Monday, November 30, 2009

CHINA: The Bund


Amidst the suffocating smog and the constant honking of motorcycles in its narrow streets, Shanghai stands proud and tall as China's largest city with over 20 million people and as the commercial and financial center of the Middle Kingdom. Shanghai conjured up images of New York City in my head -- the crowded streets, its cosmopolitan population, and its skyscrapers that made me realize how tiny I was. The city was perpetually busy and everyone seemed to be rushing to go from one place to the next. Most of the people I met were unfriendly and snobby which is probably why I didn't like Shanghai as much as Beijing, the next city we visited. Nevertheless, Shanghai is a lovely city -- busy and serious at daylight but hip and chic at night.

Busy Shanghai


Rice for cash?



No, that's not a spaceship behind me. 
(L-R: Raf, Jose, Ayyoub, Nathan)

To tourists, Shanghai is particularly known for The Bund, an area by the Huang Pu river that showcases a number of buildings of various architectural designs -- Baroque and Gothic, to name a few. The skyline at night reminded me of Tsim Shah Tsui in Hong Kong because of the bright lights juxtaposed with quaint buildings that reflected on the river. The temperature was about three degrees when we strolled The Bund that night. At this temperature, you have to wear at least a few layers of shirts, a jacket, a bonnet and a pair of gloves lest you lose your limbs to the cold. In spite of that, we had the smart idea to eat a McDonald's sundae cone for dessert. That was the only time I've seen ice cream stay frozen that long! We ate while watching the choreographed lights show from the gigantic building in front of us. Brrr!

Ice Cream!

Brain freeze galore!

Lights Show

More lights

What next?

Didn't see that coming!


The spaceship-looking tower is called the Oriental Pearl Tower, completed in 1995. Attracting about three million tourists a year, this tower is actually a television tower with some observation decks at the top. A concert was also held here some time back. It looks like an alien mothership that could take off to space at any moment. Up close, it's candy-like colors and the beams of light from its base made the tower into a contemporary masterpiece on the night sky canvass.

Pudong Skyline

Walking around The Bund

Floating Restaurant

Like Tsim Shah Tsui

The base of the tower

3, 2, 1...Houston we have a problem.

The moon as its spotlight

Drinking a cocktail after a long day of sightseeing while hearing the hustle and bustle of people rushing home never felt as relaxing as the first night we spent in Shanghai. With the Pudong Skyline in view and the rest of China to discover, we raised our glasses for a toast.  More stories about Shanghai in the next entry!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

CHINA: Forty-Hour Ferry Ride

SEA OF JAPAN (Between Japan and China)

My friends and I took a forty-hour ferry ride from Osaka, Japan to Shanghai, China. Since we had time to spare, we took the cheapest option available which was to cross the Sea of Japan by boat. Our group was composed of nine people - two Moroccans, three Americans, one Brazilian,  one Filipino-American, one Ecuadorian and one Filipino. The ship, named CHINJIF, is actually a cargo ship that links Osaka-Shanghai, its only route. There were only about four private rooms and a common sleeping area for the passengers. I guess the shipbuilders realized they had extra space so they made cabins for low-budget passengers like us. We traveled during the peak of winter with temperatures dropping to as low as  five degrees on a sunny day.

China group

Hanging out at the ship lounge

Jose from Ecuador outperforming the Chinese karaoke master

The food they served on-board was crappy. The spring roll was too oily, the dumplings were cold, the vegetables looked rotten and the porridge was thin and tasteless. I almost finished half of the soy sauce into my bowl. Well, we got what we paid for! But at least there was coffee.

With the boat constantly rocking from side to side, seasickness started to settle in our stomachs. A few hours into the trip, I felt my legs turn into jelly. I couldn't stand straight and my vision started to spin. Almost everyone had it save for Jose from Ecuador who apparently runs a fishing business back home. We felt our stomach constantly turning and vomit trying to break free from our throats. I spent the next 30 hours just lying down on the bed lest I make a regurgitated mess. A group of Chinese ladies suffered the same fate. Some couldn't keep it and just let go in the hallway. The corridor smelled sour.

Dying from seasickness

Cabin talk

How was the beef? It was OK.

Ship food. Not good.

It was chilly outside and the wind was so strong that it was it took all my strength to pry open the door to the main deck. After I let go, the thick metal door instantly slammed shut and banged the door frame. It was like a dynamite explosion that shook the whole boat. The night was terrifying to say the least, like a scene taken straight from Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger. In our room, there was a small window from where we saw the bluish sky which glowed with moonlight and starlight. Midnight struck and the gleam of the sky suddenly whithered into complete darkness. The ferry entered a thunder storm that roused the peaceful ocean into an angry mob of waves. Rain and sea water splashed on our cabin window. Every now and then, a flash of lightning would illuminate the sky. From the window, I saw the horizon wobble from one side to the other with each flash of light. I heard the metal cargo containers slide and hit the walls as the ferry danced with the storm and winds. I grabbed on to the bedpost, closed me eyes and forced myself to sleep. Thirteen hours left before Shanghai.

The following day. Is that land I see?

Heaven's Gates are opening

Shanghai Bay

The Space Needle

We made it!

It had been a grueling forty-hour ride but the sight of Shanghai Bay and the Oriental Pearl Tower made it all worth it. From afar, we saw the thick gray smog that covered Shanghai. Smoke-belching cars and a million motorcycles greeted us as we stepped foot on China. Almost everyone had sea legs -- this makes you feel like your feet aren't actually touching a flat floor but a rounded surface. Just when we thought we've had enough of ferries, the hostel we ended up in was ship-themed! With bunk beds, sailors' uniforms and lifesavers as decorations to match!

Ah, China, at last! And the journey is just about to begin!


Due to popular demand, I will start to include a more "practical" section to each entry. In this new section, I'll include the cost of living in each place and the route I took. More details will be posted as soon as I find them!

For the China trip, the route was:
1. Ferry from Osaka Port to Shanghai (40 hours)
2. Shanghai (two days) then train to Beijing
3. Beijing for (four days) then train to Xian
4. Xian (three days) then train back to Shanghai
5. Shanghai (one day) then ferry back to Osaka

Monday, November 23, 2009

THAILAND: Under the Bodhi Tree


Have you noticed that there are so many types of Buddhas all over Asia? I've seen fat and jolly Buddhas in China, thin and semi-serious Buddhas in Thailand, and  meditating (in the lotus position) Buddhas in India. I found out that there are three main types of Buddhism -- Mahayana (China, Korea, Japan), Theravada (Sri Lanka, Laos, Cambodia) and Tibetan (Tibet, obviously). Yet, despite the different "sects", all of them believe in Buddha as the teachers, the Four Noble Truths, the Eight Fold Path and Nirvana. There's also a kind of Buddhism that is blended with some Hindu beliefs. I have two Thai Buddhist friends who can't eat beef because the mother of the Hindu god they worship is a cow. I wonder which category of Buddhism that falls into!


Long earlobes

Fingers like candle sticks

Gallery of Buddhas in a temple in Phuket



I visited Wat Pho (Wat means "temple" in Thai) in Bangkok which is famous for having the most number of Buddha images and the largest reclining Buddha in the whole of Thailand. The reclining Buddha was huge and its presence was intimidating. The Buddha's eyes were slightly shut but his pupils still peered through his eyelids. As I walked under the Buddha, I felt as if his eyes were following me like how the moon does when you walk on the streets at night. On one side of the hall were small steel pots. Visitors can get some coins at the entrance in exchange for a small donation for the temple. They drop one coin in each pot all the way until the end to get a wish from Buddha.

You can't see me!

Funky Hair


Pattern on the walls

Here's another one

Buddha and I

Start dropping the coins here

Another Thai Buddhist ritual is placing golden leaves on the Buddha. This is considered as a sign of respect and a means to receive merit for requests from Buddha. This gold leaf is actually made out of real gold pounded to a sheet 0.000005 inches thin. When you enter a temple, the caretaker will give you a small square sheet of gold together with some incense and, sometimes, a lotus flower as well. You peel the gold off the sheet and stick in on any part of the icon.

See the healthy Buddha in the background?

Four-cornered jewelry

This entry barely scratched the surface of Buddhism in Thailand. And Buddhism is just one of the many religions in Asia! Undoubtedly, the different beliefs, icons, images, and teachings brewing in the melting pot that is Asia make the experience of traveling a whole lot richer.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

THAILAND: Fishing and Island Hopping


My friend Mon took me fishing with his family when I visited Phuket. His father is a fishing aficionado and so was the rest of the family. We rode their fishing yacht from Ao Chalong (Ao means "bay" in Thai) and spent the morning trying our luck at catching our dinner for that evening. Finding where the fish were was easier than I thought. With just a push of a button, their on-board sonar device that detected how many fish were under the yacht. However, catching the fish was quite a challenge, not to mention a test of patience and timing. Our fishing rods had about 10 hooks so that should have evened out the odds.

Fishing, we go!


The deck

Enjoying the morning sun

Reeling in

Caught any?

It's not the quantity but the quality

For lunch, we docked at Coral Beach where Mon's family owns a restaurant by the coast. While waiting for lunch to be served, we went snorkeling in the nearby coral reef. The island was totally deserted except for the restaurant staff -- a welcome retreat from all the tacky tourists in Patong Beach. It was as if the whole island was reserved just for us. The view was absolutely picturesque. After eating, we spent the rest of the day just lazing around on the beach. The breeze was gentle and the waves were hushed. With a cold watermelon shake in one hand and sand in between my toes, I was all set to enjoy some peace and quiet.

Fetching us from the yacht

Waiting for the boatman to come back


It's all ours!

Winding down

We left Coral Beach at dusk. The ride back was shorter than it seemed and the waves were not as roused as they were in the morning. We brought the day's harvest to Mon's other restaurant, Kan Eang @ Pier which was right beside Chalong Bay. This has got to be my most favorite restaurants in Southeast Asia. Not only are their Thai dishes fantastic, but the ambiance -- the view of the calm bay, the fresh air, the austere furniture, the customer service fit for a king -- was absolutely wonderful. At night, they have live jazz music to soothe the soul while sipping a mojito. This place is perfect for a date. The chefs of Kan Eang (which means "at ease" in Thai) prepared half-cooked sashimi out of the fish we caught that day.

It's time to go


Ao Chalong

The dock