Blog of the trip to Far East

Pictures of Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines, South China

Preparing for the Far East
Monday, November 10, 2008, 03:57 PM

Thursday, November 13, 2008, 11:43 AM

Arrived in Singapore. I am meeting with Lonce Wyse and Denise Kera at the National University. I would like to check out the Japanese Media Arts Festival
Then off to Malaysia by bus.

Pictures of Singapore:

On the plane i had time to plan my itinerary.
Basically during this trip i would like to see:

1. rice fields in north Philippines, carved in the mountains 3000 years ago
2. South China (if i get the visa)
3. The artist community of Jogyakarta in Indonesia, a rarity for Islamic countries

Hindu/Buddhist Architecture
1. Angkor in Cambodia, that i saw at the end of the civil war but not in ideal conditions
2. Borobudur in Java, the largest mandala in the world, that i've seen already but never fails to impress

Modern Architecture
1. Kuala Lumpur
2. Hong Kong
3. Shanghai (if i get the visa)

See maps below.

Melaka, Malaysia
Saturday, November 15, 2008, 06:45 AM

Malaysia is a unique combination of a relatively developed country with India-style cheap prices.
Melaka's old colonial center is interisting, mostly Dutch and some Portuguese. Chinatown has retained some of its original character, but it is clearly becoming a shopping mall. I found the new temple more interesting than the old one, actually.

I am suffering the heat and the humidity. Hopefully i will adapt quickly. No jet lag at all.

From Singapore to Malaysia there are three main kinds of buses.
Queen St near the cathedral: buses to Johor station in Malaysia, from where there is ample selection of buses.
Lavender bus station (west of Lavender MRT): buses to Melaka
Golden Mike bus station (east of Lavender MRT): buses to Kuala Lumpur

In Johor:
$1=3.6 ringit
Bus to Melaka: 15 ringit, 3.5 hours

In Melaka:
Take bus 17 from the bus station to downtown and get off at Town Square, cross the bridge and you're in Chinatown.
Guesthouse Sama Sama: 25 ringit ($7)
All you can eat vegetarian buffet: 5 ringit ($1.50)
Tshirt: 15 ringit

Kuala Lumpur
Saturday, November 15, 2008, 06:47 AM

I finally saw the Petronas Towers. I was in Kuala Lumpur when they had started building them. Now i've seen them completed. Around them there are several other high-rise buildings. They all this the "Golden Triangle" of Kuala Lumpur.
Merdeka Square, the historical center of the city, has been restored to its colonial glory and it is now a very nice place. Each and every building is postcard-quality.
I am staying in Chinatown, probably the messiest part of town, but lots of guesthouses are located here.

It is impressive how quickly these people have adapted to the bad habits of the West. I have seen Chinese children who are fatter than anything i have seen in the USA: the combination of Western fast food and the meat-heavy Chinese diet is a killer.

I found a cheap ticket for Seam Reap in Cambodia (the city of Angor), and i bought it on the fly. So i will be flying from Kuala Lumpur to Seam Reap tomorrow early morning.

Hotel room: 28 ringits in Chinatown (Jalan Tun Lee, five minutes from Merdeka Sqaure)
Train to the airport: KLIA from Sentral Station (take bus 12 from Chinatown) 35 ringit for 28' trip
Bus to the LCCT (KUL) airport (Air Asia): several companies from Sentral Station, starting at 3am (8 ringit for the 1h15' trip)
Air Asia is the budget airlines of SouthEast Asia, with many specials every week, but it uses less famous airports than the main ones. In Kuala Lumpur it uses LCCT.
There is a guesthouse near LCCT, called Transfer Lodge (140 ringit), but it is still cheaper to take the bus to downtown and stay at a guesthouse in Chinatown.

Siem Reap, Cambodia
Sunday, November 16, 2008, 07:49 PM

The first day in Siem Reap (pronounced "siam rep"), Cambodia, was very intense.
I hired a motorcyclist for the day ($10) and toured the whole of Angkor. Luckily i resisted the temptation of renting a bicycle: distances are even larger than i remembered, and the humidity and heat are deadly.
Things have changed dramatically in just a few years. Millions of people have discovered Angkor. The highway into town (Angkor is the ancient capital of the Khmer empire, Siem Reap is the modern town nearby where you stay and eat) are littered with five-star hotels.
At every temple there were lines of tour buses. It was difficult to take a picture without tourists in it.
The dust is gone: all the roads inside Angkor are now paved. You can still take the trails into the jungle if you want, but you don't need to.
The really good news is that it was feasible in one day to explore some of the more remote temples that a decade ago were off-limits (both because of the distance and because of landmines).
Even better, the restoration of the temples has also attracted botanists who are adding little plates to the main trees, so Angkor is also a huge botanic garden. And the feeling of walking in the jungle is still there, even with tourists around you.
I visted Angor Wat (and this time i took a million pictures of the bas reliefs, that have been restored), Angkor Thom (the fortified city, whose main building is the Bayon, a forest of rock), the Baphuon (the only major standing temple to date from the 11th century, while everything else is from a century later), the Terrace of the Elephants, then out of the Thom to several temples north and east, notably the pyramidal Ta Keo (one of the many that you can still climb for aerial views of the jungle) and the temple in the middle of a pond.
My old picture of Angkor Wat and my old picture of the Bayon:

This time i took 400 pictures.
Life is still cheap in Siem Reap. The millions of hotels and guesthouses (i counted eight just in the block where i am staying) must keep prices ridiculously low.
I have a double room for $6 with tv set, A/C, private bath, and it's all quality materials (the kind of ceraminc tiles that are rare in the USA).
What is expensive is the entrance to the archeological area ($20) but then it's probably the largest in the world (Tikal in Guatemala would be the only one comparable in size).
For such a humid place it is amazing that there are virtually no mosquitoes. Unfortunately the monkeys are gone too.
The humidity is really the main problem. Two/three showers a day, laundry every day. As much as i hate plastic, i am collecting plastic bags to wrap every item into plastic, otherwise by the evening everything is wet (books, electronics, clothes).
I bought two shirts ($2.50 each) and short pants ($5).
I calculated that today i walked more than 40 kms, as much as a marathon (and despite using the motorcycle for the longer stretches).

Tourist visa at airport: $20 + one photo
Motorcycle from the airport to town: $2 (but forget it if you are from the USA or Western Europe: this is still a no-helmet no-seatbelt country - you'd freak out).
Motorcyclist for one day: $10
The USA dollar is the defacto currency of Cambodia (the local currency is about 4000 to the dollar but they use it only for small change)
Bring a lot of $1 bills, as most transactions are below $1

There are so many guesthouses in Siem Reap that only the most paranoid of paranoid tourists need to book in advance. If you want to avoid the noise of obnoxious tourism, stay outside town. There are dozens of guesthouses on Highway 6 just before town (500 meters from old town) and they all come with internet cafes and restaurants nearby.
The ticket for the ruins (any ruins in the area) is $20 per day.
Most tours start with Angkor Wat in the morning, but that's a bad idea: visit Angkor Wat in the afternoon, when the sun is facing the main causeway.

Seam Reap, Cambodia
Monday, November 17, 2008, 12:53 AM

Second day of exploration around Angkor. I saw two remote temples, but now nothing is remote anymore in Cambodia. The Bamteay Srei was actually the most congested of all. Anyway, the idea is that yesterday i saw the 12th temples around the fortified city, and the fortified city itself (the Thom). Today i see the older temples that are far away from the fortified city (20-40kms). Same motorcyclist.

One can live very comfortably in Cambodia, with hotel rooms at $6 and all services and consumer products at one tenth of the price of an everage Western country. People are also very friendly and honest.

Today i also had a chance to walk around downtown, which i remembered as a cluster of destitute huts. Now it's all renovated. It's a big shopping center with lots of internet cafes. I dare not check out the floating market...

I found out where the organized tours dump their tourists: Pub Street. It's the ultimate tourist trap: expensive restaurants (but most tourists probably don't know that they could it with $3), pubs, discos, etc. You have to go there if you need a travel agency (i had to buy a ticket, that's how i ended up there).

The guesthouse i picked is just outside town. No tourists, quiet, relaxed, and i still get restaurants and internet cafes (ubiquitous).
Still amazed that there are so few mosquitoes despite the humidity.

Airport tax: $25 (one of the few places in the world that still charges an airport tax not included in the ticket)

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Tuesday, November 18, 2008, 04:22 AM

I'm back in Kuala Lumpur after two days in Cambodia.
Relaxing day, mainly modern architecture:

Guesthouse Le Village 25 ringit ($7) From KL Sentral station take the RAPID/Putra light rail and get off at the first station, Pasar Seni, and then walk about 250 meters (three minutes from Merdeka Sq)
To see the Petronas Towers take the LTR to Ambak Park
To see the Menara Telekom Tower take the same LTR to Kerinchi
Kuala Lumpur is an ideal hub to visit the region because a) immigration is relatively fast (no visa required) and b) there is no airport departure tax

yogyakarta, Indonesia
Thursday, November 20, 2008, 05:42 AM
When i landed at the Yogyakarta airport, the tourist information girl told me (i am paraphrasing) that it would be a minor miracle if i made it to Borobudur the same evening. Two bus rides and one motorcycle ride later, i arrived in Borobudur, in time for an excellent gado-gado dinner and for an early sleep.
I woke up at 6am and walked to the temple. The idea is to beat the crowds and to benefit from the early morning sunlight.
Borobudur is a colossal monster mandala built of black rock. There are at least two reasons it is such a sensational building. As a whole, it is a cosmological metaphor for this life and the afterlife. It is the best and biggest representation ever created by humans of the cosmic mountain Mt Meru.
Furthermore, the lower terraces are decorated with basreliefs that tell the story of the Buddha. these constitute one of the greatest films ever made. You "watch" it by walking clockwise from the eastern staircase. Many scenes are masterpieces of composition. I particularly liked the way the sculptors often managed to pack so many bodies in one small frame. Every filmmaker should study the art of Borobudur.

I also visited the nearby temple of Mendut, 3 kms away.

Afterwards, i took a bus to Yogyakarta. From the bus terminal Jombor i entered the local network of public transportation, one of the best i've seen anywhere in the world. Very nice buses, friendly staff, and cute stations. And it's very cheap. For 3000 rupies ($0.30) i went to the area that has all the lonsmen (guesthouses) for backpackers like me, picked one more or less at random that had a large room with private bath and a nice veranda (35,000 rupies or $3.5) and then headed back to the bus and, for another 3,000 rupies, i went to visit the largest Hindu temple complex out of India, Prambanan. In terms of layout, it ranks with the best of South India, but there is no way to compete with the manic decoration of the South Indian temples
(see last year's pictures: ).

Now i am back in Yogya. I did a bit of shopping because the prices are so low (eg, i bought new running shoes for $7) and i studied the topology of the city. Tomorrow i will visit the Kraton, the sultan's palace.

I would also like to visit the artist community of Yogya, which is a rarity for an Islamic country (not many Islamic countries have a worldwide famous artist community). I am particularly interested in the new media lab:
Jogya is truly an artist's paradise: virtually every restaurant, hotel and internet cafe is decorated with contemporary art. Batik more than anything else is the national art form.

I went to see a short gamelan concert. Hopefully tomorrow i'll have a chance to take pictures during the day of the ensemble.

The area where i am staying (Sosro) has literally hundreds of guesthouses. Take any narrow alley and its even narrower sub-alleys and so forth, and you'll still find yet another guesthouse. Alas, you have to check each and every room because the quality varies greatly even if the prices are very similar.

I found a cheap ticket to the Philippines for the 22nd. Air Asia rules.

Visa: $10
$1=11,000 rupies
At the airport they offer cars straight to Borobudur for 125,000 rupies
Bus from airport to Jombor terminal: TransJogya (3,000 R)
Bus from airport to Sosro: 1A and get off at Hotel Garuda, then walk down the avenue for 100 m and look left (Sosro is a narrow alley, and most guesthouses are in even narrower side alleys)
(Take the underpass and turn left into the parking lot)
Bus from Jombor to Borobudur: 20,000 R
Guesthouse Lotus II (100,000 Rp), about 300 meters from the entrance
Restaurant Rajasa, about 500 meters from the entrance
Entrance ticket: $11 (opens at 6am)
Entrance for Mendut temple: 3500 Rp ($0.35)
Entrance ticket for Prambanan: $10
Bus from Jombor to Prambanan: 1A terminates in Prambanan market, 500 meters from the entrance.
Losmen in Yogya/Sosro: Citra Anda in gang 2, 35,000 Rp ($3.5)
Airport departure tax: 100,000 Rp or $10

Manila, Philippines
Saturday, November 22, 2008, 05:19 AM

I had never been in the Philippines. This is the 124th country that i have visited in my life.

Manila is a big super-polluted metropolis, basically a federation of cities. There are several financial districts with high-rise buildings but nothing spectacular like Kuala Lumpur.
There is a light rail that goes around the city (or cities) and it is both cheap and clean and fast, but this city is much much larger than Kuala Lumpur, so the light rail is unlikely to leave you near where you want to go. The most common means of transportation is the "jeepney". ANy picture you take of any street will have dozens of them. Alas, it is not trivial for a foreigner to figure out which one to take.
I think that Manila is rapidly approaching the point of not being livable anymore. Traffic is constantly at a standstill, it is often difficult to breath, even sidewalks are congested (both with pedestrians and food stalls). The LTR is the only reasonable way to move around, because anything in the streets (bus, jeepney, taxi) is extremely slow.
After familiarizing with the system, i decided it was better to get out of Manila, towards the relatively unspoiled north of Luzon. So i bought an overnight bus ticket to Banaue. I will not sleep but at least i will wake up among green hills and the famous 2,000 year old rice terraces.

No visa required.
$1=49 pesos
Air Asia lands at Clark Field, not at Manila's International Airport
There are several bus companies that connect Clark Field to the Cubao area of Manila. It takes about 1.5 hours and costs 300 pesos.
(You can also walk to the main gate and get local transportation to Dau, from where there are jeepneys and buses to Manila).
LRT to the Partas bus terminal for Clark Field airport: Betty Go-Belmonte.
Leaving from Clark, the airport fee is 600 pesos ($12).
Another cheap airline, that is based in the Philippines and serves the neighboring countries including China, is Cebu Pacific.
LRT to the Autobus bus terminal for Banaue: Legarda
Autobus Manila-Banaue: 425 pesos ($8.50), eight hours, leaves at 10pm; returns from Banaue at 5pm arriving Manila at 2am.
Guesthouses in Manila: Casa Pensionne (400 pesos), very near the Pedro Gil light-rail station, and Pensionne House, two blocks away at 1547 Agoneillo St (600 pesos).

Baguio, Philippines
Monday, November 24, 2008, 04:28 AM
Luzon is the main island of the Philippines, or at least the one that has the capital, Manila. Being the messy polluted city that it is, i spent only a few hours there. I will return on the 26th. I headed right away for North Luzon, which is one of the most interesting places in this part of the world as far as ethnography goes. Alas, it is difficult to explore because of the roads, that often become mule trails.
Batad is a World Heritage Site, because of its rice terraces that form a colossal amphitheater in the middle of the mountains (very misty mountains). To get there, it's a ten hour bus ride from Manila to Banaue, then a one hour ride on tricycle along a very bumpy and muddy "road", then a very wet two hour hike in the rain forest (don't overlook the "rain" part in the previous sentence).
Once you reach the top of the pass, the village of Batad is at the center of the "amphitheater", totally surrounded by majestic ride terraces built by stone dykes. The most spectacular "trail" to reach the village is the series of stone staircases that are not immediately obvious but become more obvious as you walk to the rice terraces. Then you realize that the rice terraces extend throughout all the surrounding valleys. They were built 2,000 years ago. The village itself was a bit disappointing, as metal roofs and concrete walls are rapidly replacing the traditional hatched roof huts. Needless to say, i got lost in the maze of staircases and trails.
Banaue is also very scenic. I found a room in the View Inn that sits at the top of the hill, and had a majestic view of the mountains. Some of the houses are only one level high from the street side, but on the other side they can be 10-storey high from the bottom of the canyon.
ANother village has also been made a World Heritage Site, but it's two hours further into the rain forest.
An easier place to visit is Bontoc, where several tribes coexist. The most famous are the Kalinga, who were headhunters until the 1950s, when they signed a treaty with the government and pledged to stop beheading visitors.
Sagada is famous for the hanging coffins in the caves (that's how they bury their dead).
Baguio is the "metropolis" of the region, mostly famous in the West for the faith healers and psychic surgeons who are supposed to extract cancer from your organs with their bare hands. (Times have changed, and now there are pizza places everywhere). It is a very green city, with a nice park in the center and a large market.
There is also a town called Vegan that maintains the Spanish colonial appearance of centuries ago.

Banaue: 10 hours from Manila 425 pesos ($8.50)
Banaue guesthouse: View Inn, 600 pesos
Tricycle to the Batad junction: 300 pesos
Bontoc: 2.5 hours from Banaue by jeepney
Baguio: 8 hours from Manila and 9 hours from Banaue by bus (400 pesos)
Sagada: one hour from Bontoc and 7 hours frm Baguio
Vegan: five hours from Baguio
Guesthouses in Baguio start at 500 pesos for a simple room.

Preparing for China...
Wednesday, November 26, 2008, 08:39 AM
I land in Hong Kong on the 27th. If i get the visa for China, the idea is to visit three regions:

1. Hong Kong and Guangzhou (Canton)

Hong Kong: skyscrapers
Guangzhou: Shamian Daoi (colonial), Zhenhailou (1686), Liurong Si (989), with +pagoda (1097), Guangxiao Si (1269), skyscrapers

2. Sichuan

Chengdu: third biggest city in China, the transportation center of Sichuan
Emei Shan: +holy Daoist mountain
Leshan: ++Da Fo (803) colossal Buddha
Dazu: +Buddhist grottoes
Chongqin: transportation hub
Fengjie-Yichang (Three Gorges): most trip reports are negative about this one - from Yichang there's a train to Nanjing

3. Shanghai - Nanjing - Huangzhou

Nanjing: +Sun Yat Sen Mausoleum (Zhongshan Ling), Ming Xiaoling (1383), Linggu Si (1381), Gulou (1382), Ming city gates
Hangzhou: Lingyin Si, LiuHe Ta, Xi Hu (Autumn Moon Pavilion and Three Pools)
Shanghai: Bund, Yu Yuan (Ming era), Yufo Si (1918), Pudong Xinqu (skyscrapers), Museum

and then end the trip in Beijing

Qufu: +Kong Fu (1567), ++KongMiao (1724)
Beijing: Imperial tombs

Hong Kong, China
Friday, November 28, 2008, 02:59 AM

Hong Kong is expensive by the standards of Southeast Asia. The cheapest room with private bathroom is $15, and a meal is easily as expensive as in the USA. Most tourists stay in Kowloon. There is a famous Chungking Mansion on Nathan Road (near Peking 1 and the Space Museum), which is 15 storeys of guesthouses for foreigners. The moment you walk into the hall owners of the various guesthouses approach you and invite you to check out their rooms. Most of them seem to be Muslim Indians.
Across the street is the infamous CTS (Chinese Tourist Services) that issues visa to China. Two right turns away there is the East Tsim Sha Tsu subway station. The ferry to Hong Kong Island is walking distance (and one of the few things that is really cheap). You can take the ferry to go to Central and then return with the ferry from the Convention Center, thus exploring Hong Kong Island from west to east.
The Northern part of Hong Kong Island is as amazing as Manhattan, and maybe even more because it is built on such a steep slope. Some of the tallest buildings in the world are located here, although the tallest for Hong Kong is being built in Kowloon (the new International Commerce Center, very visible from Hong Kong Island).
This jungle of concrete is pedestrian-friendly though. There are pedestrian overpasses for just about everything. And in the middle of the concrete jungle there are parks (such as Hong Kong Park and the Botanic Gardens).

Free visa upon arrival
$1=7.72 HK$ (the money changers at the airport are pure thieves, wait until you arrive to Chungking Mansion and go upstairs for the best rates)
Airport Express train: 90 HK$. Get off at Kowloon (second stop) and take the free shuttle to Chungking Mansions/ Holiday Inn.
The cheaper guesthouses charge about 120 HK$ ($15) for speckless but tiny rooms with tv set, A/C and private (but minuscule) bath.
The ferry to Hong Kong Island is walking distance from Chungking Mansion and costs 2.20 HK$. There are two terminals next to each other, one for Central and one for the Convention Center.
The tourist information office is in the same building.
Soda can: $0.60. Internet for one hour: $1,25.
Chinese visa: 930 HK$ (Europeans) or 1070 HK$ (USA citizens) for 24 hours delivery. Very expensive, but cheaper and faster than in the West. They accept credit cards. The CTS is located across the street from Chungking Mansion. (Note: don't write "businessman" on the application form or you will have to provide detailed information about your company).
The train to Guangzhou (best option to get to China) leaves a few times a day from Hung Hom station (take the subway to Hung Hom and then buy the ticket there). In the evening: 6pm and 7:24pm. The trip takes about 2.5 hours and costs 190 HK$. Immigration is at the Guangzhou railway station.

Guangzhou, China
Sunday, November 30, 2008, 05:48 AM
Guangzhou is the first big Chinese city across the "border" with Hong Kong. The money changes from HK$ to Chinese remimbi, and the skyscrapers are a lot lower.
You pay more in China for hotels in the rest of Southeast Asia but the comparison is unfair because in China we foreigners are forced to stay in hotels that would cost twice more in Southeast Asia. In CHina you don't need to check the room: they are all impeccable. At every floor there is an attendant who takes care of the guests (and also makes it very safe to leave valuables in the room).
As usual, the most helpful people in the street tends to be girls. If they speak English, they volunteer to help out (yes, just help). Nice, sweet, polite. They want to practice English and they are curious about foreigners. They can be helpful but they know absolutely nothing of tourism, so sometimes you have to explain to them how China works!
They contrast sharply with other Chinese, who don't speak English and seem to be as selfish and indifferent as humanly possible.
I visited two temples near the Ximenkou subway station, that are the most famous of Guangzhou: Quandxi Si and Liurong Si. Then i went to Yuexiu Park whose main attraction is the Zhenhai tower. I ended the day walking around the old EUropean district, Shamian Island (Huangsha subway station), honestly quite disappointing.

The train from Hong Kong arrives at the East Station. To go to the main station take the subway (about 12 stops with one change of line).
Immigration at the East Station is a breeze, contrary to all the other border crossings into China that i have experienced so far.
As usual, people offer their "binguam" (guesthouse) at the railway station, and they are all good quality (government-controlled) so it's relatively easy to find a bed, but of course the touts charge you 50% more than the hotel rate.
The prices are lower one metro station up (end of the line).
+Jin Juan Hotel (100Y for a large room with private bath and tvset, take the subway to Sanyuanli, exit C2, turn left to the dead end of the alley).
Train to Chengdu (capital of Sichuan) with sleeper: 400Y (leaves at 9am, arrives at 4:30pm the following day).
Airplane to Chengdu: 720Y at 6pm and takes two hours. Bus to the airport from SOuth China Airlines building (near the main railway station): 17Y, 40'.
The Guangzhou subway is super-friendly, modern, idiot-proof, with announcements in English (that you can actually understand, unlike in New York or London).
Several booths sell rooms in cheap hotels at the ground floor of the Hong Kong train terminus next to the tourist info office.
Around the city almost all signs are given also in English.
There are Kentucky Fried Chickens, Mac Donald's and 7-11s everywhere.
China is the exception to the rule that it's easier to find Internet cafes than hotels: they are rare and very few people recognize the name "Internet".

Chengdu, Sichuan, China
Sunday, November 30, 2008, 06:04 AM

Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan and the third largest city of China (ten million people).
Finally it's cold. Not quite winter, but certainly not summer anymore.
I visited a Buddhist temple and a Daoist temple that have been recently restored. It's amazing what the Communist Party can do. In the 1960s the Cultural Revolution destroyed these temples. Now the same party rebuilt them in a Disneyland kind of way: faithful to the original but totally artificial. Each temple comes with a shopping area along a street that is a recreation of a traditional Chinese city of the Tang era. Honestly, the streets leading to the temples are more spectacular than the temples themselves.
Manjushri Monastery (Wenshu Yuan) is a typical Buddhist temple with some authentic (Tang-era) items. Qingyang Gong is a Daoist temple surrounded by a park (the restored street, Qintai Rd, is on the other side of the park).
Both temples have famous vegetarian restaurants and large tea houses.
Entrance to both is just 5Y.
Chengdu is famous for spicy Sichuan cuisine and for teahouses. They recommended the "bamboo leaf green tea"). Many elderly men sit at the tea house for hours. One wonders if they were part of the units that carried out the orders of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, and what they think of the capitalist revolution of the 2000s.

Nameless binguam next door to the Xinnanmen bus station, near the Traffic Hotel/Jaotang Fandian for 80Y (shared bath).
Bus to Leshan from Xinnanmen: 51Y, 2 hours

LEshan, Sichuan, China
Sunday, November 30, 2008, 06:12 AM
Leshan (which should really be spelled Loshan) is now connected by fast highway with Chengdu. In just two hours i was on the site of the Da Fo, the colossal Buddha statue overlooking the river.
Entrance is expensive: 70Y. You walk up steep stairs and at the top you realize that you are right on the head of Buddha. Stairs lead you to the feet of Buddha. Then a path leads to a pretty bridge and another set of steep steps lead to Wu You temple (35Y), another well-restored Buddhist monument that was destroyed by the Cultural Revolution. The unusual feature for me was the hall of the arhats (those who have attained nirvana): there are lifesize sculptures of monks, each in a natural attitude. And they are literally one thousand.
Then you walk back down the steps to the bridge and exit to an unpaved road. It takes about half an hour to reach the paved road and the #13 bus stop.
Tomorrow i will take an early morning bus to Emeishan, one of the four holy mountains of CHina (I already did Taishan 20 years ago).
Hopefully it will be a sunny day like today otherwise the cold would kill me.

General notes on China so far.
For the Olympic games, Chinese cities have undergone an "Olympic revolution" that is basically the opposite of the "Cultural Revolution" of the 1960s. All the temples have been restored. Highways and subways and airports have been built or improved. The transportation system is so modern, efficient and fast that the tourist hardly see any traces of old China anymore.
There are very few annoyances. There are beggars in front of temples, but not in stations or in the streets. There are English signs everywhere. More and more people speak some English. It is still useful to carry a self-made dictionary of the 20-30 most useful words (write them in Chinese, because nobody will understand you if you try to pronounced them).
My first trip to China (about 20 years ago) feels like a trip to another planet: the infrastructure was primitive and overcrowded, nobody spoke English and no sign was in English, people were all dressed the same way and rode bicycles.

++Tao Yuan hotel Y80 right by the ferry for the Da Fo tours. Bus $13 takes you to Da Fo.
Lots of restaurants near Tao Yuan. Excellent Sichuan food for very little.

Emeishan, Sichuan, China
Monday, December 1, 2008, 07:29 AM

I climbed Emeishan, one of the four holy Buddhist mountains of China.
Alas, it's a vastly overrated overpriced tourist trap.
There is little to see between one temple and the next one. Mostly, there are restaurants and souvenir shops. Even the steps of the epic climb are brand new concrete steps. Everything has been restored recently. At the top the Jinding (summit temple) is a complete fabrication. The three original temples (the silver, copper and gold temples) disappeared in a fire in the 1970s. Now there is a colossal statue in the middle of a square, built in 2002, and three facsimiles of the original temples.
There is only one temple that is really worth seeing: Wanian Si, which also happens to be the oldest, with a colossal statue of Puxian of the 9th century.
The Qingyii Ge is a mediocre pavilion but set in a charming natural setting.
When i climbed Taishan (another holy Buddhist mountain), i learned a lot about Chinese religion. Climbing Emeishan i learned a lot about Chinese capitalism.

Now it's really cold, especially when it gets dark (6pm). Well, this way i have more time to write.

From Leshan to Baguo is about 40 minutes by bus Y12.
Go to Baguo Si,at the "Tourist Transportation CEnter". The bus ticket for Emeishan is a whopping 70Y and is good for three rides.
The entrance fee is even more expensive: 150Y
The bus goes as far as Leidong Station (1.5 hour), from which a 15 minute walk takes to Jieyi, where the cable car takes you to the summit temple (Jinding) for 70Y return. So if one doesn't want to walk, there's a way. The problem with hiking at this altitude in this season is the ice on the steps.
If one wants to walk, the first stop is at Qingyi Ge station. A flat concrete path takes you to Qingyi Ge in about 15 minutes. From there one can go left to the popular monkey temple or go right to Wanian temple. The latter is a steep 2 km route (really steep). Visiting Wanian Si takes at least 30 minutes. The trail then descends down (or you can take another cable car) and joins the road to Jieyi.

Dazu, China
Wednesday, December 3, 2008, 03:08 AM
Dazu is mainly famous for the Buddist caves (Baodingshan and Beishan).
I have seen in the past the other three great sites of Buddhist caves and this one was missing. Definitely worth it. As usual, everything has been restored recently because it was destroyed during the "Cultural Revolution".
Also, Dazu is a nice town. It was refreshing to finally be in a place with no MacDonald's that still feels a bit like old China.
The people are super-friendly and super-honest. Dazu is the best advertisement for China.
Chongqing, the metropolis nearby, is instead a rather faceless city. It was enveloped in thick mist both days. The city lies at the confluence of two giant rivers (one being the Yangtze Kiang) and the most impressive thing is the long bridge that crosses one of them.
Now i will travel back to the East Coast and visit Shanghai, Hangzhou and Nanjing.

Bus Leshan to Chongqing 105Y 6h
Bus to Dazu: 37Y from the railway station 2.5h
Hotel in Dazu: New East Hotel 80Y, one block from the large Binguam where the pedestrian zone begins.
To go to Baodingshan take a minibus 30' 3Y
To go to Beishan it's easier to get a motorcycle taxi for Y5
Flight from Chongqing to Shanghai 820Y + airport bus (15Y)
The Seven Days Inn next door to the airport bus terminus has rooms for 130Y

SHanghai, China
Friday, December 5, 2008, 06:31 AM
Shanghai is a bit messy and polluted but it's clearly becoming a new Tokyo. Having seen Dubai and Hong Kong, i'm not terribly impressed by their state in skyscrapers, but there are certainly many.
I use the subway to reach the neighborhood and then motorcycle taxis to reach the destination. Motorcycles are much faster and cheaper than taxis in this kind of traffic.
There a few more annoyances than in Sichuan. For example, i can't walk five minutes without someone offering me a girl, a watch or a dvd. Also, it's actually harder to get decent food, and western food is terribly expensive.
Old Shanghai has all but disappeared. The Longhua temple (1oth century) is only notable for the pagoda outside, theoretically the oldest building in the city (but everything in China has been restored countless times, especially after the cultural revolution).
The Yufo temple is notable for a jade Buddha (actually jade-looking marble) of 1918 but no photos are allowed. The Yu Yuan bazaar is the local Disneyland. East Nanjing Rd from People Square to the Bund is a huge pedestrian area. The Bund is just the riverside walk, and the best place to take photos of the Pudong skyline.
So the main reason to come here is modern architecture, but only a handful are truly interesting and two are among the tallest in the world. They are mainly located in two areas: Pudong (across the river from the Bund) and People Square (where all subway lines meet).
The highlight of People Square is Tomorrow Square. Many buildings have the name of squares (eg Union Sq, Time Sq, etc).
The highlights of Pudong are Jim Mao (421m high, that used to be the tallest) and the World Financial Center (492m, the new record holder).

I am using Shanghai as a base to see Hangzhou and Nanjing. Then i'm afraid that i'll have to cut my trip short and find a way to return to Hong Kong quickly.

Airport bus #5 to the railway station (Y22) or take the MagLev (fastest train on Earth at 430km/h) to Long Yang station (Y40, seven minutes) and then take Line 2 to downtown
+Jotel near the longdistance bus station Y100 (one metro station up from the railway station on line 1, Zongshan Rd stop, exit 4, turn left on Zongshan Rd and walk three blocks to the junction with Hutai Rd and turn right for 100 meters)
Bund: Line 2 to East Nanjing Rd (exit 3) and then walk east towards the river
Pudong: Line 2 to Lujiazui station

Hangzhou, China
Friday, December 5, 2008, 06:47 AM
The bus from Shanghai to Hangzhou is painful because of traffic. It took three hours, one of which was just traffic. ANd the Hangzhou bus station is really far from the attractions. Last but not least, i don't think Hangzhou was worth it. It is mostly famous for its WEst Lake, which the Chinese know from lots of literary references but it's not much of a lake for a foreigner, and for the Lingyin temple, which is yet another heavily restored temple.
It was also very cccccccccold.
Now i am back in Shanghai, trying to figure out how to return to Hong Kong in time for my flight to SAn Francisco.

45Y buys you a ticket from the Bu causeway's boat landing to visit two islands (including the most famous one) and drops you off at the other side of the lake (in the city).

Nanjng, China
Sunday, December 7, 2008, 09:22 AM
Nanjing is another historical capital of China, just two hours by fast train from Shanghai. It made a relaxing day excursion for me... and one million Chinese tourists. It's a popular weekend destination.
For a foreigner the city is quite disappointing. The historic sites in the city (such as the Ming gates) are shops and offices. The main attractions are on a hill about one hour from the train station.
For the Chinese the big attraction is the mausoleum of Sun Yat Sen, the founder of the Chinese republic. But the mausoleum is a rather mediocre structure (despite its colossal size), a poor imitation of a Ming tomb. The Linggu Si would be a Ming-era temple if anything was left. It is a hodgepodge of restorations that started a century
ago and are still going on. It is an obvious case of how the Chinese are restoring things too hastily, cheaplyand erratically.
The Ming tomb is the tomb of the first emperor of the Ming dynasty, and this tomb served as a model for all subsequent imperial tombs.
Alas, virtually nothing is left of the original. The most interesting item is the map at the entrance that shows the original layout (that looks like a miniature version of Beijing's Forbidden City). The main
building is being restored as i write, and you can see for yourself what kind of material and labor are being employed. This restorations only serve the purpose of selling tickets to tourists.
By the way, all of them are overpriced.
Now i'm back in Shanghai, ready to return to the USA.

Bullet train from Shanghai to Nanjing: 112Y, 2 hours
Linggu Si and Zhongshan Ling: 80Y
Ming Xiaoling: 70Y
To go to the Sun Yat Sen mausoleum, Linggu Si and Ming tomb, take bus
number one from outside the train station. It costs 2Y and takes almost one hour because it crosses the center of the city.

Shanghai, China
Sunday, December 7, 2008, 09:41 AM
End of my trip to the Far East.

Pictures of the 2008 trip to the Far East: Pictures of Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines, South China

It was fitting that today i took both the slowest form of transportation (a motorcycle taxi from my hotel to the train station) and the fastest form of transportation (the magnetic levitation train to the airport, that reazches 430 km/h, it covers the distance in seven minutes).
The highlights were
Angkor in Cambodia
Borobudur in Indonesia
The rice terraces in north Philippines
Leshan and Dazu in China

See below for details.
I still have to write down my notes on China.

Too bad i had to interrupt my journey but my books require my presence in the USA asap.

A poem from China
Sunday, December 7, 2008, 09:45 AM
(I am more on the Daoist than Buddhist side of things. They are both powerful metaphors to talk about the universe, but it seems to me that Buddhism is more about the spacetime event, i.e. about the object, whereas Daoism focuses on the subject. While visiting a Daoist temple in China, i admired a little garden and noticed an ant. The "dao" is usually translated as "the way of the world". To me that depends on the perceiver: every animal is a different cognitive system and therefore perceives a different world. Thus i started wondering what the dao of an ant is).

What is
the dao
of the ant
that is crawling
down the only
of the only
that it has
ever known
towards the antnest
in ancestral
as the first
drop of rain
through the warm
layer of moss
and rotten leaves,
signaling that
her precarious
will soon be

(This was later revised and included in my book "Synthesis":

Pictures of Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines, South China

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