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

Alaska

me aboard a Holland America cruise ship

me aboard a Holland America cruise ship

My mom and I took a Holland America cruise in August 2001 along Alaska’s southeastern coast. It was the most pleasant time of year to visit America’s coldest state. The views were breathtaking in the daytime. One night, we ventured out onto the dock… big mistake. It was freezing cold, terrifyingly windy (howling), and as dark as dark could be out in the middle of the pitch-black waters. We scurried back inside immediately.

 

 

 

MUST-SEE

view of Juneau from helicopter

view of Juneau from helicopter

1. Ketchikan. The salmon hatchery at Deer Mountain offers a good learning experience, since Alaska is famous for its salmon industry. The best fried fish I’ve ever had was at Halibut Hole along the dock. It was heavenly — smooth, fresh, white fish from cold waters.

 

dog sledding with a lady from our cruise

dog sledding with a lady from our cruise

2. Juneau. Go on a salmon bake, if you want to watch a cook make your Alaskan meal in the wilderness and eat it in the same rustic surroundings. Take a helicopter ride over the beautiful, snow-capped mountains, land on a glacier, and go mushing (dog sledding) — we got to experience the speed of retired Iditarod dogs, an exhilarating ride. Seeing Alaska from the air, barely above the mountain peaks, is like watching one of those nature videos that shows sweeping shots from an aircraft, but you’re actually doing it and seeing it firsthand. Breathtaking.

Sitka Pier

Sitka Pier

3. Sitka. Kayak in Wilderness Sea — what a peaceful adventure in crisp, refreshing air. The Sitka pier is picturesque, like a postcard. From there, cruise on through Disenchantment Bay, Glacier Bay, and see Hubbard Glacier. Our ship was so close to the glaciers, I had a Titanic moment; I felt like we could almost touch the glaciers.
4. Valdez. Famous for the big Exxon oil spill but also a nice place for whitewater rafting. The waters are frigid and choppy, which made for a bad combination for me, when the water splashed into my whitewater rafting “warm” suit and ran down my back. Brrr…

Disenchantment Bay

Disenchantment Bay

5. Anchorage. Visit the Alaska Zoo, where you can see animals that roam the Alaskan wilderness, like bears. Of course, you can pay a lot more money for shore excursions that take you on bear-watching expeditions but don’t guarantee you’ll see any bears. From our cruise ship, we did see whales in the waters around us.

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.

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…