Category Archives: Asia

Kathmandu Valley: Part 3 – Bhaktapur

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IMG_2884In previous posts about the cities of the Kathmandu Valley I talked about Kathmandu (part 1) and Patan (Part 2). Last but not least is Bhaktapur, once the largest of the of the three Newar kingdoms of the Valley. The city was founded in the 12th century by King Anand Dev Malla and was the capital of the Malla Kingdom in the Kathmandu Valley until the 15th century when the kingdom split into three city-states: Kathmandu, Patan, and Bkahtapur. Many of its greatest monuments were built then.

Just like its sister cities, Bhaktapur boasts an impressive Durbar (Palace) Square anchored by the Palace of 55 Windows built in 1427 and adorned by a masterpiece of woodcarving – a balcony with 55 elaborate windows. The statue of King Bhupatindra Malla, who remodeled the palace in the 17th century, faces the edifice on a tall column. The palace remained the seat of the local Malla king until 1769 when Nepal was unified under the Shah monarchy. It now houses the National Art Gallery, with the entrance flanked by two guardian stone lions. Nearby, the magnificent Golden Gate or Sun Dhoka opens to the inner courtyard of the Palace of 55 Windows, stunning visitors with a masterful frieze featuring Hindu deities set against the red brick entryway and surrounded by the white palace walls. Read the rest of this entry

Kathmandu Valley: Part 2 – Patan

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PatanThe journey through Nepal’s fascinating Kathmandu Valley continues… After visitng the sacred spaces of Kathmandu (part 1), the next stop is Patan. Although today Patan is basically a suburb of Kathmandu located just south across the Bagmati river, it once was an independent city-state fiercely competing with the two other major cities in the valley – Kathmandu and Bhaktapur – over prestige and influence. Also known as Lalitpur, meaning the City of Beauty, or by its old Newari name, Yala, Patan was originally designed in a Buddhist tradition with four mounds on its perimeter known as Asoka Stupas. According to legend, Emperor Asoka of India visited Patan in 250 BC and built the stupas. But the heart of Patan, just like its sister cities in the Kathmandu Valley, is its magnificent Durbar (or Palace) Square.

The Malla kings ruled the Kathmandu Valley’s city-kingdoms through the medieval period until the ascension to power of the Shah dynasty and unification of Nepal in 1768. Much of Patan’s stunning architecture dates back to the Malla period. In some ways, Patan’s Durbar is even more eye-poppingly beautiful than Kathmandu’s simply because it’s more compact. While Durbar in Kathmandu consists of three loosely connected squares – all magnificent in their own right – here all the amazing temples fit into one very much postcard-like square. Read the rest of this entry

Kathmandu Valley: Part 1 – sacred spaces

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Kathmandu

Kathmandu panorama from Swayambhunath temple

Kathmandu is the gateway to the Himalayas. Tucked away in the eponymous valley, the capital of Nepal stands at 1,400 meters (4,600 ft) above the sea level and for most visitors is just an entry point in transit to even greater elevations of the majestic mountains. Me – I like to linger and enjoy things close by before going for the mountain peaks. Kathmandu Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a perfect place to acquaint yourself with the rich cultural tapestry that is Nepal.

The valley once was an important trade route from India to Tibet, which explains a ubiquitous and fascinating mix of Hindu and Buddhist influences in local beliefs, architecture, and food. Historically the valley was settled by the Newars, a tribe of Indian and Tibeto-Burman origin. “Nepal” and “Newar” are phonetically different forms of the same word. Read the rest of this entry

Travel theme: Big

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Ailsa’s Where is My Backback? blog is fun to read and offers weekly photo challenges. I felt inspired by this week’s travel theme: big. So here we go…

El Jem, Tunisia
This is of the biggest Roman amphitheaters, truly an amazing sight in the Tunisian desert!

El Jem Read the rest of this entry

Bizarre foods in Beijing

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Andrew Zimmern

Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods (photo: travelchannel.com)

Yes, I’m a fan of Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods – a show that takes being adventurous with food to the new level of audacity. I haven’t watched it much lately but I know that Asia has been among his frequent culinary destinations. In a Beijing-focused episode he visited the two most famous street markets that were also my favorite food spots in the city: Wangfujing Snack Street, in the hutong just west off the posh Wangfujing Street, and Donghuamen Night Market also off Wangfujing further north. Both provide a unique opportunity to enjoy excellent street food, mix with a lively crowd of tourists and locals, and challenge yourself in ways you have not been before. Zimmern’s signature phrase is: ‘If it looks good, eat it.’ Many stalls in these Beijing street markets pose another question – what if it looks, uhm, scary? Should you still eat it? Read the rest of this entry

Best sunset ever

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IMG_8328There are many places around the world known for beautiful sunsets. Pristine beaches, remote islands, rugged mountains, skyscraper-spiked cityscapes… Everybody has their favorite spot and so do I: the incredible evening light show over Manila Bay. I’m in good company. For one, General Douglas MacArthur who rose to the rank of the Philippines’ most beloved hero after first defending the country against the Japanese invasion during WWII – unsuccessfully – and then in 1945 freeing the islands from the brutal occupation and thus fulfilling his famous “I shall return” promise. Before the war, when he was the Military Advisor to the Commonwealth Government of the Philippines from 1935-1941, he made Manila Hotel his home. The hotel sits right on the bay and offers a great vantage point to admire fiery sunsets. MacArthur’s penthouse suite is still available for rent for… ugh, USD 2,500/night. Read the rest of this entry

Hoa Lo – Hanoi’s dark side

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Hanoi HiltonI recently heard an NPR radio program that made me think back to my trip to Hanoi. For me Hanoi was an unexpected discovery, a place full of life and charm. But that was not my original association – and it’s not for most people who upon hearing “Hanoi” think solely about the dark days of Vietnam War (or American War as it is called in Vietnam). The radio story was about a former American fighter pilot, John Borling, who was one of the prisoners of war (POWs) released in 1973 after almost seven years of captivity. He spent these long years in what POWs ironically called “Hanoi Hilton” – the infamous Hoa Lo prison. Read the rest of this entry

Hong Kong by night

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Hong KongEnglish speakers aplenty, great public transportation system AND metered taxis. What else can you ask for when exploring a new city? That’s Hong Kong, which I dubbed “user-friendly Asia” because of the qualities that make it so easy to get around and enjoy. A crowded place of seven million people squeezed on slightly more than 400 square miles feels like New York in more ways than one. Busy streets, stunning sky scrapers, great restaurants on each city corner… Tsim Sha Tsui (or TST) on the southern edge of Kowloon Peninsula, and Central just across Victoria Harbour on Hong Kong Island are the two major hubs of activity, day and night. And it’s at night in particular when the city pulsates with the special rhythm of a metropolis that never sleeps. Exploring Hong Kong by night is…

“… a fine way to capture a piece of the magic of a unique city. The drama, the charm and the beauty of Hong Kong is all here ― just as is its breathless energy.”
― Nury Vittachi, Hong Kong: The City of Dreams

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Memorial Day in Manila

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Manila American Cemetery

Memorial Day is almost here. I initially wanted to write something about the Arlington National Cemetery given that this is probably number one association most people make with commemorating this day. But there is another special place I want to talk about – a place I didn’t know existed until recently – the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in the Philippines. The Cemetery is located in Taguig, Metro Manila, and occupies 152 meticulously landscaped acres on a high plateau overlooking the city. It contains the graves of over 17,200 soldiers who died in WWII fighting in the Philippines and New Guinea, which makes it the largest U.S. military burial site of that war. The horrors of the bloody 1941-42 Battle of the Philippines and the triumph of the eventual Allied recapture of the islands from the Japanese come together in this place like nowhere else. General MacArthur said “I shall return” when, defeated, he was fleeing Bataan. He kept his word but it took enormous sacrifice of American and Filipino troops to fulfill that promise.

For anyone who has been to the Arlington Cemetery this place looks oddly familiar. Same gleaming white headstones stretching in long, even rows. Same manicured, lush lawns. Same serenity and silence. But tropical trees and flowers break the spell, with sweet plumeria scent in the air. Read the rest of this entry

A walk though Hanoi

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Hanoi millennium

A friend has just returned from Vietnam with hundreds (literally!) amazing pictures and memories that made me think back to my own trip there in October 2010. My first stop was Hanoi and it was a very special time to be there since that month the city celebrated the millennium of its founding. That anniversary was really hard to miss given signs and banners hanging all around to proclaim Hanoi’s 1000 years – 1000 năm. From these signs I also learned the Vietnamese spelling of the city’s name: Hà Nội, which means “between rivers” i.e. in the Red River delta, and its former name Thăng Long, or “Rising Dragon.” Before this trip my image of Hanoi was rather bleak. I didn’t really know anything about it but pictured a drab, gray, repressed, somewhat sinister Stalinist-style place. Nothing could be further from the truth! In fact, the first thing that struck me was Hanoi’s intimate, human scale. Read the rest of this entry