Between the Rivers, East of the Clouds: A Short Visit to Hà Nội


To me, Hanoi resembles the pressurized, heated, perpetually moving environment of the human circulatory system. Its convoluted streets are packed to their narrow edges with such an insistent volume of motorbikes and other vehicles that its ability to function more or less uninterruptedly appears miraculous. As the regional metropole and a bustling center of commerce for most of the last millennium (periods of American military destruction excepted), Hanoi, especially its Old Quarter, is an intensely complex place resembling a respiratory system in which even the smallest unit – the red blood cell – is represented analogously: walnut faced old women watch over bootleg football jerseys wedged into the tiniest of spaces between buildings. Everything is interconnected.

Clothing Store

I’m reaching a bit with the vascular metaphor, but if you have a chance to visit you’ll understand. The bronchial system of avenues, streets, alleys, and side-alleys conveys a nearly literal flood of delivery vehicles carrying the oxygen of a commercial district: building supplies, beer, vegetables, livestock, people, documents, consumer electronics, and on and on. Those same vehicles (or vessels) remove the byproducts of Southeast Asian urban metabolism: hung-over Australians, Bia Hanoi empties, organic waste, assorted rubbish.Vietnam, Hanoi, Apps

We arrived in January and as tempting as it is to believe that Hanoi is a brutally hot, oppressively humid tropical party zone, winter is undeniably damp and cold once the sun goes down. Hanoi also has an uncommonly early bedtime, when considered beside its sister capital cities in Southeast Asia. Nearly everything shuts down pretty early – between 10pm and midnight – a result of both cultural and governmental influences, so if you plan on raging until the sun crawls up and over the eastern horizon you should probably save it for Ho Chi Minh or Phnom Penh.

Frenetic daily life and the anonymity afforded by such lend Hanoi a romanticism that is hard to escape. Yeah, sure, plenty of other major cities are hive-like centers of commerce with long histories but in northern Vietnam this has been operating almost seamlessly for well over 1,000 years. Northern Vietnam has long been a thorn in the Chinese underbelly, an intractable region that has, throughout the centuries, forced the Middle Kingdom into tributary state arrangements, wars of conquest, wars of maintenance, and wars of retribution, not to mention complex border negotiations.

Hanoi is a part of a proud culture that fell under the colonial heel (as the variety of French colonial houses and the ubiquity of baguettes throughout the city prove), fought its way out against the most advanced, well funded military on earth (America!) and has emerged again as an important center of manufacturing and trade. It is fun, vibrant, a mix of old and new (each street is named after the craft guilds that used to occupy it), and an undeniably alluring place.

30 Hours (Give or Take) in Nikko, Japan


lake, japan, nikko, travel, photography

Looking west across Lake Chuzenji. Kegon waterfall is behind and to the left about half a kilometer.

Translating literally as ‘sunlight’ or ‘sunshine’ Nikko, Japan greeted us with a slushy downpour, the alternating mix of drizzle and wet, heavy snow giving up its wintry pretenses and converting entirely to a sodden, pitilessly chilly rain after about 10 minutes. We’d been in Tokyo two hours earlier, where we hopped onto the Tobu Nikko line and headed up to this small city in the mountains about a hundred and forty kilometers north of the capital. It was a pretty ride, through the surrealistically enormous urban expanse of Tokyo and its environs before breaking free and winding through increasingly mountainous terrain towards Nikko, which is tucked into the bends and curves of a small river valley in Tochigi Prefecture.

Our first order of business was hostel location, our place of choice being the Nikkorisou Backpackers, a cozy, exceedingly quiet place located literally across the street from the bus stop and about a 2.5 minute stroll from the entrance to Nikko’s legendary Toshogu shrine complex. After dropping off the bags we made a break through the rain for Hippari Dako, a local noodle and yakitori (a Japanese chicken skewer) eatery that has been elevated to a kind of institution by Lonely Planet and numerous other travel authorities for the years and years of foreign currency and business cards scrawled with messages and left by visitors tacked to the walls. It was good, it was cheap, and warm food hit the spot after wandering around in the cold and the damp.

Nikko, Japan, travel, photography

Shinkyo Bridge, linking Nikko with the shrine complex.

Full, we wandered off to the shrine complex, past the Shinkyo bridge – a picturesque feudal remnant that connects the town to the shrines, and up towards a forest of ancient Japanese cedars that are staggering in size and age. Conventional wisdom predicts that it is easy to burn oneself out on shrines and temples in Japan, which is true, there are thousands upon thousands of them – many beautiful, of historical and cultural importance, and lauded in travel literature – but, Nikko is particularly beautiful due to the lavishly constructed mausoleums of the Tokugawa Shoguns and the world famous cedar forest which was planted over 400 years ago by a feudal lord serving the first Tokugawa Shogun. The complexities of Japanese political history aside, the cedars in Nikko are awe inspiring, enormous pieces of the living past and the shady, peaceful hush that hangs over the entire complex is due largely to their sweeping needle covered boughs. Also be sure to check out the ‘Sacred Stable’ with its carving of the three wise monkeys – ‘hear no, see no, speak no evil’.

trees, cedar, japan, nikko, photography, travel

A cedar lined road in Nikko.

After walking around the various shrines and struggling to maintain footing on slush and ice encrusted sidewalks, we headed back into town and grabbed a cup of coffee, some cheesecake, and hunkered down to wait out the last hour before check in. By this time the rain had been reduced to light, infrequent drizzles so our walk back to Nikkorisou Backpacker’s was at least semi-dry. We got checked in, stowed our things, then relaxed for a while. Nikkorisou is an adorable place, quaint, unique, with a traditional wood stove and Japanese living room, and the bunks were, like, the absolute perfect level of snug and warmth. We made a break for dinner around 6 or 7, getting into downtown right as the sky decided to let go again. So, forced by weather and desperation (there was almost nothing open), we ducked into a non-descript local joint run by a most excellent gentleman named Akira Asai who plied us with beers, spicy shrimp, noodles and polite questions about our lives and travels. A brisk walk back to the hostel through the rain and that it was it for our first 12 hours in town.

waterfall, japan, nikko, travel, photography

Kegon Waterfall pouring down just below Lake Chuzenji

Day two brought sun and blue skies and we headed up into the surrounding mountains towards Nikko National Park to check out famous waterfalls, hopefully spot some wandering Japanese Macaques, and generally just enjoy snow and trees and gorgeous winter scenery. We stopped first at Kegon Waterfall, a 100 meter tall cataract at the outlet of Lake Chuzenji. It was much colder at higher altitudes, and my hoodie/rain jacket combo was a bit light for the fierce winds careening eastward over the lake, but out into the weather we went. Kegon is accessed by an elevator tunneled straight through the rock connected to an underground bunker style visitors’ area that in turn leads out to an observation deck built right into the walls of the gorge. We huddled for a bit, snapped some pictures, then made a quick café stop for coffee and pastry before catching a bus further up into Nikko National Park on Route 120.

japan, nikko, travel, photography

More views of the mountainous Nikko National Park

Our next stop was Yudaki falls, right below Lake Yunoko. From the falls we trekked maybe half a kilometer up a trail covered in about two and half feet of snow. Not the easiest climb, but not the longest either, and twenty odd minutes later we were at the lakeshore on a wooden bridge watching an early morning snow shower drop enormous flakes lazily across the water and mountains. Watched for a few minutes, headed back down the hill, and saw a wandering troupe of Japanese Macaques, or Snow Monkeys. Making their way along a hillside far from the road, the animals weren’t exactly close, but still cool, and curious to see a creature so often associated with jungles and tropical environments wandering around in a snow covered mountain forest.

cedar tree, japan, nikko, travel, photography

Hugging a 400-500 year old cedar.

After the monkeys we caught another bus back into town and checked out, returning to Tokyo around two or three in the afternoon. With only one night and less than 36 hours to explore, was Nikko worth the trip? I’d say absolutely. Nikko is actually probably perfect for one or two day trips, especially on an All Nikko Pass which provides unlimited access to buses and trains over a four day time period. Far from the frenetic pace of urban Japan and with no real night life to speak of the town is not the most exciting place to be after 7pm, but it is set in an absolutely gorgeous area filled with hiking and other outdoor opportunities. Nikko also perfectly illustrates one of the most impressive things about Japan: the near-perfect combination of ultra-modern mega-city living, small town life, and untouched natural beauty; all three seem to be in Zen like proportion, a harmony that is obvious after a day trip to Nikko.

Full gallery below:


7 Days in Taiwan

7 Days in Taiwan

7 Days in Taiwan

Day One – Fly into Kaohsiung

Day Two – Shared taxi to Kenting

Day Three – Kenting

Day Four – Bus to Kaohsiung, then train to Hualien

Day Five – Hualien

Day Six – Train to Taipei

Day Seven – Taipei back to Beijing

Day One – Kaohsiung

We arrived early into the Kaohsiung International Airport and from there we took the subway (KMRT) to our hostel in the city. Since we couldn’t check into our hostel yet, we ventured out to see what Kaohsiung was all about. With no luck renting a motorbike, we opted for the Kaohsiung city bikes and rode around in search for food.

Afterwards we made our way down to the harbor to see the famous rubber duck designed by Dutch artist, Florentijn Hofman, that has now made Kaohsiung his new home. You can tell the city is quite proud of this, because rubber duck memorabilia is for sale in nearly every shop, stand, and place of business in the entire city.

Once we could check into our hotel, we took a nap and awoke hungry. So we went back out in search for food. I’m not sure if we were having a stretch of bad luck, or the day we arrived was a holiday, but it seemed like every restaurant was closed. The options that were open either didn’t have english menus or just didn’t seem that appealing. Anyways, we settled for a small, street-side restaurant and ordered dumplings, chicken and noodles.

Later, we walked down to the Night Market. After a quick breeze through, we then headed back to the hostel to get ready for an early morning.

Giant rubber duck in Kaohsiung Harbon

Giant rubber duck in Kaohsiung Harbor

Day Two – Kenting

We woke early for the shared taxi to Kenting. We arrived at our hostel on the  Kenting Strip around noon and grabbed some lunch.  From there we rented a motor bike and rode up and down Highway 26 along the coastline, riding through the various small fishing villages dotted along the way.

Kenting National Park

Kenting National Park

Kenting National Park

Kenting National Park

At night, the Kenting Strip turns into a night market with tons of food stalls ranging from seafood, desserts, fruits, alcohol, and plenty of souvenir knick-knacks. Devin opted for deep fried fish with roe inside. Not a fan of eating fish eggs, I made the better selection of enjoying some banana roti. A favorite delicacy I enjoyed during our time in Malaysian Borneo, the banana roti was very yum!

Enjoying fried fish at the Night Market

Enjoying fried fish at the Night Market

Day Three – Kenting

After breakfast, we hopped back on our motorbike and decided to head away from town on Gongyuan Rd (which later turns into Shexing Rd.) towards Sheding Natural Park. This was a pleasant peaceful ride through lush forest, perfect for nature lovers. This road connects back onto Highway 26 and back onto the coast.

Sheding Natural Park

Sheding Natural Park

If you keep heading southeast on Highway 26, you will come along several high cliffs called Longpan overlooking the South China Sea. You will need to take caution because there are some extremely strong winds up there, but the views are incredible!  The large gusts of wind also add to the whole drama of the experience.

Longpan Cliffs

Longpan Cliffs

Next up, we decided to head to the Hengchun Old Town (just take Highway 26 North, it’s about 15 minute ride from town). Which at first glance doesn’t look old at all.  We actually had to stop and ask a local where it was. Literally standing in front of it, he points behind us and says, “there.” Basically the Old Town is made of an ancient brick gate, which marks the entrance. Further in you have narrow streets lined with small shops, restaurants and various vendors. I felt the town had some charm to it, and supposedly it’s a great place to go have dinner at night.  However, unless you have the time to fill, I would say this is an attraction you could skip.

Hengchun Old Town

Hengchun Old Town

Since we had been scooting all day around Kenting, we decided it was time to relax by the ocean. Devin bought goggles and a snorkel and beer, lots of beer.  We made our way down to the Little Bay beach (East of town on Highway 26), and found a nice umbrella with several little chairs underneath. The umbrella renter comes running over to negotiate a price. He wanted 300 NTD, saying, “all day price.” Since it was already 3:00 pm, I suggested 150 NTD to which he said, “okay.” I’m not sure if that is a good price or not, but the sun was blazing and all I wanted to do was read my book and drink my beers. (note: Bar Beer from 7Eleven or Family Mart is a great inexpensive choice, with The Beer as a runner up option).  Devin snorkeled around the reef, however he said there wasn’t much to see. Perhaps there are better beaches for snorkeling?

Sunsetting in Little Bay

Sunsetting in Little Bay

After a nap and some dinner, we made our way back to the Night Market. Both of us finding the same stalls from the night before. With our bellies full, we headed back to our hostel for some sleep.

Banana Roti at the Night Market

Banana Roti at the Night Market

Day Four – Hualien

Early bus to Kaohsiung train station, followed by a long train ride to Hualien, and we finally make it to our hostel.  We find a motor bike rental, and get our new wheels.

Since we arrived fairly late in the day, around 4:00 pm, we just decided to head into downtown for dinner. Hualien’s downtown is very vibrant and is full of energy (and people). Off of the main road you will find many tiny streets jammed full with shops, cafes, and bars (location: take Zhongshan Rd south until it intersects Zhongzheng Rd or Zhonghua Rd). I wish we had more time, because I imagine you could spend hours wondering around down there.

Hualien City, outside the train station

Hualien City, outside the train station

Day Five – Hualien

We woke early, grabbed some breakfast and heading out to see the beauty of the 19 km-long canyon, Taroko Gorge (take Highway 193 North to Highway 8 West – follow signs to Taroko Gorge). It’s a nice 30 minute drive with the coast on one side and massive mountains on the other. Once you enter the entrance gate, its a breathtaking ride through the winding road that follows the gorge.  We took our time, stopping off about every few kilometer to get our snapshots and breath in the fresh air. We drove out all the way until the road stopped following the gorge, which was still a nice ride.  However, since we had a lot to pack in the day, we decided to turn back around and say our good-byes to Taroko. I have to say, Taroko is sooooo worth the hype!

Taroko Gorge

Taroko Gorge

After we got our gorge fix, we wandered back into town and decided to ride down the scenic Highway 11 coast. We started heading south first along the coastline crossing over the Hualian Bridge.  After crossing over, the traffic dwindled down and it was surprisingly quiet.  All I could hear was the wind in my ears and the crashing of the waves. The only bad thing is riding south it is difficult to even see the coastline unless you pull off the road and run across the highway and peek over the high cliffs.  But since there wasn’t much traffic, making frequent stops wasn’t a huge hassle.

Once we got past where the road splits from the coastline, we were quickly educated on how unreliable the Taiwanese scooter’s gas gages are. It went from 3/4’s full to empty in one tick. Since we predicted our chances of finding a gas station up ahead slim, we made the decision to head back north up Highway 11 to fill up the tank. Luckily we found a gas station after crossing back over the Hualian Bridge, because at this point we were riding on fumes.

Filled up and ready to go, we ventured north following the coastline (which will put you onto Highway 193).  We stopped off at various scenic spots to overlook the massive and captivating waves that crash against the shore. We rode until almost sunset making our way to Cisingtan Scenic Area.  Truly a beautiful place to just relax and watch the majestic waves roll in and out on the beach. I wish I had found Cisingtan earlier, because it would have made the perfect spot to laze around for a few hours, while drinking some Bar Beers and writing a few postcards.  Oh well, we were there long enough to catch a glimpse of a rainbow peaking out from the clouds.

As it was getting close to 5 pm and we had to return our wheels, we rode back towards our hostel and prepared to say good-bye’s to Hualien. Hualien, I think I love you..

Scenic Highway 11

Scenic Highway 11


Cisingtan Scenic Area

The waves at Csingtan

The waves at Cisingtan

Day 6 – Taipei

Back to the train station for the last leg of our trip, Taipei. It was a quick 2 hour journey until we arrived at Taipei station. Unfortunately, so had Typhoon Fitow.  Fitow brought rain and gusty winds, making it difficult to explore the city.  So we basically used the day to catch up on some much need R&R.

Day 7 – Taipei (The End)

On our final morning, Fitow had moved on and Taipei  was clearing up. Guilty that we hadn’t gotten to explore much of Taipei, we set out for some breakfast and a quick glance of this beautiful city. The morning was lively and the street vendors were in business. We decided on some dan bing  which literally means, egg bread. It’s more like a pancake than bread and it was so delicious. Topped off with some bacon and cheese…ahhhh….

Dan Bing

Dan Bing

So long Taipei, hopefully we will meet again under better circumstances. Next stop, Beijing!

Picture of the Week: Longpan Park, Kenting, Taiwan

taiwan, kenting, cliffs, travel, photography

Typhoon Fitow kicks up an angry surf along Taiwan’s southern coast as seen from Longpan park, near Kenting. Longpan, lying between Jiae Road and the emptiness of the western Pacific, is a gorgeous coral limestone tableland, with expansive views, windswept grasslands, and rambling cliffs that transition into pastureland at their base. Winds were extremely powerful on the day we stopped, strong enough to make stinging missiles out of sand and grit, strong enough to knock over people and parked scooters, which only added to the expansive feel of the place. ‘Tropical Ireland’ is perhaps an accurate metaphorical take on Longpan, with its low shrubs, vast fields of grass, and grazing animals dotting the countryside.

Borneo Chapter Three: An Untouched Piece of Art

semporna, malaysia, borneo, travel, photography

Semporna is a hot, dirty, rat infested town perched on Malaysian Borneo’s far eastern coast, not far from the Indonesian-Malaysian border. The town is home to an extraordinarily pungent fish market – even by fish market standards, a small army of the most shabbily put-together ladyboys in all of Southeast Asia, and a rundown yellow mosque whose bells toll a heartless, languorous tribute to oppressive heat and dust. There is no quaint water front; there are no cozy hotels; the roads are strewn with plastic trash.

Getting to Semporna isn’t exactly wonderful either – an hour and a half ride from Tawau airport through the peaks and troughs of a featureless palm tree ocean. To feed mainland Asia’s new and voracious middle classes (and to make sure that hypertensive, convenience-obsessed westerners maintain an uninterrupted supply of artificially cheap processed food) Malaysia’s political elite, in often blatant self-enrichment projects, have embarked on a kind of ecological scorched earth campaign clearing massive swathes through some of the planet’s most biodiverse rainforests and converting the broken leftovers into mile after mile of palm oil plantation. Transit to and from Semporna in unremarkable, the town itself is un-enthralling by almost any conventional signifier of traveler fancy, and shore-side comforts are scarce at best.

semporna, malaysia, borneo, travel, photography

Looking across the lagoon at Bohedulang Island, Tun Sakaran Marine Park. A dock leading to the Giant Clam and Marine Invertebrate Hatchery can be seen in the background.

And yet Semporna is rapidly becoming one of the most sought after destinations in Borneo. This can be attributed directly to the fact that the islands and barrier reef systems located short boat rides from the crowded central wharf are nothing short of littoral, intertidal, maritime, underwater fantasy lands. Called an, “untouched piece of art,” by no less than Jacques Yves Cousteau himself, the diving in and around Semporna is legendary – known for sheer walls, thriving coral, and one of the most biodiverse marine habitats in the world. Steep sided volcanic islands, most within sight of mainland, are enveloped by water ranging – on a scale of blues –  from cobalt to hues so light and clear they resemble rarefied electric clouds more than saltwater.

Resulting from volcanic activity, steep coral faces are found throughout Semporna and contribute to the incredible diving. An abrupt drop off is shown by the stark differentiation in water color.

Resulting from volcanic activity, steep coral faces are found throughout Semporna and contribute to the incredible diving. An abrupt drop is given away by the stark differences in water color.

World class diving and snorkeling sites are strewn in liberal, almost careless fashion across the Celebes Sea around Semporna. At Tun Sakaran Marine Park, comprised of Sibuan, Mantabuan, Selakan and five other volcanic remnants, and at the incomparable aquatic paradise of Sipadan divers and snorkelers will encounter species that have largely or entirely disappeared from other popular regional destinations. One of the most fascinating attractions at Tun Sakaran is its Giant Clam and Marine Invertebrate Hatchery. Some of these humble bivalves can weigh in at over 400 pounds (once released into the wild) and at over 4 feet in length a person could literally sleep inside an empty shell.

semporna, malaysia, borneo, travel, photography

A family of Bajau Laut, or Sea Gypsies, gather around their boat. Many of these people spend almost their whole lives on boats or in small huts built over coral atolls, from which they make a living.

Adding to the Melville-ian atmosphere of littoral Semporna are the Bajau Laut, also called Sea Gypsies, who live in small stilt villages built directly over coral atolls. As their livelihoods come almost exclusively from the sea, most of the Bajau Laut spend their entire lives on or in the water, only coming ashore to sell fish or bury their dead. Like almost every other environment on earth, this liquid empyrean faces severe ecological pressures, primarily from overfishing (and the continued, highly destructive use of dynamite by local fishermen), pollution, and wear and tear from the explosion of tourist interest in the area.

For those who want to make the trip, spend your time offshore, on an island or in the water, and book Sipadan in advance – it is one of the most sought after dive destinations on planet earth. Check out Scuba Junkies, they’ve been in the area from almost the beginning and devote a not insignificant amount of time and resources to marine rehabilitation and conservation efforts. Wear sunscreen. Semporna is a heat-blasted place, with an unforgiving sun. And prepare for several rounds of tiger beer and comparative storytelling, which will almost certainly be needed after a day or two spent in these fauna rich waters.

Check out the rest of the pictures below.

Borneo Chapter Two: Into Gunung Mulu


We left Kuching for Gunung Mulu National Park in the middle of an afternoon thunderstorm. Our twin-propeller plane took off directly into a snarling black wall of clouds and sideways rain and serious doubts about near-term safety. Luckily, the inclement weather was mostly low lying, a meteorological bluff that gave way to sun and a fluffy white bed of clouds a few thousand feet off the ground. Far less (superficially) dangerous, was our arrival an hour later at Mulu Airport, swooping down over mountainous jungle into a remote town set so deep in the heart of Borneo that one must fly or travel by boat to reach it (logging roads exist, but it is almost impossible to reach Mulu by land).

Gunung Mulu National Park is a 546 square kilometer old-growth jungle preserve set almost in the geographical center of Malaysian Borneo. It is also one of the most spectacular places in Southeast Asia, and probably the world. I don’t toss around descriptive absolutes like ‘most spectacular’ lightly, but Mulu deserves it. Why the effusive praise?

Walking into Deer Cave. Hopefully I (the person walking) lend some sense of scale to the enormity of the place.

Walking into Deer Cave. Hopefully I (the person walking) lend some sense of scale to the enormity of the place.

CAVES. 286km of cave systems; the largest known cave chamber on earth – Sarawak Chamber at 700m in length, 400 meters in width, and 70m in height; the largest cave passage on earth (or was, apparently the recent discovery of a cave in Vietnam has usurped this title, but I’m not an official, so 1st or 2nd biggest) – the entrance passage to Deer Cave is about 2km deep, 174m high, and a couple hundred meters in width depending on your location; the longest cave in Southeast Asia – Clearwater cave clocking in at 180km of explored passageway; and a variety of other superlatives that I will skip. The caves are almost incomprehensibly enormous. The entrance to Deer Cave hits 300m tall in places. If you wanted, you could sail the entirety of the United States 7th Fleet into Deer Cave and probably have room for a 9-hole underground golf course.

A trio of lantern bugs cling to a tree. Despite the name, the long snouts do not emit light.

A trio of lantern bugs cling to a tree. Despite the name, the long ‘lanterns’ do not emit light.

FLORA AND FAUNA. Do you like old growth jungle? Do you like rare, exotic, Burton-esque types of insects and land mammals? Or 170 distinct species of orchids? Does the phrase, ‘10 different species of the carnivorous Pitcher Plant,’ arouse your curiosity and/or toss gasoline onto the always smoldering ember of wanderlust buried right beside your gypsy heart? Well, maybe you’re not a botanist, perhaps it takes giant moths, emerald pit vipers, pygmy squirrels, Rhinoceros Hornbills, hand sized snails, face sized spiders, 276 species of butterflies – including the luminescent Rajah Brooke’s Birdwing, porcupines and deer and scampering lizards to pluck those traveler chords. While exotic, the terrestrial leeches and extremely aggressive ants aren’t as fun. Granted, population densities for mammals are quite low, and many animals are active nocturnally, so sightings are not guaranteed, but that makes any encounter even more special.

One of the bridges on the 480m long Canopy Skywalk, one of the most fascinating attractions in the park.

One of the bridges on the 480m long Canopy Skywalk, one of the most fascinating attractions in the park.

MANAGERIAL EXCELLENCE. Gunung Mulu National Park is an incredibly well managed, world-class eco-tourism destination and  is consistently voted as one of the best managed parks in all of Malaysia and Southeast Asia. Park staff are courteous, knowledgeable, and professional; activities are diverse and well organized; the food is good; the trails are well maintained; the amenities are nice; the internet can be slow, but hey, you can’t even get to the park by car so if clouds problematize satellite reception facebook status updates will have to wait. Stay at Park HQ if you can. It is a collection of bungalows and cabins nestled right at the edge of the rain forest and it is remarkable. If time is a concern do the Canopy Skywalk, Deer Cave, Clearwater Cave, and the  Night Shift. If time isn’t a concern add some adventure caving, a river boat tour, and lounge around to your heart’s content listening to the gorgeous aural environment.

A group of wrinkle-lipped bats sleeping during the day.

A group of wrinkle-lipped bats sleeping during the day.

By making a list of things designed to capture the superlative nature of Gunung Mulu I may have given the impression that the beauty, scale, and otherworldly character of the park is somehow quantifiable. I don’t actually believe that is the case. Take for example Deer Cave. Its entrance is roughly the size of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. 3 million bats chatter away about 180m above your head. It is a 60 million year old testament to the geological alchemy of acidic water and limestone. None of those numbers really convey the historico-emotional synesthesia of being there. To rephrase without bullshit hyphenated terminology: being inside Deer Cave sets off some kind of innate sense of rapture that always existed and continues to exist in the cracks and recesses of the brain.

And the same goes for the afternoon and evening showers. Laying in a bungalow, with slatted blinds open, and the rain – its rising and falling percussive waves of sound – washing over the room, the bed, everything. The rain in Mulu is felt, and the rain begets a throaty, raucous, insistent insectoid symphony that wrings an unlikely harmony out of chaotic dissonance. It is such a deeply sensory experience; I want to write myself straight out and into a purpled, adjectival wilderness. And I guess that desire for descriptive excess is kind of the point: Mulu is special in a way that few places are – a truly unique, irreplaceable part of our world. I want to avoid valedictory clichés like, ‘go see it for yourself,’ or, ‘make it part of any Southeast Asian intinerary,’ but I have to say those things. So do it, go, you should, absolutely; see the bats, and the caves, and the lantern bugs, and definitely, definitely listen to the rain.

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Hiking Badachu

Beijing, China, Badachu

Badachu Park is a collection of rolling hills, trails, and narrow roads just outside urban Beijing’s northwest corner. It was a gorgeous day, and we spent about 6 hours hiking a fairly large (and often quite steep) loop through the area around old monasteries and temples.


Borneo Chapter One: Monkeys, Boat Rides, and a City of Cats

borneo, travel, photography, malaysia, Kuching

I truly enjoyed telling people about Borneo before the trip, it’s a rare destination and the name alone carried enough cache to make it sound like we’d be off on an Indiana Jones style adventure, or to undertake some anthropologically significant research in a land existing beyond the reach of time.  What with all its connotations of primordial jungle and mangrove swamps and untouched, mist enshrouded mountains I made myself into an intrepid voyager just by mentioning the name.

The reality of course was far different, but no less fun. Most people would be surprised to find that Borneo is more developed than many neighboring tourist destinations. This is due partly to the fact that the British turned coastal Borneo into a kind of exotic, but well appointed getaway, and partly to the fact that despite Japanese occupation during World War II, Malaysian Borneo emerged relatively intact. A mix of oil, industrial, and agricultural wealth has further lent the region an agreeable mix of development and low prices. Malaysian Borneo is divided into two major administrative districts: Sarawak in the east and Sabah to the West. Our trip began in Sarawak, in Kuching, the ‘City of Cats,’ so I’ll begin there.

Malaysia, Borneo, Photography, Travel

Aromatic herbs and spices, rice, locally grown produce, and a variety of coloful wares entice shoppers along the Main Bazaar, one of Kuching’s busiest thoroughfares.

From Beijing we flew into Kuching, Borneo’s largest city with 600,000 residents, and the capital city of East Malaysia. Downtown is quite walkable and friendly, with narrow streets, small cafes, and arcaded sidewalks filled with an assortment of colorful spices, dried fish, and locally produced handicrafts. One of the most fascinating things about Kuching is its poly-ethnic character. Malays (a majority of whom are Islamic), Chinese, Indians, native Iban, Dayak, the city is truly a melting pot and appears, to an outsider at least, fairly well integrated. Dragon bedecked temples, strings of red lanterns, and large, boisterous dining halls all testify to a pronounced Chinese diasporic presence. The absence of alcohol and pork from many restaurant menus (and from most local stores, including 711), the numerous local mosques, and prayer bells all attest to the strongly Muslim character of Borneo.

Downtown Kuching is a vibrant place, so how to fill days spent in the city? Eat seafood at Top Spot, have dinner at The Junk (seriously, The Junk is fantastic), stroll along the water front, drink coffee and browse for gifts. Sit and enjoy an afternoon of heavy clouds and everyday minutiae. Borneo Delight Café, located about a block off the waterfront in the heart of downtown is wonderful, extremely cheap, and serves traditional Malaysian food, so I would highly recommend grabbing lunch at the outside tables. With a pronounced lack of booze heavy nightlife typical in so many other tourist destinations, first time visitors to Kuching would be better served just ambling around town during the evenings. Because the city is so pedestrian friendly, just about everything can be accessed from the riverside promenade, itself breezy, well lit, and dotted with small restaurants.

orangutan, malaysia, borneo, travel, photography

At 350 or so pounds, Richie (the big guy on the ground) is the undisputed alpha male of the park. He was rescued by a local journalist from illegal captivity – he was being kept in a tiny cage for display.

Kuching is charming, yes, but its real attractions lie outside the city at Bako National Park and Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. Semenggoh sits less than 15 miles outside the city and is one of the premier destinations in the world to see Orangutans. It isn’t a zoo, the animals are not caged and roam the 650 acre park freely. For most of the year they remain elusive, feeding on wild fruit, but, when the fruit season ends the animals descend from the tree tops twice a day and head for one of two feeding stations. We were fortunate enough to see 5 of the 23 residents, all of whom were either rescued from illegal captivity, injury, or were actually born within the park. Unlike a zoo, there is no glass, no wire, and no enclosures of any kind between the visitors and animals; we were all warned to run if approached.

For us, Bako was the most amazing part of the Kuching area. Small, yeah, but it is loaded from its rain soaked ground to its canopied tree tops with rare, often bizarre forms of wildlife that appear to have sprung directly from the canon of jungle stereotypes. From Kuching an hour ride on public bus No. 1 will drop you right at the Bako Market dock, from which visitors to the park must take a boat.

Malaysia, Borneo, photography, travel

Looking out at the South China Sea, and a second round of approaching storms after we’d made it to the entrance of Bako National Park.

The boat ride out to the park probably deserves an entry to itself, but I’ll try to explain relatively quickly: We boarded a small sampan, maybe 18ft. in length, and headed up the Sungai Tabo River out into the South China Sea past pristine mangrove swamps backed by towering primary jungle forest. What made the ride so interesting were the storms. A great black angry wall of clouds was marching south, chasing rain and swells and white capped waves towards our little vessel. With a face like chiseled stone our pilot pointed the boat straight out into the bay, apparently unconcerned about the rough seas, the rising swells, and the approaching storm. Unconcerned I guess because he was actually racing other taxis towards a narrow channel cut through a minefield of shoals. I am sure this memory falls victim to retrospective embellishment, but at the time it felt like we were riding a gas powered canoe into a line of South Pacific squalls.

monkey, proboscis, bako national park, travel

A male Proboscis monkey hanging out in the trees near the Bako National Park visitor’s center. Note his distinctively shaped nose, which can be used as a snorkel when swimming.

Anyway, drenched by rain and spray we made it to the entrance of Bako, laughing for the most part about the ride and were greeted almost immediately by one of the park’s more comical inhabitants: the Proboscis Monkey, or, if you’re under 18 and male, and/or enjoy mid-low tier penis jokes, the ‘Chode-Nosed Monkey’. Bako is home to about 275 of these highly endangered animals, in addition to a larger number of Long Tailed Macaques and some Silvered Langurs. The Proboscis monkeys are very distinctive, a reddish blonde with long, powerful tails, males have a huge pendulous nose that continues to grow with age.

Wildlife and natural scenery are plentiful at Bako. Established in 1957, many of animals are far less wary of humans and are more concentrated, meaning that any visit will mean a variety of citings. Beared boars, monkeys, giant monitor lizards, beautiful Asian Pit Vipers, frogs, and tarsiers, tiny deer, a tremendous variety of birds – the list is long. Flora is also a major draw, thick primary jungle covers the whole area, a variety of carnivorous plants abound, and all kinds of strange flowering varieties greet you on walks.

Toss in an extensive network of well maintained trails, stunning cliffs, remote beaches, food, lodging, cheap and easy access, and concentrated natural beauty and Bako is an across the board win. If you are in Kuching, if only for a couple days, Bako should be on your itinerary. It is extremely easy to fit into a day trip.

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Beijing in Panorama

The visibility in Beijing in notoriously awful, a by product of rapid urbanization, an exploding vehicle population, and reliance on coal for personal heating and power generation. So, when opportunities like this present themselves, to see the urban and suburban sprawl of Beijing (and its 20 million or so residents) spread out across the North China Plain, its quite fun. These were taken with the Hiking Around Beijing crew, from the peaks at Badachu Park, an area filled with old monasteries that overlook the Beijing Botanical Gardens.

China, Hiking, Mountains, Beijing

China, Beijing, Hiking, Photography

Beijing, China, Badachu, Hiking, Photography