We knew that Koreans love to hike. Even if we hadn’t known that before coming to Seoul the sheer quantity of hikers using the metro would have tipped us off. Boots, backpacks, hiking poles, sun hats, we felt right at home with these transit enabled hikers. We hadn’t planned on turning our time in Seoul into a multi day hiking expedition, but that’s the joy of travel. Sometimes you just never know what’s going to happen and what you’ll find in a new place.
You may be realizing that what these views have in common is that we are looking down at the city. Down as in ‘we climbed a lot of darn steps to get up here’.
Rich found the first hike for us by seeing the mountain park from our 12th floor window and navigating us there hoping there would be a trail. There was. And there was an amazing accessible boardwalk style trail all the way up to a temple and a cafe. Maps.me was helpful, showing some trails, and Alltrails had some as well, but lacking a great mapping site we relied on Rich’s wonderful navigation skills.
Since hikers are getting to and from their hikes on the metro, there are also signs to get you to the trails from the neighborhoods.
The signage and maps varied in detail, and confusingly played fast and loose with having north be at the top, but on the whole you were well taken care of, signage wise.
Not only was the number of trail opportunities great, the amenities along the trails, and the construction of the trails were impressive. Very nicely maintained steps, benches and picnic spots, restrooms, and my new favorite thing – carpeted trails. It looks like jute, or coir, and for stretches that are steep up or down, or could get quite muddy, it’s super helpful. It also stops the usual trail ruts from forming, or the footsteps turning into hardened mud. And dang, carpeted trails – what’s not to love about that?
It’s not unusual for us to come to a city and skip the A list sights. Doing things we love to do, like hiking or biking, or even just walking city streets, gives us more insight into what life is really like in a place like Seoul. Seeing the neighborhoods far from the tourist friendly zones. Going into restaurants with basically zero idea what kind of food they serve. And hiking trails like these, full of locals. I tell Rich he’s never happier then when there are zero other western tourists. I developed a rating scale for him of tourist bombs – a high of five is a lot of tourists and not going to result in a happy Rich, and a low of one is good, but zero is better. After the tourist bomb rating is the wide eyed locals rating – which shows how surprised the locals seem to be to spot two big foreigners on their trail or in their small neighborhood restaurant. Our best hike was zero tourist bombs, and five wide eyed locals, the highest rating possible in my new rating scale.
In addition to good trail signs, there are informational signs about archaeological sites, and signs asking folks to please not collect acorns and chestnuts as the wildlife depend on them.
You might be thinking, ok, so that’s all impressive and interesting, but lots of places have trails, and signs, and views. Well hold on to your sun hats, there’s more.
The unexpected pleasure of hiking in Seoul was highlighted by all the amazing views. As you climbed up, wrapped around, or climbed down a mountain park, you got new views of a different part of this mega city.
I want to include some tips for hiking in Seoul: Keep your metro card charged up, all the hikes we did are transit friendly. Bring snacks or lunch, the smaller neighborhood parks might have a cafe, but the longer trails that we hiked didn’t. Bring water, we were able to refill on all of our hikes eventually, but bring enough water to last for most of your hike just in case. Now, how to find hikes. You can assume that every mountain you see has trails, but finding a trailhead might be a little tricky. Rich used a combination of google maps, maps.me and All Trails. You can find information about the Seoul Trail at English.Seoul.go.kr and on our links page. If you find yourself confused, ask a local or follow someone in hiking gear.
We’re at Incheon Airport now, slightly dreading the 12 hour fight to the US. I will definitely do a post about the food we ate while in Korea. The good, the not my favorite, and the mysterious that Google translate failed to help us understand. See you soon San Francisco.
We’ve been so thoroughly enjoying every day in Japan that we haven’t had much time or energy left to Blog. It’s a fantastic place to travel. But no place is perfect, and Japan has its weaknesses too, especially in the bike and pedestrian realm.
We’ve been travelling our preferred way by train, bus, ferry, streetcar, subway, and bike. With a lot of walking to the beach to explore and get to our lodging. We’ve been luxuriating in the clean, punctual, and extensive intercity train system. And the local public transit is always clean and reliable, if not always fast.
So here are a few transport observations. For you transport wonks and mega walkers, they may give you the same joy and a maybe bit of frustration if you visit.
1. JR Rail Pass- Unless you are going to only visit a few cities or rent a car, then it’s a no brainer to get one of these passes subsidized for tourists. We bought two three-week passes and planned our trip to max its benefit to a 4 week visit by setting the activation for the day we left Tokyo and expiring when we get to Fukuoaka, where we are spending our last 3 days. This way we were able to exchange our vouchers at off peak time at Shinjuku station and avoid the mob we saw at Narita airport trying to exchange them to use immediately from the Airport. We instead bought $20 local rail tickets to central Tokyo. It was then easy and cheap to get IC (tap) Transit cards to get around for a few subway and loop rail trips in Tokyo until leaving Tokyo for Kanazawa.
2. IC Card – Good for transit in most major cities. There are a dozen or so “brands” by region and they can mostly be used in other cities, although acceptance is a bit hit or miss outside the home zones. Don’t put too much on it initially, 5,000 yen ($40) is my recommendation, as you can always top it up but it’s hard to get a refund. You can also use them at many convenience stores.
3. Train Seat reservations – With your JR Pass, you can make free seat reservations for most higher speed trains (and Shinkansens). I found that I could get our choice if I booked at least 2 days prior to our next trip. You can do it at green JR Ticket machines in almost all JR stations. So I’d often get our seats for our next leg when we arrived to a city. If you book too early and want to change your trains later, you won’t be able to do it at a machine if the new journey overlaps with the old one. You will have to go to a JR ticket office which could take some time at busier times and stations. But, you can alway board in the unreserved cars, so no serious worries other than maybe sitting apart or standing for a bit.
4. Buses and Trams – they run on schedule (especially buses). You board at the back door and tap your IC card if available or if not, take a little paper ticket from a dispenser that indicates your boarding zone. You always pay at the front door as you leave, calculating your fare from the easy digital sign at the front. Put your stop ticket and fare in the box or machine. They can always make change. This also applies to some of the small independent (Non JR) local trains. Once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty straightforward (Especially with IC Card), but it seems pretty inefficient at crowded times as many people still pay cash fares. There is a flow from the back of the bus towards the front door, but it doesn’t match the ease and speed of a proof of payment system.
5. Walking – You will do a lot of walking in Japan which is mostly great, and wandering the alleys, hidden temple stairways, and quiet back streets is one of the great joys of Japan. One downside though is that the arterial traffic signal timings are long, so get ready to wait for for 2-3 minutes at some crossings. It’s very annoying, and really delays walking trips across town. The only time you see Japanese run is for crossings, as they know it’s a long wait if you miss the light.
Also, pedestrian crossings can be spread out on major arterials, with occasional overhead or underpass ped crossings in lieu of at grade crosswalks. It seems like a legacy of 1960s traffic engineering that continues in philosophy today, but stairwell underpasses are not good for an aging population.
So what about Jaywalking? A few people, especially in larger cities will jump a signal or cross midway, but 98% of Japanese wait until the light is fully green. As time has gone on in our travels here, we are getting less and less patient, and will cross at will when it makes sense and traffic is clear. We are surely going to incite a pedestrian revolt here!
6. Bikes: There are many more than you think, especially in flatter cities. But the bikes share most sidewalks and it’s all a bit chaotic, which could be solved by more on street protected lanes. Cyclists routinely cut corners and swerve across intersections and are an outlier to order on the streets. (Yeah cyclists!)
So my quick transport report card for Japan based on our scientific analysis:
Trains – A-….ok, amazing at a high level, but deductions for lack of App based e-tickets/seats please…and stringent bike policies keep it from A+
Buses: B+ Reliable; on schedule, and fair pricing but they get stuck at long traffic lights too, so can be slow in cities. And there are few express buses. BRT?
Walking: B- Wider sidewalks are needed in many places. Alleys and many quiet urban streets are very pleasant and low stress to walk, but many arterial sidewalks are a bit narrow or degraded by detectable rubber strips. I appreciate that these assist the vision impaired, but sidewalks are just not wide enough to accommodate them and side by side walking space. There seems to be a legacy of traffic lanes and road capacity. Giving more road cross section to peds, bikes and tram boarding is needed. Smart traffic signals could be used to mitigate lane reductions. Many heavy pedestrian neighborhoods in Tokyo and other larger cities have nice wide sidewalks in a new generation of streetscape designs, but many places still have a 1970s-1990s feel.
Cycling: C+ Quiet back streets and sidewalk cycleways do the trick, but more on street protected bikeways are needed everywhere
But enough nitpicking. As a traveler, the lack of personal safety concerns and good transport frees you up to focus on the unique culture, sights, and most of all, the food and friendly people. And oh man the food is SO good.
And it’s good value for most lodging and food, as long as you are willing to give up western norms and keep some distance from the tourist hot spots. The yen has weakened against most currencies over the past 5 years, so it’s a great time to travel here. Except in Tokyo, there are great 3 to 4 star Hotels in the $100-$125 range, and a bit more on the weekends, especially Saturday nights. And most include breakfast.
If you go for more modest 1-2 star hotels, then you can find many in the $70-$90 range. Remote or resort area hotels (often with Onsen or Rotemburo baths) are definitely higher in the $150-$300+, so will be a splurge if on a budget. It’s definitely better value than most of the US, and similar to Europe, although I think a bit cheaper overall. A few other lodging tips. Book some nice Ryokan or Onsen properties well in advance as they are lovely, but don’t do anything but go up in price or sell out. Small or exclusive places are not into last minute bargains.
And big western brand hotels in major cities here often 2-3x as expensive as local alternatives for a similar (or better) product. Avoid them, unless you only have a week and a surplus of loyalty points to burn. (For example, during the Sakura of late March, Marriott properties in Tokyo ranged from $600-$2000/night!). Big waste of money.
Another tip. Many western style rooms are cosy in Japan, at 120-180 sq ft, but if you book a twin instead of a “double”, the rooms are larger at 180-250 sq ft. They have two full or queen beds that can usually be pushed together. So you have a lot more space, often for just a bit more money. “Twins or Quads” seem to sell out first as locals know this too,
But as great as it is to travel here, it’s not all easy, as travel in Japan has its own breed of travel stress due to constant language and cultural nuances. And the country faces a battery of challenges, including rural depopulation, economic stagnation, and a location in an increasingly volatile region, just to name a few.
But we are judging against a high bar, as we are already talking about coming back to bike tour, renting an apartment for a month in Tokyo, or even a car tour to see more rural sights that are tough or impossible by public transit. If you do want to rent a car in Japan you will need an international driver’s license.
We are excited to head to South Korea next week, but first we are going to eat as much amazing food as we can in quirky and cosy settings, served by some of the most dedicated and friendly people in the world.
What is it that we love best when traveling? Walking and biking, of course. Sri Lanka has challenged us with the need to do taxi transfers and tuk tuk trips to avoid daytime heat or nighttime elephants, or to get from a hotel or guesthouse to a site.
Our first morning in Sigiriya, we had our guest house owner drop us at the west entrance and Museum to buy our tickets by 6:45 am, so we could explore and climb the rock before it got too hot.
First a capital for King Kashyapa AD 477–495, and then a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered one of the best preserved examples of ancient urban planning.
We were staying close enough to be able to walk back to our guesthouse for a late breakfast, which made us happy. Any time you walk in Sri Lanka you do have to decline a lot of tuk tuk offers, especially at a popular tourist site like Sigiriya Rock. But we press on and enjoy the walk.
Sri Lanka has no natural lakes. Starting in 300 BC the Kingdom began to construct reservoirs and tanks. The Sinhalese people were among the first to build artificial reservoirs to store water. These irrigation systems of the ancient world are still intact. Sri Lanka has ten thousand man made bodies of water, lakes, reservoirs, tanks, ponds, and stepwells.
With temperatures reaching 90f/32c in the early afternoon, our walk opportunities were limited to mornings and after 4pm. Not only is the heat and humidity oppressive, but the UV levels will burn this pale human in 15 minutes. Sunblock, long sleeves, umbrellas, that’s the only way I can get out and about.
Walking the small dirt roads is not without obstacles though. Sri Lanka has so many dogs, some wearing collars and belonging to a specific house, but many many more simply stray street dogs. Most ignore you after a hopeful glance for snacks, but some bark and come rushing towards you. Not fun. We accidentally solved the dog stress problem when I deployed my collapsible umbrella while walking by a dog and it recoiled in horror. Ah ha. Shade giver and dog deterrent – the humble collapsible umbrella.
Our second full day in Sigiriya we spent visiting the ancient and Sacred City of Pollonnaruwa. We had a car and driver to take us the 45 minutes to the site, and once there we rented bicycles to explore the site and it’s many amazing artifacts. Polonnaruwa was the second capital of Sri Lanka for three centuries between the 11th to 13th century after the destruction of Anuradhapura Kingdom (which we’ll also visit) in 993.
Riding bikes around this ancient site was such a unique experience, but we did wish for better curation of the experience. Even the museum, which we visited at the end of our ride around, didn’t do a great job of giving you a sense of how people lived in Polonnaruwa. We didn’t hire a guide, which most of the visitors did, so perhaps that was a mistake on our part, but we so much prefer doing things at our own pace and we know we’re happier without a guide. From what we overheard from the guides I don’t think we missed out on much information beyond what we had from our guide book.
The area around Sigiriya is not only an archeological sanctuary site, but also has elephants and rice farmers. We saw an elephant from the road when being driven back from Pollannaruwa. Our long walk took us alongside many rice fields. We were fascinated to see the methods the farmers use to either keep the elephants out of the fields, or to alert an overnight watcher of the presence of an elephant so an attempt could be made to deter the elephant using loud noises.
You never know what you’ll see walking around small rural roads. Local folks were unfailingly friendly and helpful. We reminded ourselves that the small children had possibly never seen tourists, the three years of very little to no tourism meant that their wide eyed stares were not a comment on our hot sweaty state. It can be a bit daunting to wander the back roads, but so rewarding.
Taking trains is a big part of our travel joy. Riding trains with open windows and doors, winding through tropical jungles and tea growing areas, feeling the soft warm air on your face, seeing life as the train winds along – that is magnificent.
Our go to train advice site, The Man in Seat 61, recommends sitting in the non AC carriages to take advantage of the open windows.
From what we’ve read the trains got much more crowded starting June 2022, when the rising cost of gasoline and bus tickets increased train ridership by 50%. As tourists we are able to buy our way into the comfort of the reserved carriages, but we do wonder why ticket prices for foreigners aren’t higher, as one encounters at museums and archeological sites. There is much need for upgrades to the rail system and new trains and higher tourist prices could help fund that.
We don’t want to sweep the problems Sri Lanka is going through under the rug, and post only fun photos without acknowledging the challenges the country is facing, but in many areas you don’t see the difficulties as a tourist. You can live your tourist life blissfully unaware of the undercurrent of struggle many are still facing. If you pay attention to little things, while in line at the grocery store for example, you recognize the stress on parent’s faces as they watch the register add up, and you hear from men who worked in Dubai but came home during the pandemic and are now working towards getting employment in Japan or Korea.
One of our drivers was taking Japanese classes. He had calculated that five years of work in Japan would be enough for him to come home and start a solid life for himself, his wife, and their two young daughters. As Americans who admire the bravery of immigrants, who come from a country of immigrants, we understand the determination and hope that the hard working people we meet find a way through and forward.
We have a few more places to visit in Sri Lanka, and I’m sure a few more rice and curry meals to eat. We wish we could support every single small business we come across, buy every trinket, and eat at every restaurant, but failing that we will tell you all that Sri Lanka is an amazing place to visit. We’re in Sigiriya now, more on that to come. Happy travels.
The diversity of Sri Lanka blew us away in our second week, as we headed further east and up to the highlands.
Based in the small town of Tissamahama , we choose to do two separate safaris to Yala and Bundala National Parks. And although the parks are relatively close to each other, our experiences were vastly different.
Yala is the most popular park and the one nearly every one visits. We chose the “half day” morning safari which leaves at 5 am and ends by noon. The drive in the open sided safari truck in the dark at dawn was refreshing and we saw an elephant and a jungle cat (rare to spot!) before we even got to the park entrance. After admission fees are paid, the Jeeps then queue up outside the gate until the opening bell at 6:15am. Then a somewhat crazy race ensues as 50-100 jeeps head into the park and pan out in Sector 1, one of the areas of Yala that allows visitation and borders the beautiful coast.
The scenery is arguably more dramatic in Yala with massive rock outcrops and a large river. And Yala has Leopards and sloth bears, which are not usually found in Bundala. But everybody wants to see a Leopard. After seeing a leopard in India, we weren’t as crazed to see one here, but did catch a glimpse over a somewhat comical scrum of gridlocked jeeps on a small side road (all roads are dirt and rough). As the morning pressed on, our guide was as able to find a bit more solitude as we viewed elephants and a vast array of bird life.
On our second day we opted for an afternoon tour of the smaller Bundala NP. It’s also along the coast but characterized by large brackish lagoons and coastal forest and scrub.
We actually enjoyed the intimacy of Bundala and we had a much better focus on amazing bird species from a fantastic park guide who has worked there for 20 years. And to answer the title question about elephants, “maybe, unless they are in Musth (male heat) when they can be aggressive and grumpy”
So here’s the other revelation of our time in India and Sri Lanka….I think I’m becoming a birder. It started with the enthusiasm of the birders we met in the Western Ghats, but has been building as I read and learn more, as well as using the fantastic apps by the Cornell Lab of Orinthology, Merlin and EBird
We will certainly be picking up binoculars or a monocular in Japan for sure. And birding and bike touring are a natural combination. This can now be added to the list of “things I never had time or patience for while working”….though most people had me pegged for the model train basement type-;)
We then took a car transfer up to Ella and the southern hill country of Sri Lanka, And although we were only at about 3,500 feet, we immediately appreciated the slightly cooler temps.
One of our challenges of independent travel and a focus on the trains is the need to be based in more touristed towns with services and connections. Some people choose to rent a car here and that does give you a lot more flexibility, but as we know, it also ties you down in other ways and makes working in the epic train opportunities here difficult. So our strategy is to be based in a convenient place with tourist services, but then try to do different things than the norm, usually via walks and treks.
Luckily there is a nascent long distance hiking trail in development across the hill country and mountains. The 300km, 22 stage “Pekoe Trail” has been initially mapped and stages are now available on many trail apps, including AllTrails and Wikiloc.
So in Ella, instead of being driven around in a van or tuktuk all day to see 10 random things, we walked two stages of the Pekoe Trail from Ella. They were both great and although touch a few very popular tourist sites in places (by design) we mostly had the trail 100% to ourselves.
The trail will be a brilliant addition to tourism options in Sri Lanka, and spread the positive tourist impacts out along many more communities and people than the current concentration on tourist hot spots. Interestingly it’s sponsored partially by a grant from the EU, which has certainly seen the success of long distance trails in Europe, such as all the Camino routes in Spain and Portugal.
We look forward to tracking the progress of the trail as dedication and signage is scheduled to be installed later this year. The lodge we stayed in Ella didn’t seem to know about it, or diminished it a bit as I think it’s seen as a bit of an existential threat to the tourism status quo, which is tour vans and tuktuks taking people around to the same sights and based in one of ten inland tourist hotspots. The coast is a separate beast and has hundreds of kilometers of beaches and towns, but mostly people focused on a tropical beach holiday.
We are continuing our journey in Sri Lanka, and are still awed by the universal friendliness of the people. We’ve had wonderful encounters with locals and some interesting conversations about the current challenges here. And there are still major economic hardships. Not enough jobs and opportunities for talented and motivated people. Not enough food for many who have slipped back into poverty.
And it’s been hard not to support EVERYONE we meet as they all have needs and a family to feed (and will often mention this), but we do what we can to be generous on our way. The boom times of tourism here from 2009-2019 were clearly different, but there is a bit of new optimism that things are finally getting better.
We sure hope so, but will also be voting for politicians back in the US that support more generous and compassionate immigration policies. We have an excess of space and opportunities to share still.
Rich and I last traveled in India over 16 years ago. He and my friends will attest that I did not have a great time that last trip. As interesting and unique as I found the country, there were things younger me couldn’t get past. The inequality, for women and for those less fortunate. The crowds. The traffic. Never being left alone to enjoy anything in peace. The poverty. It was a lot.
I think many travelers and tourists are overwhelmed on their first trip to India. Why, friends asked, are you going back? Well, I replied, we were only in the north in our last trip and people say that North and South in India are as different as in the US. Our first good chat with a local gentleman at our first dinner in Bengaluru confirmed that. He went to North India once, he said, from his native Bengaluru, and it was so different. Like a different country. And, I’m older now, more mature, lots of grey hair. Less likely to attract negative attention. Ok, so I did have my hair dyed purple before leaving Bangkok which means no grey is showing, and I have bright purple hair. Attention? Yes. But it’s my fault this time.
So, can my older wiser self settle in to enjoy India more than I did 16 years ago? I think so. It helps that Rich is an enthusiastic traveler in addition to being the best travel planner. We both love experiencing a place as independently as possible. Walking and taking transit as much as we can keeps us happy. Our only taxi in Bengaluru was from the airport to our hotel. All other trips were metro and walking.
Our last four hotels have all been within a block of a metro or subway line. Taipei, Taiwan, two different hotels in Bangkok, one above the MRT and one by the SkyTrain, and now Bengaluru, a block from a purple line station of the Metro. Not an accident, just good planning from Rich. We share a pretty healthy dislike of having to rely on taxis. Every car trip added to a city is a bad thing. For the air, for people’s safety, and for noise pollution. In India the noise is mostly of beeping horns, the scooters are quieter here than the motor bikes in Bangkok – thankfully. But the beeping! Incessant.
Since I’m still recovering from breast reduction surgery Rich is carrying both backpacks. Thankfully, the train station connects to a metro stop with a dedicated walkway so for our train ride to Mysore we again avoided a taxi trip. To enter the metro system you have to put your bags through a scanner, and then be wanded by a security guard, men to one side and ladies to the other in a small curtained booth. My first time I actually stopped for the wanding, but my second time I followed the lead of the local in front of me who didn’t even break stride as she passed through the curtains.
Our destination, Mysore, is less friendly to walking trips. For starters it’s hotter here, up to 90f/32c in the afternoon, and sidewalks are not standard. We feel a bit like square pegs in round holes, but we persevere, heading out in the morning to walk to what we can, and taking auto rickshaws back in the heat of the day.
A friend in SF sent us a link to a map of step wells in India (thank you Gisela!), and we took a taxi to this one a bit outside of town. This is a fairly simple stepwell, many are much more ornate. Built to capture water and as temples, construction of these stepwells hit its peak during Muslim rule from the 11th to 16th century – per Wikipedia.
Built in the 8th century this Kalyani, or stepwell, was cleared of garbage and restored in the past few years.
Stepwell visit complete, we had our taxi driver head back towards town and drop us off to wait for the train museum to open. Sitting on a wall in the shade and watching Sunday morning activities was actually quite nice. On our last trip to India I don’t remember being able to sit unmolested by curious or begging locals. Here in Mysore, although there aren’t many tourists back yet, most folks walk by us with only a curious look (Rich is quite tall and I have purple hair, so not unexpected.), a smile, or an offer of an auto rickshaw.
It pains me to be reminded that so much of the history tourists are encouraged to see and celebrate in India is colonial history. The railway has its roots in British rule. From an article by The Wire.IN “Between 1850 and 1910, 94% of Indian broad gauge locomotives were built in Britain and only 2.5 in India. During the Second World War, preconditions for purchases from outside of Britain were relaxed but still the overall balance remained disproportionately tilted in favour of Britain. Thus, prior to independence in 1947, India imported 14,420 locomotives from Britain, built 707 itself and purchased 3,000 from other countries.” However, we were pleased to see what to us are very familiar planning presentations for the ongoing improvements and upgrades to Indian Rail.
Although Mysore requires more auto rickshaw trips we are managing to walk to some destinations in the morning. The zoo. The Mysore Palace – which is the second most visited attraction in India after the Taj Mahal, apparently.
We went back to the palace on foot one morning. The neighborhood across the street from our hotel fascinates us. One thing I have found that I really enjoy when traveling is making eye contact with women, particularly women my age, and exchanging smiles. Sometimes the smile only come from me. Americans smile a lot, and if you ask other cultures we smile for no reason and it’s weird! I always make a special effort when I see women in a Niqab, the veil and face covering which leaves the eyes clear. Five years ago Rich and I were in Indonesia and both struck up independent conversations with a couple (bathroom at a train station), and she was wearing a Niqab. It made me wonder how often women in Niqab are overlooked, or even ignored, by folks who don’t feel comfortable with the idea of a women who veils or covers. In Indonesia we all laughed to see our partner walk out of the restroom chatting with their partner. When I make eye contact with a woman, of any age, and nod, and she nods and smiles back, I feel like I’ve made a connection, however small.
Our walk to the zoo took us through this neighborhood, and our walk to the palace. It was fun to see the children being packed into auto rickshaws for the trip to school. I counted nine children in one rickshaw. Ladies, I assume maids for the houses, were sweeping and watering down front stoops and steps, and drawing elaborate rangoli or korams in rice flour.
You can understand how a simple 15 minute walk to the zoo turned into a tour of its own.
So am I better at travel in India this time? Yes and no. We are more experienced travelers, but India doesn’t really suit our travel style. It’s challenging to be independent travelers here, which is why we see so many tour groups at our hotel being loaded into an AC bus after breakfast. It’s hard to book trains, or figure out local buses, and it’s challenging to walk many places. Rich has been working out in the hotel gym, but since I’m still recovering I can only walk. No yoga or arm workouts yet, so I’m feeling antsy. But the highs of India are indeed high and I’m glad we’re here. I love seeing and learning about new things. Tomorrow we leave Mysore and head to a lodge stay near a nature reserve. It’s not great tiger viewing season, but we can always hope, and the bird watching is supposed to be amazing.
This is our fourth visit to Bangkok. Bangkok is unique, fluid, and always changing. And we always look forward to further exploration of this vast and fascinating city, built over the swamp and floodplains of the Chao Phrayo River.
A lot has changed over 17 years since our first visit. There are new green spaces, MRT and SkyTrain extensions, and dozens (hundreds?!) of new malls and high rise buildings. But in many ways it hasn’t changed, including frenetic streetlife, food, and more traditional low rise and open living in most neighborhoods.
But the pace of change in urban mobility hasn’t happened as fast as you would expect, or in pace with other big Asian and global cities. And unhealthy air, noise, and traffic are still major drawbacks to daily life. Some of this is due to challenging and unstable governance, some due to a slowing of the economy and the pandemic, but at its core, Bangkok is fighting a legacy of car and scooter dependence that has been coddled, accommodated, and supported by street expansion and lots of (mostly free) parking at every destination.
Of course, the addition of more highways and toll roads has helped overall capacity, and apparently even the continuous congestion and traffic jams of 2023 pale in comparison to the true chaos of the 1980s and 90s before road expansion and rail transit began.
But it’s a catch up game, as the first SkyTrain (metro) didn’t open until 1999. Luckily, major development has been concentrated along transit corridors. And there are now 3 BTS SkyTrain lines with 62 stations and 2 MRT lines with 46 Stations. The buses seem to be a missed opportunity as they have little or no dedicated space and suffer in the congestion. These old buses belch a scary amount of diesel along the roadways into air often in the 150-200 (very unhealthy) AQI levels.
There is also an elevated driverless train line to the somewhat distant Suvarnabhumi (BKK) Airport that opened in 2010. These have all helped to reduce car dependence and expanded the reach of transit. But overall, the system is not extremely user friendly as the BTS, MRT, and Airport Trains are operated by separate companies, so ticketing is still separate and connections a bit clunky and congested. But it all works and much of the service is good. We just carried two fare cards and swapped out for SkyTrain to MRT trips, and bought an electronic single-fare token for our trip from the Airport.
We spent a week here in 2007 staying with two different expat friends. Outside of India, Bangkok was our first big Asian city experience. It was a globalization boom time. (And possibly peak?) We were mesmerized by the chaos and modernity of the city, then one of the fastest developing in the world outside of China.
At that time, we explored the country for 6 weeks, so saw the northern mountain regions, northeast rural and Mekong, and the southern peninsulas and fabulous islands. Like most western travelers to Thailand, we loved it. We stopped over here for 3 days in 2014 and 2017 as part of travels onward in Asia. Both follow up visits were enjoyable as we stayed in two different neighborhoods, but always close to a MRT or Skytrain station.
So fast forward to January 2023….two coups, military leadership, a new King, global slowdown, and three years of a pandemic devastating the tourist economy which accounted for over 20% of the GDP in 2019. It’s still the second largest economy in Southeast Asia, but the stagnation is obvious and frustrating for the hard working and constantly striving lower and middle classes.
Its growth and development is still chugging along, but it does feel like it the benefits of mega projects, skyscrapers, and industry are not reaching the masses. The unfortunate decision in the late 80s to embark on a massive roadway expansion in the city instead of transit set the patterns that feel intractable in today’s Bangkok.
On the bright side, a new central train station has been opened in northern Bangkok, that the government hopes to use as a hub of a vastly expanded rail network, with a specific goal for tourist service. Good plans if they can find the will and money to execute the plan.
Thailand still seems to need more tourist (and other?) taxes to pay for infrastructure. One of the highly touristed (and beautiful) islands Koh Tao has instituted an arrival tax for each tourist to help pay for much needed sanitation and environmental improvements, but it’s a modest fee (<$1), so progress will be slow. Thailand itself is also proposing an international arrivals tax of 300 Baht (about $10) starting in June, and monies are designated for accident services and development assistance. It still seems light based on the impact tourists have on the infrastructure. We all love Thailand, so we should help pay to make it more sustainable.
But the most obvious deficiency in Bangkok’s transport network is walking and cycling. It’s shockingly disconnected. The artery and capillary (Soi) network is disconnected by design and development legacy, as well as many routes being cut off by the remaining canals. But dead end streets are the nicest to live on and bring quiet from the chaos, so the challenge is to expand walking and cycling networks without inducing car and scooter traffic. It can work with some clever bollards, gates, or chicanes…and maybe some scooter traffic is acceptable as this would shorten trips for many from the arteries, as a grid is established.
So for us, this is a livability failure. The lack of connectivity has been recognized by some studies (See UDDC Goodwalk pilot plan) and a few small steps have been taken recently to improve pedestrian mobility, such as new ladder crosswalks and a corresponding law increasing fine for motorists violating ped ROW in them.
It is a bit encouraging, but pedestrians are still mostly a sub-species clinging to gutters, dodging scooters, and navigating a pretty hostile, polluted, and unpleasant streetscape on the main arteries. On hot and polluted days, which are many, it makes even the most ardent walker retreat to an alternate means. Tree planting and protection does seem to be coming with new development, which helps everything, heat, air, and sun protection for walkers.
But indeed this a just a drop of perspective from a non-resident Farang, and I don’t begin to pretend to understand the complexities of life and culture here. But the local officials and planners do. And many are working hard to make the long vision changes to lifestyle and infrastructure that will lead to a healthier environment and people.
Bangkok is a complex ecosystem of 11 million people, and finding the balance of economic growth and opportunity versus health, pollution, and mental health is tough. But as Asia often looks forward, I’m hopeful that next time we visit bangkok we’ll see more positive changes. Already they are considering a congestion charge, expanding the MRT, and modifying laws to improve pedestrian life. Just don’t move too many of the food carts out of the way….we can walk around!
I love the rush and excitement of flying into a new place. And since we transferred through Tokyo on ANA, we flew into the closer Songshan city airport (TSA) and had a window seat on a long double loop around the dramatic hills and skyscrapers of Taipei….a free aerial tour of the city where we would spend our next week!
Note that most longer flights go out of the much larger and more distant Taoyuan International Airport (TPE). But both have good rail connections right to the center, so no worries if you fly into or out of TPE.
Taipei is a world class city that just doesn’t rise to the top of most (western) tourists lists. But we think the Portuguese nailed it with the name “Formosa”, as it is a beautiful, prosperous, and free place.
It’s certainly a place that is receiving more attention in the global news due to the complex geo-politics associated with its status and ultra strategic location in the South China Sea. We enjoyed learning so much more about the history of Taiwan. It has left a unique legacy on the psyche of the country.
After the Qing Dynasty lost the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, they ceded Taiwan and the Japanese colonized and controlled Taiwan for over 50 years. When their occupation finally ended after World War II. a dictatorship initially led by Chiang Kai-Shek ruled for the next 40 years under the KMT party, with strict repression of free speech, detentions, and killings known as the “White Terror”.
By the late 80’s, a slow transition to a more open and democratic Taiwan started, and after the election of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 2016, it has solidified its place as a liberal and forward looking democracy.
They were the first Asian state to legalize gay marriage in 2019 and have 42%+ representation of women in the parliament as well as a female president. The Scandinavia of Asia?! Almost, but there is still a huge gender wage gap and other legacy issues of a male dominated business world.
However, we could feel the positive energy and openness in Taipei, although all within a society that still values social stability and conformity. It’s an interesting mix but definitely a positive one to experience, even as an outsider.
Here’s the Top 10 reasons we loved our week in Taipei and why you might too:
1. The Food – you can see Cheryl’s last two posts for lots of details on the food scene…great food everywhere, and the amazing and exciting night markets.
2. Unique culture – fun and quirky with a rich history influenced by indigenous, Han Chinese, Japanese, and western culture. There is also a strong fascination with Korean pop culture and clothing. It’s not quite like anywhere else, it’s Taiwan.
3. Efficiency AND Kindness – This is a neat and orderly city…people follow the rules and you will enjoy yourself more if you do too. Or at least make an effort. It’s an easy, extremely collaborative society, and everyone has built in empathy and spacial radar systems. You’ll never bump into someone or have them cut or push too much, even in crowds…it’s infectious and relaxing once you embrace the system.
4. The MRT! – a comprehensive and modern system that carries 2 Million passengers a day. Buy a EasyCard (IC Card) at either airport station for 100 NTD (New Taiwanese $, or about $3 US), load some fare and then tap in and out like the locals for 50c to $1 a trip. We had the airport station agent add 300 to each to start, so paid 800 NTD. If you get a funny beep or issue with your card, there is always a helpful staff person nearby.
There are also real time predictions at all MRT and most bus stops, so don’t be intimidated to use buses as well. Big numbers on the front…tap on and off with your IC card when you ride at the front or back doors. So easy.
5. Bathrooms – Seriously, Taiwan is the most bathroomed place on the planet (interested to hear about others!?). Every station has one (or two), public parks, museums, attractions, malls, night markets, parking garages, busy neighborhoods….you get the idea. And all free and clean, which really does reduce travel stress and the need to go into “camel mode” walking about like in some counties.
6. Greenery – Parks, long greenways (140km of bike paths!), and lush hills and mountains make for a pleasant backdrop, plus potted street plants liven up even the drabbest streets.
7. Clean air – not perfect but good for such a large city due to great public transit, fairly clean vehicles, frequent coastal and island breezes, and the greenery noted above.
8. Safety – Traffic is pretty organized and street crime seems virtually non existent. One of our only social gaffs was inadvertently moving a women’s notepad/binder/IPad? from a back garden of a coffee shop…we thought it belonged to the shop, and she came out surprised to see us in her seat…we offered to move, but she refused and headed to another spot upstairs. Oops.
9. Hiking and cycling culture – a great proportion of the world’s quality bicycles are made here (not to mention 90% of the worlds fast semiconductors), and they actually push cycle touring as a key component of their tourist advertising. On this first “winter” visit, we only grazed the endless mountain and forest trails that crisscross the spine of Taiwan… with many accessible by public transit.
10. Mixing with the locals – not many western tourists makes for a more exotic feel. And at least some English in most places makes interactions more rewarding. We’ve discovered this cool Asian capital, right-:)
Maybe you’ve been here and are nodding along, but if not, consider at least a stopover in Taipei on your next travels to Asia, or better yet, spend a few weeks or a month traveling around the whole island. Rail circles the island and the more developed west coast has a high speed rail network that takes you all the way south in about 2 hours.
The more you learn about the people, history and culture, the more you will understand the how complex the geo-political conundrum really is. Our hope is strong for a positive future for Taiwan and we definitely plan to come back soon to explore by bicycle.
So much amazing food. So many fun places to go to eat good food: shopping malls, night markets, little hidden restaurants in office building basements.
From our first meal we were captivated. We are so happy to be able to travel in Asia again. Taiwan only opened back up to tourists in October 2022 with no 14 day quarantine required. This is our first trip to Taiwan and yes, we are already talking about when we’ll come back. Hopefully for a bike tour. We mention that to everyone we chat with to get as many tips and recommendations as possible.
We’re walking and taking transit everywhere we go. Walk, museum, walk, snack. Walk, lunch, walk, bubble tea.
Taipei is justly famous for its night markets. We’ve gotten to four so far, and the mix of food and goods for sale, families, groups of youngsters, bright lights, and divine smells is intoxicating. Ok, I admit that when passing a stinky tofu stand the aroma is a bit overwhelming, but we did try the stinky tofu with lunch one day. Not bad. The taste is milder then the scent.
四兩刈包-台北創始總店/Si-liang Taiwanese Gua Bao, in the Zhongzheng District was our choice but many places make versions of this.
Taipei is also loaded with tea stands. Bubble tea. With boba. With jelly cubes. With any base tea or fruit juice you could hope for. Green tea, black tea, milk tea. Again, such patience from the staff. It’s nice to be in a place not overwhelmed with tourists. Type of tea, level of sweetness, quantity of ice. Be ready with those decisions.
Ok, another night market – this one really at night. And a Saturday night to boot! We expected crowds, and crowds there were. It was a bit overwhelming, but we dove in and immediately got in line for Fuzhou Black Pepper Buns (福州胡椒餅). Don’t let the lines discourage you, they move quickly and the staff have this down to a science.
Saturday at the night market was crowded. But people here are good with crowds, very collaborative.
A note on all the masks, Taiwan lifted the outdoor mask mandate December 1st, 2022. Would you have guessed that from our photos? Probably not. People don’t seem all that eager to unmask outside yet. We mostly follow the crowds and mask when we’re in busy areas or in line for food, but when it’s just us walking around we go mask free.
We have so many more photos and experiences to share, but I’m going to wrap up this post with one last food.
Eating our way through the markets reminded us of our recent time in the Basque area of Spain, and wandering the towns eating pinxtos. Similar ease of ordering, point and gesture if you don’t speak the language, hand over money, thank you and step away.
Let’s start with the architecture. And the way folks paint their buildings. The four or five color paint jobs on the Victorians always take my breath away, this one in particular. So bold. And the fence! This is a tour de force of color and joy. I love this house.
I haven’t found a better city for just walking around and looking at buildings. It helps that since there is so much money in the City now, more people seem to be spending to spruce up the lovely old buildings. SF has a boom and bust history, a history of rising from the ashes, and the care for these exteriors you see must bear witness to a deep love for this City. With each brightly or carefully painted building the mosaic of the city is enhanced.
Great buildings- check. What else makes San Francisco amazing?
Great transit. San Francisco has it. I admit that I have always lived quite central and in the northern part of San Francisco where the transit, biking, and walking are all good, and not every corner of the city is as accessible, but I have explored every corner of this city by transit. It’s better than many places we’ve visited in the US. It helps that SF is a small city, 7×7 Sq miles. With the help of MUNI you can explore all the neighborhoods.
And what gives us the great views from MUNI? The hills. Tough by bike and even on foot, but a climb up a hill is well rewarded.
Yes, I was that tourist standing in the middle of the intersection marveling at the hill. I love it when other pedestrians turn to look at what has me mesmerized. See! I want to say, look at that swoop of trees. So cool.
We have been so fortunate to stay with different friends each time we come back to this city we love, and left. Each stay in a different neighborhood lets us experience a new to us neighborhood and see a part of the city with fresh eyes. A wise person wrote that you can’t hate San Francisco unless you love it first. (In response to one of those ‘I’m leaving because of…’ letters.) It’s not tolerated to hate this city if you haven’t first learned to love it.
And love it we do. All the reasons I give above are nothing on the main reason why we love this City: so many good friends. We come back to recharge, to swap out stuff from our storage unit, and for Rich to get some bike rides in with his buddies. We come back to see how our city is doing, to find out if the continuing onslaught of wealth has chipped away at more of what makes this quirky city unique and lovable.
After Seattle our little City of hills seems so compact and charming. People are California nice, quick to smile and chat. It does make us wonder if we can settle anywhere else. So, a decision not to make that decision is made. We love SF, and we leave again. Houseless but not homeless.
Packed up and on our way. Goodbye again San Francisco. See you in about five months. Until then, stay quirky.