Shanghai Expat: March 2010

This month some restaurants started enforcing--at least when customers complained--the newly enacted ban on smoking in restaurants. Yay! I can notice the change in some places. (The Shanghai government put the ban in place in preparation for the expo.)

Anyway, as for the month, some food outings are described in the pictures I took this month.

A friend of mine, B, got engaged over Chinese New Year. Di Yin and I went with him and K to a Japanese restaurant, Koyama, in Xintiandi to celebrate. I planned on paying. The meal was respectable: a selection of sashimi and sushi and a few unusual items such as marinated sea cucumber and grilled chicken cartilage. I liked the sashimi substantially more than I usually like sashimi. The salmon was my favorite. The meal ended with a pot of beef with onions, then ice cream. The decor was nice, but not as cute as the other sushi place we've been in Shanghai. It was surprisingly expensive, substantially exceeding my intended budget. (I normally don't think twice about paying for someone when it's less than US$30 or maybe even $40 per person. This substantially exceeded that range, which was especially surprising given China's normal prices.) Nevertheless, I paid for dinner (before I thought too much of it). Sorry, I didn't take pictures of this meal.

After I returned from Chinese New Year at the end of February, it rained nearly every day. The culmination of this series was on March 9th when it snowed briefly as I walked home from dinner! They were light wisps of snowflakes, but snow nonetheless. I wanted to take a picture of the flakes stuck to my coat to prove it was indeed snowing, but the snow melted before I got home and could locate and ready my camera (and it stopped snowing outside around that time too, so I couldn't take a picture from home looking out). Ah well, you'll have to believe me. :)

The following days quickly warmed up and the sun came out. It felt like spring had arrived. But I didn't get to enjoy spring in Shanghai right then; I flew to Hong Kong on March 12th.

When I returned from Hong Kong on the 21st, the weather was pleasant: good for a graduate student friend of Di Yin's, P, who came to stay with us for a couple of days, and for J a friend of Di Yin's and long-lost friend of mine, who came to stay with us for the week. They must've brought the spring. Aside from two days of rain in the middle of J's visit, the weather was warmer (13-ish C / mid-/upper- 50s F) and the skies were clear.

While both these house-guests were in town, we went out to dinner with them and two of Di Yin's academic compatriots, I and M, also doing research in Shanghai. We chose to bring the crowd to How Way, a restaurant we've visited many times before (1,2,3). As usual, it was very good. After, we went to Charmant for our regular ice tower dessert.

Another evening, we brought J to our Hunanese restaurant of choice, Di Shui Dong, which we've also visited before (1,2).

Near the end of the month, I headed to Boonna Cafe on a tip. Of the three in the city, one is surprisingly close to me, a mere 200 meters detour from the standard path I walk to the metro station. The cafe, which serves sandwiches, salads, coffees, smoothies, and a few pastas, reminded me of California. It's secluded from the road, with a cute courtyard and a welcoming interior with a long bench seat with pads and also many small tables. I planned to return with my camera to take pictures, and also to relax in the atmosphere. (The next month I did.) My sandwich, incidentally, was good. Plus, they have free internet.

A day or two later, when Di Yin and I headed out for breakfast only to find our destination closed, we ended up at a nearby Starbucks. The Starbucks was even more welcoming than those in the states. The large armchairs were particularly comfortable, and our pastries (an oatmeal pudding scone and a blueberry bar) were good. Funny how I found two places in a row that I want to return to simply to sit and relax.

At one point this month, I found myself looking through the pictures from my trip the previous June to Shanghai. Gosh, the parks were green! Sure, they were generally small and scattered, but boy were they lush. It's too bad everything looks so bleak during the winter.

I also noticed how funky some of Shanghai's skyscrapers are, providing a more distinctive skyline than most cities. This didn't sink into my consciousness during my June visit.

Also, only now did I realize nearly all ATMs in Shanghai are in individual, lockable booths. In comparison, in the states, ATMs are either open on the street, open in the bank, or in a room with a few ATMs that is only accessible with an ATM card. In Shanghai, practically all ATMs are in tiny rooms (one ATM per room) that lock from the inside.

Hong Kong: Mar 21: Departure

Sunday was an uneventful day, a day like one hopes all days one flies will be. I was to meet a friend for an early lunch before heading to the airport. I didn't do anything before lunch, partially because the only remaining things I wanted to see in Hong Kong that were vaguely close to my hotel were closed on Sunday mornings. Instead, I caught up on my sleep.

With baggage in tow, I met my friend and one of his friends for lunch. Finding the place we intended to eat booked solid, we went to another place nearby, ate, then hopped to yet another for dessert. We caught up, talking.

After lunch, I took the train one stop to catch my shuttle bus to Shenzhen airport. The whole process (train, shuttle, customs, etc.) was smooth and efficient, taking much less time than I expected. I wrote this entry using the free wireless at Shenzhen airport, waiting for my flight to Shanghai (which was supposedly on time). In reality, it was delayed about 45 minutes, boarding about 25 minutes late and waiting another 20 to take-off.

I landed in Shanghai Hongqiao airport's newly-opened terminal, and took the newly-extended train into the city. (No more need for the airport bus.) Ah, to start experiencing some of the benefits of expo-related development.

I took only five pictures this day.

Hong Kong: Mar 20: Lantau Island

On Saturday, I decided to take advantage of my last full day in Hong Kong (before returning to Shanghai) by spending the day outside in nature. I took these pictures this day; they accompany this narrative but do not replace it.

I got up early to attend at 8am a free tai chi class sponsored by the Hong Kong Tourism Board. It was a small class: just three people. I had fun learning the movements, many with strange names (that make sense when you do them) such as grasping the bird's tail and needle at the sea bottom. I found tai chi more exercise than I expected, mostly caused by more stretching than I'm used to at one time. I also found it hard to coordinate my breaths and actions as I was supposed to--getting the movements correct was hard enough--but I think this just proves I'm a novice.

After the tai chi class, I grabbed breakfast, had a bit of confusion with trams and buses, eventually made it back to my hotel, checked out, and stored my bag. Then I was off to Lantau Island to hike. Why is it always hazy in Hong Kong when I do a long nature hike (but not otherwise)?

An hour later, after a tram and a metro ride (which, once on Lantau Island, nicely followed the coastline), I waited in the exceedingly long line for the cable car ride to the top of the mountain. Though overcast, the cable car ride would be a 25 minute trip versus an hour by bus, so I decided on the cable car. Good thing I did, as the views turned out to be great.

Once atop, I walked quickly through the Ngong Ping themed village (which was 95+% shops), stopping only at the Nature Centre to look at the exhibits (geology, ecology, etc.) and pick up some trail maps. I was slightly tempted to stop in the village to watch some of its videos such as one on the Buddha, but I didn't think I had time.

Instead, I headed to the Big Buddha. It's about 100 feet tall--pretty impressive. I wondered how it was built, so I bought a ticket to the exhibition inside. The exhibition turned out to be worthless. Later, I went online and read about it; the story is much less interesting than I hoped: because it was constructed relatively recently (early 1990s), they basically used modern construction techniques.

I had lunch at the nearby monastery's vegetarian restaurant, then quickly explored the monastery itself, before heading off to begin my hike. I was worried about my hike. The trail I picked, leading down to the relatively undeveloped oceanside town Tai O, was supposed to take 4 hours. It was almost 3pm. I know I always hike faster than map estimates, but the trailhead for my trail looked like it was a substantial distance away, and I was worried about being able to finish the trail before I lost daylight, let alone finishing the trail in time to see Tai O before darkness fell. Nevertheless, I decided to hike along the road to the trailhead and see how the timing was going. I started my GPS recording my route and off I went.

Once at the trailhead (half an hour later, I think) for the segment of the Lantau Trail I planned to walk, I realized I'd likely not be able to finish the trail before dark, even if I hiked faster than average. Happily, the map by the trailhead showed a trail that wasn't on any of the maps I carried. It's a "country trail" that I could use to shortcut part of the Lantau Trail. With this shortcut cutting off a fraction of the distance, I figured I would probably make it to Tai O before dusk.

I set off at a rapid clip, keeping a close watch on the clock, keeping photography breaks to a minimum, and keeping an eye out for trail crossings. I didn't want to get lost on Lantau Island alone near sunset!

My plan worked great. I had a nice hike, though admittedly under slightly warm conditions and a hazy sky, climbing up and down rolling hills with views vaguely reminiscence of fjords, and often visited by butterflies and accompanied by the sounds of crickets. The trail was empty; I met only a few other groups over the whole length. I made it to Tai O easily before nightfall. My GPS said I'd hiked around 8 miles in 3 hours and 30 minutes (counting breaks and pictures), climbing 1,700 feet in the process. Not bad.

I walked past the shabby homes and garbage at the edge of town and down a long pier into Tai O proper. The town's of interest due to its ramshackle houses on stilts above the creek. Right now, it appears to be a tourist destination: many tourists wandered around town with fancy cameras. Most of the businesses seemed to exist for the purpose of selling stuff (mostly dried fish) to the tourists. I guess this is one way an old fishing village can survive.

Around 6pm, I caught a bus to a town on the island with a metro station. The bus ride was scary: the road was windy and often up and down, sometimes with a steep drop-off on my side, and (in my opinion) the driver drove too fast. Nevertheless, we made it. A long metro ride later, I picked up my bag from the hotel I spent the previous night in and walked the half a dozen blocks to my new hotel, a Ramada. The new hotel wasn't quite as nice as my old one (both were comparably priced), but my old one didn't have any availability for this night so I had to move. The Ramada was still perfectly acceptable.

Finally, I walked another half a dozen blocks for at late meal at my chosen dinner destination.

Hong Kong: Mar 19: Western District and more

I awoke early, left Di Yin's family friends' place, dropped my stuff off at my hotel, and was soon on my way to explore Hong Kong's Western district (and the west part of the Central district). This area has much more of a traditional Chinese setting than the other districts I've visited (on Hong Kong island: Central, Wan Chai, Causeway Bay; on the peninsula: Kowloon).

It was a beautiful day, which I got to enjoy because I ended up walking around outside for almost the whole day. I took these pictures.

In the Western district, I stopped by the famous Man Mo Temple, the oldest temple on Hong Kong island. It was smoky due to incense but was otherwise no more remarkable than any other decent-sized Chinese temple.

I walked this route through the district.

After exploring this part of town, I took the mrt to my lunch destinations in the vicinity of Causeway Bay. After eating, I boarded the mrt again for a longer ride to the east side of the island to visit the Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence (Defense).

The museum, housed in an old fortress, includes two parts: one, traditional museum exhibitions indoors; two, outdoor trails exploring the fortress's fortifications. The permanent indoor exhibit covers Hong Kong's coastal defense from the Ming dynasty's creation of beacon towers (to give warning of pirates or hostile foreigners) through the present day. I enjoyed more the small special exhibit Escape from Hong Kong: The Road to Waichow, about some soldiers' narrow escape during WWII. It read like an adventure story and could probably be made into a movie.

Even if the exhibits were bad (which wasn't the case--they were alright), the museum would be worth the trip for its views of eastern Victoria Harbour and Hong Kong island. Seeing the occasional fortifications was an added bonus. Visibility was fairly good and the temperature was very comfortable: a lovely day with lovely views. I wish I had similar conditions for my trip to Victoria Peak.

From the museum, I headed back downtown to visit the Hong Kong Planning and Infrastructure Exhibition Gallery. I got there half an hour before closing and was worried I wouldn't have enough time. I needn't have been -- I was done in ten minutes. I was hoping for models and for discussions about how planning occurs and what is planned (as I've seen in similar exhibits in other cities). This exhibit, however, had only small, uninteresting models, and the discussions were (i) clearly written by a government bureaucrat, using phrases such as task force and simply listing boring facts, and (ii) written for locals. I couldn't follow many displays because I didn't know the reference points: where the town was in relation to other places, what it is currently like, etc. Thus, discussing what the town is going to change to didn't make much sense to me. Regarding the boring facts, consider the display on pedestrianizing streets and adding traffic calming measures. (By the way, they do these activities well in Hong Kong; it's a pedestrian-friendly city.) The display listed which streets changed in each district, but not why those streets were chosen or what effect the changes had.

After the gallery, I hung around in a park for a while, then found dinner and took a tram back to the Western District to my hotel. Incidentally, my hotel, Hotel Jen, turned out to be quite a nice place: clean, well-designed, and welcoming.

Hong Kong: Mar 18: Re-arrival

When we landed in Hong Kong from Bangkok, we took the bus into the city. On the way, we passed many nice views of skyscrapers and bridges outlined in lights, one which looked like the San Mateo Bridge. Because it was dark and our bus was moving fast, I couldn't take any pictures. :(

We arrived at Di Yin's family friends' place around 10pm (where we were going to spend the night), and they tried to feed us. I didn't want to eat because I wasn't particular hungry--the small meal I had on the plane seemed to be enough--but had to eat out of courtesy. I took a picture of our meal.

Bangkok: Mar 18: Departure

On Thursday, our last day in Bangkok, we had only the morning free before we needed to leave for our flight back to Hong Kong. Rather than attempt to rush a visit to someplace new and exciting--we'd already visited all the tourist destinations within a reasonable travel time of our hotel--we decided to have a large, leisurely brunch at the hotel, eating enough so that we'd survive until the plane fed us around dinnertime. The buffet was extensive (meats, cereals, pastries, congee, dim sum, the usual hot Western breakfast foods, fruits, roasted mushrooms, baked beans, pork with chili, veal sausage, etc.), but the food generally was only okay. I took many pictures of the food. It's a good thing we ate so much, as our plane took off over an hour late.

In Bangkok's international airport I noticed the baggage carts: in addition to having a hand-brake, they're magnetic, so you can let go of the cart when going up a ramp escalator and the cart won't roll away. A neat advance in technology.

As on the flight to Bangkok, our plane was almost empty. One section of the plane was entirely empty. Nevertheless, even in the sections with people, I rearranged to have a row of four to myself -- that's how few people there were.

Incidentally, Di Yin also took pictures this day. The link goes to her first picture from this day (picture #385). When you see a picture of captioned "Hello Hong Kong" (picture #410), you're done with her pictures for this trip. I'll link to her Hong Kong pictures in another post.

Bangkok: Mar 17: The Royal Barges Museum and other adventures

I had grand plans for Wednesday. I didn't get to do most of them, and some things I did get to do weren't good, but some places Di Yin and I found by accident were.

As always, I took pictures, though nowhere near as many as usual. Di Yin took many more, often of different things. The latter link goes to her first picture from this day (picture #279). When you see a picture captioned "our view from the hotel the morning we left Bangkok" (picture #385), you're done with her pictures for the day. I'll link to the next day's pictures in the following post.

After taking our hotel's ferry across the river, Di Yin and I began the day by wandering through some streets and markets at random. This area was definitely part of the city, though it can't be said to be central. After an hour or so, we located a pier and headed north, disembarking near the Grand Palace. Di Yin wanted to buy me a hat we spotted yesterday. We also took the time to grab a meal. After lunch, while we were still walking around this area, a crazily intense rain arrived. Luckily, most of the street carts have umbrellas; we huddled under a spot where a few overlapped. The rain left fairly quickly -- it couldn't keep up its incredible pace for long!

Next, we began our quest to find the Royal Barges Museum, housing (you guessed it) the barges used by the royal family. It's most accessible via boat, but we decided not to hire an expensive boat taxi ("longboat") and instead took the public ferry to the pier closest to the museum and figured we could find our way there on foot.

The museum is on the opposite side of the river from Bangkok proper and from most of the tourist attractions. The district's known as Thonburi. Disembarking at the Wang Lang Pier, we found ourselves in an area nearly entirely populated by locals and in by far the greatest street food market we'd seen yet (and would see) in Bangkok. There were blocks upon blocks of carts and vendors. Even though we just had lunch ( :( ), we nevertheless often stopped and watched and even found stomach space to buy some items to eat then or later. Streets branching off from this main food street (leading to the pier) sold clothes and the like. We wandered down some of these streets too.

Proceeding onward but lacking a good map, we had trouble finding the Royal Barges Museum. We attempted to ask people to no avail. I'm not sure whether this was a language issue or a lack of knowledge. Happily, we ran into a French student studying in Bangkok who knew where the museum is. He walked with us most of the way there (the route was on his way home), and we talked about how he ended up in Bangkok and where he was before. He was a really nice guy.

He pointed out the sign for the museum. (He hadn't been before but had seen the sign.) He left us. From the main sign on the road, the museum was harder to find than the Shanghai Propaganda Museum, which was pretty hard to find and I found last summer. We followed arrows, heading down dirty paths sometimes alongside garbage piles or canals with stagnant water. Ugh.

The museum wasn't exciting. (I was going to preface the sentence with "worse yet", but even if the museum didn't exist, it wouldn't have been worse than the walk.)

After the museum, we followed the same path out of the ill-maintained neighborhood to the road, walked along the road to and through the giant street market to the ferry pier, and headed home to our hotel (via a cross-river ferry to a river ferry to our cross-river hotel ferry).

Near dinnertime, we ventured out into the heat and headed to Silom Complex. Di Yin and I showed her parents the food festival we found on Monday. Her parents (well really her dad) went crazy, buying bags and bags of snacks (mostly Chinese), mostly to bring home. I tried a bunch of the items they bought: freshly-cooked squid (spicy and good), fresh guava juice (good, like a funky apple), seaweed sushi (fine), dried fish (meh / not as good as the kind I get in Shanghai), dried crab (decent/good). I also, after much language confusion, got a mini-sausage to try, but found it dry. (The language confusion was because the woman sold the mini-sausages in large bags by weight. I only wanted one to try. After she finally understood, she just gave me one for free.) Also in the mall, we wandered into a supermarket wherein I spotted a dozen different types of mangoes. I knew there were a few varieties, but didn't know there were that many.

Di Yin's parents went to one of the mall's restaurants for dinner. I still wanted more street food, so I headed out, following a tip, and walked the handful of blocks to Soi Convent (Convent Street). Di Yin decided to follow me. The experience of walking down a street with cheap street food-carts outside comparatively expensive sit-down restaurants makes one think. Details of what we ate are in the pictures.

Bangkok: Mar 16: The Grand Palace and Various Temples

We spent Tuesday seeing the highlights of the royal and religious aspects of Bangkok. It was a busy day, or at least as busy as one can be in heat that necessitates breathers and a mid-day rest.

I took a ton of pictures this day (over a hundred!). Di Yin took even more. The latter link goes to her first picture from this day (picture #91). When you see a picture of me nodding off in a ferry at night, wiped out from the day, (picture #278) you're done with her pictures for the day. I'll link to the next day's pictures in the following post.

After snacking a bit for breakfast in our hotel room, the four of us took the hotel ferry to the main ferry pier, and then the tourist boat ferry (complete with narration) to the pier nearest the Grand Palace.

The Grand Palace is opulent, pretty (look at all my pictures!), and interesting with its unusual blend of architectural styles.

Also in the complex, we visited Wat Phra Kaew (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha), the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand. It also has a lot of attractive buildings. Oddly, in the main temple building, all of us somehow missed seeing the Emerald Buddha itself. It turns out the Emerald Buddha (which is made of jade, not emerald) is tiny--less than three feet tall! No wonder we missed it in a temple with so many larger religious statues.

We also visited the Emerald Buddha Museum (elsewhere in the Grand Palace), which covers the history of the Emerald Buddha and displays many pretty offerings people have made to it over the years (mostly little statues). The Emerald Buddha has been fought over between Thailand and Laos. I also learned the Emerald Buddha has different outfits; the King of Thailand changes its robes at the beginning of each of Bangkok's three seasons: summer, winter, and rainy. The final feature of the museum worth mentioning is the models of the Grand Palace and of Wat Phra Kaew. The museum has models of the area in the late 18th century and others of it in the modern day, allowing one to visually see how the area has changed and grown.

We also walked through the Weapons Museum (also in the complex). It contains a variety of weapons: swords, spikes, spears, pikes, tridents, hooks, lances, knives, revolvers, rifles, shotguns, percussion guns, flintlock guns, and more.

Finally, we explored the Museum of Regalia, Royal Decoration, and Coins. It contains an unusual assortment of items: betel nut trays, water pitchers, kettles, spittoons, and lip wax boxes. There are also royal swords, royal accessories, medals, etc. Finally, it displays Thai money and how it's changed over time.

After all this, Di Yin's parents headed back to hotel to hide from the heat.

Di Yin and I, meanwhile, ate lunch and continued exploring. In addition to street markets, we stopped by another famous temple: Wat Pho (the Temple of the Reclining Buddha). It's another photogenic temple, partially due to the incomprehensible number of towers (a.k.a. chedis or stupas). (Actually, according to one guide book, there are 91 chedis, but why it has so many is incomprehensible to me.) Thus, it would've been well worth the visit even if it didn't have one of the largest (if not the largest) reclining buddha in the world.

At this point, Di Yin was exhausted from the heat and so we retreated (via the series of boats) back to our hotel.

In the evening, we ventured out again, this time to the Suam Lum Night Bazaar/Market. As with everywhere else we went today, the captions by the pictures document the experience rather well. I have nothing to add here.

Bangkok: Mar 15: Arrival, Lumpini Park, and Food

Our trip to Bangkok began in Hong Kong when we awoke at 5am and took a shuttle to the airport. Our plane was mostly empty, likely due to fears the large protests in Bangkok (by a group commonly referred to as the red-shirts) would turn violent. (They did not, at least while we were there, but people were worried they might. For instance, the Hong Kong government issued a "red alert" against travel to Bangkok, suggesting that its citizens not visit the city during the protests.)

We grabbed breakfast at the airport and on the plane. I had a baked bbq pork bun in the airport and ate on the plane a lychee pudding, chicken-flavored peanuts, and a bready thing (with ham) that looked like a croissant but didn't taste like one. The plane food wasn't particularly good; the peanuts were remarkably nasty.

When we touched down in Bangkok, I took out my camera and took my first of what would be the day's many pictures. Di Yin also took pictures. The latter link goes to her first picture from her album for this trip . When you see a picture captioned "the ferry lights up at night" (picture #90), you're done with her pictures for the day. I'll link to the next day's pictures in the following post.

We took the airport shuttle to the public bus depot, the bus to the skytrain, the skytrain to another skytrain (transfer) to a ferry dock, and our hotel's short distance ferry service to our hotel (it's a short ride across the river). I took lots of pictures from the skytrain and from the boat.

We checked-in and enjoyed our hotel room's amazing view. It really makes one feel like king of the world, or at least king of the river.

After settling in our hotel, Di Yin and I ventured out for lunch, which we had at some street food stands we found. Next, we went to a bank to withdraw more local currency. In the process, we noticed that Lumpini Park, one of Bangkok's largest and supposedly most pleasant parks, was right across the street. We took a winding path through it, pausing often in the shade. (It was a hot and sunny day.) The park's a pleasant place, with a variety of small gazebos with interesting architecture. There are also animals, including crows and pigeons. The water was dirty, so it was hard to tell if there were fish. We also saw some people exercising. I can't believe they do it in this heat. On the other hand, it makes it easy to build up a sweat.

On the way home from the park, we wandered into the Silom Complex mall for an air-conditioned break, only to find a food festival on the ground floor! :) There was lots of strange stuff, things I didn't recognize, and no English labels. I would've taken a ton of pictures, but photography was prohibited and the security guard was actually enforcing the rules. :( Nevertheless, I had fun wandering and looking and occasionally trying.

Then, we headed back to the skytrain to the ferry to our hotel.

In the evening, the four of us emerged to take the ferry to a taxi to Chinatown, which is known as one of Bangkok's good street food areas. We walked down its main street, Yaowarat, ate, and stopped by a temple that surprisingly remained open at night. On the way home, we got taken for a ride by a taxi (so to speak), but we got out (not in the right place) without paying so it wasn't so bad.

Bangkok Overview

I traveled to Bangkok with Di Yin and her parents from Monday, March 15, 2010, through Thursday, March 18.

Bangkok is an interesting city and different from any other I've been (Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Siem Reap, and Malaka, to list those in Asia). I enjoyed exploring it and what makes it different. I'll remember three main features. First, the street food and street shopping is vastly more present in Bangkok than anywhere else I've been. Second, the city layout and its transportation system are quite varied, making it necessary in the normal course of events to take river ferries in addition to, for instance, elevated trains and taxis. Third, the famous temples and palaces have a distinctive, different flavor than anywhere else. More on each of these later.

Bangkok is a mostly developed city. It's certainly more developed than Siem Reap (Cambodia) but less developed than Shanghai. The roads are paved and major highways, many elevated, criss-cross the city. There's a complex transportation system. There are some air-conditional malls and restaurants. But, it's not as clean as, say, Shanghai (nearly fully developed) or certainly Hong Kong or Singapore or Western cities. (And the places in Bangkok out of sight are particularly bad: the back alleys near canals have sizable piles of garbage.) Also, as in Shanghai, people obey traffic signals, but lane dividers are treated as easily ignored suggestions.

People I met were polite, like those in fully developed countries. For instance, when boarding the subway, people let everyone off first before attempting to board. In addition, the people boarding form lines, and obey the line order. Indeed, queues anywhere are respected. Also, when the train or bus appears full, people don't attempt to push on (even if there actually is room). Finally, if someone is blocking the narrow (due to the street carts) sidewalks, people tend to wait rather than pushing the person aside or exclaiming angrily. These behaviors regarding the train are nothing like Shanghai and are, in fact, perhaps more polite than those in many Western cities (e.g., London, New York).

Bangkok is a street food city. Sure, there are restaurants in many places, but street stands are nearly omnipresent in every part of the city. They're perhaps an order of magnitude more present than in New York City, the city I think has the most street food carts of any other city I've visited. Incidentally, I know I talk a lot about food hawkers in Singapore, but these are grouped into food centres and the feel is entirely different. For one, eating on the street just isn't as comfortable as in a hawker centre. Also, the variety in Bangkok on one street isn't as great as in a Singaporean hawker centre, but obviously the food in Bangkok is much easier to find because so many streets have stands.

But as for the food itself, I was a tad disappointed. Perhaps it's because the bay area has many good quality Thai restaurants, but most things I ate I've had better at home. It's also partially (but only partially) a difference in tastes: many dishes (mostly noodles) were a tad sweeter than I'd prefer (which wasn't particularly bad for me, as I generally like sweet than more than most people I know). Even accounting for the sweetness, the quality difference remained. That said, the food wasn't bad; in terms of how much I appreciated it, I think it might be comparable to the average Thai restaurant in the bay area.

The selection of food wasn't as I expected. What surprised me the most was that the most common street food stand was for Chinese-style noodle soup! The locals seem to eat it (and soup in general) a lot. Personally, I can't deal with hot soups in such a hot climate. Regarding other differences, I was also surprised to see few curries; I had expected to see many of them, given their omnipresence at Thai restaurants in the states. In addition, I spotted many colorful kuehs (sweetened rice cakes) that I saw often in Singapore. In retrospect, as these spread from Malaysia, which borders both Thailand and Singapore, I shouldn't have been surprised to see them. Finally, one feature of Bangkok food that I definitely appreciated: there were stands of freshly cut fruit everywhere. Freshly-blended juice stands were also easy to find: great for hot weather!

Incidentally, I noticed Thai people generally eat with just a fork and spoon, with the spoon in the right hand and the fork used to push things onto the spoon. There's no knife and no chopsticks.

The transportation system is a bit of a mess. There's an elevated train system, called the "skytrain" by tourists, and also an underground metro system. The elevated and underground systems connect occasionally; the one connection place we used required quite a walk (half outdoors in the heat) between them. But these systems don't reach a good fraction of the city, especially the Old City and Chinatown. Those are actually best reached by boats that run up and down the river. There are also cross-river ferries that we sometimes found necessary. Furthermore, we also found taxis necessary sometimes, as the up-and-down-river boats stop running around dark. And none of these connect to the international airport -- for that you need a bus or a shuttle. Finally, there are some modes of transit we never tried: water taxis (so called long-boats) that are quite expensive, tuk-tuks (though who'd want to travel in an open vehicle on a road, breathing the fumes), and motorcycle taxis.

I found navigating the transportation system easier than I imagined given its variety and enjoyed the opportunity--nah, need--to try many of these options. Needing to take the boat everyday was fun. Nevertheless, even if it weren't true, I felt as if I needed more time than I should've to get places (maybe because the boat doesn't go as fast as I wish it could, and the transfer times between modes of transit is longer than I'd hope).

Pollution is bad. It feels similar to how Shanghai feels during the summer.

Language was sometimes difficult. Bangkok is a tourist destination so some people speak English, but it also does significant non-tourism business as well, meaning most people never learn. (Contrast this with entirely-tourist-focused Siem Reap.) Thus, guest-facing employees at our hotel speak English, as do the people who run the tourist boat and the people at ticket offices for tourist destinations. On the other hand, people who drive buses or captain the public ferries don't speak a word. Only rarely do street food people speak more than a couple of words. In the spectrum of being able to use English to get around, Bangkok is easier than Shanghai and Beijing but less easy than Hong Kong, Siem Reap, Singapore, Oslo, and Bergen. I can't compare it with Barcelona because I never tried to use English there.

The heat, at least when I visited in March (the beginning of the hot season), was tough. We'd end up sticky from walking around. I found it harder to bear than Singapore's heat, which surprised me. (The temperatures are rather similar, with Bangkok perhaps a couple of degrees C hotter, at highs in the mid-90s F.) I think it's because everywhere in Singapore--or at least everywhere tourists go--have air-conditioned venues (malls, subway stations, etc.) that are easy to jump into if one needs a break. This isn't the case in Bangkok.

Political Unrest
While I was in Thailand, there was a series of large protests by a group known as the red-shirts. (These continued and escalated for the next few months.) Some commentators worried about the protests turning violent, although they did not while I was there. We decided to plan our outings so as not to visit places where the protesters were; this turned out to be no big deal, as they weren't near the most famous tourist sites. (They were near a few tourist sites, places with names such as the Democracy Monument, but none of these were high enough on our list of places to visit so that we didn't even get around to considering visiting any.) I appointed myself the reader of news to keep track of the state of the protests. However, I needn't have worried: if I hadn't been reading the news, aside from a note from our hotel warning us about traveling (both for safety and simple traffic reasons) to certain areas where the protests were happening, I never would've realized anything was going on.

Unlike other times I travel, I'm not going to make a list of sites I missed that I should see next time because, while we saw a lot, we missed even more, including some top tourist destinations. (For instance, there are about eight districts that tourists visit; we didn't set foot in / see a single sight in four of them.) It'd be much better to consult a guidebook from scratch rather than make a list of the numerous sites I didn't get to see in Bangkok, which includes famous temples, museums, monuments, and markets.

Interesting fact: Thailand is one of the few (the only?) country in its region (south/south-east Asia) that wasn't at some point a colony of a Western power.

Hong Kong: Mar 14: Victoria Peak, Wan Chai, and more

On Sunday, my only obligation with Di Yin and her parents and family friends was in the evening, so I had the day to myself to explore. As I did, I took a goodly number of pictures.

I was up and out by 9:30am, with the morning goal of hiking around Victoria Peak. To get to the Peak, I made my way to the lower terminus of the Peak Tram.

The Peak Tram (actually a funicular) climbs an incredibly steep slope; it rises 1200 feet over 1.4 kilometers, with slopes as high as 27 degrees. It felt steeper than the funiculars I rode in Barcelona and Flam -- I was pushed back into my seat like a roller coaster. As for the technical comparison, the remarkably steep Montjuic funicular I rode in Barcelona is both shorter (0.75 kilometers) and shallower, with a smaller maximum steepness (18%), than Hong Kong's. The impressive Flam line, which I rode in Norway, does have a greater altitude change (2800 feet) but is much longer (20 kilometers); the steepest it gets is around 6%.

I found a small, neat historical gallery at the lower terminus of the tram. There, I learned that even fifty years after the tram was built (1888), the upper-class still rode in sedan chair carried by coolies. How exploitative of underclass is that?

It wasn't the best day to attempt to enjoy the views at the peak: the sky was overcast, and there was a ton of fog at the upper elevations.

Getting off the tram at the upper terminus, I was surprised to find myself in a mall. Indeed, there are two substantial malls at the upper terminus. (They were easy to build because roads wind themselves up the peak.) Atop one of the malls were free binoculars, a nice change from the ones in the states that charge money.

As the upper terminus is not at the top of the mountain, I decided to do the what-turned-out-to-be steep (500 foot elevation gain) hike to the top to see it and the adjacent Victoria Peak Gardens. This was not worth it. The views weren't much better and the gardens were nothing to speak of. Furthermore, the air was muggy when there was no breeze, making the walk rather uncomfortable.

In contrast, the 50-minute-long peak circle trail was definitely worth it in spite of the fog that only occasionally allowed one glimpses of mid-level apartment buildings and not much farther. After the peak hike, I almost skipped this walk. I'm glad I didn't. First, the trail began at the upper terminus and involved no climbing. Second, perhaps due to the different altitude or maybe changing weather, but the temperature was agreeable (no more mugginess). Finally, the trail was so pleasantly forested that it was worthwhile despite the impaired views.

For both hikes, incidentally, I was sometimes joined by chirping birds.

After completing the trail, I took the tram down, then walked to Yang Kee Restaurant for lunch. From lunch, I took the mrt to Wan Chai to finish exploring the neighborhood I began exploring the previous day. Walking this route through the north part of Wan Chai, I discovered quite a crowd: the H.K. Academy for Performing Arts was having an open house trying to recruit students. I also stopped by the H.K. Arts Centre, which turned out to be having an independent short film festival, but none of the movies playing at the moment struck my fancy so I moved on.

I walked along Wan Chai's waterfront for a little while, then took a bus to Causeway Bay, Hong Kong's primary shopping district. I found Causeway Bay packed with shops and people. Many streets were closed to vehicles, making getting around a bit easier, though I nevertheless found the crowds overwhelming. Next on my agenda: Victoria Park.

Beginning a few blocks east of the Causeway Bay mrt station and continuing for many blocks and into Victoria Park, I saw thousands of people who I believe are Indonesian domestic help. (Some may be Malaysian--it's hard to tell--but I'm leaning to Indonesian because I saw a couple of Indonesian restaurants just south of the gathering and no Malaysian ones.) The crowd was astounding. It must be their day off. All women, they sat in groups on and under pedestrian overpasses and lined the wide sidewalks and all the open space in Victoria Park. The vast majority chatted and picnicked, though I did see the occasional group dancing.

Victoria Park, by the way, is a nice multi-user space, good both as a pretty green space and for exercise/recreational activities.

I took a bus to the vicinity of the Happy Valley race track to meet Di Yin, her parents, and a few new-to-me family friends at Chuk Yuen Seafood Restaurant. It's one of those restaurants where you can pick your seafood out of tanks. We ordered a variety of fresh seafood and had yet another great meal, continuing the theme of the weekend, though by this point I was kind of tired of grand Chinese banquets.

Hong Kong: Mar 13: Chinese Banquets and Wan Chai

I took pictures this day. They cover the day in more depth than this blog post does.

Di Yin also took pictures. The latter link goes to the first picture from this day (picture #11) in her album from this trip. When you see a picture of Di Yin, her parents, and me in a tram at night (picture #71), you're done with her pictures for the day.

In the morning, Di Yin and I took a short walk around Kowloon hunting for breakfast, mostly stopping by sites I'd already visited (and so won't discuss again), then returned to hang out with one of Di Yin's dad's cousins.

He brought us to lunch, first by subway across the harbor to Hong Kong island, then a taxi the rest of the way. The taxi took us by a large cemetery, my first glimpse of one in Hong Kong. (It's actually the "Hong Kong Cemetery" but was formerly known, due to its location, rather inappropriately as the "Hong Kong Happy Valley Cemetery.")

We ate lunch along with one of the cousin's kids and family at the Happy Valley Jockey Club's restaurant. It was an excellent meal. Most items were one of the best renditions of their respective dishes that I've seen. I wasn't surprised: when I asked around the previous month, two unconnected people (one was B) told me the best place to eat in Hong Kong was the Happy Valley Jockey Club, but it's members only so it'd be hard for me to eat there. By great luck, I happened to get a meal there without even trying! (Di Yin's dad's cousin is a member.)

After lunch, Di Yin and I took the bus down to the neighborhood of Wan Chai, her for shopping and me for general exploration. Because I had only 1.5 hours to explore, I got to see only part of Wan Chai. Here's my walking route for this part.

This part of Wan Chai has many street markets... I just kept stumbling across them. I also found Queen's Road East, which seems to be devoted to home furnishings. The most stimulating part of the district, however, was on Lockhart Road. Formerly a red light district, it's now an edgy nightlife spot. I wrote down some of the names of bars on two blocks: Devils Advocate, Crazy Horse, Heat, Dog House, Club Venus, Amazonia. (There were more but I got bored of writing down provocative names.) Farther on, I found a block that remains a red light district, filled with girlie bars. Oddly, the next block quickly transitioned to kitchen and bathroom equipment (faucets, piping, tiles, etc.)--no more nightlife at all.

Incidentally, one walking map I had of this area included an interesting map showing where the district's coastline was during various years. (See page two.) The coastline has moved a lot.

Di Yin and I met up again and took a tram that wiggled across the island to the Western District, where we re-joined Di Yin's parents and some other family friends for dinner. Dinner was at Star Seafood Restaurant (Ming2 Xing1 Seafood Restaurant) and was also quite good (but not amazing, like lunch). We then returned, via tram and subway, to our hotel.

Hong Kong: Mar 12: Arrival

An event I've never seen before occurred on my way to Hong Kong. My 5:30pm flight was delayed one hour and forty minutes. Because this overlapped dinner time, the desk agent had all the passengers line up to receive their dinner trays. Everyone ate his or her airline dinner while still in the airport. Funky.

Nevertheless, we were also served a meal on the plane. Although the sides aren't worth mentioning, the entree was a pretty good mapo tofu, quite a contrast to the mediocre dinner we got in the airport.

In worse news, my plane was delayed another thirty minutes after I boarded it. I'm beginning to learn China Eastern (MU) flights are frequently delayed. Maybe I should plan for it.

After landing and a long shuttle ride through the border crossings, I made it to our hotel, the fancy Peninsula Hong Kong, around midnight. As I discovered when I awoke the next day, the bathroom is entirely marble and there's a television (and radio) built into the bathtub. My goodness!

Di Yin took some pictures of the hotel (the following day, but I figure they're appropriate to link to now). The link goes to the first relevant picture (picture #1) in her Hong Kong album. When you come to a picture of breakfast in the hotel lobby (picture #9), you're done with most of the hotel pictures. Here are three more: 1, 2, 3. I'll link to the rest of her pictures in later posts.

Hong Kong: Overview

I joined Di Yin and her parents for a trip to Hong Kong and Bangkok. Di Yin's parents and I arrived in Hong Kong on Friday, March 12, 2010, and we left early Monday morning, March 15th, for Bangkok. We returned the evening of Thursday the 18th. Di Yin and her parents then flew to Shanghai on Friday. I thought it was silly to fly back on Friday to a city I've already seen when I could stay the weekend in a city that's new and exciting to me. Hence, I returned to Shanghai on Sunday, March 21, 2010.

After these four-ish additional days in the country, my impressions are still the same as on my last visit, with a few additions. I'm still amused by the signs sticking out into the street. I still appreciate the numerous, sizable, pleasant green spaces.

And now that I've taken trams, buses, and metro trains, I'm impressed with the transportation system. (On my last visit, I basically walked everywhere.) There are many efficient ways to get anywhere (or at least as efficient as you want: the trams are slow but good for sightseeing). However, I found the bus pricing confusing. Whereas tram prices are fixed (and very low) regardless of distance and the metro is priced in a way that makes sense proportional to distance, bus prices vary depending on the route but are independent of the distance you're traveling. For instance, if multiple routes connect points A and B, depending on which bus you board, you'll get charged a different amount. (Each bus's price depends on how long its route is in general, not based on how far you're traveling, and these prices can differ dramatically.)

On the negative side, sometimes when I went hiking on this trip, I noticed haze, which reduced visibility. In retrospect, this was probably pollution, but at least it didn't feel like pollution when I was in the middle of nature. (i.e., it didn't feel like the pollution one feels walking along a major road.)

The largest change in my impression of Hong Kong from this trip is that I now respect its food. On my last visit, I didn't have great food luck. This time I followed Di Yin's family friends to a series of great Chinese banquets. That said, when I had to pick restaurants on my own, even with ample research beforehand, the result remained hit-or-miss. Nonetheless, I now know Hong Kong's cuisine can reach great heights.

On this trip, I largely finished seeing the major tourist sites in Hong Kong. Recall that Hong Kong basically consists of Hong Kong island, the peninsula facing the island, and a series of other, small, mostly-uninhabited islands (many national parks). (It turns out 40% of the country is "country parks.") The peninsula comprises Kowloon, the part closest to Hong Kong island, and the vast expanse of the upper part of the peninsula, called the New Territories. Well, I've seen the north side of the island (which is by far the densest) and Kowloon. I still need to see the south side of Hong Kong island, the north end of Kowloon, the New Territories, and nearly all the outlying islands. There are also a few places/activities within the areas I visited that I missed:

  • although I saw the amazing lights/light show on the buildings along Victoria Harbour, I didn't get to hear the sound that accompanies the lights. I should.
  • the Hong Kong Police Museum. Given Hong Kong's history with the triads, I figure this museum will be cool. However, it's currently closed for renovations.
  • more nature hikes, including the Bowen Road nature hike (which has an obelisk some people worship).
  • the Hong Kong Housing Authority Exhibition Centre, though I'm skeptical of its quality given my reaction to the Planning and Infrastructure Exhibition Gallery.
  • the University of Hong Kong and its museums.
Neat Facts:
  • Hong Kong is a 100% reserve ratio currency. The exchange rate between the Hong Kong dollar and the United States dollar is fixed, and for every HKD a bank issues, it must have the equivalent amount of USD in reserve.
  • You may have skipped over it in my last bullet but, yes, I did say banks print the money: three banks print monetary notes under arrangement with the Hong Kong Monetary Authority.