Asia


A strange title for this blog post, but an appropriate one. I took an overseas trip with several family members in January 2010. We spent several days in Hong Kong (my 9th trip to my favorite place in the world) and then flew to Thailand (my first trip there).

Hong Kong skyline across Victoria Harbour from Kowloon (our view from Intercontinental Hotel)

Hong Kong skyline across Victoria Harbour from Kowloon (our view from Intercontinental Hotel)

You can read more about HK in a previous blog entry. This time, we added a few more highlights to our memories of my parents’ homeland: Lan Kwai Fong (a dining/entertainment district near Hong Kong Island’s busy Central business district), Gwennie Tam Fine Jewellery (my cousin’s store in Central with high-tech, futuristic display cases and beautiful jewelry for men and women), afternoon tea at Intercontinental Hotel on Kowloon Peninsula (a breathtaking panoramic view of the HK skyline across Victoria Harbour), and exploring new shopping malls on HK Island and Kowloon Peninsula. We also attended another cousin’s wedding.

Thailand

Thailand is a colorful place, literally and figuratively.

Bang Pa-In Palace, Ayuthaya Province, Thailand

Bang Pa-In Palace, Ayuthaya Province, Thailand

PATTAYA
Our first night in Thailand was a jaw-dropping one.

Pattaya Floating Market, Thailand (photo taken from a boat)

Pattaya Floating Market, Thailand (photo taken from a boat)

We dined alfresco by a body of water (no one could tell me the English name) and watched local Thai soccer fans cheer for their team on the big-screen TV projection screen — and I’m talking about a huge screen, the kind that you’d find at an outdoor amphitheater. Nothing strange yet. After checking into our hotel (with a Pattaya Beach view, no less), we headed out for a walk to a nearby mall and outdoor fruit market. And that’s where we started seeing patterns. Men were picking up female prostitutes from sidewalks left and right. Most of the men were white; I couldn’t tell if they were tourists or lived in Thailand. There were also groups of a few men with one prostitute to share among them. I also saw couples — one after another — that were made up of an elderly white man (around retirement age or beyond) and a young Thai woman (in her 20s). It’s not so strange if you see just one such couple, but one after another by the same description tells you something about relationships in at least that part of Thailand. I had known Thailand to have a “vibrant” sex industry, replete with gay tourists hiring personal escorts in the form of underage teenage boys, but I was seeing the industry with my own eyes. It got even more interesting. A nightclub/bar with no doors or exterior facades (as in, open to the outside for onlookers to watch) had a stage showcasing beautiful women dancing. It took us a while to figure out they weren’t always women. That was our introduction to Thailand’s transsexual industry. In the U.S., you can usually figure out a transsexual really fast, but in Thailand, they’re much more difficult to pick out. The surgeries and other transformation procedures are much more well done.

Three-headed Elephant in Samut Prakan, Thailand

Three-headed Elephant in Samut Prakan, Thailand

We got tickets to Tiffany’s Show, the world’s premier transsexual stage show. It was a clean show — no nudity, just elaborate sets and costumes and beautiful music and dances, Vegas style. I was very impressed. If you looked closely at facial features, you could tell some of the women were once men, but with a few of the performers, you just couldn’t tell. They looked like Barbie dolls from head and toe — tall, thin, model bodies and near-perfect faces. They even danced like women, moving their hips fluidly and striking graceful positions.

Thai massage and foot reflexology services were advertised everywhere. Our tour package included an hour-long Thai massage, but we paid for a second hour to get the full-body treatment. It’s painful knowing how inexpensive massages are in Thailand, compared to what I pay in the U.S. An hour of massage in Thailand runs you less than $10, including tip! In the U.S., the nicer, cleaner spas charge upward of $60-70/hour. Thai massage was a new and laugh-inducing experience for me and some of my family. The masseuse stretches you in awkward positions and hits your bones in between staccato squeezes of your flesh.

Water sports made a morning at the beach in Pattaya City a fun one! We watched my brother parasail, but the rest of us dared not try. He and I went on an underwater Sea Voyage, wearing swimsuits, water shoes and helmets, and staying vertical so the water wouldn’t come into our helmets. After pinching my nose and “blowing” to prevent painful ear pressure, I was giddy to reach the bottom of the sea floor — about 20 feet deep where we were — where we saw coral, fed and touched fish, and touched other ocean creatures. My husband and I jet skied, while the rest of the family shopped the seemingly endless line of shops along the beach. We all took a few boat rides to and from an island and the mainland. The clear, green water was beautiful.

BANGKOK
In Thailand’s capital and largest city, you’ll find very developed commercial areas next to very run-down residential areas, where metal roofs of homes overlap each other and people live in more primitive ways.

Downtown Bangkok, Thailand

Downtown Bangkok, Thailand

We saw a panoramic view of the city from atop the city’s tallest tower, Baiyoke Sky Hotel, on a 360-degree rotating outdoor platform. There we also dined on a sprawling buffet of all types of Asian foods; the food was as heavenly as the height of the restaurant near the top of the hotel tower. Our hotel, Luxor: The Egyptian Design Hotel, was just as it sounds and truly one of a kind. Our rooms were two stories, with the bathroom, living room, closet, and desk downstairs and bedroom upstairs.

We visited Southeast Asia’s largest aquarium, Siam Ocean World, filled with very interesting, exotic sea creatures. On the outskirts of Bangkok, we visited Buddhist temples of traditional Thai architectural design, took a wooden-boat dinner cruise at sunset down the Mekong River, and toured the Bang Pa-In Royal Palace. We also saw the faithful arrive in droves to buy incense and flowers to worship the 4-faced Buddha and release birds from cages to bring favor upon themselves from the gods. The open-air shrine was located right next to a Burberry store and other buildings and elevated highways — an interesting juxtaposition, considering how the area was far less developed more than two decades ago, when my father visited the same spot. In the nearby Samut Prakan province, we saw an imposing 3-headed, giant elephant at the Erawan Museum. It’s a symbol of the Hindu influences in Thailand. We rode a real elephant through a park and swamp, sat on an elephant’s tusks which the animal brought together to form a “chair,” and pet a baby elephant as it performed tricks.

elephant in Pattaya, Thailand

Julie on an elephant in Pattaya, Thailand

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Japan

I found the cleanest place in the world I have ever seen, in July 2002… Japan. I toured the southern part and went back six years later, in 2008, to see the northern island of Hokkaido.

Asakusa
After landing at the Tokyo Narita International Airport, we started our tour in Asakusa, seeing a temple. It’s almost like, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Nevertheless, Japanese temples are tranquil places, where beautiful cherry blossom trees flourish and the sound of flowing water is usually never far.

Mt. Fuji

Mt. Fuji

Tokyo
The capital of Japan is what you would imagine but so much better. It’s a high-tech mecca full of business people rushing around, but it’s not like New York City (no offense) — Tokyo is clean, and the people are ultra polite. The Ginza Tower, well, towers over one part of the city. And from our hotel room, we could see Mt. Fuji, the country’s tallest mountain and what I think is the world’s most beautiful mountain.

Yokohama
This pretty oasis of serenity is also Japan’s second largest city, where modern buildings line the skyline and young men (they could have been teenagers) await customers wanting a ride on a rickshaw.

vending machine in Toyohashi

vending machines in Toyohashi

Toyohashi
We took a bullet train from the Hamamachi train station to Toyohashi. Bullet trains are among the fastest in the world, screaming toward you like a white ghost while you wait on the loading platform. You shouldn’t stand too close to the track because the wind produced by the high-speed train is so strong, you might get blown over. The ride, though, was amazingly smooth. Everywhere we went, including in this city, I bought green tea ice cream: from vending machines, from ice cream stands, from cafes. I took full advantage of its widespread availability. We also visited the beautiful Kinkakuji Temple’s Golden Pavilion.

Kinkakuji Temple's Golden Pavilion

Kinkakuji Temple's Golden Pavilion

Kyoto
Models put on a fashion show at the Nishijin Textile Center, where we saw seamstresses make kimonos, yukatas, and other Japanese clothing.

Osaka
Perhaps my favorite city in Japan, it’s home to the majestic Osaka Castle and Shinsaibashi Suji (a mile-long, outdoor shopping arcade), where I had my first Starbucks green tea frappuccino. I prayed that Starbucks would start selling it in the U.S., but I had to wait a couple of years before this delightful drink made its way to my home country. With several blocks of stores, I indulged in more than just green tea frappuccino; I had green tea, green tea ice cream, green tea frozen yogurt, and green tea slushie. I also fell in love with the Sony store — designed so much more high-tech and modern than computer/technology stores in the United States. Pachinko (a cross between pinball and slot machines) parlors were abundant in this shopping arcade, and there was no shortage of people playing the game. Funny enough, I felt like I stuck out in Japan, especially in Shinsaibashi Suji, because I have naturally black hair, whereas most Japanese young people dye their hair brown or even blond.

Shinsaibashi Suji

Shinsaibashi Suji

Nara
In Nara Deer Park, we got up close with graceful deer. And of course, we visited Nara Temple and Todaiji Temple.

Kobe
Kobe Tower at Kobe Port is an impressive red structure that’s a landmark among other uniquely designed buildings.

Read about my second trip to Japan, during which I traveled throughout Hokkaido, in an earlier blog entry.

China

Dongguan

Dongguan, China

Dongguan, China

In July 2002, I boarded a Turbojet ferry from Hong Kong with my mom and a long-time friend, bound for mainland China across the South China Sea. It was my first time to visit the mainland, after having been to Hong Kong (a British territory that was handed back to China in 1997) and Taiwan (Republic of China) several times. We arrived in Dongguan, a city in the Canton province. It’s almost like a gateway between mainland China and HK because there’s a lot of travel between the two places, and people speak Cantonese in both (though the accent is a little different). I don’t have any recommendations on specific places to see in Dongguan because I spent only half a day there, but I can tell you about my experience.

jewelry gold-plating factory

jewelry gold-plating factory

My mom’s friend owns a jewelry gold-plating factory in this city of close to 8 million people. As with any other factory, young people, predominantly women in this one, were hard at work churning out rings dipped in 24k gold. A lot of other industrial plants line the area, where life is slower than in the bigger cities of China. Funny, this city of 8 million isn’t considered that big in the world’s most populous nation! Most people ride bicycles and motorcycles (we rode one), buzzing through the otherwise quiet streets. People take afternoon naps at their fruit stands in the open-air market, as customers browse. Speaking of food, red-bean-and-milk slushie drinks are refreshing on a hot, summer day. I had one at a cafe. And Chinese food is cheap.

In the not-too-distant future, I plan to spend a few weeks traveling across the vast, diverse land of China, where you can find extremes in weather, food, sizes of people, urban-rural life, buildings, and everything else. It’s an amazing country, as demonstrated in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, especially in the Opening Ceremony. It’s full of history, some of it personal. My mother was born in mainland China before fleeing with her family to Hong Kong when she was a baby because the Communists took over and my grandpa (my mom’s dad) was an adviser to the Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai Shek. My father’s parents had moved from the mainland to HK earlier, so my dad was born in HK.

Philippines

Click image to see full size.

me (as a child), Mom, maternal Grandpa

When my late maternal grandfather, Dr. Lieh Fu Chen, was not in session as a Taiwan senator, he was director of Cebu Eastern College in Cebu City, Philippines, a post he held for more than 30 years. A building was named after him, as you can see in this video (which refers to him as Dr. Chen Lieh Fu because the last name comes first in Chinese). He had fled mainland China when the Communists took over because he was an adviser to China’s Nationalist president Chiang Kai-Shek. My mom is the youngest of Grandpa’s four children.

Life…
The Philippines is a special, very personal place for me. I visited Grandpa (Gong Gong, in Cantonese) there several times throughout my childhood and teen years. One of my trips with Mom took 27 hours, from takeoff to landing (multiple flights, of course, and going through Manila) — my longest air trip ever. Every time we landed at the airport, men would swarm us to try to carry our luggage for cash. We declined. Gong Gong took me to my favorite restaurant, Lighthouse, where beautiful seashell sinks allowed you to wash your hands in the dining room before eating your dinner with your hands — I remember savoring rice wrapped in banana leaves with a variety of meats. Gong Gong‘s personal assistants took me to class at his school, so I could experience Filipino education. It’s been so many years that all I remember is watching the students do fun Christmas projects and things we American kids liked doing, too. My mom and I stayed in the dormitory, where Gong Gong lived. And Mom told me stories from his books about everything from politics to supernatural encounters.

… and Death

Grandpa's state funeral

Grandpa's state funeral

Those were the happier times. During the fall of my senior year in high school, we got the call to Houston that Gong Gong had died. He was a ripe 91 years old — God bless him — but it was sad, nonetheless. I missed several days of school to attend his funeral. It lasted one week, and I was there almost the whole time. It was an experience I will never forget. Being a government dignitary, Grandpa lay in state for people from across the world — from ambassadors to all sorts of friends — to view him. We, as family, were there to greet the hundreds of visitors every day. And at the end, we walked in his funeral procession up a hill for him to be cremated. Afterward, we picked out his bones from the ashes to save them in an urn to be displayed in a Houston mausoleum, where some of our family live.

A land I want to visit again
Now that I’m married, I would love to take my husband to this land full of friendly people who honk when passing other drivers, for safety. This land of the sweetest mangoes and creamiest coconut ice cream. This land of very inexpensive hand-crafted trinkets. I want to take my husband through the halls of Cebu Eastern College to see everything my grandpa touched.

The last destination on my summer trip to East Asia…

Macau

facade of St. Paul's Roman Catholic Church, which burned down (casino in background)

facade of St. Paul's Roman Catholic Church, which burned down (casino in background)

A 45-minute Turbojet ferry ride from Hong Kong across South China Sea, Macau is like a mini-Hong Kong. Similar architecture grace Macau Peninsula, and long bridges connect the peninsula to Taipa Island. Macau is China’s other Special Administrative Region (in addition to Hong Kong). This “casino town” has surpassed Las Vegas as the world’s largest gambling operation, which makes it one of the world’s wealthiest places. Once governed by Portugal, Macau retains its Portuguese and Chinese influences in language, food, and architecture.

MUST-SEE

Macau Tower

Macau Tower

1. Macau Tower. If you’re not afraid of heights, you can brave the world’s tallest bungy jump. Or just enjoy an unobstructed view of the peninsula from the indoor or outdoor observation deck.
2. Casinos. If you’re into gambling or eating at buffets, you’ll find some familiar casino-hotels also located in Vegas, including Sands and Wynn. From Fisherman’s Wharf, you can gaze across South China Sea, lined with elegant bridges.

Macau casino-hotels

Macau casino-hotels

So where am I going next? It depends on scheduling and other factors, of course, but I’m anxious to visit Greece, Eastern Europe, Northern China, India, Spain, the United Arab Emirates (which is trying to become like Hong Kong), and so many other places. Before that though, I’ll take a trip down memory lane and write about my past travels to Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and other parts of East Asia. Thanks for reading and stay tuned…

Country #3 on my exhilarating journey through East Asia this summer…

Hong Kong

Hong Kong Island (foreground), Kowloon Peninsula (background) on HK Harbor

Hong Kong Island (foreground), Kowloon Peninsula (background) on HK Harbor

My favorite place in the world… and the biggest adrenaline rush

Jumbo Kingdom Restaurant on Hong Kong Island

Jumbo Kingdom Restaurant on Hong Kong Island

“Wow.” That was the first and only word out of my husband’s mouth, as he sat speechless after our airplane broke through the clouds, and before our eyes was the world’s most exciting commercial mecca, like a scene from Star Wars. I’ve been to Hong Kong eight times now, and it still leaves me awestruck every time. It’s no wonder parts of Batman: The Dark Knight were shot here — with Batman jumping off Hong Kong’s tallest building (top 10 in the world), the International Finance Centre. “Hong Kong” means “Fragrant Harbor” in Chinese. I’m not sure that captures the essence of my favorite place on Earth. Words don’t do it justice. Hong Kong (HK) is a place where you can’t fall asleep at night because you want to be out in the middle of all the excitement; where restaurants and stores stay open past midnight; where buses come in double-decker form because too many cars and taxis are on the streets; where some buildings are so tall and thin, you wonder how they stay standing; where thousands of watercraft compete for space on the harbor; where you have to walk fast if you don’t want to get trampled on the sidewalk; where women (and men, for that matter) are thin and fashionable (HK fashion is at least several months ahead of the U.S., so I got ahead before coming home); and where the subways (and subway stations) are clean and the escalators send you on a fast ride (there are more than 7 million people in HK after all, so they have to move people!). It’s a place that never sleeps.

Nathan Road in Kowloon

Nathan Road in Kowloon

As an S.A.R. (Special Administrative Region) of China, HK maintains a separate economy under the Mainland’s control. You used to hear mostly Cantonese spoken in the streets, but since the handover to China, you hear a lot more Mandarin, which is sad for someone like me, since Cantonese was my first (and favorite) language. But then again, HK is also very international — Europeans, Africans, and people from all across Asia love to live in Hong Kong — and that’s another thing that makes this place unique. There are so many taxis, there are three different colors: red taxis on HK Island and Kowloon Peninsula, blue on Lantau Island, and green in New Territories. I love everything about Hong Kong. The energy, bright lights, frantic pace, sharp-looking people, and table sharing. I cry every time I leave.

double-decker buses on Nathan Road

double-decker buses on Nathan Road

A journey back in time
My parents grew up in Hong Kong. My dad was born there. My mom moved there when she was just several months old. Before this trip I had never thought about doing this, but this time I felt a yearning in my heart to visit the place where my mom grew up. I think it means more to me now than when I was younger. We took a taxi on Kowloon Peninsula from the south end of Nathan Road to the north end. As we neared my mom’s old neighborhood, she recognized few familiar buildings. Most of the originals had been torn down and replaced with much taller structures, as Hong Kong outgrew its land space over the years. It was an emotional

Julie with her mom and husband off of Nathan Road

Julie with her mom and husband off of Nathan Road

experience for me to walk up to a condo high-rise that was now in place of my mom’s former home, which was only three stories tall decades ago. My mom’s eyes lit up as she told us how she would walk to elementary school and the nearby hospital where she took one of her brothers when he fell and hurt himself. There’s no better history lesson than witnessing changing times with your own eyes.

MUST-SEE

night view of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak

night view of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak

1. Victoria Peak. Take the Peak Tram to the top of the mountain that gives you a breathtaking view of what’s widely recognized as the world’s best night view: Hong Kong Island, Kowloon Peninsula (attached to Mainland China), and Hong Kong Harbor. On Victoria Peak is a shopper and video gamer’s paradise. Tourists can find all their souvenirs. EA Games allowed people to try out their video games for free — unlimited play!
2. Symphony of Lights. This nightly show, after sunset, lights up the Hong Kong skyline with a laser and music show. It’s best seen from the Kowloon side on the Avenue of Stars (HK’s version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame), which pays tribute to such Cantonese stars as Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, and Michelle Yeoh.

Julie at a rainy, windy Symphony of Lights

Julie at a rainy, windy Symphony of Lights

3. Hong Kong International Airport. Rated the world’s best airport by Skytrax’s World Airport Survey seven of the past eight years, HK International Airport (HKIA) is a destination of its own, replete with great dim sum, classy shops, and sleek design, set on Lantau Island. I feel fortunate to have flown in and out of two of the world’s top three airports: HKIA and Seoul Incheon.
4. Repulse Bay. You’d think folks in Hong Kong are self-deprecating, with names like Repulse Bay and Junk Bay for beaches that are anything but repulsive or junky. They’re exquisite and sit alongside Hong Kong’s impressive mountains topped with high-rises that rise up to incredible heights.

Repulse Bay

Repulse Bay

5. Nathan Road. This super-busy street is the heart of Kowloon Peninsula and a popular destination for tourists and locals. You can find the best food, shopping, serene Kowloon Park, and places of worship. And foreigners shouldn’t worry; most people in HK speak English. After all, HK used to be under British rule. There’s something going on at literally all hours of the day and night. Hong Kong never sleeps.

delicious dinner at Shanghai Xiao Nan Guo in Tsim Sha Tsui Centre in Kowloon

delicious dinner at Shanghai Xiao Nan Guo in Tsim Sha Tsui Centre in Kowloon

Just one more place left on this East Asia vacation… Hong Kong’s glittering neighbor: Macau. If you like glitzy hotels and casinos along the sea, this is your next vacation spot. Come back next week!

On to the second leg of my 2.5-week summer trip through East Asia…

Taiwan

Saqib (Julie's husband) in Taipei's Hsimenting shopping district

Saqib (Julie's husband) in Taipei's Hsimenting shopping district

I’ve been to the city of Gaoxiong, but this time I spent all my time in the capital of Taipei (I’ve been there a few times before), where the world’s tallest building kept my eyes gazing skyward everyday and left my heart pounding. Even with a population of more than 2-million people, this fast-paced city still manages to keep its streets and sidewalks clean. The public transportation is actually pleasant to take. Unlike big cities in other parts of the world (I won’t name names!), Taipei feels safe to walk around at night. Families with children play in the park past 10 p.m., and so do Tai Chi enthusiasts.

MUST-SEE

Julie outside Taipei 101

Julie outside Taipei 101

1. Taipei 101. The world’s tallest building. It’s not plain like Chicago’s Sears Tower, for example. Rather, the skyscraper is stacked and wrapped like a present. The view from the observatory on one of the highest floors of the office building is like looking down on a Sim City — tall buildings look small. The observatory also features a history lesson on the next nine tallest buildings in the world. The shopping portion of the building is full of high-end stores and a basement food court.
2. Grand Hotel. Bathed in luxury, ornate decor, and the color red, the Grand Hotel claims to be the world’s only hotel featuring traditional Chinese architecture and style. Dignitaries and leaders of nations stay there. Once you enter it, you want to stay forever.
3. Sogo. There’s a new Sogo and an old one. While the new one is very nice, I still find charm in the old one, which hardly looks old. Scarcity of land forced the developers to build vertically, so this department store is 18 stories tall. You could spend a day inside, from the basement food court (which I like to call “food heaven”) to the aisles of trendy clothing to the floors of electronics and toy’s. The food court is not your typical mall food court; this is a high-class experience.

Saqib (Julie's husband) outside Grand Hotel

Saqib (Julie's husband) outside Grand Hotel in Taipei

4. Night market. The sizzling steak platters and the smell of stinky tofu — which tastes so much better than it sounds — draw you in. The Taiwanese like staying up late and they like heading out to after-dark, outdoor food courts and shopping wonderlands. Shilin is one of the more famous ones.

Next week, visit the world’s most exciting place with me… Hong Kong! Still to come… a journey to the perfect mix of Chinese and Portuguese in Macau.

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