Don’t Skip: Nagasaki, Japan

Sofuku-ji Roof Tiles

Intro to Nagasaki

Fishing village to busy port

Modern visitors to Nagasaki may not realize there’s a lot more to the city’s history than its sad title as one of the places an atomic bomb was dropped in 1945. Nagasaki was once a sleepy fishing village. When the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century, they soon began to build up a busy port here. As churches were built and converts Christianity increased, local warlords became more distrustful of the foreigners, and Christianity was eventually banned entirely. The Portuguese were dispelled, and all foreigners were banned to a small island called Dejima (the Dutch were the only ones allowed to trade) where they could be more easily controlled. It was through this small island off Nagasaki that all European trade and contact with Japan happened from the mid 1600’s until Commodore Perry and his Black Ships arrived at Tokyo Bay. (Dejima continues to be developed to showcase its historic past). In the late 1850s Nagasaki was one of the first ports to receive foreign ships when Japan was re-opened to foreign trade. Certain areas of the city were earmarked for foreign settlement, and remnants of this history remain. A residence was built for Thomas Blake Glover, an infamous Scottish merchant in the 1860s. The western style house later became a landmark, one of the few remaining buildings of this type from when Nagasaki thrived as a free trade port. Crowds are still drawn to the beautiful Glover Garden.

Urakami Cathedral Ruins at Hypocenter Nagasaki

Urakami Cathedral Ruins at Hypocenter Nagasaki

World War II

Most of us have been taught something about the World War II bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but being there, hearing people’s stories and realizing the magnitude and permanence of the damage has a completely different and personal kind of impact. Almost 70% of the victims in Nagasaki were women, children or elderly. Many of those who survived the initial impact died a painful death within hours or sometimes days or months. Cancers related to radiation resulted for many years after. Visiting Nagasaki can be painful, but remembering what happened here is important too. Nagasaki is not all about its dark past though. The city that emerged from the ashes is a strong symbol of hope.

Museums and Memorials

The Peace Memorial Hall for Atomic Bomb Victims includes lots of information, but is geared toward prayer and the contemplation of peace. The mission is to “convey the reality of the atomic bomb damages to people both in Japan and abroad, to inform future generations, to learn from history and to build a peaceful world free from nuclear weapons.” The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum (長崎原爆資料館, Nagasaki Genbaku Shiryōkan) is located just north of the Peace Memorial Hall. There is a Statue in Memory of Schoolchildren and Teachers between the two museums. The Hypocenter (the exact spot above which the bomb detonated) is in a park just across the road from the museums. It’s a wide, open space that many use for prayer and meditation. Heiwa-kōen (Peace Park) contains sculptures donated by nations around the world as well as the main Nagasaki Peace Statue.

Nagasaki Temples and Churches

There are fourteen temples and two shrines along Tera-machi-dori (which translates as something like Temple Town Street). One of the most famous is a Chinese-style temple called Kofuku-ji, the oldest of this style in Japan. There were many Chinese living in Nagasaki in the early 1600s when the city was a busy international port. There is a therefore a high concentration of these Chinese style temples here, a noticeable difference from other famous Japanese temple cities like Nara and Kyoto. Suwa Shrine and Sofuku Shrine are others to keep an eye out for.

In a different part of the city, one of our favorite spots was Fukusai-ji, which includes a 60 foot tall Kannon statue riding on the back of a giant turtle. The basement of the temple houses the end of a 25 meter Foucault Pendulum, which demonstrates the rotation of the Earth as it swings. The original temple here was totally burned to the ground with the bombing. There are trees outside that show their 65-year regrowth, with a charred section at the bottom where they too burned! The temple bell here is rung at 11:02 am every day, the exact time the atomic bomb exploded over Nagasaki. If you’re lucky, there will be someone around to show you around inside the temple, as the charismatic 85-year old caretaker did were when we visited.

Churches and Christian Sites

There are a dozen or sites around Nagasaki that teach something about the complicated role of Christianity in Japan. They are collectively known as the Churches and Christian Sites of Nagasaki, and are under consideration by UNESCO for designation as a World Heritage site. Probably the most famous of these is Oura Catholic Church, built by a French priest in the 1800s in the Gothic style, and dedicated to the 26 Martyrs of Japan. These were 6 European missionaries and 20 Japanese followers who were executed in Nagasaki in 1597 under the government’s prohibition of Christianity. Much of the French stained glass was damaged in the bomb blast, but some has been restored.

Spectacle Bridge Nagasaki

Spectacle Bridge

Bridges of Nagasaki

There are many small shops along the Nakashima River, and it’s a great place to walk and people watch. There are a number of stone bridges crossing the river. The historic Megane (Spectacle) Bridge dates back to the 17th century, and is said to be the oldest stone arch bridge in Japan. It’s famous for the resemblance of its 2-circle reflection, to a pair of glasses. The Fukuro bridge has steps going down to the riverside.

Where We Stayed

We were able to cash in some hotel points and stay in the Nagasaki Comfort Hotel (a Comfort Inn, part of the Choice Hotels Group). Rooms are small but comfortable. There’s free WiFi and you can take advantage of guest laundry (not free). Breakfast is included, and the spread is ample enough to fill you up for many hours of walking. The Japanese offerings (soups, rice balls, salad, steamed rice, warm selections) are better than the Western which consist mainly of cereal, donuts and pastries. There are plenty of restaurants within walking distance, including a really fun rooftop beer garden with views of the bay. It’s located on the top floor of the New Tanda Hotel, and you pay a flat fee for all you can eat (buffet with hot and cold snacks) and drink (beer and chuhai) for 2 hours.

Don’t Skip: Labuan Bajo, Indonesia

Bajo Fisherman

Intro to Labuan Bajo

Labuan Bajo lies on the westernmost coast of the island of Flores in Indonesia. Known best for its proximity to Komodo National Park, Labuan Bajo does see a fair number of tourists. At heart, it’s still a small fishing village, but the tourism industry is growing fast, and there is a wide range of accommodation and dining options. The airport (LBJ) isn’t too far from town, and has service from Denpasar (Bali), Mataram (Lombok) and several other small cities. Many people arrive by sea on a liveaboard boat from places like the Gili Islands off Lombok. Reviews are mixed, but it’s apparently quite an adventure regardless. We were trying to be economical, so opted for the “land, water, land, water, land” route involving several buses and ferries. After a 57 hour odyssey, we eventually made it, and spent a wonderful week on the island. As remote as it is, we’d jump at the chance to return. Below are some highlights.

Komodo Dragons

Komodo Dragons

Rinca and Komodo islands are the only habitats in the world where Komodo dragons (Varanus komodoensis; locally called ora) are found. The dragons are the world’s largest lizard, and can grow up to about 9 feet (3 meters) and weigh over 300 lbs. There are about 2700 in Komodo National Park, according to the last survey, taken in 2010. The largest community is on Rinca Island. Dragons on Rinca look a little different from those on Komodo, and no longer cross back and forth between the two islands. We visited Rinca on one of our dive days, with plenty of time for a guided walk through landscapes that reminded us of Africa, an open savannah with a few hills and lots of palm trees. Read our post on our walk with the dragons for more details!

Bajo Dive Club Boat

Diving

This part of Indonesia is famous for world-class diving and amazing underwater beauty. The straits around the islands of Nusa Tenggara form channels between the southern ocean and northern, This means that sea giants like whales, manta rays, sharks, dolphins and turtles are often in sight, in addition to endemic species. The whole area is a transition zone known as Wallacea, for the Wallace Line that runs between Bali and Lombok. It’s an underwater biodiversity hotspot! We dove with the friendly folks of Bajo Dive Club. We completed a total of five dives at some awesome sites. Corals were colorful and healthy. Green and Hawksbill Turtles accompanied us on every immersion. There were also several types of sharks and rays, all the common creatures like Butterflyfish, boxfish (my personal favorite after the cutie cowfish), Moorish Idols, Clown Triggerfish, and the highlight, mantas. The way these giants (some with a 10-foot wingspan) appear from nowhere and glide gracefully by is indescribable.

Currents can be strong at some locations, but this makes for excellent drift dives. Coral bommies, pinnacles and walls were perfect for searching for the small stuff: nudibranches, shrimp, flatworms and juvenile fish. Close inspection is always rewarded with something unusual and special, like an amazing Orangutan Crab we spotted one day. He peeked out of his hiding place for just long enough to give us a wave with his fuzzy claw before retreating. We were able to see dolphins daily as well.

Labuan Bajo Sunset

Sunsets

Sunsets over the bay in Labuan Bajo are absolutely gorgeous. We saw several while walking home after a long day of diving. You can also relax with a drink and a bite at one of the hillside restaurants to enjoy the exquisite views.

Labuan Bajo Soccer Match

The Interior

The rest of the island of Flores has much more to explore: waterfalls, caves, petrified forests, spiderweb-shaped fields unique to the villages (such as Cancar) they surround, and one of the deepest crater lakes on earth at Sano Nggoang. Liang Bua, about 14k from Ruteng, is a cave famous as the place where the skull of Homo floresiensis was discovered. Archaeologists believe the skull dates back about 18,000 years. Also found in the cave were the bones of a stegodon (an ancient elephant), komodo and turtles.  Kelimutu is close to the town of Moni, and a hike to the top is rewarded with views of three, different-colored crater lakes. Getting to the interior of the island (never mind to the other side and Maumere) can be tricky, and it’s probably best to hook up with a trustworthy tour operator to do so. It is also possible to rent a car.

Friendly Beach Goers

Where We Stayed and Ate

Komodo Indah is located on the main road of Labuan Bajo on the second floor, just above a furniture shop. It’s just up and over the hill heading south from the docks. It’s a decent choice among the budget guesthouses. We stayed in the only air-con room, as it had its own bathroom and looked cleaner than some of the other choices. The place was being managed by one of the owner’s sons and some of his friends, so “breakfast” consists on what they feel like grabbing (toast, a packaged donut) plus a cup of good, local coffee.

Treetop Restaurant: We ate here several times after a day of diving. Food was tasty and we always had the nicest server, though he’s not there any more. There are both Western, local and Chinese selections on the menu. Beers are some of the cheapest in town. Sunset views from the top floor are great, and there’s a pool table on the first floor.

We had some of the best pizza we’d ever had (yes, you heard it, EVER) at Made In Italy in Labuan Bajo, a most unlikely spot, since everything has to be imported. The owner/chef, Marco KNOWS how to do pizza. He’s picky about the ingredients, and it shows. Pizzas are baked in a stone oven. We splurged a little, since prices are, as one would expect, higher than standard local fare.

Literacy Program in Laos: Big Brother Mouse

Big Brother Mouse Logo

Big Brother Mouse Literacy Program

A highlight of our visit to Luang Prabang was volunteering at The Big Brother Mouse literacy program headquarters. The project, which began in 2006, is Lao-owned and operated, and based in Luang Prabang. Big Brother Mouse publishes books in the Lao language (as well as in Lao/English), an important contribution, as there are still very few books for people to read in their native tongue.  In some rural villages, some people have never even seen a book, much less owned one. Part of the mission is to change this. Big Brother Mouse is working to give children the joy that comes with owning their very first book.  At the project headquarters in Luang Prabang, travelers are welcome to stop in during certain hours to learn more about the project and to spend some time practicing English conversation with local students. It’s also a great place to buy some books to take along with you and hand out further afield in your travels!

Big Brother Mouse, Boy Reading

A young boy looking at Hidden Alphabet: Pictures that have letter shapes hidden within them.

Conversation Hour at Luang Prabang Headquarters

Students participate in the conversation hour at the Luang Prabang Headquarters on their own volition and on the day we visited, all of those present were students studying in the local university. Most of the students were from other parts of the country. In many cases, they were the chosen, the only ones their family could afford to send to school. The students had notebooks filled with notes from previous sessions, and a few had workbooks with plenty of vocabulary practice exercises. We talked about where we were from, favorite foods and our families. Beyond the small talk, students were very eager to ask questions about why certain words were pronounced a certain way or why some words have an “s” at the end to make it plural and why others do not. This was quite an exercise for us, attempting to explain things in simple terms while not always knowing the exact reason ourselves! A simple “because” was definitely not going to cut it. We felt a lot of responsibility answering as the perceived “experts.” Drop in from 9 to 11 am or 5 to 7 pm 7 days a week to participate in adult English practice.

Big Brother Mouse, Three Girls

Girls reading at a Big Brother Mouse book party

Efforts Supporting Literacy in Laos

Big Brother Mouse projects include teacher training, workshops, the establishment of village reading rooms, where books are accessible to all, and book parties.  “In 2012, more than 125,000 rural Lao children got a book, typically the first book they had ever owned, through a Big Brother Mouse book party.” These book parties are held in remote villages, often difficult to access. Big Brother Mouse staff, young people from small villages themselves, make the journey, talk to the children about books, read and do art projects, play games, tell stories and allow the kids to pick out a book to keep. They also leave a collection of books behind with the classroom so they can have reading daily. This idea of “Sustained Silent Reading” has proven to be very valuable in developing a lifetime habit and a love of reading that benefit children greatly in the long-term.

Big Brother Mouse Book Party

Khamla talks to students at a book party about how he wrote BBM’s first alphabet book: Frog, Alligator, Buffalo. Behind him are pictures for the art lesson, which comes later in the book party.

How to Get Involved

Learn more about how to support Big Brother Mouse through donations, sponsorship or volunteering on the Big Brother Mouse website. You can also make a donation via Global Giving, a site that matches up projects with donors. They even have a shortcode to make a donation via text!

All photos in this post courtesy of Big Brother Mouse, used with permission.

Getting Sick: Rural Cambodia vs. Bangkok

Scary Flip Flops

If these aren’t enough to make you sick. . .

Getting Sick on the Road

For most of us, getting sick while traveling is pretty high on the list of fears.  It’s no fun to be ill no matter where you are, but being away from home in an unfamiliar setting and in many cases without access to services in your native language can be downright scary. We’ve been fortunate enough to stay relatively healthy throughout our years of travel. That’s not to say there haven’t been incidents.

Cambodian Doctor

What about health insurance?

Before our last extended trip (we were gone about a year) we decided to secure some travelers’ health insurance. Neither of us had health insurance at home, nor are we the type to run to the doctor for little things, but we felt it was important to have some coverage in case of catastrophe. We went with a plan from World Nomads, which is pretty comprehensive and includes the ever-popular biggies like emergency evacuation and “repatriation of remains.”  As it turned out, we only made one claim between the two of us. One complication was not having a notarized letter stating we didn’t have any other insurance coverage. This was hard to attain while we were gone, and something we would have had with us if we’d known we would need it in order to make a claim.

Kratie Clinic

Clinic in Kratie, Cambodia.  Photo Credit: Laura Conchelos

Lost in Translation: Khmer or Vietnamese Please

We’d been in Kampong Cham for a day or two, and decided to rent bikes and ride out into the countryside. We had a nice time visiting Man Hill and Woman Hill, but on the way back I was feeling completely out of energy. You know that run-down feeling like you just need to lie down and take a nap? Back at the hotel I tried to do just that, but it was a lost cause.  The vomiting began in the late afternoon, interrupted only by bouts of diarrhea. Sometimes the two happened at once. It was an ugly scene indeed. Donny ran out and brought back re-hydrating fluids, but I couldn’t keep anything down. My fever was soaring, chills had set in, and I honestly felt like just giving up. Before it got too late, we decided I should visit the clinic.

The hotel called a tuk tuk driver they said they trusted and who spoke a bit of English. We drove in the rickety three-wheeler to the only English-speaking clinic in town, but the doctor wasn’t in. He spends his time between several villages, and this wasn’t the week for Kampong Cham. The only other choice was the Vietnamese clinic. It was one of the typical, storefront layouts, open to the street. It looked very much like to photo above, taken in nearby Kratie. Note the doctor on the left with his microscope. We were ushered in by a young Cambodian nurse. She took my temperature, and with a worried look, and started firing off questions to the tuk tuk driver who clearly felt some responsibility for a positive outcome. Laying on the cot with my sarong over me behind a curtained divider like the one above, I couldn’t answer or move.  I watched with mild amusement as Donny played charades, acting out the motions of throwing up and pooping uncontrollably for the driver to translate to the nurse.

Sick

At the hotel in bed with my IV.

What’s in that IV bag?

All I could do was stare up at the dusty ceiling fan while I lay on the examining table. The light breeze blowing dust into the room hurt my skin. The man laying on the table across from me had an enormously swollen leg, black from the shin down. His wife sat with him, holding his hand. They inserted an IV in my hand, and an unknown substance began dripping into my veins. Finally a man I presumed to be the doctor came in. He wore a white lab coat with some characters on it where a name might be. He was holding a syringe. He handed it to the nurse, who proceeded to roll me over and stick it in my backside. For someone like me, who doesn’t like to take an aspirin for a headache, this should have been traumatic, but I could have cared less. There was more conversation, and blood was drawn to test for malaria. (We’d come from endemic regions of Indonesia recently.)  Before I knew what was happening, I was being escorted into the tuk tuk and back to the hotel. From what I gathered, it would be more comfortable there.Before we left, there were some sort of pantomimed instructions on how NOT to let the IV bag get below a certain level. It would have to be changed during the night. We weren’t sure when that should happen, but the idea seemed to be that an empty bag would make an air bubble in the IV line, and that would be very, very bad. (Needless to say, Donny didn’t get much sleep that night.)

On the way back, we asked the driver what was in the IV bag. His answer, “Coconut water, I think.” As we bounced down the road back to the hotel, people stared at the distinctly non-locals with the borrowed, telescoping IV stand hanging out of the side of the tuk tuk. Donny had to hold the bag outside, his arm fully extended up so the drip wouldn’t be interrupted.

In the morning, I was feeling weak but more human. On the way back to the clinic, it seemed EVERYONE was asking the driver if I was feeling better or at least smiling and waving. I was a sick celebrity.  At the clinic, I was shown a negative malaria test result. Yeah! They dispensed some vitamins and aspirin from a big, black garbage back with a sticker on it that read “US AID,” and sent us on our way. Total bill for the two days of treatment? About $20. It wasn’t even enough to claim on the travel insurance.

bumrungrad-hospital entrance-bangkok-thailand

First-class treatment in Bangkok

It was Christmas Eve, and we’d just arrived from in Bangkok after a month in Vietnam.  We head straight for the Renaissance, having splurged and spent some Marriott Rewards points to book two nights. The Concierge Lounge was decked out for the holidays, and the party started early. Cute Thai elves and a Thai Santa made appearances singing Christmas carols, and the free booze flowed. It was a fun night, and we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. In the early morning hours, however, Donny was hit with a bout of spewing from both ends like no other. Before noon we knew there was no other choice than a trip to the hospital, this time in a proper, air-conditioned taxi. A call to World Nomads assured us that Bunrumgrad International was the best hospital around, and a facility they worked with regularly. People from far and wide traveled there for medical services. We were duly impressed. Upon arrival there were signs and instructions for everything. The level of organization was amazing. We were ushered into a modern, multi-story building and seated briefly in a comfortable waiting area. An administrator fluent in English had us fill out some paperwork before Donny was issued a patient ID, complete with photo taken by webcam and printed out on the spot. The nurses did the initial tests, while the very professional doctor asked some questions and ordered additional tests (after making sure Donny wasn’t just hung-over). The doc was able to crack jokes and explain everything in detail.

After an IV drip with some strong antibiotics, we were sent back to the hotel, but this time with prescriptions to fill and further paperwork to process for billing and insurance.  The end result was the same. By the next day Donny was feeling weak but well enough to head to the airport to meet T’s Dad who was flying in to visit and celebrate New Year’s!

Bumrungrad-hospital

Photo Credit: Bangkok.travel

Our symptoms were almost exactly the same. Our experiences were quite different, but we were both lucky to get some help from professionals who cared. We were able to bounce back within a couple of days, and continue our journey.  There’s no way to avoid getting sick from time to time, but there are lots of ways to try and stay healthy on the road too! For some tips on how from some well-traveled bloggers, check out this article on Sick on the Road.

Don’t Skip: Qingdao, China

Qingdao Seaside

Intro to Qingdao

We visited Qingdao quite unintentionally, but it turned out to be a great stop. Located at the southern tip of the Shandong peninsula, this charming port city has a different feel than any other place we visited in China. From 1897 to 1914, Germany administered Qingdao as a concession, and made a lasting impression. Their influence is seen in the old, European architecture, cobblestone streets in some areas and tree-lined avenues.  Known for more than just beer in a bag, Qingdao offers scenic seaside walks, tasty seafood, Yellow Sea beaches and a relaxed atmosphere.

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Qingdao Beer Street

Qingdao Beer Street

Everyone has heard of the ubiquitous Tsingtao Chinese beer. Well guess what? This is its home. Qingdao is just another spelling. The very first brewery in China was opened here in 1903 after the Germans invaded and set up camp in the late 1800s.  Grab a brew on Beer Street, located on Dengzhou Road in the southwestern part of the city, near the Old Tsingtao Brewery. There are over 60 bars and restaurants to choose from. The beer we enjoyed most (and a stlye otherwise very hard to find in China) was the Tsingtao Dark Beer. The street itself is fun too! Everything from manhole covers to benches to trash cans have a beer theme. Qingdao Beer Museum opened in 2003 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Tsingtao Beer. A visit here takes an hour or so.  The Qingdao International Beer Festival is held in town annually.

Seafood

Looking for a taste from the sea? We had a bit of a challenge ordering the night we arrived, but subsequent days were filled with fish, shellfish, prawns, conch and even some pretty tasty seaweed!  There are plenty of restaurants to choose from along the shore. Many have outdoor seating and big tanks from which to pick your meal.  Popular flavors in Shandong cuisine are garlic, shallots and soy sauce. Check out these 10 Local Dishes from eChinacities.  Here are some of our local favorites.

Yingzhou Bayu (a snack made with mackerel)
Steamed Oysters from Hongdao Island
Roasted/BBQ Squid
Seafood or Prawn Noodle Soup
Sea Cucumbers Stewed with Shallots

Qingdao Street Food

Seaside Sightseeing Pathway

The Qingdao seaside promenade runs for about 40 kilometers along the shore from Tuandao to ShiLaoRen Beach. It connects many of the top tourist attractions, including Zhanqiao Pier, Underwater World, Xiaoyushan Park, Badaguan European quarter, May 4th (Wusi) Square, the Olympic Sailing Center and several beaches, like one of our favorites, Old Stone Man Beach, ShiLaoRen (石老人浴场). The beaches themselves didn’t look overly appealing to us for swimming, with brown sand and way too many people. They are a super popular place for pre-wedding photos though, and watching the parade of young couples in tuxes and wedding dresses is not to be missed. We even saw a couple with a real, white pony as a prop.  There are informational signs along the way to orient tourists and give a bit more detail about what you’re seeing!

Downtown Qingdao

Badaguan (Eight Great Passes)

Many of the mansions in the Badaguan neighborhood were built during the German occupation. Walk along the wide, tree-lined streets and enjoy the views. There are a total of ten streets, each lined with one, specific type of tree.  In addition to the Bavarian style, there are classical French, Russian, Dutch, English and other Western-style villas. Also in this neighborhood are two lovely churches. St. Michael’s Catholic cathedral features twin spires,  and was designed in the Neo-romanesque style by German architect Alfred Fräbel. The church was completed in 1934.  The nearby protestant church features a 100-foot clock tower, yellow walls and a red-tiled roof.  It was built in 1910 in the Art-Nouveau style.