to be rescued. Some had worked for logging companies hauling trees, some had carried tourists on their backs in metal seats for many years which is terrible for their backs which are not very strong, and some had been entertainers.

Side note: PLEASE do not do elephant rides. For details on why, here is an article that explains the cruelty these gentle creatures endure for that ride.

All of the elephants had been domesticated and mistreated yet they were kind to each other and to the mahouts who took care of them on a daily basis. Seeing the bonds between the mahouts and the elephants was the best part for me. The elephants would wrap their trunks around them as if hugging them or reach toward them to touch them on their bodies somewhere. The elephants were affectionate toward humans and other elephants, never alone.

Elephants and Mahouts

The babies were the funniest – there were two, a boy and a girl. They would run away sometimes then stop when they were yelled at. They would knock down a fence and walk over it. There was a spare tire lying on the ground that one of the babies picked up and threw around. They were never still. They poked each other with their trunks and rubbed against each other. One of the older female elephants had adopted them and would check on them and nudge them into doing what she wanted. It was so sweet.

At the end of the day, we were exhausted. Between the heat and the physical labor, it had been a long day. We headed back to the hotel to shower and change then went out for dinner nearby – our last night in Kanchanaburi.

 

We spent the next morning in town, ate lunch on the River Kwai, then took a long taxi ride to Bangkok for our final night at a hotel near the airport.

Homeward Bound

Turns out that the hotel I booked was not near any restaurants. Sick of taxis by then, we ate at the hotel restaurant which was also a karaoke bar. The food was so good – but 20160206_194246I couldn’t stop laughing.

There were all of six people in there other than us, and one man kept singing. The accompaniment was live piano music, and the female player came to our table to get me to sing. At her insistence, I badly sang a song that I can’t remember now and hope nobody could actually hear.

It was a great ending to our trip. We slept fitfully that night as our very inexpensive hotel that was close to the airport had NO SOUNDPROOFING, but we were up at 4:00 am to begin our separate trips home.

The end of the trip was as uneventful as the beginning was chaotic, and, just like that, it was over. The trip turned out to be so much more than I expected in every way – the good was bigger and so was the bad. Thailand is a vibrant and unforgettable country, and I will never forget the time I spent there with my brother.