Two Months in Southeast Asia
Over half a year in passing since we returned from Asia, and I've been writing, procrastinating, and reflecting on this post (but mostly procrastinating). I want to share my itinerary and recommendations alongside my anecdotal stories from spending two months in Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, and Taiwan from early January to early March 2019. Our east coast winter was the perfect time to travel to Asia as it's not monsoon season there and we skipped the freezing cold temperatures and snow days at home. The temperatures ranged from around 55 degrees in Taiwan and Northern Vietnam to the 90s in Southern Vietnam and all of Thailand and Singapore.
Traveling is a wild reminder of how time stretches, ebbs, and flows when the mind is free to absorb new experiences and stimuli. Psychologically, the brain slows down when not on "autopilot" mode, which makes time spent on vacations and in new places feel much longer than they actually are. Even more wild is how after we travel, those memories are then condensed into mere seconds of time, or a few pages in a journal. All of life's experiences become-- just a few paragraphs or pages or a series of photographic memories, video clips, and images in the mind.
So, here we go.
We settled into Asia staying with Jackson's parents in Kowloon, close to the Northern Territories of Hong Kong, close to the Chinese border. We were so fortunate to not pay for accommodations here because the general cost of living and tourism in Hong Kong is quite high. However, it is an international, culturally thriving city that mirrors the affluence and creativity of New York. The public transit system is more efficient than New York's, and we used our Octopus (metro/bus) cards to travel everywhere throughout the city. There are so, so many areas of the city to explore. If you plan to go to here, I'd give yourself at least a week to see as much as you can, especially if you want to plan a trip to Macau or another island, like Cheung Chau, both places are easily accessible on a ferry. While we several did guided tours in Vietnam and Thailand, we chose not to do any tours in HK and relied solely on public transportation to get around and explore places on our own or with Jackson's family.
My favorite part of the city was Central, the business district, and more specifically, the Midlevels, which are sprawling with restaurants, night life, and galleries. The H Queen's Building holds the Pace Gallery, Whitestone, David Zwirner, among several others. One of my favorites was a show at Whitestone featuring a Japanese avante-garde postwar collective, Gutai, which had a huge emphasis on exploring the raw materiality in painting and sculpture. Guitai artists mirrored the abstract expressionist movement but with an Eastern lens. Tai Kwun is another contemporary art space in Central, originally a repurposed police station compound, which has galleries, boutiques, a cafe...etc. Coincidentally, we happened to be visiting during the Contemporary Art Book Fair and I spent so much money on zines. How could I not? Anyway, the architecture of the space is beautiful and features more emergent artists than the H Queen's Building galleries.
My favorite restaurant in Central, Maison Libanaise, had this amazing roasted cauliflower which you can order at their upstairs sit-down dinner spot as well as their take-away, chipotle style lunch section. After an afternoon at the galleries, the perfect night out in Central would be getting dinner, then going to the Shari Shari Kakigori House (Central location, not Causeway Bay) for shaved ice and a chocolate soufflé, and ending the night with a strawberry daiquiri at Club Feather Boa. Shari Shari is right across the street from the Feather Boa speakeasy, which says it's permanently closed online. The decor is fascinatingly baroque and the bartender dresses up in costume... like a fairy. When we were there, everyone had ordered frozen strawberry daiquiris with a chocolate powder rim. Feather Boa doesn't open till 9, or whenever they are ready to serve everyone. We watched bags of ice sit outside past 8:30, 8:45...until someone inside came and grabbed them. There's no signage, just huge French doors covered with curtains. You knock and they let you in. The drinks are 100 $HK equating to about $13 USD (It's about 7.5 $HK to one of ours).
I loved 208, an Italian restaurant with a divine happy hour. I say divine because at around 5 pm they brought out a free appetizer spread with arancini, grilled salmon, mussels, cantaloupe, crackers, etc. I haven't been to any happy hour in the U.S. with such a nice Aperativo (why don't they exist?!)
And if it's humid out, you can escape the heat by checking out the IFC Mall, which also has a grocery store in the basement with some prepared foods, plenty of restaurants, and a rooftop garden area. Just to give you a general idea, the temperatures averaged about 65-70 degrees when we were there in January and then late February, so if you plan on going during the U.S.'s summer time, be aware of how humid and hot the temperature will be.
PMQ showcased a variety of boutiques, housewares, and artist objects in a historic building, and is a self-proclaimed "place for creative lifestyle experiences."
Overall, Central is bustling with graffiti, business-people, and contemporary art. Taking a short walk from Central, we ended up in Wanchai, and popped into Odd One Out, an independent zine and print shop.
A delightful array of photos: street art, the flower market, Repulse Bay, and more...
Kowloon is, comparably, the Time's Square of Hong Kong. You can take the ferry from Central or get off at the Prince Edwards metro stop. I'd recommend taking the ferry at least once for the experience itself. A great lunch spot for traditional and very inexpensive dim sum is One Dim Sum and they do have vegetarian options, although not many. Kowloon's many markets are also a great no-cost activity for a day trip to this area. We went to the Bird Market and the Mong Kok flower market, which sold delicate and colorful orchids, bulbs, and plants. If I could have transported them home, I would have. We also went to Goldfish Street where there are exotic aquarium fish, both beautiful and smelly. Interspersed between aisles of fish tanks are rare puppy and kitten shops with baby shiba inus and Scottish folds. However, no photos are allowed and they have many employees keeping their eyes out for people trying to "document" this culturally poignant experience, lol. There are plenty of other markets in the same vicinity, including a jade market, a ladies market, and a fruit market. I saw some knock-off designer objects including Louis Vuitton bags and belts and Supreme t-shirts, but nothing compared to what I saw in Vietnam (I'll get to that later). After the markets, we went to Kubrick, an independent book store with zines and a cafe, which had plenty of western options, vegetarian and otherwise, and beer, coffee, tea, etc.
Sai Kung is a fishing town in the north of Hong Kong with plentiful seafood restaurants and small shops. Walking by, we watched the fishermen display all types of exotic fish for sale and the residents' well-dressed dogs. This is a small, quaint town that is suitable for an afternoon visit.
Jackson's sister Natalie lives in Repulse Bay, which is essentially the Malibu of Hong Kong. We took the bus from downtown HK and drove through the mountains to visit the beautiful beach and the tourist town, Stanley (Venice beach of HK? Lol). We ate dinner at Classified, a restaurant franchise, and watched the sunset at the beach.
The Peak is the highest point in Hong Kong. This place seemed to be a huge tourist destination but I would not recommend spending money on a tram. This is also a perfect after-lunch activity. We took a leisurely stroll on a short hike, although foggy, the view of the city was remarkable. And it is quite accessible via public transportation.
For a day trip, Jackson, his parents, and I took the ferry to Cheung Chau, a small island south of HK. The island is known for its mango mochi, and we also found several stands with egg tarts and other pastries...yum. We took a beautiful stroll along the mini Great Wall of China, which was so low to the ground we didn't realize we had been walking by it. There is a quaint walking beach here as well, which was connected to a short hiking trail.
10,000 Buddhas Monastery:
Here is a link to their site, with transportation advice. We hiked uphill along a path of gold plated Buddha statues, bellies rubbed so much that the metal plating was worn off. There are a few expansive pavilions and walking paths. The founder of the temple was a Buddhist follower who cut his chest into 47 pieces as a testimony to his Dharma. The information pamphlet at the Monastery states his body was miraculously preserved months after his death. It does not state that he was in fact, embalmed.
After leaving HK, we took our first international flight within Asia to Vietnam. We travelled North to South, Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh (HCM) City, during our two week span here. In January, the weather in Hanoi was brisk, around 55 degrees. I packed a thin down jacket and raincoat as my heaviest layers which sufficed throughout the trip. We took domestic flights which cost about $30 a person and we booked these about a week ahead of time, planning as we went. We also did not stay in hostels, as a boutique hotel in most areas of Vietnam costs about $20-$25 a night, some with breakfast included, and for 2 people, the comfortability factor outweighed the enticing cost of $9 a night dorm room bed (also I'm in my mid-twenties and traveling comfortably is more relaxing than hostels in party/backpacker areas of the cities in which we stayed). We walked everywhere in Vietnam with the exception of taxis to and from the airports, the guided tours where bus transportation was included, a taxi to the Marble Mountain in Da Nang, and a taxi in HCM City to get between districts. We stayed 3 days in Hanoi, 3 days in Da Nang, 3 days in Hoi An, and 5 days in HCM City. Most people decide to travel north of Hanoi to Sa Pa, or book a cruise to Ha Long Bay, but we decided to budget our funds elsewhere. Our only regret was that we both felt that 5 days in HCM City was too long. Since the city is so large, we assumed we could easily navigate between different areas and explore a new section each day. But that wasn't the case. It was a humid 90 degrees and the city just isn't walkable. One day we walked about 2 hours along a busy street and had to seek out cafes just to escape the heat.
On a separate note, if you go to Vietnam, eat all the street food. Despite being afraid of food poisoning, I ate everything from bahn mis, to pho bowls, to freshly sliced mango and was fine. (I did get a tetanus booster, Hep A, and typhoid vaccine before traveling as a precautionary measure but it's not as necessary if only going to urban areas.)
We traveled here right before the Vietnamese New Year, which was awesome. We saw so many special flowers and plants being sold by women on bikes, all of the decorations that were eventually, ritualistically burned for good fortune, and many anticipatory festivities. However, traveling during the Lunar New Year in Vietnam means most places close down and that's no fun for tourists.
And one final thing: a major aspect of Vietnamese culture is the cafes... I fell in love with coconut coffee which is traditionally made with condensed milk and coconut cream. Nowhere else is Asia had coffee as delicious as Vietnam. Taiwan is the home of bubble tea, and there's Thai iced tea in Thailand, but nothing is as good as coffee from Vietnam.
Hanoi is a bustling and culturally vibrant city where locals and tourists intersperse and everyone fluidly weaves in between the motorbikes, never-ending traffic and honking automotive horns. Hanoi was personally, my favorite city in Vietnam. We stayed in a cheap hotel in the Old Quarter. Hanoi's architecture is a product of French Colonialism and historic Vietnamese infrastructures. Among the popular historical sites are the Hoa Lo Prison and the Thăng Long Imperial Citadel. The entrance fee to both the prison and citadel are nominal. Did you know the Vietnamese referred to the Vietnam War as the American War? The dialogue found in many of these historical sites are inaccurately biased to portray a softer, gentler version of horrific historic events, including American soldiers cheerfully making Christmas decorations in prison, and Vietnamese soldiers rescuing John McCain from the lake, but neglecting any reference to torture or brutal military tactics that were used on either side.
One of the major attractions in Hanoi is the Hoan Kiem Lake and is quite romantic to walk around at night. Near the lake there is a storefront that only sells sweet rotis, just like the rotiboy at the Bun Shop, for all my Baltimore readers. On Fridays, a night market closes off several streets from drivers so the surrounding area of the lake is filled with DIY karaoke singers, choreographed dancing groups, and bands. The night market has more knock off designer stuff than you'd like to imagine exists and we saw so many young teens sporting Triple S sneakers and Louis belts. We saw all the young hostel-seeking tourists sporting faux Fjallraven Kanken backpacks and The North Face knock-offs. Where else in the world can you buy $10 Jordans? The copyright laws are different and logos are copied identically without consequence.
Jackson and I got facials at Mido Spa with an avocado mask. I'd actually never gotten a facial before. Mido Spa is highly recommended for massages as well. Here's my anecdote, which has nothing to do with the quality of service or the ingredients used: I loved the facial, until my right eye, that for years has gotten eczema when I'm stressed, became extremely puffy after the mask was removed. I simply saw "Natural Face Mask" on the menu of services and thought, what a great idea, until I realized some foods cause adverse topical reactions when applied to the skin. In all seriousness, if you're in Hanoi and looking for a high quality, clean spa experience with excellent customer service, come here.
We took a day trip to Bai Dinh Pagoda and Trang An. A similar itinerary can be found here. We booked every tour from a tour group business in person and went around to several locations to find a fair price. For this particular tour, the electric car isn't really necessary if you're used to walking several miles a day. But like I stated earlier, most people choose to book a cruise to Halong Bay and not necessarily a day trip like this one.
From Hanoi we flew to Da Nang, which most people skip to go straight to Hoi An. We found Da Nang to be an escape from the hyper tourism and business oriented Hanoi. Ahhhh- It was finally a moment to breathe. In Da Nang we were nearly scammed by a taxi who refused to use a meter. Anywhere in Asia, if a driver refuses to use the meters, they can charge whatever they like. My suggestion is always ask for a metered taxi and if they say no, don't take it, unless you love to barter in this regard. I don't.
We stayed in a brand new hotel called Avora Boutique Hotel, which had breakfast included in the price and an extremely hospitable staff. Avora is connected to an Illy cafe where I got the best coconut coffee, kind of like a frappuccino, but tastier. However, if you are looking for a beachfront hotel, this isn't the place to book as it was located central to the downtown area.
Da Nang had nice walking beaches about two miles from our hotel. We passed by the Dragon Bridge which breathes fire every Saturday and Sunday night. The highlight of Da Nang was visiting the Marble Mountains. If you skip staying in Da Nang and head straight to Hoi An, there are several tour groups that do day trips here, but we enjoyed the flexibility of walking at our own pace and spent several hours exploring the site. We took taxis to and from our hotel at nominal prices, and the entrance fee was around $2 USD. We chose not to purchase sim cards and relied solely on WiFi but the Grab app is widely used as the Uber of Southeast Asia, you just need a phone number from the country to set up an account.
From Da Nang we took a 45 minute taxi ride to Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The town is quaint and charming...built for tourists. We stayed a short walk from the outskirts of the city center in Venus Hotel and Spa. Upon arrival they gave us a complimentary room upgrade and fresh passionfruit juice and sliced watermelon. The $20 a night included free breakfast and I also received a Vietnamese massage from the spa.
Hoi An is known for their tailors which hand make garments from sundresses to formal gowns and suits. I went to BeBe tailors and had a few dresses made, my favorite being a linen copy of a dress I love. My recommendation would be to get a copy of a garment you already know fits you well. I did bring some pictures of items but I was way too picky to be totally satisfied with how they looked. However, BeBe is one of the most reputable tailors in Hoi An and they have multiple locations. Their speciality is creating formal gowns and suits. Some tailors have examples of garments in their shops which you could always ask to get a copy of, or altered to fit your own body. Going to a tailor was fun for the experience of itself and also impressive to see how quickly they can create a custom garment from a ream of fabric. Seriously...some places quoted under 24 hours. Another reputable tailor is Yaly.
Hoi An is covered in decoratively patterned lanterns. They spread over the entire town and river and glow at night-time. We enjoyed a few cocktails at Mango Mango Happy hour and sat on a balcony facing the riverside. So romantic, right?! I also started my fresh coconut obsession here in Hoi An. Some days I drank two or three coconuts. They cost about a dollar and are so much better than the processed and packaged coconut waters available in the US.
Ho Chi Mihn City
In HCM City, previously Saigon, we stayed near the Ben Thanh Market and took a day trip to the Mekong Delta. We went to to the Bitexco Financial Tower at sunset. They offer tickets where you can pay to look out of an observation deck, or go to a pricey restaurant on the 53rd floor and order a beer, a coffee, or a desert that's still less expensive than the observation deck. HCM city has dozens of stores with different boutique clothing lines. We walked throughout one building with several small shops and clothing boutiques and stumbled upon this beautiful restaurant and cafe, L'uisine, which felt indulgently European. Later we went for drinks at Snuffbox, a speakeasy with drink prices to match back home. HCM City is definitely a good place to know a local. So many gems are hidden down side streets and alleys that it's hard to know what to do and as the public transit was under construction when we went, we didn't have many options other than taking taxis or walking in 90-degree humidity. I'd say 3 days here would suffice any traveler using one day to check out the main tourist sites, one day for a trip, and another day to relax at a hotel's rooftop pool.
We went to the Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts which displayed pro-communist affiliated artists and artworks. There was a small entrance fee to enter the multi-level renovated building. It was unfortunate that several pieces of art were in deplorable condition, as there was no climate control in the humid building and many works were falling out of frames or peeling. And this is a major arts institute in Vietnam.
I've had a specific soul calling to go to Thailand for years. In Bangkok we stumbled upon a bookstore and I purchased a book by a Thai professor, Pramuan Penchang, titled "Walk to Freedom." His story can be summarized here. His journey starts as a professor of Buddhism in Chiang Mai to homeless wanderer, seeking redemption from the attachments that diminish joy. He traveled back to his hometown on foot, an over 1500 km walk, finding connection and support from strangers along the way. In a way, I wanted to mirror his journey, attempting to invoke joy in all situational experiences. I ended up relinquishing my inner child, as I narrated in an earlier post on this blog. As I floated atop the water above the coral reefs on Hong Island, I cried. I can't quite explain it now, but this experience allowed me to be open and present to myself in ways I'd been blocking for a long time. Thailand opened my soul.
Staying in Chinatown, we were at a central location to many tourist destinations. Down the street from our hotel, we happened upon the most delicious satay stand. I promise you, we tried and tried to find any online information on this stand but we couldn't. I wish I could relay the sweet taste of peanut sauce and vinegary cucumber salad here.
We did most of our walking in Bangkok and relied on tuk tuks (and taxis-- to and from the airport). Seriously, we walked 17 miles in one day. With a local sim card, you can use the Grab app as well.
We took one morning and afternoon to visit the Grand Palace. At around $15 a ticket, it was the highlight of our stay and the most grandiose cultural experience. Throughout the city, we also visited the temples Wat Saket and Wat Arun. One day we toured several open art galleries, including the Kathmandu photo gallery, where I browsed through photo books by the artist Manit Sriwanichpoom, one titled "Bangkok in Black and White." The artist illustrates Thailand without facades. To paraphrase, he describes Thai people with an ignorance-as-bliss attitude, an unconditional cheerfulness, despite the sex trafficking, the poverty, the inhumane treatment of animals, the censorship, and backlash from the Royal Government. He states in his book, "You do have to ignore a lot to live happily in Bangok. But this is easy. You can live in Thailand and ever understand a thing, never scratch the surface of the durian analogy. This is true of natives as well as foreigners. The moral climate encourages self-delusion, and in fact you would not actually be living a lie. It's the key to our happy attitude. Every version of reality, every excuse, however preposterous, is valid to its author...Usually, in Bangkok, the bargirl is smiling, and she's not really faking it. Not really. Because we smile, you think we're happy, we think we're happy. And we are happy, because we make the best of our circumstances, the proverbial frogs who sing as they are being boiled alive." This ideology, one of both necessity and paradox, is explored through film images; one I most notably remember, an elephant sits, transported in the back of a pick-up truck. Now the photographer is most famously recognized for his series "The Pink Man."
At the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, we viewed a retrospective of contemporary artwork from their Biennale. In the basement, there was a Thich Nhat Hahn exhibit which displayed original ink drawings of quotes and excerpts of his books. I discovered his work in 2015 during my year of graduate school, when I began meditating at the Shambhala Center in Charles Village. In a deep space of healing and in the midst of anxiety, I took solstice in his words. To see his writing years later, in front of me, was enough affirmation that I had enveloped the interconnectedness of time and space, as he writes about often. It was a deeply joyous experience.
A short flight from Bangkok, we stayed in Chiang Mai for 5 days at the Kham Phai Guesthouse, now called the Cat House, run by a Canadian ex-past and his Thai wife. This was our cheapest accommodation in Asia at about $19 a night. By no means luxurious, it was budget friendly and sufficed as safe and comfortable for resting after many outdoor excursions we took. Be sure to try Khao Soi, a yellow curry dish made with egg noodles -- a northern Thai traditional cuisine. We first tried some at a restaurant in an old lady's backyard, and our bill was just under $3 USD. The overall vibe of Chiang Mai is a hippie destination full of vegan/vegetarian cafes and English speaking tourists.
The Sunday Market in Chiang Mai is the best market we went to throughout Asia, seriously. So many options for street food and trinkets to buy. We found authentic cloths and tapestries in adjourning shops around the old town made by the Hill Tribes. Additionally, many sterling silver wholesalers travel to Chiang Mai to purchase silver.
Throughout Thailand (and Vietnam) you can book tours from travel guides that have shops or stands along the streets. We found a reasonable day trip to the Doi Inthanon National Park which involved a moderate hike to the highest point in Thailand, a visit to the King and Queen's temples, and some conversation with members of the Hill Tribe. One of the most exciting offerings in Thailand is a tour to an elephant sanctuary. Some travel guides will offer these as well, but be weary. We booked a tour directly from the Elephant Pride Sanctuary which costed $2500 baht each. If you are seeking an ethical, intimate experience, I urge you to book this ahead of time. Our tour guide Chan Chai is a fourth generation owner of this sanctuary. His compassion for working with the elephants is awe-inspiring. Many places call themselves sanctuaries due to the increased ethical awareness of animal rights from Western tourists, but crowd dozens of people around elephants, raising their anxiety. Or have tours in which the elephants are overworked, or even ridden at separate occasions. Elephants suffer from anxiety when placed close to streets, as the sound of a car triggers them, remembering the first time they were taken away from their natural habitat. They will shake their head back and forth continually -- which we saw while driving to the Elephant Pride Sanctuary. While there, we fed them sugarcane and bananas, bathed in a mud bath and a river, and had a photoshoot with baby elephant Dido...lol...
Ao Nang Beaches
After 5 days in Chiang Mai, we flew south to the beach destinations of Thailand and stayed in Ao Nang, about a 30 minute drive from the Krabi airport. We stayed at the Sugar Marina Cliffhanger where the view from the balcony is parallel to an enormous cliff. While the Ao Nang beach didn't have crystal blue water, we were able to take boat transportation for a nominal fee to Railay Beach (twice) and Hong Island. We ate Indian food, spent all day at the beach, and drank fresh coconuts. Railay beach, my personal favorite, was home to monkeys and a bat cave. Words can't describe the gorgeous limestone cliffs, or the way it felt to float in the coral reef of Hong Island. Maybe some photos will:
We were unsure where to go between Thailand and Taiwan, and knew we had about two weeks of travel time left before returning to Hong Kong. After looking at flight routes, we realized that the Krabi airport only has international flights to a few places, one of which being Singapore, and decided to book flights there. Singapore exemplifies a society that is futuristic, committed to sustainability, efficient, innovative, and technology-driven. The airport itself has a rooftop garden -- green space and fresh air! -- a hotel and a movie theatre.
But isn't Singapore so expensive for travelers? Yes and no. You can visit Singapore as part of your Southeast Asia tour, with a budget. Our hotel accommodations were the most expensive part of this trip, at about $80 USD a night. We stayed in Chinatown, at a hotel about a minute's walk to the Tiong Bahru Hawker Market. Travelers to Southeast Asia most notably share the ridiculously cheap cost of food, like dollar bowls of pho and Thai curries. Fortunately, we found many hawker stalls, some Michelin rated, that offered very affordable cuisine. At the Tiong Bahru market there are several stands to get fresh pressed juice for under $2, and I enjoyed many celery-apple juices for breakfast. Hawker stalls are found all around Singapore. Be sure to try Hainanese chicken rice (I didn't try a chili crab but certainly read a lot about them on travel blogs). If you stick to hawker stalls and restaurants in the malls, many of which had lunch specials, you won't break the budget on food.
Singapore is quite easy to navigate by walking and public transportation. From Chinatown, we were walking distance to the Clarke Quay river which has a range of expensive seafood restaurants and bars. We spent several hours sitting at a 7/11 bar, which was essentially a tent with bar stools and tables facing the river, where you could sit with whatever drink or snack purchased from the 7/11. Restaurants and bars charge a high percentage on tip and tax for alcohol, so the 7/11 became our go-to spot for the week. At night, there was a light show, similar to Baltimore's Light City, that featured installations from several artists.
As far as tourist attractions, we enjoyed visiting the Cloud Forest and Garden by the Bay, Marina Bay Sands Mall (and a rooftop happy hour on Valentines day), as well as the Botanical and Orchid Gardens. The Marina Bay Sands Mall is a cultural destination. It features an indoor pond on which you can take a gondola ride, a giant casino, and grandiose architectural absurdities of both the facade and hotel interior.
During our stay, the SAM (contemporary art museum) was having a re-opening exhibition that featured installations from emerging artists. Interestingly, in Singapore graffiti is illegal, and one of the exhibitions had videos which overlapped graffiti style text atop city buildings. (PS- chewing gum is illegal. Eating on public transit is illegal. Failure to obey laws will result in lashings. The strictness of these laws make Singapore both extremely safe and clean... but to what extent does it harm its citizens? I'm not sure).
Have you gotten this far? My patience is wearing thin, so I will be brief. Taiwan was the last stop of our adventure before returning to the solstice of family in Hong Kong. We certainly could have spread out, stayed a few days in multiple cities, sore muscles tiredly carrying luggage from place to place. But we were, well, tired. So we broke our last week into two cities -- Taipei and Hualien, and took a day trip to Jioufen. In Taipei we stayed central to the downtown district, under a 5 minute walk to the MTR Taipei City Hall station. We also took a train to and from the airport. The public transit is an underground system for retail shops and malls, and arcades, and collectible plastic toys and figurines from gum ball style machines. We visited the National Palace Museum,and the National Taiwan Museum both in walking vicinity from our hotel. As far as food, we ate a variety of things, including bubble tea (really hard to find non-dairy options. Most Asians are lactose-intolerant, as am I, but they're obsessed with fresh, whole milk.) I did find a place called Nuts Milk with some non-dairy options and another called Soypresso where I ate a delicious soft serve soy milk ice cream. There are a ton of night markets with stalls and one night I tried a sugar apple which was ridiculously sweet.
From Taipei, we took a bus to Jiufen, a small mountain town, and the inspiration for the movie Spirited Away. There's one main street which loops around the mountainous hills and plenty of stores to sample tea and other treats. Jiufen is sleepy and daydreamy compared to the organized chaos of underground transit and city life. It was perfect to spend an afternoon there and head back to Tapei for the evening.
We solely relied on public transportation, and took a train to Hualien, the home of Taroko Gorge National Park. We stayed in a small homestay on the 5th floor above a jewelry store. From the main train station in Hualien, we bought bus tickets that allowed us all day entry into the park. We ate Mexican food from a Canadian man's restaurant in Hualien, who recommended we rent a scooter and drive through the park at our own pace, but the bus was flexible enough and easy to navigate that we stuck with that. Taroko was the highlight of our week in Taiwan. There are plenty of easy and moderate hikes, and several more difficult full day ones, that provide beautiful views above waterfalls.
The last inter-continental flight we took was from Taipei to Hong Kong. As I write this, the political landscape of Hong Kong has been drastically altered to one of discomfort, fear, and violence. Amidst the positive vibes and excitement of traveling, I must first acknowledge the disparaging truth we place on recognizing human rights violations on a global scale. The wide number of disabled and physically deformed homeless in Vietnam, historically resulting from Agent Orange, the incredibly vast number of sex traffickers and prostitution in Thailand, and the graphic billboards and protesters in Taiwan and Hong Kong against forced organ harvesting in mainland China become symbols for what we can consciously grasp. I heard a story of drunken extortion, where women seduce businessmen in Singapore, and force them to pay thousands of dollars to prevent lashings and beatings for sexual misconduct.
While my inner journey and world was most definitely transformed, persevering through two months of continual fear of the unknown, my anxiety has since been muted, quelled to a minute number of rambled thoughts. The outer world, the global context in which we traveled is radically usurped and impoverished comparative to the United States. These worlds are incomparable, but necessary to acknowledge, witness, and assimilate into what I experienced.
Thank you so much for reading!