...and we're off!

taking a year of pretirement to travel the world

on may 23, 2013, we quit our jobs and began our year of "pretirement." these are some of our adventures around the world.

hong kong

Hong Kong would be the last stop on our Asia trip before we flew back to the frigid Midwest for the holidays. We had mixed feelings on flying in—we were looking forward to checking out one of the great cities of the world, but we knew this meant we were done with Asia for quite a while. While we didn’t know what to expect aside from tall buildings and busy streets we had at least planned on warm weather. The average December high in this subtropical city is 73 degrees but instead we were greeted with an extremely rare cold spell, with temperatures reaching the 40s at night. It seemed that the world wanted to ease us into subzero Minneapolis and Milwaukee slowly. Despite the cold weather we immediately took to this bustling knot of pedestrians, cars, trains, escalators, skyscrapers and neon lights jammed in between the ocean and the mountains. We spent most of our time just wandering, taking in the spectacle of Hong Kong much like Times Square tourists do in our own New York.

Our visit started off with a very lucky break, with yet another one of our friends coming through to help us out in a big way. Carla and I were a little worried about where we would stay given Hong Kong’s legendary real estate prices but Adam, a friend of mine who had relocated from New York, generously offered up his place to us even though he wouldn’t be home. Not only did we have a place to stay, but we had a beautiful apartment overlooking the skyline in the best part of town. A quick "travellator" ride carried us up the steep slope right to Adam's apartment. If you're wondering what a travellator is, it's a unique public transportation feature consisting of a bunch of huge outdoor escalators that take commuters up and down the city's steep hills.

We arrived in the afternoon and I immediately reached out to another friend I hadn’t seen since in several years. Howard lived in the same neighborhood and was happy to show us around our first night. The first stop was a food revelation to us:  authentic Hong Kong noodles. We had never actually gone out of our way for these in the past but Howard knew of a little shop called Mak’s Noodle that took the dish seriously. All three of us ordered the beef brisket noodles and Carla and I couldn’t believe the rich, savory flavor of the broth and perfect texture of the noodles. This soupy delight was cooked right in front of us and served by a gruff waiter who didn’t seem to care if we liked it or not. The table was cramped, the portions were small, the service was hurried and despite all this we were back for more the very next day. After dinner Howard took us to the Lan Kwai Fong district for a beer. This is the touristy party scene for Hong Kong’s international residents and visitors. We knew people here took drinking seriously when we saw a sign that read “how fast can you drink 10 shots,” complete with a giant basketball-style timer and leaderboard. The city’s frantic pace is reflected here but the bars and clubs are the generic places you could find in any major city. We caught up with Howard over a beer but were promptly kicked out when we didn’t order a second drink fast enough. We quickly realized that Hong Kong doesn’t quite have the western idea of hospitality. Everyone you meet, from Starbucks baristas to convenience store clerks, is in a terrible hurry to get you what you need and on your way.

The stunning view from Victoria's Peak.

We woke up the next morning to find that the clouds had cleared, giving way to a gorgeous blue sky. A cold wind was blowing through the city, providing an extremely rare day with no clouds or polluted haze obscuring city views. This meant an immediate trip up Hong Kong’s tallest mountain, Victoria’s Peak, to take in the view from above. We rode the funicular to the peak (this is a cable car pulled up an extremely steep slope, an experience in itself), and stepped out into the fresher, colder air above the highest city skyscrapers. We had expected a nice view, but nothing like what was laid out in front of us that morning. Hong Kong’s size and density can only be truly understood from above. The city is surrounded by such steep slopes that any flat(ish) land is obligated to hold a high-rise, and the city center is a forest of skyscrapers to rival or even surpass Midtown Manhattan. We will let the pictures do the talking. This two-hour walk on the side of the mountain was one of the highlights of our trip through Asia and is a must-do for anyone visiting Hong Kong on a clear day.

The teeming streets of Kowloon.

On our walk we met a pair of friendly young people who were also taking in the views. After taking pictures and chatting with them for a while, we exchanged information and agreed to meet up for a drink the next night. That evening, after our second stop at Mak’s Noodle, we took the Star Ferry across the harbor to take in nighttime views and see Kowloon. After taking in the lit up skyline for a while we took the train deeper into Kowloon to find Mong Kok Market. If Hong Kong Island is Manhattan, then Kowloon is Queens, a massive blue-collar city where many immigrant communities are found and local culture hasn’t been gentrified away. However, from the first step out of the train at Mong Kok it’s clear that Kowloon has no real equivalent in the West. This gritty, dingy, brightly lit area, swirling with activity and claustrophobic with goods for sale and human bodies, is like nowhere I’ve ever been. The giant neon lights overhead displaying Chinese characters look more like works of art than advertisements. The haphazard high-rise apartments that line each street look like they were built floor by floor as more people moved in. The smell of various organs being sold at street food stands can be found around every corner. Despite the presence of other tourists in the markets, I have rarely felt more foreign and out of place than I did walking the streets of Mong Kok. After visiting here I better understood how Hong Kong is really two cities:  the first is the British-influenced trading post which has evolved into a major hub for international business; the second is an ancient Chinese city that has been a magnet for immigrants from around China and Asia as the economy has grown. Any visit to Hong Kong without at least seeing this unique and much larger part of the city would be incomplete.

Our last full day in Hong Kong (and Asia for that matter) began with a visit to an authentic dim sum restaurant. I use the term “restaurant” loosely here because the more popular the establishment is, the less they actually do for you in terms of service. We went to a very popular place called Lin Heung and walked into a feeding frenzy. The tables were all full and the employees did not bother to help customers find a place to sit or put them on a list. It is the customer’s responsibility to race to a seat when it opens up or hover over someone who looks like they’re finishing up and claim their seat when they leave. If there is any etiquette here aside from sharp elbows, we didn’t see it. Once you’re seated an employee brings you a set of dirty dishes (the old food chunks have at least been rinsed off) and a bowl of hot water that you are supposed to use to wash your own dishes. There is no soap. When you’re satisfied that your dishes are clean enough it becomes your responsibility to stalk and stop a cart-pusher before they give all of the best food away to other people. This Darwinist eating experience yields small plates of dumplings holding shrimp or ground pork, freshly baked pork buns, and many other rich but suspect morsels. If you can’t tell, I am no great fan of the dim sum experience but it is one of Carla’s favorites. At least I won’t forget it anytime soon.

That afternoon Carla went to see her friend Steph, who she studied abroad with and hadn't seen since 2005, while I got lost in the city streets. After dinner we joined the people we had met on Victoria’s Peak for a drink at Sky Bar. While expensive, this was one of the highlights of our trip—Sky Bar is the world’s tallest bar and the views are nothing short of spectacular. It is housed on the 118th floor of the new ICC building, one of the top five tallest buildings in the world by roof height. Jamie, a visitor from London, and Jackie, a Hong Kong local, were excellent company and we wound up staying much later than we expected. Some of the best times of our trip have been with new friends that we’ve met on the road and old friends we haven't seen for years.

Our visit to Hong Kong was one of the most interesting and enjoyable stops on our journey. The city has a grittiness, glamorousness and local culture that reminded us strongly of New York—we would both feel somewhat at home if we were to live here someday. Hong Kong’s international culture gives it a dimension that Shanghai seemed to lack, while its strong local Cantonese culture provides roots that are not as apparent in places like Singapore. The city’s density and mountainside layout give it a unique feel when walking around, making it much easier to get lost and stumble across an interesting block than an American street grid would allow. Both of us are very much looking forward to our next trip to Hong Kong and bowl of Mak’s Noodle.

The last morning our host Adam arrived and we were able to catch up for a couple hours before we had to get to the airport. We were sad to leave Asia after the 7-week trip of a lifetime but also looking forward to seeing family and the comforts of home. Adam walked us down to the city center and saw us off on the 24-hour journey that would bring us back to the Midwest.

// total asia trip: 15 flights, 4 trains, 3 buses, 5 boats, 1 road trip, 14 cities, 9 countries

philippines

after several days of beachside relaxing and jungle partying, we were manila-bound. this would be alex’s first visit to the philippines, so i was looking forward to introducing him to the homeland. originally we had planned to travel around the country and explore manila, boracay, the chocolate hills, and the beaches and underground river in palawan, but the heartbreaking devastation that typhoon yolanda left behind – not to mention the earthquake in bohol – turned what would have been a two-week visit into a five-day stay in and around manila.

while most of my extended family is in the US and canada, i have relatives on both sides who i was eager to see and meet. when we landed thursday evening, i was a bit nervous that we wouldn’t be able to find my tita ellen, whom i’d never met before. but there she was, patiently waiting for us at the airport with a handmade sign and a big smile. she and my tito ernie drove us to my lola glory’s house (my great aunt on my mom’s side), and although the traffic was just as bad as we expected, it gave us time to take in the city all dressed up for christmas. on our way there we stopped by aristocrat, one of the oldest restaurant chains in the city, to bring home some of its famous barbeque. alex and i ordered two entrees since each is enough for one person, but the whole order soon skyrocketed to twelve boxes’ worth of food so that we could try a bit of everything! with filipino cuisine you’ll find an array of stews, fried finger foods, rich sauces, and a blend of tangy, sweet, and savory flavors. meat and rice are of course must-haves. and the filipino appetite is voracious to say the least – second, third, and fourth helpings are never frowned upon! so even though we brought home way too much food, it didn’t go to waste because my lola glory’s is a full house, and everyone ended up munching on the leftovers. this unexpected feast was a prime example of filipino hospitality.

my lola glory (back row, left) was the only filipina and one of a few women to be recognized as a fellow of the armed forces institute of pathology. 

the last time i’d been to my lola’s house was during my first visit to manila almost eight years ago. it was still just as i’d remembered it, including the built-in alarm clock (the chicken coop in the backyard is home to roosters that start crowing at the crack of dawn). i showed alex around the library and office on the first level of the house; my lola glory and lolo ed were both doctors and used to see patients there. for over fifty years, lola was a renowned ophthalmologist and a life fellow of several key organizations in both the philippines and the US. she’s the reason my mom and dad met, because she was the head of my dad’s residency program. lola’s always been very passionate about her work and her country, so it was tough seeing her usual spunky self bed-ridden (she’s had a couple of strokes recently). nevertheless, she’s still sharp as a tack and now just a week shy of her 90th birthday, and i’m glad we got to spend time together. she also immediately took a liking to alex and, based on his nice tan and healthy appetite, said he could totally be an honorary filipino!

one of the many jeepneys that dot manila's streets.

we spent our first full day in manila with my cousins tos and ace, who graciously offered to give us a tour of the city. we kicked it off by riding a jeepney, a very popular form of transportation in the philippines. jeepneys are basically old leftover jeeps from world war ii. they’re painted in cheerful colors and crazy patterns, and each one has its own name and personality. they tend to get very crowded though and you often end up sitting in traffic, so after we moved a total of three blocks we hopped out and walked up to the MRT (manila’s above-ground train system). this was even more crowded, but also pretty hilarious since all the locals were marveling at alex because he was tall enough to reach the ceiling and steady himself. eventually we made it to intramuros, or the “walled city.” built in the late 16th century by the spanish, this is the oldest district in manila. while much of the area was destroyed during world war II, we were able to walk parts of the old wall, pausing for a snack of kutsinta and yema (delicious sticky rice cakes covered in a custard-y sauce) before making our way to st. augustin church and manila cathedral.

from there we wandered over to fort santiago, one of the oldest fortifications in the city. peering down into the empty overgrown chambers, it was strange knowing that many prisoners were tortured there by the japanese when they occupied the fort during world war II. after the intense heat and humidity wore us down we headed to rizal (luneta) park, then rode a kalesa (horse-drawn carriage) back to the house. that night we all proudly wore our yolanda benefit t-shirts to the world bazaar festival, where alex and i were blown away by all the christmas decorations. for dinner, we enjoyed an amazing dampa seafood feast. basically what you do is buy whatever catch you want by the kilo, then head next door to one of the many restaurants and tell them how you’d like it cooked. we ended up getting a well-rounded selection of succulent shrimp, kingfish, oysters, and squid. the result was incredibly fresh and sarap (yummy)! alex and i especially loved the kingfish sinigang (tamarind stew). the night ended with a hilarious drag show at one of the local bars. tos, tita caroline, and i even took turns singing karaoke onstage. It was an epic friday in manila.

the next day, after a delicious home-cooked meal of sinigang and bistek (a filipino take on steak and onions), we headed to quezon city to spend the weekend with relatives on my dad’s side. my cousin janice and her husband albert picked us up, and we went out to dinner with her side of the family. jong, jarrett, and tita ebe all looked great! funny enough, we ended up at aristocrat again but this time tried a few other filipino dishes. afterwards we drove to janice and albert’s place. their street is entirely owned by albert’s family, and all of his relatives live there. even the kids’ school is only one house away. that’s definitely something you don’t see much of in the states!

the beautiful talahib falls and pagsanjan gorge.

like friday’s tour of manila, sunday was action-packed with sightseeing. we explored two beautiful natural wonders – pagsanjan falls and taal volcano. it was an early three-hour drive southeast to the province of laguna, and our family friend nikki conti joined us for the day trip (she’s studying medicine at UERM). pagsanjan falls is one of the most famous waterfalls in the philippines, and the best way to experience it is by hopping in a banca (canoe) and shooting the rapids. heavy rainfall the night before meant the water level was too high to make it to the main falls, but our journey through the vividly green pagsanjan gorge was memorable nonetheless. and our guides were ridiculously fit – they pushed our canoe up several rapids while the three of us just sat in the boat awestruck! at the end of the ride was talahib falls, which was breathtaking up close. needless to say it was much quicker going back down the rapids. i bet the return trip was our guides’ favorite part. we spent the rest of the day exploring taal volcano, the second most active volcano in the philippines. from tagaytay ridge we admired the view of the caldera-turned-lake, then braved the hairpin turns down and took a boat to volcano island. nikki and i decided to take in the scenery on horseback. alex was with us in the beginning but for some reason he got the smallest horse, and after almost being bucked off a couple times he decided he’d had enough. volcano island is where all 33 eruptions have been concentrated, and on the way to the crater we saw quite a bit of steam coming up around us. with the sun starting to set, we got incredible views from the top. unfortunately that meant we had to hurry back before it got dark, and since this was my first time riding a horse, trotting down steep, unstable terrain with a 16-year-old handler was a little unnerving. the best (or worst) part of the ride was that she asked for an extra-large tip because she’s a new mother. when i asked her what her child’s name was, she faltered…and eventually blurted out “rose.” hilarious. even so, the trip was definitely worth our while, and we had an amazing time. a huge thank you to janice and especially albert, who did all the driving!

when frozen, durian is less offensive to the nose but still potent!

our last day in the philippines was spent eating well (obviously) and getting pampered. my tita ebe treated us to one of the best japanese buffets we’ve ever had. restaurant culture in manila revolves around the malls, which offer myriad options that range from casual to high-end dining. there are tons of malls in the city – some even sit right next to each other, and all have good AC and lots of open space to hang out. many people spend a good chunk of their free time at the mall since the streets are always parking lots and it’s too hot and humid to walk far. after our buffet lunch, i got to show alex around the house where my dad grew up and where tita ebe still calls home! we spent the rest of the day back at my lola glory’s house, where we had sinigang and lechon (roast pig, a filipino staple) for dinner. i also got to try my first (and last) bit of durian, the infamously stinky fruit. it really does smell like old gym socks, and the flavor reminded me more of meat than fruit. that night i treated my cousins tos and ace to massages at a local spa, which turned into a late-night adventure of relaxing and more eating since the spa treatments included a hot buffet. only in manila…

after five jam-packed days of sight-seeing, spending time with my family, and stuffing our faces, it was time to head to hong kong, the last stop on our pretirement tour of asia. i had a fantastic time reuniting with family, and alex enjoyed his first taste of the philippines. we can’t wait to be back soon!

// asia trip to date: 12 flights, 4 trains, 3 buses, 5 boats, 1 road trip, 13 cities, 9 countries

picking out the freshest catch for our dampa feast.

shooting our first set of rapids at pagsanjan falls!

thailand

After five days on the beach in Bali, we had another eight days to relax in southern Thailand before braving the chaos that is Manila. We had been to Thailand together before—our first trip together in 2007 included visits to Bangkok and Phuket. We had such a good time that we made sure Thailand would be one of our longest stops this time around. Remembering the gorgeous beaches and picturesque landscape around Phuket we decided to start our trip in Krabi, Phuket’s lesser-known counterpart across the bay. Understanding that a year off of work wouldn’t be complete without a raging Southeast Asian island party, we planned on spending the second half of our week on the islands of Ko Phangan and Ko Samui.

When making plans for Krabi, we had the option to either book a small apartment in the city or rent a beautiful, newly built country house several miles away from anything. This was a toss-up until we discovered that a small motorbike can be rented for about six bucks a day. So what if it’s pink with a big red lipstick kiss decal on the side? This was the perfect way to get from place to place, and a visit to Krabi is not best enjoyed by sitting around in the city all day. We found the house by taking a bus from the airport towards a different town and making the driver stop in the general area where we thought the house would be. Thankfully we found a sign for it and followed the arrow down a muddy country road. We were feeling a little nervous about our decision when we saw a perfect, brand new house appear on our left, complete with a 75+ year old Thai lady to welcome us. The owner of the house was a Bangkok businessman who had built the place as a retirement home for himself and his wife but had not yet moved in. The older lady who showed us around was his mother—she and her husband lived in a small cottage not 15 feet from the house itself. The owner’s mother (we never did learn her name) was as friendly as you can possibly be without being able to understand or speak a single word that we both knew. It’s interesting to think about how the area must have changed over her lifetime.

After getting settled in, we negotiated a ride into town with a passing bus driver. He dropped us off at a night market in the middle of Krabi—the perfect place to be for a taste of local culture on our first night. The entire market was covered in low, overlapping tarps and the dozens of stands sold all types of produce, pastries and street food. For our first dinner Carla and I went to a noodle stand run by a Muslim family that looked popular with locals. For about three bucks each we had a delicious meal of shrimp pad thai, cooked fresh in a giant skillet right in front of us. I won’t pretend it was as good as the perfected dishes you’ll find at a quality Thai restaurant but the uniquely tangy taste of pad thai as locals get it was certainly worth trying. Thai food in general is one of our favorite types of food and these eight days were not our healthiest. Good noodle and curry dishes are always available (at extremely low prices) and, even when they are cooked for the bland tourist palate, they never disappoint. The Thai peninsula isn’t quite Bangkok in terms of great locals’ restaurants (sometimes there seem to be more tourists than Thais here) but it’s not hard to pick out a place that takes its food seriously. Whether it’s sweet, rich, spicy or savory, the food in Thailand is some of the best cheap food you’ll find in the world. We finished off the night with a Singha at some picnic tables that street food vendors use along the river. After having an outdoor Singha, a Thai staple and one of my favorite Asian beers, I truly felt like I was back in Thailand.

Our Friday morning commute.

The first thing we did the next morning was catch a bus to the nearby park where Carla would realize a lifelong dream: to ride an elephant. The experience was pretty amazing because this wasn’t something where you get on, get your picture taken and move along. We actually rode an elephant through the jungle for about an hour, about half of which was spent with the professional elephant-rider hanging out nearby and smoking cigarettes. I was struck by how powerful the animal was when she would sink into the mud up to what would have been my knees and step right out, up a slippery slope, like it was solid ground. Being on top of that large of an animal is a strange sensation—everything from the coarseness and thickness of its skin to the sense of powerlessness when it starts going off the path reminded me how small we must seem to the Earth’s biggest creatures.

Our next stop would be Ao Nang, Krabi’s smaller, beachier counterpart several miles away. After a leisurely lunch we rented our cheap, pink motorbike and explored the region a bit. The area around Krabi is unexpectedly gorgeous, with jagged limestone cliffs and mountains framing the beaches and roads. Everything is covered in lush tropical vegetation giving the area a fantastical jungle feel even when just motorbiking down the road. Many of the agricultural areas are rubber tree farms that have a charm just not found in cornfields. However, we strayed a little too far from home that day and things took a turn for the worse. I was hoping not to drive at night my first day on a motorbike, on the left side of the road, in a very foreign country, but just after we left for home the skies opened up. Any drizzle feels like a true rainstorm when you’re driving a motorbike with no windshield and a half-helmet, so when the torrential downpour began and night fell we had to just pull off into the nearest “convenience store” and wait it out. The quotation marks are there because this store would better be described as a family’s home with a bunch of shelves out front and an awning covering it all. While we couldn’t really talk to the proprietors / residents, we could see their family relaxing in the living room behind the shelves and they were friendly enough to let us stay under the awning until the storm lightened up. When we finally arrived back at the house that night, soaked, muddy and exhausted by the fear of crashing, I quickly cracked open a beer Chang (cheap and 6.4%; thank you Thailand) and soon afterwards we fell asleep.

Poda island paradise.

Our third day in Krabi was much more relaxing but no less enjoyable. After a leisurely morning on our front porch we drove into Ao Nang and looked into taking a boat to an island nearby. We caught a little 8-person boat to Poda Island after lunch and proceeded to have what was probably our best beach experience of the year. First of all, the boat ride out of Ao Nang was absolutely beautiful. The hot sun was shining, the coast was a jumble of beaches and green cliffs, and the water was a perfect blue. We went by a few towering rock islands, the biggest of which was Poda Island. When we stepped off into shallow water the sand was a pillowy white and the sun was practically pushing us into it. We had finally made it to one of the legendary jungle islands this region is famous for. While the island isn’t quite deserted (a bunch of tour groups eventually showed up) a walk far enough down the beach will bring you to a secluded paradise that will always stick with you. Being that it was Saturday, after dark we drove back into Krabi to check out the nightlife. We had another stroke of luck that day, in that we stumbled on a great bar with a live reggae band and very friendly travelers. Like everyone else we took off our shoes, sat on the floor, and had a couple beers. Our last full day around Krabi couldn’t have been better.

Before leaving the house for good we had one last relaxing breakfast and squared things away with our elderly hostess (using smiles and hand gestures). We spent most of the day on a long bus ride then a ferry to Ko Phangan, arriving at the hotel around dusk. Our first two nights in the islands would be spent in Haad Rin, the site of the (in)famous full moon party. Unfortunately for us, the moon was only half full when we were in Thailand. Thankfully locals have long since capitalized on this scheduling inconvenience, creating a half moon party in the middle of the island that is supposed to be just as crazy as the original. We were in.

We spent our first day exploring the island on a motorbike. Luckily there were no rain storms to stop us this time and we drove all the way from the southeast corner to the northwest corner through a lush tropical forest. We arrived at a beach called Mae Haad and were immediately enchanted by this beautiful, remote place that appeared out of the trees. The beach itself was uncrowded with smooth yellow sand and crystal clear water, but the best feature was the long sandbar that led to an uninhabited island across the calm bay. The water was perfectly cool for swimming under the hot sun. A few blissful hours later we rode down the coast to another beach where we found a deserted stretch all to ourselves.

That night we caught the hotel bus to the half moon party, where we made fast friends with some other travelers staying at our hotel. We were a diverse crew, with the US, Australia, Holland, India and the UK represented among just nine people. We've actually stayed in touch with the Australian girl we met, who gave us the idea for a trip to Tasmania that we later followed through on. While the bumping house music wasn't exactly our scene, the general craziness was. When this many 18-35 year olds travel from around the world to let loose on one Thai island it makes for a unique party. The half moon party looked like an outdoor nightclub in the jungle, built into a hillside with multiple levels and a main dance floor full of highlighters and black lights. This was where we were introduced to Sang Som, a cheap Thai rum that left us a little queasy but was at least tolerable. Not too surprisingly, those looking for something "more" could get a variety of things off the same menu. Most of our group was pretty wiped out by 2:30 but the party was still going strong when we left, and probably went until dawn. The party officially ended when we found our same friends at breakfast (lunch?) the next day, trying to soak up the leftover alcohol.

Beachfront property.

Our initial plan was to leave Ko Phangan for Ko Samui after the party, but we had fallen in love with Phangan and had to stay one more night. In one of our more spontaneous moves, we checked out of the Best Western and made our way back to Mae Haad (the perfect beach with the sandbar) to see if we could find a place to sleep nearby. As it turned out, there was a bungalow available right on the beach (nothing in between our front door and the water) complete with a hammock on the front porch. This million dollar view cost us a cool fifty bucks. We spent the rest of our day relaxing beachside and avoiding the sight of alcohol. That night we laid in the hammock as dusk slowly turned into darkness. The weather was perfect for just sitting outside and listening to music over the calm waves. I will always remember that starry night as one of the happiest times of my life, sitting on the front porch of our beachfront bungalow on a remote Thai island, with pure freedom and everything I needed right there with me.

We would fly out of Ko Samui early Thursday morning, meaning we finally had to leave Ko Phangan Wednesday afternoon. Arriving in the bigger, busier Samui we were both glad we had just used it as a stopover and spent the extra time in Phangan. This island, closer to the mainland, became popular with tourists earlier and is also home to many more people. It doesn't have the slow-moving charm of Phangan and this, combined with cloudy and rainy weather, mostly kept us in our hotel for the 18 hours we were there. One highlight, however, was the authentic noodle restaurant that our hotel owner recommended to us, catering almost exclusively to locals. It didn't even have a name on the outside-- there were just a few people in the kitchen of an abandoned pizza place turning out delicious food for almost nothing. What a great send off.

Before this trip Thailand was one of my favorite places in the world, and it is even more so now. Something about the laid-back Buddhist culture, whimsical Thai script, amazing food and stunning landscapes just pulls me in. It doesn't seem to have that frantic feel found in Vietnam or China and people you meet seem a little happier, like some part of them knows they live in a pretty special place. It's easy to see how so many foreigners have dropped everything to move there for a slower-paced life, and we met a few in Krabi and Ko Phangan who did just that. We left Ko Samui preparing for a bit of culture shock when we would arrive in the pulsing metropolis of Manila Thursday night.

// asia trip to date:  10 flights, 4 trains, 3 buses, 5 boats, 12 cities, 8 countries

Freshly "caught" coconuts.

bali

bali would be the first time since turkey that we'd be beachside, and i couldn't wait to set foot on the sand. alex and i had heard plenty of great things about this beautiful, easy-going corner of the world, and after braving the cold in northern asia and pollution in the cities, we were more than ready to experience it for ourselves. it'd been a frenetic two weeks touring shanghai, vietnam, cambodia, and singapore, so our only real agenda was to relax. bali was also where i'd be getting scuba-certified, and i was equal parts excited and nervous to get started. we had originally planned to spend a couple days more inland in ubud and explore the jungle and mountainous scenery, but since the forecast wasn't supposed to be the best we decided to stick to the coast where the weather was going to be better. we settled into our comfy oasis in the heart of sanur, a laid-back town on the southeastern shores of bali. that night we wandered down the street and grabbed a late dinner at a restaurant with a live band. when they started playing billie jean, i knew we'd come to the right place! 

alex's little piece of paradise.

our hotel was also conveniently located near the dive center, and for the next three days i got up at 7am to meet with sammy, my diving instructor. this gave alex a chance to sleep in, go for a couple late morning runs, and just relax in the shade by the beach. the first day of my dive course was classroom- and pool-based, but the last two days we headed out to the ocean. i did my first real dive an hour north in padang bai, and alex came along for the ride. while we were out diving, alex walked down some backstreets and up and over a ridge to a small, semi-secret untouched beach. he was amazed that this paradise popped up out of nowhere, and just after he arrived a small local family showed up to do their daily business of selling beverages to whoever found the beach. the white sand and aqua-blue water made it a great spot to while away a couple hours.

this fish decided to strike a pose with me.

meanwhile, sammy and i took a boat out to the lagoon and got ready to dive. with all my (heavy) scuba gear on, i plunged into the ocean and took my first breath. what a surreal feeling to breathe underwater. it was amazing! as a kid i'd dreamed of becoming a marine biologist, and to this day my ultimate dream is to swim with a blue whale. i know, i know...that will probably never happen...but at least diving gets me a touch closer to doing that someday! the highlight of my two dives in padang bai was seeing a devil ray the size of a small car swim elegantly past us. it got even better the next day when we headed north to tulamben and dove down to the USAT liberty shipwreck, a 120-meter cargo ship that was torpedoed by the japanese during world war II. it was beached at tulamben so that the cargo could be saved, but an earthquake in the early 1960s sent the ship down underwater to its current position. i felt like an explorer as i maneuvered my way in and around old doorways and rooms. the amount of life that calls this massive tumble of metal home is mind-blowing. schools of electric-blue fusiliers darted past lettuce and brain coral, and sammy pointed out tons of different fish as they swam by. surgeon fish, puffer fish, clown and parrot fish, grouper, flounder, and sweet lips all made their rounds to say hello. at one point i saw what appeared to be dozens of long strands of seaweed flowing in the water, then realized they were garden eels dancing in the current. now that i’m officially certified, i can’t wait to see where my next underwater adventures will take me.

the pretty view from our gazebo.

when i wasn't busy diving with alex patiently waiting for me, we spent our time chilling out at one of the many cafes and restaurants that dot sanur's beachside. the beach itself isn't much to write home about, but the reason we loved it was the relaxed atomosphere. the locals were friendly, the food was pretty good (think thai without the spice), and - just like we'd found in the rest of southeast asia – it was easy to find a cheap, relaxing massage. we even walked by a place advertising a four-hand, hour-long massage for $16! sanur is also home to some pretty talented cover bands, which we bobbed our heads to as we strolled along the beach. one evening we walked down to a gazebo on the sandbar, threw in our headphones, and watched the sunset. i will never forget how happy we felt there, and the song "i heard you looking" by yo la tengo will always bring me back to that moment.

on our last day in bali we headed to south kuta. we'd read about pandawa beach, which was supposed to be prettier and less crowded than the more popular dreamland beach. to get there, you drive past these enormous cliffs where huge holes have been carved out to house larger-than-life hindu statues. then you suddenly see a patch of bright turquoise water, and pandawa beach comes into focus. it was a beautiful place to spend the afternoon. at low tide, however, the receding waters revealed strange metal rods that poked out of the sand, which must have had something to do with the fishermen there. aside from that blemish, the beach was quite picturesque. that night we stayed nearby at a resort called hidden valley. it definitely lived up to its name, because our driver would have missed it completely if i hadn't spotted the dark sign with tiny letters. it was also set pretty far back from the main road. the meandering drive turned out to be well worth it though, because the resort was absolutely perfect. having just opened a few months back, the whole place was quiet and the pool and gardens were beautiful. it was a nice ending to a fantastic stay in bali. we were a little bummed we couldn't stay longer, but our beach days were far from over. we were on our way to thailand!

// asia trip to date: 8 flights, 4 trains, 2 buses, 1 boat, 10 cities, 7 countries

schools of fish dart around the reef.

dozens of garden eels dance in the current.

a beautiful sea anemone waves hello.

a couple of sassy sweet lips flirt with the camera.

singapore

While we loved Shanghai, Vietnam and Cambodia, by the time we landed in Singapore we were more than ready to be in a place that was a little more… organized. This city-state, developed by the British in colonial times and now one of the richest countries in the world, did not disappoint. Singapore is essentially the opposite of Cambodia:  everything is expensive, rules are strictly enforced and followed, it is a major hub for international business and it is the second densest country in the world with most of the 5.4 million people living stacked on top of each other in apartment buildings.

Due to Singapore’s small size and high cost, it was a just quick two-day stopover for us. All of the hotels were out of our price range, so that meant a return to hostels. For no less than six times the price of our very decent hotel in Siem Reap, we were now the proud residents of a bunk bed in a room that held six other people. One of these people had a serious sounding respiratory problem that sounded like a diesel engine going up a hill. At this point we felt pretty good about our decision to only stay two nights.

When we got up Thursday morning we quickly stepped out to explore the city. We were immediately covered in a blanket of the kind of hot, humid air that you need to experience to understand. Singapore is almost exactly on the equator and it is a different kind of heat—the dense city, direct sunlight and humid environment work together perfectly to push you into the A/C. The closest thing I can think of is waiting for the NYC subway on the hottest summer day but with the sun down there on the platform with you. After we were able to embrace the sweat we started noticing things we did not expect. While the financial district is a forest of skyscrapers and suits, the rest of Singapore is defined by its diversity. People from all over the world have been coming here for generations to make their fortune (or just to get by). Singapore is now made up of several major ethnic groups and has four official languages. About half of the residents are native Chinese speakers, with about a third speaking English as their first language (despite the fact that less than 3% of the residents are white). Little India was a particularly vibrant community where the sidewalks were full of shops and restaurants and the architecture had its own Indian flair. Just a short walk away, Arab Street was buzzing with people of all backgrounds socializing into the early morning over beers and hookahs. A towering, gold-domed mosque served as this Muslim community’s centerpiece.

As New York City has learned, one of the best parts of this kind of diversity is the food. People have been cooking and competing here for over a century, taking the best parts of another ethnic cuisine and adding it to their own. This goes along with a culture of families eating outside the home, which in turn gives more incentive to make the best meal on the block. The city now has countless food courts, each with dozens of small-time, low price “hawker” stands (a step up from street food) for people’s everyday meals. Singapore has also developed some signature dishes including bak chor mee noodles and “chicken rice”. We sampled the chicken rice our first night (which somehow only cost a few bucks) and were thoroughly impressed. I’ll admit, it sounds boring but the dish has been absolutely perfected so the rice is rich and savory and the chicken is perfectly tender. The next day we grabbed some delicious Pakistani prata and later spent a little more money at an Indian restaurant that was possibly the best Indian food I’ve ever had. This is tough for me to say, but if you walk up to the average ethnic restaurant in Singapore it just might be better than its counterpart in New York.

Singapore’s diversity comes along with its status as the main international business hub for Southeast Asia. It was founded by the British as a trading post in 1819 and much of the influence still remains. For instance, English is the official government language and people drive on the left. However, Singapore has its own unique social and legal system that most western countries would consider restrictive. Drug offenses that earn you a little prison time in the US are punishable by death in Singapore; even chewing gum is illegal. Much of the city has that buttoned-up international business culture that anyone who’s been in Midtown Manhattan on a weekday would recognize. Carla and I admittedly found the higher-end parts of town a little bland, but it’s understandable for a country that attracts people from around the world to make money first and ask questions later.

By the way, it is clear that people are still making money here. Maybe it’s the connections to emerging markets that have continued to grow since the US / Europe recession or maybe it’s something else, but everything from the standard $50 dinner plates to the Ferraris on the street suggest business is booming. We were not in Cambodia anymore. There was even an advertisement for a scam that screamed “real estate bubble” on the table where I ate my $3 chicken rice. If you’re in the finance business check out the picture below—it’s a classic.

After our delicious Indian feast we just beat a tropical downpour and caught the train to the airport a little early. That was fine because the Singapore airport is possibly the best in the world, as it should be in a place where the economy is based on international transportation. Our next stop would be Bali, and we couldn’t get to the laid-back island life and pristine beaches soon enough.

// asia trip to date: 7 flights, 4 trains, 2 buses, 1 boat, 9 cities, 6 countries

cambodia

on a warm tuesday evening we arrived in siem reap and took a cab to our hotel. our options for reasonably priced accommodations were plentiful, and we debated between a luxurious resort farther away for $58 per night, or a simple hotel in the main part of town for $14. we went with the latter, and it turned out to be a good idea. it was nice being walking distance from the action. after settling in, we walked through the night market to pub street, where we enjoyed 50 cent beers and $3 amok (a type of khmer curry). in the last decade, the area has changed dramatically to accommodate the throngs of tourists who flock here to see angkor wat. everything was also listed in US dollars, which was both convenient and a little awkward. it felt strange paying people practically nothing using our own currency, especially knowing that they knew just how dirt cheap it was for us.

pretty view of the temple from the western side of the complex.

we gave ourselves only one full day to check out the temples - albeit a bit reluctantly - but amazingly enough, it turned out to be the best cultural experience we could've asked for. we decided to call up sinn, our cabbie from the night before, and take him up on his offer to be our driver. he was surprised and elated, since most people prefer to book through their hotels. it was a very hot, sunny morning, and we were glad we chose an air-conditioned car over a tuk-tuk! our first stop was angkor wat. built in the twelfth century, it was well-preserved and quite impressive. with the sun shining, we crossed the bridge over the glistening moat and into the enormous complex, admiring the carefully planned grounds and symbolic layout. although it later became a buddhist place of worship, the temple was originally designed to be a microcosm of the hindu universe, with the moat representing the oceans and the five towers symbolizing the peaks of mount meru, home of the gods. the stairs were so steep, it really did feel like we were climbing a mountain! even with all the people around, it was quite a spiritual experience. as a fun surprise, several monkeys came up to say hello when we walked out the back and along the forested trail. cuteness passport for the win!

the bride came by for a quick photo with the randoms!

when we met up with sinn afterwards, he asked us if we could make a quick detour to the countryside before we visited the other temples. his friend was getting married, and he was wondering if we would mind making an appearance? we immediately said yes. we took a long, very bumpy dirt road, and along the way we got to see a bit of what life was like away from the touristy area. unfortunately the ruthless khmer rouge regime left the country in shambles and most people impoverished, and though it's been over thirty years since they were overthrown it still appeared to be that way. a few children happily playing in the muddy water offset the sad-looking, half-built huts nearby. there were also some nicer, more established homes that dotted the area, and sinn explained that here, the "rich" and the poor tend to live on plots side by side. eventually we arrived at our destination. never in a million years did we think we'd crash a wedding in asia, much less cambodia! the celebration took place outside the bride's parents' home, where they'd set up a colorful tent complete with decorated tables and space to dance. for two hours we timidly nibbled on local fare (but avoided the fish paste mixed with dried ants - yikes), drank beer out of straws, and danced around to traditional music. the weather also went from sunny to very rainy, which didn't seem to upset the party. in cambodia it's considered a good omen if it rains at your wedding, which meant everyone was all the more cheerful and ready to dance in the mud.

we spent the rest of the afternoon at two other temples, and the first was angkor thom. set in a tall green forest with the afternoon sun peeking through, angkor thom was like stepping into another world. built in the twelfth century, the temple had taken on a greenish hue over time, and everywhere you turned a buddha face smiled at you. the effect was very serene, and unlike any place of worship we've visited. i felt very at peace here. ta phrom, another temple built in the twelfth century, happened to be where the movie tomb raider was filmed. this was obvious as soon as we entered. at this one more than any other, the jungle had reclaimed much of what it had once lost. tall trees with impressive roots snaked their way over and around temple walls and hugged lonely crevices, lending an eerily beautiful quality to the complex. here was dramatic evidence of mother nature's relationship with one of mankind's incredible architectural marvels.

when we finally returned to our hotel, we couldn't believe all that we'd been lucky enough to see and experience that day. we decided to close out our short but memorable tour of siem reap with a few more cheap beers and a $1 fish foot massage for me. as soon as my toes approached the water, dozens of tiny fish appeared, their mouths open and waiting. it took me five minutes before i could force my toes into the water and let the feeding frenzy begin! it was a weird sensation, and it tickled like crazy. 

the next day was thanksgiving, and we had much to be thankful for as we packed our bags and headed to the airport with sinn back in the driver's seat. we recommended him to our friend deepa, and he ended up being her driver when she visited a month later! we left cambodia with some great memories as we took off for singapore.

// asia trip to date: 6 flights, 4 trains, 2 buses, 1 boat, 8 cities, 5 countries

monkeying around in the forest behind the temple.

vietnam

When Carla and I stepped off the plane into the cool Hanoi night we felt a blend of excitement and nervousness. We had both been looking forward to our time in Vietnam ever since getting our visas months earlier, but we knew eight days here would push our boundaries in a way that Europe or more developed Asian countries would not. The cab ride into town revealed a very different city from Shanghai. Instead of a 270 mph Maglev train, we weaved in and out of traffic at about 30 mph, surrounded by motorbikes on a dusty road. Along the side of the highway many families and friends gathered in open-front buildings for dinner on small picnic tables. Selfishly for us, Hanoi’s relative lack of development means the dollar goes very far—we arrived at our nice independent hotel that cost less than $30 per night. The room even had a balcony with views of the perpetually hazy skyline. We were very curious to see what it all looked like in daylight.

As we usually do in a new city, Carla and I spent our first morning wandering between our hotel and the city center to get a feel for our new surroundings. As soon as we stepped out the front door we noticed the traffic. This is not the frustrating, standstill traffic of most American cities—Hanoi traffic is nearly all motorbikes and they accelerate, decelerate and weave around cross-traffic like a school of fish might. Intersections are often unregulated, meaning the middle is a cross-hatch of motorbikes passing within inches of each other. Needless to say, they don’t brake for pedestrians. You just have to start walking and they weave around you. To make walking more unpleasant, the little engines provide enough pollution to force most drivers to wear masks.

This guy pointed at a hole in Carla's shoe and demanded to fix it on the spot.

Once we got the hang of crossing streets we were able to appreciate the architecture and sidewalk culture. In the old part of town, streets are lined with wide trees and skinny buildings, each with multiple balconies. The first floors are almost all small businesses, usually with apartments showing plenty of French colonial architectural detail above. However, the sidewalks are the most interesting part of the city. Much of a central Hanoi resident’s life takes place here. It is very common for a living room to open directly out into the sidewalk with maybe half a wall suggesting where the “private space” begins. Meals are often eaten either out front or at one of the countless street food stalls serving banh mi (Vietnamese baguette sandwiches), grilled meat or pho (noodle soup). These stalls serve almost exclusively locals and take up large portions of the sidewalk where everyone dines on plastic kiddie tables and chairs. Used dishes are washed at spigots near the gutter. Between or after meals, many locals can be found sitting on the sidewalk in front of cafés, sipping tea or drinking cheap beer. Certain popular areas become drinking scenes at night, with dozens of kiddie chairs crowded around each café. Most small shops also open out onto the sidewalk with goods laid out in front of the store and an employee ready to pounce on anyone who slows down. People fix and wash motorbikes, build funeral flower arrangements, sell cigarettes, have wedding receptions, and do just about everything else on the sidewalk. And if this weren’t enough, any spare sidewalk space is used for motorbike parking. I found this public lifestyle to be an interesting product of the city’s density and relative poverty, but most of all its highly social culture that represents the opposite of the American back yard.

While Carla and I did spend a little time on sidewalk kiddie chairs, the hygiene practices of many of the food stalls made us nervous. However, that didn’t keep us from eating delicious Vietnamese food given that a meal at a decent restaurant might set you back about $4. Again, the 20,000 to one exchange rate says something about how far a dollar goes. Our favorite dish was pho, which is a noodle soup defined by its savory but light broth and topped with cuts of pork, chicken or beef. In contrast to nearby countries, Vietnamese food is light and fresh with more subtle tastes than you’ll find in pad thai.

Our walks around Hanoi eventually took us a little further from the city center and it became apparent that Hanoi was the poorest city we had been to so far. One particularly dismal neighborhood consisted of shanty-like apartment buildings that were pressed tight against a railroad track instead of a street. However, this railroad track was the same bustling sidewalk scene of people sitting out and spending time with neighbors. Kids were playing, adults were laughing and while these people may not have been completely happy, they did seem to have a real community.

We were sorry to leave Hanoi after three nights. The city’s narrow streets covered in craggy tree branches, intricate stacks of balconies, independent shops, small cafés and vibrant sidewalk culture made this a place that will always stick in my mind.

A peaceful morning in Halong Bay.

Our next stop was an overnight visit to Halong Bay, an absolutely gorgeous archipelago of mountainous islands about four hours east of Hanoi. On the bus ride there, our guide happily explained to us the occasions on which people here eat dog (don’t worry, it’s not an everyday thing). Once we finally got out of Hanoi, which sprawls for miles towards the coast, we were led to the boat that would be our home for the next 24 hours.

Although the boat was a little run down, the scenery more than made up for it. Halong Bay is one of those places you’ve seen in pictures all your life without ever knowing exactly where it is, but you know you want to find it someday. The rock formations rise abruptly out of the water, where they are immediately met by jungle foliage. When we took kayaks out into secluded corners of the bay, we could hear monkeys chattering and swinging from tree to tree. One of the best parts of the tour was a stop at an enormous cave. It was hundreds of feet long and several stories high with beautiful stalactites and formations throughout. I can only imagine what it must have been like for the explorers who first stumbled across it. The cloudy, misty weather lent an eerie calm to the bay. If not for the (literally) hundreds of other tour boats it would have felt like another planet altogether.

That night things took a turn for the worse. We made some new friends at dinner (all from different European nations) and drank cheap beer and Vietnamese propane wine until late. When we finally got down into our cabin we were confronted with the rank smell of garbage. It turned out we were actually right next to the garbage room. After getting somewhat used to the smell we got into bed and shut off the lights. Almost on cue, we heard the absolute roar of a gas engine starting up. We were right on top of the generator room as well. It was like a Harley Davidson with the muffler cut off. The noise went all night and we had the worst night’s “sleep” of our pretirement so far. 

After a relaxing but bleary-eyed morning on the top deck of the boat we started the long day of travel to Saigon. When we arrived that night we had finally found what we were hoping for:  tropical air. After spending about two and a half weeks wearing jackets and hats, the hot part of our Asia trip was about to begin. We had booked another nice boutique hotel for under $40 per night, which felt like the best decision of our lives when we walked in at 1:30 AM. Needless to say, we spent our first morning sleeping in.

A typical Saigon street.

Saigon is a very interesting city, particularly after spending time in Hanoi. While the cities are about the same size (each about as big as Chicago), the higher level of development in Saigon is immediately clear. Prices are higher, streets are wider, buildings are nicer, and there is even a Gucci / Chanel / LVMH district downtown. There are beautiful, well-landscaped parks in the middle of the city that are always full of exercising and relaxing locals. While the traffic is still a frantic motorbike scramble, there are many cars mixed in and the wide boulevards actually keep people moving from place to place. The most obvious sign of Saigon’s relative success is the cluster of tall, modern buildings downtown where Hanoi just has sidewalk markets.

Like many visitors, our first taste of Saigon came on the street Bui Vien. This is where you can find the highest concentration of backpackers, but it is also a prime nightlife spot for locals. After sundown our first night we pulled up a pair of plastic kiddie chairs, cracked a couple of 60 cent Bia Saigons and joined the crowd that was already watching Friday night get going. People watching is as good as it gets here—there are old white guys with young Vietnamese girls, spacey-looking backpackers, shifty locals trying to sell drugs, thinly veiled brothels, dried squid vendors, fire eaters, rich Vietnamese 20 somethings in BMW convertibles, local girls in absurdly short skirts riding in on motorbikes and pre-gaming for the club, and the odd kid threading a live snake up his mouth and out his nose. It’s no wonder all the kiddie chairs are lined up facing the street like stadium seats.

The next day we walked over to the War Remnants Museum, which was a fascinating take on the Vietnam War from the other side. The museum doesn’t even try for objectivity in its portrayal of events, but seeing the current government’s view of the war makes this an even more interesting experience. The most horrifying part of the museum, and one you don’t hear as much about in the US, is the section on agent orange. This American pesticide was dropped on swaths of Vietnam during the war and found its way into the genetic makeup of some Vietnamese. Even today children are born completely deformed and mentally handicapped due to this chemical. It’s a solemn testament to how snap decisions about new technology can have the most far-reaching and unfathomable consequences.

After nine nonstop days in Shanghai, Hanoi, Halong Bay and Saigon, we were ready to take it easy by our last full day. We set up our computers that morning in a nicely air-conditioned bakery and worked on the blog while eating delicious Franco-Asian pastries and egg tarts. Our last night we went for a long walk around the city and soaked in the Saigon chaos one last time before flying out to rural Cambodia.

// asia trip to date:  5 flights, 4 trains, 2 buses, 1 boat, 7 cities, 4 countries

Saturday night on Bui Vien in Saigon.

Just your average kid earning his nightly wages.

shanghai

We made it to Shanghai by a pure stroke of luck. We had (sadly) been ready to forego China in favor of other countries for two reasons:  first, we didn’t want to deal with the painful and expensive visa process and second, it’s such a huge country with so much to see that it warranted its own future trans-Pacific trip. However, while we spent a cool, rainy morning by the open window of our Kyoto ryokan (a Japanese B&B) we discovered that there was another way into China. This very year they had instituted a policy where visitors could spend up to 72 hours in a major city with no visa. This was tailor-made for our whirlwind Asia trip as Shanghai was right on the way to Hanoi, our next destination. After some hand wringing about how far we could trust the Chinese government to let us in, we found a cheap flight with a two day stopover in Shanghai and booked it.

Going to Shanghai turned out to be one of our best decisions. We learned a stunning amount about a part of the world we had not expected to see at the cost of only two days. The first great experience came as soon as we got off the plane. The best way into the city is the Maglev train, a powerful display of what a government can do when economics don’t matter. This is the world’s first public train using high-speed magnetic levitation, and it takes you 19 miles from Pudong airport to the outskirts of Shanghai in just seven minutes. The cruising speed is 430 km/h (268 mph), about 70 mph faster than Japan’s shinkansen, and the countryside whips by at a literal blur as the banked turns push you into your seat. The problem is, the line cost $1.3 billion to build and it only brings you to a regular metro station on the eastern outskirts of the city, where passengers need to connect to a slow subway to get anywhere. With tickets costing just $7 and locals still opting for cheaper transport (the train was mostly empty and almost all the passengers were snapping pictures of the speedometer), the train might not have been the best use of public funds. This was the first example of grand Chinese public works we saw, some of which don’t make sense. Where Seoul has every inch of the city dedicated to making money, in Shanghai you can find vast, empty bus stations and beautifully manicured, well-used urban parks. The best kind of city is probably something in between Shanghai and Seoul, where people have green space and efficient transport but don’t subsidize worthless infrastructure.

Something we were very excited about after booking our tickets was trying some authentic Shanghai food. We knew that Shanghai specializes in xiaolongbao, or soup dumplings, something we go out of our way for in Chinatowns around North America. Carla in particular is a fiend for them and was on a mission to find them as soon as we got to the hotel. These unique little treats are filled with a ball of fatty ground pork, maybe with crab or egg, and somehow hold a soupy broth that spills out into your spoon as you shovel them into your mouth. They are always delicious, and maybe the tastiest Chinese food I know of when done well, but a richer meal is hard to find. Our second day Carla was able to find one of the best xiaolongbao places in town—when we saw the line winding down the street we knew we had found it. The problem was, the menu was 100% in Chinese. Thankfully we met another person in line who had grown up in California (a food blogger—we really were in the right place) and she was happy to order for us. It was spectacular. Aside from these, I admit that I found the food situation a little difficult. Much of the local food used odd cuts of meat, tripe, and offal that doesn’t excite me. Snacks are as likely to be a pack of dried “squid foot” as a simple pastry. We did find a new favorite—Chinese/Portuguese egg tart—that was perfectly executed with a flaky, buttery crust and thick, custard-like filling, served oven-warm. Given more than two days I’m sure we could have found more new favorites.

One of my favorite Shanghai experiences turned out to be a Google Maps error and a few wrong turns. Our trusty phones had told us that the renowned soup dumpling restaurant was located in a big grey area of the map a little outside of the city center. We stepped out of the subway onto a long street with small shops selling everything from fish to trinkets—it looked (and smelled) surprisingly like New York’s Chinatown. We soon realized that the grey area on the map was actually a dense mass of homes with nothing but car-free alleyways that existed behind the market street. We obediently wandered down one of the alleys and tried to take turns that brought us toward Google’s red pin. Soon we were in the middle of the maze of alleys and locals were getting curious about us. Clearly few foreign faces are seen back here. While the restaurant was nowhere to be found, what we did come across was fascinating. The collection of homes looked like a slum from outside, with deteriorating exteriors, toddlers urinating in the alley, and laundry lines everywhere, but inside the windows you could see clean, homey living rooms and very livable houses. We finally decided we were in the wrong place when we arrived at the red pin and a well-dressed, older man walked up to his front door and looked at us like an American might look at two Chinese tourists on his doorstep. While working our way out of the maze a friendly, toothless local did his best to give us directions to the restaurant’s real location, which was maybe half a mile away. This little detour gave us a view into what an average urban Chinese neighborhood looks like away from the high rises, wide boulevards and maglev trains.

Making a statement.

All of that said, one of Shanghai’s main draws for me was the architecture. I had read about the Pudong business district, which is basically a brand new city started from scratch in the early 1990s. The government wanted this to be the finance capital of China and encouraged the development of massive, exotic buildings across the river from the old part of town. 20 years later, this area’s soaring skyline is among the world’s most famous. The sheer scale of these buildings as seen up close is hard to describe—there are no small buildings to obstruct the top-to-bottom views of some of the tallest buildings in the world. The elegant, twisting Shanghai Tower is particularly impressive. With a top floor height of over 1,800 feet it is 500 feet taller than Chicago’s Sears (ok, Willis) Tower. This tower is flanked by two other buildings that are each taller than the Empire State Building, creating a trio of buildings that are visible for miles. Shanghai’s thick smog gives these towers a hazy appearance even on sunny days, serving as a sad reminder that the utopia on this side of the river can never be separated from the nation’s muddier reality.

Sidewalks aren't just for walking here.

Shanghai also has many architectural gems closer to the ground. The city was essentially divided between the French, British and Americans in the 1800s and much of the colonial architecture still exists. The tree-lined boulevards and European parks in the affluent French concession are a particularly interesting respite from the more chaotic parts of the city. Most streets in central Shanghai are characterized by motorbikes zipping around with no regard for traffic laws and small storefronts that specialize in one good or service. The shops spill out onto the already small sidewalks (it is even common to find a pile of carcasses taking up the entire walkway), making a walk around the city slow and difficult. However, these traditional areas are often just blocks away from expensive condo towers and swanky international neighborhoods, giving many parts of the city an economic diversity not usually found in the West.

These two days were easily two of the most interesting of our trip. From the unique political situation (the New York Times and Facebook are universally blocked) to the city’s architecture, layout and general attitude, Carla and I now have at least some background when we hear the latest story out of Shanghai. We’re both looking forward to seeing more of China when we actually plan for it.

// asia trip to date:  3 flights, 4 trains, 5 cities, 3 countries

Shanghai dance party.

seoul

After a 12 hour day on wheels, wings and rails starting in Kyoto, we got off the airport bus in the heart of Seoul. Our knowledge of Korea was pretty much limited to K-town karaoke, bulgogi beef and Samsung, so we were excited to learn what the city was about. It wound up being an extremely interesting five days—everything about Seoul is intense, from the work culture to the nightlife to just walking down the street. But after a long day of travel we just wanted to get a bite to eat and get out of the cold. After a bit of trouble finding our apartment (Seoul addresses are not necessarily in order) we thawed our fingers over some post-midnight Burger King and passed out.

We were staying in the busiest part of Gangnam, famous from the infamous song “Gangnam Style.” The main streets here are lined with futuristic office and apartment towers, with sidewalks full of jostling professionals. The neighboring streets are packed with bars and restaurants, stacked one on top of the other, with so many lit up signs that the street is never really dark. Further into the neighborhood are winding streets with gated houses, a rarity in Seoul. Living Gangnam Style is not cheap. Even though development of Gangnam started in the 1970s (it means “south of the river” in Korean), in some ways it’s become the center of Seoul. Samsung is headquartered here and many of the richest Koreans call it home. We were lucky enough to find a basic studio apartment here on airbnb for our five-night stay. The location was perfect—we were literally on top of Gangnam Station—and our floor-to-ceiling windows 20 stories up gave us a good view of the skyline through the smog.

The first order of business the next day was to orient ourselves in the city and figure out what there was to see. Thankfully the subway system is extremely efficient here so we could hop around the sprawling metropolis for less than half of what the NYC subway costs. When we stepped down into our station we were shocked to find an entire brightly lit shopping mall underground, complete with restaurants, coffee shops and dozens of stores selling anything you might want. It was big enough to have twelve exits and the whole place was buzzing with activity. Bubblegum K-pop assaults your ears when you step into any store. This was our first glimpse of Seoul’s non-stop nature—even subway stations have every corner filled with some kind of business among the sea of people.

Our first stop outside of Gangnam was in Jung-gu, an old neighborhood on the north side of the river. Stepping out of the subway was like going back from 2025 to maybe 1995. The businesses here were all small-time, independent shops and dingy-looking restaurants that no doubt served up delicious authentic Korean food. Sidewalks were full of street food stands selling all kinds of oddities such as dried octopus along with delicious sweet pastries. We even came across a big vat full of some kind of roasted bugs… we decided to pass on that. Eventually we came upon Changdeokgung, a large, ancient compound that we learned was home to Korean royalty until as recently as 1989. The traditional architecture was austere from far away but wonderfully detailed close up—we enjoyed getting an idea of what the city might have looked like centuries ago. Unfortunately the city had been burned and ravaged by war so many times that very few places like this exist in Seoul. Even these buildings were reconstructed but the grounds are preserved.

In between our many walks through the city we made a point to familiarize ourselves with Korean food. We had always seen plenty of Korean restaurants around New York but it unfortunately wasn’t a staple for us. We quickly learned how big of a mistake that was. Korean food is hearty and fresh, with many interesting tastes ranging from kimchi (fermented cabbage) to big lettuce leaves full of fresh vegetables and beef strips cooked right in front of you. One of our favorite items that we’d never had before was bibim guksu, a mound of cold noodles served in an icy broth with a dollop of very spicy sauce on top. This went perfectly with small cuts of grilled beef, making for an ideal quick lunch.

The best meal we had was courtesy of David, an old college friend who had moved to Seoul some years ago. He took us to a very popular bulgogi place in Gangnam where we took meat fresh off the grill and combined each bite with whatever vegetables and sauce we wanted. Delicious. We were also lucky that David speaks Korean because the restaurant was swarming with people and the waiters didn’t seem to have the time or inclination to spend more than a couple seconds dealing with foreigners. But the service is actually very efficient—every few minutes one of the wait staff was switching out the grill, bringing sauces or serving drinks.

This was also the night that I first got acquainted with soju, and I will be fine if I never see it again. This evil-tasting rice liquor is the drink of choice for Koreans—it can be found everywhere from Seven Eleven to quality restaurants. A little bottle at the convenience store costs less than a buck and packs the punch of four full-strength beers. Sounds good right? It is, until you taste it. Soju tastes like some kind of polluted vodka that comes from a distillery’s side door, and it is taken neat. David knew of a trick to make it more palatable while keeping the strength by combining a highly sweetened light version with the real deal. Regardless, we all wound up drinking plenty of it and decided to keep the night going at a nearby craft beer bar David knew about. I wasn’t expecting to find this at all, and the beer turned out to be excellent. I had a strong local IPA that I’d love to see back home sometime.

It was also very interesting learning a little bit from David about Korean culture. Work life is just as frantic as it looks—people work long hours and vacation is pretty much a foreign concept. It’s best to be at the office before your boss gets there and leave after he does, and if he wants to take you drinking after work then you have to get as drunk as he wants you to. With this kind of dedicated culture, it’s easy to see why Korea has grown so quickly. Still, the country is not yet at the point where the words “work-life balance” can be said with a straight face, and the children of today’s Koreans will probably have an easier life than their parents did (maybe unlike Japan).

When they’re not at work or choking down soju, Koreans are usually shopping. Clothes are available almost anywhere and there is no shortage of customers. As soon as we stepped into the subway stop / shopping mall the first morning Carla was in heaven. Things are cheap here (1,000 won to the dollar says something), and Korea is so fashionable that each store is full of stuff you actually want to wear. Carla gave many stores a very thorough inspection and couldn’t help walking away with some new stuff. Seoul even has its own version of a department store, which is essentially a 6-story warehouse packed with tiny shops selling just about anything. Closing time:  5 AM. Why sleep when you can shop?

When we needed to get out of the crowds, Carla and I escaped into cat and dog cafés in our neighborhood. These are what they sound like—you pay some money and walk into a coffee shop that is full of cats or dogs. It is something like a pet rental (one girl at the cat café knew most of the 40 cats’ names) but for us it was a great place to book some travel while being entertained by a small herd of animals. This is especially helpful in Seoul where there are few parks or public spaces.

The last highlight of our visit was the Korean War Museum. Neither of us knew much about the events leading up to this war or how it happened, and the museum does a great job of taking you from beginning to end. South Korea’s fierce nationalism also shows through in the one-sided presentation of facts but it’s easy to understand why after learning more about the bitter fighting. There was one particularly striking re-enactment showing an all-out battle that took place 60 years ago right in the middle of Seoul.

It’s hard to imagine the city was a battlefield so recently given the level of development today. Seoul is a sprawling mass of people to rival the biggest cities in the world and it is constantly pulsing with energy. As the densest city in the developed world at double that of New York, Seoul’s 10.4 million inhabitants need to be comfortable in a crowd. There are over 20 million people in the metro area. It’s like no city we’ve ever been to but it’s closest to a younger New York, with less money, less green space, less diversity and possibly more motivation. The whimsical high-rise architecture, high-tech lifestyle and a unique brand of hyper-capitalism that has businesses or ads in every corner all suggest that other cities may look more like Seoul in the future rather than the other way around.

// asia trip to date:  2 flights, 4 trains, 4 cities, 2 countries

 

Live music in the streets of Hongdae

On the menu today

japan

as alex and i drove to the airport, we could hardly contain our excitement. it had been six years since we'd last set foot in asia, and in less than twelve hours we'd be in tokyo, the first city we visited. that trip was also our first time traveling together! fresh-out-of-college alex and carla would have been equal parts shocked and overjoyed by all the traveling we're doing now.

we arrived in tokyo late wednesday afternoon and took the train in. it wasn't long before we reached the city limits, but tokyo has so much urban sprawl that we were in transit for an hour-and-a-half. we finally got to our hotel in koto-ku, a few miles east of the city center. our room was tiny. alex could almost reach both walls with his outstretched hands! since we'd already been to tokyo, we were looking forward to wandering around the less touristy parts of town. that said, we did end up stumbling upon the same small, no-name noodle joint we ate at six years ago and sat down for a nice udon and curry rice lunch. that night we also had quite an authentic sushi experience at a corner restaurant with maybe six seats total. the menu was entirely in japanese, and the chef and two patrons could only speak about four words of english between them, but somehow we managed to order twelve-piece sushi sets that were cheap, delicious, and worth whatever radiation came with!

what's most striking about japanese culture is its endless pursuit of perfection. every park, building, street corner, and window is clean and well-maintained. from the hotel staff to the 7-11 cashiers, we were in awe of how focused people were on doing their jobs well, however big or small it was. the sidewalk cleaners meticulously brushed every loose leaf into neat piles for pickup. the metro attendants were helpful and polite – a rarity in nyc – and broke our 10,000-yen bill for us without hesitation. even at the pachinko parlors (the japanese version of slot machines), employees constantly wiped down baskets and polished loads of gold pachinko balls as customers sat for hours playing the brightly lit, incredibly loud game machines.

as spotless as everything was however, there was irony to be found in the little mannerisms we couldn't help but notice. for example, there was a lot of sinus- and phlegm-clearing happening around us at any given moment. and while people wore face masks to avoid spreading or catching germs, no one washed their hands with soap because there was never any in the bathrooms. that said, most bathrooms we went to had the nice toto toilets, complete with seat warmers and built-in bidets to ensure customers left with that ultimate clean feeling!

shichisai's shoyu ramen. too good to be true.

friday morning was beautiful as we set off for tokyo station to catch the shinkansen (bullet train) to kyoto. after wandering around the enormous, multi-level station for a bit we eventually found ourselves on tokyo ramen street. hordes of hungry locals line up here at their favorite ramen house for a fresh bowl of some of the best ramen around. we decided to try shichisai, a spot that our friend gabe had recommended to us. it was a bit tricky putting in our order since the automated machine was entirely in japanese, but with a little help we signed up for some shoyu ramen. wow. it's funny how perfectly cooked, quality ingredients can turn a simple bowl of soup and noodles into one of the best meals of your life.

after a memorable first ride on the shinkansen at a maintained speed of 200mph (!!), we arrived in kyoto and made our way to our ryokan (japanese bed-and-breakfast). our hosts were john and akiko, and their home couldn't have been more beautiful. it was built around 1900 and in great condition, with its sliding paper doors, tatami mat rooms, and traditional japanese gardens in and around the house. it was also situated in a quiet, affluent neighborhood near the kamo river in the north part of kyoto. that evening we walked along the river to the gion district and enjoyed a yummy dinner of okonomiyaki (savory pancakes). people often think of sushi first when it comes to japanese food, but there is so much more to japanese cuisine – and all of it is delicious! friday night also made for great people-watching, which included our first geisha sighting.

 we spent saturday sight-seeing and visited the kinkaku-ji and ryoan-ji temples, which were built in the late 14th and mid-15th centuries respectively. the top two levels of kinkaku-ji are completely covered with gold leaf, and ryoan-ji is famous for its beautiful kare-sansui (japanese rock garden). suffice it to say that the temples and their gardens are absolutely exquisite. the japanese attention to detail is at its best here, where every foot of the gardens is landscaped and groomed to perfection. we also made it to the bamboo forest. although very crowded, the incredibly tall and vivid green bamboo trees that line the path created a very calming, reflective experience.

on our last day we took a short, scenic train ride to kurama, a small town nestled in the northern mountains of kyoto. we set off for kurama-dera, a gorgeous temple built high up on the mountainside. it was drizzling on and off, which actually made the hike all the more beautiful. everything was verdant, and each shrine along the way was framed by lush trees and colorful fall foliage. our last stop was the kurama onsen (hot springs). while the idea of being naked in a sea of equally naked complete strangers was nerve-racking at first, i ended up having the most zen experience of my life there. as i sat in the steaming outdoor bath surrounded by misty mountains and hues of fiery reds and oranges, a light rain began to fall around me. at that moment, i felt myself melt into the water and all insecurities evaporate into the haze. what an incredible hour of relaxation.

before we knew it, it was time to head back to tokyo to catch our flight. we made a pit stop at tokyo ramen street for one last bowl of piping hot goodness before we headed to the airport. next stop - seoul!

// asia trip to date: 1 flight, 4 trains, 3 cities, 1 country

sensory overload at a pachinko parlor in kyoto.