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    Asia Travel

    Visiting Endangered Primates in Borneo

    A Must Do in Malaysia

    Location: Sepilok Borneo Malaysia

    Seeing orangutans, gorilla and chimpanzees in the wild has been a long time goal of mine. Last year I checked off my bucket list seeing sloths and toucans in the wild. This year I’m totally focused on primates – including visiting endangered primates in Borneo.

    And that is what has brought us to the far northeast region of Borneo and the Sepilok Forest – home to the beautiful but endangered orangutans as well as the bizarre and endangered proboscis monkeys.

    Sepilok Borneo Firefly Tour
    On our river tour, Sepilok Borneo

    We spent three days in Sepilok. Flying into the Sandakan airport we traveled by Grab (Uber) thirty minutes to our destination of the Sepilok Forest Edge Resort. I can not recommend this place highly enough. We loved our beautiful little chalet with veranda and outdoor shower (an indoor one as well). The breakfast was outstanding as were the two fantastic dinners we enjoyed in the restaurant. Just $80 per night for two with the breakfast included.

    Sepilok Forest Edge Resort
    Dinner at Sepilok Forest Edge Resort

    We arrived around 3:00pm and unpacked and took a short rest – very short because we had pre-arranged an evening boat tour through the mangroves. The tour was promoted as a Firefly Tour but it was way more than that.

    River Tour Borneo, Malaysia
    Fresh Coconut at sunset

    First we drove about 20 minutes to a teeny village in the mangrove marsh where we were served yummy Cassava fritters and tea before boarding a small wooden boat. Our guides took us through the watery world of mangroves and it reminded me of our time in Bangladesh and even looked a bit like the Amazon and even the Everglades. We stopped to admire some long-tailed macaque monkeys grooming each other high in the trees.

    Sepilok Borneo Firefly Tour
    Sunset in the mangroves

    We stopped on a tiny island where we were served fresh coconut and watched the sunset. Once it was dark we headed back into the mangroves in our boat and the fireflies lit up the night. The trees along the channels looked like lighted Christmas trees and the little bugs made me think of Tinkerbell. Returning to shore we were served a simple and delicious Malaysian meal of curry chicken, sweet and sour tuna, soup, rice and vegetable fritters. All of this cost $55 per person.

    But the fireflies are also endangered, like so much else in this beautiful region. Learn more about the fireflies here.

    Back to Sepilok Forest Edge Resort and a good night’s sleep.

    Next morning we were up early and enjoyed a wonderful breakfast in the open air restaurant before making the 15 minute trek to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. Entrance fee was $7.50 each.

    Did you know the words orang utan means forest human in Malay? When you watch these animals up close it is remarkable how humanlike their behavior is.

    Sepilok Orangutan Reabilitation Center
    Mama and baby at feeding time

    This is an amazing place working to keep the orangutans from becoming extinct. Over the past two decades the orangutan population in Borneo has dwindled from 200,000 to only 11,000! The main reason this is happening is deforestation. Native forests are being eliminated and in their place mile after mile after mile of palm oil trees are being planted…pushing the orangutans to the brink of existence. Palm oil is used in thousands of products commercially produced. Everything from ice cream to soap. It’s likely you have products in your home right now with palm oil as an ingredient that has come from Borneo.

    Palm Oil deforestation in Borneo
    This is a palm oil nut from a palm oil tree
    Sepilok Orangutan Reabilitation Center
    Young male orangutan getting exercise

    At the Sepilok Orangutan Reabilitation Center two things occur;

    1. Wild orangutans learn to come here to help supplement their diet during two “feeding” times a day. The wild animals, especially nursing mothers, that are unable to find adequate nutrition due to the dwindling native forests come to the reserve and receive fresh fruits and vegetables.
    2. Injured or orphaned orangutans are brought from outside the region to receive medical attention or to learn necessary skills to survive in the wild. All with the goal of releasing these animals back into the wild when they are ready.
    Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center
    Mom and Baby looking healthy and well fed

    We saw dozens of orangutans while we visited the reserve…some just wandering around or swinging through the trees, others during their feeding. The reserve is not a zoo – there are no fences keeping these wild animals in. They come and go as they need.

    Sepilok Orangutan Reabilitation Center
    This young orangutan was strolling along the path at the same time we were

    It was a joyful experience and a dream come true for me!

    We knew almost nothing about the funny looking proboscis (meaning nose) monkeys, but found that they too are suffering from deforestation. So on our final day we headed 30 minutes away to the Labak Bay Proboscis Monkey Reserve. Entry fee $15 each.

    Labok Bay Proboscis Monkey Reserve
    A dominate male proboscis monkey

    The facilities here were not as nice as the orangutan reserve (and twice as expensive) but we still really enjoyed seeing these strange animals with the Jimmy Durante nose. I was astonished at the size of the males and their strength as well as how they can jump like kangaroos. Unlike orangutans who live a pretty solitary life, the proboscis monkeys live a harem kind of hierarchy with one dominant male overseeing multiple females and offspring.

    Labak Bay Proboscis Monkey Reserve
    Looking pensive

    I learned a lot about all of these animals in our three day visit and we also saw macaque monkeys, one wild boar, and giant monitor lizards to round our our wildlife adventure!

    Palm Oil Plantation Monitor Lizards
    Monitor Lizard about five feet long

    An interesting note – monitor lizards are the only native animal thriving in the palm oil plantations. In fact, they are growing incredibly large and due to population explosion of monitor lizards they are more aggressive. A clear sign of an eco-system out of balance.

    Labak Bay Proboscis Monkey Reserve
    The animals come in large family groups from the forest to the center to feed.

    Although there were many tourists, we met no other Americans. It’s a long ways to come from the USA, but if you can it’s worth a visit. I truly enjoyed visiting endangered primates in Borneo.

    Labak Bay Proboscis Monkey Reserve
    Young male – he seems to be contemplating his future

    We look forward to more primate encounters in the months ahead, but we will never forget our amazing time visiting endangered primates in Borneo. Fabulous.

    Want to learn more about what’s going on in Borneo with the wildlife and deforestation? Read here.

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    Visiting Endangered Primates in Borneo
    Asia Travel

    Taipei Taiwan Last Minute

    Location: Taipei Taiwan

    We were supposed to go to Hong Kong, but canceled at the last minute due to the violence going on there. What to do? Where to go? How about Taipei Taiwan last minute? Great decision. What a great place.

    Like Formosa Free Walking Tour
    Lungshan Temple

    I knew nothing about Taipei. I didn’t mean for it to be my second choice. And after spending six days there, I can most assuredly say you should put it in your travel destinations.

    Here are my favorite things we did in beautiful Taipei Taiwan last minute;

    Like It Formosa

    As we do on our first day in most cities we did a “free” walking tour with Like It Formosa. Our tour guide Eleanor was amazing. Her wealth of knowledge about Taipei old and new, ancient history and current events made the three plus hour tour remarkable. I highly recommend Like It Formosa. On the tour we made several stops but my favorites were;

    Like it Formasa Free Walking Tour
    Original painted movie poster, Sanxia Old Street

    Lungshan Temple – this is a favorite of locals – one of the few that survived WWII. This 300 year-old temple is in one of Taipei’s oldest neighborhoods and it is visited by people of multiple faiths including Taoists, Buddhists and Confucians. As a visitor it’s a wonderful place to see local people who bring offerings of flowers, food and other items as they worship here to several gods including a match-making god and a fertility god.

    Sanxia Old Street – partially restored (with additionally restoration underway) this ancient street was built during Taiwan’s period of Japanese rule and displays the baroque-style architecture of the period.

    Like it Formosa Walking Tour
    Chiang Kai Shek Memorial

    Chiang Kai Shek Memorial – a bit shocking in its immensity, it was here we learned on our tour details about this man…someone I would have thought the Taiwanese revered. But Chiang Kai Shek held the country under martial law for decades, and in his life acted more like an Emperor than a President and so the Taiwanese have mixed feelings about the leader of the Republic of China.

    Tower 101 and Neighborhood

    On our second day we wandered the city on our own and enjoyed riding up to the top of the Taipei 101 Tower. We had bought ticket online ahead of time but did not need to as it was not busy at all. The view in this 1200 foot high building is remarkable, and the elevator ride is impressive – one of the fastest elevators in the world.

    Taipei 101 Tower
    The 1200 foot Taipei 101 Tower

    The tower building is also home to a vast shopping mall as well as a wonderful food court in the basement. We enjoyed dinner here walking around and choosing a variety of dishes including the popular oyster omelet, glazed chicken, tempura vegetables and a chocolate pound cake.

    Taipei 101 Tower
    From the 101 Tower Observatory

    We hiked up the arduous 500 steps to Elephant Mountain, a popular and sometimes busy viewpoint of the city. It was a real workout, but we were glad we did it.

    Elephant Mountain
    The view from Elephant Mountain

    Local Markets

    We visited the lively, local Beitou daily market where locals buy and sell everything from bok choi to pigs trotters and papaya to frogs legs. It was busy and loud and colorful and I loved it.

    Beitou Market
    Pig trotters at Beitou Market

    We also visited two of Taipei’s famous night markets…there are dozens of night markets. These serve as gathering places for locals to walk, meet, eat, drink and shop. We loved the Shiling Night Market and spent several hours there grazing our way through dumplings and octopus and more. We also went to the Linjiang Night Market, but it was rainy and wet that night and there were not many people out enjoying it.

    Shiling Night Market
    Shiling Night Market

    Cooking Class

    As I do as often as I possibly can while traveling I spent a day in a cooking class with a local chef. It was outstanding and I learned some fun recipes and enjoyed a great meal at the end with Chef Calvin of GoTuCook. I’ll be writing a full blog about this soon.

    Taiwan Cooking Class
    Cooking with GoTuCooks

    Taipei Eats

    As usual food is a big part of our travels and one of the best things we did during our visit to Taipei was a Night Food Tour with Taipei Eats. Our guide Diego was awesome! And we tasted at least ten different foods and I was about to explode by the end of the night. I highly recommend this tour and ask for Diego. Some of my favorite things were Taiwan Green Guava with salt, Taiwan “burger” which was pork, peanut powder and cilantro in a hot fresh Bao Bun, scallion pancake, soup dumplings, Moon Cake (filled with egg yolk and sweet red beans. We also tried stinky tofu (no thanks) and betel nut (like tobacco – eww) and the specialty of Taiwan pineapple cake. What a wonderful night it was.

    Taipei Eats Food Tour
    Scallion Pancake

    Out of the City

    We spent one day checking out some sights outside of the city. Originally we wanted to do some hiking, but the weather turned wet so we ended up booking a shuttle service with Klook that would take us to several beautiful and interesting places outside of the city throughout the day. I’m really glad we did because we enjoyed most of it. We especially liked;

    Yeolin Geo Park – a UNESCO National Geological site with incredibly strange yet beautiful geological formations on the sea in the north of Taiwan. It was fascinating and if you had the time you could spend many hours in the park.

    Yeolin Geo Parak
    Yeolin Geo Park Formations

    Jioufen – a historic mountain side village literally hangs from the side of the mountain. Jioufen is now pretty much gone over to tourism, but we still enjoyed the beautiful views from the town and walking around the historic old village. We had a remarkable bowl of beef noodle soup to that was worth the price of admission.

    Jioufen
    Jioufen Mountain Village

    We also stopped at Shifen…but were a bit disappointed in this place. First of all it was pouring down ran, but mostly it was crowded with tourists who come to release paper lanterns into the sky for luck. But it was pretty kitschy and not at all authentic and so we didn’t love it. Maybe on a sunny day…

    Shifen
    Shifen Village, note lantern being released in the back

    Taipei Taiwan Last Minute

    We have no regrets about our visit to Taipei. We stayed at the Dandy Hotel near Daan Park, which we loved. The room was small but comfortable, the breakfast was incredible and the staff was excellent. Right next door was the Metro. We used Taipei’s remarkably efficient and inexpensive metro throughout our visit and loved it.

    And finally the Taiwanese people are wonderful. They are proud to be Taiwanese NOT Chinese, although there is a small faction that wants the island nation to return to China and the People’s Republic of China. But everyone we met wants to remain independent with their current government (Republic of China) which has been governing for 70 years despite the fact they still are not recognized by the United Nations.

    Taipei Taiwan last minute. So glad it happened.

    Please pin our blog or share! Watch for more news from Asia soon!

    Asia Travel

    Surprising China – Shanghai to Chongqing

    My Second Visit to a Fascinating Country

    Location: China

    It’s been five years since we visited China the first time. I was curious to see how it may have changed in that time. It’s hard to compare given we didn’t visit the same cities. And yet the changes are clear…in a good way. Surprising China Shanghai to Chongqing.

    Five years ago we visited Beijing and Xian. It was winter and very cold. This time we visited Shanghai and took a Yangtze River cruise from Yichang to Chongqing. It is autumn now, and the end of the rainy season. It was very humid, warm and wet.

    Shanghai skyline
    From the Bund looking across at the new skyline

    Shanghai

    Surprising Shanghai. A gorgeous city. Sparkling clean, efficient and beautiful architecture. More open and spread out than Beijing, Shanghai is for the most part a new city – built as China’s financial center over the past thirty years. If you were here thirty years ago none of this would have been here.

    Yu Garden Shanghai
    The preserved and restored old town called Yu Garden

    Luckily though, the Chinese government saw fit to save bits and pieces of the ancient old town, Yu Garden, and it is preserved in a beautiful and authentic way. It is a very popular part of the city. Nearby is the People’s Park, another beautiful spot in Shanghai where the local people enjoy this large green natural place in the middle of the big city. On weekends People’s Park is where parents set up Marriage Market to find spouses for their unmarried adult children. Parents playing matchmaker is a very Chinese thing, still accepted today.

    Lingering Garden
    Daytrip from Shanghai to Suzhou’s Lingering Garden

    The Bund is the most popular spot in Shanghai, for shopping, dining, strolling and enjoying the amazing view of the Huang Pu River and the remarkably beautiful architectural masterpieces beyond. To really enjoy this area we highly recommend seeing it at night. Starting at 7:00 pm each evening the buildings are all lit up in a spectacular light show not to be missed. The best way to see it in its entirety is to take one of the evening boat tours. It was a highlight of our visit.

    Shanghai at night
    Shanghai sparkles at night

    Another fascinating Shanghai neighborhood is Tianzifang. This former residential neighborhood has been preserved in it’s original form and now houses a remarkable variety of art shops from silk to silver.

    Day Trips from Shanghai

    We enjoyed two separate day trips from Shanghai. You could do these both on one day if you are short on time. Whatever you do, don’t choose one or the other. Both are remarkable and not to be missed.

    Pingjiang Road in Suzhou
    Beautiful ancient Pingjiang Road day trip from Shanghai

    First we visited Suzhou, home of one of the most famous gardens in China, the Lingering Garden. This absolutely beautiful garden was once a family home for a rich merchant. Suzhou is also home to Pingjiang Road, an ancient street and site of the original town which was once a commodities hub where people traded and lived.

    Zujiaojia
    The Water Town of Zujiaojia known as Asian Venice, day trip from Shanghai

    Our second day trip was to the remarkable water town of Zujiaojia, one of my favorite places. The ancient town, now a tourist hub, is well preserved and often called the Asian Venice for it’s dozens of bridges, waterfront merchants and houses and boats that transport people and products. It is a must see for it’s antiquity and tranquility. We particularly enjoyed a lovely tea break at a famous Chinese tea house right on the water.

    Yangtze River Cruise

    Surprising Yangtze. Seeing China’s Yangtze, the third longest river in the world, after the Nile and the Amazon, has been on my bucket list for a long time. Traditional Chinese art often depicts the Yangtze and it’s beautiful gorges shrouded in fog. This is what we set out to see.

    Yangtze River
    The Yangtze River before the dam was built

    Our journey began from the Honggiao train station where we boarded the bullet train to Yichang. During more than seven hours on the train we passed through dozens of big cities. China is remarkable in that even its smallest cities are home to 100,000 people.

    The Yangtze River today, more than 500 feet higher

    From the Yichang train station we drove by car another hour to our boat, the MV Sophia of Victoria Cruises, on the Yangtze. This small river cruise ship can have a maximum of 200 guests, but on our cruise there was about 100 people. Our room was small but comfortable, the food was excellent and the staff was superior.

    Victoria Cruises Yangtze
    MV Sophia on the Yangtze River

    The first day we enjoyed two different excursions with the ship in port in Yichang, just above the famous Three Gorges Dam. Here the Yangtze no longer feels like the Yangtze of old. Above the dam the river is now a reservoir and quite placid.

    We toured the dam, an engineering marvel in itself, although the more remarkable thing to me is how many hundreds of thousands of people were moved from their ancestral villages. The government built entire new cities above the high water line, demolishing ancient towns and moving everyone to new homes, new jobs and new communities. The undertaking is mind-boggling.

    Three Rivers Tribe
    The Three Rivers Tribe site

    In a small effort to preserve the old way of life for tourist purposes, one village below the dam was preserved and named the Three Gorges Tribe site. Although local people no longer live here, locals are employed to represent the ancient way of life. It was very well presented and the natural gorge site itself was stunningly beautiful.

    Wu Gorge Yangtze
    Pagoda high above the river in the Wu Gorge Yangtze

    Seeing the famous Three Gorges as well as a special small boat cruise up the Shennong Creek were the highlights of our time on the Yangtze. I wish I could have seen these places before the dam flooded and raised the water level by 175 meters. An astonishing amount. But seeing it still today was amazing and beautiful. There are few places in China where you can just enjoy unpopulated scenery. Along the Yangtze I was astounded by the gigantic cities that appeared over and over as we cruised upstream. Cities of millions of people. It was the most unexpected of all the things we saw. And yet, there were also stretches of the river where no humans lived. Particularly the stretches of the Wu Gorge and the Qutang Gorge. Absolutely beautiful.

    MV Sophia
    Entertainment on the MV Sophia

    The MV Sofia was a wonderful ship and on two nights we enjoyed fantastic Chinese dance presentations from the remarkably talented crew. Colorful costumes, beautiful music and exquisitely presented dances were an unexpected bonus to our time aboard. On our final night, we also enjoyed a extraordinary final dinner. The food throughout our cruise was nothing short of amazing, but the final dinner was spectacular. A Chinese feast fit for an Emperor.

    Feast on the final night on the MV Sophia

    Our Yangtze River Cruise ended in Chongqing, China’s largest city. Another city that has seen unprecedented growth over the past thirty years. Often called the Foggy City, Chongqing lived up to its name during our short time there. We were escorted to the brand new Chongqing International Airport for our flight to Taiwan.

    Crew presents dessert at the final banquet

    Surprising China Shanghai to Chongqing

    Our two weeks in China gave us an opportunity to see first-hand the changes in this country; efforts being made for the environment including many electric scooters and cars and major recycling and litter control. Additionally China seems to be in a state of constant development and construction as this country of 1.4 billion people works to manage itself.

    My final take-away is that the Chinese people are happy. They are provided housing and jobs and can be entrepreneurial and educated. They care little about politics but are patriotic. They love nature and family and socializing with friends. They are proud, modest, kind and many speak excellent English.

    Final night entertainment on board

    China is a huge country, about the same size as the USA but with 1.4 billion people compared to the USA’s 330 million. It’s hard to wrap your head around it until you see the cities…thousands and thousands of 30 story apartment buildings everywhere you look. Surprising China Shanghai to Chongqing.

    Yangtze River
    Sunset on the Yangtze River

    There is more here I want to see. So we will surely return. Surprising China has more surprises to share.

    Thanks for following our adventures in Asia. Lots more to come! Please pin or share our blog. Thank you! Xiexie. 谢谢

    China
    Asia Travel

    Surprising China – World Heritage Sites Hold a Special Place For Me

    Location: Chinaa

    (Note – this is a repost of a blog from my last visit to China in 2014.  I am currently traveling in China again, but unable to blog until next week.  So please enjoy this post again about Surprising China, and watch for a new Surprising China World Heritage Sites post next Friday!)

    I managed to see two sites on my Asian trip that were bucket list items.  Being in China of course means seeing the Great Wall, easily accessible and visited by most American’s who travel here. It was astonishingly beautiful on the clear and cold, crisp day we stood upon it.  A site even better than you ever imagined it.IMG_6975

    But it takes a bit of an effort to get to Xian, China, the location of the second bucket list item.  Xian is a six-hour train ride from Beijing.  Xian is home of one of the most amazing things I have had a chance to see in my life, the Terra Cotta Warrior Army of the first Emperor Qin Shi Huang.

    How is it that this mind-boggling 2000-year-old relic of ancient Chinese history was only discovered 40 years ago?  The accidental discovery by a local Chinese farmer has transformed this community as well as the understanding of Imperial China.

    The Terracotta Army is a collection of hollow terra cotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. It is a form of funerary art buried with the emperor in 210–209 BC and whose purpose was to protect the emperor in his afterlife. The vast discovery includes thousands of warriors from archers to generals and everything in between.

    Seeing it first hand was worth the effort it took to get here.  Photos no way do it justice.

    I’ve always been fascinated to see nineteenth and twentieth century discoveries; items of lost treasures and civilizations where years of exploration or half hazard circumstance have unearthed.  My travels have provided me the opportunity to see some of these treasures first hand; Ephesus in Turkey, Machu Picchu in Peru, the Forum in Rome and Mesa Verde in Colorado are things I have stood next to and asked how?  Additionally I’ve stood with wonder at other sites never lost but yet still flabbergasting in particular Stonehenge in England and Lalibella in Ethiopia.  It’s that feeling of awe and amazement that inspires me to travel.  The Terra Cotta Warriors of Xian gave me the goose bumps I crave.

    My first question is why were they lost to start with?  In the case of the Terra Cotta Warriors, it was done on purpose.  The superstitious Chinese culture, both then and now, have strong beliefs in preparing for the afterlife, while here in this life.  Afterlife preparation of Emperor Qin Shi Huang began years in advance of his death, when he was as young as 13.  Emperors spent as much time preparing to go into battle in the afterlife as they did in this life here on Earth.  Tens of thousands of warriors, each different down to the fingerprints, would go in to the afterlife battle with him.  And that is where the hollow, life size, each unique terra cotta soldiers are going.  For 2000 -years they waited, buried anywhere from 12 to 30 feet underground (depending on rank) for battle.  Until the day a Chinese farmers decided to drill for a well.  His unexpected discovery made him a local and national figure.  But, being this is China, it didn’t make him rich.  He continues to live in Xian and spends most his days signing books for tourists.

     

    The discovery was made in 1974 and by 1976 Xian was welcoming visitors to see the soldiers.  Immediately upon discovery the oxidation began and the pigment on the soldiers began to disappear.  Today the soldiers you see standing just as they were placed 2000 years ago, have no color due to the unfortunate oxidation.  In fact, the lacquer covering the paint can curl in 15 seconds once exposed to the dry air of Xi’an and can flake off in just four minutes.

    The soldiers have been restored piece by piece in a painstaking and remarkable process. The gigantic exhibit at Xian shows the restored soldiers and horses, then progressively a section showing how most of the relics were found in hundreds of pieces, then finally the still covered tomb where additional soldiers wait their turn to see the light of day.  The Chinese government has continued restoration efforts on many additional pieces.  However, it has been determined that thousands more soldiers remain buried.  And that is where they will stay; until research can provide an answer to preserve the colorful paints those soldiers still bare.

    In my fabulous fifties I have an insatiable appetite to see, learn and be inspired.  My travel list is long, but at the top are such sites as Easter Island, Victoria Falls, Camino de Santiago, Angkor Wat, Jordan’s Petra, Melrose Abbey in Scotland and the Pyramids of Egypt.  All places with a rich cultural history and connection to lost civilizations.

    Will I get to all of these?  Damn right I will.  Ask me where I have been we can talk for an hour.  Ask me where I am going we can talk for days.

    Let me inspire you to go. See. Do. Live.  It’s now or never.

    (Note:  Our time in China was made special by the first class service we received from Beijing Champagne International Travel Service

     http://www.tour-beijing.com/about/#.UvwxvP1sj1o.

     I cannot recommend them highly enough.  Our drivers were conscientious and safe.  But our tour guides are what made us enjoy our travels so much.  Lucia was our guide in Xian and Rogin was our guide throughout the rest of the trip.  I would welcome them both into my home; this is how highly I regarded their care and expertise they provided.  We could not have possibly enjoyed our time in China to the full extent without the help from all of these people. If you are going to China check out Champagne and personally request Rogin.  Shi Shi.)

     

    Asia Travel

    Seven Boats, Three Days, One Rare Bangladesh

    One for the record books – our visit to Bangladesh

    Location: Bangladesh

    Throw back Monday! Enjoy this one from a year ago once again. One of my favorite experiences.

    We would not have normally come to Bangladesh, except the opportunity was here because our friend Natalie is a teacher in Dhaka.  I preach frequently the need to visit less tourism developed places – and yet am guilty of wanting to see places like the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, Table Mountain.

    One rare Bangladesh

    Beautiful Bangladeshi dancer

    And so our decision to visit Bangladesh helped us make the leap to a place no one goes, except our friend Natalie.

    We connected with Deshghuri Tours – one of a handful of tour companies catering to the few Westerners who come here, mostly Canadians, Germans and

    One rare Bangladesh

    Fort Lalbagh

    Americans.  Because our time was short we booked a three-day tour with Deshghuri.  It’s difficult to see Bangladesh without a guide.  The cities are crowded and Dhaka is plagued with air pollution.  Driving here is, shall we say, daunting.  So a tour is a must.

    Our first day was to see the densely packed city of Dhaka – home to 20 million people.  Bangladesh is the 8th most populous country in the world and

    One rare bangladesh

    At the beautiful mosaic mosque

    Dhaka has a density of 23,234 people per square kilometer within a total area of 300 square kilometers.  We spent the day weaving in and out of traffic, but also enjoying getting in and out of the car to see some remarkable sites; mosques, temples, university, and the 600-year-old Lalbagh Fort that serves as a lovely oasis in the city.  It was here we really began to feel how unusual it is to have a westerner walking around Dhaka.  Bangladeshi

    One rare bangladesh

    From on board the Rocket Steamer looking at the busy port

    stopped and gaped at us, some asking for selfies, others discreetly taking our photo without asking.  Very strange.

    At the end of the day we arrived in Shadarghat, the steamer terminal and one of the busiest places in Dhaka (which is saying something).  Here we

    One rare Bangladesh

    Rocket Steamer

    boarded our first of seven boats: the 100-year-old “Rocket” paddle wheeler that plies the waters of the Buriganga River.  These boats were, in their time, the fastest thing to ever hit these waters (thus the name), but today faster and more upgraded ferries provide service.  The Rocket continues to work however, and tours often include a night aboard these vessels for the “experience”.  It was definitely an experience as we were on one of the oldest and most worn down vessels.

    On arrival in Barisal early the morning of day two of

    One rare banhladesh

    Nine dome mosque

    our tour we were met by our new guide Ontu.  After breakfast we went by car three hours to Bagherhat, a UNESCO world heritage city and one of the most historic cities in Bangladesh. On the way to Bagherhat we rode a very small and crowded car ferry which is boat number two.   On reaching Bagerhat we toured three remarkable mosques, built in the 15th century!  All still in use today. Two of these mosques were a

    One rare Bangladesh

    80 dome mosque

    remarkable architecture design of domes rather than minarets.  The first was a nine dome and the second was an 80 dome mosque.  Truly fascinating for the time period and in wonderful condition considering the climate and the years.

    We continued by car to Mongla, where we boarded

    One rare bangladesh

    Crossing the river

    boat number three:  a small wooden pirogue which we stood in to cross the very busy river.  On the other side we boarded boat number four, known as a country boat.  It was just the two of us with our guide and we sat back and enjoyed cruising the river on this small 20-foot boat.  We enjoyed a

    One rare Bangladesh

    The country boat

    traditional Bangla lunch onboard, then went ashore at the Sundarban’s breeding sanctuary where we saw deer and crocodiles and walked the mangrove forest.

    Back on the boat and back to Mongla where we

    One are bangladesh

    On the river

    met the car, returned to Barisal (including car ferry-boat number five) and to our hotel in Barisal.  It had been a very amazing day.

    Day three we were up early, and instead of car we were in a Tuk Tuk before the sun had risen, driving an hour from Barisal to the banks of the Shondha River. Here we would board boat number six, a long deep river dwelling vessel,  for what would turn out to be my favorite part of our

    One rare Bangladesh

    Floating vegetable market

    tour.  Cruising through the backwater region of the Shondha we enjoyed the floating vegetable market as well as seeing the river people going about their daily life – scratching out an existence on and in

    One rare Bangladesh

    Meeting the friendly locals

    the river.  The river is both highway and washing machine, bathtub and food source.  We got off the boat several times, including a visit to an ancient and scrabbled together Hindu village where the people were so kind and generous and interested in us.  When we tell them we are from

    One rare Bangladesh

    Meeting the locals

    the United States they say it is their honor to have us in their country.  This is the Bangladeshi way – welcoming, kind and generous; even if they have nothing to give, they will offer you a cup of tea.

    It was particularly interesting to me how astonished everyone – men, women and children – were with my white hair.  They found it fascinating and we felt like celebrities.  Very

    One rare Bangladesh

    Laundry

    humbling experience.

    We learned a lot about river life, about the kindness of strangers, about how important community is to this ancient way of life.  We learned about religion (Islam is the largest religion of Bangladesh; Muslims constitute over 90% of the population, while Hindus constitute 8.5% and Buddhists 0.6% are the most significant minorities of the country. Christians, Sikhs, animists and atheists form 1%), we learned about food, we learned about education.

    One rare Bangladesh

    River life

    But mostly we learned about how much we take for granted.

    Saying farewell to our boat driver we were back in the Tuk Tuk for the hour ride back to Barisal where

    One rare Bangladesh

    Iron workers at the market. They asked us to stay for tea.

    we had time to tour the market before our departure.  The market was remarkable to me mostly because not a single tourist item was there.  This was perhaps the most authentic market I have been to (except for Ethiopia and Burkina Faso).  In fact I have not even been able to find a postcard in this country – a sign of how small the tourism

    One rare Bangladesh

    Beautiful Bangladesh

    industry is here.

    We said goodbye to our wonderful guide and boarded a river ferry, faster and more modern than the Rocket, for the overnight return to Dhaka. Boat number seven.

    Seven boats, three days, one rare Bangladesh.  I’ll not forget my time here.  Unique, remarkable, rewarding and above all, humbling.

     

    Asia Travel

    500 Days of Summer

    A Sunny Travel Life

    Location: Lombok Indonesia

    Today marks 500 days on the road – and our grand adventure living 500 days of summer.  Coming from the often grey and misty state of Washington in the Pacific Northwest, 500 Days of Summer was the goal.

    500 days of summer

    Sunny Australia

    When we started planning our grand adventure, we set an itinerary

    500 days of summer

    Sunny Tunisia

    that kept us away from cold and rainy places.  And not just because we love the sun – but also because it’s easier to pack for these climates.

    500 days of summer

    Sunny Guam

    And so it has gone along this way now, for 500 days.  Waking each morning and opening my eyes and saying “hey, it’s still summer.”  Nice.

    Now we can’t say we haven’t seen some cool, even cold days.  We were in New Zealand as

    500 days of summer

    Sunny Morocco

    summer turned to fall and we had some pretty chilly nights.  Even in North Vietnam the nights were cool and in Halong Bay the mist hung low and we never saw the sun. In Morocco the wind was brisk and our night in the Sahara Desert camp was downright nippy. Here in Indonesia, our time in the

    500 days of summer

    Sunny Maldives

    mountains brought thankfully cooler temps, but certainly not cold.

    500 days of aummer

    Sunny Portugal

    But mostly it’s been warm to hot to REALLY hot as we have navigated this summer life.  More than 16 months on the road and I’m on my third (and a half) swimsuit and needing a fourth.  I’m on my

    500 days of summer

    Sunny New Zealand

    third sun hat, second pair of sunglasses, second set of beach towels  and second pair of flip-flops. I’m on my third selfie stick, my tenth bottle of sunscreen and my fifth water bottle – misplacing

    500 days of summer

    Sunny Bulgaria

    four somewhere along the way. My sundresses are tired and faded from sun and sweat and constant washing.  I will retire all of these soon and go on a big shopping trip for fresh and new when

    500 days of summer

    Sunny India

    we get back to the states.

    500 days of summer

    Sunny Namibia

    Because after our visit to the USA (May 14-Aug 7),where we hope it will be summer, we head off on the next phase of the grand adventure, at least

    500 days of summer

    Sunny Spain

    another 500 days of summer.

    But until then, summer continues here in Indonesia.

     

    500 days of summer

    Sunny Seychelles

    And life is sunny and fabulous!

     

    This post contains affiliate links and we may be compensated if you make a purchase.  All money earned goes back to the cost of maintaining this blog.  Thank you.

     

     

     


    Asia Travel

    Visit South Korea – Spend a Weekend with the Monks

    Location: South Korea

    Visit South Korea for some amazing experiences, delicious foods, spectacular scenery and to spend a weekend with the Monks. You won’t regret it.

    South Korea a weekend with the monks

    Our group together

    I’ve done a lot of cool things in my life.  A few experiences stand out to me.  As I have aged I am more aware how unique some of these moments have been; taking a shower on the Serengeti with water heated over an open fire, eating honey and coffee with the leaders of a village in Ethiopia, sitting cross legged on the floor in the traditional home of an ancient Japanese master paper umbrella artist while he gave my family a personal demonstration of his craft. Swimming with sea lions in Galapagos, dolphins in Zanzibar and Manta Rays in Hawaii.   Participating in the annual bird inventory on Molokai and summiting Warma Wanusqa Peak (13,500 feet) on the Inca Trail in Peru. I’ve danced with the natives in a Burkina Faso village, and discussed motherhood with the Himba women in Namibia.  Remarkable experiences all.

    South Korea a weekend with the monks

    Enjoying our vegetarian meal

    I never really set out to accomplish anything specifically unique.  I only have found myself in situations that seem unique to others.  And these moments are the ones that have defined me and have broadened my awareness of the world.  These moments I hold dear, each difficult to describe or put into words and accurately share.  They are the definition of indescribable.

    South Korea a weekend with the monks

    Learning about the prostrations

    In Korea I had an indescribable experience lucky enough to spend a weekend with the Monks in the Geumsunsa Temple in the mountains outside of Seoul.  Adding this to my list of unique and memorable life experiences.  I really recommend both a visit to South Korea and a weekend with the monks.

    I went into this with next to no knowledge of Buddhism.  I still know very little, but I did gain awareness of a way of life that is not a religion, but a goal to practice living life with an open heart. According to Buddhist traditions a Buddha is a fully awakened being who has completely purified his mind of the three poisons of desire, aversion and ignorance.

    The Geumsunsa Temple is perched on Mount Bukhan to the North and West of Seoul.  We arrived late, our GPS refusing to cooperate and maneuvering through the streets of Seoul without it proved a difficult task.  Once we found the parking lot at the base of the mountain we hiked the last quarter mile straight up the mountain to the temple entrance – the only access to the temple is on foot.

    South Korea a weekend with the monks

    Arne at the silent breakfast

    Arriving late I was frazzled and frantic, and certainly not in a transcendental state of mind, but I took a few deep breaths and prepared myself to spend a weekend with the monks.  We entered in a room with about a dozen other people where the orientation had already begun. We sat quietly in the back trying to catch our breath and catch up on the presentation.  It was presented in both Korean and English.

    We were given a tour of the temple and some history.  The 1000-year-old temple is small compared to some (five monks when some temples have 200) but it is very beautiful and well maintained. I wish I could visit in spring or fall, I’m sure it is spectacular when all the foliage on the mountain is out.

    South Korea a weekend with d with the monks

    Dinnee

    We were served a very good vegetarian dinner with soup, rice and multiple kimchee and vegetable choices.  We were instructed that we had to eat everything that we took, down to the last grain of rice.  No food could be wasted.  We were shown how to use an apple slice to clean our plates of all food remnants so they almost appeared to not even need to be washed.

    South Korea a weekend with d with the monks

    Mindfulness

    Following dinner we were escorted to the Buddha room, a beautiful part of the temple adorned to praise Buddha, the teacher. A Buddhist temple is called Vihara and is a place for education. In the shrine room of each temple is where a large Buddha and statues of his disciples are. Here is where we began our 108 prostrations.  I was worried about accomplishing this task.  Starting in a standing position to lying prone on the floor, methodically and with purpose 108 times in a row.  I was already finding my body was having a great deal of difficulty sitting cross-legged on the floor – an unnatural position for most Americans.  We were instructed how to do the prostrations and how to release our minds from turmoil. The practice of Buddhism is the never-ending humbling of the ego. Humbling yourself before the world, by lowering your body you realize that you are one with everything. Performing 108 prostrations is yet another path towards the realization of the True Self.

    And so we began.  108 times; each prostration symbolizing a goal, or gratitude or repentance; For example; I prostrate myself to show appreciation to my parents for giving birth to me.  Or I prostrate myself to ask forgiveness for people I may have hurt. Or I prostrate myself for a humble mind. Or I prostrate myself for peace among all countries and an end to all wars.

    And on and on, 108 times.  It lasted about 30 minutes and I was sweating and exhausted when it was over.

    South Korea a weekend with the monks

    The beautiful temple

    We were later asked to choose one of the prostration sentences that spoke to us specifically and we drew pictures then shared with the group.  Many people in the room were brought to tears during this circle time; some feeling stress in their jobs or sadness in lost relationship, and others wanting to show love to their parents who are ailing.  It was an emotional experience for many.  I chose the one that asks to be more humble.  This is truly a goal I have been working on for some time, so it called to me.

    I thought doing 108 prostrations would be the most difficult thing I did during my visit, but no.  Sleeping on the floor was.  Or trying to sleep I should say.  We slept side by side (men and women separated) on an extremely hard floor with a blanket and pillow.  It was a very, very long night.

    South Korea a weekend with the monks

    Arne being flipped during the exercise program

    South Korea a weekend with the monks

    Tea with one of our host monks

    The bell chimed at 4:30am for wake up.  I wasn’t sad to get up.  I really couldn’t lie there anymore.  Our morning was spent in silence and meditation followed by wake up exercises harder than my yoga classes and then a vegetarian ceremonial breakfast, very ritualistic and eaten in silence.  We all then shared in chores around the temple before sitting down to have tea and a conversation with one of the monks. I think this was my favorite time.

    South Korea a weekend with the monks

    We really enjoyed our friendly monks

    The monk prepared and poured the tea for us as she answered each and every question we had about her life as a monk, Buddha and Buddhism, philosophy, the temple and much more.  It was fascinating and enlightening to see a human being choose to live this life and walk away from everything materialistic and dedicate everything to the practice of becoming Buddha.

    South Korea a weekend with the monks

    On top of the sunny mountain

    Finally we headed up the mountain for a beautiful hike on the cold and sunny morning.  We spent time sitting at the top of the mountain enjoying the spectacular scenery and each other’s company and meditating on our time together.  We hiked back to the temple for our vegetarian lunch, paper lantern making and then farewell to our new friends and Temple Geumsunsa.

    South Korea a weekend with the monks

    Farewell to our new friends

    My back and hips were killing me and I was desperate for a nap and a large coffee as we hiked down the path to the car, but my heart and mind were full as I thoughtfully considered what I learned from this experience.  I felt validated in my Fabulous Fifties objectives to not look outside for approval and rather to find it within.  My knowledge that being true to myself, despite what others believe and grateful for all things in my life, good and bad, is the best destiny.  Being honest, forgiving, following my intuition and celebrating the one short life we have is my practice.

    I prostrate myself for a humble mind. Fabulous.

    Note – find out how you can have this experience at http://koreantemples.com/?p=6684