Travel in Sicily: The Archaeological Park of Siracusa

The Sicilian city of Siracusa used to be known as Syracuse, and that’s the name you’ve probably seen if you’ve ever read ancient history or sat through a class on the ancient Greeks. This ancient city was the birthplace of Archimedes, hosted first-run plays by Sophocles, and was the site of some of the more exciting wars in Ancient Greek history. Founded sometime around the year 735 BC by Corinthians (or so Thucydides says)  it was likely named, not exactly glamorously, for a nearby marsh. Today, it is a beautiful and at times atmospherically-melancholy place—and there are Greek ruins everywhere. The place is lousy with them.

here’s some really good cats from the siracusa archeological park

I drove into Siracusa from Taormina fairly early in the day, as I’d hoped to have lunch in town. While driving in, I was briefly stopped by Italian traffic police in their distinctive striped pants so they could ascertain I was not transporting any kind of contraband. They were pleasant enough to me, and I proceeded into the city, towards a public parking lot that was fairly close to my hotel. I had found a good deal on the B&B Nostos located in Siracusa’s newer city centre – it was only a short walk over a bridge from Ortygia island, the city’s ancient historical centre.

The B&B was a pleasantly modern and clean place (although the whole complex could have used some more outward facing windows) on the third floor of an ancient apartment building. I’d arrived at lunch time, and so I dropped my things off and headed right for the island of Ortygia, headed for lunch by the Mercato di Ortigia, the city’s old food market. Ortygia reminded me a bit of Venice, which is probably just an artifact of the Baroque-era style of many of the buildings and the fact that the entire thing is surrounded by water.

Sicily has this fantastic way with markets, in that they’re really good ones with lots of beautiful products and all the vendors yell a lot, but in that pleasantly fun way, and not in the way that makes you think they might want to kill you. They remind me of markets in Asia and that makes me happy. Sicilian markets never play host to a slightly bedraggled man wearing Crocs and an elderly tie-dye shirt plunking out Grateful Dead tunes on his guitar, which already makes them better than our markets. Siracusa has some excellent places to eat in the market area.

The Siracusa market has an extraordinarily famous sandwich shop called Caseificio Borderi. Which already had a line out the door at 11:30 AM, and I am, sadly, completely allergic to lines. I wondered if I should go wander around a bit and see if the line would die down. Then I noticed that there were a lot of people sitting down to gorgeous meat and cheese and seafood spreads, at a place with outdoor seating right next door to Caseificio Borderi.

This was Fratelli Burgio, another vendor of high-end meat, cheeses, wines, and preserved seafoods. I was quickly seated outside: I ordered the “terra mare” sampler, which included smoked fish, cold cuts and cheeses, and pickled vegetables. It cost 15 Euro, which actually seemed pretty reasonable for the obscene quantity of stuff – beautifully arranged stuff – that was plonked down in front of me. There was smoked white fish with radicchio, prosciutto with pepper relish, soft goat cheese with sun-dried tomatoes, salmon and pistachios, and God knows what else, I just ate it. With a glass of local white wine. Everything tastes better when it’s served on a piece of artisanal wood.

I had fed myself, and now it was time to go look at some old junk. I say this in a loving way, because I am one of those people who plan out entire trips – like this one – around looking at really old things that do not look anything like they used to 2000 years ago. The first stop on my tour was the Temple of Apollo, a gorgeous 6th century Doric temple which is conveniently smack-dab in the middle of Ortygia, right next to the high-end shopping street.

I suppose I should be horrified by this juxtaposition of crass mercantilism with this sublime, now-revived place – the most ancient Greek temple in Sicily – but, nah, no. I find it charming to see people living mundane, modern lives wedged right next to a gigantic pile dedicated to Apollo. I have so little patience with people who believe that everything beautiful and historical should be preserved perfectly as it is. It’s a tiresome hatred of worldliness that reminds of ascetic monks, except the people making these boring comments are usually Americans – just like me – who grew up in places where history doesn’t extend much past 1925.

Think about it: what if we actually did ensure that we kept all of our chain restaurants and cigarettes-and-magazine shops and worldly things a regulatory 100 metre distance or whatever from Ancient Wonders of the World? It is true that travel bloggers from California (like me!) would whine and keen less about everything being ruined, but it is also true that we’d have far fewer Ancient Wonders to be annoying about. The history of the Siracusa Temple of Apollo is a perfect example of this cheek-to-jowel layering of very old things with ever-newer things: indeed, places like Siracusa often are so fascinating because people have never stopped living in them, an unbroken chain of people doing annoying people shit, stretching from the Phoenicians to us, today, us poor slobs purchasing shiny sneakers from Superga. (Which I did).

The Siracusa Temple of Apollo was at various times a Byzantine church, a mosque, a Norman church, and then a barracks for Spain: by the 19th century, a notary named Matteo Santoro lived in apartment built over the temple. HI apartment walls were reportedly built in part from the Doric columns of the ancient temple., and tourists would ask to be let in to look at them. Eventually, the Municipal Antiquities and Fine Arts Commission decided to demolish the apartments and restore the temple.

The temple had remained surprisingly intact through all these years of conversions, and it is now easy today as a tourist to assume that it had always looked pretty much like this throughout the centuries, nobly moldering away as the rude activities of mercantile life went on around it. But that’s a modern illusion. It’s unlikely that this temple was ever not surrounded by scenes of crass mercantilism. We tend to think of ancient Greek forums as places of lofty political debate, but they were actually devoted in large part to buying and selling crap, just like market squares are used in some places today. You probably could buy offensive penis-shaped souvenirs to give your stupid friends close to this temple during the time of the Romans – who were really big on penis-shaped souvenirs.

I finished looking at the temple, and then I crossed the bridge back to Siracusa proper, and began walking East, towards the Archaeological Park of Siracusa. This sprawling park contains Siracusa’s archaeological crown jewel, the beautifully preserved Greek theatre. It also contains a Roman amphitheater and a beautiful and deeply weird area called Latomia del Paradiso, which are preserved ancient Greek quarries dug out by Athenian prisoners of war. It was a pleasant 2.2 kilometer walk through the city, and the October weather was perfect. The park itself contains what used to be called (perhaps rather boringly) “Neapolis” or new city: the ruler Gelon decided to build a new district of the city of Siracusa away from Ortygia, and the theatre ended up here sometime in the early 5th century, with renovations occurring around 476 or 470 B.C., possibly on the suggestion of Aeschylus himself.

I came up to the ticket booth, paid my entry fee, and walked into the park, headed first toward the Roman amphitheater. The park is covered with a forest of Mediterranean pine trees, which smell pungently fresh, and which rustle beautifully when the wind blows. October is the off-season, and (like everywhere I went), I mostly had the ruins to myself. Which was a wonderful thing.

It’s an immense luxury to be able to wander around ancient Roman and Greek ruins in perfect weather alone: also a little sad, in that Ozymandis sort of way, with all those huge white limestones, crumbling into nothing. The Roman amphitheater is reasonably well preserved, but there hasn’t been much maintenance or weed-pulling done on it lately, although this adds to the ambience. There are a few signs, and you can see where the wild beasts were held before gladiator fights, where the grandstands for the fancy people were, the usual trappings of a Roman amphitheater.

Close to the Roman ampitheatre is the Altar of Hieron II, which was once used to sacrifice bulls to the god Zeus. There isn’t as much left to see here as elsewhere in the park, but you can get the gist of how huge this platform was. Supposedly up to 450 bulls were slaughtered here at one time, which does stick me as excessive.

I then walked through the pines to the 5th century Greek theatre, which really does resemble whatever you probably have in your head when you contemplate “Greek theatre.” It was famous back in the day – Arschylus premiered “The Aitnan’s here sometime around 456 B.C (a lost work), and probably staged “The Persians” (which survives) here as well.

Like many Greek theatres, it’s set in a place with a particularly panoramic view. It was one of the largest theaters in the Greek world, and Greek plays are still staged here. The Greek theatre festival here  lasts from mid-May to the end of June and is a particularly well-known event: I’d like to attend some time. From 1526 onwards, the Spanish under Charles V mined the place to reinforce Ortygia’s foundations, as is the case for many ancient monuments: still, plenty remains. It’s a nice place to sit, maybe have a snack, and contemplate the universe, especially if there’s a breeze going.

Behind the theatre lies the Grotta del Ninfeo, an artificial cave carved into the Temenite Hill that contains the theatre. It used to contains statues dedicated to the Muses (which you can see in Siracusa’s excellent archaeological museum): a fountain that still runs here was devoted to the Greek cult devoted to nymphs. Thus the name “nymphaeum” – a commonly used name for attractive fountains in the ancient world that might theoretically contain a nymph. If nymphs were actually a thing. This might have been the location of an ancient “Sanctuary of Muses,” perhaps where the actors in the theatre would hang out and make the requisite offerings (or, who knows, gossip and drink wine) before they went on stage.

Finally I walked towards the quarries, known as the Latomie del Paradiso., which translates to something like “latomia = stone cut ; paradise = garden, park.” (Or so this source says). It’s a pretty name for quarries that were likely cut by miserable Athenian prisoners of war, after Athen’s spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to capture Syracuse in the year 413. Walking here felt a bit like walking into the pleasantly menacing den of some sort of ancient forest spirit, what with the thick, drooping trees and the weird, not-entirely-natural hollowed out white shapes of the rocks around me. The quarry stretched away into a small valley, which had been planted in modern times with groves of citrus trees, and a floral, sweet smell of lemons and rotting leaves hung in the air. It was getting to be later in the day, which always has its own air of weirdness to me – what if you get stuck out there, or something, could something get you – and this created a nice sense of frisson.

I quickly came upon the Ear of Dionysus, an immense dark slit in the white limestone.  Caravaggio – yes, that Caravaggio – named the cave this because he thought the place looked a bit like a human ear, which I guess it does if you squint at it. The name stuck in particular because of a story claiming that the famed tyrant Dionysus I had a habit of crawling up into the cave to spy upon his many unhappy prisoners, who were forced to quarry rock out of the place: he could rely on the acoustics to hear them inevitably trash-talking him. And then he’d have them executed. This seems like a really convoluted and inefficient way to torment people, and I’m pretty sure it’s not true. Another theory says that he was just really into listening to the amplified screams of people being tortured. But, hey,  the cave really does have remarkable acoustic qualities.

Pretty much everyone goes to the very (dark, spooky) end of the Ear and yells to see how it works: I didn’t do this because I hate loud noises and human joy, but some other couple did and I was duly impressed at how the sound carried. What is perhaps most strange about this cave to me is that sources still manage to disagree on if it is natural or if it was carved by the aforementioned unhappy slaves. Someone should probably sort that out.

Next to the “Ear” is the now-walled off Cave of the Cordari, which apparently used to host a thriving guild of Sicilian rope makers. You can’t go in anymore, possibly out of fear of something falling on your head, but it’s atmospherically creepy to look at.

On my way out, I met some excellent cats.

For dinner that evening, I wandered towards the Piazza Duomo, which is sort of obviously named for the Duomo di Siracusa, a 7th century Catholic cathedral. The cathedral was built right on top of the 5th century Greek Temple of Athena, to commemorate the tyrant Gelo’s victory over the Carthaginians at the Battle of Himera. Cicero described the plundering of this temple by Gaius Verres – a noted asshole – during his tenure as praetor of Siracusa from 74 to 70 B.C.  You can still see the Doric columns embedded into the church walls.

I had a serviceable (albeit not incredible) sausage and broccoli rabe pizza at Ristorante La Volpe e L’uva on the square, with a view of the ancient Doric temple – a nice bit of ambience. Then I wandered back to the B&B Nostos. I would be headed for Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples in the morning.

Where I Stayed in Siracusa:

B&B Nostos
Corso Umberto I, 66, 96100 Siracusa SR, Italy

This modern, newly-renovated B&B is on the upper floor of an apartment building in downtown Siracusa, across the bridge from the old city center. It’s an easy stroll from here to the citadel area, and it’s also easy to walk the other direction towards the Greek theatre and Roman amphitheater, as well as the museum. The rooms don’t have any kind of view – the windows open up onto the buildings outdoor courtyard, mostly – but I found it very comfortable and quiet, with a good breakfast and friendly staff.

Where I Ate in Siracusa:

Fratelli Burgio
Piazza Cesare Battisti 4, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy.

Ristorante La Volpe e L’uva
Piazza Duomo, 20, 96100 Siracusa SR, Italy

 

 

 

Why You Should Go to Sicily

I drove around Sicily back in October. I had a business trip in Rome, and I had this general impression that I should go somewhere. Somewhere warm, because I live in Boston and Boston winters are a cruel meteorological joke, and October is when I start wondering if this winter will be the one that sees me wander into the snow out of sheer desperation to die. Sicily, I was aware, is warm, reasonably sized, and has very good food. I had also never seen Greek ruins and I figured seeing Greek ruins is something a person should do if they’re lucky enough to have the opportunity. Someone told me it was surprisingly inexpensive. So, I went, drove around the island for a week, and became one of those annoying people who tells everyone they should go to Sicily. Hey, you should go to Sicily!

I describe my itinerary below: the main thing to remember is I started from Palermo and drove clockwise around the island. I’d like to spend more time in the interior of the island next time, particularly to see the Roman mosaics at Villa Romana del Casale. Here are some general thoughts on these places.

Obnoxiously perfect view from the Greek theatre at Taormina.

Taormina: Taormina is a town that is somehow Superglued/cemented/mysteriously affixed to a cliff near Mt. Etna. It is spectacularly gorgeous and is absolutely horrifying to drive in. It had the most tourist presence of anywhere I went in Sicily, but that does make sense what with the Greek theatre and the incredible views. It’s a good place to take long walks at night. There is a beautiful park built by an English heiress who married a local royal, and there’s also the San Domenico Palace Hotel, which has hosted a lot of famous writer and historical figure types. I am not fucking kidding about the terrors of driving here, or the fact that Google will egregiously lie to you about this. It is worth it. I also drove up Mt Etna during one of the days I stayed here, which was fantastic. 

Siracusa: Siracusa is just Syracuse, which should sound familiar if you’ve retained any Greek history. It’s the hometown of Archimedes, which they actually don’t play up as much as you’d think (I didn’t see a single offensive Archimedes t-shirt). It’s a quiet, small Mediterranean city with a lot of the tourist attractions and activity confined to the ancient fortress island of Ortygia. The remains of the Greek theatre and Roman amphitheater outside of town are large and impressive, with wind rustling through cedar trees and lemon groves and not a lot of people around, at least in the fall. You can walk into the maybe natural or maybe man-made NONE CAN SAY “ Ear of Dionysius” cave, which the eponymous tyrant supposedly used to spy on particularly stupid Athenian prisoners. You can also drive out to the Plemmirio natural reserve and walk along the cliffs by the ocean: you will pass by Greek tombs cut out of the rock in the backyard’s of people’s villas.

Agrigento: I didn’t actually visit Agrigento proper: everyone comes here for the Valley of the Temples, an enormous UNESCO World Heritage Site that contains some of the planet’s best-preserved Greek ruins. The ancient Greek city of Akragas. which dates back to the sixth century B.C.,was built on a ridge with a strategic view of the ocean: it is drier now than it was back then, I think, and the desolate desert landscape is gloriously juxtaposed with the enormous white marble temples, many of which are improbably still standing. (One was preserve by being converted into a Christian church). The temples that have collapses are overgrown by olive trees and gigantic bulbous prickly pears. There are also many mysterious and slightly creepy Paleo-Christian necropolises carved into the ridge, some of which you can go into with special tours. There’s the Edenic garden of Kolymbetra, which was originally an enormous Greek-built artificial lake built out of an aqueduct. The Moors realized that the spot would make a great garden, and cut irrigation channels from the original pool to water it: it was spruced up not long ago and is now a gorgeous and nice-smelling botanical garden.

Palermo: Palermo is one of those places that I had no prior mental image of whatsoever, which meant that it was a really pleasant surprise when I arrived. Arab-Norman, Baroque, and rococo architectural styles meld here into something particularly weird and fantastic (which may permeate your dreams). It’s a great walking city, where you’ve got interesting things going on and people roaming the streets late at night and lots of street food. I wandered into the Vucciria market, which I’m sure every tiresome Instagrammer does, but it really is a wonderful thing: it reminded me a lot of the markets I’ve been to in Southeast Asia and India, including the creative arrangement of animal innards and the rhythmic shouting. I only spent a day in Palermo but I would like to spend more.

Craters at Mt. Etna.

I have a few general suggestions for seeing Sicily.

  • I rented a car. This is what you should do if you go to Sicily. I’ve read you can use public transit to get around the island and I have no reason to doubt this, but it also sounds like a much clunkier affair than getting in a car and driving places. A lot of the interesting stuff in Sicily does not appear to be easily accessible by railway. Also, Sicily is one of those places that really rewards one of my favorite travel activities: very long drives through gorgeously intimidating landscapes that allow you to think a lot. Surprisingly enough, I was even able to rent an automatic car – I am still learning to drive manual – and the markup wasn’t that terrible.

When you say you’re going to be driving in Sicily, people will look horrified and say things like “but they’re such horrible drivers there, aren’t you afraid?” I had no great retort to this, beyond pointing out that I’ve ridden motorcycles in Cambodia and am still alive. I can now confidently say that drivers in Sicily are probably better than drivers in Boston, and are also quite a bit more polite. If you can drive in Boston, you can drive in Sicily. There are a few weird little quirks of Sicilian driving, sure. People are a little less slavishly attached to staying in their lanes than American drivers, which leads to some haphazard merging in cities, but this actually is pretty logical if you sort of mind-meld yourself with what’s going on (imagine you are a sardine, in an immense school!) and everything will be fine. Probably.

The most annoying thing about driving in Sicily is actually not intimidating, thick men in suits in Ferrari’s off to go commit crimes rumbling by you at 100KM an hour. It is very elderly small people in very elderly small cars putting along the highway at 15 kms an hour, unbothered and uninterested in the youthful bullshit of the people whooshing past them. Sometimes you will get stuck behind one of these Sicilian grandparents for thirty minutes or more on two-lane roads, and you will wonder if they are doing this on purpose, if they are asserting their dominance over callous youth by forcing you to crawl, slug-like, behind them through the Sicilian countryside. There is nothing you can do about this. Accept it.

There are lots of these tunnels on the eastern side of Sicily. You have to drive through them: I guess that’s a function of building a civilization on a small rocky island, and then adding highways at a later date. They are poorly lit and slightly terrifying. Some of them drip and are covered in vines. You should also become accustomed to this.

Order the thing on the menu that is least familiar to you. It will probably be really great and will taste different from any other sort of Italian food. Sicilian food combines North African and Mediterranean flavors in really marvelous and unusual ways, which is sort of what you get when your island has been occupied by the Greeks, by the Romans, by the Normans, by the Moors, by the Spanish, and by the French at one point or another. Eat anything that involves: sardines, swordfish, pistachios, sea urchin. Most things involve one of these ingredients so you’re probably going to do OK. People don’t eat before 7:30 at the very earliest, so don’t be some gauche American asshole by entering a restaurant at 7:00 sharp and staring blankly at the servers until they do something about it.

Sicily has lots and lots of prickly pear.

People in Sicily, in my massively limited experience, are very friendly and helpful. Such as the two guys who helped me navigate my car out of one of those stupid treacherous alley-ways in Taormina (remember, it is built onto the side of a mountain and affixed there by some sort of weird black magic Superglue, it’s like a nightmare Habitrail for cars). It is a very easy place to travel for this reason. Even if you are being intensely stupid people will probably help you out of a sense of basic human decency. I speak OK Spanish, which for some reason means that my brain actively repels Italian words: they always just come out as Spanish but with more strangled “i” sounds at the end of words, which makes me sound even worse than I’d sound if I just spoke English. I cannot make up the difference with hand gestures. Sicilians still managed to tolerate this. Please be nice to them in return. (They are also, like most people in Italy, really fashionable in a very distinct “tight jeans and elegant designer athletic shoes” way). 

Sicily is very safe. You are highly unlikely to find yourself in the middle of a shooting Mafia war over an ancient and long-contested stand of orange trees or whatever pops into your mind when you consider the topic. Shooting wars between the Mafia are not a thing you are going to somehow stumble into while you are looking for a poorly sign-posted winery on the slopes of Mt. Etna. Far as I can tell, Sicily is significantly lower-crime than pretty much any urban area in the United States. Insofar as I can determine the main dangers of Sicily are prickly-pear cactus spines, aggressive sunburn, and driving the wrong way down little teeny tiny roads (which may empty out over a sea-cliff). Organized crime or any crime at all is not in the equation of fear is what I’m trying to say. I spent many happy hours wandering around at night in Sicily and felt completely unthreatened. Probably don’t wander about with your wallet and iPhone dangling out of the buttpocket of your jeans, but 1. You shouldn’t do that anywhere and 2. Come on, why are you displaying expensive consumer goods on your butt? Who does that? Weird.

Sicily is a good place to stay at little bed and breakfasts. I did not use Air BnB: I just used TripAdvisor and Hotels.com to identify places that looked decent, then tried to book directly at the property through their website. I stayed at a succession of little hotels that were really inexpensive and really pleasant. You get some great bang for your buck for your hotel dollar in Sicily. Hotels will pretty much always offer some kind of breakfast as well, although this ranges from “eh” to “fresh home-made cannoli.”

See lots of Greek ruins. Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples were incredible. I loved wandering around the pines and into the caves at Siracusa. The lonely Greek ruins at Selinunte, right by the sea cliffs – which I pretty much had to myself – will be an indelible memory forever. You should also check out the regional museums whenever you can, as they seem to contain ridiculous quantities of amazing stuff, the sort of stuff that would be marquee pieces at US museums and here are just “oh, ugh, that old thing.” You’ll be wandering around ruins and see some incredible Roman mosaic that is just sort of sitting there in plain sight unbothered and unguarded.You could probably go up and lick it if you wanted to.

It gets fucking cold on the summit of Mt. Etna. I was aware of this before I left, but somehow managed to not factor this into my packing and did not bring along my good hiking boots. Or pants. It was going to get into the thirties (F) on the summit, and I decided not to be that person who pays € 63 to go up to the summit (including the cable car and a jeep trip) and then ends up getting hypothermia. I plan to return wth appropriate clothing to hike up to the summit. The main point is that you cannot get away with flip-flops and shorts on Mt Etna, and while they will rent you cold weather gear, do you really want to rent cold weather gear? Other people’s dubious hiking boots? No, surely you do not.

I’ll put up some individual posts about the places I went in Sicily as I get to them. 

View from Taormina.

It’s a Weird World After All – China’s Foreigner Theme Park

chinese pyramid (1 of 1)

It’s a Weird World After All – Roads and Kingdoms

“The white form of Christ the Redeemer, standing considerably shorter than his Brazilian counterpart, spun in slow motion atop a yellow pedestal on an orange, artificial mountain. Candy-colored gondolas bobbed gently above the Christ’s outstretched, beseeching arms. A waterslide, painted blue and rimmed with green, snaked down the side of the mountain. The scent of cumin-flavored lamb skewers hung in the air. Off in the distance I could see an ersatz Egyptian pyramid; the white and shining spire of a Western-style church; and the Guinness World Records-certified world’s largest public bathroom. Beyond the attractions, across the wide brown expanse of the Yangtze River, rose the green and hazy hills of Chongqing, dotted with white apartment buildings still under construction.

I was at an international themed Chinese amusement park, and it was exactly as weird as I’d expected it to be.”

Sometimes I still travel write! Special bonus offer – this Flickr album has all the photos I took while I visited Meixin Foreigner’s Street.

foreigner street full view (1 of 1)

The Weirdness of Haw Par Villa – Singapore

haw par villa gate

Singapore is not a place renowned for its eccentricity, its exoticism. This gleaming, modern city where everybody is above average (or would like to be) takes great pains to be pleasant – and pleasant, as most of us are aware, is the direct enemy of the funky, exotic, and surreal.

So it is a great irony that within a city that appears to be striving to become a heavily-populated offshoot of Disney World, there resides what is one of the more freaky tourist attractions I’ve ever come across: Haw Par Villa, the vanity project of the man who gave the world Tiger Balm.

Kids love it.
Kids love it.

Haw Par Villa is a theme park in the early 20th century sense, before over-priced rides $80 entrance tickets became the standard way of things. Brothers Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, of Burmese-Chinese descent, decided to use some of their fortune gleaned from Tiger Balm sales to construct the place, framing it as a place to teach traditional Chinese values to the good people of Singapore.

The brothers commissioned a entire park full of large, gaudily colored statues portraying Chinese legends from the Journey of the West to the Legend of the White Snake, with added portrayals of the Buddha (in various forms), huge white stupas devoted to the duo’s parents, and ponds full of ferociously reproducing water turtles.

Horse demons. For the kids, see.
Horse demons. For the kids, see.

All fine enough – and eternally overshadowed by the park’s portrayal of the Ten Courts of Hell, a remarkably graphic romp through what happens to very, very naughty boys and girls. Middle-aged, Singaporeans, I’ve been told, seem to share a collective memory of being dragged through these subterranean chambers and summarily lightly traumatized at very young ages.

Which, you can kind of understand why from looking at these pictures. As I peered at the various layers of hell and contemplated why “refusal to pay rent” is considered a much more serious crime than “inflicting physical injury,” I watched a Chinese father guide his small array of children through the exhibits.

The Volcano Full of Prostitutes. No, really, that's what it is.
The Volcano Full of Whores. No, really, that’s what it is.

“See, THIS is what happens if you lie,” he said, pointing to a portrayal of little clay people being poked to death by colorful, fanged demons with pronounced eyebrows.  The kids look worried.

In alignment with wimpy modern sensibilities, signs now warn unsuspecting parents of the impending trauma that awaits them from venturing into the Hell dioramas. The strategic problem with this is that the rest of the park is just about as baffling and potentially distressing to anyone under the age of 10 who has yet to deeply contemplate sin, mortality, and what happens when you take psychedelic drugs for extended periods.

haw par tiger car

For example: I was particularly struck by Aw Boon Haw’s tiger-themed car, which does in fact feature a molded tiger head, orange and black paint, and a horn that emits roaring sounds when pressed. It’s a 1925 Buick Californian Hardtop, in case you are one of the weirdos who keeps track of these things. This is weird, and yet, not even the weirdest thing by a long shot.

 

animal war

While I wandered, I came across this particular nightmare fodder tableaux, which portrays adorable woodland creatures warring with one another, complete with gore.

If you are the type of parent who is eager to fill your offspring in on certain harsh Darwinian realities of life, it’s hard to imagine a better pedagogical tool than this type of thing – the perfect antidote to friendly, singing animals in Disney movies that always stop short of showing the gore.

“This is the true face of existence,” one can imagine this parent telling their little child, as the two of them look stone-faced upon furry animals murdering one another. “Being adorable will not save you from terror.”

Thanks, Aw Boon Haw.

cricket elephants

Right around the corner from Adorable Rodent Mutually Assured Destruction, there was this quite frankly baffling scene.Far as I can tell, it portrays tiny elephants in Dad outfits forcing horrifyingly large crickets to kiss one another, as mean looking rat men look on and jeer.

Maybe it’s a metaphor.

crab people haw par

A major theme of Haw Par Garden’s exhibits is people who are also crabs, or perhaps crabs who are also people. They are joined by turtle men, fish ladies, and other examples of people fusing with animals in distinctly unsettling ways. I have no idea if this is a theme of Chinese literature but it’s probably going to regularly haunt my dreams.

turtle man fish woman

Haw Par Gardens is, rather sadly, declining in popularity, as modern parents conclude they’d rather not outsource teaching morals to their kids by way of distressingly graphic visual aids.I was just about the only person there on the weekday on which I visited, with a small smattering of mainland Chinese tourists wandering through the exhibits with me. It’s still free to enter the park, and it’s conveniently located off its very own Singapore Metro stop.

As for Haw Par Villa’s appropriateness for children. Of course it is appropriate for children, especially those children who are prone to dark, horrifying ruminations on the nature of existence – which is pretty much all children with an IQ higher than that possessed by a celery stalk.

Here is a man fighting a dangerous Muppet.
Here is a man fighting a dangerous Muppet.

If I had been brought here as a small child, I would have likely experienced a month of existential terror, and come out of it on the other end with nothing but fond, rosy memories and warped sensibilities.

I mean, I was taken to the Salvador Dali Museum on multiple occasions when I was very small and there’s nothing even vaguely weird about me.  Take the kids to Haw Par Villa, and do report back on the ensuing conversations.

Some Things I Approve Of in Chiang Mai – Sausage, Khao Soi, Night Markets

khao soi accompaniments

Khao Soi

Khao soi is my favorite noodle dish in Asia, and that’s really saying quite a lot, considering the dizzying biodiversity of noodle soups in this region of the world. Thought to be of Burmese origin, the dish has been modified in Northern Thailand, and is, I think, superior to the original.

The essential deal here is a combo of spicy and richly flavored coconut milk broth flavored with a pungent curry paste, tender chicken or pork, chewy yellow noodles, and a topping of crispy deep fried noodles, sometimes substituted with fried pork skins. With a bowl of khao soi, you’re also given pickled cabbage, raw shallot, lime juice, and usually additional chili paste, which can be applied to taste.

Yes please.
Yes please.

The final result, with plenty of lime juice and supplemental chili in my case, is among the more sublime lunch specialties in the world – a perfect mix of spicy, sweet, tangy, and crunchy. I’ve found myself managing to work in two bowls of the stuff a day in khao soi country, especially as every restaurant seems to make it in a slightly different way. Chicken is usually the more common variety on offer, especially as it’s considered a Muslim-influenced dish, but I’m partial to the pork version when I can get it. Sometimes, chunks of blood are also thrown into the broth as well, especially up near Chiang Rai. You are welcome to quietly pick them out.

Hunting good khao soi is a pleasant endeavor, but I can suggest a little cafe right off the city wall with excellent khao soi. I didn’t get the name, but you’ll see it on the left if you are headed towards Arak Road Lane 5 on the main Arak Road (on the side of the city walls), right after you pass Sinharat Road Lane 2.  Here’s a Google Maps link to the approximate location.

I came upon the place after unsuccessfully hunting another khao soi joint, and was glad I gave it a whirl: deliciously flavored, thick broth, and pork chunks as well as meatballs in the soup. I believe I *maybe* paid the equivalent of $3.

chiang mai art market

Saturday Night Market

Chiang Mai is home to a number of well-known universities, and with higher education, comes hipster kids with weird aesthetics and  a burning desire for pocket money. This means that while the Saturday Night Market on Wualai Road (near the Chiang Mai Gate) does contain the usual assortment of generic Thai crapola – wooden frogs, obscene key-chains, those horrid elephant pants – there’s also a pleasing variety of interesting stuff, produced by young, local artists.

I usually come away from here with a pleasant selection of eccentric, cheap things. This time, it was a tote bag with watercolor paintings of fish on it and the word “Mackerel,” as well as a large sticker of a tiger’s head with “FUCK COMIC SANS” written on it. It’s the vastest night market I’ve ever run across in Asia, bustling along until well after 10:30 PM, and walkable for what seems like almost a mile. Tentacles of night time commerce spread off into the side streets from the main event, prompting pleasant wandering out of the heat of the day.

Soup seller at the Saturday Night Market.
Soup seller at the Saturday Night Market.

The Saturday Night Market also has a nice selection of food stalls, with authentic Thai specialties and not-so-authentic, as well as buskers and performances. The vibe of the event is perhaps its biggest selling point, with a particular, local energy that is quite fun to jump into as a visitor. Finally, there’s spectacular people-watching — well, if you like seeing backpackers clash with Thai hipsters, annoyed looking elderly food sellers, and befuddled looking middle-aged Aussies in singlets. And of course you like that, everyone with any taste likes that.

chiang mai sausages better
Died and found myself alighting in Pork Heaven.

 A Dizzying Array of Delicious Pork Products

chiang mai pork rinds
Thai pork rinds.

My family hails from the Southern United States, a part of the world with a deep, spiritual relationship with eating pigs. Northern Thailand shares this intense porcine affinity with Appalachia, and Chiang Mai’s food markets offer a delightful array of pork products, all at highly reasonable prices and with intense flavoring.

A particular standout is sai ua or Northern Thai sausage, produced with a combination of minced pork, curry paste, herbs, and Thai spices. The end result is a delightfully fresh and unexpected snack that is likely unlike anything you’ve tasted before, at least if you hail from the West. Sai ua is usually sold in long links, and is typically eaten plain, although some clever person needs to take this Thai hot dog concept to the slavering, food-truck besotted masses of Silicon Valley or Portland.

Yet another delightful Northern sausage product is fermented pork sausage (sai krok Isan), which is made with a combination of pork and rice – for you Louisiana people, it’s essentially Thai boudin with a tangy, funky additional kick from the fermentation process. It’s completely addictive and I find it very difficult to step away from stalls that sell it, usually packed into small balls that can easily be scooped up with a cabbage leaf and a fresh, incendiary green chili.

Also worth seeking out are meaty pork rinds, which are of course nothing more or less than deep-fried pork skin. Much of the world seems to find the idea of merrily consuming fried pig epidermis to be deeply disturbing, but both my noble Southern ancestors and the people of Northern Thailand consider them to be a marvelous delicacy, perfect with a beer or three. Not all pork rinds are created equal – some are fresher and meatier than others, while some feature a nice dusting of spicy chili – so it’s worth experimenting from Chiang Mai’s sundry meat-selling ladies. If I can, I like to toss them with some vinegar-based hot sauce, in the finest New Orleans style, but they’re quite delectable without.

Tamarind leaf salad.
Tamarind leaf salad.

Isaan Food

It’s tragic, but the Isaan food typical of Northern Thailand and adjoining regions of Laos is very little known outside of Southeast Asia. True: it’s spicy and often features ingredients that can charitably be described as eccentric, but I’m very partial to its freshness and unabashedly pungent nature. Pungent, rustic-style fish sauce, chili, pickles all sorts, fresh herbs, sticky rice, and smoky flavors are all typical of Isaan food, as well as “jungle” curries more reliant on herbs than they are on rich coconut milk and large quantities of meat.

If you’ve had and enjoyed tangy, eye-bleedingly spicy papaya salad (som tum) before, you’ve had a bit of exposure to Isaan food. In the Lao and Northern style, it’s made with more fish sauce and chili than the versions you’ll find in the South. It’s been written that Isaan food is so aggressively flavored in an effort to make residents of the traditionally poor region be content with padding their meals out primarily with sticky rice. It sounds legitimate enough, especially when one takes into account the fact that sticky rice has a habit of expanding in one’s stomach.

Pleasingly, Chiang Mai is a great, central place to sample good Isaan food in all its variety, and there’s tons of restaurants to choose from. Some places may bill themselves as Lanna or Northern Thai in lieu of Isaan, but there’s considerable overlap in style between them.

Nam phrik (Thai dip or "salsa) with tomato and eggplant.
Nam phrik (Thai dip or “salsa) with tomato and eggplant.

Considering that most Isaan restaurants are fluorescent lit mom-and-pop affairs – which is fine, but sometimes you’re perversely interested in a hint of ambiance, or at least clean tables – I was particularly impressed with the contemporary design of Tong Tem Toh, a Northern Thai restaurant located close to Chiang Mai University.

Up the almost painfully hip 11 Nimman Haeminda Soi 13, it’s popular with young Thais, and has an extensive menu of dishes that are distinctly hard to find elsewhere – though in the evening, there’s plenty of charcoal grilled meats on offer for those in your group with cowardly palates. Always be sure to emphasize that you want your food spicy when dining as a Westerner in Isaan establishments,, as Thais, usually correctly, assume that foreigners can’t hang.

I’m fascinated by the array of nam phrik (Thai “dip” or “salsa”) specialties available in the North, which are a handy answer to Mexican-style salsa bars. Here, we enjoyed a bowl of nam phrik ong, which is best described as Thai bolognese: minced pork, tomato, and smoky chili, served with fresh vegetables for dipping and scooping. It was entirely addictive and I’m learning to make it. The menu also has nam phrik num, a green Thai “salsa” made with roasted green chiles that would fit in beautifully on any given enchilada.

issan bamboo shoots
Bamboo shoots in coconut milk with pork.

We also tried fresh, herbaceous tamarind leaf salad with a fish sauce dressing and a liberal topping of pork rinds, as well as bamboo shoots cooked pork and a little bit of coconut milk and chili (which could have been a little warmer). Joining these dishes was a tasty serving of egg, rice, and pork sausage (jeen som mok kai) with peanuts and fresh garlic on the side, as well as a tasty version of sai ua with lots of pungent flavor.

Best of all was the Northern style pork belly curry, with big chunks of tender, fatty pork in a complex, smoky-tasting sauce, with peanuts and tamarind juice and a bit of coconut milk. We offset everything with little balls of sticky rice from nice woven bamboo containers, and a hefty quantity of Chang beer.

Flying the Drone at Wat Umong in Chiang Mai

wat u mong stupa

Wat Umong is definitely my favorite temple in Chiang Mai. Set a bit outside of the center of town in a lush forest, the 700-year-old Buddhist temple attracts relatively few tourists and has a delightfully jewel-like, slightly eccentric character – commemorative stupas overgrown with greenery, a curious worship area dug into an underground tunnel, and gardens set with tiny, crumbling effigies of both the Buddha and Thailand’s venerated King.

I came here with my Phantom 2 UAV (drone) fully expecting to not be allowed to use it. Much to my surprise, when we asked a monk if it was OK to fly it near the main stupa, he shrugged and gave his assent – and in fact, kept on sweeping leaves off the ground surrounding the stupa with nothing more than a vaguely disinterested glance in its direction once or twice. Noted.

Naga statue at Wat Umong.
Naga statue at Wat Umong.

Here’s the aerial photos. The flat area above the stupa in the image is the roof of the underground tunnels, which were said to have been built by the Lanna King to help keep an absent-minded (or likely dementia afflicted) monk from wandering off. Indeed, the word “umong” translates into tunnel, naming the temple for its most curious feature. The walls of the tunnels, so it’s said, were even helpfully painted with botanical scenes to complete the illusion for the wayward monk.I haven’t the slightest idea if this is true or not, but it’s a good story – and the tunnels are a nice, cool place to poke around for a while.

wat umong
And another, with a slightly better view of the tunnels and their ventilation outlets.

wat umong straight down stupa

Wat Umong is also home to a remarkable variety of animals, from cats to dogs to chickens to ducks, all of them kept to a fat and luxurious standard. The dogs wander from place to place accepting head pats from monks and tourists, and perching themselves luxuriously on the mossy walls of the old temple structures. (Their ranks included a purebred bull terrier on my latest visit, whose origin I would love to know more about).

wat u mong chicken

There are also an unusual number of pretty, pugnacious roosters here, which squabble with one another noisily at random intervals, making for excellent photo ops. Cats and kittens emerge at random intervals from the bushes to push their foreheads against your leg and demand you stop this photography bullshit immediately. Animal lovers will be fond of Wat Umong.

Chicken and stupa.
Chicken and stupa.

It’s also popular for Westerners who are out to learn to mediate, as I figured out a bit embarrassingly late in the game while wondering about the number of silent, confused looking foreigners ambling around the grounds. I can’t say I’ve ever felt a burning desire to do so myself – I mean, you can’t use the Internet – but here’s the link if you feel so inclined.

wat u mong trinkets

My favorite part of Wat Umong is the dilapidated and wonderful garden of small Buddha and royal figurines to the right of the entrance to the tunnels. It’s a weird, jewel-box like place and makes for great photography experiments. A Thai group was filming what appeared to be a soap opera here when I visited, allowing me to view a pretty Thai woman pretending to have a hair-rending mental breakdown over a Buddha image. Then, cut. And she did it again, and again. I admire the energy of actors. for it all looked exceedingly exhausting.

Faceless stone Buddhas.
Faceless stone Buddhas.

Please do visit Wat Umong if you’re in Chiang Mai, encumbered with a drone or otherwise. It is a delightfully peaceful, eccentric little place, one that is in some respects made for a decent book and a sojourn with a friendly dog or a cat, or at least a minimally judgmental chicken. There is even a man who sells ice cream. There is not much more you can ask for in this life.

Hidden Buddha in the trees.
Hidden Buddha in the trees.

 

An Ode to the Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders in Chiang Mai

lovecraftian insect museum
I have been entranced by the Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders in Chiang Mai since I first set foot in the place four years ago, drawn in by a terse Lonely Planet entry, and a large wire-frame statues of mosquitoes and dragonflies stuck to the top of the brick building it sits in.

It is not so much a museum as it is a collection: encompassing a formidable array of preserved insects, a litany of arcane and useful information on mosquitoes, shells, psychedelic paintings, and various editorial notes from the owners. It is one of the strangest and at the same time most genuinely charming attractions – or collections – I have ever come across. You must at least poke your head in if you are in the area.

kissing mosquitoes

The Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders is owned by Manop and Dr Rampa Rattanarithikul, a  now-elderly Thai couple who rank among the planet’s foremost experts on disease-carrying mosquitoes. Their careers in medical entomology have ranged across Southeast Asia to the Smithsonian in Washington DC and all the way to Osaka, where Dr. Rampa earned her PHD in the 1990s. Dr Rattanarithikul eventually published one of the seminal texts to which all who battle and study mosquitoes refers to – and she has named over half of the Smithsonian Institution’s mosquito species herself. It is rare to encounter a couple on this earth who are so singularly devoted to another organism, and at that, one of the planet’s least charismatic ones.

The museum has two floors, the first with a display describing both the benefits and the various nasty things mosquitoes do to people, including vivid images of the fell effects of elephantiasis and hemorrhagic dengue fever. A porch has a remarkable assemblage of hornets and bees nest, as well as “art” created by the incessant nibbling of ants onto wood. There are also Manop’s psychedelic, cheerily neon-colored paintings of pretty girls, his wife, and the natural world, interspersed with Christian themes. The entire effect is slightly Lovecraftian – twisting natural forms, crawling things, tentacled things, and the papery nests of flying insects – and yet, entirely affectionate in its intention. The couple love these weird and terrible things, and wish to convey this love to you.

Manop and Rampa in their youth.
Manop and Rampa in their youth.

It is to this end that Manops’s cheerily optimistic and slightly maniacal writings have been tacked up all over the place, printed out near whatever object seems to warrant it – rumination on the benefits of mosquitoes to humanity (hard as they are to see), how he and his wife met, a stone his grandmother had given him to get him to sit still for an archaic camera, and various anecdotes and musings and slightly twee poems.

When I was there the first time, Mr. Manop Rattanarithikul was wandering the museum chatting with profound animation about the stuff he and his wife had amassed. I lingered at the stag horn beetles, which I have always loved, and he eventually appeared besides me and began describing their many positive features. “You know, I’ve always wondered where I can catch one,” I said, quite sincerely – giving voice to a long time, vague childhood dream that had been helped along by a library of natural science books and a particularly vivid jigsaw puzzle.

Stick insects, sundry.
Stick insects, sundry.

“Oh, it’s easy, especially around here. You must go into the bamboo forest and shake the bamboo,” he said. “When they feel the vibration, they go Eeengh! and stiffen up, and they fall out of the bamboo and onto the ground. You can collect them that way.”

Thus began a good four years of my surreptitiously shaking bamboo plants whenever I see them. This practice did not result in any fruit for a good long while, and I attributed it to a lack of technique, quite realistically. Until I visited the Bamboo Sea in Sichuan in August, a place that is lousy with both bamboo, and as I joyously discovered, stag horn beetles. I spent a long evening collecting them from light sources and letting the immensely heavy, charming things crawl up my arms, to the shrieking bemusement of the Chinese people drinking beer at my hotel restaurant. Anyway, that day I thought of Mr. Manop Rattanarithikul, and his museum. Partially that is why I came back.

Moth and bird.
Moth and bird.

During my visit last month, Dr. Manop Rattanarithikul  was sitting in the foyer wrapping silk purses in plastic with one of her museum employees. She welcomed me warmly, only appearing a bit disappointed when I admitted I was not actually a entomologist but a journalist. I came down from the museum and we chatted briefly about Chikungunya Fever, which I told her in the spirit of chipper scientific endeavor that I had come down with in Manila last year.

She was quite interested in this, and we discussed how Chikungunya is most prevalant in areas with lots of sugar palms – perhaps the swampy aspect of the Manila suburb of Quezon City, where I was staying, explained my little brush with malignant mosquito disease.

A sampling of Manop's prose style.
A sampling of Manop’s prose style.

I felt comfortable enough to ask her why she and her husband had decided to devote their retirements to their singular, wonderful museum. “We always liked collecting things, me and my husband, and we opened the museum,” she said when I asked her about their motivations. “We didn’t really expect it would come to this.”

But so it has, and their efforts are a singular, small monument to eccentricity and to the natural world. It is, I think, a little more than just a love letter to weird things that creep and buzz and bite. More than that, being inside the museum is rather like walking into the collective consciousness of two people who have lived long and very intertwined lives: Dr. Rampa’s work and touch combining with Manop’s weird, exuberant, art and writing.

beetle on a stick

It is, one imagines, the natural result of two dedicated, single-minded old people deciding to render their innermost beings into the real world – and for this very reason, it is fascinating to a degree far beyond the rather erratic sum of its parts. It has flaws, heavens knows: it is rather small, and costs perhaps a bit too much to get inside. It could use a tank of living insects or reptiles or some sort of creature to counteract the dusty deadness of most of the other occupants. But that is not, entirely the point – the specimens themselves are less the point then the representation of two long, curious lives.

The museum, in summary, is a delightful paean to not only insects but also to all-encompassing human weirdness. May the  Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders last forever, and may you go pay it a visit if you are ever in Chiang Mai.

Why I Hate Backpackers: An Illustrated Guide

ALWAYS WITH THE KRAMAS
ALWAYS WITH THE KRAMAS

I am regularly asked by acquaintances and friends why I hate backpackers. They are used to seeing my anti-backpacker screeds on Twitter or when they meet me at the bar, ready with my latest story about those horrible people who wear elephant-patterned pants and talk incessantly about spirituality. They conclude the obvious: I loathe backpackers and if I do not wish harm upon them, I do at least wish acute bedbugs.

Allow me to be honest: I don’t really HATE backpackers. Hate is a strong and meaningful word, a phrase that should properly be reserved for things that warrant it – such as, say, ISIS, neo-Nazis, and people who walk a bit too slowly on sidewalks. I would rescue a drowning backpacker. I would save a backpacker from feral dogs. I might give a backpacker marginally accurate driving directions. (I would not lend a backpacker money).

While I do not actually hate them, per-say, I do find them obnoxious, and that is really the root of all the effort I exert on mocking them, and why most expats I associate with share the same low opinion of their ilk.

For, picture this common scenario: you are over the age of 22 and a person of moderate aesthetic expectations residing in Southeast Asia. You spend time and money journeying to a supposedly bucolic island in the middle of nowhere, and on that glorious white sand, you find a pack of American frat-boys drinking Smirnoff Ice and hooting at one another. You are displeased. You thought you left this behind.

Someone proceeds to mock you for asking them to turn down the repetitive dubstep music. They are all doing shrooms and making out with each other and they are not even sharing their beer. Your displeasure turns to raw, vicious hatred.

The list of grievances – beyond this oft-repeated scenario – goes on. Backpackers show up at bars with acoustic guitars in the angelic hope of being scouted for “talent.” Backpackers will occasionally grow emotional for no particularly good reason and read you their poetry, which is inevitably heavily inspired by both Bukowski and that Kings of Leon song that really touched their hearts back in high school. Backpackers noisily demand that they be able to enjoy the trappings of home, from Family Guy reruns to chilled Snickers bars, wherever they noisily alight – cackling and domineering, like a flock of shitting starlings. Backpackers smell funny. Backpackers have better iPhones than you.

I could continue in this fashion, but it wouldn’t be very interesting. So, I thought I would explain with the assistance of some illustrations why I think backpackers blow, and maybe even offer some explanations for why I – and so many other expats – feel this way.  (Hint: it comes down to self-loathing, kind of).

jackals-finished

BACKPACKERS ARE THE WORLD’S LEAST OPPRESSED PEOPLE

Backpackers make for convenient targets because they are roughly the exact opposite of an oppressed group, the antipode of the world’s wretched, starving, and afraid. This makes them convenient: it’s true that making fun of disabled people, impoverished women, or the gravely mentally ill is cruel sport that is justifiably condemned by everyone with a conscience.

But backpackers are by definition among the planet’s most fortunate people. Unlike most everyone else, they are able to spend a good portion of the most productive and physically fit bits of their lives knocking around the world and doing inordinate quantities of shrooms.

Most are either attending a nice university or will soon head off to do so after gaining “life experience.” Most have nice families who care about them and wish they would get on Skype more often. Most will walk into decent jobs that appreciate how “worldly” they are after they finish contracting skin cancer in Sri Lanka.

All this makes them delightfully guilt-free targets — the Diet Coke and rice cakes of cruel humor. Mocking a backpacker does not harm them beyond the occasional bad feeling, but brings great pleasure to bitter expats undergoing existential crisis. Further, most backpackers are completely disinterested in the opinion of weird expats wearing business clothes in the first place.

Everyone (kind of) wins.

Sketch221235430

BACKPACKERS ARE HAVING WAY MORE FUN THAN US

Backpackers exist at an absolutely infuriating distance from real life, a division that often manages to annoy the piss out of locals and expatriates alike. Locals are often merely scraping by in their native country, subject to the whims of corrupt governments and poorly-planned economies. Expats usually are at least making a good faith effort at sustaining themselves in their new country (with varying degrees of success), and are subject to the usual concerns of paying their rent and soliciting paying work.

Into this situation, then, the backpacker saunters onto the stage with savings, a trust fund, or seriously poorly-advised credit decisions, and then proceeds to do nothing whatsoever but chill and eat marijuana-infused pizza.

At the same time, everyone else is selling fruit, closing real-estate deals, teaching English, driving tuk tuks, or analyzing political affairs — all pursuits a lot less fun than doing body shots off of mysterious but sexy Australians.

This can do nothing but breed a certain amount of resentment among people who are incapable of fucking off for two months to cover themselves in glow paint and drink buckets full of questionable liquor. Angry muttering ensures.

Backpackers, it’s true, do have their uses, as anyone who runs a business that caters to the drunk and stupid backpacker market will tell you. Purveyors of fine happy truffles or pizza, ladies who sell cans of Coca-Cola at Angkor Wat, the guy who does thousands of “tribal” tattoos each week: they acknowledge the economic usefulness of backpackers, but they’re probably not overwhelmed with love for them, either.

Expats aren’t often economically dependent on the backpacker market but will usually (under duress) cede one use for backpackers and their obnoxiously free-spirited ways: they are convenient if you find yourself lonely and questioning your existence at the dance club at two in the morning. And they don’t know any of your friends.

backpacker-money

BACKPACKERS ARE CHEAP BASTARDS

Despite their obviously blessed position in life, backpackers are cheap bastards. Young Breeze may reside in a mansion in Malibu during her summer holidays, but while vacationing in Vietnam, she turns into a merciless penny-pincher – arguing virulently with aged women attempting to mark up cans of Coca-Cola by 50 cents in front of tourist attractions. They will always take the cheapest bus, even it has been known for decades that said bus is run by a professional thievery cartel and occasionally plummets off of cliffs. Hotel rooms filled with cockroaches, festooned with poorly-concealed blood stains,  and set directly over a low-end strip club? No problem –  it cost $3 less than the other place.

Backpackers are regularly seen savagely chiseling people over tourist trinkets, t-shirts, and things that have very visible price tags stuck to them. Some will even attempt to bargain with the wait staff at restaurants, apparently unaware that that is not actually a thing that happens. They will occasionally attempt to whittle down the price of a $5 souvenir t-shirt while at the same time texting on their latest-model iPhone.

Backpackers are also known for walking out on hotel tabs, absconding with random items in guesthouses and restaurants, stealing the toilet paper, and attempting to “borrow” $20 from you because they just haven’t quite been able to to get their mothers to Western Union them spending money yet. (Do not lend them $20. It is a trap).

They find their cheapness to be a point of pride, and will express both awe and derision if you mention spending more than $6 on basically anything. It usually goes like this: “You spent $12 on a three-course French meal, with wine? Ugh, are you insane? I just eat canned tuna for every meal, man.”

Despite their relentless bargaining, backpackers are more than willing to spend the average annual salary of a Cambodian farmer on liquor during their adventures through Southeast Asia. Pointing out this logical inconsistency only annoys and occasionally enrages them.

You know who they are.
You know who they are.

BULLSHIT SPIRITUALISM

Backpackers are founts of bullshit spiritualism, a habit most likely directly resulted to the fact that they’re not actually worrying about making a living and thus are filled with a sense of serenity and happiness. This curious, opiate-effect of word travel is well known: many young people in Asia have informed all their friends on Facebook and thus the world that they are traveling to the Mysterious Orient to Find Themselves.

That’s fine to a point, I suppose, but the problem comes when you’re just trying to have a casual chat at the bar and someone wants to rave at you about how awesome Jack Kerouac is, or how that time they did pyschedelic drugs on the beach with roughly 15,000 students at Leeds University really saved their life man, or how they’re totally going to become a Buddhist monk next month, really.  (I also believe that the movie “Into the Wild” – the point of which everyone seems to miss – ought to be banned with extreme prejudice).

This fondness for silly manifestations of spirituality is often wildly inflicted on the locals, who are dubbed “deep” and “so beautiful” by moon-bat travelers — who seem unable to appreciate that the locals are actually just fellow human beings trying to live their lives like anyone else, instead of exotic zoo animals with funny accents.

This grows especially ridiculous in Cambodia with its attendant Khmer Rouge history, where backpackers seem to feel the need to wax lyrical about how Khmer people “smile all the time, despite all the loss they’ve suffered.”

You are expected to nod and agree with the profound depth of this statement, as you are expected to smile and nod at all statements made by a backpacker with the faintest whiff of spiritual depth.  Claiming you in fact think these observations about the solemn oneness of the universe (or whatever) are hilariously stupid will be greeted with mute incomprehension.

OH JUST A LITTLE SELF LOATHING

I freely admit that my public emissions of hatred towards backpackers are deeply rooted in self-loathing. I suspect this is not uncommon, and is part of the reason why backpackers are treated with such keen hatred by the expat community in most places.

The fact is that I often find it hard to figure out what differentiates me from them.

I mean, look: the below illustration is a typical backpacker.

awful-backpacker-not-like-me

And this is me definitely NOT being a backpacker. Somehow.

note i do not differ materially from the backpacker portrayed above

I think I’m not alone in my near-biweekly identity crisis. Most expats with functioning consciences are keenly aware of being interlopers in a foreign land, and we are also aware that in terms of both our appearance and our bank accounts, we are often rather hard to tell apart from the backpacking brethren.

Local people add to this sense of insecurity, scrutinizing us with amusement and saying “Oh, you LIVE here!” when you say something halting in the local language or express some vague knowledge of local geography.

I am often very afraid that someone in Cambodia will insist that I do NOT live here – and indeed, it has been a while since I really have. If I do not live there, where exactly do I live? Does that mean I’m just a backpacker who regularly showers and on  very rare occasions collects a paycheck?

How terrifying.

I take out this insecurity and lack of confidence in my social position on a convenient target: backpackers. Sure, I might be inept and suck at the language, but I’m not wandering around monasteries with my be-furred nipples hanging out of an Angkor Beer shirt. Nor am I haggling with an old woman over 50 cents.

I have fallen, perhaps, but they have fallen so much farther and don’t even *know* about it.

This helps me sleep at night.

This is why I hate backpackers.

 

Chongqing: River City

chongqing from the gondola 2 (1 of 1)

Chongqing is not exactly the tourism darling of China. This immense, aggressively vertical city lies in what looks to me like a wholly impractical place – wedged between the confluence of two massive rivers, stacked into the side of regularly shifting cliffs. An industrial and financial powerhouse, Chongqing doesn’t boast pandas, ancient Chinese historical sites, or a thriving bar scene. Mostly, it has the brown and vaguely threatening expanse of the Yangtze, gigantic malls, and hot, humid, weather – as well as exceptionally lousy air.

But Chongqing, formerly known as Chungking, does stand apart as an excellent place to experience the true scale of Western China’s aspirations, and to watch a newly confident (and newly wealthy) Chinese middle-class go about their business.

Chongqing is not technically part of Sichuan. It was one of four Chinese cities that holds the status of a direct-controlled municipality (re-awarded the status in 1997), and is the only city with such a distinction in the Western portion of the country. And it is really quite outrageously large: the municipalities population stood at a mere 28,846,170 in the 2010 census, with around 6 to 7 million occupying the urbanized “city” bit.

Moody Chongqing.
Moody Chongqing.

The area has an exceedingly long history as a river trading port and as a portal to the often-treacherous passage through the Three Gorges. What was then Chungking achieved considerable international import during the second Sino-Japanese War, when Chiang Kai-shek made the city China’s provisional capital.

The city is also an important part of US WWII history: in 1942,  the Headquarters of the American Army Forces, China, Burma, and India (HQ AAF CBI) were established here, under the auspices of Maj. Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell. From here, Stilwell would eventually direct US forces in the China-Burma-India theater, from his austere concrete home high on the banks of the Yangtze. You can still visit this place: more on that later.

Chongqing was hit extremely hard by Japanese aerial attacks from 1938 to 1943 – an arduous period of incendiary bomb attacks that intentionally targeted residential areas, schools, hospitals, and other areas with nothing to do with the military. Over 10,000 civilians are thought to have perished during those years but endured the constant threat of death from above with considerable resilience, gaining the city a particular reputation for heroism.

Here’s a CCTV documentary with English subtitles on the bombing of Chongqing. Don’t expect perfect impartiality, but it’s interesting.

After hostilities resumed between Communist and Nationalist forces, following the end of the war, Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang fled Chongqing in 1949, and the city grew from there into the center of both industrial wealth and rather egregious corruption that defines it in the minds of most Chinese citizens today. The city most recently hit international headlines over the dramatic and rather sordid fall from grace of municipal Communist Party secretary Bo Xilai, whose wife (as you may recall) stands accused of poisoning her former British business associate. Chongqing, perhaps unsurprisingly, retains its reputation for naughty official behavior.

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Chongqing’s People’s Square.

The primary value of Chongqing to the idiot tourist is wandering: it only boasts a few tourist sites that really deserve the name, but it’s a pleasing place to get lost, turned about, and snack intermittently on things you can’t quite name. It is a hilly city with winding roads, moldering and tall apartment buildings, and green and slightly vertical public parks. The metro is clean and good, and taxis – when you can find one – are generally quite willing to use the meter.

Other Western tourists are a distinct rarity, most only spending a night in the city before they board cruise shops bound for the now rather-diminished Three Gorges area. Those seeking the companionship of other, similarly bewildered young travelers will be disappointed (nor, should I add, did I ever see anything approximating a bar).

Chongqing river.
Chongqing river.

Chongqing prides itself on having the spiciest food in the Sichuan region, and the scent of hot chili and numbing peppercorns permeates seemingly every food product. Chongqing prefers hot pot served in a square-shape with little grids, allowing one to better separate the food.

It is also worth visiting some of Chongqing’s monolithic shopping areas, if only to get a sense of the true scale of China’s economic revolution. On a Saturday, thousands upon thousands of Chinese stroll up and down the newly-laid and relatively clean pavement of the Chongqing Guanyinqiao Walking Street shopping area across the bridge and slightly away from the city center, carrying armfuls of shopping bags, and gnawing spicy squid and mutton off of pointy wooden sticks. Children are everywhere, and the presence of multiple siblings speaks to China’s recent relaxation of the former, infamous one child policy.

Baozi for sale in Chongqing.
Baozi for sale in Chongqing.

Every Western brand imaginable is present here in force, while huge hotels catering to the aesthetics of a monied, mainland Chinese audience sprout everywhere. Food courts here are immense subterranean affairs, with hot, spice-infused air and a considerable amount of elbowing. It is non-stop financial activity, and it should surely make the Chinese powers that be feel a little more confident that they can convince their people – the most vociferous savers in the world – to start spending a little more.

The temperatures are humid, and the air is polluted – although the city, to its credit, is taking some measures to reduce the air pollution. When I was there, it was relatively cool and damp, but a fine pollution haze hung over everything, evoking the more pleasingly natural beauty of a fog over the water. A pleasant blue sky finally emerged on my last day in the city, for a while in the later afternoon.

Chongqing is not a city that inspires love, exactly. But it is a city of not inconsiderable interest to Western China-watchers. Catch the gondola across the river, wander the streets (up and down, up and down), and watch the people with interest.

Paoma Mountain in Kangding

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If you’ve visited Kangding, you’ve likely noticed the little necklace of red gondola cars heading up the cliffs that skirt town. If you are somewhat familiar with Sichuan’s exuberant seismic history and Chinese construction norms, you may have concluded no earthly force can compel you to get on said gondolas. I am here to tell you it is worth it, because they bring you to Paoma Mountain.

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At the Zhilam Hostel in Kangding, I ran into a young man from Wake Forest, North Carolina, who had recently passed the bar exam and was now knocking around China for the holidays. My father hails from North Carolina, and we happily exchanged cultural pleasantries about the correct way to cook barbecue as we headed for Paoma, and the Dentok Monastery that lies at its top.

Finding the entrance to the cable car was a remarkable pain in the ass, considering that the track itself can be easily seen from just about everywhere in Kangding. We hiked up the hill to the approximate spot where we saw the cable car hitting the bottom of the mountain, made a left, walked past a promising looking parking lot – and found ourselves on the busy highway that runs through Kangding, full of trucks honking at us.

Prayer flags in the forest at Paoma.
Prayer flags in the forest at Paoma.

Confused, we escaped into the vertical warren of Kangding’s tenament buildings, the residents staring at us with unveiled amusement. We eventually emerged on the hill exactly where we had started, and hiked up again. This time, we chanced making a left into a beer garden area ringed with international flags. Sure enough, we passed a curiously empty Tibetan museum, and there was the gondola terminus. We paid 40 RMB and boarded, thankful it wasn’t a windy or rainy day.

Monks at the Paoma monastery.
Monks at the Paoma monastery.

The entrance to the grounds around Dentok cost an additional 40 RMB, which seemed a bit silly until we realized how large and impressive the mountaintop actually was. We first went inside the monastery, which had impressively elderly stone steps, and two monks reciting sutras inside. Reasonably aged paintings of Buddhist deities lined the walls and the doors.

Chinese tourists at Paoma.
Chinese tourists at Paoma.

From the monastery, I walked down a tree-lined path that led to a barred stone Tibetan house. To my left, a path led upwards to a flat, grassy plateau. Frightened looking Chinese tourists bounced around the circular lawn on annoyed-looking Tibetan ponies. Two Chinese girls in traditional costumes begged me to take a photo with them. White statues of Himalayan goddesses looked down upon the scene.

I walked up a series of white steps to take photos of the goddesses, which were framed elegantly by a sea of well-maintained wildflowers. Up there, I met up with my North Carolina countryman again, and we walked down the hill to a little pagoda and water-works area.

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 SOME NOTES ON PAOMA MOUNTAIN

Gondolas cost 40 yuan, and stop running around 5:30 PM. Be sure to enter at the beer garden, lest you suffer the fate we did, of wandering around aimlessly up and down hills while looking hopeless.

If you remain opposed to the gondola concept, it’s quite possible to walk up the mountain, a likely pleasant uphill track through pine forest and tattered prayer flags. Guidebooks will tell you that a tourist got murdered here in either 2000 or 1998, but Angela from the Khampa Cafe in Tagong scoffed at the idea of being frightened as a result.

“It was 15 years ago!” she told me, when I mentioned it. “Fifteen years! I’ve been walking up there and I haven’t been killed yet.”

Nor have I.

 

Woman at Paoma.
Woman at Paoma.