The Chinese Countryside: Guilin, Yangshuo, Fuli, and Longji (June 19 – 23)

This portion of my China tour began in Guilin city but honestly, all I did in the city was spend the first and last night in a downtown hotel and eat a couple of meals.  The city was just a jumping-off point to some incredible sites, interesting people, fascinating history and culture.  In fact, there are 28 separate ethnic minorities living in this part of China each with their own culture, customs, dress, and dialect.

I was met as I left the baggage claim by my guide, Jenny.  She belongs to the Zhuang minority and I liked her at first site.  Jenny is one of those people that just radiates positive energy and fun.  Always quick to laugh and overly helpful she made my time in this area a delight.  Her English was good, her people skills excellent, and her ability to convey a lot of history and culture in a fun and interesting manner effortless.

Our journey together began with a four-hour (83 kilometers/51.6 miles) boat cruise down the Li River to Yangshuo.  This area is famous for their vegetation-covered limestone karst rocky peaks that seem to rise out of the forest floor like giant towers and tower clusters.  And a cruise down the Li is the best way to see the largest number and most beautiful.  Jenny proudly informed me that 4 American Presidents have taken the same boat tour and 2 of the 4 stayed in the same Yangshuo hotel that I would be staying.

Apparently, Nixon, Carter, H.W. Bush, and Clinton had all taken the scenic cruise.  And, I must admit the limestone formations were amazing.  In fact, one formation’s image is used on the 20 Yuan(CNY) note.  I’ve included a ton of photos so I will only say that this is one of the top tourist destinations in all of China and there were easily a dozen large boats carrying 100 or more tourists each parading down the river.  The site of the tourist armada cruising down river in formation was a pretty cool site.

Sampling peach wine

Once we arrived at the wharf in Yangshuo, we had to walk another 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) down a large covered pedestrian street to and thru town to the hotel.  This was way more fun than it might sound.  The first part of the walk (from the wharf to town) was lined on both sides with stalls selling all kinds of souvenirs and street food.  Once we made it to town we immediately took to a large pedestrian street that I was too soon learn has two totally different vibes by day and night.

After a short break at the hotel to change clothes it was off to the bicycle shop to rent bikes for a 4-hour bike tour of the rice paddies and countryside.  I was surprised to find this turned into one of my favorite times not only in China but the entire trip!  The leisurely ride began by dodging cars and scooters on a busy city street but quickly turned into a pleasant afternoon cruising down a backroad with mile after mile of rice paddies to my left and little farmhouses and villages nestled against the hills, limestone monoliths, and mountains on my right.

Our return trip back into Yangshuo was even more beautiful and peaceful than the trip out.  Jenny crossed the rice paddies and brought us up on a bike path that had the paddies on our left and a scenic river on our right with absolutely no cars or traffic to contend with.  Again, I’m attaching a ton of photos.

While on our ride Jenny mentioned that Yangshuo has a very elaborate cultural show put on every night in an outside amphitheater with the Li river and beautiful Limestone formations as the stage.  How could I resist?  Turns out it is quite a production with each ethnic group contributing an act in the show.  I am not quite sure about his role but Jenny swore that the Canadian born/American Film Director James Cameron had a role in developing the show.

And it was quite a show using a cast of hundreds, at least 100 actual small fishing boats fitted with lanterns and poled with choreography and perfection in scene after scene.  Oh yea, and a couple of water buffalos thrown in for the hell of it.  I’ve provided a few photos but the lighting and the light generated from lanterns and torches sort of screwed the shots all up.

Day 2: 800-year-old village of Fuli

Day 2 began with a visit to the small 800-year-old village of Fuli.  The entire village specializes in the art of silk painting.  As I walked down the small uneven stone lanes every house’s door was open and silk fans and paintings were drying on the floors, tables or anything flat.  House after house had silk artwork in various stages of completion and all done by hand one at a time.

I stopped at one house (photo included) that had the floor entirely covered in red fans with a black dragon painted across it.  They all looked so uniform I asked if it was a silkscreen process where an original is drawn and then the rest are copies.  But no, the lady had hand-painted each and every fan individually and I couldn’t see one bit of difference in any of the dragons.

We went into one home and talked to a couple of the artists.  Turns out this family is the most famous of the Fuli silk painters and the house was full of completed work covering every wall and hanging across the ceiling.  When I asked how one artist could be so prolific I learned that there are 7 artists representing three generations working in this family.  The grandfather and grandmother started the business and still paint fans but now they have been joined by their son and his wife and their 3 daughters.  Incredible to think 5 very talented artists all from one family.

“You Can Catch Everything in Your Eyes from the Top” / “Great Fricking View”

After touring Fuli we were off to Xianggong Hill also known as Husband Mountain(Because the mountain looks like the hat of the prime minister in the ancient time, and name of the prime minister and husband has double entendre, both called “xianggong”) And I have no idea why they call it Husband Mountain.  But the Chinese have a funny way of expressing themselves anyway.  Everything is Charming, Handsome, Romantic, or Fragrant. In fact, you will see in one of my attached photos a picture of the entrance to the trail to the top of the mountain.  You will notice that there are 4 Chinese symbols above the entrance.  I asked Jenny what they said and this is the translation “You Can Catch Everything in Your Eyes from the Top”.  Why couldn’t they just say “Great Fricking View”.

But, the truth is, the view was spectacular!  No matter which direction you looked the views of the Li River and Karst Mountains were breathtaking.  Photos attached as always.

Zhuang ladies

After our hike back down Husband Mountain we hopped in the car for a long drive to the Longji Rice Terraces and the ethnic minority village of Longji Ping’en. The village has about 700 people living in it and everyone has the family name of Liao.  And the Liao family are Zhuang ethnic members like Jenny.  You can tell the Zhuang ladies by the way they dress – they wear a towel looking thing on their heads and wear black slacks.

Yao women

The other ethnic group living in the valley are the Yao and the most interesting difference between the Yao and the Zhuang is that the Yao women wear bright colorful dress and Yao women never cut their hair.  Some Yao women’s hair is as long as 2 meters.  They wear their hair wound on top of their head almost like a turban.  If a woman has a big knot of hair in the front that means she is married with children (I have attached a couple of photos of a Yao woman showing me her hair).

The village is high up in the mountains and we had to leave the car and hike up another 30 minutes to reach the village high up on the top of the mountain at 1900 meters.  By the time we reached our guesthouse for the night I was tired, hungry and wet from the long day and hiking up the mountain in a light drizzle.  But after a great dinner, a cold beer and a look at my room with a balcony view of the rice terraces I was pumped for hiking thru the terraces the next day!

I will share a few more useless bits of trivia with you.  The farmers’ houses are typically three-story wooden structures.  The first floor is the lobby, living area, kitchen.  The second floor is bedrooms for the extended family and the third floor is for storing dried rice, corn, potatoes, and other agricultural products.

A village family can grow 250 kilos of dried rice for the family’s consumption and sale.  I found the growing cycle of terraced rice quite interesting.  Rice is grown in a bed for the first 15 days as seedlings.  After the 15th day, the seedlings are transplanted into flooded rice paddies and planted 20 centimeters apart.  They grow for 2 months in the flooded paddies and then the water is drained and they grow another two months in the mud and soil.

The rice terraces have a complicated irrigation system that was created 800 years ago during the Yuan dynasty.  The water begins to flow from a tank on top of the mountain and drains thru a series of channels and pipes from one terrace to the next.  It takes 5 weeks for the water to drain from the top terrace to the bottom one.  The entire system is based entirely on gravity.

Day 3

I woke the next morning to a sound I had not heard any many years.  Roosters crowing!  I grew up on a farm in West Virginia and had not thought about the morning crowing of roosters in over 50 years.  I was so excited I made several short video clips of nothing just to capture the sound of the roosters meeting the morning. 

We spent the day hiking up to the top of the first Terraced mountain they call Nine Dragons and Five Tigers to take photos from the top. (“Nine Dragon” refers to the nine hill beams where the main ridge of the Longji is separated. The “five tigers” refer to the five slightly raised hills here.) And guess what – the terraces on this mountain actually do look like a tiger’s back!  Not sure where the dragon fits in though.  After taking a bazillion photos we hiked back down to the village and up the mountain on the other side of the village – Thousand Layers to Heaven Mountain for more photos. Once that mission was accomplished, we retraced our steps down the mountain collected our bags and headed back to the car for the long drive back to Guilin, Guangxi Province and one last night before heading to Dali, Yunnan Province.

Nine Dragons and Five Tigers Terraced Mountain

Thousand Layers to Heaven Mountain

One last thing before I move on to Dali.  The Liao has a couple of interesting food choices.  The first sounds very appealing the second not so much.  The first is a local specialty of chicken or duck with sticky rice cooked by steaming it in a bamboo stalk.  The second is fried rat.  And with that, I am on to Dali.  Hope you enjoy the photos.

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Shanghai, Suzhou, & Hangzhou (June 15 – 19)

Day 1: Shanghai

My three-week tour of Southern China and Tibet began in ShanghaiShanghai is a relatively new city by Chinese standards at only about 150 years.  Shanghai is also the largest city in China at either 25 million or 30 million depending on who you are talking to.

My whirlwind tour of the city began at the Bund on the Old British Concession side of the Huang Pu River.  Back in the mid 19th Century Britton, France and the United States all set up shop in the city to capture a share of China’s economic riches.  The British section which runs along the riverfront looks like London of the 19th Century.  The huge brown stone buildings are now the home of the Shanghai financial district.

Across the river stands the new and modern Shanghai with shiny streamlined skyscrapers and Towers stretched out across the skyline.  The remarkable thing about this stunning skyline is that 30 years ago this was all pastures and rice paddies.  The entire new city of Shanghai has grown like weeds from the rice paddies to 100+ story towers and futuristic skyscrapers.

But the truth is modern architecture does nothing for me.  So, after a quick look I asked my tour guide for the day to take me some place more interesting.  Our next stop was in the French Concession and Shanghai’s Yu Garden.  And I found this part of the city much more interesting and charming.  The buildings are all traditional Chinese architecture and the gardens were elaborate and intricately laid out.

The Yu Garden dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and was owned by a government official named Pan Yunduan.  Beautiful lotus filled canals and ponds are surrounded by expertly landscaped trees, shrubs and flowers.  Graceful bridges span the canals and small pagodas, pavilions, and huge Rockeries highlight each garden.  And the walls separating the various gardens have a myriad of gates from moon gates, to gates that look like jars and jugs to geometric designs.

The furniture is elaborately carved with marble inlays and if I understood my guide correctly were also from the Ming period.  After spending most of the day in the Yu Garden and Yuyuan Bazaar I visited a traditional tea house for a tea ceremony and tasting.  I finished my Shanghai day with a weird visit to the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall to look at old photos and plat maps of Shanghai.

Day 2: Suzhou, Jiangsu Province

Day 2 in China began with a high-speed train ride to Suzhou (Land of Fish and Rice) to spend a day visiting the Humble Administrator’s and Lingering Gardens, taking a small boat down the Grand Canal, and walking the ancient 1000-year-old Pingjiang Street.  The Humble Administrator’s Garden and the Lingering Garden are considered two of the four best classical gardens in all of China.

Like the Yu Garden of Shanghai, the Humble Administrator’s Garden was created during the Ming Dynasty and is an exquisite work of art.  I found the odd name of the garden amusing once I learned the back story of the man who built the garden.  It seems the humble administrator was actually a corrupt high-level bureaucrat in the Ming Court. He was responsible for the governing of the provinces and used his position to extort or happily accept bribes from anyone and everyone who wanted to curry favor with the emperor.  The emperor caught wind of his activities and fired him.

Fired him but did not confiscate the ill-gotten gains nor imprison him.   So he used part of his dirty money to build this beautiful garden to sit and admire in his old age and exile from the court.  But the name of the Garden is not the only thing oddly named in the garden.  A short list of locations within the garden with odd names would include:  The Tower of Reflection, The Floating Green Tower, The Keep and Listen Pavilion, The “With Whom Shall I Sit” Pavilion, The Fragrant Isles, The Pavilion of Lotus Breezes, The Hall of Distant Fragrance, and the Far Away Looking Pavilion. 

Regardless of the weird names the gardens are definitely one of the most important historical sites in China and has the UNESCO designation to prove it.  If you are planning to visit this garden plan on spending at least half a day and a knowledgeable guide will make the time spent much richer.

Perhaps the coolest thing I saw was an ancient wisteria planted over 460 years ago and is still growing and blooming.  Check out the photo of this huge tree. 

And speaking of trees, one section of the garden is dedicated to Bonsai Trees.  Many of these miniature trees are hundreds of years old.  I had no idea that so many types of trees can be made into Bonsai art.

After the Humble Administrator Garden, my guide and I boarded a small canal boat for a peaceful slow drift down the Grand Canal

x-men marvel GIFThe boat was powered and guided by a middle-aged woman who I made the mistake of giving a 10 yuan note to the lady to sing for me.  God it was terrible! I have no idea what the lyrics were but the sounds emanating from her shifted between someone stepping on a cat to the croaking of a frog.  I suggested my guide offer her 20 more yuan to stop but he refused to pass on my generous proposal and told me that would be rude.

After the canal cruise, we walked down the ancient Pingjiang Street.  The narrow road runs alongside the Grand Canal and has never been widened from ox cart days so automobiles are prohibited.  The old cobblestone street is very scenic with old willows along the canal side and small shops and café are in the original stone buildings on the other side of the street. 

The most interesting shop I saw was one that sold huge grasshoppers. Unlike in Cambodia and Java – these grasshoppers were not for snacks but are kept in small wooden and screen bird house looking containers.  People buy the grasshopper house and large grasshopper and place them near the front of the house as an organic alarm system.  The grasshopper chirps constantly until something startles it and then it clams up.  When the property owner no longer hears the grasshopper he/she knows something is amiss and needs investigating.  Interesting system and certainly cheaper to feed than a large German Sheppard or Doberman.

Next stop on my Suzhou agenda was the Lingering Garden which was just down the street from my hotel.  The garden only occupies an area of about 6 acres but man has they crammed a ton into this small space.  And like the Humble Administrator Garden, it is considered one of the four most famous gardens in all of China.  Also like the previous garden it was listed as a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1997.

The garden was first built in 1593 during the Ming Dynasty.  It was purchased by Liu Shu during the Qing Dynasty and the gardens were enhanced with elaborate calligraphy and stone carvings.  Subsequent owners added to the gardens until it was bought by the government and opened to the public.

The gardens somehow manage to blend trees, flowers, temples, homes and other buildings into a harmonious masterpiece of landscaping architecture.  Again, to properly enjoy this garden plan on spending some time there.  This is not the sort of venue you just breeze thru.  Take your time sit in the many pavilions and just soak in the beauty.  Tune out all the other tourists and enjoy the tranquility created by the masterpiece of landscaping.

Day 3: Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province

jaguar raining GIFDay 3 began with another high-speed train ride to Hangzhou for visits to West Lake, Six Harmonies Pagoda, the Linyin Temple, and the Meijawa Tea Plantation and Tea House.  Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate for this day and everything was marred by a constant drizzle of rain.

First stop for the day was the famous West Lake.  Supposedly this is one of the most romantic places in all of China.  According to Leo my tour guide, there are four classic love stories in Chinese literature and two of the four use West Lake as the scenic backdrop.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t feeling it.  Between the rain dampening the mood and limiting visibility and my guide demanding I sit in the last row of seats (which were windowless) on the boat to leave the window seats to the Chinese tourists I saw very little of interest and thought the entire hour and half a total waste of both my time and patience.

Leo quickly found the magic to getting back into my good graces was thru my stomach.  He suggested we have a buffet-style lunch at the Lakeside Shangri-La Hotel.  And I enjoyed an incredible western-style lunch with entire cuts of beef, pork, and chicken instead of the Chinese chopped and diced crap.  Vegetables I actually recognized, potatoes and bread.  I was surprised to learn that this property (part of a Malaysian Chain) was China’s very first five-star hotel.

The next stop was the Six Harmonies Pagoda which was also a bit of a waste of time.  The huge pagoda built on the bank of the Qiantang River is nearly 200 feet tall.  The 13-story octagonal pagoda was built over a thousand years ago to calm the dragons that the ancients believed caused the catastrophic river tides that flooded the city regularly. 

The river tidal surge reaches 30 feet and to the uneducated populous of a thousand years ago must have seemed both frightening and puzzling.  So, of course, the tidal waves must have been the result of angry river dragons thrashing around under the water’s surface.  Based upon the recommendation of some enlightened monk the pagoda was built to calm the dragons.  My question is – what happened to the Monk when the big ass pagoda failed to stop the tidal waves?

Next stop after the Pagoda was the Lingyin Temple and Monastery and this place was definitely worth the price of admission and a day in Hangzhou.  According to the legend, sometime in the 3rd or 4th century a Buddhist monk from India came upon this site and was so taken by the natural beauty of the mountain, stream and valley he began building one of the most significant and beautiful monasteries in China. 

The name “Lingyin” means “Soul’s Retreat”.  The temple complex sports a large number of caves and religious rock carvings.  On the walk in to the temple complex you pass by hundreds of rock grottos with carved big bellied Laughing Buddhas

During the Temple and Monastery’s prime Lingyin boasted nine buildings, 18 pavilions, seventy-seven palaces and halls and was the home to 3,000 monks.  The site has hundreds of statues, reliefs, paintings and relics.  Both the temple and monastery are still active so there are plenty of the faithful worshiping throughout the complex.  Proper decorum should be practiced – no photos within the temples, knees and shoulders should be covered, no shoes beyond the temple thresholds, and never enter or exit a temple from the center door – it is reserved for the monks.

My final stop of the day was at the Meijawu Tea Plantation and Tea House for a very interesting explanation of the process of growing, harvesting, processing and packaging green tea.  And finishing by participating in a tea ceremony and learning about tea culture, health benefits and serving. 

Green tea comes from bushes grown in rows on terraced hillsides.  The leaves are picked by hand by women during a very short 6 week harvest and it takes 4 kilos of leaves to make one kilo of dried leaves.  I am personally not a big fan of green tea but according to the experts, green tea provides a host of health benefits such as lowering blood sugar, lowering blood pressure, weight loss, fighting cancer, and improves digestion.

One last interesting set of statistics for the city of Hangzhou – the city is home to 70 Buddhist Temples which sounded pretty impressive until I learned that the city is also home to 80 Kentucky Fried Chicken stores and 360 Starbucks outlets.

Next stop/blog Guilin

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Jeju Island, South Korea (June 7 – 11)

Jeju Island is located just off the southern tip of the South Korean mainland.  After a short flight, I arrived on what is known as Honeymoon Island in South Korea.  The island has a reputation for natural beauty with pristine beaches, romantic settings atop small mountains for watching sunrises and sunsets, and cooling waterfalls to sit beneath and let the spray and breeze cool you during the heat of the day.

But I was not on a honeymoon, but traveling alone and in fact, I have been told I don’t have a romantic bone in my body anyway.  I came to the island because next to Seoul it looked like the most interesting location to spend a few days.  The fact is, you don’t have to be a honeymooner to like mountains, waterfalls, sunrises, sunsets and beaches.  But in addition to Jeju’s natural wonders there are additional sites to enjoy; the Haenyeo Women, Gwansumsa Temple, the Seongsan Folk VillageSanbanggulsa Temple, and lots of quirky specialty museums.

But before I could enjoy any of Jeju’s natural and man-made treasures I had to rent a car and GPS to get around.  I thought I had planned this out quite well.  I reserved a full-size sedan and GPS unit to make finding my way around a snap.  I even thought to have the young man checking me in set the GPS to my hotel on the other side of the island and since the rental site was not on the airport grounds program in the location for the return trip.

What I failed to anticipate was that the GPS was programmed in Korean.  All verbal and written instructions were in Korean and I was a ways down the road before it occurred to me that I couldn’t understand Korean Karen’s instructions – I had just been following the blue arrow on the map.

And being a man, returning to the rental car office and having it reset was out of the question.  Men never turn back nor admit not knowing something or needing help.  At least not this moron!  So, I plugged the hotel address into my IPhone’s Mapquest and navigated using both screens and with instructions blaring at me in both English and Korean at the same time like stereo.

And I made it safely to my hotel in Seogwipo, checked in, enjoyed a nice Korean Barb B Que dinner of Black Pork Shoulder and Korean Beer before bed.

Day 2

Next morning I was on my way to Mount Sanbang and the Sanbangulsa Temple when I saw a sign for the Museum of Sex and Health.  

interesting thinking GIF

I thought – Hmmm I’m into health I think I will check this museum out.  One strange thing about Jeju is that there is a museum for almost anything you can imagine – Teddy Bear Museum, Hello Kitty Museum, Maze Land, Haenyeo Museum, Woodcutter Museum, Trickeye Museum, Kim Man Duk Museum, Ceramic Culture Museum, Drama World, Dado Museum, Tea Museum, Airplane Museum, Old Car Museum, Museum of War and Peace, Greek Mythology Museum, and many more that I saw signs for but can’t remember.

And the “Health” museum was quite comprehensive and mostly about sex with only small exhibits on STDs and erectile dysfunction.  And the exhibits on sex ran from the informative to eroticism through the ages.  Who knew our forefathers and foremothers were just as randy as we are?  Lots of cool appliances and inventions for pleasure from ancient times until today. Attached are plenty of photos of the “Health” Museum.  Hope you don’t find them too offensive.

shy GIFBut to me the most interesting subjects in the museum were the middle-aged Korean women’s reactions to the various displays.  They came in twos and threes and fours together giggling and whispering excitedly with each other.  They would scan the room to make sure no one was watching before they seriously studied an exhibit.  I enjoyed when our eyes met and theirs dropped immediately in embarrassment.  But one can only play deviant voyeur for so long – so off to the mountain and temple I went to cleanse my corrupted soul.

Mount Sanbang is not much of a mountain but it is located right above the coast providing spectacular views of the coastline and sea.  The Sanbanggulsa Temple complex clings to the small Mountain’s flank with temple structures scattered up the wooded mountain side culminating with a shrine in a small cave high up on the mountain side.

Once I felt I had spent enough time in the temple to cleanse my mind of any remaining unclean thoughts from the “Health” museum, I drove across the island to Hyeopjae Beach and watched newlyweds take their wedding photos.  And it didn’t take long to get bored with that and wish I were back in the “Health” Museum.  Since that museum was on the other side of the island and two visits in one day might brand me a pervert I chose to drive to the Manjanggul Cave.  The cave is a very cool and long lava tube that you can explore with hundreds of other tourists.

Next up was a sunset visit to Seongsan Lichulbong (Sunrise Peak).  The hike up to the top of the old volcanic plug takes about 30 minutes and is right at a 600 feet elevation gain.  Attached are plenty of photos of the day.

Day 3

I began my 2nd day visiting the Jeonbang Waterfall, Cheonjeyeon Waterfall and Bridge, Oedolgae Rock (a formation just off the coast), and the Jusangheolli Cliffs.  These natural wonders were spectacular and I will just let the photos speak for themselves.  After lunch, I drove to the world’s strangest Theme Park – The Loveland Adult Theme Park.

Jeonbang Waterfall

Cheonjeyeon Waterfall and Bridge

Oedolgae Rock (a formation just off the coast)

Jusangheolli Cliffs

The Loveland Adult Park is an outdoor Sex Theme Park.  It seems many years ago some college professor decided that a great class sculpting project would be to sculpt erotic statues of men and women in sexual poses.  Over the years, the place has grown to a top Jeju tourist attraction.  So how could I visit Jeju and not experience the “Art” Park?  The sculptures ran from the erotic to the hilarious.  I’ve included photos that I hope are not too offensive.

After I had my fill of “Art” I moved on to the Gwanumsa Temple.  This temple is high up in the central wooded mountains of the island abutting a national park.  The complex of temples, shrines and gardens blended in nicely with the surrounding forest tract.  And my final stop on the second day was to the Jeju Folk Village.

Gwanumsa Temple

The Folk Village was quite large and covered all aspects of village life on Jeju Island.  Exhibits on the types of houses farmers, hunters, fishing families used thru the ages.  

Day 4

My last day on Jeju I spent in the very interesting Haenyeo Museum.  The Haenyeo are Jeju’s world-famous women free divers.  These women have been earning a living since the 1600s diving as deep as 30 feet holding their breath for minutes while holding only a knife and until the 1970s wearing only cotton clothing.  The women, some in their 80s dive to collect seaweed, shellfish, octopus, and other seafood daily.

I didn’t know it at the time but I had seen six or seven of these elderly women as I was parking my rental car to hike up Sunrise Mountain the previous afternoon.  I was on the wrong side of the mountain from the parking lot so I just parked on a street above the cliff and walked across the clifftop to the park’s entrance for the climb up.  As I was gathering my day pack and water from the trunk of the car I noticed the old women sitting on the curb in a line just talking and lounging.  They all had leathery and wrinkled skin from sun and wind exposure and several were wearing parts of wet suits which I thought was strange but didn’t make the connection.

The next morning as I was walking thru the museum looking at the exhibits I saw photos of several of the same women on the walls of the museum.  Attached are photos from the museum including photos of photos of some of the women who have spent their lives doing this dangerous work. 

American women mark the 1970s as their decade of liberation.  The Haenyeo mark their century of liberation as the 1600s.  They have been both bread winners and fulltime mothers for over 400 years in the most difficult of professions.  Quite a feat!  On to Japan.

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Seoul, South Korea (June 4 – 7)

My visit to Seoul began as a somewhat misadventure.  It started out fine – I managed to find and board the correct high-speed train from the airport to Seoul Central Station.  And things were looking pretty good until my roller bag/backpack (weighs 45 pounds), and my two-day packs each weighing about 15 pounds managed to unbalance me at the worst possible time. 

About 15 steps up the escalator as I was looking at the map on my iPhone and not focusing on the escalator my bags shifted backward and I along with the three bags went tumbling back down the escalator backward landing upside down on my big bag on my back with my feet in the air.  Fortunately, a young 20 something girl and her mother came to my rescue and helped me up, helped me chase down my hat and phone which had flown halfway across the station, and helped me collect myself.

Fortunately, no broken bones just some nasty scrapes and bruises to both my body and ego.  The young girl tried in vain to convince me to go to the hospital to check for injuries but I was having none of that.  So back on the escalator I went – a little more focused this time thinking that the worst was behind me.  Not quite, the Seoul Station is huge and is both the train station and subway station.  My train was on one side of the station and my hotel was on the other and there are 12 or more exits out of the maze that dumps you onto different streets.

I spent another hour trudging from one exit to another dragging my bags and bruised and battered body cursing the Korean engineer who designed this tangled mess of tunnels, dead ends, and halls that double back on themselves.  Ultimately, I found my way out and earned my piece of cheese and checked into my hotel.  And from that point forward my Seoul adventure improved.

On my first day in Korea, I booked a tour (the only way to visit unless you are the President) of the DMZ between North and South Korea.  The drive to the DMZ is less than an hour at speed limit – makes you wonder how fast North Korean tanks and troops could reach Seoul without the United States presence as a deterrent. 

Once at the DMZ our schedule included visits to Imjingak Park to see the Freedom Bridge, a walk deep into the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, DMZ Exhibition Hall, the Dora Observatory for a (not so clear) view into North Korea, and Dorasan Train Station.

Imjingak Park is your typical tourist trap containing a few statues, some large photos and historical descriptions on the walls, a few museum-quality historical pieces and lots of souvenir shops, cafes, small grocery stores, and restrooms.  But everyone must stop here to get their tickets/passes and proffer passports for further passage to the Observation Area, 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, and Dorasan Train Station.

From the Dora Observatory, you can look across and into North Korea and on a clear day and see Gaeseong, Songakasan, Kim Il-Sung Statue, and Geumamgol(Cooperation Farm), and a very tall North Korean Flag. Unfortunately, I was not there on a clear day.  It was overcast and foggy.  I could barely see the mountain that has a North Korean observation post atop it.  I could not see the statue of Kim or much of anything else except the Cooperation farm

I could see the very huge North Korean Flag Pole.  The North Koreans originally built it as the tallest flagpole in the world to intimidate the South.  Of course, both countries were run by men and the leader of the south couldn’t come up short in a phallic measuring contest so he had his pole erected 10 meters taller than Kim’s.  Which as you might guess, inspired North Korea to grow their staff a little bigger.  I don’t remember which side gave up first but eventually the flag measuring completion ended peacefully.

While at the Observatory we watched a very moving video on the war, America’s sacrifices in blood and treasure to protect the South Koreans, the truce and the construction of the DMZ.  There were also many large photographs and commentary about the war and America’s contributions displayed on the walls throughout the building.

Next stop after the Dora Observatory was the 3rd Underground Infiltration Tunnel.  This tunnel stretches over 1.6 kilometers and is 2 meters high by 2 meters wide built along with at least two others in complete secrecy right under the South Korean and United States Army’s feet.  The tunnel could flood as many as 30,000 rabid zombie North Korean troops an hour into South Korea.  And though the guidebook claims the tunnel is 2 meters tall that is total bullshit.

Fortunately, the tour of the tunnel requires a hard hat but still I had to bend at the waist at a 45-degree angle and walk in a crouch for the entire 3.2 kilometer walk roundtrip into the tunnel and still banged my head on the uneven ceiling at least 100 times.  And what was the payoff for following the dark, damp, claustrophobic midget tunnel to its conclusion? A steel door with a small opening about one foot by 6 inches you could yell obscenities at Little Rocket Man into if you wished.

The last stop on the tour was an ultramodern train station to nowhere.  The station has been built in preparation for reunification.  Once opened the plan is to link South Korea by train with North Korea, China, Russia and even Europe.  Very ambitious considering the leaders of the two countries are still having phallic symbol measuring contests.

Once back in Seoul I visited the Deoksugung Palace (became the Royal Residence in 1575).  I arrived just in time to see the Palace Changing of the Guard.  I’ve included plenty of photos of both this palace, the Gyeongbokgung Palace (established in 1395) and the Sungnyemun City Gate (built in 1396) and Changing of the Guard Ceremonies.  And as you might predict the ancient buildings are beautiful and the lavish gardens are immaculate.  However, the people visiting the Palaces are the show stoppers.

Deoksugung Palace (became the Royal Residence in 1575)

Gyeongbokgung Palace (established in 1395)

I was fortunate to be in Seoul for their Independence Day so many of their local tourists were dressed up in rented period costumes.  I’ve also posted many photos of pretty young ladies dressed in their period costumes.

Sungnyemun City Gate (built in 1396)

One odd moment as the South Koreans celebrated their Independence Day was when all the sudden the band switched gears and some Korean dude began singing our patriotic songs.  It was a very nice gesture but hearing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and America the Beautiful sounds a little different coming from a guy with a thick Korean accent and a crappy sound system.

Two of my favorite moments in Seoul was a wonderful Korean Barb B Que Steak at the famous Maple Tree House Restaurant followed by an evening listening to Jazz at the appropriately named “All That Jazz” Club.  In addition to the Maple tree dinner I enjoyed street food at the Namdaemun Market, and a couple of lunches as I wandered around Bukchon Hanok Village.

The Bukchon Hanok Village is a traditional Korean Village surrounded by busy modern Seoul.  The village is wedged between Gyeongbokgung Palace/Folk Museum, Changdeok Palace and the Jongmyo Royal Shrine.  The traditional village has hundreds of hanok (600 year old traditional houses) that have been converted into trendy stores, cafes, tea houses, and cultural centers.  And seeing all the women dressed in dresses from centuries ago added to the charm of the old cobblestone hanok lined streets, lanes and alleys. 

Bukchon Hanok Village

Gyeongbokgung Palace/Folk Museum

The only other places I visited were the Jogyesa Temple and Jongmyo Shrine and photos of both are attached.

Jogyesa Temple

Jongmyo Shrine

My next stop was a flight to Jeju Island but that is a blog for another day.

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Kyoto, Japan – (June 12 – 15)

I began my Kyoto tour with a series of temples – no surprise there!  My first visit was to Ryoanji Temple originally a country house for the Tokudaji Clan.  It was bought in 1450 to be used as a Zen training temple.  Ryoanji was registered as a World Heritage site in 1994.

The most prominent feature of the temple is a 25 by 10-meter rock garden built in the 15th century by a Zen monk.  The garden has a clay wall, no trees or plants of any kind and 9 rocks and a bunch of gravel that has been scraped with a rake into some design that is supposed to be art.  Frankly, I didn’t get it.  Looked like a big ass litter box to me.  Photos of the entrance, Kyoyochi Pond, stupa, temple, and Tsukubai (a stone wash-basin) are attached.

The second temple visit was the Rokuon-Ji Temple.  The garden was originally owned by a powerful Shogun but upon his death, he had stipulated that the property was converted into a temple.  The most prominent feature of this temple is a beautiful Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku).

The pond with the Golden Pavilion and large and small islands are the centerpiece of the garden.  Additionally, there are large rocks strategically placed along the paths around the pond donated by various lords throughout Japan during the 13th century.

The pavilion has three levels and the top two are lacquer wood covered in gold foil.  A golden Phoenix stands atop the golden shingled roof.  Attached are photos of the pond, pavilion from several directions, as well as several other buildings on the grounds.

Kogosho (Place for Ceremonies and Imperial Audiences)

Next I visited the Kyoto Imperial Palace.  The palace was rebuilt in 1855 to match its glory days during Japan’s ancient imperial dynasties.

The Imperial complex includes the Shisinden, the Seiryoden, the Kogosyo, the Ogakumonjyo, and the Otsunegoten all reflecting the architectural styles of their eras. 

The palace grounds are enclosed by huge imposing walls and accessed by several gatehouses.  Visitors access is limited to the gardens and the palace buildings but unfortunately, none of the buildings can be entered.  Still the palace is worth a visit if you admire architecture and history.  Photos of the exterior of buildings and the gardens are attached above.

The photos include the Shinmikurumayose (carriage porch) which was reserved for high ranking officials attending rituals or audiences with the emperor.  

The Shodaibunoma (Waiting Rooms) – three rooms divide into sections where visitors waited according to their rank.  The highest ranking officials used the “Room of the Tigers”, the next level visitor used the “Room of the Cranes” and the lowliest visitors used the “Room of the Cherry Blossoms”.  Each room had beautifully painted representations of the room on the sliding doors leading to the room.

The Shishinden Hall is the most important building in the palace and is used for State Ceremonies.  This hall was used to enthrone Emperors Taisho and Showa.  And of course, the interior is off limits to tourists.  So, no photos of the emperor’s or empress’ thrones.

I’ve posted photos of each of these buildings as well as the Kogosho, Seiryoden, and the gardens.

Day 2

Day 2 in Kyoto and I was up early to visit the Kiyomizu-dera (Pure Water) Temple – a World Heritage Site.  The temple was founded in 780 on the site of the Otowa Waterfall.  The Temple, built without the use of a single nail, is renowned for the terrace or stage that extends out from the main hall 50 feet above the forested hillside below.  The view from the terrace is beautiful with a forest of mature maple and cherry trees extending out for acres below and modern Kyoto in the distant skyline.  The vista in June was beautiful but I can only imagine the view in spring with the cherry trees in blossom or the view in the fall with the maple leaves turning golden and crimson.   

Behind the main hall is the small Jishu Shrine dedicated to the god of love and matchmaking.  Unmarried women come to the shrine to ask for Okuninushino-Mikoto for help finding a husband.  You will notice in the photo of Mikoto a statue of a rabbit – the rabbit is the messenger to the god.

  

The Otowa Falls are located at the base of the main hall and visitors can drink from the falls using cups with long poles. Drinking from the stream is believed to provide long life, success in school and a healthy love life.  You can choose one benefit – choosing all three is just damn greedy.  On the far end of the temple grounds stands the three story Koyasu Pagoda.  Other structures on the temple grounds include the Okunion Hall, halls dedicated to Shaka Buddha and Amida Buddha.

Just outside the temple grounds are a virtual steep maze of small streets and lanes crammed full of small shops, souvenir stands, cafes and tea houses.  The walk into the temple and then out again walking to the Kodai-ji Temple is a visual treat in itself.  I have included plenty of photos of both the temple and the street scenes with this blog.

Next after a 15minute walk and 30 minute Starbucks break I began my tour of Kodai-ji Temple. Kodai-ji was built in 1606 and consist of several lavishly designed and furnished buildings surrounded by more Zen Rock Gardens.  Buildings in the complex includes: the Main Hall, Kaizando memorial hall, the mausoleum for Hideyoshi and his wife Nene, a tea house, and Entokuin Temple.  In addition to the Rock Gardens there is a much more interesting tsukiyama style garden with a small pond, man-made hills, and beautiful pine and maple trees.  Finally, walking back down the hill from the tea houses is an incredible bamboo grove.  Photos of all are attached.

With just a short but interesting walk (photos attached above) of ten minutes I reached my next destination – Yasaka Shrine.  Founded in the 6th century the Yasaka Shrine has an elaborate entrance gate and main hall (containing the inner sanctuary and offering hall).  Photos attached below.

Next up – the Chionin Temple built in 1294 and on a grand scale.  The temple sports the largest bell in Japan at over 20 feet tall and weighing 74 tons.  Seventeen monks are required to ring this huge bell.  In fact, every building on the temple grounds is wooden and is built bigger than life.  Photos are attached below. 

The Nanzen-ji Temple was my next destination – one of the most significant Zen temples in Japan.  The temple was founded in the 13th century when the Emperor built his retirement villa on the site and then later converted it over to a Zen temple.  The first thing you see as you approach the temple are the huge Sanmon Gates (over 80 feet tall).  The extensive grounds contain elaborate Rock Gardens, a pond garden and an oddly placed aqueduct built much later in the late 18th century to carry water to the city.

The best part of this temple visit is that you could enter the various halls and buildings.  Tons of photos are attached.

After spending way too much time visiting the Nanzen-ji Temple, I walked the Philosopher’s Walk to the Ginkaku-ji Temple.  The 2 kilometer stone path that follows a cherry tree (over 100) lined canal from the Nanzenji to the Ginkakuji Silver Pavilion.  The path also runs along a small street lined with small cafes and tea houses.  I had a great club sandwich and glass of ice tea in one of the cafes.

The Ginkaku-ji Temple was originally a retirement villa for shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa in 1482.  Today’s temple complex consists of the Silver Pavilion, half dozen additional temple buildings, a moss garden and sand garden.  The Silver Pavilion is a two-story structure with each story constructed in a different architecture style.  I’m not sure why it is called the Silver Pavilion since there isn’t a hint of silver on the building.

Following the path past the Pavilion leads you to the dry sand garden called the “Sea of Silver Sand”.  At the end of the sand garden, there is a large sand cone called the “Moon Viewing Platform”.  Beside the garden stands the Hondo (main hall).  Next to the Hondo is the Togudo.  Once past the Togudo the path takes you by the moss garden featuring ponds with islands and bridges, small streams and tons of different plants.  The photos will help you follow the narrative.

Day 3

Day 3 began with a false start. I had scheduled a visit to the Katsura Imperial Villa but after my taxi driver spending a half hour trying to find the place and realizing I would never find a taxi back – I decided to skip this site and move on to the more centrally located Tenryu-ji Temple.

The Tenryu-ji Temple was originally built in 1339 but has burned to the ground eight times over the centuries.  The current structures only date back to 1868.  However, the gardens have survived in their original form.  There are three significant buildings the main hall (Hojo), the drawing hall (Shoin) and the temple kitchen (Kuri) all built between 1868 and 1912.  Photos attached.

My final site to visit required a short walk thru town, over the river and up to the top of a small mountain to visit the Arashiyama Monkey Park.  While on top the mountain with the monkeys the sky opened- up and this was the one day that I brought neither a rain jacket or umbrella.  I had a very cold and wet walk down the mountain and wait to catch a taxi.  I’m not sure the monkeys were worth the climb up the mountain or the wet return trip.  Photos attached anyway.

One final comment about Japan – their food sucks!!!  This is the only country I have been forced to search out American Fast Food for survival.  I have enjoyed the cuisine in the 14 other countries I have visited so far – but not Japan!  The food they eat looks and smells absolutely disgusting.  And it explains a lot about why they had such an imperialistic past.  They were starving and in search of a decent meal.

Normally I can find something on an Asian breakfast buffet that I will eat – boiled eggs, watermelon, bananas, tomatoes, toast.  I just need to look past all the rice, noodles, freaky fruit and half cooked seafood.  This was not the case in Kyoto.  My hotel buffet offered no breads of any kind, no tomatoes, and the only fruits on display were tropical crap fruits.  I finally found a bowl of boiled eggs and thought at least I would have something to begin my day.

I don’t know how most people crack and peel their boiled eggs but I give the egg a firm squeeze as I hit it on the edge of the table.  This works very well with an actual boiled egg.  Not so much with a fricking raw egg!  My meager breakfast exploded and raw egg flew out in a 360 degree spray all over me, the table and a few neighboring garbage eaters.  Not a pretty site!

Who the hell eats raw eggs for breakfast you might ask? The same World War II losers that eat everything else not fit for human consumption – that’s who!  So, if you are going to Japan – pack your own damn food or starve.

And that ends my Japan excursion.  On to Shanghai and some good Chinese food!

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Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) May 31 – June 4

I was very fortunate in that I met a lady from Taipei on my first day in Sydney, Australia on a tour of that city.  While seeing the sites of Sydney, Mrs. Fan offered to be my free tour guide when I made it to Taipei.  So, for 4 days I had the luxury of never needing to read a map, calculate drive times, or worry about when venues would be open or closed.  I also was blessed to have someone as an interpreter and food recommender.

Our first stop was to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial.  The Memorial is an enormous complex with a massive entrance façade, then a huge and long open space to a large ornate building housing a giant Chiang Kai-shek statue seated like Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial.

The most interesting thing about the Memorial had nothing to do with the founding father of modern Taiwan. Rather, it was a cheesy temporary exhibit dedicated to the brave Chinese man who stood up to the Communist Chinese Tanks in Tiananmen Square.  Turns out I was at the Memorial on the 30-year anniversary of the occasion.  The exhibit was a simple green air-filled plastic Chinese Tank with its plastic gun barrel pointed at a plastic blow up man in black slacks and white shirt.  Very simple but powerful in its symbolism. 

Our second stop was the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines.  I was surprised to learn that the first people of Taiwan were not the Chinese but the Formosan Aborigines who are genetically the same people as the first peoples of Java, Fiji, New Zealand, and the Philippines.  The first Chinese wave of immigrants did not arrive on the shores of Taiwan until 500 years ago and as we all know the last wave arrived with Chiang Kai-shek in 1949.

The original tribes of Aborigines included: Amis, Atayal, Bunan, Paiwan, Saisyat, Tsou and Rukai.  Some of these tribes lived along the coast and depended on the sea for food, others lived on the coastal plains and uplands and were farm based structures and others yet lived in the mountains depending on hunting for their food.

The museum had exhibits showing where each tribe settled, the types of foods they grew or caught to survive, the types of houses they lived in, and local customs and dress.  The museum is small but very well laid out and crammed full of interesting material for people like myself that get into how ancient people lived and developed.

Next stop was just a short walk to the National Palace Museum.  This museum is incredible in that it holds all the national treasures Chiang Kai-shek looted from across China during his retreat across China with Mao Zedong’s troops nipping at his heels.

Somehow the Democratic forces collected, packed, and transported thousands of rare and priceless vases, statues, furniture, figurines and jewelry made from porcelain, gold, silver, jade, coral, wood, and clay. They left the mainland with thousands of rare tomes of literature, scientific research and ancient eastern medical manuals dating back to antiquity.  And you can just bet that the People’s Republic of China would love to get these priceless treasures that they consider stolen back!

Day 2: Taipei Zoo & Hsing Tian Temple

Day 2 of my Taipei visit began with a trip to the zoo.  I am not a big fan of zoos or caging animals but my guide Hermosa was very proud of their zoo.  So, to the zoo we went.  And we saw the standard zebras, giraffes, elephants, lions, tigers, emus, flamingos, and hippos.  I also saw my first panda.  She had wanted to take the cable car to the top of the mountain but it was out of commission (thankfully). 

Our next stop was the Xingtian Temple (Hsing Tian Kong).  This is a relatively new temple built in 1967.  The temple’s patron saint is Guan Gong, the patron god of businessmen and scholars, but you can also pray to him for physical health, peace and safety in your daily life, success on an exam, business or career. 

Then came the Hsing Tian Kong temple popular because it is a place you can go for exorcisms, rituals, services of prayers for peace, songjing, and explaining divination results. Songjing is a ritual that helps a person whose soul has left their body to come back and re-enter the body. 

I had an opportunity to watch both a songjing and a separate ritual to protect a person from unfriendly ghosts.  I’m not quite sure how you lose your soul or how the ritual helps it to finds its way back to a specific body but it seems to work for the soulless. I’ve included several photos from the temple but the taking photos from inside a temple is bad form so they are all taken from outside the buildings.  The photo of the priestess in blue captures her using an incense stick to shield the person from aggressive ghosts.

Day 3: Taipei Confusius Temple,Bao-An Temple, Longshan Temple & Shilin Market

Dacheng Hall

Day 3 began with a visit to the Taipei Confucius Temple.  I began my visit by passing thru the Wanren Gongqiang (Wall of Supreme Knowledge).  The followers of Confucius believe the Wall of Supreme Knowledge is where you must begin your journey to wisdom thru the Taipei Temple. I entered thru the Lingxing Gate – in ancient times only the highest of scholars could enter thru this gate.  Obviously, standards have been lowered since I was allowed thru.

Once inside the gate the first thing I saw was the beautiful Dacheng Hall.  This Hall can be identified in my photos as the one with the dragons carved into the two center columns in front of the Hall.  Photos of the ceremonial Bell and Drum as well as other buildings and shrines are attached.

Next stop after the Confucius Temple was to the Bao-An Temple in Da-Long-Dong.  This temple is a National Historic Monument and during the Qing (Ching) dynasty was considered one of the three major temples of Taipei.  Temple construction was begun in 1755 and completed in 1830. 

The temple complex includes an entrance hall, main hall, back hall and guard rooms on the sides.  You will find in my photos many shots of both temple buildings and shrines.

But the most interesting photos to me are the ones I took at the Longshan Temple of a male temple official or fortune teller (not sure of his exact position) surrounded by 5 women.  The women were using divining blocks to ask God for a blessing.  In this case, one of the women wanted to find a man and get married. 

The way this works is there are two small blocks of wood carved in the shape of a crescent moon and flat on one side convex on the other.  The woman making the request to God announced her full name, date of birth, and address then asked that her request be heard.  She then threw the two blocks in the air.  If one block landed on the flat side and the other the convex side God has agreed to her request.  If both blocks landed with the flat side up called the “laughing blocks” either God has not decided or is unsure of her request and wanted clarification by asking again with more specificity.

If both blocks landed convex side up “Dark Blocks” the answer was hell no!

In the photo you will see one of the women tossing divining blocks. The women went away happy so I guess some unsuspecting man is about to be nailed by God as her new husband.

Longshan Temple is particularly interesting in that it combines the tenants of Buddhism with many elements of ancient local folk religions.  The temple was originally built in 1738 and has been rebuilt and expanded through the years.  The temple’s principal deity is Guanyin.  But there are over 100 deities available to worship or ask favors of. 

Visiting three temples in a day and watching souls returned to their owners, ghosts being scared away from the true believers and women trusting their matrimonial fate to tossed blocks of wood worked up quite an appetite so we went from the temples to the Shilin Market for street food and atmosphere.

I enjoyed the atmosphere much more than the food.   I ordered fried shrimp with egg but for some reasons, the cook felt compelled to ruin a perfectly good dish by throwing up the contents of her dinner onto mine.  At least I think that’s what that orange chunky crap was!  Photos of the market are attached too.

Last Day: Ximending & Guandu Temple

On my final day, we visited one last Temple, had lunch on Fisherman’s Wharf and visited the ultra-modern shopping district of Ximending.  The Guandu Temple also known as the Guardian Temple is built into and atop a small mountain.  The temple began in 1661 though construction took off in 1712 when a Buddhist monk from China brought a golden statue of the goddess Matzu.

The temple is dedicated to multiple gods but the main shrine is dedicated to the goddess Matzu.  The goddess Matzu is a folk-religion deity even though the temple was founded by a Buddhist monk.  But the Buddhist are well represented with shrines to Guanyin, Ksitgarbha, and Shakyamuni.  There is a beautiful park on the mountain above the temple providing great photo opportunities as well as a peaceful place to sit and just watch the world go by. 

Another interesting aspect of this temple is the cave at the base of the mountain that has been transformed into an 80-meter tunnel from the parking lot on one side of the mountain to the temple complex on the other side.  The tunnel is lined statues representing the 28 heavenly emperors.  The tunnel ends at a small shrine room dedicated to the 1000 armed Guanyin.

I have included photos of the various temples, shrines, tunnel and park.  But also included is a photo of a half dozen ladies in brown leaving one of the temples and a short video another group in gold singing.  I’m unclear as to the titles of these women or what their role is but found their singing very calming

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Quick Hits to Manilla, Hong Kong and Macau

Manilla (Philippines)

This portion of my trip was the most disappointing of my travels though I am not prepared to blame the cities.  In Manilla, I simply chose the wrong location in the country to visit.  Besides a few interesting historical sites from the Spanish occupation, there is very little in the city to see.  I have since been told by a number of locals and frequent visitors that there are absolutely beautiful beaches, mountains, villages and resorts outside of the capital city and on the country’s other islands.

But don’t get me wrong – the old city in Manilla is interesting.  I stayed in a hotel located in the old Intramuros (the original walled city the Spaniards built when they first colonized the Islands).  Within walking distance, I visited the beautiful St. Augustine Basilica, the not so beautiful Manilla Cathedral, Museum of St Augustine, Fort Santiago, San Agustin Museum,  San Diego gardens, Baluarte de San Diego, and did a walk by of General McCarthar’s Command Post during battle for the Islands during World War II.

By far, the St. Augustine Basilica and Museum was the highlight of my time in Manilla.  The 500-year-old Basilica is beautiful and the museum dedicated to Spanish exploration, colonization, and trade routes between Europe – Asia – Mexico was fascinating.  I easily spent half a day wandering thru the ancient hallways and cloisters admiring the artwork, studying the exhibits and reading the many written descriptions about life thru the ages.

After my long visit to the Basilica and Museum – I let myself be talked into a guided horse-drawn Kalesa tour.  My tour guide had to be the world’s largest Phillopeno standing well over 6 feet and easily weighing over 300 pounds. I felt sorry for the poor old horse pulling our wagon with our combined weight of over 500 pounds.  My guide was extremely knowledgeable as well as entertaining and I enjoyed the leisurely clop, clop, clop of the horse’s hooves on the cobblestone as my guide clued me in on how wicked the Spanish were during their hundreds of years of occupation, how exploitive the British were during their brief seven-year occupation, how cruel the Japanese were during their WWII occupation and how wonderful the American occupation pre WWII was.  Of course, I can’t help but wonder if the descriptions change depending on the tourist. 

Regardless, I enjoyed my exploration of Fort Santiago and was particularly amused by the little museum in the old armory.  The only items on display in the entire museum were lego sets.  Someone had reproduced every historical site in the Intramuros with legos.  My son, Ryan, would have loved this – he spends thousands of dollars a year on his lego hobby!

I enjoyed a wonderful couple of meals at the historical Barbara’s Restaurant.  The restaurant is in the heart of the Intramuros and the interior of the restaurant is beautiful retaining all the old world charm of its colonial linage.  Adorned in rich old woods and ornately gilded mirrors and fixture the place if a feast for the eyes.  The staff is also appropriately dressed in period outfits and the trio of wandering troubadours play a mix of traditional local songs and modern pop and rock requests as they drift from table to table.  Oh, and the food is very good.  I recommend this place 100%!

The only other point I would like to make about the old historical district of Manilla is the odd mixture of transportation options.  I have already mentioned the Kalesa wagon, you can also take the ubiquitous Tuk Tuk that you find all over Asia, and strangest of all – you can cram into one of the many Jeepneys cruising the cobblestone streets and lanes of the Intramuros.

The Jeepney is an odd-looking hybrid of a vehicle.  The vehicle looks like the bastard result of a one night stand between a jeep and an Airstream travel trailer.  Someone, obviously, after way too many shots of whiskey, bottles of beer or bongs of weed got the idea of cutting the back end off a jeep and adding a 10foot section of benches over the rear wheels, covering the back of the extended jeep in sheet metal, cutting out windows and covering it all in shinny chrome.  And, just like that, Manilla had a cross between a taxi and a bus!

Hong Kong & Macau (China)

My next stop was Hong Kong and unfortunately, it rained the entire time I spent in both Hong Kong and Macau.  Many of the things I had planned to do here got washed out with the weather.  The highlight of my time here was a day visiting the old city on Macau.  I hopped on a turbo ferry for the hour ride over to Macau Island then bypassed all the glitzy casinos (I’ve seen the same ones in Las Vegas too many times) and headed straight for the old colonial Macau.

The Ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral

While in the old city, I enjoyed wandering thru the small streets and lanes lined with centuries-old buildings remodeled to house café’s, trendy clothing stores, jewelry stores, and other assorted tourist traps on my way to the Ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Macau Museum, the Mount Fortress, St. Dominic’s Church, the Lou Kau Mansion, and St. Augustine’s Church.

I have attached plenty of photos of the day so I will let them speak for themselves.  I had hoped to take the Peak Tram to the top of Victoria Peak on Hong Kong Island once I returned and then walk the trails at the top until sunset but no such luck.  It was pouring rain when the ferry docked so I caught a taxi back to the hotel and missed Victoria Peak.  The rain also ruined my plans to visit the Po Lin Monastery, the Stanley Market and Stanley Beach.

I did manage to make it down to the SoHo District for a nice Turkish Dinner and drinks at a pub catering to British Expats.  There I met a couple of Brits at the bar who are currently living in Chiang Mai, Thailand but working in Hong Kong selling German real estate to rich Chinese.  Guess it really is a global economy.

The older guy was too drunk to make a lot of sense but the younger one helped me understand the basics of the Cricket match on the television and surprisingly knew a good bit about American politics and blues music.  There was a third Brit who drifted in and out of the conversation that constantly lifted his shirt to expose his huge beer belly and demand I punch him in the gut as hard as I could.  I obviously declined the repeated invitations to test his metal.  And that was how my Hong Kong misadventure in the monsoon went. So on to Taiwan.

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Good Morning Vietnam

I ended my visit to Vietnam with mixed emotions.  Probably the same as many Americans viewed Vietnam 50 years ago.  The country possesses an abundance of naturally beautiful sites, the country’s industrious people and entrepreneurs have built a modern economy out of the ashes of war, and many of the people are friendly and curious about us. 

But there is also a darker side.  There is still latent resentment and outright hostility from some toward America – especially around Da Nang.  And, sadly, there are continuing casualties from the war from unexploded landmines and genetic abnormalities in the children and grandchildren of both soldiers and civilians affected by our use of Agent Orange

And the official propaganda was enough to turn my stomach if it weren’t already in distress from something or many things I ate and drank in Cambodia.  Come to think of it, maybe part of my negative impression of Vietnam is a result of being violently ill for the entire seven days I was on the ground there. 

Ho Chi Ming

My visit began in Ho Chi Ming City. With a walk from my hotel over to the Old Colonial Post Office Building and old Saigon’s Notre Dame Cathedral.  While there I was fell upon by the world’s most friendly and aggressive rickshaw driver and his sidekick.  After a lengthy back and forth about not wanting a ride I finally gave in for what began as a short ride to my next destination that quickly turned into an entire morning of site seeing by rickshaw. 

And, to my surprise, I totally enjoyed the effortless open-air travel as well as my toothless rickshaw peddler’s excited patter.  “There, there – American Embassy, “Good Morning Vietnam” as we passed one building, Jade Emperor Pagoda over there, Thien Hau Pagoda very good photos, and half a dozen other temples not on my list.  The most interesting part of the morning was when he accompanied me into one of the temples and explained what was happening.

At one point a priest like official was blessing people one at a time and waving a smoking stick over an outline of their bodies.  My snaggle toothed rickshaw man explained he was protecting them from ghosts.

Later as we were leaving the main temple there was a separate room where the idols were all in black and red with sinister and angry faces.  Turns out if good gods aren’t your thing you can always pray to an evil gods – and people were.

Last stop was a very small smoky room with an old woman holding court with a half dozen younger women praying and making offerings at her feet. Turns out the old woman has the power to find a single woman a husband and get a barren woman pregnant.  I had no idea that’s how things work in this part of the world.

And if you might wonder who took all the photos of me in the rickshaw – snaggle tooths sidekick peddling an empty rickshaw.  The final price we had agreed upon ended up being four times the original deal but the entertainment value alone was worth the few extra bucks.

And armed with this new bit of useless trivia I returned to the hotel, collected my bags and caught the next flight out to Da Nang.  And the worst four days of my trip so far.

Da Nang

The only thing good I can say about the Hell Hole of Da Nang is that I had used my Marriott Points to stay beachside on the 31st floor in a very nice Marriott Property.  And as a Titanium member, I received an upgrade to a suite and was treated like a king.  Beyond that Da Nang SUCKED!!!  My diet was limited to dry toast, black tea, Imodium, and a ZPAC of antibiotics.  But, I was determined to soldier on with my schedule until I met the tour guide from hell.

My tour guide for the My Son Sanctuary turned out to be a hard-core Marxist that hated America and All Americans.  I had to listen to four hours of all the wicked things the American Imperialists did to the people of Vietnam.  After the 5th time she told me how American War Criminals destroyed over 60% of the Sanctuary with bombs – I finally asked her “what was the purpose of bombing this site?  Was the Viet Cong using the UNESCO site as a base?”  Finally, she admitted the U.S. troops believed there were Viet Cong using the temples to hide. 

And I finally, got her to admit there actually were Commie bastards hiding in the temples.  Turns out the little bitch hates Chinese as much as Americans.  She says never do business with a Chinese person or you will lose fingers.  The only saints in the world according to Da Nang’s Jane Fonda were the Soviets and now Russians. 

I was scheduled to go on an 8 hour Hue Imperial City Tour the second day but when the tour operator showed up in fricking clown car designed for Asian Midgets –  I said hell no. I won’t go!  Seriously, the small SUV had three rows of seats and they had already filled the first two rows with midgets leaving the rear seat with 4 inches of leg room and no head room for the 6 foot 3 inch American imperialist devil.

Three hours out and three hours back with my head crammed into my chest and my knees over my ears and in intestinal distress – not my idea of a good time.  I would strongly warn anyone visiting this hell hole against using the local Viator tour group.  They are adamantly anti-American and their customer service sucks. 

And I couldn’t get out of Da Nang soon enough!

Hanoi

The good news – Hanoi is a very interesting city and the people seem to be fine with American tourist dollars.  In fact, my favorite day in all of Vietnam was a day-long tour to visit the Halong Bay Islands and Sea Caves.  The trip required a 4-hours motor coach ride to and from the wharf where our traditional wooden Chinese Junk was docked then a 4 ½ hour seafood lunch cruise past Stone Island, Dog Island, Duck Island, Finger Island, Incence Burner Island, and Fighting Cocks Islands then into Thien Cung (Heavenly Palace Grotto) where we switched to small bamboo boats propelled by middle-aged women.

Lunch was great, the tour guide was great, the folks seated at my table were great and the scenery was fantastic.  But the highlight was the hour in the bamboo boat drifting thru the grotto and small coves.  The oarswoman spoke excellent English and had a great sense of humor.

And the 8 hours on the bus was even interesting.  As I started out my bus window, I had the opportunity to see rice paddy after rice paddy, corn fields, and even lotus crops being cultivated and worked.  We passed thru industrial towns, small villages and miles, and miles of farms.

The most interesting part of the entire trip though was what was billed as a rest/comfort stop but was actually an excuse to prompt us to buy souvenirs.  Normally I resent these contrived efforts to force me to buy crap from a tour operator’s friends or someone they receive a kickback from.  But not today!

The place we stopped is called Chan Thien My and it is a nonprofit business established for the sole purpose of providing vocational training and jobs for disabled people.  Our guide explained that the company was founded by an American Vet and a North Vietnamese Veteran to help people disabled due to landmines or the genetic effects of Agent Orange. 

Since they opened shop in 1996 the organization has trained over 600 disabled people free of charge in the arts of embroidery, clothes making, fine carving, lacquer, ceramics, gemstones and jewelry making.  The facility we visited isn’t just the store with finished products.  The disabled artisans were all busily working on their next creations. 

It was heartwarming to see these people hard at work creating beautiful clothing, paintings, and jade jewelry.  No hands – no problem. They simply worked with their feet.  Bodies twisted and deformed by the ravages of Agent Orange hasn’t affected these people’s ability to create beautiful art or smile with pride in their work product. I don’t normally pimp for charities but I would encourage you to Google Chan Thien My and read about their story and if so inclined, contribute to a very worthy group of deserving people.

My second day in Hanoi was devoted to visiting temples and paying homage to a great American – Senator John McCain.  I visited the lake where he was captured and then the Hanoi Hilton – his prison for the rest of the war.  Turns out, he crashed within walking distance of the prison.  The propaganda bull shit dispensed at the prison was pretty hard to take.  The Vietnamese version of history is that local freedom fighters shot down over 6,000 American Imperialist War Criminals Planes and then treated the undeserving criminals with dignity and kindness. 

They claim the prisoners were fed better than Hanoi residents, were provided clean fresh laundry weekly, encouraged to play basketball and soccer, and given total access to care packages sent from their families.  I have read Senator McCain’s book and have known several other POWs who survived the Hanoi Hilton and they tell a far darker and crueler story about their captivity.  

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Bangkok – City of Many Contrasts…

By day the city is a busy commercial hub sporting modern skyscrapers, modern Mega Malls like the Platinum Fashion Mall, the Siam Paragon, Central World, MBK Siam, Siam Discovery, Siam Center, and ICONSIAM and Observation Towers in the tops of today’s newest and tallest buildings.  By night the seedy side of Siam emerges in the bars, massage parlors, and bordellos of Patong’s Red Light District, Nana Plaza, and Soi Cowboy.

The shopping in the malls of Bangkok can compete with any city in the world.  Every major luxury brand from Rolex to Gucci has a presence in every mall.  And the Malls themselves are entertainment destinations drawing throngs of tourists and locals alike to dine in over-priced restaurants and to piss away their hard-earned money on the latest and greatest fashions, gadgets and crap in a fruitless attempt to fill their empty souls. 

I guess the same can be said for the flesh shopping in the Red Light Districts after the sun goes down.  Anything and everything is for sale.  And the pace seems almost frenetic as men of all races, shapes and ages are aggressively wooed by mamasons, drink girls and doormen all jockeying to drag the Farang into their establishment for “a drink”.

In talking to one of the drink girls (in this case much older than a girl) in Nana Plaza I learned that the women receive 20 percent on any drink a customer buys them.  So, on a $5 drink the lady receives just a dollar.  In order, to earn a living these women must sweet talk men out of a lot of drinks.  And according to the lady I interviewed all the drink girls are also prostitutes available for the hour or night.

The economics are interesting.  The Farang must pay a bar fine for taking the lady out of the bar of around 500 Bat, 900 Bat for the room for an hour and 2000 Bat for the action.  Total that is about $108 for an hour of recreational sex with a stranger that has provided the same service to countless other men.  The girl’s cut then is about $64 for the hour.   And in case you are wondering – I paid Mae (my middle age drink girl) the hour fee just to sit and explain how things worked in the bar.

Mae, closer to 50 than 40, was working in the only bar in Nana Plaza that hired older women.  She is a recent widow having lost her 84-year-old Australian husband about a year ago.  She was a school teacher in her village and has a 17-year-old daughter living with her parents.  Neither her daughter, parents or anyone in the village knows what she is doing for a living.  And she says she earns more money as a drink girl and part-time prostitute than she did as a teacher.

It is surreal to see packs of young white guys stumbling from one bar to the next so drunk that they are propping each other up and men in their 60s, 70s, and even 80s parading around with girls barely 20 on their arms and in some cases the girls are helping them shuffle along lol.  Reminded me of the old Bob Seger song “Fire Down Below”. 

Another absurd contrast in Bangkok is the opulence of the King’s palaces and the wealthy’s mansions and the tin and scrap wood hovels of the masses.  I’ve included some of the photos I took while I was on a long-tail boat canal cruise of houses that are little more than shacks as well as the gold gilded palaces of the king.  Incredibly people live in these dilapidated buildings without plumbing and wash their clothes, their hair, and their bodies in the filthy waters of the river. 

Attached are photos of the Bang Pa-In Palace, the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew Emerald Buddha), Wat Pho Temple (Reclining Buddha), Wat Mahathat, Wat Na Phra Men, Wat Kokaya Sutharam and Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn).  Also included are photos I took at Ayutthaya, a UNESCO site, and 14th Century Palace of the Siamese King.

In the group of photos you will see several with Buddha’s face embedded in a tree.  This was not done by man.  Siam bounced back and forth between Hinduism and Buddhism from the 12th to the 14th Century.  At some point in the back and forth when the Hindu’s were in power they destroyed much of the Ayutthaya Temple complex.  One of the heads of a Buddha statue was separated from the body and lay on the ground unrecovered for decades or centuries.  A tree grew up around the head and engulfed it and the photos show exactly how it looks today with the tree enveloping the Buddha head.

A couple of oddities I came across in Bangkok included a very good Mexican Restaurant operated by Indians.  I know, it sounds ridiculous but my steak fajitas was excellent and they didn’t even try to slip in any nasty curry crap.  I also found a great blues and jazz club featuring some very good local talent. Listening to Blues at Saxophone’s is a great way to spend a night away from the shopping malls and flesh markets of Bangkok and I highly recommend the place.

I thought I was might be in the wrong place at the wrong time for a brief moment.  As I was sitting at the bar enjoying a Chang beer I noticed a big Thai come thru the door dressed in jeans, broadcloth button down shirt and dark sport jacket.  He made eye contact with the bartender and headed straight for the stool next to me.  Clearly these two have done this before because by the time the big guy got to the stool his drink appeared if by magic.

The guy reminded me of the secret service guys I used to work with years ago – his eyes never stopped moving.  He was constantly searching the crowd.  As he was surveying his surroundings he casually reached behind him and discretely pulled out this huge cannon of a handgun and set it in his lap.  My first reaction was – this is not good.

I figured this was going to go one of three ways:  he was a plain clothes cop stopping by after work for a drink or working looking for someone, or he was an enforcer for one of the many underworld Thai gangs looking for a specific target, or he was just a run of the mill nut looking to go postal. 

A little uncertain of how this would turnout I did the logical thing.  I ordered another beer and watched and waited.  After another quick unspoken signal between the bartender and the gun guy – the handgun appeared on the bar for just a quick second before the bartender covered it with a towel and stowed it under the counter.  Crisis averted so I took another pull of my beer and asked the guy if he preferred Blues or Jazz when he wasn’t shooting people.

His reply – both!  He apparently enjoys both jazz and blues and likes them either when he is shooting or not. Lol , You meet all kinds of people on a journey like this.

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On to Cambodia – On the trail of Lara Croft Tomb Raider! (kinda anyway)

Cambodia exceeded my expectations!  My time here was split between a brief and unsuccessful visit to Phnom Penh and a fantastic visit to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat.  The visit to Phnom Penh turned into pretty much of a bust due to bad timing.  It seems I chose the King’s birthday to visit the city and plan my tour of his palace and the adjacent Silver Pagoda and Temple.  Unfortunately, both were closed for his birthday.  So, basically, the only thing I did interesting was an evening stroll down the promenade along the Mekong River.

The promenade was at least interesting though.  I got to see the palace and pagoda lit up at night from a distance as well as the skyline across the river.  This walk also gave me plenty of interesting people to watch and enjoy their weirdness.  Also, gave me an opportunity to try tasting a few more fried insects (photos attached).

One bright spot was after I, more or less, enjoyed my bug snack I stumbled on to a Lebanese Restaurant.  What luck!  A change of menu from rice and mystery meat.  I enjoyed a nice lamb sate, rice and nan and all in air conditioning!  What a treat!  Stumbling onto the only Lebanese Restaurant in all Southeast Asia now that is good Karma! 

From Phnom Penh I flew to Siem Reap and after a hot, dusty, bouncy Tuk Tuk ride from the airport arrived at my hotel.  Where I was greeted with a nice chilled silver chalice of lemon grass tea, fruit, a cold washcloth infused with some sort of mint herb and ice water, and an orchid.

The young man checking me in had an odd name on his name tag so I had to ask.  Why do you have Helicopter on your name tag instead of your name?  His answer:  Because that is my name.  My response:  What the hell kind of name is that?  Who would name a person Helicopter?  His response:  it is a cool name and I selected it myself. 

So, my new best friend for a few days was the world’s tallest Cambodian named Helicopter.  Anything I wanted or needed Helicopter handled with a smile and bobbing head.  Sunrise tour of Angkor Wat – no problem.  Ticket and transportation to Apsara Dinner Theater – give me just one moment.  Tuk Tuk for the day to travel around Siem Reap – You got it.  Laundry back in four hours – of course. Arrange a tour of the Kompong Floating Village – no sir, you do not want to go there. This is the dry season, there is no water and it stinks!  This kid was incredible!

My first night in Siem Reap was a little hit and miss though.  The Apsara Dinner Theater was a waste of money.  The food wasn’t fit for human consumption, dinner was served on the floor and despite the fact that the room was less than half full they insisted on seating me in a corner with my back to the stage.

Anyone that knows me can predict how I reacted.  I walked out in the middle of the performance and headed to the Angkor night market for something edible and something cold to wash everything down.

And the night market and surrounding cafes and bars did not disappoint.  There were street vendors hawking souvenirs, clothes, jewelry, drinks, and foods of all types.  The most interesting display was of all the exotic snacks – small 5 inch snakes, scorpions, palmetto bugs, grub worms, crickets, tarantula, and bottles of local alcohol with a cobra and scorpion preserved inside

Since this was my first night I decided to be prudent and skipped the exotic for the night.  Instead, I found an interesting Cambodian Barb B Que Café that let you cook your own meats on a charcoal stove at the table.  I chose a combo set of 13 kinds of meat including: Duck, Frog Legs, Kangaroo, Ostrich, Beef, Fish, Chicken, Crocodile, Shrimp, Squid, Pork, and Shark.  All washed down with Chang beer with locals screeching Karaoke from the bar across the street.

The interesting thing about Asians and Karaoke is that they love to hear themselves sing.  And I use the term sing in the loosest possible sense.  There seems to be a universal rule of Karaoke – the answer to being offkey or offbeat is the same.  Sing louder!  These people have absolutely no sense of self-awareness or shame.  They are the vocal equivalent to the way Walmart Shoppers dress.  They just don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks of them.

After filling myself with the Noah’s Ark of meats I worked my way back to my hotel and Helicopter’s friendly welcome home.

Day 2 at Angkor Wat

Next morning I was up at 4 am for one of the best days of my trip so far. And by 5 am I was at Angkor Wat waiting to catch the sunrise over the temple complex.  And, yes, the early morning was worth it – the sunrise was spectacular.

My guide for the Angkor Wat tour was an interesting young man.  He spoke good English and was extremely knowledgeable about the Temple Complexes and Buddhism in general.  He had several secrets that he unveiled as the day progressed though.  First thing I was to learn was that he is absolutely terrified of heights. 

He spent a very long time walking me around the base of the temple complex explaining in detail all the construction, sculptures, and images until he could stall no longer.  We then began climbing the stairs of the first of three tiers of the temple complex.  Instead of walking up the steps upright he climbed them like a spider.  Using both hands and feet very slowly and very strangely. 

When we reached the second tier he informed me that was as far as he could go because of his fear of heights and he would wait for me below and explain everything I saw above in the next two tiers when I came back down.  An Acrophobic Angkor Wat tour guide – what are the odds!

But Ing was a very knowledgeable guide and I had to ask him at one point if he was some kind of Buddhist monk.  To my surprise, he had been a monk briefly!  So an acrophobic Monk Angkor Wat tour guide – even longer odds!  Finally, to just fill the time I told him about my new friend at the hotel and his weird name (Helicopter). 

And he agreed it was weird.

I asked him if he had an American name he used even though his name Ing Dara is pretty easy to say and remember. 

 He turned away and mumbled something I couldn’t make out.  I asked him to repeat it and he said his name was “Joe Kool”. 

 I shit you not! Joe Kool!  My Acrophobic Buddhist Monk’s name was Joe Kool!

So, Joe Kool, Acrophobic Buddhist Monk Tour Guide and I, spent the day touring Angkor Wat one of the largest religious monuments in the world.  It began as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu.  But was transformed into a Buddhist temple in the 12th century as the Kings converted to Buddhism. 

And again, the temples are actually temple complexes.  And there is not just one temple complex.  The UNESCO protected site is 400 square kilometers in size and contains multiple temple complexes built by a number of kings between the 9th and 15th century.  Angkor Wat is the name of just one of the temple complexes but has become shorthand for referring to the entire protected site.

Each new king had to build a temple of his own to honor the Lord Buddha as well as two more temples to honor his mother and father. Seven centuries of kings have left a large assortment of temples scattered across Cambodia – many found and recorded but a few probably still reclaimed by the forest and jungle and still hidden from modernity.

We had time to visit just three of the most recognizable temple complexes – Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and the Bayon Temple. For the most part, I will let my photos guide you thru the day but want to mention a few observations about each Complex. 

Angkor Wat is the headliner.  It is this temple that you will see on countless postcards and in magazine features.  It is unique in that this temple faces west which is why it has become such a fan favorite for sunrises.  My sunrise was wonderful but Joe Kool shared a photo of the sunrise on September 23rd (vernal equinox) when the sunrises directly over the center temple.  And the temple complex cast a perfect reflection from the water’s surface.

Angkor Thom also known as the Smiling Buddha Temple has the face of a smiling Lord Buddha on nearly every surface.  Of the 37 towers that remain of the original 40 – Buddha’s face is smiling down from all sides of every tower. In all there are over 200 Buddha faces carved in the temples stone.

And the final temple visited is the reason so many people have heard of Angkor Wat in the first place. Ta Prohm is the temple featured in Angelina Jolie’s 2001 Lara Croft: Tomb Raider blockbuster movie.  You will recall in the movie Ta Prohm’s incredible exterior shots with huge magnificent trees growing out of and encasing the temples provided the backdrop for the climatic scenes for Lara’s struggle with her antagonists. 

And if you have any doubt about the film’s effect on tourism – consider that in 1993 Angkor Wat had only 7,650 visitors.  In 2018 Angkor Wat accepted over 2.6 million international visitors.  And most anyone in the local tourism industry will quickly credit Angelina Jolie for putting Siem Reap on the map.

In fact, Angelina Jolie is beloved in Cambodia and not just for helping establish a growing tourism industry.  Think what you will about her liberal politics – she has put her money and fame behind things she believes in.  She fell in love with both the country and the people of Cambodia. 

When she arrived in Siem Reap in 2000 the country was still suffering the devastating aftermath of the brutal Pol Pot regime. The psychopath Pol Pot was responsible for either executing or starving 25% of the country’s population. But Jolie was so impressed with the people’s resilience, natural kindness and the country’s beauty she has returned many times and taken a personal interest in the country and people.

Jolie adopted her Cambodian son Maddox shortly after filming the movie in 2000.  Started the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation in 2003 and since bought tens of thousands of acres of jungle to prevent the logging of old growth forest and deforestation.  And in 2017 released the award winning film “First They Killed My Father” directed and co-written by Jolie with Loung Ung.  The movie is based on Ung’s personal story of being forced to become a child soldier at the age of 5 after his parents were murdered and siblings were sent to forced labor camps by Pol Pot’s regime of terror.

But back to the temple, it is incredible how the jungle has reclaimed so much of what man built.  In Ta Prohm, huge trees hundreds of years old have grown from and over the temple structures.  Stone structures have just been absorbed by the roots, trunks and limbs of gigantic trees creating a other worldly tableau.  I’ve included some of my favorite photos of the temple along with a photo of Jolie from the movie.  I posed for the same photo in the same spot but I don’t think I quite captured the effect.

As we were finishing our visit to Angkor Wat, Joe Kool invited me to tour the night markets and cafes used by locals instead of the tourist spots for the evening.  Sounded interesting so why not!  Because the result was seven days of extreme intestinal distress and five days of antibiotics.

But it seemed like a good idea at the time and it was an experience.  I’m not sure if it was the fried scorpion, palmetto bugs, worms, crickets, spiders I ate from one stall or if it was the local hooch bottled with a cobra and scorpion like a Tequila worm or the general unclean food prep conditions but something definitely did me in for a few days.

But regretting trying a new thing once in a while is all part of the experience of traveling.  And for every less than tasty scorpion in Siem Reap or Camel Toe in Bishkek, or Airag (fermented mare’s milk) in Ulan-Bator there are plenty of wonderful things just waiting to be tried and enjoyed.

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