Monday, September 8, 2008

Kicking back in Kuala Lumpur

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The Petronas Towers

I’ve never been as confused as when I was in Kuala Lumpur (everyone calls it “KL”). Every place I visited and every person I saw reminded me of other countries. I don’t think I can definitively say what makes something “Malaysian.”

Over and over again, I heard how multicultural Malaysia was. Believe the hype. Chinese, Indians, and of course Malaysians, this country has it all. Check out the photos:

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I love taking photos of locals, so KL was people-watching heaven for me. Each of those shots could have been taken in a different country, Malaysia is that diverse. A lot of people wear traditional clothing, especially the Muslim women with their headscarves. The color and variety of ethnic fashions were amazing. Compared to Malaysians, most Westerners in Asia look like they’re wearing the same uniform. A case in point:

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A bunch of Western tourists in KL

I'm used to seeing Buddhism in Japan, China and Taiwan, so seeing open worship of Islam was an eye-opener. Headscarves and long robes were a far cry from the short skirts and revealing outfits I've seen on women in other Asian countries. The most conservative women wore black abayas and their faces would be covered by a niqab. The only visible part of them were their eyes. KL was the first place I've been that felt as much Middle Eastern as it was Asian.

The Chinese women were a stark contrast. Their clothes were more modern and trendy, similar to what I've seen in Hong Kong and Taipei.

One of the most fun things about travel is finding out what things are the same and different compared to your home country. It's like witnessing globalization in action. One of my favorite pictures from this trip is the one I took of three Muslim guys in white robes sitting on a step. They're talking while holding food from McDonald's. Another example was when I would see Indian women with bright saris and bindis, yet they'd be chatting away on cell phones.

The city’s architecture also evoked images of other metropolises. The dirty streets and crumbling buildings were so Manila. But the massive banks and gleaming shopping centers could have been transplanted from Hong Kong. KL has a brand new light rail and subway, but they aren’t integrated well. It takes a long time to transfer between lines. Modern but not efficient, that’s totally Bangkok. The mosques and Islamic towers could have come from Dubai.

KL made me realize how residents in Taipei are mostly middle class. There was a much more blatant gap between rich and poor in Malaysia. Ethnic Malays have the government positions and the political power, while the Chinese control the economy and private business. This situation leaves the Indians feeling increasingly bitter, from what I’ve read.

Ethnic Malay people reminded me of Filipinos: cheerful, friendly, relaxed and able to speak English. The difference was that the English spoken by Malays sounded more like their neighbors, the Singaporeans.

While KL was multicultural, I didn’t get the feeling that the races all existed in harmony. It wasn’t the Honolulu of Southeast Asia. Everyone seemed to stick to their clique. The government also seems to be creeping toward a Muslim-style theocracy, despite the fact that the Malaysian constitution guarantees freedom of religion.

Moving on to a lighter topic, I’ve become a bad tourist lately. I’m really lazy about doing sightseeing nowadays. I usually visit one or two of the most famous sights, then quit. Now I'm simply happy to wander around, take photos of local life and hang out with other travelers (or local friends, if I'm that lucky).

I’ve become a lot less militant about having to see every attraction listed in the guidebook. This is because I can only take short trips these days, so my main goal is to relax. When I do extended trips, I try to see more sights.

When it comes to food, Malaysian cuisine is fantastic! I first had chicken satay when I visited Singapore in 2006, and I’ve been hankering for it ever since. It’s a classic dish, so I was really looking forward to eating it again. Luckily, Jalan Alor, one of the most famous food streets in KL, was close to my hostel.

In Taipei, it’s hard to find places where you can eat al fresco under a canopy. A refreshing aspect about dining in KL is that a lot of places have outdoor seating. Jalan Alor was no exception. It reminded me of the hawker centers in Singapore, where the food mattered more than the décor. Most restaurants in hawker centers only had basic furnishings: folding tables, plastic chairs and packs of tissues instead of real napkins.

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Scenes from Jalan Alor food street

Here’s what I had for dinner my first night:

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Chicken satay with peanut sauce, sweet and sour chicken, and a mango smoothie.

This grand feast was mine for a mere 19.50 ringgits, about US$5.60. I also became a mango addict while I was in KL. I’d get mango smoothies with my meals, and buy cartons of mango juice at a supermarket before going back to my hostel every night. Sipping fruit drinks reminded me of being home in Hawaii.

My good Canadian friend Colin said that the hostels in Malaysia were magnificent. If the one I stayed at in KL was representative, then I'd happily backpack through the rest of the country. It's called The Haven Guesthouse. This hostel had a colorful, jungle lodge atmosphere. While I stayed there I met Maarten and Lize, a Dutch brother and sister. They had come up to KL after traveling through Indonesia.

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They were refreshing, since I've been pretty down on Westerners in Asia lately. Maarten and Lize are the type of people I hoped to meet when I first started traveling: fun, worldly yet unpretentious, and great conversation partners. Their striking good looks were just a bonus.

Inside Information

Getting into town

By air: This depends on which airport you land in. If you're landing at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), you can take the the KLIA Ekspres train into the city. RM35 one-way, 28 minutes.

Air Asia flights land at the Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT). You can take Air Asia's Sky Bus to KL Sentral Station. RM9, about 1 hour to 1 hour 30 minutes. From KL Sentral, you can get a prepaid taxi or cross the street to Tun Sambanthan monorail station.

By bus: The main spot is Puduraya Bus station. In my experience, bus drivers often drop you off on the road near the station, not in the station itself. It's an unpleasant walk to the station, with a corrugated metal wall on your left and buses on your right belching exhaust in your face.

The good news is that Puduraya Bus Station is connected to Plaza Rakyat LRT station. The bad news is that it's not marked with signs. Look between the aisles of the bus-company counters until you see an exit (Malay: "keluar") on the other side. There is a bright red Air Asia hotel reservation counter next to the exit for the LRT, "Masuk entrance pintu 5."

Walk out of the exit, and you should see a walkway covered with metal sheeting. Head left and up the stairs. Follow the path to the red-and-blue Plaza Rakyat LRT station.

Where to stay

Bedz KL is my favorite place to stay. The hostel has everything a backpacker wants: a big comfy common area with TV, excellent rain-style shower stalls and friendly staff. It's in the Golden Triangle, a great area for nightlife and shopping. The hostel is on Changkat Bukit Bintang, where there are many trendy bars. Also nearby is Jalan Alor, which has tasty street food.

Sadly, The Haven Guesthouse, which was mentioned in my story, has since gone out of business.

Where to eat

Jalan Alor is the hotspot for local food. Pavilion Mall has a great food court in its basement. KL is full of quality eateries everywhere. Head to ethnic neighborhoods like Little India and Chinatown.

The Starhill Gallery mall has an amazing array of designer restaurants in its basement dining area.

First Cup Cafe, an outdoor restaurant in front of BB Plaza mall, has awesome breakfast food. Their pancakes are some of the best I've had in Southeast Asia.

Where to party

Asian Heritage Row has plenty of clubs and bars. Changkat Bukit Bintang also has a good selection of cool hangouts. Bangsar is another hotspot, but it's bit further out of town. For the latest word, check out the nightlife magazine KLue.

Hot Tips

Going to the cinema is cheap in KL! Usually around RM11 (US$3). Golden Screen Cinemas is one of the biggest theater chains. The nicest cinemas are in Pavilion Mall, Suria KLCC Mall, and Berjaya Times Square.

Miss Western fast food, but tired of the usual McDonald's? Head to Berjaya Times Square Mall, which has restaurant chains that are hard to find elsewhere in Asia: Krispy Kreme Donut, Papa John's Pizza and Wendy's are some of the rarities to be found there. There's also a huge branch of Borders bookstore there. It's probably my favorite mall in Southeast Asia.

For electronics, head over to Plaza Low Yat, a multi-story monument to gadgetry.

Getting out

Bus: Most buses leave from Puduraya Bus Station, a hot, dirty, and chaotic place. Touts will pounce on you and try to steer you to their bus company.

You can get to Puduraya by taking the LRT train to Plaza Rakyat station. Even better, there are two bus counters in the station. You can buy your bus ticket there in peace, without the hassle of touts. But you'll still have to board your bus at Puduraya.

Transnational Express is the government-run bus company, and has reasonable prices and comfortable buses. They have a bus counter in Plaza Rakyat LRT station, so you can buy your ticket there instead of the Transnational booth in Puduraya, which usually has long lines of customers. Konsortium Express Bus is a sister company of Transnational, with plusher buses.

For full details of buses around the country, check out Journey Malaysia.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

This pen for hire

For those of you who think, "I really like reading Marcus' blog, but I wish he'd write more often," I have good news.

I recently joined the writing team at, a blog run by travel writer Rolf Potts. It was Potts' book, Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term Travel, that inspired me to become an expat in the first place. It's a big honor to get to work with one of my role models.

"Vagabonding" was a life-changing book for me, and I've been recommending it to friends ever since I first read it back in 2005. The book has the perfect mix of inspirational writing and practical advice.

I'll be writing blog posts once a week, talking about different aspects of travel and living abroad. They'll go live on Fridays at midnight, as Thursday changes over to Friday. My first post is on the website now. It's the one I sent in that helped me get the job.

My posts on Vagablogging will be shorter, about 200-500 words. This should come as a relief to some of my friends, who are too busy to slog through the marathon posts on my own blog!

Thanks to all my friends for their unflagging support. It's by honing my travel-writing skills on this blog that I was able to land this writing job.

Here is the official announcement:

August 1, 2008

Vagablogging welcomes six new writers!

Our most recent "call for writers" elicited dozens of excellent submissions. But in the end, there could be only six. Here's some background info about our six new Vagabloggers:

    Graham Reid - A Graduate Journalist from England, Graham has spent the past year traveling around North America, including an epic East-to-West Coast bus trip. Graham's entertaining travel blog can be found here.
    Celine Roque - Celine is currently living in a small town in the Philippines, a country she'll be exploring for the next two years. She blogs at, a site that encourages people to work more efficiently so they can have more time to pursue their passions.
    Bluefox808 - Our first Hawaiian contributor, he has studied creative writing in England, backpacked through Europe, and lived in Shanghai. He now resides in Taipei, where he maintains an excellent travel blog called Bluefox808 Adventures.
    Claire Litton - Claire is currently on tour as a professional bellydancer-- another first for Vagablogging-- and she's been writing professionally since 1998. Her poetry and fiction have been published in literary magazines in the US and Canada, and she's working on a nonfiction guide to bellydance. Claire tells me that "the relief [she] felt at finding Rolf's book a few years ago and thinking, 'There really are people who think like me!' cannot be described."
    Scott Gilbertson - Rolf's book Vagabonding was part of the inspiration for Scott's eleven-month trip around Southeast Asia. Scott has been a freelance writer for five years, and his work frequently appears on Scott keeps family and friends (and now you!) updated on his travels at
    Aly Young - Aly has moved back to Kansas after spending two years in Asia. (Sound familiar, Rolf?) She blogs and posts her incredible photographs at Another Wandering Soul.

Welcome aboard, new Vagabloggers!

Posted by Aaron Hotfelder

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Japanese Invasion

Me and Junko in Ximending

When I first moved to Taipei, I was struck by how Japanese it felt. The interior design of department stores and fine restaurants have that sleek, ultramodern look. Lots of white floors and walls, crystal-clear glass and cheerful uniformed women bowing and opening doors for customers. It became even harder to distinguish between Taipei and Tokyo when I had a night out with some Japanese girls here.

I first met Junko at a house party thrown by Julie, a French girl I used to work with. One of the things I'll miss most about living abroad is meeting people from all over the world. It's good to feel positive again, especially after I ranted and raved about foreigners in my last post.

She's one of my favorite people because she's very non-Asian, and I mean that as a compliment. Too often, I run into Asian women who like to giggle, act like little girls and pretend to be stupider than they really are, because that's what they think is attractive to Asian men. To be fair, Asia doesn't have a monopoly on this type of girl. I've encountered their equivalents in the West as well. In contrast, Junko is very down-to-earth, well-traveled and can talk articulately about a variety of subjects.

Junko called to invite me out on Saturday. A couple of her friends from Tokyo were visiting Taiwan, and they asked her about nightlife in Taipei. She immediately called me, since she considered me to be the expert on clubbing.

I met up with Junko and her friends in Ximending, where her friends were staying at a hotel. That made sense, since Ximending is the most Japanese part of Taipei. Junko aptly described it as a "wannabe Shibuya." I think that Japanese neighborhood is much more extreme and colorful than its Taiwanese counterpart, though.

When I arrived, Junko introduced me to her friends, Junko and Aya.

Junko and Aya

They had come out to visit Junko, who worked as a translator for a Taiwanese company. Japan is one of Taiwan's biggest trade partners.

The Taiwanese often look to Japan as a trend-setter, so I was interested in hearing their opinions. I asked them what they thought about the local fashion. Junko said, "I think Taiwanese girls wear shorter skirts than Japanese girls."

I burst out laughing at her blunt honesty. Indeed, summertime is a paradise for men in Taipei, because the girls love to show off their legs. Even the most demure and shy among them think nothing of wearing shorts that barely cover more than underwear would.

Over dinner, I learned that Aya and the Junko that lived in Taipei had both studied abroad in the states. I've noticed that when Asian students do high school exchanges in America, they always end up in small towns in the south or middle of the country, not world-class cities like New York or San Francisco.

I'm worried that they base their impression of America on living in the worst parts of it. When I once asked another Japanese friend what she thought about America, she said, "I thought the U.S. was #1. But your electronics are so old!" I remember cringing in shame. I've read that the iPhone isn't that popular in Japan and South Korea because their cell phones are already way more advanced than ours.

After the introductions were over, they did what Asians do best: eating and shopping. In my travels, I've found that Western travelers are more into "cultural tourism." They want to visit temples, historic sites and see local people acting local.

In contrast, the Asian tourists I've encountered always seem to head straight for the department stores and local markets. We're talking repeat visits. This baffles me, since most of them could easily buy Louis Vuitton handbags anywhere in the world, including big cities back in their home countries. To get a better idea, check out this Taipei Times article about the first wave of Chinese tourists to visit Taiwan.

As for night markets, I'm so over them now. I can understand going once while you're in Taipei, but every night?! They're hot, crowded and noisy. Then again, that's Asia, so maybe there's a familiarity that's appealing to them. I get the impression that while Western tourists get an idea of a culture by looking at its history, Asian tourists explore a culture by sampling its food.

Whenever I asked my local friends about traveling, the first thing they'd mention is whatever dish a certain place was famous for.
"Bejing, you have to eat roast duck!"
"Chengdu, then you must try kung pao chicken!"
"Shanghai has the best xiao long bao."
"You can't go to Hong Kong without having dim sum!"
"How long have you lived in Taiwan? Have you ever tried stinky tofu?"
(I have, and it tastes better than it smells, thank God)

Colin, one of my best friends, constantly bitches about how he's so sick of taking his visiting friends to Shilin Night Market. That place is like a mecca for overseas Chinese. It's insanely popular with Singaporeans and Hong Kongers. I think it's even more popular with Asian tourists than the National Palace Museum and Taipei 101.

Ximending caters to teenyboppers, so the Japanese girls checked out a manicurist's shop. The girl who worked there was a typical friendly Taiwanese and was happy to talk to people from Japan. Taiwanese are really into Japan and Japanese pop culture.

At a manicurist's shop in Ximen

Later, we wandered into a clothing shop. It was one of those places that likes to write outrageous and humorous statements on t-shirts, in English and in Chinese.

Translation: Fuck, I hate my wife

I thought about buying a shirt, but I have a policy about not buying clothes with language I can't read. In extreme cases, I've heard of dumb Westerners getting Chinese characters as tattoos, without knowing what they actually meant. You never know when a tattoo artist might be playing a joke at your expense.

Supposedly, there was a guy who got the Chinese character for woman,
"" (Nǚ), tattooed on his arm, as a way to show how much he loved Asian women. He loved them so much he had the artist write the character three times. The problem is, 女 (jian) arranged in a triangle means "rape." And he wondered why he had trouble picking up women in clubs.

As we entered Ximen MRT station to go to a club, I heard people calling out my name. It turned out to be Ivy and Claudia, two Taiwanese girls I've often run into when I'm out clubbing.

An old photo of us at Roxy 99

For a city of 2 million people, Taipei is such a small world sometimes. I had just gone out with them on Wednesday to Room 18.

I introduced the Japanese girls to them. Claudia asked where we were going. I said I was taking them to Luxy. It's big and grand, so it's a good showpiece club to take visitors.

"What's it like?" the visiting Junko asked Claudia.

"Oh, it' so cool!" she answered. "Good music and the Luxy showgirls are very hot and dance very well. You'll have fun!"

Once we got into Luxy, I led the group to the front of the dance floor, close to the DJ. Whenever I go to a club, that's the area I go for, since there tends to be less people and more space to dance. A lot of times, that's where the good dancers are, so I can observe them and pick up new moves.

It was good timing, the DJ played a series of high-energy songs. While the Japanese girls were a bit surprised at my dancing, they eventually took turns dancing off against me, busting out Tokyo-style moves I hadn't seen before. Quite educational!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Travel writing debut!


"Living on the edge"
from my trip to Tiger Leaping Gorge in China

One of my travel stories was featured in Intelligent Travel, a blog operated by National Geographic Traveler magazine.

Go here to see my winning entry.

Read the complete original story in my blog archives.

I'm amazed, since I didn't expect anything. I saw the contest when I was surfing the Internet late one night. The odds were against me, since the organizers were probably deluged with entries. Finally I decided, "What the hell, I'll send in something from my blog."

These stories are meant for my friends, so I wonder what a larger audience will think of my writing. Special thanks to my friends for reading my stories for this long! Your encouragement is what keeps me going.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Hitting Hong Kong

City of Industry: Gotta love that HK view, although I like the Shanghai skyline too. Click on the photo to see the full album.

I must be the only person in the world who's never been to Hong Kong! Virtually every Westerner I know who's lived in China or Taiwan has been to Hong Kong at least once, either on a visa run or for a stopover. Every time I got the chance to go, I got re-routed somewhere else.

So when the Tomb Sweeping Day holiday came up in April, I grabbed the chance to finally see the city that everybody talks about.

This is a cliché, but I was amazed at how international Hong Kong was. Walking down the street, I'd hear English, Cantonese, Tagalog and South Asian languages. While Taipei has a lot of American and Japanese influences, it can feel a bit isolated at times. HK was definitely plugged into China and the rest of the world.

Now that I've been there, I think anyone with an interest in economics should spend some time in Hong Kong. The city is a living laboratory of globalization. Everything good and bad about free trade is on display.

On the plus side: super-efficient business infrastructure, minimal government regulation and low taxes. On the negative side: appalling pollution, a large population of poor migrant workers and huge disparities in wealth. To see for yourself, I think Central shows the wonders of globalization and the Chungking Mansions is the dark side.

Despite its trade-friendly reputation, I've read that Hong Kong's domestic economy is dominated by a few cartels and monopolies that are protected by the government. I guess no place is 100% capitalist, even such a business-oriented city like Hong Kong.

But enough of my ramblings. Luckily, I had local friends to show me around the city. I had met them when they were visiting Taiwan and stayed at the hostel where I lived at the time.

One of the hardest things about traveling is staying in touch with the cool people you meet. A lot of time can pass before I'm able to visit a friend in a far-off place. The big worry is that they'll forget me by the time I make it over. I'm fortunate in that some people find me memorable.

Carol and me

Carol works in the TV industry and is one of my favorite people in HK. She's one of those rare types of friends that I cherish, the ones where I can have hours-long conversations that seem to pass too quickly. I'm glad she was able to take time out of her busy schedule to show the clueless tourist around.

As a nightlife fan, countless people told me that I had to, had to visit Lan Kwai Fong. It's a block packed with bars and restaurants. By day, it's a laidback place to grab some foreign food.

Lan Kwai Fong by day

By night, it transforms into a massive street party. Girls dress up, guys dress down, and everyone grabs a drink and hits the pavement in force.

Lan Kwai Fong in full effect

LKF became my main base of operations in HK. Eating, drinking, wandering around, the hard part was tearing myself away.

Carol kindly invited me to hang out with her friends at LKF for a friends' party. In a night, I made a bunch of new friends. Meeting locals is a challenge when traveling, so she really opened the doors of Hong Kong to me.

Sadly, she had to leave in the middle of the night, to participate in a conference call with producers in Los Angeles. Wow, that's high-powered executive stuff, far removed from my English teacher's world. So Carol left me with her friends.

Amy, Anita and Frances
Thanks, Carol!

Part of me wondered if she was preying on my main weakness to entice me to move to Hong Kong. But I think she was just being a good host.

I came to treasure her hospitality more and more, as I realized what a fast-paced city Hong Kong is. Within Taiwan, people jokingly call Taipei "Type A," because it's the biggest and busiest city there. But it really has nothing on HK for sheer speed. Even younger people in Taipei walk slowly. In HK, old women outmaneuvered me like NBA players going for a layup.

This spirit of rushing was contagious. On my first day, I found myself checking my map frequently and hurrying to the next tourist site. Then I thought, "What the hell?! I'm on vacation, dammit! I'm slowing down." From then on, the people traffic flowed around me.

Moving at a languid pace gave me more time to observe the people. Although I hate shopping for clothes, I like to look at what other people are wearing. Hong Kong people seem more dressed for business. After work hours, the clothes seemed British and sometimes European. Subdued and elegant.

In contrast, Taipei people tend to look either cute and colorful (Japanese influence) or ghetto-chic, like they're straight outta Sanchong. There's more of an American and hip-hop sensibility.

An unexpected discovery was finding lost treasure in Hong Kong. After Carol and I took the Star Ferry from Central to Kowloon, we stumbled into a DVD shop.

"Is there any movie that you're looking for?" she asked.

One movie instantly popped into my head. "Can you ask if they have Yi Yi?"

"What's that?" Carol asked, surprised.

"It's a Taiwanese movie about a year in the life of a family in Taipei." I got more excited as I went on, because I love to talk movie trivia.

"The director, Edward Yang, is famous in the art-house circuit. But he had some kind of dispute over the distribution system in Taiwan, so that movie was never released there. It's considered to be his masterpiece." (for more on Edward Yang, here's an article about him that I edited)

"Sounds cool," she commented.

"When I tell my Taiwanese friends that I saw it on pirated DVD in China, they always ask me if they can borrow it," I explained. "But I didn't bring it with me when I moved to Taiwan."

Carol turned to the clerk and asked in Cantonese whether they had the movie. He reached under the counter and came up with the Yi Yi DVD!

"Hell yeah, baby! Carol, you're awesome," I gushed.

Later, I met up with some other local friends for dinner. When I was still living at the hostel, there happened to be a bunch of travelers from Hong Kong visiting Taipei for different reasons. Some were doing internships, one was doing modeling work and another was treating herself to a trip after graduating from college.

I met up with Jolly and Kelvin and we started looking for a good restaurant around Lan Kwai Fong. We were going to eat at a restaurant that was listed in my guidebook, but one look at the menu gave us sticker shock. So we found another cheaper place to get food.

Jolly and Kelvin sharing a laugh
Jolly and Kelvin share a laugh.

It was my "discovery" for Hong Kong. The restaurant had traditional Chinese design and architecture, and practically everything was made of ornate wood. I'm usually good with collecting business cards of places I like, but I didn't in this case and I can't remember the name. I'm definitely going back when I visit Hong Kong again.

(Update: The restaurant is called Wong Chi Kei Congee and Noodle. 15B Wellington St. Central, Hong Kong Island. Phone: 852-2869-1331)

The highlight of the evening was when Bruce showed up. He and I had become a dynamic dance duo in Taipei, hitting the clubs every week. Our best times were when we went to People Bar, my favorite bar in the city, and another night when we totally rocked the house at Luxy. Sadly, he had to return to HK to finish college. Here's a photo from Bruce off Facebook:

From the album:
"People Bar" by Bruce Hung
This guy is good at dancing.

One of the first things I did when I decided to go to HK was to e-mail Bruce and tell him that I expected to storm the dance floor with him again.

He took me to Club No. 9, which he thought was the best hip-hop club in the city. It was a bit crowded that night, a good sign of its popularity.

Bruce and I managed to make space for ourselves by dancing hard and breaking out the moves. The DJ's helped by supplying hot remixes of songs, wringing the last bit of rump-shakin' energy from each one. Better music makes me a better dancer and vice versa.

A projection screen showed the music videos for the songs as well. This was a revelation for me, since I haven't watched MTV in ages. I find myself dancing to songs and not even knowing who the performers are anymore. Clubbing in HK filled the gap.

Overall, it was great trip to a charged-up city. I'm already wondering when I can visit again.

Inside Information

Getting into town

By train: From the airport, you can take the Airport Express to either Kowloon or Central. HKD$100, 23 minutes from airport to Central.

By bus: Cityflyer Buses with convenient luggage racks leave the airport frequently. There are two buses that are most useful for travelers. The A11 Bus goes to most destinations in Hong Kong Island. The A21 Bus serves many spots in Kowloon. HKD$40, about 1 hour.

Where to stay

The frequent haunts of budget travelers are the Chungking Mansions and Mirador Mansions in Kowloon. They're both really dilapidated buildings with loads of hostels and guesthouses. If you're simply after the cheapest bed, I've heard that Travellers Hostel has it (but you get what you pay for).

Yes Inn is my favorite hostel, and I've stayed there many times. I've recommended it to all my friends, saying it's the cleanest hostel in Hong Kong.

There are also several guesthouses around Paterson Street, near Causeway Bay. Good for people who prefer to stay on Hong Kong Island. Here are a few guesthouses in the area: Wang Fat Hostel, Alisan Guest House, Causeway Bay Guest House, Noble Hostel, Marlboro Hostel.

Currency Exchange

Hong Kong is a major financial center, so it's easy to find places to exchange money.  It's hard to find good deals, though.  Avoid changing money at the airport, the rates are terrible.  The best method there is to use an ATM machine.

My favorite place is Wing Hoi Money Exchange.  I consistently get better rates through them than anybody else.

Wing Hoi Money Exchange (Tel: 2723 59d8)
Ground floor, shop No. 9B
Mirador Arcade
58 Nathan Rd. Tsim Sha Tsui.

From the front of the Mirador Mansions, go through the front entrance and go left.  Then turn right, and walk straight to the back of the building.

What to do

The Hong Kong Tourism Board operates Cultural Kaleidoscope, a program that offers Chinese culture classes. Most last about an hour and are free or reasonably priced. Sample offerings are feng shui classes, kung fu demonstrations and rides on a traditional junk boat.

Call 852-2508-1234 for info and reservations.

Where to party

Lan Kwai Fong in Central is the most popular place for foreigners. For a more chilled-out place to drink, head to Knutsford Terrace, in Kowloon. The bars there are bigger and nicer than in LKF, plus they have outdoor seating.

Directions: Take the MTR to Tsim Sha Tsui station. Go out of Exit B1. Walk north on Nathan Road. At Kimberley Road, enter the Miramar Shopping Centre. Follow the signs to the "Knutsford Steps."

The On Hing Building is a hotspot for clubs, with like 4 clubs in one place. It's at 1 On Hing Terrace in Central. Billion is the most high-class club. Sugar and Cliq are more popular with the younger crowd.

Buying plane tickets

Hong Kong is one of the few places in Asia where I still buy plane tickets through a travel agency, rather than booking on the Internet. It's not a hub for budget airlines (but Macau is).

Here's a travel agency I've used and recommend:

Traveller Services HK Ltd.
1813 Miramar Tower
132 Nathan Road,
Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong
Tel: 852-2375-2222

Directions: Take the MTR to Tsim Sha Tsui station. Go out of Exit B1. Walk north on Nathan Road. At Kimberley Road, enter the Miramar Shopping Centre. Find the elevator for the Miramar Tower. It's on the 18th floor.

Getting visas in Hong Kong

Hong Kong is a popular place to get visas for China and Taiwan, so I've included the info below.

China visas

For China visas, lots of travel agents and guesthouses can get them for you. If you're in a rush, the fastest service is at the China Travel Service counter in the HK airport. Processing time is about 5 to 6 hours.

The downside of using "official" visa providers like China Travel Service is that you often only get a 30-day visa. You have to go through a gray-market visa agent if you want a longer visa. Ask around at your hostel for who's reliable.

It's likely there'll be at least one foreigner there who's living in China and visiting Hong Kong on a visa run. They can tell you who's good.

Here's an agency recommended to me by a Canadian friend. The name is quite ironic for an agency that offers China visas:

Japan Travel Agency Ltd.
Room 509-513
5/F, East Ocean Center
98 Granville Road
Tsim Sha Tsui East
Kowloon, Hong Kong
Tel: 852-2368-7767

China Travel Service is run by the Chinese government, has branches all over Hong Kong, and has convenient business hours. Here is a link to their list of branches. Below I've listed the best-located branches:

CTS Central
G/F, China Travel Bldg
77 Queen's Road Central
Hong Kong
Tel: 852-2522-0450

CTS Wan Chai
Shop 1, G/F, Southorn Centre
138 Hennessy Road
Wanchai, Hong Kong
Tel: 852-2832-3888

CTS Causeway Bay
Rm 606, 6/F, Hang Lung Centre
2-20 Paterson St.
Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
Tel: 852-2808-1131

CTS Tsim Sha Tsui
1/F Alpha House
27-33 Nathan Road
Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon
Tel: 852-2315-7188

If you want the extra thrill of avoiding travel agencies and getting a China visa directly from the source, go here:

China Ministry of Foreign Affairs Visa Office

Address: 7th Floor, lower block, China Resources Building
No. 26 Harbour Rd.
Wan Chai, Hong Kong S.A.R.
Phone: 852-3413-2300 (recording of visa information)

Directions: Take the MTR to Wan Chai station (station map) and go out of Exit A5. You'll come out on an elevated walkway. Follow the signs to Immigration Tower. At Immigration Tower, turn right to Central Plaza, then right again to Fleming Rd., crossing elevated walkways. You'll see signs above your head at each stop.

Cross under the road overpass to "Chinese Arts & Crafts HK Ltd." That's the China Resources Building, it's #23 on the station map.

Take the escalator down to street level. Do a U-turn to your left and go to Harbour Drive. Go right, toward Fleming Rd., and you'll see a small blue sign that says "Visa Office -->". The entrance is on Fleming Rd., at the corner of Harbour Drive.

Taiwan visas

For a Taiwan visa, go to this place. Since Taiwan is not officially recognized as a nation, the consulate has to have this fake name that makes it sound like a travel agency.

Chung Hwa Travel Service
Address: 40th Floor, Tower One, Lippo Centre
No. 89 Queensway
Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
Phone: 852-2525-8315

Directions: Take the MTR to Admiralty station (PDF map). Go out Exit B. Turn left and walk up the stairs into the Lippo Centre, it's #27 on the station map. Once inside, go left. Go to the second set of elevators, behind the ones that you first see. Take the elevator to the 40th floor and go into the visa office to the left.

Visas: You need to provide 2 photos. There is a photo machine on the 4th floor, but you have to go to the the ground floor and take a different elevator.

Alternatively, there is a photo machine in MTR Admiralty station. As you exit the turnstiles, look for the Citibank ATM machine. The photo machine is next to the ATM.

When you get your passport back, it might have a long white slip of paper instead of a proper visa. It's a paper that entitles you to a visa. When you arrive at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, you need to go to the visa office before you go through immigration. An official will take out the white slip and put a proper full-page visa sticker inside.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Inspiring Travel Quotes

I got energized by reading an article on Brave New Traveler about The 50 Most Inspiring Travel Quotes of All Time. BNT is one of my favorite travel websites, because it has cool articles about the philosophy of travel. Here are some of my favorite quotes, with my thoughts. Some are from that article, others I've picked up over the years.

"Travel is only glamorous in retrospect."
--Paul Theroux

When I daydream about travel, I imagine I'll see stunning landscapes, hit up extravagant parties and have romances with exotic women. The day-to-day reality can range from mundane to downright demoralizing. Worrying about visas, dealing with a foreign language, and adapting to a completely different culture are problems every expat faces. See my post about moving to Taiwan for examples.

I explain to my friends that moving abroad is like having your I.Q. cut in half. While you're in-country, even accomplishing the most basic of tasks, like ordering food in a restaurant or finding your way back to your apartment, can seem like insurmountable challenges.

The opposite happens when you return home. You feel twice as smart as when you were before your trip. Now that you can compare your host country to your hometown, the differences and connections become crystal clear. When you talk about your host country and realize that no one at home understands what you've lived through, that's when you appreciate how valuable that overseas experience was.

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness."
--Mark Twain

This is over-simplistic, but I think the world would be a much better place if studying/working/volunteering abroad was required before anyone could be the leader of a country.

Misunderstanding breeds a hydra of problems and a shot of empathy would put us a lot further along the road to lasting solutions. Former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin said it best in his 2003 autobiography, "In an Uncertain World":

"In an era when the threat from people who don't feel respected can lead to dire consequences, treating other nations and people with dignity may be a simple matter of self-protection. But to me, listening respectfully even to critics and opponents makes even more fundamental sense, as an acknowledgment of the uncertainty and complexity that I believe to be inherent in virtually all issues of import." (pg. 401)

"A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles."
--Tim Cahill

I'll admit it, I first approached travel like it was a checklist of things to see. Now, I'm excited when I go on trips, but not because of the famous landmarks I'll visit. Instead, I'm excited by the cool people I'm sure to meet once I check in at the hostel.

Friends are the true treasures of travel, far more valuable than any photo or souvenir can ever be. The best part of travel is the times spent with great people.

That's why I think "How many countries have you been to?" is such a useless question. The number doesn't matter, it's not like travel is some sort of competition. I get annoyed by backpackers who compare who's seen the most countries or brag about seeing "The Real China" (insert any country). It's ALL REAL dammit, from the isolated temple on a mountaintop to the McDonald's on every street corner.

"To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries."
--Aldous Huxley

Sometimes I wonder if the media conspires to scare us from visiting other countries. We read about war, disease, and social unrest. Never do we read about the friendly folk who would welcome the chance to show us their culture and learn about ours.

Maybe it's to prevent us from questioning our government and our ways of life. If more Americans saw how people in some other countries enjoy universal health care, free education, affordable housing, and efficient public transportation, would we push our government to act? There are countries with economies far smaller than America's that provide all these things and more.

Conversely, I've met just as many people who would benefit from a trip to America. We don't all take drugs, carry guns and act like major-league sluts! (including male sluts)

"If you really want to learn about a country, work there."
--Charles Kuralt

When you study abroad, you're in a bubble. When you visit a country as a traveler, you're still in a bubble. Even if you do a homestay with a local family, you're still treated like a guest and are more likely to get a sanitized impression of a place.

But if you work for a local company with a local boss and local co-workers and earn a local salary, then you really learn about a place. You face the daily pressures of living on crap wages like the natives. You're surrounded by people speaking in their native language. You learn where people do their shopping and get the best prices. You have to master the public transportation system because you can't afford to take taxis all the time. Most importantly, you see how locals behave and treat each other in their natural environment.

Now that's as native as it gets, way more than any cultural exchange program can do. I think some expats lose it though, totally rejecting their own culture in favor of another. That's as bad as the other extreme of always staying in luxury hotels and only eating at Western restaurants.

"I hadn't come to the country out of any special love of it, (though I'm on good terms with it now), nor with any special project in mind, but only because my wife offered me this escape route, this opportunity to underachieve in peace, away from successful friends in London."
--Tim Parks

This is author Tim Parks' explanation of how he came to live in Italy because he married an Italian woman. "Underachieve in peace" is one of my all-time favorite phrases.

When you live abroad, all the pressure from parents, teachers and miscellaneous authority figures is gone. Away from the routines and habits of home, you're allowed to take an honest look at yourself and even try to fashion yourself into the person you want to become.

Taking away the pressure of having to compete with your peers is a big relief too. I don't have to worry about making as much money as my classmates, whether I live in the most fashionable part of the city or if I have the most prestigious job.

I wouldn't say living abroad is free from pressure, however. Being an expat has its own problems, albeit more interesting ones. Silas, one of my friends, brought this up once when he grumbled about having to do a visa run to Bangkok.

I asked him, "Which problem would you rather have? That you have to go to Bangkok or that you need to make a payment on your student loans or some boring crap like that?"

'If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him."
--Henry David Thoreau

The biggest reward of travel is the confidence and sense of endless possibilities you gain. The onslaught of challenges that travel throws your away will sharpen your wits and strengthen your will. You'll dare to believe in yourself.

Another aspect of being abroad is that you'll constantly meet other travelers and expats who're involved in cool things. Many times, I've made a new friend, and discover the great adventures they've had or the interesting work they've done. Then I start wondering how I can do something like that.

Very often, showing a sincere interest is all you need to enlist their help. Most are happy to share their stories and advice. For example, I've lost count of how many people have asked me for tips on Europe and got book-length e-mails from me in reply.

Soon, you'll seriously consider doing things that you would've thought impossible when you were at home. A few examples:

Study abroad in Europe
Teach English in Asia
Do a working holiday in Australia
Explore ancient civilizations
Help save the environment
Do an around-the-world trip

The more travelers I meet, the more adventures I want to go on. The hardest part is taking the first step. After that, things start falling into place.

Europe Travel Tips

Me riding a gondola in Venice, Italy.

People often ask me for advice about Europe. Check out this e-mail I wrote to a friend, which has my recommendations. If any of you want any more specifics, just drop me a message at my e-mail or through Facebook.

Hey ___,

That's so cool you're going to Europe! If you want to travel with other young people and have someone else take care of everything, do a trip with Contiki Tours.

For cheap flights around Europe, go with Ryanair or EasyJet. If you fly on a budget airline, check to make sure what airport it flies into. Ryanair's airports are often further away from the actual destination. Barcelona is a good example, as it actually flies into completely different towns instead of Barcelona. EasyJet normally uses the same airports as the major airlines, except in London. Which Budget can guide you to other regional budget airlines.

To get the inside scoop on good hostels, check out BUG Europe and Hostelz. Then you can book hostels through Hostelworld. If possible, try to e-mail the hostel directly to book a bed. Hostels often have beds available that aren't listed on Hostelworld or other third-party websites.

Browse through Rick Steves' website for more tips. He has a popular guidebook and TV show about Europe travel.

One thing I noticed is that in many European cities, all the hostels are either good or bad. The hostels in Paris are almost all horrible except for MIJE, a group of 3 hostels in refurbished French chateaus.

The hostels in Berlin are fantastic, especially Circus, where I stayed.

Wombat's in Vienna is also really good.

Have fun in Europe! Feel free to ask me any more questions.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Valentine's Day: The Most Depressing Holiday Ever

Portrait of the author as a lonely old man trapped in a young man's body.
Photo by Elizabeth, my Shanghai flatmate.

Why does a holiday about love make me so bitter? Instead of "feeling the love," I usually just feel crappy and glower at couples I see on the street. Valentine's should really be called "Suicidal 'cuz I'm single" day. Probably wouldn't sell as many cards and chocolates, though. Here are some random thoughts and stories on love.

The Valentine's Day Card story

In my freshman year of college, I finally got over myself and embarked on a massive Valentine's Day Card campaign. Just because I was unhappy didn't mean I could make an effort to show some appreciation to the many cool girls I knew.

I ruled out writing a generic "have a Happy Valentine's Day" greeting on every card. Only a personal message would fully express how special I thought each girl was.

To do so, I tried to put in little details about each girl and compliment them on it. This was easier said than done. I spent hours struggling to remember conversations that sometimes happened months earlier. Like how a certain girl wanted to be a singer, so in the card I encouraged her to pursue her dream. Another had told me she wanted to be a psychiatrist, so I praised her for being such a good listener.

One of my worries was that my cards wouldn't be noticed, because these girls were so magnificent. I thought, "What's the point? They have so many admirers, they probably get cards by the bag-load." I finally decided to write them cards anyway, joking to myself, "Maybe my writing will be so awesome it'll burst through the crap all the other guys wrote!"

At the end, I had a giant stack of envelopes. I dropped them off at the campus post office and promptly forgot about them.

Valentine's Day came and it was the same as every other year. I always hope a girl will suddenly confess that's she had a huge crush on me. Of course that never happens.

When I got back to my dorm room late that afternoon, the voicemail light was blinking on the room phone. Robbie, my Chinese-American roommate, said, "Dude! You have to check out your messages!"

"What? Why?" I asked.

"Just do it, playa!" He grinned.

I shrugged and picked up the phone.

The girls had loved my cards! In message after message, girls thanked me sincerely for the cards. They said I had remembered things even their boyfriends had forgotten.

Dating on Valentine's Day

I hate dating. I'm trapped with a girl I don't know and there's all this pressure. I have to be smart, funny, cool and entertaining, but I can't pull it off. Meanwhile, the girl probably wonders why she agreed to go out with me in the first place.

There's this pervasive tension. Not sexual tension, the good kind. I mean the sinking feeling when it seems like everything I do only make me look more dorky.

This all reaches a climax on Valentine's Day. I can't avoid seeing happy couples traipsing about while I feel like Quasimodo from "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Being alone on that day is pure hell, because I feel like I'm someone that nobody wants.

I stumbled onto a solution when I was studying abroad in England. I ended up spending Valentine's Day with
Candace, a literature major from the States, and Ashley, a Taiwanese exchange student.
International Party 5--Candace Me and Ashley
It was such a relief to be around girls that I could relax with. There was no need to try to impress, since they already appreciated me for who I was. I highly recommend asking out a close female friend (or two) to Valentine's.

Before I ask a girl out, she has to pass the Say Anything test. Since most of a date is talking, I should be with a girl I can talk to freely. Not everyone gets my sense of humor, and it feels like I'm dying when I'm trying to be funny and a girl just looks at me like I'm an idiot.

On the flip side, the girl should hold up her end of the conversation. She should have opinions to share and also try to keep the conversation moving too. Otherwise, I end up prolonging the talk by asking lots of questions and feel like I'm interrogating her. It's hard to find girls who are great at conversation like this.

Brynn exceeds all this criteria, which is why I hastened to ask her to be my date for Valentine's Day. I had to beat the hordes of other guys who would try to ask her out first.
Brynn and me at Alleycat's Pizza
I took her to Golden Chicken Garden, my favorite dumpling restaurant in Taipei. It's on Yongkang Street, which is famous for having eateries from all over the world. In case we changed our minds, there was a plethora of choices nearby.

We had our usual good time talking about everything and nothing, from Brynn's ongoing quest to find a permanent apartment in Taipei to the latest travel destinations I wanted to visit.

The Art of Writing Love Letters

For me, writing a love letter was a major milestone, since I tend to hide my feelings from girls I like. Once you tell a girl how you feel and she doesn't respond in kind, it creates an awkwardness that NEVER goes away.

I could have used the practice, though. When I started to write one, the emotion flooded out of me. I aimed to spin the most beautiful and poetic prose I could.

Instead, I ended up putting in just about every cheesy line you hear in love songs on the radio. We're talking howlingly bad stuff here. Probably elicited more snickers than swoons from that exceptional lady.

Despite how horrific the writing was, I still felt a great sense of release. It was liberating to not have to hide and summon the courage to tell a girl that I thought she was a superb human being.

I closed the letter with this:

"Spending an eternity with you wouldn't be long enough."

Friday, February 8, 2008

Taiwan Times Vol. 8 -- Turning 25

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The serious business of eating: my friends Colin, Sandra and Ted figure out what to order at my birthday dinner. Click on the photo to view the album.

I hate throwing parties for myself. Especially birthday parties. It's like, "I'll get all my friends together and remind them how great I am." I abhor that stink of self-aggrandizement. I marked my last birthday by eating a pizza alone and reading a book I'd just bought.

That being said, I decided to make an exception for my quarter-centennial. I had to do something to mark my quarter of a century on this planet.

By throwing a party, I had to break my lifelong habit of keeping my friends separated. I find it easier when my various groups of friends don't know each other. That way, they can't cross-reference information and discover more about me than I'd prefer them to know. Example: "He's so quiet and shy at work. I had no idea he goes to nightclubs and busts out hip-hop dance moves!"

Colin and Sandra
Colin and Sandra

The other stressful part was deciding who to invite. I had to keep things confidential, because I didn't want to offend the people I didn't invite. The stumbling block was that some of my friends had friends that I found annoying. It's amazing how often I'll have a friend who's really cool and fun, and one of their close friends will be someone who's just the opposite. Maybe opposites attract in friendships as well as relationships.

Ken, Lee, me and Brynn
Ken, Lee, Marcus, and Brynn

After struggling with this, I decided to risk looking like an arrogant snob by telling my friends they could not bring along specific people. As I get older, I'm less and less willing to voluntarily spend time around people I don't like. Luckily, my friends all readily agreed. Maybe it added a sense of exclusivity to my party.

Shinyi, Silas and Me
Shin-yi, Silas, and Marcus

My dinner party was at Chili House, a restaurant that specializes in Sichuan (a.k.a. Szechuan) cuisine. Sichuan Province in China is famous for its hot and spicy food. It's one of my favorite Chinese restaurants in Taipei. Chili House and Madame Jill's were my top choices because I love both of them. Since the latter is a Vietnamese restaurant, Chinese cuisine triumphed.

The other reason I chose Chili House is that it's near lots of nightlife, in case people wanted to go out after dinner. It's better to be within walking distance. If we had to get separate taxis to go to a club or bar, everybody would get lost. It's happened to me so many times when a group tries to move on to the next venue.

At Sofa Bar after dinner
At Sofa Bar after dinner: James, Thomas, Marcus, Brynn, Colin, and Ken

The weather was rainy and crappy on the night of my birthday dinner. I was worried that no one would show up and I'd look like a fool. I arranged to meet at an MRT station, then we'd walk over to the restaurant, to reduce the chance of people getting lost.

Eventually, half my friends showed up and we began walking to Chili House. It's a fair distance away from the MRT station, but that turned out to be a good thing. There was more time for my friends to chat and meet each other before we all sat down. "How do you know him?" was the common question. The usual reply was, "Oh, we lived in the same hostel" or "We used to work together at the news agency."

When we got to the restaurant, everyone else showed up, and then some. Now I had the reverse problem: I wasn't sure if there were enough seats for us. The waitress said we might have to split into two tables. I really didn't want that to happen, because I would've felt bad for the people marooned off in the second table.

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The Latecomers: Sandra and Ted

I stood next to my friends who came late and chatted with them, so they wouldn't feel awkward about not being able to sit down yet. I did it out of reciprocity, I hate it when a friend brings me to a party, then abandons me to talk to people they know. Meanwhile, I stand by the wall not knowing anyone and feeling stupid.

After what seemed like an eternity, the waitress came back with extra chairs and everyone was able to sit at one table. Now I could relax. The other reason I don't like throwing parties is that sometimes it can be hard work, I have to allocate myself fairly so that all my friends get to talk to me and I have to make sure they're having a good time.

Once everyone was settled and talking to each other, I could focus on having fun and enjoying the food. My favorite dishes at Chili House are the kung pao chicken and the dumplings in chili sauce. Both are exquisite with subtle, complex sauces.

The nice thing about being the host was that I got to hand-pick my favorite people from the different crowds I move in. My friends meshed together well, despite meeting each other for the first time. There's always the risk that some people might not get along. I specifically invited friends that were gregarious, well-read and good listeners, to guarantee fun conversations.

The funniest part was when Colin went on his usual rant about the "Breakfast Club." It's an early-morning class that he teaches, not the classic 80's movie. Watching this video instantly transports me back to those good old days of living in Taiwan:

As I looked around at my friends, I felt proud. They were a diverse, interesting bunch: English teachers, translators, journalists and above all, avid travelers. Brynn, an English teacher and one of my close pals, smiled and leaned over to talk to me. She said, "You have really cool friends!"

That made my night.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Taiwan Times Vol. 7 -- Countdown to Disaster

It had all the makings of a perfect night out. Brian, an American friend who also works as an English teacher, gave me the lowdown. A promoter was renting the presidential suite at the Sunworld Dynasty Hotel and throwing a kickass party for New Year's. Since the party was on the 15th floor, it would offer a spectacular view of the fireworks at Taipei 101, the world's tallest completed building. The flyer looked promising:

This would be a chance to relive the awesome 2006 New Year's party I attended in Shanghai, at Cotton's. At the time, Cotton's was a beloved bar that was having its grand reopening for New Year's. A bunch of my closest friends in Shanghai were all there. The bar was in a restored mansion, and we ran amok, it was like messing up someone's house--but not having to clean up. It was great! Maybe this would be Cotton's 2.0.

I really should have waited before committing myself so soon, because the best parties often come up at the last minute, when friends suddenly tell me they're doing something. But Brian has been a reliable clubbing partner for a while, so I trusted him. I like to prepare things in advance, and it was nice to know what I'd be doing for New Year's.

Throughout the week, I was so pumped, I mentioned it to everyone I knew. They all agreed it sounded liked it'd be cool.

Thomas, a translator at the news agency where I used to work, told me he was having a party at his apartment. James--another translator--and a bunch of my former colleagues would be there.

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James and Thomas, two cool guys from England making a living as translators.

I couldn't pass up on a chance to see them, so I decided to go to his party first, then go to the hotel later. That was my first mistake.

I was having so much fun reconnecting with my old colleagues and making new Taiwanese friends that I lost track of time. By the time I left Thomas' apartment to go the hotel, it was already 11:15 p.m. Plenty of time to get to the hotel before midnight, right?

The city government restricted the subway system because of the insanely high New Year traffic, so the gates to the platforms only opened very couple of minutes to stem the flood of people. Once I finally got onto a train, I thought I was safe. Then suddenly, the train started slowing down! Over the PA system, a machine voice said that the train had to slow down to adjust for headway. Oh crap, this can't be happening!

To give you a better idea of my dire situation, I pasted the Taipei MRT map below. I coming from Thomas' apartment, which is near Gongguan. It's on the green line, 5 stops below Taipei Main Station. I was trying to get to MRT Zhongxiao Dunhua, on the blue line, 4 stops east of Taipei Main Station. Click on the image for a larger picture.

Route Map
Believe me, it's not really as far as it looks. I was going to get off at MRT Zhongxiao Dunhua on the blue line and take a taxi the rest of the way. The Sunworld hotel was at the intersection of Nanjing and Dunhua Roads. I was only two stops away from my destination, when the train completely stopped.

Everyone on the train gasped. There were loud moans and urgent whispers. I didn't need to be fluent in Chinese to understand that everyone thought we were seriously screwed. I frantically sent a text message to Brian--who was already at the party--saying that I might not make it by midnight.

The train shuddered awake and chugged to MRT Zhongxiao Fuxing, one stop before Zhongxiao Dunhua. I wasn't taking any more chances. I bolted out of the MRT station to the street.

The streets were dead empty, everyone must be at their lookout spots, waiting to see the fireworks at Taipei 101.

A lone taxi was passing by. I hailed it down and dived in, shouting out the directions in rapid-fire Mandarin. I was so close!

When the taxi dropped me off, I leapt out and broke into a run, making a mad dash for the hotel. I could still make it, dammit!

I charged into the hotel. There was another party on the first floor banquet hall. Balloons started pouring down on the guests, and everyone was shouting and toasting drinks. NO NO NO!

The elevator took an eternity to get to the 15 floor. I staggered out a broken man. There was nobody around, so I wasn't sure where the party was. In one room, there was a desk with flyers announcing the party I was going to. But there was no one to take my ticket and let me in.

A Westerner with a satisfied grin loped out of a room and came to the desk, saying, "Dude! You just missed the show!"


While I was waiting at the deserted reception area, everyone else was on the 15th floor roof watching this:

The night was pretty much downhill from there. I got lost trying to find the hip-hop room. I kept stumbling from the main room, which played techno music, to the rooftop area.

I needed directions. I saw a Western guy dressed bohemian-style, talking to his friends and pretending to be cool and above-it-all. I asked him, "Excuse me, where is the hip-hop room?"

He looked down his nose at me and sneered, "Fuck hip-hop."

I should have kicked his ass for uttering such blasphemy.

Instead, I left him to being a douchebag and found the hip-hop room on my own. Brian greeted me and asked where I'd been. I felt too defeated to bother replying. Right now, I just wanted to dance and try to salvage the night.

The DJ was awful, all the songs he played were at least 15 years old. Brian assured me the music had been good earlier. There was a time when I used to force myself to dance to every song, no matter what, so I could get better at dancing. Now I won't dance unless I hear songs I like.

Well at least I could hang out with my friend. Then I discovered Brian had a date, and mostly concentrated on her the whole night. I don't blame him:

From the album:
"New Year's Eve (2008)" by Anfisa Pan

That's Brian on the right, looking quite happy. I'd be too, if she had been my date. Oh well, no hard feelings. A playa's gotta do what he's gotta do.

Anyway, I gamely tried to dance to the lame music for a few hours before calling it quits. There's no way my New Year's could possibly get worse. As I walked out of the hotel, I checked my cell phone. "1 new message." My friend Colin had sent me a text message several hours earlier. Here's a recent picture of us:

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Colin and me goin' gangsta at the Wufenpu Garment Wholesale Area.

Here's what Colin's text message said: "Hey, I'm at Ximen with all your co-workers from School 5 so get your ass down here now!"

Dammit, I could have been partying out with them instead of trying to dance to the crap music here! My life sucks.