Lovely Laos

Chinese New Year was finally upon us, and Jun and I were more than ready to get away from work and go on vacation. Since our last trip to Europe took us a long distance away from Asia, we decided to stick close to home and decided to go to Laos.

Because of the way our schedules worked this year, I ended up having a few extra days than Jun. I decided to take it easy in Guangzhou before we left for our trip. It was nice to just spend a few days in Guangzhou relaxing and going around to see some of the Spring Festival festivities in the city. I was also able to catch up on things that I had been putting aside since I hadn’t had time to do them.

Day 1

Finally, Jun was done with work and we were both ready for our trip! We left mid-afternoon for Vientiane from Guangzhou and had no problems getting to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. The first thing we had to do when we got there was to get our visa on arrival. The process was quite quick and efficient, they combine getting the visa and immigration process in one area so that we wouldn’t have to go to two counters. That was really nice and quick! Afterwards we collected our bag and went out to see a man holding a sign with my name on it. Our hotel had a complimentary airport shuttle and took us straight to the hotel. It was one of the quickest entries I’ve ever experienced.

When we got to the hotel we quickly checked-in and then went up to our room. We cleaned up a bit and rested as we decided what we wanted to do for dinner. Eventually we just decided to go explore and find a place that we liked. After walking for a bit we ended up at an Italian restaurant. The food was good, but the service needed work.

After dinner we went towards the Mekong River to see the night market there. This market was more for locals than for tourists. It was nice to walk around the market. Jun and I spotted some street food and ended up buying a spicy sausage that was quite good. By that time it was getting late and we decided to go back to the hotel to call it a night.

Day 2

Our first full day in Vientiane; we woke up from a nice rest and had breakfast at the hotel. We then decided just to explore the city and see what there was to see in Vientiane. Even though it’s the capital of Laos, it’s not known as a tourist destination. We discovered that morning in the city can be quite quiet. We first walked towards the river to see what it looked like during the day. To our surprise, the area near where we thought the river was is actually surrounded my marshes. It was a very pastoral scene to be so close to the city. Across the river we could see Thailand.

Jun and I walked along the river until we reached the presidential palace. We weren’t able to go inside, but we got a glimpse. The building was in colonial French architecture and seemed like a nice building. We walked a bit in a park around the palace before going on to Haw Phra Kaew.

Haw Phra Kaew used to be a Buddhist temple, but now it’s a small museum of religious art. It was interesting to see some examples of how the Lao people historically portrayed aspects of Buddhism. The building has been maintained quite nicely and was a nice visit for us.

Across the street is Wat Si Saket, while it was built only in 1818 it is considered to be the oldest temple still standing in Vientiane. The wat is really fascinating, as inside the main compound is a cloister with 2,000 clay and silver Buddha images. The main building has some really exquisite murals on the interior walls that are delicate and intricate. Jun and I really enjoyed walking around this wat.

By then it was nearing lunch, but because we had eaten a big breakfast we weren’t really that hungry. We ended up just having a strawberry cheesecake ice cream concoction at a nearby desert parlor. Jun and I were actually happy we had it since it was really good. It was just nice having something sweet for lunch since we were on vacation.

We then decided to walk around the central area and go to some stores and some of the other wats in the area. Each wat was unique in its own way. They were similar to other wats we had seen in the region, but they were also quite unique in their own way.

Finally we ended up at Patuxai, a war monument dedicated to those that fought for independence from France in the mid-twentieth century. It was an interesting mix of local and European styles of architecture. Jun and I went up to the top and got to see the surrounding area. It was a nice change to see short buildings instead of the skyscrapers of China.

From there we then went to a shopping center to see if Black Panther was playing at the local movie theater. We found that it was and that we could see it in English later that night. We bought tickets and then took a slow walk to the hotel to rest up a bit.

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Later that day we went to a local Laotian restaurant for dinner called Lao Kitchen that was delicious. The food was uniquely Laotian, but you could see how it fit in the greater cuisines of Southeast Asia. It was definitely a nice dinner. Afterwards we went to the movie theater and enjoyed the film. When the move was finished we then went back to the hotel and ended our day.

Day 3

The next day Jun and I decided to venture out to the Buddha Park outside the city. We had talked about how we wanted to get there and was deciding between taking a bus or a tuk tuk. We chose the bus and we were glad we made that decision. After leaving Vientiane we noticed that the park was actually quite far out of the city, and that the closer we got to the park the worse the road became. Near the park it was just a dirt road. And it being the dry season it was just dusty. Buildings and plants next to the road were covered in a thick layer of dust. A good decision on our part indeed.

When we got to the park it was much smaller than we anticipated. But the size wasn’t an issue as the park itself is quite interesting. Built in 1958 the park has over 200 Hindu and Buddhist statues. While the statues look like their centuries old, they’re actually quite recent. Many simply are made out of concrete. But those statues are ornate, and in many cases quite strange. It was a nice and easy side trip to see something different.

Later we took a bus and went back to Vientiane where we walked to Pha That Luang. The Buddhist stupa is considered to have been built in the third century AD, and is a national symbol for the country. As such it is considered the most important national monument.

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It was much larger than we thought it was going to be. And when we got there it was relatively quiet, only a few other people visiting. By the time we were about to leave, however, a tour group came and the energy of the site went from calm to animated. Afterwards Jun and I decided to head back for the hotel to relax. On our way we stopped by a Swensen’s for a desert lunch. It was a nice treat in the midst of the hot afternoon sun.

That evening we ended up having an early dinner and then walking along the river and stopping and trying different street food. I ended up getting another of the spicy sausage.

Day 4

Our last morning in Vientiane had us wake up and enjoy a leisurely breakfast before we checked out and took the hotel’s airport shuttle to the airport. Since we only had a domestic flight, check-in took five minutes and going through security was also a simple affair. The domestic terminal in currently being rebuilt, so we waited in a temporary building that looked like a government office with people waiting for the next available clerk.

Fortunately we didn’t have long to wait, and we were soon on the plane and on our way to Luang Prabang. The flight took less than an hour and we were there in no time. At the airport we caught a shuttle to our hotel in the heart of the old town.

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Our hotel actually used to be part of the royal complex, so the grounds and surrounding area of the Royal Peacock was beautiful. As we were having our welcome drinks the manager of the hotel explained the city and places we could go and visit. After everything was settled he took us to our room and showed us around. It was a really nice room with a lot of nice perks, including daily fresh fruit.

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After resting for a while Jun and I decided to go out and find a place for lunch. We ended up at a place called Bouang that had some really nice Asian/Western fusion food. Jun and I were quite happy with our meal and were energized to go explore that afternoon. The first place we went to was the Haw Kham Royal Palace Museum. It used to be the home of the royal family of Luang Prabang before the overthrow in 1975. The interior has been well maintained and it gives a glimpse of what life would have been like for the royal family. Also on the grounds of the museum is Haw Pha Bang, a more recent temple that is built in traditional architectural style. It was a beautiful building.

From the Royal Palace we started to walk around the side streets of the old town and saw some traditional and colonial buildings, went through a number of wats, and walked along the river. We finally ended up at Wat Xieng Thong. It’s one of the most important monasteries in the city and is beautifully maintained. Near here in the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. We were able to walk a bit around here and saw a bamboo bridge. Our visit to Luang Prabang was during the dry season, so it was possible to see the bamboo bridges and to walk down here. But in the rainy season it would be too dangerous to venture down there. So it was nice we got to experience it.

As it was nearing sunset, Jun and I walked back through town to go up to Mount Phou Si to see the sun set over the region. It was a bit of a climb, but it was nice to see the sunset and the changing colors of twilight. From there we went to dinner and went back to the hotel to call it a night.

Day 5

On our first full day in Luang Prabang, we decided we would just take it easy and leisurely wander around the town. The first thing we did was have breakfast, which was an interesting affair since it was a three course meal that was more aligned with lunch than breakfast. There was salad, fruit, bread, and a sandwich. It was different, but the food was quite good. Jun though it a bit strange, I thought it was a nice change from typical breakfast food.

Afterwards we walked through the morning market next to our hotel towards going to a wat that was also next to our hotel. Both were nice glimpses into what life is like for the locals in the town. It’s so similar to other places in the world, yet with its own uniqueness that makes Luang Prabang special.

From the wat we started walking to the UXO office. On the way we stopped at the Traditional Art and Ethnology Center. It’s a neat place that highlights the different ethnic groups in this part of Laos, as well as the traditional arts and crafts of these groups. There was a nice hands-on exhibit on learning how to tell the difference between natural materials that these ethnic groups use in their arts and crafts and those that are made from synthetic materials. Jun and I had a difficult time differentiating between the two, and we found it fascinating how the natural objects are incredibly sturdy. At the adjoining store we were mesmerized at the beauty of the intricate art and crafts on display. As we were leaving we saw another area set up for kids. I ended up exploring that area and trying on a fun little hat. If I thought they would have fit, I would definitely had played dress up with some of the clothes they had there. Alas, the hat was the only thing that I could try.

As we were going down the road to head onto the UXO office, we stopped to get some fresh coconuts. After a nice walk in another part of town we found the UXO office.  UXO stands for unexploded ordinance. They are the ordinances that were not detonated during the Vietnam War, but that remained and pose a threat to the people of the country. The UXO organization is working towards clearing them from the country, but because of the staggering number of them it will take more time and funds than they currently have available. While they still continue to clear them from the country, they also do a lot of public education and outreach activities to teach people, especially children, how to be careful and what to do in different scenarios. As part of that education and outreach, they have set up an information center in Luang Prabang. It was really edifying and brought to attention that even if a war ends the effects of it can be felt for many decades afterwards.

On that note Jun and I left and walked back to the main area of Luang Prabang. On the way we went to the oldest wat in Luang Prabang: Wat Visoun. It had a large stupa in a nicely maintained complex. From there we continued to walk on the south side of Mount Phou Si and saw that there was another bamboo bridge. At that point Jun and I were hungry and agreed that we would go on this bridge later that afternoon.

We ended up eating at a small restaurant of on a side street. The food and drinks there were amazing. Feeling refreshed we walked around a bit and then went back to the bamboo bridge. It was neat to walk along the bridge and to see what was on the other side. There was a store selling handmade jewelry and a treehouse café.

After walking back across the bridge we did some shopping and went for walk around another part of the town. We end up finding a visitor center for the Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden. The guy at the front informed us that if we bought tickets we could take a boat and go to the botanical gardens on the other side of the river. Jun and I decided that since we didn’t have any plans for the rest of the afternoon that we should go. So we bought the tickets and went down to the boat. We got there just in time as the boat was about to leave. There was only one other guy on the boat; we essentially had the boat to ourselves. As we sailed up the Mekong we got to see the surrounding landscape. It was beautiful and peaceful. After about 20 minutes we arrived at the botanical gardens. We walked up from the pier and was greeted by a staff member. He explained all that we could see and made suggestions of what we should do. One of the things he recommended was to visit this cave along a trail along the coast. That sounded fun. Jun and I decided we would do it. First we saw the ethnic garden that showed different vegetation used by the different ethnic groups in Laos. That was really interesting to see the different plant varieties. From there we then went on the trail to the cave. That was a really scary trail as it was steep and slippery at places. It was also a lot of fun. It was beautiful to walk along the river and to venture to the cave. The cave was a good size and had a Buddhist shrine inside. Jun and I were happy we went, but were quite relieved that we didn’t fall and hurt ourselves. After the cave we walked around the different parts of the botanical garden. There was even a demonstration vegetable garden there. There was some vegetables that Jun and I were curious about but had no clue what they were. By the time we had gotten to the vegetable garden it was about the time we had to head back to the pier to get the last boat back to Luang Prabang. Again we essentially had the boat to ourselves and we got to see the start of the sun setting as we went back on the Mekong.

By then it was early evening and we were ready to go to see where we would have dinner. We first thought we might have dinner by the river, but then we saw that there were a lot of mosquitoes and we didn’t want to deal with that. We ended up at a really nice restaurant that had a set menu where we could try a number of local delicacies. The restaurant was quite nice. We ended up quite satisfied with the experience. After that we walked back to the hotel and called it a night.

Day 6

Waterfalls, caves, and story time: that is what Jun and I experienced on our sixth day. Jun and I the previous day decided to get out of the city and see some of the surrounding area. We had some difficulty making this plan. We had asked our hotel about prices and options. We were a bit confused about what they suggested at first. After we had looked at what other places were offering we thought about it and made some inferences about what we thought the hotel staff was trying to tell us. We then went back to confirm and to get some clarification. Once that was all clear we had booked a van for the day at a nice price.

The first place we would go to on this day was Kuang Si Waterfall. It was a bit of drive out there, but it was nice to drive through the mountains on our way to the waterfall. When we got there we first went through a wild bear sanctuary. It was heartening to see the rescued bears thriving in the preserve. Some of the bears were hunted and some had lived in cages. A lot of the bears had been physically harmed as well. Many were recuperating and thriving here.

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From the bears we went up to the first area of the waterfalls. It was gorgeous! As we continued to go up to the different levels of the falls they got more beautiful and intricate. We finally ended up seeing the main falls. While there Jun and I decided to go up to the top of the falls. We again chose a difficult path up, but with the support of each other we made it to the top. It was neat to see the area up there. There was a beautiful lush area where locals were doing some aqua-agricultural farming. That was interesting to see. And the trail up there was serene. To get back down we chose another path, which was much easier to traverse. When we got back down we went through the park again and then got some food to eat before taking the van to Pak Ou Caves.

The journey to Pak Ou Caves took a long time. So Jun and I just kind of rested most of the way there. But as we were nearing the caves, we went off the main road onto a side road that was being rebuilt. At the moment it’s a dirt road that at times was quite scary to drive on. There was a part that was quite narrow along a cliff next to the river. Fortunately we arrived at the caves soon and we could take a break from the driving.

When we got there we had to buy boat tickets to cross the river to get to the caves. The man at the ticket counter kind of told us where we had to go. So we went along and found the general area where we needed to go. But we weren’t sure where we needed to get the boats. So as we were nearing the river a guy came to us and took our tickets and ushered us onto a shallow bottom boat and took us on the river. All of this was done without any verbal communication. Talk about blind trust on our part. We ended up where we needed to be though and we went up to the first cave. The cave is a Buddhist shrine and there are hundreds of Buddha statues placed throughout the cave. It was interesting. Even more interesting was a group of women that came into the cave as we were leaving who were there to pray. They were dressed in traditional dress and began to kneel on the carpets placed on the ground and started their prayers. It was a peaceful scene.

Jun and I then went up to the upper cave. When we got there we donated some Kip to get an offering to place inside the sanctuary. This cave was not lighted and we had to be careful as we went around it. Jun and I placed our offerings on one of the alters in the cave and then lit our candles. We each said a prayer and then walked around the cave. We were the only ones there and it was tranquil to just experience the surroundings by ourselves.

By then the group of women from earlier were coming up as Jun and I went down to the boats. We found the same guy and he told us to get in the boat and he started to leave. As we were slowly leaving the shore, he saw that another guy was leaving as well. He talked to the guy and asked though hand and head gestures if it was okay that we would go in the other boat. It was okay with us so we transferred boats and then crossed the river.

On the other side we walked through the small village back to the van. And then we got in the van and took the long drive back to Luang Prabang. That dirt road was just as scary as the first time. But we did get to see elephants on the way!

When we got back to Luang Prabang we went back to our hotel room to clean-up and rest. Then we went out to dinner. We went to this restaurant we saw the previous night that looked good. And while the food was indeed good, Jun chose a dish that had raw fish in it. That dish would cause us some trouble later. But at this time all was good.

After dinner Jun and I went to a small theater to hear some traditional Laotian folktales. The Garavek Traditional Storytelling was a fun experience. The theater is quite small and is lit with candles. There are only two seats at the front. Sitting above it is a painting of scenes from different tales. There were two people who performed. One was an older musician who played the accompanying music, and the other was the storyteller. He told a number of tales about the area that were interesting. Jun and I sometimes had a hard time following the winding turns in the tales. But they were told in a captivating way that the way it was being told was just as important as the story itself. Afterwards Jun and I were glad that we had went. After the show we went back to the hotel. So ended this day.

Day 7

This day started early. Jun woke up in the middle of night with an upset stomach. After going to the bathroom he was able to go back to sleep. That was the first warning.

We had to wake up early this morning. Jun had wanted to go see the morning alms giving. To see it we got up early and walked up the main street and waited. Near sunrise we started to see the monks walk along the street to receive alms. It was interesting to see them follow this tradition. It was a bit disconcerting to see some of those witnessing the event get so close to them to take photos. It is sometimes difficult to see people forget that while they may find things they see in another culture interesting because it is different from what they are used to, that for those participating in the event this custom is their way of life. To have a camera placed so close to you and then be blinded by flash in a way dehumanizes what should be a simple act of faith. I am glad that I was able to see this beautiful sight, but it was thought provoking of my own role in the experience.

Afterwards Jun and I went back to the hotel to rest. When we woke up Jun felt really uncomfortable and we decided to just rest for the remainder of the morning. Jun didn’t feel he needed to get medicine. Eventually he felt better and we decided to go for a walk to see the Ock Pop Tok Living Crafts Centre. It was a bit of walk there, but Jun seemed to be getting better. When we got there we arrived just in time for the free tour to go over the different parts of the center to see how the different crafts were made. It was really neat to see the local women create the different crafts. In Laos women are the only ones who are traditionally allowed to create these crafts. And the women at this center are trained to make them and to receive a fair share of the profit for their labor. The goal is to both empower women and to ensure that the traditional culture of the different ethnic groups survive. It was a beautiful place.

Unfortunately, as Jun was getting better I started to feel bad. We decided that we would go back to the hotel to rest. Spending most of the afternoon in the hotel napping was how this day went. In the end I felt better by the early evening, but still didn’t have much of an appetite. Jun went out to get something to eat. He brought back some pumpkin soup for me. But because we didn’t have any bowls, he ended up putting it in a glass. I then drank the soup. It was a good soup and I felt a bit better afterwards. For the rest of the night we just stayed in and watched TV. Sufficed to say, we went to bed early!

Day 8

Our last day in Luang Prabang and Laos had us walk around the town one last time and do some last minute shopping. After finishing packing, we checked out and took a tuk tuk to the airport. Again everything was fine and we were soon on our way to Vientiane to catch out flight back to Guangzhou.

Vientiane is where things went a bit off kilter. First we had a bit of layover and decided to get an early dinner in the city center. We took a taxi there, but he took us at the far edge of the center and we ended up having to walk to the restaurant. Dinner was great. We then took another tuk tuk to the airport. The tuk tuk was much better than the taxi driver.

At the airport we checked in and got ice cream at Dairy Queen. And then we went through immigration and security. At that point we waited for our flight. Then we discovered that our flight would be delayed for hours. After a long time of doing nothing, we were finally able to board and take-off. When we got back to Guangzhou we had to deal with a taxi line without any taxis. At that point a bus came to take people away. Some people decided to take the bus instead of waiting for a taxi. One family was about to get on the bus when the taxis started coming again, and then instead of taking the bus they got into the taxi. That’s annoying in of itself but could be just chucked up to just a situational incident. But then the teenage son started making obscene gestures to the rest of the line taunting people. That was obnoxious. The worst part was the dad didn’t reprimand his son, but instead started joining in with his son in taunting the rest of the line. Jun, while normally able to let things slide, got so mad at them that I had to be the one to cool him down. There were a lot of irritated people in that line at that family. Fortunately the taxi attendant was able to usher us to the next available car and Jun and I were on our way back to the Guangzhou apartment.

When we got to the apartment, we quickly took our showers and went to bed. It was so nice to sleep and not have to get up until much later that morning since by the time we went to bed it was nearly four in the morning!

So it was fortunate the worst part of the trip happened at the end, and the rest of it was great. Overall, Laos was amazing. We would definitely go back.

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Spring Festival Impressions

The Spring Festival arrived! Having completed the first week of my new job and finally having started to settle into living in Shenzhen, Jun and I wanted to have a quiet and relaxing holiday. I first had to go to Hong Kong to do paperwork for my new job on the first day of the holiday. With the holiday coming up I had to expedite the process to ensure that everything was completed in time.

Day 1

The actual vacation started by crossing the border into Hong Kong at the Futian checkpoint. This border control station was much easier than the other ones I have gone through in Shenzhen. It was fairly efficient and we were in Hong Kong without undue waiting. Once we were in Hong Kong we headed straight to the hotel.

We were ready for the hotel staff to let us check-in but then have to wait for our room to be available in the afternoon. The staff, however, told us that they had a room free and that they were more than happy to let us go up to the room early. That was a nice start to the trip. Jun and I went to the room and dropped our belongings. Then we went towards the office in Kowloon to do the paperwork. That’s where a snag came up. The agents felt unsure if I had all the paperwork I needed, I felt that I did since the document they wanted was one that I had to surrender back to the Chinese government and no longer had. I still felt it was fine and they said they would try—but made no promises. That left a bit of a bitter taste for us: the nagging worry that something could go wrong.

Jun and I tried our best to put it out of our minds. We had made plans to have lunch with one of his friends in Central. So we went straight there and had lunch at an Italian restaurant. The food was good. After lunch, Jun and I said bye to his friend and went exploring around the area. We started by walking around Soho. We stumbled onto the Dr. San Yat-sen Museum, and went in to see what there was to see. Jun was interested in the exhibitions, but I was more interested in the building itself. It’s an Edwardian building that has been beautifully restored. It was a nice example of British colonial architecture.

From there we went down and found a temple: Man Mo. It was a small temple, but it had a unique way of placing its incense burners and prayer lanterns. It was the first temple I’ve seen that did it. It was quite calming to be there.

Afterwards we walked back towards the waterfront. Near Admiralty there’s a park called Tamar that is really neat. There are places to sit on the grass and stare into the water. And dotted throughout the park are some interesting pieces of art. One of the pieces we saw was a sculpture, Soundscape, by Steven Ho Chun Wang, Alvin Kung Yick Ho, and Edmond Wong Chak Yuen. The sculpture is inspired by the design of a xylophone, and the design of the instrument is actually tuned to be able to make the notes of a song.

Afterwards we took the MTR back to our hotel in North Point. We had dinner at a noodle pace before we went back to the room. We rested for a bit before we went to bed.

Day 2

The next day we decided to go to Stanley. Jun hadn’t been there before and Stanley tends to be much quieter than many other parts of Hong Kong. We took a minibus down south. We took the eastern route and passed a reservoir and a park. The reservoir was also an intriguing piece of architecture. It was built out of blocks and not by poured concrete. It was clearly a historic reservoir as it was also not designed for two lanes of traffic. We had to wait for the direction of traffic to shift before we were able to continue to Stanley.

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When we got there we spent the rest of the morning and the afternoon walking around the community. We first went through the market and saw the different stalls there. From there we walked along the promenade and enjoyed the beautiful day. We saw Murray House and Blake Pier and went into the park to see a Pak Tai Temple.

Afterwards we went to visit the Correctional Museum. It was an intriguing place. They had exhibits on the history of cells, corporal punishment (e.g., a replica of how they would hang criminals), and examples of prison created tools, such as homemade tattoo machines and weapons. That latter was interesting after having seen them in movies. From there we walked along the beach and decided to go and get some lunch. When we were done we went for a walk and got some gelato. By then we had to head northward to Kowloon to see if my documents had been processed. We took the bus and got off and took the MTR to Kowloon.

We went to the office and I was relieved to found out that that everything went okay and the documents were processed. So that was one thing that I could cross off my list of things that I needed to do. Once that was done we decided to see a movie. We chose La La Land. We both enjoyed how the intermixing of music with the story worked well and enhanced it. After having an enjoyable time at the movies we wanted to have dinner. That unfortunately ended up being a chore. We had a difficult time finding a place to eat. The placed we wanted to go to didn’t have a free table and a long wait. We ended up eating in a food court with subpar food. Fortunately to make up for that we found a hole-in-the-wall dessert place and had an enjoyable treat there.

That was it for the day and we ended up back in the room.

Day 3

The next day was New Year’s Eve. It was, however, a day of travel for us. We first traveled back to Shenzhen to repack our bags. And then we went straight to the train station to get the overnight train to Shangrao to visit Jun’s family for the holiday in his hometown—Dexing. The only available train Jun could find was the 12 hour overnight train. It’s been quite some time since I last went on such a train and was not looking forward towards it. But we had brought snacks and downloaded several shows to see.

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The train ride wasn’t too bad. They sold a simple meal that we both had. And near Longchuan in Guangdong there were firework that we saw from the train. I was excited about that, Jun was more interested in sleeping and just brushed the fireworks off to the side.

Day 4

We arrived in Shangrao—the largest city near Jun’s hometown—at 5:00 in the morning. His dad met us at the train station and both were happy to see each other. It had been almost two years since they last saw each other. From Shangrao we had about another hour and half car ride to Dexing. On the ride we experienced heavy fog that came and went quickly due to the strong wind. It was surreal and scary since we were traveling through mountain roads.

We finally arrived in Dexing where his stepmom and stepbrother met us. His stepmom made us homemade dumplings and insisted that we go take our showers as she got them ready. Once we were clean and our appetites satiated, Jun took his stepbrother and me on a walk around the river near his dad’s apartment.

Dexing is historically a mining community, as a result this small city is fairly well off when compared to other places in the interior of China.  You can see it in the new government buildings and apartment blocks being built. On the walk we saw old and new bridges, the high school Jun went to, and the main commercial area of the city. It was nice to see where Jun spent a significant amount of his youth.

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We finished our walk and went back to have lunch with his family. Instead of having lunch in the apartment, Jun’s family had their meals in a separate ground floor alcove where they cooked and had their meals. They cooked and ate here so the apartment wouldn’t get dirty. It was cool and fun. We had a nice homemade lunch and drank tea afterwards. Jun and I went back to the apartment to take a nap before we went out to meet one of his friends.

When we did go out Jun was able to take his dad’s scooter. That was fun! We went to the central area and met his friend. We had tea and then went to get our hair cut. That was a relief to have my hair short again. By the time we were done it was almost time to go back for dinner. Before we went back Jun and I drove around for a bit and saw other parts of Dexing.

For dinner Jun’s aunt came over to eat with us. We were going to stay with her since she had an extra room. After dinner we followed her to her apartment and got ready for bed.

Day 5

This day was largely a relaxing day. We woke up late and just piddled around a bit before we went to see Jun’s family for lunch. We had another wonderful meal. Jun’s stepmom then suggested that we go to see Juyuanlou, which is a pagoda at the foothills to the mountains surrounding Dexing. The pagoda was beautiful and had amazing views of the city and the mountains.

From there we then went to the Jiangxi Mining Museum. This museum is housed in traditional-style buildings and tells the story of mining in Jiangxi province. It was interesting to walk around the museum and to see the history of mining in the province.

From there we then went back to see Jun’s family. After having tea, we went for a walk around the river before dinner. And then after dinner we again went around the government area of the city. For a small community they had a significant number of government buildings. Jun was skeptical that there was enough employees and positions to justify all the office space in these new buildings. The buildings did, however, look impressive at night.

When we got back to the apartment we had some more tea before we went back to his aunt’s apartment for the night. This day was very relaxing.

Day 6

On this day we ventured to go to San Qing Mountain National Park. To get there we woke up early and went to pick up Jun’s stepbrother. Then we took a bus to get us most of the way there. We had to stop in a village—Nanshou—near the national park. We had to wait for about an hour for the next bus. I decided to walk around and see the village. A villager stopped me as I was taking a picture and asked me who I was and what I wanted. I had to explain to him in my horrible Chinese that I was a foreigner and didn’t know too much Chinese. He laughed and said, “Hello!” in English. I then met up with Jun and we went around the river near the bridge and saw a bamboo grove. After our walk we went back to the general store where the bus was going to pick us up. After a bit it came and we went to the eastern entrance of the national park.

When we got there we tried to get tickets to go into the park. Due to it being the New Year holiday, however, there were too many people at the park. The staff decided to stop admitting new guests for two hours to control the number of people entering. That’s a good thing to ensure the park is not stressed; for us, however, it frustrated us. As we were walking and thinking about what we could do we were approached by a driver who said he would drive us to the southern entrance where there was less people. After negotiating the price we decided to hire him and go south.

When we got there the car had to stop at the entrance to the road up to the park. We were able to take the free bus up to the entrance. There were indeed hardly anyone at the southern entrance and we were able to buy tickets and go up on the cable car without having to wait in line. As we were going up in the cable car we noticed that we were going up into a cloud.

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It seems that the change in weather overnight had brought a heavy fog that blanketed the park. For the first 30 minutes at the park we were walking in fog and could hardly see anything. What we did see was nice, but our perspective was limited. It actually seemed that we were at ground level and that we hadn’t gone up a mountain. As we were walking on the western path the fog began to clear and we were able to see more of the mountain. As that was happening we were also able to see how high up we were. That knowledge jarred us a bit. It was so high up! The views, though, were amazing.

We continue towards San Qing Temple, which was an old, small temple that was nestled next to one of the mountain peaks.

From there we went along the middle path. There the fog really cleared and we were able to see the sky with the fog below the peaks. The view we had was stunning.

By then we had to head back to the cable car to get back down to the entrance. As we were going down the fog came back and the temperature started to drop. Fortunately we made it to the cable car and went back down. We were hoping that the busses were still running, but by the time we got down there they had stopped. We then decided to find a room for the night and go back in the morning. So after having dinner we went and found a room. It wasn’t the most amazing of places, but it was warm place for the night.

Day 7

The next morning we checked out, had breakfast, and caught the bus to Shangrao. At Shangrao we bought bus tickets to Dexing, but we had to wait an hour before we could leave. We decided to go find a café to get something to drink and wait for the bus. After walking a bit we found a place where we could get tea and waffles. It was bit pricy, but it was at least warm.

Finally we were able to get on the bus and go back to Dexing. When we got there we went and cleaned up at Jun’s aunt’s apartment. Jun had plans to meet up with some of his high school friends. I stayed with his stepmom and stepbrother and did some work.

When he got back we went to meet his family for dinner. This dinner had more people, his uncle, cousins, and a close family friend were there. We had a big and scrumptious dinner! Afterwards Jun and I went for a walk by the river. As we were walking we passed by a cute café where we got some drinks.

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We then went back to his dad’s place before we went away for the night.

Day 8

Our last morning in Dexing was a whirlwind of saying goodbyes and picking up a care package Jun’s stepmom made. They had helped us arrange a shared car to take us to the train station in Shangrao. So we were able to get to the train station with plenty of time to pick up our tickets and leave.

Our holiday was coming to an end. I enjoyed meeting Jun’s family and seeing his hometown. And I know he was thrilled to be able to see his dad. It was a wonderful Spring Festival and a great experience for both of us!

Beautiful Bali

Our first day in Bali had us exploring Kuta Beach. After all the moving we did in Yogyakarta, we decided to just have a relaxing day enjoying our time in Kuta. After checking in the hotel we went to the beach and walked around the town. While we were walking we saw long poles everywhere. Apparently on the day we arrived, the Balinese were celebrating Galungan, a holiday commemorating the legendary battle of good versus evil, or the triumph of the spread of Hinduism in Bali. All throughout the island they had erected curved bamboo poles with offerings placed on them. It was really a spectacular site to see.

The next day we decided to hire a car to explore the island. The first day we ventured around the Bukit Peninsula south of Kuta. We first went to Garuda Wisnu Kencana Cultural Park, which is a work in progress. While there we saw some Balinese dancing, which was amazing.

Afterwards we went to Uluwatu, a Balinese sea temple, known for the monkeys that live there. The views of the sea from here were amazing. We were able to get close to the cliff face to look down to see the waves crashing against the cliff. We also got to see a lot of monkeys. Many were friendly, but some of them were quite aggressive. After the wonderful experience at Uluwatu, we went to a couple of beaches.

The first beach we went to was Padang Padang Beach. It’s a small beach surrounded by cliffs, and you have to go through the rocks to get down to the beach. We spent some time on the beach and had a wonderful late lunch there too. After lunch we went to see Tegalwangi Beach. This beach is gorgeous and not a lot of people come here, so we were able to enjoy it in peace. The views from this beach to the island of Java were also great! By this time we were exhausted and were ready to head back to Kuta for dinner and bed.

The next day had us going to Ubud for some culture and nature. We first went to Ubud Palace; we then went to see Pura Taman Saraswati. It was one of the most beautiful temples I’ve ever visited. There is a lotus pond in front of the temple that adds an ethereal quality to the temple. It was simple sublime.

We then walked down to the river near Parahyangan Jagat Payogan Agung Gunung Lebah so we could go walk along the Campuhan Ridge. Walking just a few feet and you venture out of the town into a natural oasis. It was a gorgeous and peaceful walk. At the end were some rice fields that we enjoyed seeing.

When we came back to Ubud we had a late lunch and got ready to go see Mount Batur and Batur Lake. We drove to Penelokan village for the view. It was quite spectacular! On our way back to Kuta we stopped to enjoy the Tegalalang Rice Terrace. This day was one of the best of the trip.

 Our third day had us going to Tanah Lot temple. This temple is another sea temple. During high tide it is surrounded by water, but at low tide you can walk to the temple. It was beautiful. There were, however, a lot of people there.

After Tanah Lot, we went to Pura Ulun Danu Bratan temple up in the mountains. This temple is famous throughout Indonesia because it’s on the 50,000 rupiah note. The temple is next to an alpine lake and is gorgeous. I really enjoyed this temple.

The last temple we saw that day was Pura Taman Ayun. This temple was unique in that there wasn’t a lot of people there. In fact we could walk around the temple without anyone bothering us. It was a nice end to our last full day in Bali.

On our last day we just relaxed at Kuta Beach since our flight left early that evening. We enjoyed walking along the beach and doing some shopping. The last thing we got to do was experience the sun setting on the beach. It was a wonderful way to end out time in Indonesia.

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Yogyakarta Joy

The Spring Festival finally came! Over two weeks of vacation to do as we wanted. To take a break from winter, we decided to travel to Indonesia for the break. We decided first to go to Yogyakarta on the island of Java. The area has a lot of historic sites in and around it.

We arrived late at night and decided to take a rest from traveling and have an early dinner. We went to this small restaurant called Warung Heru. It’s a family owned place and they were friendly and helpful. The food was incredible!

Our first full day was a busy one. We got up early and decided we would walk to the central area of the city. The first place we went to was the Kraton district, which is where the royal palace is located. As we tried to get our bearings, a man approached us and asked us if we needed help. I was a bit wary about a random person coming up to me, but he was insistent that he just wanted to help us. He told us that he lived in the Kraton and wanted to practice his English. I was still dubious. He then emphatically stated he didn’t want any money and that he would guide us around the area. He said he didn’t have anything to do at that moment; later he would be playing at a wedding as one of the musicians. At that point he started giving us a history of the area. He took us to see some nice things in the Kraton. When it was time for him to go to the wedding, he thanked us and pointed us to the palace. It was a pleasant surprise that he was genuinely curious about us and wanted to practice his English.

The rest of the morning and early afternoon we explored the palace and Malioboro Street. The palace was a beautiful place, and we were able to see some dancers and musicians practice there. It was soothing to watch them move with careful precision.

Molioboro street was cramped with food stalls, stores, and motorbikes. There were so many motorbikes, and yet traffic seemed to move at an orderly and steady pace.

After the hectic nature of that area, we decided to take the bus to see Prambanan Temple. It’s a 9th-century Hindu temple compound dedicated to the Trimurti, the expression of God as the Creator (Brahma), the Preserver (Vishnu) and the Destroyer (Shiva). We took one of the TransJogja buses to get there. As we were traveling to the temple it started to rain. We were a bit concerned that we might not be able to fully enjoy seeing the temple. When we got to the temple it was still raining. We decided to see if we could wait it out. After about 20 minutes the rain stopped and we went to the temple. It was quite amazing. The temple was much larger than we had expected. As walked around Prambanan we were struck at how detailed the architectural features were. We enjoyed our visit to the temple and were thrilled that we got to see the sunset there. Afterwards we went back to the hotel.

On our second day we went to Borobudur, a 9th-century Mahayana Buddhist Temple, to the north of Yogyakarta. It took about  two hours to get there by public transportation, but it was nice to relax after the previous day. Borobudur was a grand temple and it was nice walking around the structure and grounds. There were times when there was no one else around and we got to enjoy the little spot we found to ourselves. The view from the top of Borobudur was amazing, you could see the surrounding countryside for miles. After we had seen all we could, we stopped for a quick bite and headed back to Yogyakarta. By the time we got back it was already early evening. We had dinner and relaxed the rest of the evening.

On our last full day in Yogyakarta, we decided to go the Water Castle Tamansari. It used to be the private swimming pool of the sultan of Yogyakarta. There were a number of pools there, and it’s easy to imagine the royal family and their guests enjoying spending a hot summer afternoon at the pool. Near the Water Castle is Sumur Gumuling, a semi-underground structure that is not really used anymore except for people to come and explore the area. It was kind of like a maze to walk around the place. It was a fun experience.

Afterwards we had lunch and then walked to Kotagede. It’s a small community that is historically known for its various silver workshops and historic, traditional buildings. The area was super cool. We had fun going through the tiny alleys and to see the different types of workshops.

I particularly enjoyed visiting the Monggo Chocolate factory. The chili chocolate was amazing. I wish I could have brought more chocolate bars back with me. While walking around the neighborhood we saw this cart going from house to house. We saw the cart stop at a house and a woman came to the window and asked the man for a bottle of milk. This man was the milkman! We went up to him and browsed what he had to offer. We decided to buy some chocolate milk; it was creamy and delicious! Kotagede was one of the neatest places I’ve visited and it was a nice way to finish our trip in Yogyakarta.

The next morning we had an early flight and we flew off to Bali for the next part of our vacation.