4 corners, 7 seas

Life in Taipei: a Stroll Around Zhongshan

Street art in Taipei's Zhongshan District

This little bit of public art in Taipei’s Zhongshan District depicts a scene from a Chinese proverb, which tells us that though a hare may be faster than a snail, a snail will still win a race up the wall.

Street art in Taipei's Zhongshan District

Zhongshan is one of Taipei’s central shopping areas, with a handful of large department stores just outside the station (the restaurant level of Shin Kong Mitsukoshi is a good place to try Din Tai Fung’s amazing xiaolongbao), and with all sorts of independent fashion stores and all the coffee shops & restaurants you could ever ask for lining the side streets and alleyways.

Graffiti mural in Zhongshan, Taipei

There’s something of an artsy feel to the backstreets north of the station, and an urban ‘park’ along the centre of the street running north – south directly on top of the MRT Line 2 (the red line). You can actually follow this park from its southern end at Taipei Main Station all the way up to Yuanshan Station, where it feeds in to Taipei Expo Park & Yuanshan Park, and the Keelung River beyond that.

The music robot in Zhongshan, Taipei

The 音樂機器人 or ‘Music Robot’; you can make it play tracks off your phone, though I never tried it

The full length of the park is a good option if you’re in central Taipei and looking for a running route – in fact, it’s pretty much the only option beyond laps of one of the small city block parks dotted about (Linsen Park, also in Zhongshan and containing the remnants of an old Japanese shrine, is the largest) – but if you’re just looking for a stroll, it’s best to walk south from Zhongshan Station to Taipei Main Station, perhaps after a nice (but pricey) coffee in one of the independent cafes in the back streets north of the station.

Christmas decorations at Mitsukoshi department store, Zhongshan, Taipei

Trippy Christmas in Zhongshan

Although this ‘park’ is really more of a street with a decent pedestrianised public space down the centre, the quirky art installations and drink & snack joints along the sides make it a decent spot for a wander; also, if it starts raining look out for the escalators and elevators going down to the underground shopping street – this runs all the way from Taipei Main Station to Shuanglian Station, is a godsend when the heavens open, and is worth having a look in its own right.

Have you been to Zhongshan? Any comments or questions? Leave a comment below!

For more posts on Taipei, click here

For my guide to hiking in Taipei, click here

For my Taiwan overland travel guide, click here

Posted in Taipei, Taiwan

Life in Taipei: Remnants of the Empire of the Sun

Rinzai Zen Temple, Yuanshan, Taipei

As a former resident of Japan who moved to Taipei, it was fascinating to see the Japanese influence on this originally Chinese culture, Taiwan having been a Japanese colony for 50 years from 1895 to 1945; this influence is actually most obviously present in the cuisine (and also if you dig in to the linguistics there are plenty of Japanese loanwords in Taiwanese Mandarin), but there are fewer obvious physical reminders (i.e. Japanese buildings) than you might expect.

A fair number of Japanese buildings are still standing though, some in full use and others just bare remnants; if you keep your eyes open and know what they look like, you’ll spot them here and there.

The Shinto shrines, especially, have by and large not survived, their old torii gates today standing lonely testament to what was once there – as Shinto was used to instil patriotism and loyalty by the colonial power, it was quickly cast off after 1945 as a symbol of imperial control.

This rather forlorn torii is all that remains of Houtong Shrine, on the hill behind the town’s (also abandoned) coal mine:

The abandoned Japanese shrine in Houtong

The abandoned Japanese shrine in Houtong

(Houtong is mostly known these days for being ‘Cat Village’, but it’s also the starting point for a couple of cracking hiking trails up to the former gold mining town of Jiufen)

These two torii stand in Linsen Park in central Taipei’s Zhongshan area, near where I used to live:

Pair of torii gates in Linsen Park, Taipei

Pair of torii gates in Linsen Park

I would sometimes run a few laps of the park (the climate in Taipei not usually being favourable for my preferred longer-distance routes), and from what I understood of the information board next to the torii, the Japanese built a fairly large shrine there which attracted a kind of shanty town featuring all sorts of vendors and small businesses operating out of shacks around the shrine’s perimeter. The shrine fell into disrepair after Japanese rule ended, and the shanty town was eventually cleared out and turned into the park you see today; not sure what happened to the people living and doing business there (though I can’t imagine it worked out well for them), but the park provides some welcome green space in the centre of the modern city.

The head Shinto shrine in Taiwan, the Taiwan Grand Shrine, stood on Jiantan Mountain near Shilin Market, on the site now occupied by the Grand Hotel. The best-preserved Japanese shrine in Taiwan is apparently the Taoyuan Shrine, repurposed post-1945 as the Taoyuan Martyr’s Shrine.

The Japanese-built Buddhist temples, on the other hand, have remained mostly in use, what with Taiwan also being a largely Buddhist country; there are a number of Taiwanese temples of the Zen Buddhist sect (Zen is Chan in Mandarin), a sect most strongly associated with Japan. One of these, the Rinzai Zen Temple in Yuanshan, is the most obviously Japanese building I’ve seen in Taiwan (though the original Japanese wooden temple is now tucked away in the middle of a larger compound):

Rinzai Zen temple, Yuanshan, Taipei

The red lanterns are a nice touch of Chinese flair on an otherwise typically Japanese wooden temple hall

Chinese entrance gate to the Japanese Zen temple, Yuanshan, Taipei

The front entrance, very much Chinese in style, hiding the Japanese temple hall within

Contrasting Chinese and Japanese entrance gates to the Rinzai Zen temple in Yuanshan, Taipei

The side entrance has this pair of contrasting gates, the red Chinese and wooden Japanese standing side-by-side

Another interesting little spot is this small Buddhist rock shrine, which I visited as part of a hike in the Beitou District – although apparently of Japanese origin, it is these days festooned with Tibetan prayer flags:

The old rock shrine

Not far from there, in the Xinbeitou hot spring district, there’s a Japanese temple of the Shingon Buddhist sect called Puji Temple (Fusai-ji in Japanese). I visited Puji Temple on the same hike as the above rock shrine, though amusingly I managed to bodge the photo with my fingertip (the joys of iPhone photography…) and didn’t notice till I got home:

Japanese Temple in Taipei's Xinbeitou area

The Wikipedia page is only in Chinese (or Japanese), but you can see some fingertip-free pics there! Also see the excellent Synapticism blog.

Back in central Taipei, the busy Ximending district, an area known for its shopping and youth culture, is home to the remains of Nishi Honganji Temple (Xiben Yuan in Mandarin), which was the Taiwan branch of Japan’s Jodo Honganji Buddhist sect (the enormous head temple of which is located in Kyoto, just northwest of Kyoto Station). The most prominent feature is the temple bell, on top of a mound next to the main road (Zhonghua Road) a short distance south of Ximen Station:

Old Japanese temple bell, Ximen, Taipei

The temple’s main structure is gone, but some subsidiary buildings still stand and have been renovated. It’s a calm, open public space which contrasts nicely with the cluttered bustle of Ximending; see this page from the Taipei City Government for more information and photos.

The Japanese also constructed a series of European-style administrative buildings in central Taipei, which continue to serve as the homes of various museums, government ministries, etc. This is the same style of architecture that gave rise to, for example, the Amsterdam Station-esque facade of Tokyo Station, a trend in late-19th and early-20th Century Japanese architecture to go for grand European-style buildings as symbols of Japan’s industrialisation and ascendence as a modern world power.

The restored Meiji Era facade of Tokyo Station

Tokyo Station

See the Wikipedia page on Japanese architecture here for more information and examples, and see this neat blog post on examples of this type of architecture still seen in Tokyo today.

This Western-Japanese architectural style was brought to the colonies of Taiwan and Korea (and also Manchukuo i.e. Manchuria / Northeast China) in an effort to modernise and Japanicise them; in Taipei, the Qing-era city walls were torn down in favour of the wide boulevards running past the cluster of Japanese-era buildings standing at the heart of Taipei to this day. Following are a few examples.

The Red House, just outside Ximen Station in the Ximending shopping area; originally a market, repurposed as a theatre, and now where most of Taipei’s LGBT venues are located (it was under renovation when I went by with my camera, so I couldn’t get a shot of the main octagonal building which is covered by the scaffolding):

The Red House, Ximending, Taipei

The Presidential Office Building, originally the office of the Japanese Governor-General:

Presidential Office Building, Taipei

National Taiwan Museum:

National Taiwan Museum

The Control Yuan building:

Control Yuan Building, Taipei

(There are fewer surviving examples in Korea, though a few prominent ones in Seoul are the old Seoul Station, (one side of) City Hall, and the original Bank of Korea building; many more were torn down post-independence, most notably the Japanese Government Building which had intentionally been constructed over part of Gyeongbokgung Palace as a sign of authority. The remaining colonial buildings now have protected status)

You could easily visit Taipei and never notice these buildings, or see them but not realise they were built by the Japanese; but if you’re a bit of a history or architecture geek like me, spotting them can add a little extra interest to your exploration of the city.

Have you been to Taipei? Any comments or questions about the city’s colonial architecture? Leave a comment below!

For more posts on Taipei, click here

For my guide to hiking in Taipei, click here

For my Taiwan overland travel guide, click here

Posted in Architecture, Japan, Taipei, Taiwan

Life in Taipei: Qilou Buildings

A typical qilou street in Taipei

I’m not sure why I stopped and snapped this picture at the time, but it captures a really typically Taiwanese scene – the guy doing the dishes in the gutter after the restaurant’s closed for the night, the lanterns, the other guy about to get on his scooter, and the recessed sidewalk of the qilou (騎樓)… away from the night markets and the central clusters of neon, this is actually how most of Taipei looks late at night.

(Never been too keen on seeing the dishes being done like that, but the food’s always great and I never got sick!)

Qilou buildings like this comprise much of the urban fabric of Taiwan’s cities (and are also common in Hong Kong, Macau, and parts of southern Mainland China, most notably Guangzhou); the residential upper floors protrude out above the commercial units along the ground floor, the resulting overhang allowing for a recessed sidewalk with a roof overhead.

If you spend any time in Taiwan you’ll quickly come to see why this is desirable, providing as it does shelter from both the sledgehammer of the summer sun, and the bucketloads of torrential rain which so often fall. Walking around in Taiwan on hot or rainy days would be absolutely brutal without the qilou protecting you!

They’re not so common in outlying suburban residential areas, such as New Taipei City, where the huge new modern blocks of flats are usually constructed without a qilou design, but folk living out there tend to zip around everywhere by scooter anyway, and you’re unlikely to find yourself walking around there while travelling in Taiwan.

One thing that always does my head in, though, is people filling up the qilou space with their parked scooters – not a design flaw in the qilou, so much as people being totally inconsiderate with their scooter habits! But the often crappy (and far-too-frequently dangerous) habits of Taiwan’s scooter drivers is another topic for another day…

For more Taipei posts click here, and for my Taiwan overland travel guide click here. Also check out my Taipei hiking guide here

Posted in Architecture, Taipei, Taiwan

Life in Taipei: Xiaolongbao at Din Tai Fung

Xiaolongbao (小籠包, literally ‘little basket buns’) are a specialty of both Shanghai and Taipei – small dough parcels of pork and soup, they’re like bite-sized explosions of delicious joy in your mouth.

A basket of xiaolongbao at Din Tai Fung, Taipei

Originally from Shanghai, xiaolongbao became a local staple in Taiwan with the wave of mainland immigrants that fled there in 1949 at the end of the Chinese Civil War, as Mao’s communists defeated the Kuomintang nationalists. The Shanghai and Taiwan styles have diverged slightly over the years since – the Shanghainese say theirs are the original and best, while the Taiwanese say that although xiaolongbao originated in Shanghai, they were perfected in Taiwan (the main difference is apparently how thick the skin is, and how soupy the contents – the Taiwanese version having thinner dough and a touch more soup).

I’m not going to weigh in on that debate, because in Shanghai I’ve only sampled the cheap street food version (which were also really good), whereas in Taiwan I’ve had the Michelin-starred restaurant version so it’s hardly a fair comparison! What I can say is that those Michelin-starred xiaolongbao were hands down the most delicious dumplings I’ve ever eaten and some of the best food I’ve ever eaten anywhere, and they should definitely be on your to-do list for a visit to Taipei.

Enjoying xiaolongbao at Din Tai Fung

Happy campers

The place is to go is Din Tai Fung (鼎泰豐), a Taipei-based restaurant which now has branches all over the city and all around Taiwan, plus a few overseas. I’d already been living in Taipei for months by the time I finally got round to going – I’d eaten plenty of xiaolongbao from mom & pop stores, street stalls, and night market vendors, and they were all really good, but I’m not a fan of lining up for food and needed some extra motivation to do so for xiaolongbao. That finally came in the form of a group of friends visiting from Japan, and though we had to wait for 45 minutes for our table it was worth every second!

The dumplings at Din Tai Fung are pretty damn expensive by usual Taiwan dumpling standards, but it’s also one of the cheapest places in the world with a Michelin star (and therefore the only one I’ve yet been to!); the service is impeccable, the food is amazing, and it’s great being able to watch the kitchen staff preparing the dumplings to order behind glass screens and see the precision and efficiency that goes into such a seemingly simple dish.

Xiaolongbao and Taiwan Beer at Din Tai Fung

Wash your xiaolongbao down with a few bottles of the local brew

Din Tai Fung has locations in all the big department stores around town; the main ones are Sogo and Takashimaya, so find the nearest one of those and there should be a Din Tai Fung in the basement food levels. Or just head to their flagship restaurant on Xinyi Road near exit 5 of Dongmen Station, or the huge one in the basement of Taipei 101 Mall (at the base of the famous Taipei 101 skyscraper); it’s crazy popular, so be prepared to go on a waiting list for up to an hour (perhaps more) if you go at a busy time.

The staff at Din Tai Fung speak excellent English and are well-used to serving foreigners, so they’ll explain the various options and the correct method for eating them with the accompanying shredded ginger and dipping sauce. There’s a range of dumpling fillings available in addition to the classic pork, including chicken, pork & scallion, and shrimp, and red bean or sesame buns for desert. Everything we had was absolutely amazing – the xiaolongbao at Din Tai Fung were seriously so good they put a massive grin on my face for the rest of the night!

Have you had xiaolongbao in Taipei? Any questions? Leave me a comment below!

For more Taipei posts click here, and for my Taiwan overland travel guide click here. Also check out my Taipei hiking guide here.

Posted in Food, Taipei, Taiwan

A Near Miss With One of Thailand’s Deadly Rich Kids

Bangkok traffic: Thai driving is some of the deadliest on Earth

Bus, car, tuk tuk, bike: survival of the biggest? (photo credit: see below)

So there I was, bottle of Singha in hand, strolling along the street through On Nut (a suburb of Bangkok) towards the Skytrain station to go meet friends, when this car brushed past me – a matter of millimetres from connecting – angled off the road, and crumpled itself into first the lamppost and then the wall directly in front of me. Had he been an inch further over, or had I been one second further ahead, I would’ve been squashed very much between a car and a hard place.

This was one of those typical roads which make up the capillary system of suburban Bangkok; not the wide thoroughfares which compose the major arteries, not the alleys of central Bangkok with their houses and shop fronts opening to the street (and, accordingly, high foot traffic and – one would hope – therefore more careful driving), but a narrow road between the high outer walls of housing developments, very much for the favour of suburban drivers rather than those on foot.

Fact is, like pretty much all major SE Asian cities, most of Bangkok outside the downtown core just isn’t a very walker-friendly place; but I am very much a walker, someone who likes walking here, there, and everywhere, and started out trying to do so when I first moved to Bangkok. This was in the winter months, when the relatively cooler and drier weather makes walking (just about) bearable – in the months of the hot season (March to May) and wet season (June to October), the idea of walking any real distance in Bangkok is mental!

But living there in the cooler months, I fancied I could try walking a bit – at least for the couple of miles to the Skytrain station, instead of taking a songthaew or a sketchy motorbike ride. The songthaews get horribly packed, they get snarled up in traffic, and they leave you breathing all the fumes; the bikes are way faster and more comfortable (and more expensive), but I just don’t like getting on bikes in SE Asia… the drivers all have helmets, but you don’t get one as a passenger… and I’ve seen an accident in Vietnam and an accident’s aftermath in Cambodia, and you ain’t getting me on a bike.

Anyway, much as I may love Bangkok, I quickly learned that even with decent weather walking can be pretty unpleasant in the Thai capital; the roving packs of soi dogs can be outright dangerous (and the guard dogs in peoples’ gardens are also thoroughly obnoxious as you pass), the waterways you cross smell utterly foul, the suburban bushes are overflowing with garbage, and, as I experienced that evening, walking puts you in the line of fire of some of the shittiest driving on the planet.

As I walked along that narrow road with no sidewalk I kept myself between the drain and the wall, as you do, the small space which serves somewhat as a pedestrian walkway. As you walk along there, the cars are passing perhaps two feet from you, so it’s pretty close already; all it takes is for someone to fall asleep at the wheel, be a drunk-driving piece of shit, or somehow or other lose control and drift over slightly, and you could find yourself directly in their path.

I guess this guy who missed me by a whisker in his shiny sports car (not so shiny any more, dickhead – ha!) had dozed off perhaps fifty metres behind me as he drove along this straight stretch of road, and drifted over to his left; thus he angled off the road, just missed me, and wrecked his car right in front of me, right where I would’ve been walking a second later.

“Holy. fucking. shit!” pretty much sums up my immediate thoughts, followed by, roughly, “well, shit, this car just nearly killed me but now I’m the closest person to the scene of an accident and I guess it’s on me to help the occupants, if I can.”

I didn’t yet have a Thai SIM card in my phone so I couldn’t make an emergency call, but I could see a few people looking on from the 7-Eleven at the corner of a side street up ahead, and some were on their phones; so I just went to check on the car’s occupants, ready to (at least attempt to) recall and finally use some long-since-forgotten first aid training, if necessary.

But I wasn’t even sure who was in there, never mind their condition. If you spend some time in Thailand, you’ll notice that many cars drive around with blacked-out windows. This seems especially true of the cashed-up ‘high-so’ (high society) rich kids who drive around drunk in their daddy’s flash cars, and I now found myself looking at such a car, all smashed up and with steam venting profusely from the engine.

I couldn’t see in through the windows to check how may people were inside, so I just hurried round to the driver’s door, which was still operable – unlike the passenger side which was utterly mangled, as would have been any poor soul sat on that side.

Opening the door, I found the driver was thankfully the sole occupant, a local lad of perhaps 18; he appeared to be uninjured, so I asked him if he was ok… and the smell of hard liquor hit me square in the face. This fucking little dipshit smelled like a goddamn motherfucking whisky distillery, was clearly in no fit state to be behind the wheel, and had just only very narrowly not killed me. He looked blearily up at me through glazed and bloodshot eyes and mumbled something unintelligible; disgusted, I let rip with a torrent of the most colourful expletives I’ve possibly ever unleashed, which I doubt he comprehended a word of – even if the guy did speak English he was too shitfaced drunk to do so at that point in time.

Obviously, if this had been the UK or Canada or Japan, I would’ve stuck around to give the police a statement and tell them that this stupid little prick just almost killed me. But it occurred to me that if I did so that evening, in that city, I might just be making things worse for myself; you can’t exactly trust the police when you’re in a military dictatorship (even one like Thailand which at least outwardly looks somewhat functional), and if this kid was indeed the son of a rich and powerful family he could very likely wriggle his way out of any real consequences anyway – as have so many of Thailand’s ‘deadly rich kids‘.

So did I really want to go through any ballache dealing with the police and the bureaucratic nightmare that might result? I decided not, and hastened away from the scene, leaving this drunk-driving douchebag still sat in the driver’s seat of his expensive wreckage; a short time later I heard the wail of sirens, and hopefully the police found him still sat there and he was appropriately punished. Even if not, he’d just written off an expensive vehicle and I like to think he at least learned a lesson from the resulting financial consequences, or preferably from being ripped a new one by his old man.

So I continued on my way to meet friends in Asok, and told them over beers about my lucky escape; they shared their own stories of the many accidents they’d witnessed in Thailand, mostly involving bikes and scooters. And in the mere four months I lived in Bangkok, I went on to see another three accidents (all involving bikes), but thankfully nothing too serious.

A crashed bus in Bangkok

Found this crazy shot on Flickr! Hopefully no-one was seriously hurt (photo credit: see below)

Looking the stats up, Thailand has the 2nd-highest per capita road fatality rate in the world, behind only Libya. It’s actually quite odd – Thailand is wealthier and more developed than the neighbouring countries of Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, and has far better infrastructure, but yet manages to have a much worse road safety record. Surely this is something their government should be trying harder to rectify, but sadly it doesn’t seem to be a priority. Have a read of this sobering BBC report, and check out this amazing video about Bangkok volunteers who spend their time taking care of deceased traffic victims, with the utmost respect and dignity; truly, truly, very impressive people, but why are volunteers even required to do that? Sort your shit out Thailand (if you’re not too busy jailing people for writing Facebook posts and the like)

So anyway, what does this mean for a traveller to Thailand, and SE Asia as a whole? Well, personally I’ll always take a metered taxi instead of a tuk tuk or moto (air conditioning, windows, and metered fare vs rip-off with traffic fumes in your face – already no contest before you even consider which one comes out worse in a collision), and you will never, ever catch me renting a motorbike or scooter in Thailand or anywhere else in SE Asia. Or in fact anywhere else at all, for that matter, because I don’t have a scooter licence and I know that means my insurance wouldn’t cover me in the event of an accident.

The best way to not be in a bike accident is, of course, to simply not rent a bike; but if you do, make sure you’re actually insured to do so – something which requires you to have a proper licence. If you’re not, and you have an accident, and it’s serious, you’re basically fucked.

You also won’t catch me taking any (more) night buses in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia, etc – I have done so on a number of occasions, especially in Indonesia where distances can be huge (think one driver for two days straight, sleeping only at meal stops – as I experienced during a pretty terrifying journey on the Trans-Sumatra Highway, though at least it led to me learning to appreciate Led Zeppelin), but you know, it just isn’t worth it. Crashes do happen, and the night buses can be pretty shitty experiences even when they arrive safely.

And of course you may very well be in an accident through no fault whatsoever of your own – so again, make sure you have decent insurance. Check out World Nomads as they offer flexible travel insurance which you can purchase even after you’ve already left your home country – I once found out how important that bit of small print can be when my camera got pickpocketed (which was, in fact, another lesson I learned in Bangkok!)

Just a week or so after my near-miss with a drunk-driver, I got bitten by a dog… at that point it seemed like Bangkok was trying to tell me something, and though I stuck around a while longer I stopped walking to the Skytrain and I was already making plans to move back to my beloved Taipei. Bangkok remains one of my favourite cities to visit, but I doubt I’ll go back to live there again!

Any stories or questions about Thailand’s roads? Leave me a comment below!

Photo credits 1:Pedro Alonso 2:Walter Lim (both via Flickr and used under Creative Commons License)

(This page contains affiliate links i.e. if you follow the links from this page to World Nomads and make a purchase, 4corners7seas will receive a commission from them; this commission comes out of their profit margin at no extra cost to you. I’m linking to them because I know and trust them through personal experience; thank you in advance should you choose to purchase your insurance via the above links!)

Posted in Southeast Asia, Thailand

Overland Routes from China to Southeast Asia

If you’re looking to travel overland from China to SE Asia (or vice versa) you have four main route options: Guangxi province to Vietnam, Yunnan province to Vietnam, Yunnan to Laos (and Thailand), and Yunnan to Myanmar.

There also used to be a boat down the Mekong direct from Jinghong in Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna region to Thailand, passing between Myanmar and Laos but entering neither (with no visa required for either), arriving in Thailand near the Golden Triangle. However, this hasn’t been possible since an outbreak of drug-related violence on the Mekong in 2011; the boat was suspended in the aftermath and on both of my visits to Jinghong (in 2012 and 2015), I investigated whether the boat was operating again, in the hope of perhaps taking it, and it wasn’t. As of 2017, this boat still doesn’t appear to have resumed operations, and with the new Fourth Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge having opened it seems unlikely that it will.

China to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar route map

Map of the routes from Kunming (Yunnan) to SE Asia

This page mostly deals with the Yunnan routes; the outline for Guangxi is that you can take a train or bus between the Guangxi provincial capital Nanning and the Vietnamese capital Hanoi, crossing the border at Dong Dang, or you can cross by bus further south at Mong Cai for Halong Bay. The Nanning – Hanoi trains are direct sleepers (no change required at the border) running daily, with two services per week actually running direct all the way Hanoi – Beijing (see Seat61 for details).

China to Myanmar Overland

Looking at the three routes from Kunming, be aware that it’s only possible to enter Myanmar overland if you also leave again the same way and pay for expensive permits (which also require you to pay for private guides & vehicles). Of course this also means you’ll need to have at least a double-entry Chinese visa too. So, it can be done but it’s expensive, and it’s no good for onward travel to the rest of SE Asia; it’s therefore probably only worth it if, say, you live in Kunming and fancy a trip to Myanmar and back. See my Myanmar page for more details.

That aside, essentially you have the two routes available from Kunming – head to Hanoi by road or rail, or head to Laos by road via Xishuangbanna.

Highway scenery between Kunming and Xishuangbanna

It’s a great drive from Kunming down to Xishuangbanna

Kunming to Vietnam Overland

The first option, Kunming – Hanoi, involves a 6-hour train ride (or bus) to the border town Hekou, with a taxi from the station to the border crossing; once across to the Vietnamese border town Lao Cai, you can take a 1-hour minivan up to the former French hill station of Sapa, or continue on to Hanoi (another 7 to 11 hours by road or rail).

An interesting alternative route you could take here is to head to Laos through Vietnam i.e. cross at Hekou/Lao Cai and head up to Sapa, then after your visit there head to Dien Bien Phu and cross into northern Laos at Pang Hoc, from where you can eventually continue on to Luang Nam Tha. I actually considered this route when I was last in Kunming, but I’m not the biggest fan of Vietnam after all the crazy shit I experienced there and in the end I simply couldn’t be bothered with it – so I just took the most direct route possible, from Xishuangbanna to Chiang Rai in one day via northern Laos (see below).

Kunming to Laos Overland

Xishuangbanna is an interesting area in its own right, which is an attractive point about this option; an 8 to 10 hour bus ride (it really can vary that much) from Kunming gets you to Jinghong (Xishuangbanna’s main town), and after a couple days chilling there you can head on to Laos by bus.

The bus ride from Kunming to Jinghong takes you through some cracking terrain; most of Yunnan is at significant altitude, but Xishuangbanna is a low(er)-lying jungle area and the overall elevation drop is some 1,400m, most of which is in the middle section of the journey. It’s a really good, relatively new highway which soars along viaducts above the lush carpets of the rice terraces below, plunging through tunnels in the mountainsides and re-emerging onto dramatic bridges over the valleys, everything green and verdant with stands of bamboo exploding out of the hillsides like frozen bursts of forest shrapnel. It’s definitely a cool bus ride, and I even enjoyed it the second time round (which is often not the case); one thing though – if, like me, you hate the sleeper buses in China, get to the bus station nice and early to make sure you have the option of a seater (there are multiple departures through the day, some sleepers, some seaters, but it seems to be only sleepers from lunchtime onwards).

Despite being in China, Jinghong in many ways feels like the biggest Laotian city; it’s certainly a fascinating mish-mash of SE Asian and Chinese cultures, with a whole multitude of ethnic groups present and all the signs in both Lao and Chinese; it’s a far more bustling place than the sleepy Lao capital Vientianne, and worth chilling in for a day or two.

An enormous moth with striking markings

This beauty was at the Boten border post

From Jinghong you can take the bus to Luang Nam Tha in northern Laos (a lovely area to explore, also well worth a few days of your trip), a journey of around 8 hours via Mengla. You might be able to change money when you make a rest stop in Mengla – first time I did this route, a fruit vendor just outside the Mengla bus station offered good rates (and delicious fruit), but the second time we stopped somewhere different and there wasn’t anywhere to change money so I changed some at the border.

The bus was full of fruit & veg!

Be prepared for the possibility of sharing the bus with a load of produce from Mengla!

Be very careful if changing money with one of the many black market money changers hanging out at the border post – make sure you know in advance the correct rate for the day, which you won’t get but make sure it’s not too far off, and watch very closely for some sleight of hand. She tried every trick in the book on me, pretending not to have any 50,000s and trying to give me a huge stack of 10,000s with a bunch of similar-coloured 1,000s hidden in it, then trying to pass some 20,000s off as 50,000s, miscounting the number of bills, and pretending not to have small bills for the last little bit. I insisted on 50,000s, counted it all back out and checked the notes before accepting it, rejected the smaller bills she’d slipped in with the larger bills, and eventually had the correct amount we’d agreed upon. That was already at a rate which was a bit more beneficial to her than the official rate, so although it made her a bit stroppy I didn’t feel remotely bad about blocking her scam attempts. Actually it was kinda fun and I was having a laugh with her by the end of the transaction but anyway change money in Mengla if possible, or just wait until you reach Luang Nam Tha… I only changed at the border that second time as I was going all the way through to Thailand that same day and thought I might need some Laotian kip for food and for the evening bus to Thailand (turned out I didn’t – read on).

Also, if you need a visa-on-arrival remember you need cash to pay for it; the price varies according to both your country and the currency you pay in, and you get a better price paying in Chinese yuan or US dollars than you do in Laotian kip (another reason to avoid changing money at the border).

Deforestation in northern Laos

Luang Nam Tha is a beautiful region, but sadly you’ll see a lot of this – the price of development in northern Laos

From Luang Nam Tha you can then either travel further south through Laos to Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, and beyond, or cross over to Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.

China to Thailand Overland in One Day (via Xishuangbanna – Huay Xai bus and 4th Thai – Lao Friendship Bridge)

I don’t recommend skipping Laos – it’s a great place – but if you’ve been before and are in a rush to get to Thailand, since the opening of the 4th Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge in 2013 it’s become possible to make it the whole way from Jinghong to Chiang Rai (or even Chiang Mai) in a single day’s travel. Prior to the bridge opening, the necessity of crossing the Mekong by boat meant spending at least one night in Chiang Khong, Huay Xai, or Luang Nam Tha (I once spent the night at the border town of Chiang Khong, having arrived too late for the boat – even ending up in a face off with a couple of sketchy street dogs)

To do this, you need to catch the 5am bus from Jinghong to Huay Xai, the town on the Laos side of the Mekong (if you don’t get this first bus of the day, Luang Nam Tha is as far as you’ll get). The bus drives from Jinghong to Mengla where you’ll have a rest stop, then crosses the border at Boten. Don’t worry about changing money in Mengla, and definitely not with the scammers at the border – you can use Chinese yuan or US dollars to pay for your Laos visa and lunch near the border, and when you reach Huay Xai in the evening the bus station has official moneychangers where you can change your remaining Chinese yuan for Thai baht, and you can buy your onward bus ticket using baht.

On the Laos side of the border you stop at a restaurant for lunch, then drive the whole way across this beautiful northern corner of Laos to reach Huay Xai around 5pm, the bus dropping you directly at the new international bus station (an impressive setup, part of the bridge development) in time for the last bus to Thailand.

The staff there are very much on the ball – as soon as we got off the bus they were checking whether we wanted to go to Chiang Khong, Chiang Rai, or Chiang Mai, whether we needed to change money, and getting us through immigration as efficiently as possible to the waiting bus. Remember to have some small denomination bills (US 1$ bills are best) ready for your Laos departure tax; if you want to go all the way to Chiang Mai, they’ll switch you to a minivan on the Thai side – this would make for an insanely long day though!

I haven’t done the journey in the opposite direction, but as of March 2017 (see Houei Sai – JingHong in final image here, and check locally for the latest information) a bus for Jinghong leaves the Houay Xai international station at 10am; this is too early for direct connections from Chiang Rai, so being in Houay Xai (at the right station) in time to catch this after waking up in Chiang Rai would require taking the first bus at 5am to Chiang Khong (having them drop you at the turnoff for the bridge), then local transportation through immigration and over the bridge. You might want to spend the night in Chiang Khong (the town on the Thai side of the border – a pleasant enough place to spend a night, except for the sketchy dogs) or in Houay Xai itself instead. Or in Luang Nam Tha! (I’d love to hear from anyone who’s done this route from Chiang Rai to Jinghong in one day)

Any updates you can share for future overlanders? Got any questions? Leave me a comment below!

Posted in China, Overland travel, Southeast Asia

Dog Bites Man: on soi dogs, getting bitten, and rabies shots in Bangkok

Thai soi dogs

Bitten in Bangkok

Khao San Road, circa 3am… (and this is not the first story I’ve told on these pages that picks up at that time & place!) …my Canadian buddy’s waiting for me in the street while I pop in to a bar to grab us two more beers and make use of their restrooms.

(drinking in the street on Khao San, toilets are an issue; you have to use the (paid, shitty) public toilets, pay to use a hotel’s, or, best, pop into a cheap bar to take a leak and grab takeout beers… guys can also pee in alleyways of course, but that’s running a high risk of being cornered by a pack of ladyboys… happened to me once and I only narrowly escaped!)

Heading back out to rejoin him and resume whatever political debate we’d been in the middle of, I suddenly felt the most unexpected of sensations – a set of sharp teeth sinking themselves into my Achilles tendon… this fucking little bastard dog just ran up out of nowhere, unseen and completely unprovoked, and got stuck straight into the back of my leg!

I shook it off, and when it gathered itself to lunge again I aimed a kick at its face, which didn’t connect but caused it to back off. At this point, the owner of the bar intervened – very much on the dog’s side! The mangy little mutt didn’t look like anyone’s pet, but she was obviously fond of it and told me to leave it alone.

Me leave it alone? Haha… I was most definitely not the aggressor here!

Fact is, Thailand unfortunately has an issue with street dogs, or soi dogs (soi is the Thai word for alley); living rough on the streets and forming into packs as wild dogs do, they have tough lives. It’s awful to see animals living in lousy conditions like that, but that’s not the only issue. They can also be really sketchy, sometimes outright aggressive, and human fatalities do occasionally occur directly from dog attacks, and more frequently from rabies contracted from dog bites.

As much as I pity the soi dogs, they also shit me right up; though this was the first time I’d actually been bitten, this wasn’t the first run in I’d had…

Territorial Soi Dogs in Ayutthaya

On my first visit to Bangkok, my buddy Danny and I took a day trip up to Ayutthaya; as we got off the boat across the river from the station, a random dog snapped at Danny’s bare ankle, Danny just pulling his leg away in time. Totally unprovoked, and of course it makes you worry about rabies. A short time later as we walked to the ancient ruins, we rounded a corner to find a pack of seven or eight dogs straggled across the road; their ears pricked up and they all stood and took interest in us, and not in a friendly way judging from their body language. We turned back and found a different route.

Ayutthaya… cool place, but watch out for the soi dogs!

A Face Off with Two Soi Dogs on the Laos Border

A few years after that, when en route from Chiang Rai to Laos, I’d spent the night in the Thai border town of Chiang Khong (this was before the 4th Thai – Lao Friendship Bridge existed, and we hadn’t made it in time for the last boat over the Mekong); my beloved Leeds United FC were playing in the League One Playoff Final that day, and I went off in search of an internet cafe to follow the game (smartphones and wifi everywhere weren’t a thing yet). I totally failed to find an internet cafe though, and in fact the whole town was shuttered up for the night; but what I did find was a pair of stray dogs blocking my way back along the town’s only road.

Attempting to calmly pass them didn’t work; they jumped to attention, growling and snarling and adopting threatening postures. It seemed they’d attack if I got any closer, so I backed off and waited for them to hopefully lose interest or wander off.

But they stayed right there, so I tried to pass again by walking flush against the wall at the side of the street, giving them as wide a berth as possible; but they still wouldn’t let me pass.

I couldn’t see any other way around, but there was a pile of bricks at the side of the road. I picked up a brick in each hand, and decided I’d just call their bluff and walk past them; and if they actually attacked, I’d just have to fucking well bash their skulls in… or get ripped to shreds… even odds, perhaps; any more than two though and there’d have been no chance.

So, thus armed, I approached again; as they snarled and gathered themselves to lunge, I told them (as calmly as I could) to chill out and let me pass, and started walking through.

They snarled; they growled; and then they ran at me. This was it, they were actually attacking, I was in a fight to the death with two dogs… shit! I raised my right hand, brick at the ready, and shaped to smash it into the first dog as it leapt – and the dog slammed on the brakes, whimpered and yelped, and ran away with its tail between its legs, its companion following suit.

I guess they were as scared of me as I was of them; their threat display was menacing, but all it took was a threat display in return and they backed off. These dogs live hard lives, and have likely taken a kick or two before. And so, thankfully, I got back to my guesthouse unshredded (where I eventually learned (via SMS, I think) that Leeds United had lost the final).

Bangkok’s Soi Dog Problem

There are an estimated 8.5 million (Bangkok Post, via Wikipedia) to 10 million (Canadian Medical Association Journal) stray dogs in Thailand with 300,000 in Bangkok, 1 in 10 of which are estimated to have rabies. Dog attacks are a regular occurrence (I can’t find any full national statistics but according to the above CAMJ report, 1.3% of foreign visitors get bitten), occasionally severe enough to be fatal – and even if the wounds themselves aren’t severe, the victims sometimes get rabies and that is virtually always fatal.

Thai soi dogs

By day, the soi dogs look positively wretched and pathetic, curled up in gutters and keeping a low profile; but come midnight when the road and foot traffic dies down and it’s dark, packs of soi dogs roam the streets and you don’t want to bump into them when they’re on the move with their tails up. Half a dozen growling dogs in a dark alley is seriously scary, even if they are skinny little things. Some people even carry weapons for just that reason.

It isn’t just the soi dogs that are scary in Thailand either; pet dogs very much double up as guard dogs, and walking through residential areas at night you’re constantly subjected to aggressive barking from the dogs in the houses you pass. It’s not so bad by day, but even then they’ll still sometimes give you a bit of verbals as you pass. The houses all have high walls and solid gates so it isn’t scary per se, but it’s extremely tedious and they don’t half scare the bejesus out of you sometimes when you’re not expecting it – what’s more, the barking of the house dogs attracts and excites any soi dogs in the area. Between the aggressive guard dogs and the roaming packs of soi dogs, I quickly learned to simply not walk around late at night.

In a perfect world, all of these poor animals would be rounded up, the rabid ones put down humanely, and the rest adopted and taken in by people who would show them a bit of love. Some lucky dogs do get adopted, but given that that’s not going to happen in anything like sufficient numbers what really needs to happen is a large-scale program to spay & neuter enough of the existing dogs to control the future population. The Soi Dog Foundation is a Phuket-based charity also active in Bangkok which runs adoption and spay & neutering programs; if you want to help, check out their website (and here’s the Wikipedia page for more background reading)

Thai soi dogs

So anyway, back to Khao San Road; I’d just been bitten by this little shit that may or may not have been a pet, or perhaps semi-stray, and now the bar owner lady was giving me shit for not being happy about getting bitten!

Although it was a bit like adding insult to injury that she was having a go at me, it was actually a good thing from a rabies perspective. And that was the real issue – although the bite did hurt a bit it was only a small dog and I was wearing jeans and socks, so the wound was light. But a light wound is still enough for rabies transmission, and a rabies infection is a death sentence; if the animal is wild or stray, a full course of shots is required (usually 5 shots over a month) with the first within 24 hours of the bite.

But if the animal is known (e.g. someone’s pet), it helps as the animal can be observed – rabid animals are only contagious in the final days before death, so if the animal is still healthy 2 weeks after biting you, you’re in the clear. You still have to have a shot within 24 hours and a second a few days later, but the full course can be discontinued if the animal can be observed and confirmed healthy within the relevant timeframe.

So, while I didn’t appreciate the bar owner taking sides against me, at least it would help that the bar staff seemed to know this animal… or at least, it should have helped. But when I tried to ask about the dog’s health, where it lived or if it belonged to anyone, she got really defensive; when I persisted (politely) I was told to fuck off, right to my face, with a few guys appearing to back her up. Having seen some vicious beatings on Khao San in the past, I knew I had to just walk away and accept I’d need the full rabies course.

It did occur to me I could still report it to whatever body is responsible for dangerous animals and rabies in Bangkok (if indeed there is one), but it also occurred that the dog would likely then be destroyed, and I’d have made some enemies on Khao San Road – not a good idea when you live in Bangkok and drink on Khao San several times a month! And perhaps that’s why she got so defensive of the dog – she didn’t want it getting put down. Fair enough I suppose.

Hungover Sunday Hospital Visit for Rabies Treatment

So, anyway, there I am on Khao San, they’ve just told me to fuck off and pulled the shutter down to end the conversation, and my buddy has to leave soon anyway with an early morning flight to catch. So we finish those beers and call it a night, and I head home to deal with the bite. This means first thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting the wound, then getting to a hospital within 24 hours for the first shot. As I got home at 4am, I decided to get some sleep after cleaning it, and head to hospital when I woke up.

Not how I like to spend my Sunday, especially when hungover! To make matters worse, the public hospitals close on Sundays so I had to fork out for a swanky private clinic (the Sukumvit Hospital next to Ekkamai Skytrain station, near where I was living at the time – yes, Sukhumvit is usually romanised with an ‘h’ in it, but the hospital styles itself without the h for whatever reason). I have to say it was top notch – the doctors and nurses were excellent and all spoke great English – but factoring in the consultation fee, a rabies shot, a tetanus shot, and some antibiotics, made it by far the most expensive night out I ever had in Thailand!

Fortunately (and to my surprise) they said the rabies vaccination I’d had many years earlier was still good, so I only needed two shots rather than the full 5 and this would be the same regardless of whether the dog could be observed or not, so no need to try checking back on it.

A few days later I went for the second shot at the Faculty of Tropical Medicine, Mahidol University Hospital (near Victory Monument Skytrain Station), which was far cheaper but still gave exemplary service and care. The young doctor cracked a nice joke referencing Khao San’s reputation for crazy behaviour, asking if I was sure it was actually a dog that bit me?!

This actually happened in the same month that a drunk driver almost took me out when he totalled his sports car right in front of me… seemed like Bangkok was trying to tell me something! (and I took the hint – I moved back to Taiwan a short time later)

So anyway, a few injections and that was that. Not nearly as good a story as my Canadian friend who got savaged by a monkey in southern Thailand a few months before that and had to get all 5 shots – she was a good source of advice!

Should You Get the Rabies Vaccination Before Travelling?

So is it really worth getting the rabies vaccination in advance before you leave? Well, the shots are likely more expensive at home, but in the event of a bite you only need 2 shots, which will be far less disruptive to your trip than having to make 5 separate hospital visits! And on the one hand, only 1.3% percent of foreign visitors get bitten by dogs in Thailand; but then on the other hand, a whopping 1.3% percent of foreign visitors get bitten by dogs in Thailand! That works out as more than 400,000 tourists per year, which is quite a lot really (and that’s not even counting monkey bites).

One line of reasoning is not to get vaccinated in advance as, in the event you do get bitten, you can then claim the costs back on your travel insurance; this is probably fine so long as you’re never going to be more than 24 hours away from a clinic, you’re able to cover the cost of the full course until you can make your claim, and are prepared to accept the extra disruption to your trip of making five separate hospital visits. I always use World Nomads for my travel insurance, especially as I’m usually buying insurance on the go when I’m already overseas (which most travel insurance companies don’t allow – as I once found out the hard way when my camera got pinched in Bangkok); however, another thing to consider is that if you’re not vaccinated, in the case of severe bites they’ll also want to give you an immunoglobulin injection which a) may not be available outside major cities and b) sounds deeply unpleasant (it’s a big old injection, apparently), so take that into account too.

What to do if You Get Bitten

Firstly, clean the wound thoroughly with disinfectant, soap and water, or whichever of those you have available, and then seek medical attention – remember, the most crucial thing is to receive the first shot within 24 hours. If you’re somewhere remote like rural Laos, you need to get yourself to a large town with a decent hospital as pronto as possible.

As for the animal, if it’s possible to observe it for the next couple of weeks, and if there’s a relevant authority in the country you’re in, then it’s worth contacting them and possibly saving yourself having to do the full course of treatment; otherwise, you have to assume the worst and get the full set of shots.

For more detail, see here

Again, don’t forget to buy a good travel insurance policy! If you did leave home without one, World Nomads will still cover you.

And finally, if you want to help soi dogs in Thailand, here’s the link to the Soi Dog Foundation again.

Have you had any run-ins with soi dogs in Thailand? Been bitten? If you have any questions or stories, leave me a comment below!

Dog photo credits 1&3:Thai Dogs 2:nist6dh (all via Flickr and used under Creative Commons License)

(This page contains affiliate links i.e. if you follow the links from this page to World Nomads and make a purchase, 4corners7seas will receive a commission from them; this commission comes out of their profit margin at no extra cost to you. I’m linking to them because I know and trust them through personal experience; thank you in advance should you choose to purchase your insurance via the above links!)

Posted in Southeast Asia, Thailand

One of Those Days: a comedy of errors when taking the JR Beetle

Busan Harbor Bridge

Busan Harbor Bridge

So the other week I had one of those travel days where everything fucks up – and it was mostly my own fault. I’d done the JR Beetle hydrofoil trip between Busan (South Korea) and Fukuoka (Japan) several times before, so I knew exactly I where I was going and what I was doing – or so I thought.

Doing this crossing on regular weekdays you can usually rock up at the port and buy a ticket for the next departure (there are three per day in each direction), but as I was travelling in the Golden Week holiday period and only a had one day spare on my Korean entry stamp, I figured I should book ahead to avoid any headaches. As turned out, booking ahead resulted in major headaches!

Since my previous passage on the Beetle, they’ve for some reason taken down their English website, so I had to use the Japanese one (Korean is also available); I can read schedules in Japanese well enough, so it wasn’t such a problem. But while checking it out, I spotted the discount internet fares… “Hello, what’s this?” I thought, had a read through, and managed to book myself a round trip for 16000 yen instead of 28000 yen, entirely in Japanese. High five to me! Or so I thought…

So a couple of days later I zoomed down from Seoul to Busan on the KTX (the Korean bullet train), arriving two hours before departure; plenty of time for some food and coffee and a nice 20-minute stroll down to the ferry terminal, the location of which I knew well from my previous times passing through the port of Busan.

Except that terminal is now the Busan Domestic Passenger Terminal, for overnight car ferries to Jeju Island. The Beetle these days sails from the brand spanking new Busan International Ferry Terminal, which all Japan-bound sailings switched to last year! I guess if JR Beetle still had an English page, this would’ve been explained; and I guess the port information is probably explained on the Japanese page, but thinking I already knew the information I just booked my tickets and left the site (although I can read Japanese to an extent, I’m not remotely approaching native level – it takes me a fair bit of effort to fully decipher a web page, and information often won’t leap out at me if I’m not specifically looking for it).

Thankfully there was a helpful lady at the now-domestic terminal who spoke good English (my Korean is minimal) and was able to equip me with a map to the new international terminal – which, naturally enough, is exactly where I’d just walked from! i.e. just behind Busan Station. I didn’t really have time to walk back, so jumped in a taxi for 3000 won (the driver was cool; he spoke Japanese, so we had a little Japanese chat about how much we both love Kyoto) which got me there in 5 minutes.

Bit of a fuck up, but, I figured, a mostly harmless and fairly amusing one; arriving at the enormous new terminal, I saw it’s well-furnished with cafes and a food court, and would’ve been perfect for the coffee and lunch I’d wanted before sailing.

(Full info on the new Busan terminal here)

“Ah well, all’s good, at least I know for next time and can update the info on 4corners,” I thought, as I approached the checkin counter.

So imagine my face when they told me my reservation that day was for sailing from Fukuoka to Busan! I’d only gone and booked my discount internet tickets in completely the wrong fucking direction, the exact opposite of what I wanted! She asked if I wanted to cancel my reservation, and obviously I wasn’t about to board a ferry in Fukuoka, Japan, given that I was physically standing there in Busan, Korea, so I had no choice; but that got me only a 50% refund due to the cancellation terms. I then had to purchase new tickets at the full regular fare (thankfully at least a few seats were still available that day despite it being a few days before Golden Week), so that little mistake cost me 200 dollars all in. I say little mistake, because it was one single kanji (Chinese character) word on the booking screen that I’d failed to catch – the column I’d thought was for the destination was actually headed 出発地 i.e. point of departure. I should’ve spotted it really, but I’d failed to pay attention to a single word and thus entered my destination ports as my departure ports. Motherfucker!

That’s the problem with speaking a language, but only partially – you think you’ve done it right, but miss one little thing and you end up totally screwing up!

It was painful handing my credit card over… I even found myself thinking (shock horror) that I should’ve just flown…

But you’re probably here because you don’t want to fly; so, here’s an updated ‘how to’ for travelling by JR Beetle between Busan and Fukuoka, and here’s my detailed guide to all ferry routes between Korea and Japan.

Have you taken the JR Beetle recently? Any more changes future overlanders should be aware of? Any questions? Leave me a comment below!

Posted in Japan, Korea, Overland travel

The Best Places to See the Cherry Blossoms in Seoul

Last month I had the pleasure of being in Seoul during the spring cherry blossom season; it’s a sight I’ve seen many times in Japan, so this year it was cool to check out the most famous cherry blossom spots in the capital of Korea.

The Japanese practice of hanami (sitting under the blossoms all day getting drunk) doesn’t really have an equivalent in Korea; it’s more about going sightseeing or taking a walk (cameras, smartphones and selfie sticks constantly at the ready) somewhere with lots of cherry trees. The most famous spots are:

Seokchon Lake

Lotte World Tower

This artificial lake lies in the shadow of the recently constructed Lotte World Tower (the world’s 5th tallest building and the chunkier cousin of London’s Shard) near Jamsil Station, and is the setting for the Lotte World Magic Island theme park, an ersatz fairytale castle riddled with rollercoasters that rises up from the waters like a poor man’s Disneyland.

Cherry blossoms at Seokchon Lake

It’s also the city’s most popular cherry blossom spot (along with Yeouido, see below), with cherry trees around almost the entire circumference of the lake. It’s a spectacular site when they hit full bloom, and Seoulites come out in droves to take selfies under them.

Seoul National Cemetery

Cherry blossoms at Seoul National Cemetery

My personal favourite, as the crowds aren’t too bad, the blossoms are beautiful (consisting largely of weeping cherry varieties), and the cemetery itself is a lovely spot in its own right. As a memorial to Korean soldiers who died in the struggle for independence and the subsequent Korean War it remains a calm and peaceful place even when busy with blossom-viewers.

Seoul National Cemetery is located at Dongjak Station exit 8.

The Royal Palaces

There are five palaces in Seoul, three of which are good places to combine some sightseeing with your cherry blossom viewing.

Cherry blossoms at Gyeongbokgung palace, Seoul

This is the outer section of Gyeongbokgung palace; the mountain beyond is Inwangsan

Gyeongbokgung is the most important of the palace sites, and though it doesn’t have a huge number of cherry trees they’re well-placed for photography. Changgyeonggung has extensive grounds and gardens, and plenty of blossom trees are scattered throughout; the pond at the north end of the grounds is particularly nice. Deoksugung is quite a compact palace, but has the densest concentration of cherry blossom trees so is also a good call.

Full bloom at Changgyeonggung palace

On the grounds of Changgyeonggung

The other two palaces – Gyeonghuigung and Changdeokgung – do also have a few cherry trees, but in smaller numbers and less photogenically placed; that said, Changdeokgung is directly next to Changgyeonggung so you may as well visit them both at the same time anyway.

Namsan

Namsan is the small mountain smack in the middle of Seoul, with the city’s main landmark N Seoul Tower on its summit. Cherry trees are dotted around the mountainside, and if you’ve just missed the blossoms at the other spots downtown you should head to Namsan.

Cherry blossoms in front of N Seoul Tower on Namsan

The cherry trees are scattered around in ones and twos so you don’t see any dense concentrations of blossoms, but this is more than adequately compensated for by the cracking views of the city below and the larger mountains in the distance:

Looking north towards Bukhansan from Namsan

Namsan cherry blossoms

Namsan cherry blossoms and city view

Namsan cherry blossoms

How to hike up Namsan

Yeouido Park Cherry Blossom Festival

Cherry blossoms (and lots of people and cars) outside Yeouinaru Station

This is, unfathomably, the most famous cherry blossom spot in Seoul along with Seokchon – it was by far the least enjoyable and least attractive spot I visited! There are a lot of cherry blossom trees there to be sure, but they’re mostly lining the main road outside Yeouinaru Station; personally I don’t find concrete and cars to be the best backdrop for cherry blossoms!

Heavy crowds for th cherry blossoms at Yeouinaru Station

The cherry blossom festival at Yeouido Park

Furthermore the crowds are absolutely ridiculous (partially my fault for foolishly going on a Sunday), but if you’re looking for something like a Japanese-style hanami place then it’s here, as the area holds a cherry blossom festival (which I suppose is what draws the crowds) replete with food and drinks stalls selling all manner of street snacks, coffees, and alcoholic drinks for you to enjoy – if you ever manage to battle your way out of the station! People take their tents along and get settled in for the day, giving it an odd music-festival-without-the-music vibe; didn’t look much fun to me, but I suppose it probably would be with a good crew and a tent full of beer.

(Pro tip: avoid Yeouinaru Station, and instead stroll over from Yeouido Station. Actually: if you’re not after a drinking session, go to one of the other spots instead!)

Other places to see cherry blossoms in Seoul

There are plenty of random little parks and hills around the city which have cherry blossom trees, and you’ll find the odd street here and there lined with them, like this one near Hongdae:

Cherry blossoms along a Hongdae street

The Dongdaemun Design Park isn’t exactly renowned as a cherry blossom spot, but there are a few trees on the grounds and the futuristic architecture would make a good photography backdrop (I clocked them before they were fully open, but failed to get back there for photos during full bloom).

I also scoped out Cheonggyecheon stream, but nice as it is it doesn’t really have any cherry blossoms.

Have you been in Seoul during the cherry blossom season? How was it? Any questions? Leave me a comment below!

(Also check out my guides to the best cherry blossoms spots in Kyoto and Tokyo)

Posted in Korea, Seoul

On Khao San Road, late night beatings, and sticking your neck out

Street party on Khao San Road

Khao San Road at night: lots of sketchy fun! (Photo credit: see below)

“That little fucker just tried to take my wallet!”

Not from what I’d seen… “You sure mate?” I replied, “looked to me like you just bumped into each other.”

We were drinking and dancing in the middle of Khao San Road at 3am, as you do, drunk on buckets and still chugging big bottles of Singha from the street stalls. I was with this Belgian guy called Albert I’d just met once previously (the week before), a friend of a friend who was living in Bangkok, and if I was a 6 on the drunk scale he was probably a 9; not quite a write-off, but too far gone to make much sense (or remember much later). We’d lost the other guys we’d been out with and were getting stuck in to the weird & wonderful zoo that is Khao San Road in the wee hours of a Saturday night.

Street party on Khao San Road

Street party on Khao San Road (photo credit: see below)

This was a short time before the military took power in the 2014 coup d’etat, before they cracked down on the wildest elements of Khao San Road. Packs of predatory ladyboys prowled on the lookout for foreign tourists too drunk to notice a missing wallet, the party went on all night with no curfew enforced on alcohol sales or loud music, and there were a lot of drugs being taken – not so much by backpacker party addicts, but by the local kids.

The drug of choice was yaba, some sort of shitty amphetamine derivative (crystal meth, more or less) manufactured and smuggled in from Myanmar, and a lot of the local kids were on it, wild-eyed, sweating, and dancing like nutters.

On one occasion around that time, myself and a few others tried to help a girl who appeared to have had a bit too much yaba – her eyes rolled up into her head and we tried to stop her bashing her skull or swallowing her tongue while she had a seizure. The police from the station at the end of the street were absolutely fucking useless when asked to help; nasty stuff, and it definitely seemed to be causing a few problems.

The combination of drunk tourists (hailing from Europe to America, Japan to Brazil, all over the place) with the local party kids, the ladyboys, the hill-tribe ladies hawking their wooden frogs (and the colourful hats right off their heads), the heartbreaking sight of the street kids selling roses and ‘I ♥ DICK’ bracelets, and even the odd random hooker from Sub-Saharan Africa, made for some wild scenes on the street; a total zoo, sketchy for sure, and usually a lot of fun.

(It’s been a bit less mental since the military takeover and subsequent crackdown, but only relative to what it was before – it still qualifies as a madhouse by most measures!)

Bad taste fancy dress masks for sale on Khao San Road

Always a random touch (photo credit: see below)

I say it’s usually a lot of fun, because there are always victims – the Manchester lad who’d been robbed blind by a girl he took back to his room, the Canadian guys who’d had their passports swiped, the Korean girl who’d had her phone swiped. And the high energy atmosphere could sometimes turn sour in an instant; one time I saw a couple of backpackers running from a bunch of tuk tuk drivers who caught them down the street and gave them a short, sharp beating. On another occasion as I was sat with a Korean friend having late night street food a fight broke out just down the road between two groups of Thai kids; my friend went over to see what was happening, and the stall holder (who she was friends with) called her back, warning they might start shooting so she shouldn’t get too close (not that the stall would’ve been a much safer place had firearms been used). Then there was the time I saw a big American skinhead get into an argument with a stall holder; he threatened physical violence, with the result that he was subjected to exactly that. Within moments an entire crew of Khao San lads had descended on him and dished out a brutal 5-second pasting and then disappeared again just as quickly, just like that.

I love Thailand and the Thai people, but you simply do not fuck around with the locals there; sound practice anywhere really, but especially so in Thailand where verbal arguments can quickly become fatal confrontations if someone feels they’ve lost face, and on Khao San Road they’re very used to obnoxiously drunk foreigners and not shy about dealing with them vigilante style.

A busy bar on Khao San Road

Khao San Road, early evening (photo credit: see below)

So when my drunk Belgian mate bumped into a yaba’d-up local kid and got it into his head it was a pickpocket attempt, I tried to reassure him otherwise and change the topic whilst manoeuvring us away from the kid and his mates; any trouble and we would come out of it very badly. Unfortunately, these kids were high as anything and covering a lot of ground with their hyperactive dancing, and before we’d moved far enough away one of them bumped into my buddy again… “That’s it!” he snapped, “I’m not taking this shit!” and went to remonstrate.

So this Belgian guy drunkenly accused this mashed Thai kid of trying to steal his wallet; the Thai kid, high as a kite and with eyes bulging, insisted he’d done nothing. The kid actually looked mortified at the accusation, and I believed him; meanwhile his crew had gathered round, we were outnumbered 5 or 6 to 2 and were the ones causing the scene in the first place, and I urgently tried to persuade Albert to drop it.

“C’mon man, he’s just wasted and bumped into you, you’ve still got all your shit, right? Lets just go get another beer down the road,” I suggested, and he seemed to realise that was the best course.

But just as the situation appeared to be diffusing, Albert had a rush of blood and raised both hands to the kid’s face, middle fingers up in a pointblank double bird.

“Fuck. You!” he shouted, before turning and walking off.

“Shit,” I thought, “what happens now?”

In the space of a second I watched the kid’s face cycle from aggrieved innocence, to shock, to anger; he and his friends started shouting to each other and the other guys they knew on the street, and in moments there were a dozen of them, including one huge guy who emerged from the shadows somewhere who I think had been involved in battering the big American guy a week or two earlier, and now they were all picking up empty beer bottles and taking off after Albert.

“Fuck,” I thought, “they’re going to smear him into a red paste on the sidewalk, and I’m literally the only other person who knows it or has any possibility of preventing it.”

Shit, shit, shit… what to do? Do nothing, Albert gets fucked up; do something, maybe he doesn’t, or maybe I just get fucked up along with him… or maybe I get pasted in his place! He was the one being out of order (not badly enough to warrant getting bottled and headstomped, you might think, but in Thailand, for sure), and I don’t even really know the guy so am I really going to stick my neck out and risk a beating on his behalf?

But although this all flickered momentarily through my head, it wasn’t really a question; doing nothing wasn’t an option. I wasn’t sure what to actually do, but I had to do something…

So I sprinted after them, catching up a few seconds before they’d have caught Albert a short distance from the waiting taxis at the end of the street, and got round in front of them… and then what do I do?

I had no idea, so I just raised my palms and pleaded with them to let him go.

“Wait, wait, please stop,” I said, or words to that effect, and then turning to the big guy who seemed to be the leader, gave the deepest, most respectful wai I could or ever have (the wai is the Thai greeting where you place your palms together with the tips before your face; the lower you incline your head and the higher you raise your hands, the more respect you show).

I started explaining that the guy they were after thought someone was trying to steal from him but was completely drunk so made a mistake and accused the wrong person, but he cut me off with a question.

“Are you his friend?”

“Not really… I just met him once before… but I think he’s a good guy and he’s just too drunk tonight… if you let him go, next time I see him I’ll tell him he was wrong to say those things,” and I wai’d deeply again.

There was a bit more back and forth, the guy complaining about the insults Albert had given, me apologising profusely on his behalf, waiing repeatedly, and ending my English sentences with the humble Thai suffix khap.

Finally it all seemed to be up to the big guy, and the others (and myself) waited for his decision; I was effectively throwing myself on his mercy, and though I tried to hide it I was absolutely shitting my pants, bracing for a rain of bottles to the back of the head.

But the blows never came, and after the longest of seconds he finally let me off the hook.

“Okay, okay… there is no problem. But you,” he said, jabbing his finger in my chest, “you go home right now.”

“Okay, khap,” I said, and we moved away in opposite directions, me heading for my hotel round the corner on Soi Rhambuttri. I tried to find Albert on the way, but I guess he was already gone in a taxi, completely oblivious that he’d just come so close to a vicious beating or that I’d prevented it by practically prostrating myself to the local hard nut; in fact, he was probably still feeling angry about someone trying to pick his pocket, and perhaps even feeling pleased with himself for giving them a mouthful for it.

I never saw Albert again after that, and I left Bangkok a short time later. So I was never able to tell him, and to this day the way he probably tells it is that some little shit tried to steal his wallet and he told them to fuck right off… well… that is, if he even remembers it!

Moral of the story? Khao San Road’s a lot of fun, but watch out for yourself and others and absolutely don’t get into any aggro with the drivers, stallholders, and party kids (and make sure you’ve got good insurance). Show respect and you’ll receive it; show disrespect and you’ll likely get your head kicked in…

Got any Khao San Road stories? Leave a comment below!

Photo credits 1&2:Filipe Fortes 3:NeilsPhotography 4:Ronald Tagra (all via Flickr and used under Creative Commons License)

Posted in Southeast Asia, Thailand