Shanghai, China

This is the final post of our trip. We left home almost 7.5 months ago.

Shanghai was super interesting. Way nicer, cleaner, and more modern than I was expecting.

Here are some random stats on Shanghai that I found interesting:

  • There are 26 million people, which is the 2nd largest city in the world
  • There are 450,000 share bikes that rent for about .20/hr.
  • There are 160 Starbucks, with a new store opening somewhere in China every 15 hours.
  • The 1/3 mile tall Shanghai tower has the worlds highest observation deck (which we didn’t have time to visit) and the worlds fastest elevator.
  • About 95% of all motorbikes in Shanghai are now electric

It was a bit surprising just how little English is spoken in Shanghai. Even the bartender at the Fairmont Hotel did not speak English, tho he did know how to make a very nice cocktail.

Some photos are here.

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Singapore is really really nice. Spotlessly clean, excellent roads, public transportation, food, architecture, and more. Also no poverty as far as I could tell. Even the back alleys are spotless. Its so nice that it feels unreal. Imagine Epcot Center scaled up to be an entire large city. Its also rather sterile.

English is the main language, and many signs are only in English, despite there being 4 official languages (English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil). Hotels and cocktails are US prices, taxis, local food, and public transportation are all much cheaper.

The ‘Gardens By The Bay‘ are really amazing.

A collection of photos are here.

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Ubud, Bali (Part 2)

My final 2 weeks in Bali was mainly relaxing and going to yoga classes.

Besides that, Christine did a 3 day silent meditation retreat which she loved, I explored a abandoned amusement park with great graffiti art, went fishing for Spanish Mackerel (we caught 4 big ones), and did a fun guided hike up ‘Hidden Canyon‘. We also did a wood carving class.

I’m looking forward to being home in a week, but will miss traveling.

Hidden Canyon:

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Local Food

I know this blog will fall into the ‘well duh’ category for seasoned travelers, so this is for the rest of you.

In Ubud I did a comparison of ‘local’ food vs. tourist food. I ordered the same thing (Nasi Campur) for lunch two days in a row at two different restaurants.

Restaurant 1, Warung Makan Teges: $2.25, all other customers were Balinese when I was there.

Restaurant 2, Sari Organics: $5.50, all customers were westerners when I was there.

Can you tell from the photos which was which? Which would you rather eat?

Local version:

  • Much more flavor / spices
  • More meat
  • Everything pre-cooked, and served room temperature

Westernized version:

  • Healthier ingredients, less fatty
  • Cooked up fresh
  • Very mild spices / rather bland

Overall I preferred the local version, since I like spicy food. But both were good in their own way. And cheaper is always better, especially on a long trip.

Both restaurants had similar atmosphere and cleanliness. If anything the local restaurant might have been slightly nicer. You can also next this dish for around $1.50 at local places that are not as good and/or nice.

In general this difference between local and tourist food was the same everywhere we went, tho tourist food can be WAY more than 2x local food in many places.

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People always ask us: “what was your favorite country?”. Since we typically only spent time in 4-6 places in each country, I don’t want to over generalize. But here is a list of some favorites:

Favorite Places

We really enjoyed pretty much every place we visited, but these are a few favorites that stood out:

  • Japan: Mt Fuji and Kiso valley
  • Vietnam: Hoi An and Hui
  • Laos: Luang Prabang
  • Thailand: Pai and Khao Sok
  • Cambodia: Koh Rong
  • Myanmar: Hsipaw and Inle Lake

See previous blog entries for links to photos and more details on each of these places.

Favorite Foods

Picking a favorite food is hard, as different countries excel in different areas. A few categories include:

  • Best ingredients: Japan (by far)
  • Best overall flavors: Thailand
  • Best use of fresh herbs and vegetables: Vietnam
  • Best grilled meats: Cambodia
  • Best satay: Bali
  • Best coffee: Vietnam
  • Best bugs: Cambodia
  • Best beer: Myanmar and Laos

Vietnam might have been my overall favorite if they used less MSG.

Favorite Tours

The category of best tour is a combination of interesting itinerary and great guide. We had so many great tour guides and great excursions that its really hard to pick favorites, but these stood out:

  • “I heart Hui” motorbike tour
  • Phenohm Pen with Vespa Adventures
  • Plain of Jars tour with Backstreet Academy
  • Hike with Jason in Cameron Highlands
  • Hsipaw trek with “Mr Bike”

See previous blog entries for links to these tours.

Favorite Guest Houses / Home Stays

  • Sapa Homestay
  • Homestay outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia
  • Hostel in Pai, Thailand
  • Hostel in Cat Ba, Vietnam
  • Homestay in Hui, Vietnam

See previous blogs for links to each of these.

Favorite Apartments

I don’t think we could have traveled for 7 months without the existence of AirBNB. After a while you get tired of staying with other people and eating in restaurants, and just want your own place with your own kitchen. Now with AirBNB this is easy to find, and often as cheap or cheaper than staying at Guest House.

My favorite AirBNBs were:

  • Tokyo: we got to experience living in a typical Tokyo studio apartment (which is TINY), and live in a real neighborhood, not a hotel district.
  • Hoi An: Great Apartment on ‘Herb Island” to watch the typhoon go by
  • Ubud: Fantastic house with 3 dogs and a cat

Favorite city I’d consider moving to

After spending time in a new place I think most travelers ask themselves “could I live here?” There are many places that are great to visit, but would you really want to live there? The only place where I said to myself “I could see living here for 1-2 years” was Chiang Mai, Thailand. Mostly because there is a great jazz club there with an open jam on Tuesdays, but also because there is a good mix of familiar western comforts and exotic Asian options. And I love the food there. Other places I might consider are: Hoi An, Osaka, and maybe Bali.

Other Favorites

  • Best cheap meal: Bun Cha (Obama special) in Hanoi and Panang Curry in Chiang Mai
  • Best Art: Bali (by far)
  • Best local culture: Bali and Myanmar
  • Best haircut experience: Vietnam (be far)
  • Best waterfall/swimming spot: Kuang Si Falls outside of Luang Prabang, Laos
  • Favorite place to eat squid so fresh its still moving in your mouth: Hakodate, Japan
  • Favorite Hedge Hogs: Tokyo
  • Favorite Punk Rock Bar: Tokyo

Japan has a number of things on the favorites list, and not just compared with Asia, but compared with everywhere I’ve been. Some of these include:

  • Best convenience stores: Lawsons and Family Mart ROCK!
  • Best public transit
  • Best public rest rooms
  • Best baseball fans
  • Best department stores with amazing food in the lower level

The list goes on and on.

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Nyepi Holiday, Bali

We were lucky to be in Bali for Nyepi, aka ‘Balinese Day of Silence’, aka Balinese New Year.

On Nyepi you are supposed to have no lights, no leaving the house, no cars/motorbikes/planes, and no internet (both phones and wired connections) for 24 hours (sunrise to sunrise). It was REALLY NICE! The rest of the world should consider this 1 day/year. You are supposed to not eat/drink from 6am to 6pm too, but we ignored that rule.

The day before Nyepi is “Ogoh-Ogoh” day. For 2 weeks leading up to Nyepi, every village temple build a demon to parade around the village, some of which are really impressive.

My Ogoh-ogoh photos/videos are here. Be sure to check out some of the videos. Our local village did not have as good of Ogoh-Ogoh compared to some was saw elsewhere, so here is a nice collection of professional photos from previous years.

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Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

We’ve now been in Ubud for 2 full weeks, so it’s time to write down my impressions so far.

We rented an amazing house 4km northwest of Ubud for a full month, complete with 3 dogs and a cat. Our goal was to settle in, get to know the area, and relax. We picked Ubud since there was a ton of things to do in the area, lots of nice looking houses available on AirBNB, and lots of AirBNB ‘Experiences’ that looked interesting.

I was worried that Ubud had gotten too touristy, and it turns out that those concerns were valid. I might have a different view of Bali if we had spent a month on some other part of the island. Everyone says the south part of the island is far more touristy yet. I’m sure there are plenty of places in Bali still not overrun by tourists, but the Ubud area very much is.

There is a lot to love about the Ubud area. This includes:

  • It’s incredibly beautiful! Jungles, mountains, rice paddies, beaches, all picture postcard perfect.
  • It’s got a really interesting and unusual culture. It’s a unique combination of Hindu and animist traditions, and there is some sort of ceremony with people all dressed formally around every corner. We were lucky enough to be in town for a huge cremation ceremony for the queen.
  • Food is good and cheap. Its pretty easy to find a tasty local meal for around $3. Our favorite so far was Warung Mayan Teges.
  • The art culture here is exceptional. Great painting, wood carving, stonework, batik, and more. Both traditional and modern. Really interesting furniture too, such as Object Design. See the photo link below for some examples.
  • Good yoga centers (I got a 20 class pass at Radiantly Alive Yoga, which has a wide range of classes).

But there are also a lot of negatives too. These include:

  • Horrible traffic on roads that are far too narrow
  • Way too many tourists, and way too many shops and restaurants that only cater to tourists.
  • Hard to get around without a motorbike. Taxis are expensive, and require bargaining to not get completely ripped off.
  • Too much woo-woo.

We’ve done a number of classes, including cooking, batik, wood carving, fishing, meditation retreat, and lots of yoga. We also visited the Green School, and were very jealous of the kids who got to go to such an interesting school.

We also spent 2 nights at Good Karma Bungalows in Amed. These were the nicest and cheapest beach bungalows of our entire trip. The snorkeling was OK, but not as good as we hoped.

Do I recommend going to Bali? It depends on what you are looking for. It was a perfect way to end our 7 month trip, but I don’t think I’d include it for more than a few days if I was on a 3-4 week trip. If you do come to Ubud, stay north of the main town, and rent a motorbike. The best road to stay on is probably Jalan Tirta Tawar, as that way if you do come to town you can avoid the particularly congested area near the palace.

The best part of our Bali experience was staying in a beautiful ‘open living’ style house, with jungle on one side, and rice paddies on the other. “Open Living” basically means no windows. The temperature in Ubud ranges between 70 and upper 80s, and mosquitoes are not too bad, so you can get by with no windows or screens, which is really nice. Every night we’d fall asleep to a cacophony of frogs, geckos, and Gamelon from the nearby temple. It was really nice to be in a “home” instead of a generic hotel room with no personality. Even tho we stayed in several AirBNB apartments on this trip, this was the first place that the owner actually lived in it most of the year. (She stays with her boyfriend when the place is rented). There was a well stocked kitchen, great art, super comfortable bed, and 3 dogs and a cat.

Bali is very different from the rest of Indonesia. People still speak Balinese at home, but schools are all taught in Indonesian. Even tho most Balinese are not Muslin, unlike the majority of Indonesia, alcohol is still somewhat hard to get, and imported liquor is insanely expensive. For example, a 1L bottle of Kettle One vodka was $75 in the supermarket. Local beer and Arak (distilled coconut palm sap) is fairly cheap, tho still pricey compared with places like Cambodia or Myanmar.

Bali is trying hard to retain it’s unique culture, despite the throngs of tourists. Overall it seems to be working. People still seem to be very attached to their customs. Foreigners are not allowed to own land, so a 10yr lease is used instead, and a resident must hire a certain number of locals.

Ubud photos are available here. Photos of interesting arts and crafts in Bali are here. Photos of our trip to Amed are here.

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Yangon, Myanmar

Our last stop in Myanmar was Yangon, and we were only there 2 nights due to horrible air pollution, and the fact that our visa was about to expire.

Of course we went to the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, which is almost 100m tall, and covered an estimated $3billion USD(!!!) worth of with gold, diamonds, rubies, and other precious stones. It was quite impressive indeed.

We also did a guided tour on the Yangon circular line train that included a stop at a huge vegetable/fruit market. You’ll find several photos of that in the link below.

My first impression of Yangon was that reminded me more of a large, dense, western city compared to anywhere else in Southeast Asia. It was the first city we went to where I saw large numbers of pedestrians and buses. The reason for this is that motorbikes are banned in the city limits. In all other cities we’ve visited on this trip, everyone just rides a motorbike to get around, even if they are only going a couple blocks. Motorbikes have been banned in Yangon since 2003, and no one seems quite sure why the ban started, but this article describes the popular theories.

Photos from Yangon are here.

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Mawlamyine/Hpa An, Myanmar

We spent a week in southern Myanmar in the towns of Mawlamyine (also spelled Mawlamyain, Mawlamyaing, or Moulmein; which is really confusing) and Hpa-An (H is silent). Both are smaller towns not really on the tourist circuit, which was our main reason for coming here. But it turns out that both have some really interesting sites to check out.

We visited the worlds largest reclining Buddha, which seems to be falling apart as fast as they are building it. It’s a cross between a Buddhist theme park and a construction site where you have to go barefoot (more on that below). Check out the crazy dioramas in the photos link.

We did a tour of nearby “Orge Island (or Bilugyun)”, and visited several villages, each of which was known for a specific skill. We saw villages specializing in:

  • Old-fashioned slate boards for classroom use
  • Bamboo hats
  • Cotton weaving
  • Rubber bands (!)
  • Wooden pipes
  • Coconut husk rope and doormats

All were very interesting to see, but will likely be gone in a few years, as cheap Chinese imports will likely undercut each of these.

We took a boat trip to nearby Hpa-An, which included a stop at the Kawhnat Pagoda compound, and is definitely worth checking out.

Hpa-An also is known for a number of interesting caves, which you’ll see in the photos. The caves were all full of Myanmar tourists (from Yangon?), who were all really dressed up! Westerners don’t tend to dress up when they travel anymore, but folks here still do.

Links to Photos

More random observations on Myanmar

No Shoes Allowed

After spending the day walking barefoot through bird and bat shit, its time to write about this. At Buddhist and Hindu temples everywhere, shoes are not allowed. This is usually great, particularly in Japan, where the temples are spotlessly clean. In Myanmar they have expanded the definition of temple to include anything in the area of a pagoda, including entire caves. Temples are often home to large numbers of birds and/or bats, which means lots of bird and bat poo. And temple grounds can also be quite dirty/dusty. This means that by the end of the day, your feet are REALLY dirty. In Japan, the shoes off rule helps keep everything clean. But in Myanmar (and some other places in SE Asia too), it does the opposite. I know its supposed to be a sign of respect to remove ones shoes, but isn’t it disrespectful to have shit on your toes too?

And BTW, there is disagreement on “are socks ok?” In Japan they are OK, in Myanmar they are not.


Young men in Myanmar are really into their hair. WAY more than neighboring countries. Here are some examples.

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Hsipaw, Myanmar

We took the train from Pyin Oo Lin to Hsipaw (the H is silent), partly so we could go over the famous bridge built in 1899 by an American company. It was the largest railroad trestle in the world at the time. We went across it VERY slowly.

But the main reason I went to Hsipaw was to do a 3 day trek. I did a fantastic jungle trek with Mr Bike’s trekking company. There were 12 people the 1st day, where we hiked 15km up to the top of a mountain and stayed in tree houses. On day 2, 5 of us went on to stay in bungalows by the river, hiking another 17km, and the other 7 folks hiked back. I felt good during the trek, but my legs were quite sore afterwards for 3 days. Its been a long time since I did 2 long back to back hikes like that.

It was very cold on night 2, but there were more than enough blankets to stay warm. The final day was a tubing on a beautiful river. Unfortunately the Chinese are building a new dam on the river, so who knows how nice it will be in the future. I was told 90% of the electricity would go to China, and 10% to Myanmar.

I met a lot of really interesting folks on the trek. There were folks from England, New Zealand, Israel, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Denmark in the group. Most were in their 20s, a couple folks in their 30s, and a Danish guy who is a bit older than I, and had also travelled around SE Asia in the late 80s just after I was here.

For some unexplained reason, almost every business in Hsipaw that caters to tourists seems to be named Mr this or Mrs that. My trekking company was “Mr Bike”, and my guide was “Mr Forest” (he worked for the Myanmar forest service for 30 years). Other businesses in town included: Mrs Popcorn, Mr Shake, Mr Wok restaurant, Mr Charles Hotel, Mr Book Bookshop, etc.

Christine and I also walked over to Hsipaw Palace, featured in the book I just finished reading: “Twilight in Burma”. We met the nephew of the prince featured in the book. He was surprisingly positive about the future considering what his family went thru. The book was banned until 2015, but now it seems it’s quite popular in this part of Myanmar. An Austrian company made a movie from the book in 2015, but the movie is banned “because they are worried it might lead to a return to fighting between the Shan state people and the Burmese army”.

Photos of the train ride to Hsipaw and the town of Hsipaw are here, and the trek photos are here.

Myanmar or Burma?

Several people are confused by the terms “Burma” vs “Myanmar”. I asked about this, and got this explanation: Myanmar is composed of many ethnic groups and many languages. The largest ethnic group are called “Burmese”, and the official language is “Burmese”. Myanmar is the name of the country that includes everyone. Internally the name Myanmar came about in 1962, but the rest of the world did not really start using it until the 1990s.

Food in Myanmar

Now that we’ve been here a couple weeks, I wanted to write up a summary of food in Myanmar. There is fantastic Indian food, pretty good Chinese food, and a variety of Myanmar food. Common is a Burmese Curry restaurant: You pick 1 of 4 types of curry: Chicken, Pork, Beef, or Fish for around $2.50. Then you get 6-9 side dishes “for free”. These include: soup, tea leaf salad, rice, pickles, chili sauce, 1-3 cooked vegetable side dishes, raw veggies, and fresh fruit for dessert. Green tea is free at all restaurants in Myanmar, and the standard price for a large bottle of beer is $1.50. See the photo below of a typical meal.

Train Bridge

Tree house that I stayed in on the trek

Burmese Curry meal

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