Tag Archives: food

Hualien, Taroko National Park and the Last Hurrah 

16 Mar

After spending many days in Taipei, we decided it was time to pry ourselves away and give Taroko National Park a try. We took the two hour train, which was perfectly spotless and timely, as expected in Taiwan, and arrived in Hualien in the early afternoon. We decided to stay in the city for a night before heading to the National Park the following day We weren’t sure of what to do in the city, but we figured we’d explore a bit. We walked to the hostel through a park, where we took pictures of Ollie with octopus statues. The hostel, Journey Hostel, was another exceptionally clean hostel in Taiwan and we instantly curled up in the duvets for a nap. I saw on maps.me that there was a street of aboriginal cuisine, which we figured had to be some sort of market, down by the water. We walked the two miles over and were too early for the market, which looked to be massive. So, we set off walking down by the water and then went for cheap beers and a few rounds of cards at the first place we saw that looked like it would be selling cheap beer cans. After a few beers there we headed over to the night market, which was absolutely fantastic and had the feel of a carnival, with lines of games with prizes. We started off with some steamed pork dumplings and then had amazing aboriginal sausage wraps: sliced slightly sweet aboriginal sausage paired with some greens and sliced cabbage and wrapped inside a piping hot roti-like bread. While having a few more beers, we tried another aboriginal classic, bamboo rice. Pieces of bamboo are stuffed with rice and other accoutrement, such as the shrimp option we had, and steamed. You have to hit the bamboo piece on a hard surface to crack it and split it in half to eat it. It wasn’t really anything special, basically like a dense rice roll. Filled with food and beers, we tried our hand at a few games. I attempted to knock down towers of cans with bean bags, failing miserably, and tried a basketball shooting game where I made just enough to get a measly tube of bubbles. Christine opted for a dice game, where she wouldn’t have to embarrass herself like I did, and also lost. The woman gave her a pack of tissues as a consolation prize, telling her she can use them to dry her eyes.

The following morning we caught an early bus into the National Park and took it to the last stop, Tinxiang. For most of the ride we were sitting on the floor and getting tossed around the crazy mountainous turns. When I finally pulled myself up to the widow for a look I was blown away by the most majestic mountains and marble I’ve personally ever seen. We arrived in Tinxiang town center, which has three small restaurants, a 7 Eleven, a police station and a visitor information center. We walked up to where we were staying, a church that Maggie had recommended to us. No one was around, and the guests that were sitting outside didn’t speak English very well. Eventually, the man who apparently runs the place came back and also didn’t understand English. I spent about 15 minute talking to him and another woman, who actually called a friend of hers to talk to me, trying to figure out what trails we should do that day and whether or not we needed permits for any of the trails on the map. We got no where in conversation and even asking for the toilet was met with confusion. We decided we should just walk to the information center. After talking to the adorable old man working there, we determined we would walk to Baiyang Waterfall Trail first, followed by a bus to Swallows Grotto, the most popular spot to visit. Walking around the park is magical, the mountains are basically vertical in the sky and made me dizzy if I tried to walk and stare up at them. The roads cut through mountains and wrap around cliffs. To get to Baiyang Waterfall, for instance, we had to go through an underpass and take a turn into a pitch black tunnel through the mountain that branched out of the underpass. This first trail was more of a scenic and relaxing walk and we got to do it with coffees in hand. We walked along the river, got to see the beautiful rock strata and cross a suspension bridge to get a better view of the waterfall that was split into three massive parts running down the length of the rock. There were plenty of Korean tourists around, who were inspired by my waterfall poses and eagerly tried to replicate them.

We made our way back to the bus stop and took a bus down to Swallows Grotto, the main spot to view the marble gorge. The area is filled with swooping swallows that lay their eggs within the pot holes of the gorge. After walking around the area for a bit, we decided that we should try to walk back to the church, which was about five miles away. We were definitely tired, but we had time to kill. We started the walk back, stopping at some additional spots, including the Fuji Cliff and Cimu Bridge, the latter of which is surrounded by a few beautiful pavilions. By the time we made it back to the hostel we were exhausted after waking a total of 13 miles that day. We wanted to lay in bed and shower, but the man wasn’t there. We sat around outside for a while until I decided I was going to shower, with or without a bedroom. After a shower and a few episodes of the Good Wife he finally showed up. He couldn’t understand that we were asking for a bed, which he should have figured out because he hadn’t put us anywhere yet (our bags were in the lobby area). Even after acting out sleeping motions he wasn’t following. We eventually made it into the room and had some lay time before heading down to dinner, where I got a massive bowl of spectacular beef noodle soup, similar to that of the famous place in Taipei, but with more veggies, and less fat on the meat. We stocked up on treats from 7 Eleven and, after chocolate binges, passed right out.

We decided one night would be enough in the park, mostly because we wanted another night in Hualien for the night market. So we packed our things up the next morning and brought them down to the park headquarters, closer to the entrance of the park, where they’ll hold your big bags for you while you’re out exploring. We chose a trail just by the headquarters, Dekalun Trail, that would allegedly take us three hours. It started off simple enough, but then the stairs appeared. We walked up so many stairs, ascending straight into the clouds and eventually the rain. There were monkeys creeping on us and our belongings, and plenty of beautiful butterflies everywhere. We even had a few large frog sightings. We started off-roading up the trail in an attempt to get to Dali Village, but failed to make it there because the rain started to pick up, and we didn’t want to be going back down in the mud. On the way back down I slipped on a massive rock and landed right on my hip which bruised up my leg and left me with a swollen ass. By the time we got back down, our calves were jelly from the stairs and we agreed that we’d done enough trekking and were ready to get back to Hualien. We caught the next bus out and, after booking our train back to Taipei for the following morning arrived back to Journey Hostel in the afternoon. I wrote and Christine napped as we killed time before our beloved night market. We had one stop before the night market, a wonton soup place that we had passed on our first walk to the night market that looked absolutely amazing. We walked in and asked the woman what kind we should get, she ordered it for us, Christine got us a few beers and we sat down to enjoy the soup. I don’t think I can ever have Chinese takeout wonton soup again. The dumplings contained pork and a shrimp, a full massive shrimp, and with the addition of some chili it was truly the most perfect meal. We grabbed a bag of beers from a Family Mart and headed over to the night market, where we both got the aboriginal sausage wraps again and sat down to enjoy them over cards and beers.

We took a 9:45 AM train back to Taipei, eager to return to the city we love. We of course took naps when we first got back and then headed out on the subway to Taipei 101 to eat dumplings at the famous Din Tai Fung and then climb Elephant Mountain. We wanted to head back to Tonghua night market for more food that night, so we went light on the dumplings. We split an order of steamed shrimp and squash xiaolongbao, vegetable and pork wontons in the house spicy sauce and steamed shrimp and pork dumplings. They were all absolutely delicious, but I’ve had just as good dumplings of all kinds in Taipei for a fraction of the price. After eating we walked over to Elephant Mountain in the drizzling rain and climbed to the top for a view of Taipei 101 and the city. Naturally, given the weather, the view was mostly shrouded in fog. We went back down to the bottom of the hill and had happy hour beers at a bougie business district restaurant, Nola, along with an order of fried tomatoes. We walked over to the night market to work up a stronger appetite and got another sausage in a rice sausage with some very spicy sauce before getting a large order of our beloved sweet potato balls. We bought some more tarts, blueberry cheesecake and chocolate cheesecake, but were so full from the sweet potato balls that they had to wait until the following day to be eaten for breakfast.

I woke up early on the final day of the six month and a week trip to grab myself a coffee and do some writing before taking on the last adventure. It was pouring rain at the start of the day, but subsided by about 1:00 PM, which is when we headed out. We grabbed leek fritters around the corner and walked to 8 Percent for some final wacky ice cream flavors. I finally got some black sesame ice cream and Christine went for two cups, one chocolate earl gray and the other chocolate caramel whiskey. On the way into 8 Percent, we noticed the famous mango snowflake ice dessert plate next door, which we had read was an item on CNN’s 40 Taiwanese Foods We Can’t Live Without. Although fairly full, we knew we had to have it. The thing was massive, with oddly textured mango flavor ice shavings, topped with stewed mango chunks and mango sorbet. It was good, but not better than the ice cream we had previously. I tapped out early but Christine managed to finish the whole damn thing, it was a star performance.

We hopped on the subway and went to the Maokong Gondola, the last activity we had planned to do. The gondola offered amazing views of the city and was a longer ride than I had expected. The day was terribly cold so the stop up in the mountains where we got off was fairly uncomfortable. We walked around for a few minutes and then went up the stairs to the top of the mountain. Christine bailed out just before the end but I forged onward through the cold, cloudy weather and slippery stairs, all for another fog-covered view point. We took a car back down to the subway entrance and made our way back to the hostel, stopping for some bottles of wine at 7 Eleven, some amazing noodles with a beef sauce on top and some steamed buns and dumplings. We got back to the hostel, poured ourselves wine and played some cards for the last time. We started looking up gay bars, which we were excited to go to after seeing them on the walking tour, and were astonished by the many different kinds and sexual inspirations. We decided on a more chill option and set off to find it.

Naturally, we walked around for ages and were unable to find the bar. Instead, we went to the ones we knew about and were disappointed when they told us they didn’t take card. We didn’t want to take out any more cash on the final night. So instead, we went with plan B, which was karaoke at the massive, ten floor karaoke complex across the street, but they only had room options for six hours at a time, which seemed ridiculous. Slightly defeated, we got ourselves a beer at 7 Eleven and walked around in search of another, perhaps cheaper karaoke place. While Christine went inside to question another one, I heard singing coming from an unmarked basement. When she returned and heard it as well we decided to go down there and check it out. We found ourselves in a nearly empty lounge looking place, with one man singing. We asked if we were allowed to sing and she handed us the book which, while about two inches thick, contained only two pages of English songs. We bought four large beers, which was apparently the thing to do, and sat down at a table.

We had chosen A Thousand Miles, naively hoping it would be Vanessa Carlton, and were given what we believe was an old country or Christian song. We made our own words up to half the songs, sang Unbreak My Heart about 10 times and as the night progressed and we were the only ones left, we simply started playing our own music over the music coming out of the speaker and singing along. By 3:00 AM, we were no longer singing, just talking into the microphones, with Christine pretending to be a radio or podcast host. And while the place was closing, we thanked all our fans for listening to our show. We made it back to the hostel for three hours of sleep before having to get up to go to the airport for our flight back to New York. Both of us slept past our alarms, and I awoke at 8:45, when we were supposed to be out of the house by 8:00. We quickly shot up from bed, had a quick shower and headed to the airport MRT line, which brought our hungover heads to terminal two. We were at the wrong terminal, naturally, and had to get ourselves back to terminal one, and finally got checked in. We had a big breakfast to blow the last bit of cash we had and found ourselves on the plane to Korea, where our layover was, before we could even pause to think about what was happening. Terribly hungover, I threw up three times on the flight, which was a sure distraction for how sad I was to be leaving Asia and heading back home. After a three hour layover in Korea and some beef pho, we got on our second flight from Korea to JFK, where I sit writing this, with ten hours until that anxious moment the plane descends back in home territory.


Taipei Part II

14 Mar

On our walking tour we stopped outside the Office of the President and were thrilled to hear that you can go inside for a free visit during the mornings. Not ones to refuse a free activity, we headed out on the morning of the eighth to the visitor entrance of the building. Right when we approached the entrance we were greeted by security guards who guided us to the check-in point and then we went through a security line and were taken into the building. While it was clear that they were simply making sure there were eyes on us at all times it felt like we were VIPs coming to meet with the President (the female President Tsai Ing-Wen). We followed a woman all around the first floor of the building, where visitors are allowed, as she searched for an English-speaking tour guide for us. We were taken out of the building again, where we met Erich, the German name of our Taiwanese tour guide, who had learned English while studying in Germany. He certainly loved German words and often burst out in some expressive German term while talking to us. He was exceptionally loud, yet terribly adorable. He started off the tour by taking out a pointer and having us read along with the power of the people entrance exhibit. While talking about the architecture of the building, he took out of his bag a big folder of old resources, including original copies of maps so that we could better understand the changes in the area over time. He went above and beyond to give us any and all information he knew. At one point, he took out his phone to show us his Facebook, and the background of his phone was a half naked blonde woman. He tried to quickly hide it but he had been caught, we laughed at him asking who it was to which he replied, “a very sexy lady.” If we didn’t love Erich already, we certainly did at that point. The museum is definitely worth the visit, with exhibits on the architecture of the building, the past presidents and the history of demonstrations in Taipei. Many demonstrations will take place outside of the Office of the President and free speech and demonstrations are encouraged, a stark contrast from China. We had the best time making idiots of ourselves posing for pictures pretending to be the President and against back drops with the President and Vice President.

After deciding that I want to be the future president of Taiwan, we headed over to the National Palace Museum. We were way too tired to appreciate much, and a lot of the the exhibits were too much for two tired people. We saw paintings and calligraphy by Fu Chuan-fu, a whole ridiculous exhibition of paintings of chickens in honor of the year of the rooster, a new media room with interactive art and technology stations, and a room that contained a locked up jade cabbage. Yes, a block of jade in the shape of a cabbage. Apparently, cabbage signifies prosperity and luck. On our way back from the museum, I decided to try some of the soy milk drink at the shop nearby our hostel. It is definitely the most popular drink here and it’s constantly being poured into cups and sealed, ready for the hordes of people trying to buy it. I was hoping it would taste like my delicious almond milk drink but was highly disappointed by its plain and unenjoyable taste. I paired it with a deep fried dough stick, which we had seen people do, but that was equally as tasteless. It was the only time that food or drink let me down in Taipei. Things looked up later that night though, when we went to the market near us and got amazing pork dumplings doused in scallion soy sauce and chili sauce. I also got a smoked salmon sushi bowl, topped with lime and ginger.

We seriously did not slow down during our time in Taipei, wanting to fit as much in as we possibly could, so we had another full day ahead of us the following day, visiting the fisherman’s wharf. We had to take a subway to the end of the red line, Tamsui, and a bus to the very end of the city along the water. It was a terribly windy day and the place isn’t particularly lively during the cold weather months. We walked across the lovers bridge, nearly being blown off, and then walked along the water. Since we spent less time there than we had expected, we decided to walk back to the Tamsui metro station instead of take a bus. On our way we came across Fort San Domingo and decided to go in for a visit. The fort was originally a wood fort, built in 1629 by the Spanish. The fort was destroyed by local people in rebellion against the taxes imposed by the Spanish in 1636. The design was improved during reconstruction in 1637, with higher walls and stronger, stone structure. The Dutch took over the fort in the summer of 1642 and in 1644 the they took their turn at rebuilding the structure, which still stands today. In 1638, the Chinese gained control of the fort and in 1868, after the Second Opium War, the British took their turn at controlling the fort and it was made into their consulate. The fascinating linguist, Herbert Allen Giles, fluent in Chinese, lived at the fort and worked as a translator and British diplomat. He had full mastery of the Chinese language and modified the Mandarin Chinese romanization system, and translated important works including a Chinese-English Dictionary. In 1980 the fort was once again turned over to the Chinese and was made a historical site.

We got back to Tamsui and were amazed by the energy of the town. Market stands were at every turn and shop owners enthusiastically lured customers in to taste test and buy treats of all kinds. We found ourselves in a bakery where we tried every type of Asian cake there. I ended up buying a pineapple cake, a small pumpkin roll and a green tea and rosette cake. We made our way up a road where I bought a fried scallion cake, which was made by rolling up a scallion filling in dough, wrapping it up into a circle and deep frying it. It was perfectly crispy and doughy and garlicky. It was actually emotional to eat. We were so excited to come across our almond drink again and walked down the streets holding our drink with big smiles on our face, exploring the different things for sale.

We pulled ourselves away from the action and headed back to the subway to go to Beitou hot springs, a popular public hot spring. It took us forever to find and it was definitely an intimidating scene, with old people lined up outside with their tickets. We entered the hot spring, mind you its about 60 degrees Fahrenheit outside, and change into our bikinis, feeling terribly out of place surrounded by old people in one pieces. We certainly got some stares. The hot spring was separated into three levels of pools, the hottest at the top and the coolest at the bottom, and a separate cold water pool on the side. We attempted to get into the middle pool but it was so damn hot that we went into the bottom one instead, where we met a middle-aged, English-speaking Taiwanese man who took us under his wing and taught us how to properly tackle the hot springs. We started in the lowest pool, which was between 38-40 degrees Celsius for about ten minutes, followed by a few minutes submerged in the freezing cold water. Right after exiting the cold water we went into the second level of heat, between 40 and 43 degrees for a few minutes and then back into the cold water. We finally submerged into the hottest level which was between 43 and 45 degrees (113 degrees Fahrenheit) and felt like our bodies were burning. We lasted for under three minutes, and I couldn’t bring myself to get back into the cold water. When you think of hot springs you think of enjoyable warm water, however we had many moments of lightheadedness, had to suffer between the hot and cold waters, and in the last pool I basically felt like my toenails were melting off. It was a taxing experience.

On our way back towards the city we stopped at yet another night market, Shilin, which is the largest night market in Taipei. We tried our best to walk around everything, but the market takes up so many streets and even includes an indoor underground portion. We stuck with the outside and got ourselves some pork steamed buns and “hot dogs” composed of a rice sausage split open to resemble a bun and a grilled sausage stuffed inside it, covered in your choice of sauce (garlic for us). It was truly an otherworldly experience. We saw sweet potato balls and of course had to give them a try, but they simply did not stack up to the ones from Lehua market. Full, happy and exhausted we made it back to the hostel and got our things ready to head to Hualien the next day, the city that we would get to Taroko National Park from. 

Taipei Part I

13 Mar

We left the airport to beautiful weather reminiscent of early spring at home: definitely rain brewing in the atmosphere, but surprisingly warm. We hopped on a bus that took us into the city and from there got on the metro to the Dingxi stop by our hostel. Right away, a woman approached us asking if we needed any help and guided us to our hostel, after telling us it was a shame that we paid for a hostel already because we could have just stayed with her. While initially surprised by the genuine nature of this woman, it soon became clear that Taiwanese people are extremely friendly. We walked toward the hostel, Two Half Floors, which was on a lane off of a street. The tiny lanes that branch off streets have numbers themselves, which is slightly confusing. An address will have the house number followed by the lane number and then the street name. We made it to the hostel, down the most precious Christmas-lighted street, and walked into complete silence. No one was around in the home-turned-hostel, so we set our bags down, rested for a bit and then set off to do some walking around. First, however, we had to make a stop at a very popular spot around the corner from the hotel, which spits out different types of breads all day long to get ourselves some shao bing, basically a flaky, layered flatbread topped with sesame seeds. We opted to have an omelette stuffed inside the shao bing and also had a garlic-packed leek fritter on the side.

Taipei is amazing. Truly, truly amazing. We clocked a lot of miles that first day walking to Taipei 101 building, formally called the Taipei World Financial Center, which was the world’s tallest building from 2004-2009, until the building of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. The part of the city we walked through was quiet, because it was a Sunday or because it always has a beautiful calmness I don’t know. The layout is intricate, with plenty of little streets to walk down, the streets are exceptionally clean, and the public transport unparalleled. We walked sleepily towards the tower, gawking at the amazing looking food along the way. We saw the tower, which, while boasting a unique design, reminded me of a NYC skyscraper. We attempted to go into the mall, knowing that we’d need sweatshirts for our time here, but were way too tired to even attempt. We took the subway back to the hostel, where we didn’t move from our beds for the rest of the evening. The subway system is a mix of what I got in Malaysia and Singapore. Like Malaysia, it has a token system for one time rides, where you buy the token for a specific stop, scan the token to get in, and then must deposit the token to exit, ensuring that you’re in the right destination based on the amount the trip cost. Like Singapore, you can’t eat or drink on the subway system, resulting in spectacularly clean transport, the trains were always timely, and they have a secure door that prevents people from getting too close to the track. Additionally, the Taiwanese are so considerate and respectful, that the priority seats don’t even get used by all those young and able. While the sign simply requests that people stand and offer those particular seats to those in need, a train will be full with people standing and those seats remain unoccupied, simply to keep them available for anyone who comes on and actually needs them.

The next day we decided to do a free walking tour, but since it wasn’t until 2:00 PM we hopped on the metro to go to Lungshan Temple, a Buddhist temple built in 1738 that also has halls altars for Chinese deities. It was definitely the most crowded temple I’ve ever seen, with hands grasping incense and coming together fervently in prayer all around us. The sound of wooden pieces hitting the floor brought my attention to kneeling people, holding two red, half moon shaped pieces, praying and throwing them to the ground, anxiously decoding the messages. We later found out that this is how people speak to the gods. The two half moon pieces have a rounded surface and a flat surface. After asking a yes or no question and throwing the pieces, you receive one of three answers. Both flat sides down indicates a no. Both rounded sides down indicates that the question is not clear enough or that you’re not asking the right question. One flat side down and one flat side up indicates a yes. We walked around the temple and appreciated all the Chinese New Year decor, with most displays boasting majestic looking chickens. For lunch, we headed to a famous spot for beef noodles. While still a soup, it was very different from the beef noodle soup I’ve had in Southeast Asia. The broth was a deep color, already spicy, and the beef was slow cooked in chunks rather than thin slices, and tasted of pot roast. While the beef was definitely too fatty for my liking, it was still a delicious dish. We then hurried over to 8 Percent, to quench Christine’s thirst for strange Taiwanese ice cream flavors with the classic black sesame, which, while overpowering at first, grows on you with its nutty aftertaste.

We were running short on time and had to book it over to where the tour was meeting, arriving at 2:00 PM exactly. We were doing the old town tour, through TourMeAway, an organization started by young Taiwanese individuals who went traveling and loved the free walking tours in European cities. They wanted to do something similar in Taipei, encouraging tourists to learn more about the city and its history. The efforts clearly work because the group was massive. The tour was phenomenal and went over its stated two hour time slot. We learned so much about the history of Taiwan, which we were embarrassed to admit we knew nothing about. We had plenty of questions about the relationship between Taiwan and China, and our tour guide Tanya was happy to answer our questions without making us feel stupid. One of the most important stops on our tour was the 228 Peace Memorial, where we learned about the most tumultuous time in Taiwan’s history, the February 28 Massacre, occurring in 1947, just after World War II. During this time, Taiwan was completely under control of the Republic of China after 50 years of Japanese colonial rule. On this day, a Taiwanese widow was selling cigarettes on the street, which was an illegal action. A young Chinese officer came over to her and attempted to confiscate all her items from her as payment for doing something illegal. She begged to keep her things, but the officer refused and got rough with her, pointing a gun to her head and causing her to fall to the ground. In a country so respectful of the elderly, this did not fly. People came out to the streets during the commotion to ask the officer why he was harming the woman. The crowd became overwhelming for the officer, so he shot his gun into the air in an attempt to calm them. However, the bullet hit a man standing out on his balcony as he was observing that was going on below. He was killed and fell over his balcony. Distracted by the violent death, the people did not notice the cop sneaking away. He went to the police station, and the station locked its doors, avoiding any questioning from the civilians. They protested outside the Governor-Generals Office, and when the door was finally unlocked the crowd thought they would receive an explanation. Instead, a machine gun came out from behind the door and shot into the crowd in an attempt to disperse it. In Early March, troops from mainland China entered Taiwan, and went on a killing spree, shooting anyone in the streets and even breaking into homes to kill people. At the end of the Taiwanese rebellion between 3,000 and 4,000 Taiwanese were executed. Taiwan was placed under martial law for 38 years and 57 days, the second longest period of martial law in history behind that of Syria from 1963 to 2011. The Chinese government finally acknowledged and took responsibility for the incidents of February 28, 2947 in 1995, when President Lee Teng-Hui apologized on the anniversary of the incident. The memorial represents three groups of people coming together, the Taiwanese, aboriginals and Chinese. The center of the memorial contains a waterfall surrounded by molds of handprints, which visitors lean against in a bowing manner that pays respect to victims.

We also had few other stops, such as a foot reflexology path, where we painfully walked along stones without our shoes on. It was truly painful and we couldn’t make it across the path. We learned that Taiwan has the largest gay pride parade in Asia, and will likely be the first Asian country to pass gay marriage. We also learned that the official name of Taiwan is The Republic of China (China’s official name is The People’s Republic of China) and that the Taiwanese cannot visit China unless they get a specific Mainland Travel Permit, as the People’s Republic of China does not consider the Republic of China passport as a valid travel document. We went to an ice cream place called Snow King on the tour, which Christine had wanted to go to anyway. This place has been making ice cream for 70 years, and doesn’t hold back on originality. Some of its more ridiculous flavors include pork knuckle, sesame chicken, wasabi and red kidney bean, among plenty of other strange vegetable flavors. I played it pretty safe with some fabulous taro ice cream while Christine got the wasabi, which was surprisingly tasty when you got over the feeling that you were simply eating straight wasabi. The tour ended in the young and lively part of Taipei, the Red House District, which people describe as a mini Times Square. Freezing cold, we headed into H&M to buy ourselves some sweatshirts, the first I would need in months, and headed back to the hostel. Christine went straight to bed that night, but I ventured out to Lehua Night Market, about a 15 minute walk from where we were staying. There were so many options yet all I ended up with was grilled corn coated in some brown caramelized sauce, which I could not figure out the flavor profile of, and then a bag of strawberries, which are in season in Taiwan.

The next day we ventured out of the city, taking the subway and a bus to Wulei, an aboriginal, mountainous area within the city of Taipei known for its nearby trekking routes. However, it started raining just as we got there, and we knew we were doomed for any sort of trail. We instead sat in a restaurant and drank a beer waiting for the rain to pass and watching the chef work his magic for all the food orders. Unfortunately, we weren’t hungry after our shao bing and shrimp dumplings for breakfast, so we sat and watched the different food coming out. When the rain settled a bit, we walked up to the waterfall and past the adorable aboriginal shops. After a bit of walking we went back down into the town. While I was waiting for a grilled chicken skewer, I got a whiff of the most perfect amaretto scent. I ventured across the street to investigate and found the smell coming from a big steaming pot of white liquid, which seemed to be some sort of almond milk. We bought one to try and quickly got another after tasting the slightly sweet, creamy, amaretto liquid. Seriously, it was one of the best things I have ever drank. We could not figure out the name of it and the people didn’t understand us, so we held our warm cups of heaven close and appreciated each sip while walking back to the bus stop.

That evening we tried Tonghua Night Market. The crappy weather definitely had an impact on attendance of food stands and customers alike, but we did manage to try one of our favorite snacks in Taipei at this market: sweet potato balls. The orange balls are deep fried in a big vat of oil and served up in a cup with tooth picks. When you bite into them, the slightly chewy dough reveals a creamy filling that was probably a condensed milk filling if I had to guess. They were perfect, like a zeppole on crack. We were less impressed with our following purchase, which was pieces of sesame chicken accompanied by long white logs that we feared were fat. We tasted them and they tasted like nothing but bad texture so we asked Maggie, the owner of the hostel, what they were. They’re simply some sort of Korean rice cake. We then bought ourselves beautiful looking tarts to take home, including key lime cheesecake and egg flavors and ate them in bed. If you can’t tell by now, night markets are everywhere in Taiwan and some are so large you can’t even walk through everything in one night. They have endless options of the best looking and tasting food. While we were supposed to head to Taroko National Park the following day, we held out for another few days, because the weather looked bad and because we wanted to spend so much more time adventuring (and eating) in the amazing city of Taipei.


14 Dec

Penang. Penang, Penang, Penang. The beautiful island home to George Town, our first Malaysian stop. George Town. What can I say about this stellar town that emits pure beauty and happiness through its art-filled, European influenced streets and its culturally diverse and astonishingly friendly locals. We spent seven days exploring George Town and it wasn’t enough.

Penang is a cultural melting pot, mainly occupied by people of Malay, Indian and Chinese decent, among many other minority cultures. George Town also represented a number of religions, with the main Mosque in town a short walk from the famous Anglican Church and the Anglican Church just next to the Catholic Church, with temples scattered throughout. The city creates the perfect picture of all these cultures coming together in harmony while maintaining their identity. On our first day out in George Town, after indulging ourselves in beef briyani, we found ourselves in the center of Little India. Women and men in traditional dress wandered the streets buying aromatic foods and colorful clothing. Stores with the latest Bollywood films blasted Indian music to lure in customers and small shops sold everything from spices to statement bindis. After departing little India, we walked down by the water, where children played in the park just next to Fort Cornwalis and there was a beautiful view across the water.

After a day walking around and being blown away by the George Town atmosphere, we were ready for a beer but realized that beers were quite expensive here, or at least more than we were used to. We refrained from buying beers at the 7-Eleven and returned to the hostel to ask the man working where you can get cheap beer. He showed us a spot on the map with the utmost confidence that they sold the cheapest beers in Penang. We headed out there, sweaty and un-showered, and found ourselves in front of a convenience store lookalike with a fridge-lined wall filled with different types of beers and their prices. Just outside, in the alley corner, multiple tables of all shapes and sizes stood amidst red and blue stools, filled with locals and tourists alike. A shirtless full-bellied man runs the operation alongside his wife, who gracefully weaved through the tables clearing the endless beer bottles and cans. We found ourselves a table here and played cards the whole evening, with three local guys joining in on the fun towards the end of the night. We fell in love with the local watering hole and found ourselves here on multiple evenings. On our following visit we sat at a table with a German-born man and his Philippine girlfriend, who had been living here for a few years, along with his mother, father and uncle who were visiting from Germany. We were later joined by an old man named Mamu, who cracked inappropriate jokes in an admirable manner and told stories about how his mother worked for the Sultan. And even later, we were joined by two more of Mamu’s friends, who brought chickpeas cooked in some fantastic spices which I consumed all by myself. On another occasion, Angela and Josh spent the night playing Kings with three local guys who had just finished university. We met some great people at the watering hole, a place that clearly brings together young and old and local and foreign in unexpected accord.

For the most part, we were super active during the days, trying to get in as many activities as possible to satiate the appetite for culture and adventure that we had built up on the Thai islands. We spent a day strolling the streets hunting down the famous Penang street art that can greet you at any turn. Most of the art takes into account the buildings and existing elements, while some go a step further, incorporating a third dimension, such as a bike, a stool or a chair to the art. That evening, we went to the Red Garden, a place filled with multiple food stalls, where I first tried Assam Laksa, a tangy noodle soup with sliced cucumber, onions, chilies, pineapple and prawn paste that I fully enjoyed. The following day, we took a local bus (note: each and every bus driver was so helpful and kind) to Koke Lok Si Temple, where we climbed to the top of a Pagoda for excellent views of the city, before heading to the Pagoda Hill to take the funicular up to the top of the hill. However, we bailed on the funicular when we found out the school holiday had resulted in an hour wait to ride to the top.

Another day, we went to the upside down museum, which, while skeptical at first, left us in awe and laughing the whole time as those working at the museum helped us into posing position and snapped our photos at endless upside down setups. Afterwards, we headed to an area that allegedly had food hawkers (what they call the street food stands here) but were once again mislead by maps.me. While in the area, however, we saw a sign outside an expo center that claimed there was a mini dessert exposition the following day, which we knew we had to come back for. On the way back, since we had not eaten, we stopped at a cafe for another famous Penang dish Wan Tan Mee. Many Malaysian eateries are cafes with multiple different food stalls around them. The cafe itself acts as the central hub where you order your drinks, while you order any and all food you wish from the stalls. The Wan Tan Mee was much like a wonton soup from home but on crack, with lightly sweet barbecue pork, fresh noodles, mini soup dumplings and pickled jalapeños marrying together in a light broth – all for about one USD. Instead of drinking that evening, we decided to go to the movies, located in an extremely Westernized mall in Penang that we grew to love. Malaysia, thus far, has surprised us with its cheap prices and the movies were no exception. Movies cost a little more than three dollars and the theaters were great. That evening, in search of a bit of thrill, we watched Incarnate, a truly terrible movie that had more to laugh at than it did fear. Do not see this movie until it comes out on Netflix and you want to laugh.

On our fifth day, after visiting the history museum in town where we got to learn about the cultures that make up Penang, we decided on a completely Western day. We returned to our beloved mall to do a round of Escape the Room. We chose a mission that involved disarming a bomb and failed miserably at it. After escape the room, we made our way to the dessert expo, that turned out to be a huge let down. However, there seemed to be some sort of strange robot revealing that was about to occur. So, we stood around the people in anticipation, and watched the unveiling of the multi-million dollar Titan the Robot, who came all the way from England to dance and sing for us in Malaysia. If you asked me a year ago what I’d be doing on December 10, 2016, you can be sure that watching an English robot dance for a crowd of people in Malaysia would not be on the list. We returned to the mall afterwards to eat and watch Office Christmas Party, which was surprisingly funny, before returning to our new, rather ratchet hostel that we had booked for that evening since our previous hostel had been full.

On our last day in Penang, we took an uber to the botanical gardens, where we found ourselves amidst some “aggressive” monkeys. While I tried to avoid them, Angela attempted to get pictures up close and was eventually hissed at by a pissed off monkey. We took the local bus back and got off at the mall, here I had a deliciously spicy Szeachuan noodle soup while the other hungover heads indulged in McDonalds before we went to yet another movie, Sing, an animated musical movie with a star-studded cast. Even with an incredibly rude theater full of talking people (that we attempted to order to be quiet multiple times) we enjoyed it.

It wouldn’t be our last evening in Penang without visiting the watering hole, so we headed out for a few beers and a few rounds of cards. Right when we arrived we were greeted by a downpour and had to move into the little sheltered area among many other people, waiting for the rain to give up. We left Penang the following morning, after eating at one of our favorite Indian places for the fourth time, already missing the place and the people. We may even have to pull a Koh Phangan and return to Penang for a few days to make sure we have no regrets.

Chiang Rai

4 Nov

We sent our prayers up the evening that we were bussing from Bangkok to Chiang Rai. Even though we splurged for ~*VIP*~ we were wary and we were of course concerned about actually making it to the bus station given our last failed attempt at cabbing there. We hailed a cab driver who luckily spoke decent English and he took us in the direction of the bus station, which we made sure to confirm multiple times was NOT the sky rail. The traffic around the bus station was horrible, and our taxi driver, following the pattern of many others, let us out on the highway so that he wouldn’t have to do the u-turn towards the worst bit of the traffic. We walked over the highway overpass, which we were familiar with from the day before, and made it to the bus station with twenty minutes to spare. We quickly found our bus platform with no issues, and waited for the bus to arrive after a bit of a traffic delay. Now let me tell you, the extra baht for the VIP bus was worth it. The bus had very few seats, granting more leg room and each chair expanded like a recliner. We got neck pillows, clean blankets, water, a snack box of pastries, mini TVs on the seats in front of us and we were serviced by a woman who was basically a flight attendant. We didn’t have a single worry about our stuff being stolen, and sat back enjoying a few movies before falling asleep. The bus had a stop at 1:30 AM, where we were offered a free buffet of pretty terrible looking food. Why these buses think people should be eating in the middle of the night I do not know but it’s certainly a pattern across Asian buses. We arrived in Chiang Rai at about 7:00 AM and hopped in a tuk tuk to get to Mercy Hostel.

When we arrived at the hostel, we were happily surprised to find that they gave us a private room with three beds, although they couldn’t promise that a third person wouldn’t be joining us (spoiler alert, no one did). The beds had big fluffy duvets and the room had an AC that we could control ourselves. Since I hadn’t slept well on the bus we went to bed right away and woke up a few hours later. The hostel itself was one of the nicest I’ve been in. The bathrooms and common areas were perfectly clean, the kitchen had free water and the place had washing machines and driers that you could do your laundry for less than it would cost elsewhere.

After checking out a map and consulting with the helpful man working the front desk, we decided to rent motorbikes and head out to see Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple) and a few attractions around there that our late start allowed for. I know what you’re thinking: Ciara, stay off the fucking motorbikes for Christ’s sake. However, motorbikes (really scooters) are the only way to get around Chiang Rai unless you want to book tours, which we did not. We rented the scooters for two days, knowing very well we would need them the following day as well, and the people brought them right to the hostel for us. I had a yellow bombshell of a bike, that the hostel man told me was one of the nicer bikes he has seen. I laughed and told him I would probably break it. He laughed, very, very nervously saying “remember to stay on the left side of the road…” Well shit, that was something I had totally forgotten about. We took off for town first, slowly getting used to driving on the wrong side of the street and had some breakfast at BBB cafe, which was the best deal we found during our time in Chiang Rai, before heading for the White Temple. I will take this opportunity in the story to express my endless gratitude, love and passion for Maps.Me. I don’t think I would have accomplished anything in Thailand without it, seriously. For those who don’t know it, it’s a map app that works outside of WiFi. You simply download the area you’re in (i.e. Central Thailand, Northern Thailand, etc.) and pin locations that you can then get directions to out of WiFi. I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the amount of times we stopped while on the way to the white temple and everywhere else during our journey to make sure we were on the right track or to access our next move according to Maps.Me. Maps.Me, thank you, you are the true love of my life and I owe you everything.

After a pretty uninspiring highway drive we arrived at the White Temple, which was designed by Chalermchai Kositpipat, who is apparently a huge character. Angela read that he sometimes randomly shows up at the temple to see people’s reactions and surprise people. There’s a cardboard cut out of him, wearing denim gauchos nonetheless, at the entrance that people can take pictures with. The temple was completely unique compared to temples we had previously seen, which was greatly appreciated since we are sort of templed out at this point. My favorite part of the temple was the skull details, which appeared on the gate surrounding the temple, eerily within pits of hands reaching up through the ground and even on the traffic cones. I was ecstatic that we by chance ended up here on Halloween. I love Halloween and was pretty bummed out that we wouldn’t be partaking this year, so I was happy to see Halloween inspiration all around me. They even had decorations hanging from the trees, all of which were pretty creepy. While walking through the temple we ended up in the pushiest crowd of Asian tourists I have ever encountered. They literally pushed past me while I was trying to take pictures of another couple, blocking the picture to take their own. Nothing works me up more than ignorant and rude people, so I got to enjoying myself by crashing all their pictures and making sure to be in their way whenever possible. I got another shove while in the temple and swung my bag of shoes around to hit the woman who didn’t even seem to notice. Were these the most holy actions in a Buddhist Temple? Probably not. Do I regret it? Hell nah.

After the temple we drove to Kuhn Korn Waterfall, which was luckily a more scenic route than the route to the Temple. We were surrounded by jungle as we drove and the sun was hitting the scenes perfectly. It was one of my favorite drives I have done yet. When we got to the entrance for the waterfall, we saw that it was closing soon, and determined we wouldn’t have enough time to walk all the way up and back. One of the park rangers saw that we were turning around and ran over to tell us he would wait for us to see and return from the waterfall before closing the park. What a dude. The climb to the waterfall was gorgeous, straight through nature and surrounded by massive butterflies and crazy looking caterpillars, but also filled with plenty of head-circling gnats. The waterfall was well worth the journey and the mist coming off of it was welcomed by our sweaty selves. When we returned to our bikes we decided to check out Singha Park, owned by the brewery that makes, of course, Singha Beer. The park has some of the original barley fields of the brewery as well as fruit orchards and tea plantations. we took a slow drive around the park and watched the sunset. It was a spectacular day.

That evening we went to dinner at a place that served up a northern Thai dish, khao soi, which is comprised of a coconut curry soup, rice noodles, crispy noodles and a chicken drumstick. While the concept of a drumstick in soup confuses me, it was one of the best drumsticks I’ve ever had with ridiculously moist meat that almost fell off the bone. I had my khao soi alongside a papaya salad and a cold Chiang and it was exactly what I needed. After dinner we decided to give the Chiang Rai bars a try, which stand in a line along a single street in town. We ended up in Coconut’s Bar, which was having a celebration for the birthday of one of the bar tender’s brothers. A few beers later we were singing happy birthday and taking pictures with the friendliest bar tenders ever. One of them even gave me her pumpkin bucket hat, which made me feel like I nailed Halloween in Thailand. We spent the end of our evening talking to a 61 year old OG Chiang Rai man, a bar regular who brings his own bottle of scotch to the bar. When they see him coming they bring out an ice bucket and a bottle of water to accompany his drink. He was wearing a t-shirt plastered with a loud tiger design, tucked into jeans, with a leather belt equipped with knife and phone holders. He is definitely my favorite Thai person yet.

The following day we got an earlier start to give us time to drive the distance all the way to the north of Thailand. After another breakfast at BBB we hopped on our bikes and drove onto the highway towards the Golden Triangle, which we quite frankly knew nothing about. While Maps.Me said it should take about 45 minutes, we quickly realized this would be a long ass journey since we were going slower than the speed limit used to determine the time of the journey. The drive was kind of my worst nightmare. We were riding down dusty highways, trying to avoid cars for the first quarter of the journey before we finally encountered a shoulder that motorbikes are generally expected to drive in. While the ride was a bit stressful, we actually did incredibly well at driving. My only issue was drivers that would pull into the shoulder and open up their car door without considering that I was driving by. I almost nailed about five car doors that were thrown open just as I was driving by. By the time we arrived at the Golden Triangle, we had been on the road for at least 2 hours. I was exhausted, couldn’t feel my ass, and covered in dirt from the road.

The funniest part was that, after that massive journey, there’s really nothing to do nor much to see at the Golden Triangle, which is the tri-point where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet at the junction of the Ruak and Mekong rivers. A few statues of elephants and Buddhas, a Golden Triangle sign and a really beautiful view of the river where you can see Myanmar and Laos. While it was nothing spectacular it was cool to be all the way at the northern border of the country, as close to Myanmar and Laos as we would get since we weren’t going to be traveling to them.

Afterwards, we visited the nearby House of Opium, which includes the word “Museum” in parentheses next to the title, to avoid any confusion. The dingy museum was sort of informative regarding the role of opium in the golden triangle, but mostly troubling. It provided tales of how the hill tribes believe opium came to them, involving weird stories from opium sprouting from the corpse of a young girl who died shamefully after sleeping with seven different men, to opium sprouting from the grave of a young girl who died lonely because she had body odor and no one would go near her. The shit people come up with. The museum included multiple artifacts of the necessary tools and pipes, and discussed the process for producing opium in intricate detail. I swear the museum was encouraging us to go out and take on the task of harvesting and producing opium. It even discussed the most pleasurable positions to smoke opium, which just so happens to be laying down on a stone pillow with your heels dug into your butt, OF COURSE. Oh and a fun closing fact, the word bong is originally a Thai word.

While we were going to continue the biking journey to a monkey cave and tea plantation, we determined the extra miles would not be worth it considering it would add miles to our long journey home. When we got back to the hostel, we had showers to wash all the dirt off our bodies, collected our laundry that we had done the evening before, and headed out for dinner at a Muslim restaurant. On the bus into Bangkok I had noticed a large mosque and the bus station had a sign for a Muslim prayer room. Here in Chiang Rai, the Muslim restaurant was located next to the mosque in a small area that appeared to be predominantly Muslim. The menu was small, with only four items, and we both ordered beef biryani which was exceptional. Even Angela, who is sick of rice at this point, thoroughly enjoyed the meal. After a filling dinner, we strolled through the massive Night Bazaar, the nightly market with stands selling food, clothing and trinkets. We ended our night with an ice cream cone and crawled back to the hostel to our AC room and comfy beds for one last night before heading to Chiang Mai, a city about a three hour bus ride southwest, the following morning.


2 Nov

As we have now established, long bus rides in Asia are my least favorite backpacker activity, particularly when they are sleeper buses or when they are border-crossing buses. I refuse to put myself on a bus that falls under both categories and therefore subjected myself to an “eight hour” bus (it was of course longer) at 8:00 AM on October 27. We awoke early, to get breakfast and be ready for the pick up for the bus, which we were told would be between 7:00 and 7:30 AM. Two separate workers at the Funky Flashpacker Hostel told me to go upstairs, enjoy my breakfast and that they would come gather Angela and me when the pick up was here. The minutes ticked by and it wasn’t until a little after 8:00 that I started really wondering where this bus was. We headed downstairs and asked the guy for the bus. He told us that the bus was gone and that he had looked for us but couldn’t find us. Funny, because we were sitting in plain sight right at the table closest to the staircase that the man allegedly ascended to look for us. Anyway, cue my freak out at the guy for not getting us. The interaction went something like this:

-Guy: Oh the bus just left. We couldn’t find you.

-Me: You’re fucking with me right? You have to be joking because we were sitting upstairs. Go ahead and call that bus driver right fucking now and get him back here. I don’t care where he is.

-Guy: Uh okay. *slowly walks around with phone in hand*


-Guy: *makes phone call* Okay you can take a tuk tuk to the bus station and the bus is still there and waiting for you.

-Me: Okay but you’re paying for this tuk tuk you understand that right. MR. KIA HE WILL PAY YOU.

-Kia: Okay

-Guy: Uh, I guess

-Me: Goodbye, I can’t say it was a pleasure

Thanks to our old friend Mr. Kia we actually made it to the bus station in time. The bus itself wasn’t bad at all, I got some writing, some reading and some sleeping done. Then we arrived at the dreaded border. A man got on the bus, told us what we were about to do, which made about no sense to anyone and then told us to meet him in Thailand. So, we got off the bus taking all our luggage because you must scan it at the Thailand side, and waited on a massive line to be stamped out of Cambodia. From there, we started a long trek towards what we assumed to be Thailand. The walk was so long and included exactly zero signage. We eventually found the building and were sent upstairs to yet another massive line for Thailand visas for foreigners. After making it through there, and getting our free 30 day visa, we moved downstairs and had to figure out where to go yet again and put our luggage through an x-Ray that didn’t seem to be manned by anyone. Finally, we were spat out in Thailand, with no bus in sight. We walked and walked and walked and sweated until, around an obscure corner, we met the man who had jumped on our bus with directions, who then pointed us further along to the bus, which appeared like a little speck of a mirage in the blistering distance. By the time we made it through, we were drenched in sweat, stressed, and aged. After hours of traffic we arrived in Bangkok, greeted by the most beautiful sunset while on the bus. When we got off the bus, after hours of transport, we didn’t bother to figure out any public transportation and attempted to hail a cab. The first cab, however, told us he had no idea where our hostel was, so we had to go to the cab line at the bus station across the street and get a guy there to take us. While he too didn’t know where it was at first, we eventually figured it out using Maps Me and some teamwork. We arrived at the hostel at around 7:00 PM, exhausted and hungry.

We stayed at the Niras Bankoc Hostel located in a gorgeous restored building in the Old City, removed by about a mile from the backpacker ghetto of Khao San Road. The location was perfect for us, right next to a park, surrounded by street food, and a few feet from our very dear 7-11, which are apparently everywhere in Thailand. 7-11 is to Bangkok as to Starbucks is to NYC – there’s at least one on every block. This 7-11 became our water, snack and iced latte central. The night that we arrived, after grabbing water at 7-11, we headed across the street to Thip Samai, Bangkok’s most famous Pad Thai spot, where we received paper-wrapped packages of Pad Thai with accoutrement, including scallion, red chili flakes, and bean sprouts, on the side. It was the perfect, most delicious welcome to Thailand before going straight to bed.

The following day we got a taste of the atmosphere in Bangkok after the King’s passing. King Bhumibol Adulyadej died at the age of 88 on October 13 after a whopping 70 year reign. The country immediately entered mourning, which is to last a year, for their most revered King. The city is covered in posters and memorials for the King and most people wear all black for at least the first month. While walking around that day we were stopped from crossing the Main Street for a procession that seems to occur each day (don’t quote me on this). The police line the streets and stop all traffic, saluting the memorial monument for the King. Then, for about ten minutes, what seemed to be the city’s entire fleet of cop cars and motorbikes of all shapes and sizes sped down the street. It is amazing to see how much of an impact this King had on his people. On this first day we walked to the Grand Palace, which was closed for visitors given the death of the King, and instead went into the temple Wat Pho just next door. Perhaps the most amazing part of this temple was the tented section with free food, which we quickly realized was for celebrating the King. Even though we had just eaten breakfast, we were fed noodle soup, some sort of sweet taco-like snack that I can’t even guess the contents of, some very strange hibiscus tea and a very troubling shaved ice dish, served over red beans and bread, topped with some red liquid and condensed milk.

After our feed and walk about the temple we walked to Khao San to see what all the fuss was about, and were sort of surprised. Everyone describes it as a disgusting area but we didn’t seem to think so. It’s filled with bars and street vendors and guest houses and had an electric energy even during the day. While we thought we would maybe try and go out there that night, we got back to the hostel, had dinner and, not surprisingly, decided to pass out instead.

Since we hadn’t gone out, I was feeling motivated to get a work out in the following morning. Angela and I went to the nearby park, where they had an actual outdoor gym. The gym seemed like a men’s club, however, so we stuck to running and interval training. We were both completely dead by the end of it. After a quick shower we headed into town to find food and came across yet another tent of free food, which was perfect for me because I had no idea what I wanted to eat so free was good. I had some sort of omelette over rice with soy sauce, followed by a vanilla ice cream cone. Thank you people of Thailand for saving me money. Back at the hostel, we attempted to figure out our next moves in Thailand and after hours of confusion and deliberation, we decided we would head all the way up north to Chiang Rai and make our way back down to Bangkok before heading to the south. We decided, after three nights in Bangkok we would take the overnight bus there. The hostel informed us that we had to go to the bus station to book the tickets, which seemed ridiculous to us, but we chose to just bite the bullet and go take care of it for the following day.

We took a cab to the bus station, which is extremely far away from where we were staying, and from where anyone stays apparently. We thought we were heading the right way towards the bus station according to Maps.Me, until the driver veered right and dropped us at the Mo Chit sky rail stop, when we were trying to go to the Mo Chit bus station. We had to walk a mile and a half around the park and down the freeway to get to the bus station, where, when we finally made it, we balled out and booked tickets for the VIP bus. Afterwards, we attempted to hail a cab back to the hostel, but no one would take us because of the traffic and because we wouldn’t agree to an absurd flat rate amount. We were forced to walk the mile and a half back around the park and take the sky rail to the end of the line which left us closer to the hostel than before. Here, we got a cab back to the hostel. We told him what we had been doing and he laughed at us, telling us that you can just book the ticket at a 7-11 or show up at the station the evening you want the bus, because they never fill. Thank you Niras hostel, for completely failing us in the bus info game. Once we got back to the hostel, we went next door for some street food that we had been eyeing for the previous two days – a delicious noodle soup with fresh noodles that are cooked in the broth when you order, sliced pork, chili, peanuts and plenty of scallion. After so much time staring at it during walk-bys we are glad that we can now say we tried and enjoyed it, although we still have no idea what it was called. While we were eating it started to downpour, and we wanted to use it as an excuse to avoid going out that night. But alas, it stopped and we forced ourselves over to Khao San Road. However, we were super disappointed by the crowds and with the exhaustion of having walked 12 miles that day (yes, it was actually 12) we gave up on the going out plan and returned back to the hostel to do our favorite nighttime activity in Bangkok, sleep.

The following morning, after we checked out, we decided to drag our extra sore bodies to central Bangkok, which involved another absurd amount of walking to avoid paying for cabs. We walked two and a half miles from the hostel to the National Stadium stop on the sky rail and took that a few stops to Lumphini Park, located smack dab in the center of the bustling city. We spent the afternoon walking around the park, which reminded me of Central Park with its swan boat rentals and tranquility within the big city. After walking around the park we headed towards the US Embassy, which was nearby, just to see what it looked like, and also walked past the Holland embassy, whose lawn was hilariously adorned with an absurd amount of fake cows. We did a return walk through the park and stopped at a salad place that caught my eye. Jones’ Salad was a gift from the Bangkok gods. It was the first proper salad shop I saw in Asia. I was able to get a chopped salad, pick all my veggies, proteins and dressings, and sit in pure bliss while I scarfed it down. After the salads, we headed back on the sky rail, walked the two and a half miles back to the hostel, got quick showers and took a cab to the bus station. Luckily, the driver knew where he was going and took us as far as he could, before giving us the boot so he wouldn’t have to u-turn into traffic. We climbed the overpass over the highway and had a short walk to the bus station, where we miraculously found our platform and faced no issues at all.

I actually really loved Bangkok. I loved the old city just as much as the metropolitan center of the city and felt completely safe no matter where I was. While I abhor the cab drivers for denying rides to areas deemed too far, I find the city to be very livable and clean. I even started to see myself living in a city like it. But until those life decisions need to be made, on to Chiang Rai!

Hai Van Pass and Hoi An

7 Oct

In my humble opinion, the only way to get from Hue to Hoi An or vice versa is by motorbike. And given my less than successful history with driving motorbikes, you can bet I was going to be on the back of an easy rider’s bike. Not to spoil the story, but our day motorbiking was one of the best of my life. I could not stop smiling the whole journey from start to finish. Our drivers showed up at 8:30 in the morning and were cracking jokes right away. My driver, who said we can call him Sherlock had an obsession with fist bumping, and would fist bump other drivers on the road and tell them that I was his girlfriend before driving off and laughing his ass off. He was such a genuine and happy person, the kind of infectious positive attitude that charges you up for the perfect day.

Throughout the day we made a few stops. First, we went to what appeared to be the home of one of the drivers right next to a lake, where Sherlock showed us how much the rice fields have suffered from the rain and taught us about the fishing villages. People would live on their small boats in the past before they were allowed to own houses as well. Some people apparently still live in the boats as they are accustomed to that lifestyle. After taking a photo in a boat that belonged to God knows who, we were back on the road to the Elephant Falls. The Elephant Falls is a massive waterfall that has a big stone elephant smack dab in the middle of it. We stopped here for a quick swim, which offered some relief from the heat. 

We eventually got caught in some rain, while on the turns of the Hai Van pass, which is the norm around there. The Hue side of the mountain generally is rainy and foggy while the Hoi An side is sunny. The mountain is so high up that the clouds cannot pass to the Hoi An side, so the top of the mountain is constantly within the clouds. At the top of the mountain we couldn’t even see a few feet in front of us from the fog and moisture. We stopped for some more pictures at the most scenic parts of the pass, drove through De Nang, where we stopped to have lunch and arrived in Hoi An around 3:00 PM. It was the kind of day that words cannot do justice, so hopefully some of the pictures reflect the pure joy of the adventure.  

Hoi An stole my heart for six days with it’s picturesque beach, minimal motorbike traffic and distinct small town vibe. While there really isn’t much to do or see on the standard backpacker’s list of things to do, it felt like a mini vacation from all the traveling and people tend to spend more time there than they initially expected. Each morning we woke up we walked downstairs to breakfast where we were always greeted with a “so one more night?” from our friend in reception, which was of course answered with a sheepish grin that said it all.

We spent the first night in Hoi An at the DK backpacker’s hostel so that we could socialize with other people, take part in the bar crawl and simply have a good first night experience. As always tends to happen, we met a bunch of people out that we had met at previous places which made for an excellent night. The hostel was pretty pricey though, at 13 dollars a night, and when we realized that we weren’t planning on leaving anytime soon we moved to a homestay a little removed from the town and closer to the beach that came as a recommendation from two girls we met on the DMZ tour. The homestay was perfection with fluffy duvets and pillows, a TV that played American movies, righteous shower pressure powerful AC and free towels and bikes. At 24 dollars a night between Angela, Jess and myself, it was a true steal. They even made a proper cup of coffee with fresh milk that could bring a tear to your eye. No instant 3-in-1 coffee packets in sight. 

Our days were spent getting fitted for clothing, going to the beach and having excellent meals. Hoi An is known for their custom tailor shops, with over 420 of them in the town spitting out everything from low quality shorts to high-end power suits. For our fun clothing we went to Violet, a beautiful, friendly business owner who treated us so well the moment we stepped in her shop. Each time we went back for the next few days we would inevitably choose another item to buy, which would require us to come back yet again for the fitting. I had a pants jumpsuit made, a long sleeve romper and a backless romper, all tailored perfectly to my body in the fabrics of my choice. After some deliberation, I decided it wouldn’t be a true trip to Hoi An without getting professional clothing, even though I have no idea if I’ll ever need it again. We walked into the shop and were immediately ambushed by people handing us free water and iPads to look at pictures for inspiration. The woman ended up sketching me a blazer and pants, convinced me to get the best fabric they had, and next thing I know I was choosing colors for a dress as well. It all happened so fast that I almost feel like I blacked it out. After she swiftly took my measurements I was told to come back at the same time the following day for the first fitting. The fittings for the suit and dress, which took place over the next three days were highly stressful experiences. I was pulled at, pinned and stitched up, with Angela making sure that they were doing everything in their power to make it look perfect. The first time I put the suit on I nearly died of laughter and my vision of starring in the next Men in Black film looked pretty promising. We even played the song for the final fitting, which the tailors did not seem to find very amusing. However, when all was said and done, the clothing turned out to be impressive at the final reveal and now they’re currently somewhere in transit to New Jersey. 

After exerting ourselves at fittings, we would head over to An Bang beach for a few hours each day. The beach is absolutely stunning, with water that you can see straight through to your feet. The beach is lined with restaurants behind it that own lounge chairs on the beach and if you order food or a drink at any point during the day you can grab one of their chairs at no extra cost. With the perfect sunny weather we had it was not difficult to convince me to order a nice cold beer in exchange for a seat. Three of the nights that we spent in Hoi An we ate near the beach as well, once treating ourselves to a meal at one of the fancier beach view spots, where I got a coconut, pineapple and chili chicken dish accompamoed by some Bacardi and Cokes and twice at a small Mexican place. The Mexican place, owned and operated by a Western ex-pat served up the kind of grub you want at the end of a lazy beach day: burritos, fajitas, margaritas and tacos. 

Other days and nights we got our food fill in town, which included many green smoothies for me from a little jewelry shop that for some reason had actual healthy smoothies. I even got my hands on a cold pressed juice and salad from a cafe the day we left that I hoped would help my looming cold (it did not). One night we went to a restaurant called Streets that we had read about both online and in guide books. The restaurant sponsors disadvantaged or orphaned Vietnamese teens, putting them through an 18-month culinary and hospitality training program and employing them in the restaurant where they can practice their skills. It was a truly delicious meal that included white rose (a Hoi An specialty of dumplings filled with pork or shrimp topped with crispy onion or shallot), beef curry stew, a tuna steak in a clay pot, a noodle dish, and coconut ice cream parfait and bread pudding for dessert. We left the place very well fed and attended to and I am so glad we were able to support an awesome cause. 

Our last day in Hoi An we attempted to get some pictures taken and stocked up on snacks for our second overnight bus experience to Nha Trang, which actually proved far more calm than the first one. We were reluctant to leave such a perfect town, but all good stays must come to an end if you want to see it all. We certainly left Hoi An with satisfied smiles.