The Automotive Boneyard in Yangon

Southeast Asian megacities are known around the world for their snarled streets, daring drivers, and smog-tinged skies. Saying Bangkok, Hanoi, or Saigon may invoke images of motorcycles and swerving taxi drivers, but one Southeast Asian city stands out from the rest for its interesting array of vehicles and how they drive: Rangoon (Yangon), Burma (Myanmar).

Traffic .jpg

One thing that makes Rangoon unique among Southeast Asian cities is the lack of motorcycles and motorbikes. They were banned from Rangoon several years ago when a motorcyclist struck a vehicle driven by a military official.

While Rangoon certainly does not have as much traffic, congestion, or pollution as the aforementioned cities, it makes up for it by being a literal boneyard for a hodgepodge of right and left-side drive second-hand imports from Japan and South Korea that all drive on the right side of the road! I first noticed this when my driver picked me up at the airport. He was seated on the right in a vehicle with a Japanese language navigation system, yet we were driving on the right side of the road! Below is a right-side drive Japanese bus in the heart of Rangoon.

DSC08349

Car enthusiasts should check out the interesting traffic situation in Burma before it is too late and the all the clunkers on the road are replaced with new busses and cars with left-side steering wheels. There are even traffic cops who direct traffic at a few major intersections in the city.

DSC08425.JPG

Following the end of British rule in 1948, Burma fell under authoritarian rule for nearly six decades. With limits of free speech, a police state, and a government-run economy under a military dictatorship, Burma’s economy suffered mightily. Today’s bustling shops and streets are in sharp contrast to what the country faced several decades ago. The lack of economic activity with the rest of the world left behind two very visible legacies: beautiful, yet crumbling, Victorian-style British colonial architecture and old, rusting, imported cars with right and left-side steering wheels all driving on the right side of the road.

DSC08354.JPG

I was prepared to see old vehicles on the streets of Rangoon when I arrived last year, but I certainly did not expect to see the wide array of Japanese and Korean imports that I did. As a Japanese speaker, it was fascinating to encounter decades-old Japanese tour busses and refurbished kindergarten (幼稚園) busses on the streets taking Burmese from point A to point B in Rangoon. About seventy percent of the public transportation busses I saw on the streets were second-hand Japanese imports, which still bore the Japanese characters denoting their former purpose and destinations in many parts of Japan.

Tour busses served different purposes in Rangoon.

DSC08522DSC08559

Kindergarten busses transported passengers in Rangoon and Bago.DSC08320

Even old metro busses were refurbished and turned into Rangoon’s public bus system.

DSC08288.JPG

DSC08356

DSC08883.JPG

To the untrained eye, this may seem interesting, but because the Japanese drive on the left side of the road, many of these busses were retrofitted with cargo airplane-style netting to seal off the Japanese doors. These doors were replaced with cutout doors to ensure passengers did not get off the bus into oncoming traffic. It was quite fascinating to see these old vehicles still going around Burma. Their bright colors, faded façdes, and dirty windows would tell many stories if they could talk .

Pink Bus.jpg

Another interesting aspect of the traffic in Burma was the presence of old Korean public transportation busses that served the same purpose as the Japanese busses on the streets. The only difference between the two is that the Korean busses have left-side steering wheels, making it easier for them to maneuver through the right-side drive Rangoon streets. Much like their Japanese counterparts, the Korean busses were very visible as Burmese script covered up or surrounded Hangul as if it was not even there.

Korean Bus.jpg

DSC09110

Without money to repaint or strip advertising off of these busses and cars, Rangoon’s streets offer the chance to see a virtual boneyard of Japanese and Korean public transportation vehicles on their last legs.

DSC08549

Away from Rangoon’s city center and in other, more rural parts, like Bago, you can also encounter Soviet and Chinese-issued military vehicles that have been retrofitted and refurbished for both civilian and military purposes.

DSC08301.JPG

DSC08402DSC09383

While many tourists come to Burma to enjoy the famous Buddhist sites like Shwedagon Pagoda and other towns like Bago and Pagan, there is much to see in Rangoon. Aside from the fantastic British architecture, car enthusiasts should set aside some time to see the boneyard that exists on Burma’s streets and alleyways.

This “Good By” bus is a fitting end to this article.

Goodbye.jpg

Advertisements

Experience American History Abroad: Incheon, South Korea

As readers of this site know, I love to see Western history and architecture when I travel abroad. In Asia, the strong influence of the British and French Empires cannot be denied. Beautiful buildings in places like Burma, Malaysia, and Vietnam are prominent in many places. Lesser, yet visible vestiges of the Portuguese, Dutch, and Spanish Empires also remain in various places across the region. However interesting, they lack the personal connection that accompanies American History around the globe for me.
Many Americans know of the breadth of American history in the Philippines. Famous quotes about the Philippines from Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt and their long status as an American commonwealth following the Spanish-American War make the Philippines a particuarly interesting place. it is fascinating to walk around Manila and hear American accents on the radio and on the streets, to see streets named after American icons like Taft, and then to watch the weekend’s NFL games at the local bar. American cultural influence still holds power in Manila.
DSC07397
General MacArthur is revered here after he returned to the islands to liberate them from the Hhorrendous Japanese occupation. While the Philippines may be the most well known example this, General MacArthur is revered in a more unlikely and unkown place to the casual observer: Incheon, South Korea. There, a park boasts a large statue of the Genral and a park dedicated to freedom and a battle which eventually liberated the South Koreans from the Communist North.
Sadly the Kroean War is the United State’s “Forgotten War”, and Incheon is never truly recognized in textbooks for its importance in turning the tide of this war in 1950.
With American forces surrounded and relegated to the Busan Perimiter in Southeast Korea in September 1950, the tide of the war was in favor of the Communist North Koreans. On September 15, 1950, General MacArthur launched a daring amphibious assault on Incheon (in the northwestern-most corner of present-day South Korea) to turn the tide of the war and eventually retake Seoul.
The massive American-led contingency outumbered and crushed their North Korean opposition in mere days in the begenning of a long and arduous camapign to retake Seoul. Today in Incheon, these events are not forgotten.
The landing is commemorated at Jayu Park (Freedom Park) very near the beaches at Pohang where MacArthur’s forces first landed. A large statue of MacArthur wearing his signature hat overlooks a plaza lined with flowers while plaques adorn the area near the statue. These statues capture iconic MacArthur moments and also tell the general’s story in both English and Korean.
IMG_6244
IMG_6266 IMG_6267 IMG_6274
IMG_6268 IMG_6270 IMG_6272
When I arrived, many Koreans were eager to have their photo taken with General MacArthur and many more wanted to talk to my friend and I once they found out we were Americans. They thanked us for our country’s sacrifice in broken English and said that without us they would not have been there today. People of all ages shared this sentiment  at the base of General MacArthur’s statue. It was an inspiring interaction, to say the least.
From the reception I received there, I got the feeling that many Americans do not take the chance to get out of Seoul for a few hours and visit this beautiful part of American history on foreign soil.
Easily accessible from Seoul on South Korea’s comprehensive metro system, you can get to Jayu Park (and Incheon) in about an hour and spend a few hours there before returning to Seoul. I think it is important for American tourists to see this piece of history, even if it is a brief stop. Many of our soldiers died there and it is a good way to pay our respects.
Next time you are in Seoul, be sure to take a day trip to Incheon to see Jayu Park and the statue of General MacArthur. You will not regret it.

New Friends and Free Pizza in Vientiane, Laos

For many backpackers and travelers in Laos, Vientiane is nothing more than an afterthought or a thorn in their side. For them, the capital city is a one night stay in one of the numerous hostels before making their way to either party in Vang Vieng or see the Buddhist marvels that await in Luang Prabang. Not for me.

I came to the city to see the remnants of French Indochina architecture and to explore the cafe and dining scene which is unlike anywhere else in Asia. The European influence was still strong in the city which gave it a very special vibe. Patrons, locals and tourists alike, were relaxed and moved around lethargically throughout their daily procedures. It was a welcomed respite for me.

After two days of wandering the city and meeting some interesting folks on the streets, I descended on Via Via Restaurant right next to the Mekong River for dinner on my last full evening in Vientiane.

As with all restaurants in Laos, Via Via had the standard yellow and green sign out front with a photo of a large bottle of Lao Beer. That is where its similarities with other restaurants I visited in the capital city stopped. On my first night in the city, I was struck by the unique atmosphere at this pizza restaurant.

DSC00355

Traditional Italian music bellowed out from the speakers while waitresses frantically took orders and delivered drinks to patrons.  The unique mix of European expats, tourists, and locals resonated, as I heard orders taken in Laotian, French, and English on my first pass by the restaurant. I was intrigued and knew I would make my last meal in Vientiane a memorable one at this fine establishment.

After seeing the sun set over the Mekong the following day and checking out the night market, I made my way back to Via Via and was fortunate enough to grab a seat right outside of the restaurant itself but also not quite on the sidewalk. With a seat like this I could monitor what was happening both inside and outside the restaurant.

DSC00352

Usually I do not drink soda when I am either at home or on the road, but I had a very special chance to order a Laotian Pepsi, served up in a glass bottle without any English labeling. For someone accustomed to international travel throughout Asia, I  was surprised by a native language Peopsi bottle. I had to take a photo. More than likely, I will not have the chance to sample this kind of Pepsi again.

DSC00349

As the night wore on, patrons were quick to grab a Beer Lao and then head off into the Vientiane haze, either back to their hotel or to another cafe or dining establishment. I decided to order a Beer Lao and a pizza and wait it out for an hour or so at Via Via. Even though Beer Lao is a state-sponsored beer, it tasted very good. Such a pleasant surprise on this balmy December evening.

DSC00353

With my Beer Lao in hand, I ordered their version of a supreme pizza and started to write in my travel journal when a British couple sat down next to me. They were old but certainly not elderly. Jim had wiry grey hair and wore a nice blue polo to compliment his thick black framed glasses. His wife was wearing a white shirt and carried a nice handbag. I can still see the two of them as I write this article.

They were quiet at first, but as soon as my mouth-watering pizza arrived, they started talking. It was for good reason, too. They wanted to know what kind of pizza I had ordered because it looked so good. Take a look for yourself:

DSC00351

It was hard to believe, but the best pizza I had had since I moved to Asia was in, of all places, Vientiane. The sharpness of the pepperoni was complimented by the tingle of fresh peppers and the smoothness of Beer Lao.

Then we got to talking. Jim and his wife wanted to know about my travels through Southeast Asia at 24 because they had done similar travels when they were young, only through Europe. He told me stories of going from West Germany into East Germany, riding various trains throughout Europe, and even going to some countries in Indochina and Southeast Asia in the late 1970s. Usually long stories can become boring stories, but Jim had a unique way with imagery and describing the people he met along the way. His verbosity was truly something to behold.

We shared tales of the trains in Burma, dirty and crowded Bangkok streets, and of our time in Singapore. It was so cool to meet a travel couple which had been so many places but continued to go wherever they saw fit.

Jim revealed to me that he and his wife had been out of the United Kingdom for the last three months in Southeast Asia and had no plans of returning home in the near future. As they had both been foreign service officers in their youth, they were bitten by the travel bug and had no desire to stop going places and trying new foods along the way.

Our conversation seemed like it took up only a few minutes, but in reality we spoke to each other for over ninety minutes. As they finished up their pizza, I still had a few pieces left to go. He and his wife both said they enjoyed our conversation very much and said that they had already paid for my pizza.

“We were hoping to meet a young man on our travels tonight,” he said. “Never stop traveling. You never know when you will not have the chance to do it again in your life.”

Those words of wisdom, coupled with a saying my friend Tom told me way back in 2010 still stick to me this day.

“Young people have all the time in the world to travel, but no money. Old people have all the money in the world to travel, but no time. You are living abroad. Get out there and explore.”

It was a pleasure to meet yet another interesting couple out and about in Southeast Asia. While the friendships may be fleeting, it is always nice to meet generous and talkative people out there on the road.

Sometimes traveling alone has its benefits. I know that I would never have met half of the interesting people I have encountered on my travels if I was traveling in a group or with another person. Embrace solo travel meet new people on the road. You will have stories to last a lifetime.

As theAs the night

Meandering Through Malaysia

Almost as soon as I started my journey from Singapore to Malaysia, I knew my two day stay in Kuala Lumpur would be full of interesting surprises and unexpected turns along the way. 

It all started when I made my way to Woodlands train station, located in northern Singapore, to board my overnight train to Kuala Lumpur. For starters, this train station could have been one of the most poorly designed and signed stations into which I have ever gone. There are several different  busses and trains that depart from Singapore for Malaysia and the busses and trains have their own immigration checkpoints and checkin procedures. If only it was labeled as such. I arrived at the station two hours before my scheduled departure to ensure everything went off without a hitch, and, boy, am I glad I did. 

I walked through a long, cold, Soviet-looking corridor through the terminal and up to a set of immigration gates. What had been a cursory process in Singapore, Thailand, and all other destinations up to this point on my trip suddenly hit a snag when the immigration officer told me that i was at the bus terminal instead of the train terminal. Other immigration officers came and escorted me into a quarantine area as they ran all my documents before personally escorting me back to the immigration check at the train station. Following a lengthy wait, I was stamped out of Singapore and awaited my entry stamps for Malaysia at jointly operated checkpoint. 

I had heard stories about folks who had gone to Israel that had faced hassles entering Malaysia and were even denied entry, so I was a bit antsy given I had been to Israel in January. Certainly the border agents would not know as I had no entry or exit stamp, but that crossed my mind. I faced a lengthy series of questions as they scrupulously flipped through my passport before stamping my passport.

I lain in my bed for the overnight train when I heard two fellows speaking English in the cots near me so I struck up conversation and who knew? They were also Americans working in Japan. We had a great chat and plan to rendezvous at some point in the future. 

Eight hours later, my train rolled into Kuala Lumpur’s Sentral Station and when I disembarked I knew I was in a completely different world. Many different sights surrounded me in the train station: women bustling in every which way wearing burkas, Muslim prayer rooms, and signs written in Malay. Given this was my first time in the Muslim world, I should have expected that, but it still took me a bit off guard. 

Following a quick coffee, I was on my way to my hostel in Central KL when I ran into something oddly familiar- a Girl’s Generation (Korean pop music group) ad in the station. 

Image\

As someone interested in the British Empire and European influence in Asia, I was very excited to see Malaysia and Kuala Lumpur. I had heard stories from my Malaysian friends and friends who had visited that Kuala Lumpur is a bustling metropolis where dilapidated colonial-era buildings stand side-by-side with the well preserved buildings and new buildings towering over them. I was in for a treat as soon as I stepped out of the station near my hostel. In front of me were various types of colonial buildings and newer hotels/apartments, but this motorcycle stuck out to me, especially as the Petronas Towers loomed large in the background. Image

From here, I went to my hostel, checked in, charged up my camera and phone, and took a short nap on account of the fact that it was extremely difficult to sleep on that overnight train. The second day of my trip was already fully booked with a tour of the Batu Caves and some other areas in KL, so I set out on foot to explore a swath of the area near my hostel: Chinatown, Little India, Merdeka Square, etc. were all within walking distance.

First up for me was the Sultan Abdul Samad Building. As the power center of British Malay, this elaborately constructed building certainly has stood the test of time. Unlike in other colonies, the British incorporated local and Muslim architectural elements into what would be the center of their operations in Malaysia for many decades. The domes, clock tower, and facade make for an interesting appearance which both stands out and fits in with the surrounding area. One of the most interesting pieces of art nearby is the Queen Victoria fountain, brought from England in 1898 to commemorate Victoria’s rule and British influence in Malaysia. Below is a photo of both of them in Merdeka Square. 

 Image

 

Aside from this building, several other interesting buildings surround the square. An Anglican Church and former private British club flank the other sides of the square, which used to be a cricket ground. Certainly a must-see place if you are in Kuala Lumpur. 

Image

The other element of the square which I found fascinating was the enormous flagpole. I have always been fascinated with flags, and this is certainly the largest flagpole I have ever seen in my life. Eerily similar to the United States flag (and the British East India Company flag), I took a double take when I arrived in Merdeka Square. The dominating presence of the flag speaks for itself  as a symbol of Malaysian pride. 

Image

 

From here, it was off to see some colonial architecture and visit Chinatown before a trip to the Petronas Towers in the evening. 

On my way to Chinatown, I encountered some of the dilapidated and gorgeous colonial-era buildings about which my friends told me! It was truly a sight to behold. The chipping pastel paint brushing up against street signs and traffic lights is a scene that will not leave my mind when I think of Malaysia and walking the streets of Kuala Lumpur. 

Image

Then I stumbled upon the Malaysian Heritage Trail and saw some more beautiful colonial-era buildings which had been converted into shops, restaurants, and other places of business. It was another beautiful scene which shows off the history and richness of Kuala Lumpur. 

Image

 

Chinatown was a whole different animal. With bustling markets and the smell of street food percolating through the air, I don’t know how anyone could not enjoy a stroll down its narrow streets. That is, of course, so long as cars were not trying to make it down the alleys as well. Image

I encountered never before seen foods and shared some delicious chicken at a street side market with a fellow traveler before eventually returning to my hostel to change and head out into the Malaysian night.

 Image

If you ever go to this part of Kuala Lumpur, I am sure you will notice what I did at this point of my journey: the streets are higher than the sidewalks at certain points in the city! I could not figure out what was so peculiar about the streets until I tripped up the stairs when leaving a shop. Years of new pavement, sewage systems, and electrical utilities are certainly the cause of this. Here’s a look. 

Image

 

I could not wait to see the Petronas Towers in person and the two skyscrapers did not disappoint. I arrived at twilight and was fortunate enough to see the lights turn on from below. The glistening eight-sided spires connected by the skywalk was certainly a sight to behold for all. Add into the mix the luxury malls beneath both towers and I could see why people would come to these towers for a day out on the town. 

Image

As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the interesting people I met in Singapore was in Kuala Lumpur not his evening as well. My new Korean friend and I rendezvoused at the fabulous SkyBar inside Traders Hotel to have a drink and take in the breathtaking view of the Petronas Towers from 33 Floors above Kuala Lumpur. I usually am not keen on spending big bucks for a drink, but if you love cityscapes, skylines, or just breathtaking views, you MUST go to SkyBar. Add into the mix that there is a pool inside the bar and I don’t know how you cannot go. I was very happy to meet up with my friend and discuss Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and other travel destinations in such an unlikely place. 

Image

Image

 

As the rain began to fall for the first time on my trip, we decided to head to the streets to feast on the cheap street food that is omnipresent in the city. Once we arrived at Jalan Petaling Market, we were very pleased. Delicious street food was everywhere for the taking. I enjoyed an entire deep fried frog and some other delicacies on a stick and she had various other types of local fare. The gentlemen running all of the stands were very nice and helpful when it came to suggesting what to eat. This was my first time going to a real street market in Southeast Asia outside of the tourist-ridden markets in Bangkok and I am thrilled I went.  The food was delicious and the company was nice, as well. 

ImageImageImage

 

As the rain picked up and the night wore on, my friend and I split our separate ways and I took a cab back to my hostel where I thought the night was over, but not before I made some more friends on the road. 

My hostel boasted a rooftop bar so I headed up there to see if any interesting people were still awake. I met a fascinating traveler from London and we had a few drinks discussing our travels, our college experiences, and our current travels before going our separate ways. 

Early to arrive and late to bed, my first day in Malaysia was phenomenal. From the historical buildings to the Petronas Towers and the markets in between, I was thrilled to be in KL and could not wait for what the next day had to offer. It was a marathon day of meandering through Kuala Lumpur’s narrow streets.

 

 

 

Being a Conservative Traveler

Politics is an issue from which I have promised to steer clear on this website and an issue I will continue to avoid on this website, as it is my travel website. Those of you that know me in real life, on twitter, or via other channels know that politics is one of the most important facets of my life, alongside my family, my friends, travel, Japanese language, and a few other interests. During my life in Japan and my travels through Asia over the past five months, I have met some interesting people both on and off the travel circuit. My fellow travelers are often cordial. They are often nice. Many times, we share great experiences and memories on the road and at home. There is, however, one thing that I notice what is often different when I am on the road and meeting people, choosing what I will do, where I will go, etc. during my trips: politics. 

Do not worry. I am not going to discuss my views on Obamacare, gun rights, or any other political issue on this website because it is my travel website. However, today I am going to discuss what it is like to be a (politically) conservative traveler and how my experiences may differ from liberals who travel or even from other people I meet on the road who do not disclose their political affiliation. I have not seen any other articles on this topic, so I hope it is interesting, engaging, and thought-provoking. 

Let’s start. 

During the last two weeks in Southeast Asia, a common theme of discussion in hostel common rooms, at the bar, or just with other random people has often risen: travel motivation. This discussion has often led to contentious discussions and is one of the issues I would like to discuss in this post. Many of the young backpackers I met on the road often had similar answers to the question: “Why are you traveling?”

The common theme amongst many of these answers had to do with a dislike of their home country (usually the United States), hatred of their country’s own culture and customs, a desire to leave home and their family forever, and a desire to see cultures that are “better” than their own culture. These answers were quite different than some of the standard answers I expected to hear on the road: “to take some time away from my life at home,” “to experience and immerse myself in another culture,” etc.

The latter, while I consider them liberal, are totally reasonable and acceptable. After all, I have done road trips in the United States and I am living (for the second time) in a country and culture that is very different than the United States. I have immersed myself in the Japanese language and culture, but there are some things I will not do. For example, Wearing a kimono (traditional Japanese clothes) is one of the cultural elements I do not feel comfortable embracing as a Westerner and choose not to do when I have the opportunity to do so.

It was extremely hard for me to bite my tongue when I heard the former answers to this question, but I did so because my trip was not about engaging in political arguments. It was about travel, photography, eating local fare, and meeting people along the way. 

When I travel, I do not travel out of dislike of my home country’s culture, a desire to never return home, or see “better” cultures than Western culture. As a matter of fact, when I travel, my motivations are completely different. I tell everyone that I am proud to be an American and that I am proud of Western values and do not subscribe to cultural relativism. I travel to see the sights of the world, see locals interact and live in their own environment, to try local food, and then recount and share these experiences with my family, friends, and others whom have never been to these locations. Not once have I considered another culture to be “better” than mine, nor have I wished never to return home while on the road. I would not know what to do without my family and friends back at home. 

Critiquing and criticizing one’s own country while on the road has never been high on my to-do list as I have traveled, but I ran into some in Malaysia who were eager to discuss nothing but how awful the United States is. It all started with a  discussion about how superior the Malaysian medical system is to the American system because of how cheap some prescriptions are. The discussion devolved into how they were a superior nation because their monarchy could suppress dissenters and force legislation through their government even if members did not want it to happen. Others quipped about how more taxes needed to be paid, yet either did not pay their own taxes or did not have an answer when I asked if they enjoyed paying taxes. 

I think these viewpoints also help determine where we go on the road, as well. Some of my fellow travelers had a field day talking about economic inequality out on the road and used their experiences living and backpacking in squalor in some corners as a great way to criticize capitalism and the free market.

I don’t know about you, but when I travel, I usually do not go out on the streets looking for a political agenda or trying to find and explain “economic inequality.” I would much rather walk down the back alley, say hello the the local merchant, and buy as much food as I can at his stand to help his family and his business! I never thought anything of those people with less except marvel about how hard they were working to better themselves and their family.

I had a great time in Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Macau, and Singapore because these cities offered great historical lessons on a subject in which I have great interest (European influence in Asia as well as 19th Century history as a whole). Some other travelers did not know how I went to these cities because they were “too developed to gain a perspective” or because they were “ruined by European influence.” If anything, the European influence in these cities makes for an even more interesting and fascinating journey. The aforementioned cities have such an interesting array of architecture, street names, food, etc. because of their time as European colonies. I certainly recommend trying some of the Macanese food in Taipa, Macau. You will be in for a real treat with the Cantonese take on Portuguese food!

It was too bad to find out that some people were so jaded by their economic and political beliefs that they would not go to some of the “Asian Tiger” economies or couldn’t fully enjoy destinations because of British influence.

Travel motivations seem to be one of the main differences between conservative and liberal-minded backpackers I have met while out on the road over the past five months. 

Most of the conservative travelers I have met on the road also had a strong connection with their families and their homes as opposed to the more liberal travelers I have met. Answers ranging from “never wanting to come home again” to “at least five months so I can forget about home, return to renew a visa, and then get back on the road” to “I don’t know; I’ll go home when I run out of money,” were prevalent when I spoke with many of the liberal backpackers out there. The conservatives I met always had a goal of returning home once their trip was over, either to be with their family, to plan their next trip, or to enjoy being back in a familiar place even if for a short period of time. 

I don’t know how some of the backpackers are out on the road for months at a time without contacting their loved ones or longing for one of their mother’s home-cooked meals. I always send postcards to my family and friends when I am on the road to help share the experience with them and explain what it is like in a far off land. Even though I have been away from home for more than five months, I cannot wait to have the next home-cooked meal when I get home, and I look forward to seeing all of my family and friends at all times. Maybe we are just wired differently. 

A fellow traveler I met from Scotland said it well last week in Hong Kong when he basically said that we were able to separate our cultures from others while out on the road and see what parts of other cultures were good and which other elements were bad. Instead of coming with a completely open mind without a sense of norms and values, we come with a perspective- a perspective that has guided us through our lives and will continue to guide us until we die. I don’t think I could have said it much better than he did.

It is always hard for me to relate with other travelers on the road when they do not have a respect for their own culture and their own nation and when they lack a basis with their family and their homeland. Certainly, this is a conservative perspective. 

All hope for friendship out on the road is not lost, though. I made some truly amazing friends in Singapore last week as we discussed our previous travels and our desires for future travels. I met with these people in different locations later on in my trip and we had a great time sharing new experiences and making new memories. I do not know their political orientation, nor do I care what it is. 

Even though I vehemently disagree with some of the motives behind these travelers I met during my trip, I will continue to provoke discussion and find out why people travel. It always ends with interesting and fascinating answers. You never know which traveler will be fascinating and which traveler will take you on an amazing trip through a city they know like the back of their hand. 

At the end of the day, perspective makes a big difference when it comes to traveling. As you know from my previous posts, I bring a unique perspective to each city I visit, the people I meet, and the foods I try. I hope you appreciate my perspective and I look forward to sharing posts about my destinations this week as time allows. 

Look at my tagline, it tells the whole story: “Travel is the only expense that makes you richer.”

Have you ever met a conservative on the road? What is your travel perspective? Please share and add your comments in the box below:

The Amazing People I Met on My Journey in Asia

I have just returned home to Japan (as strange as that still sounds when I say it) from a grueling, non-stop trip through seven different countries in Asia that started at the end of December. When I travel, I always enjoy taking photos, sampling street food, and going to the famous places. On this trip, however, one thing stands out from everything else as to why I will remember this trip: the amazing people I met at all points during my journey. 

I have had my fair share of encounters with travelers back in the United States and Canada during a number of road trips and day trips I have taken over the past few years. My friend Andrew and I always had a knack for meeting interesting folks. During a 2000-mile foray into the Northeastern United States and Canada’s Maritime provinces, we met interesting characters at rest stops in New York, inside custard stands in the rolling hills of Vermont, at the dance club in Montreal, and at a nice cafe perched atop Quebec City on a rainy and blustery July morning.

The nice things about these chats with fellow travelers is that they were short, sweet, and fleeting. It brought a breath of fresh air to our travels, and even revitalized our travel spirits. One of these encounters actually saved one of our trips in its entirety. We were actually planning our swift (and earlier-than-planned) return to the United States in the face of sleep deprivation and unprecedented tropical moisture in Quebec City this past summer.  We were seeking out a cafe with WiFi to plan our return trip home until met a couple and their daughter from New Brunswick that inspired us to keep going and make it the whole way to the coast. From that point onward, I’ve made a point to chat with people I meet along the road or in the airport. 

Almost from the beginning of this journey in Asia, I had some fascinating encounters with other travelers and even ended up making some new friends along the way. They were good omens for what was to transpire on this trip. 

The encounters all started during my flight from Hong Kong to Bangkok early last week when a gentleman sat down in the middle seat next to my window seat. I thought he seemed a bit rushed and in a hurry so I contemplated not saying hello and turning on my iPhone for the duration of the flight. Fortunately I trusted my instinct to say hello and strike up a conversation. After a few minutes of casual chatting, he ended up giving me the best travel advice for Bangkok and the surrounding areas. As it turned out, he had made many trips to Thailand and his advice helped me make the most of my stay in the Southeast Asian nation.  Add to that the talk we had about international business, marketing, politics, and the beers we enjoyed at 10,000 feet, and it was a flight I won’t soon forget. He gave me his business card and I am sure we will remain in touch and keep up with our future travels as we o across Asia and the globe. 

This conversation was just the beginning. During my second night in Bangkok, I had just finished up a day tour which included riding elephants. I was quite exhausted but decided to head out into the city instead of taking a nap at my hotel. After a few hours of walking, I ended up winding through some of the red light district and settling down at an outdoor bar to enjoy a drink in the warm evening and do some people watching.  A middle-aged Westerner was sitting at the seat next to me, so I decided to say hello. After a few Jack and Cokes, we had ended up discussing his military service, my life in Japan, his current life in another, very different, Asian country. We ended up making our way to another eating establishment in the city and shared stories like we had known each other for quite a long time. At the end of the night, we exchanged e-mails and I am sure we will continue to be in touch. Just a few kind words made for quite an interesting and memorable evening. 

The following night in Bangkok was by far the most unlikely of all. In an earlier post, I remarked on how I made friends with two Japanese-speaking girls in Hong Kong in the most unlikely of circumstances. The new friendship I made in Bangkok was even more unlikely! While waiting for some famous street noodles, I sat down across from a middle-aged couple that was just finishing up their noodles. As fate would have it, they were Japanese. Just before they got up to leave, I asked, in Japanese, 「それはどうでしたか。」(How was it?). With a  look of befuddlement, they sat back down and we had an engaging conversation about my life in Japan, their life in Japan, and what it was like to be in Bangkok. We never used any English because they could only speak Japanese. After teaching me some of the Hiroshima dialect, the gentleman’s wife retired to the hotel and her husband and I continued on for some more drinks and food at various different establishments. He used to live in Bangkok several years ago, so I had another unlikely tour guide for what to see in my final day in the city. As it turns out, he works as a schoolteacher for the same age group of children that I teach. We had talks about Japanese school life and really had a good time. We plan to meet in Japan in the near future to continue our discussions.  

Things went rather well in Bangkok, but I could not have expected how well they would go in Singapore when it came to making new travel friends. 

When I arrived in Singapore, I was excited to tackle the city about which I studied so much in college for one of my final papers. Seeing British landmarks, examining the skyline, and going to the top of the Marina Bay Sands were at the top of my list. After quickly checking in at my hostel, I was on my way to the Sands to take in the tourist-only view of the city and had zero intentions of getting to the pool and bar which only awaits hotel guests. 

While I was taking a photo of the view of the city from the photo deck, a woman bumped into me and ruined the scene I had tried to capture using my miniature tripod. She was very apologetic and I was eventually into a discussion with her and her husband about traveling in Asia and my life in Japan. This was our first night in Singapore. They were at the Sands and I was at a hostel in Clarke Quay. They graciously asked if I wanted to join them in going to the pool. How could I say no to the chance to see somewhere I had always wanted to see and would never get to see unless I could afford a room at the hotel? 

With an enthusiastic “yes,” I accepted their offer. We shared a drink at one of the bars overlooking the harbor and we took photos of each other atop the building at the pool. They retired to their room and I remained on the roof at the pool until it closed. Yet another unlikely encounter with other amazing travelers that took me to the most unlikely of places. 

I had met a new, exciting, traveler on each night of my trip and knew this would have to come to an end at some point, but I was mistaken. The new encounters just kept coming. 

The following evening after my day trip to Indonesia, I returned to the hostel looking to experience some of Singapore’s nightlife and hoped another solo traveler would be looking for the same thing. A lonely looking girl was sitting in the lobby so I struck up a conversation with her. As it turned out, she already had plans for the evening with another person she had met at the hostel, but would be in Kuala Lumpur the same time I would be in Malaysia. We exchanged e-mails and decided to meet there for some street food since we were both solo travelers and were looking for other interesting people to meet along the way. 

Shortly after she left the relaxed lounge, another person arrived and sat down next to me. He seemed eager to speak, so we started chatting about our stay in Singapore (it was also his first time)- the sights we had seen and what we planned to do over the next two days. After a while, we decided to head out into the balmy Singapore night. It was a great decision and we had a good time at one of the most famous nightclubs in the city. The following morning, we headed out to Merlion Park and some other sites around the city before returning to the hostel later that afternoon. 

As we sat in the lobby killing time before our checkout and departure, another fascinating person walked into the room. This person was not a backpacker at our hotel, but rather a Singapore native who was there to meet up with a friend and give a tour of her hometown. After a brief conversation, the three of us found out that we would be in Hong Kong for New Years’ and made separate plans to rendezvous in the city if time allowed. Nothing like this had ever happened for me during previous hostel stays.  

Not only did I meet some awesome people in Singapore, we would meet yet again in different cities in the future. 

I rendezvoused with the first girl form the hostel in Kuala Lumpur and we enjoyed an evening of sampling the interesting street food all across the city after going to SkyBar and checking out the amazing Twin Towers. As it started to rain, we split ways and were on to our next destinations the following day. I couldn’t get over how we had just met in Singapore the previous day and then toured and ate our way through Kuala Lumpur the next day. We may meet again in Seoul when I go to Korea later this year to visit friends from college. 

More of the same transpired in Hong Kong as I met up with the other girl from Singapore on New Years Eve after the fireworks. A group of us went out into the city and enjoyed some of the post-fireworks festivities after having only met a few days earlier in Singapore. It was a great time and yet another completely unlikely scenario. 

How often do you meet someone from a totally different country in one city and then meet them again in a totally different country mere days later? It always pays to be open and talkative at hostels or at other places when you are on the road. You never know anyone’s story or what they may be doing next. 

My last night in Hong Kong was just as interesting as the previous five nights. Two Scottish guys rolled into the dorm room at the hostel as I was preparing for an evening of sightseeing and photography in Hong Kong. They were very interesting fellows who had just arrived in Hong Kong after a few days in Vietnam. We were telling our stories of travel in Asia and I decided to join them on their trip to the night market in Kowloon and then head back to Hong Kong Island to watch a soccer game with them at one of the British expat bars in the area. After a few drinks and a few other stops along the way, I returned to the hostel for a few hours of shuteye before heading to the airport and returning home. These engineers were some of the most interesting and intriguing people I met on this while journey. 

When it is all said and done, the things I will remember most from my most recent adventure will not be the food or the sights, but the people I met and the friendships I made in all stops along the way. Whether they were a fellow American Expat, an American businessman, a Japanese teacher, a Korean university student, a Hong Konger living in Canada, a Singaporean local, Australians on vacation, or Scottish engineers, it was great sharing conversations and stories with them along the way. Unlike other people I have encountered on the road in the past, I have a distinct feeling I will cross paths with more than one of these folks again during our travels. 

Speak to people as you travel. You never know which person will lead you to an unforgettable adventure or the place off the beaten path in your next destination. Hostels and planes are invitations to meet some of the most interesting people on the planet. I met some amazing people on my journey through Southeast Asia.

 

Unforgettable Hong Kong (Day 1)

My one friend once told me, “There are only three great cities in the world: New York, London, and Hong Kong. Someday you will see for yourself.” I had my doubts, but once I moved to Japan I knew I had to go to Hong Kong to see if my friend was a soothsayer or if Hong Kong was overhyped. My friend certainly hit the nail on the head when it came to Hong Kong being one of the world’s “great cities.”

Before I travel, I often create expectations and conceptions about how places will be, how the people will be, and how enjoyable a certain location will be. Sometimes I am dissappointed and other times my expectations are completely destroyed as a destination outshines even my highest expectations. I must admit that Hong Kong destroyed all of my expectations and then some. My journey to Hong Kong with one of my close friends (and Macau in its own right) is an adventure I will never forget.

Things got off to an interesting start- a start that is only possible in Japan. Because public transportation in Japan shuts down between basically midnight and between five and 5:30AM, it was impossible to make it to the airport in time for checkin and security clearance prior to our 8:30AM departure to Hong Kong. The trip to Kobe would have taken too much time. As a result, my friend and I pulled and all-nighter on the cold, hard, wooden benches of Kansai International Airport Terminal 2. I will undoubtedly have to do this again because of the early nature of some of Japan’s international flights, but this is something to which I do not look forward, even in the slightest. We took advantage of the free rental blankets at the airport, made some new friends who were bound for Korea, and slept as best as we could for about four hours.  Once the terminal filled with people bound for Taiwan and South Korea, we were alive, awake, and ready to take on Hong Kong. Following a quick money exchange and an old school walk on the tarmac, we were onboard and ready to start our adventure in Hong Kong. I had to do the obligatory Richard Nixon wave and peace symbol before boarding. Image

Walking on the tarmac towards the Hong Kong-bound plane. © 2013 Erik Jacobserikabroad.com 

Four hours and one long nap later, we touched down in Hong Kong and it was so exhilarating to know I had finally arrived to one of my top travel destinations! Ever since I have been a child, I wanted to visit Hong Kong and I knew I was only a few minutes away from getting the coveted passport stamp to finally verify I had made it to the former British Colony! There was one catch- Hong Kong (and Macau) STOPPED issuing passport stamps in July! I was so disappointed when I passed through immigration and a flimsy card stating my permitted length of stay was stapled into my passport. One of my favorite things about travel is getting passport stamps and I was robbed of the Hong Kong stamp! The disappointment quickly faded as we headed towards our first destination of the whirlwind trip: Hong Kong’s famed Big Buddha. Image

Hong Kong International Airport. © 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

Following a short and remarkably easy ride on Hong Kong’s MTR, my friend and I exited and “minded the gap” as we made our way toward the Big Buddha. After a stellar hour long wait in the serpentining lines, we made our way onto one of the crystal cable cars for the unforgettable ride going through Hong Kong’s rolling hills and lush forested areas en route to the Buddha. If I can make one recommendation here, you MUST pay a few more Hong Kong Dollars and get the crystal carriage cable car for two reasons: First, the line is much shorter than the standard carriage line. Secondly, you can see through the bottom of the carriage and view some winding trails through the mountains, several inlets, and various other cool spots during your ride. The view was amazing. Image

Cable cars. © 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

After a trek through a heavily tourist area filled with nick-knacks, trinkets, and fake souvenirs, we had finally arrived at one of the most iconic images of all of Hong Kong: the staircase leading up to the 1996-built big Buddha statue. The view was completely breathtaking when you reach the bottom of this staircase. Unfortunately due to bad lighting with the sun directly behind Buddha, the photo cannot give this scene the justice it truly deserves.

Image

Even though this Buddha was only finished in 1996, the amount of tourists and locals alike at this site was incredible. Buddhists praying, Asian and Western tourists taking photos, and the Korean comedy group outside one of the shops along the route there stuck out the most to me. Of course a trip to this Buddha would not be complete without a photo posing just like the largest sitting Buddha statue in the world.

Image

Posing with big Buddha. © 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

After another breathtaking ride on the cable car (this time at sunset) and checking in at our hotel on Hong Kong Island, my friend and I began our journey to another one of Hong Kong’s must-see attractions: Victoria Peak.

I had always heard fables about Hong Kong being the shopping Mecca of East Asia but never truly gave those claims the credence they probably deserved. After having lived in Tokyo for a few months in early 2011 as a study abroad student, I though nowhere in Asia could possibly beat Tokyo when it came to glamorous stores, ritzy stores, or sheer opulence. I was resoundingly incorrect. The walk from our hotel to the famed Victoria Peak Tram took us through a shopping mall which hosted stores like: Marc Jacobs, Burberry, Cartier, Gucci, and other top dollar stores, stores I had never seen before outside of a magazine or New York City. I was in awe at the wealth I had only started to see in Hong Kong. Things got even more interesting when we made our way to the tram.

I had never ridden a vehicle on such a steep incline in my whole life. Last summer, I attended language school in Oakland, California, and frequently went to San Francisco for sightseeing, eating Japanese cuisine, and visiting Fisherman’s Wharf. During that time, my friends and I took an obligatory ride on the outside of one of San Francisco’s cable cars. While those streets were steep, the Victoria Peak Tram took steepness to a whole new level. The tram ride felt like it was on more than a 45 degree angle for the entire ride up to the summit. As the car increased speed, the steepness also increased to the point where people were holding on for dear life as they attempted to stand in the cable car. I have added a photo from the inside of the car to give you an idea what this ride resembled. Image

Inside the Victoria Peak Tram. © Erik Jacobs, 2013. erikabroad.com

Following this ride, we had finally arrived at Victoria Peak, although a clear view of the city was not yet available from the tram exit. Already only in our first few hours of our four day excursion to Hong Kong and Macau, I felt our trip had met its moment of truth. Ever since I saw the first photo of the nighttime view from Victoria Peak, I knew I had to go there. I had pumped up this view to be as good as the Grand Canyon, but in a different way. The lights, the buildings, and the view had to be breathtaking, didn’t they? On the ride up to the top, I had noticed that the Bank of China lights were off and I feared for the worst. I will let you be the judge of how the view was at Victoria Peak before I write any more. Image

Stunning Victoria Peak. © 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

As you can surely see from this photo, reaching the top of Victoria Peak and peering over the handrail was one of the happiest and most rewarding travel moments I had ever experienced. The view there was everything I had imagined, and then some. The glistening skyline off of Victoria Harbor, the twinkling lights in all directions, the cool wind coming across the viewing balcony, the messages on the International Commerce Centre, and the moving lights on the Bank of China Tower combined with some new friends I made (more on that in a later post) to make this a night I will never forget. While this world seemed expansive, I was also reminded that the world is such a small place. A friend of mine from Japan happened to be there at the exact same time with his parents! We said our hellos and continued onward with our evenings. Moments like that are just one more reason why I love to travel.

I even went ahead and purchased one of the commemorative photos they had for sale. Someday I will proudly hang that in my room alongside my photo atop Roppongi’s Mori Tower in Tokyo. Image

Me with Hong Kong and Kowloon in the background. © 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

While the next morning called for a 4:45 am wakeup to make our ferry to Hong Kong, that did not seem to matter at all during our first night in Hong Kong. Never in my wildest dreams did I think Hong Kong could live up to the expectations I had built for the better part of 15 years. Happily, the city destroyed all of those expectations on the first night. From the rural and cultural Buddha to the urban and unforgettable Victoria Peak view, I had a feeling that the best of Hong Kong was yet to come. After a long walk back to our hotel, I settled down for a short night’s sleep.