• Koh Tarutao: The Prison Past Of A Present Paradise

    From the moment the boat arrives at the concrete dock of Koh Tarutao, it is apparent you have arrived somewhere altogether different from the average overcrowded Southeast Asian beach destination. It has all the trappings of a 5 star beach resort, minus one small detail: The Resort.
    The cliffsides surrounding the Ao Pante Malakka beach and watershed are heavy with an array of green foliage so bright and varied, it resembles a thick liquid pouring over the edges in suspended motion. The green and yellow clash with the dark grey blues of the volcanic limestone in a battle for your fleeting attention.

    Ao Pante Malakka

    Ao Pante Malakka

    Suddenly the branches begin to shake, at first softly, then in increasing violence as a troupe of Dusky Langur Monkeys emerge from the depths of the jungle.They quickly traverse the trees and soon are above you, timidly curious to your presence, their ringed eyes fixed on you briefly. It seems as if they have seen your kind before, although probably not enough times to let their guard down.

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    A Dusky Langur Juvenile

    As quickly as they had emerged, they retreat into the darkness of the jungle brush. All this happens in the time it takes to disembark the boat. Once on land you find yourself in an open area studded with dozens of large Casurina trees, which are somewhat the tropical version of an evergreen. They coat the grounds of the government station and bungalows in a thin blanket of soft, brown needles. The station is large, covering well over a dozen acres, with multiple buildings that seem to have been erected in anticipation of receiving throngs of happy holidaymakers, but this is the hot season, It’s 105 degrees and there is no one around to greet you. As the boat leaves the dock, you become acutely aware that you will not be able to leave this island, even if you wanted to. But another glance at the white sand beach quickly relieves any apprehensions as you wheel your bag to the empty visitors center. A languid cat straddles the marble stairs, attempting to absorb any ambient coolness that may have remained from the night before.
    A man, withered from the heat, with island-worn clothes ambles in and slowly hands you a laminated sheet detailing the spartan accomodation options. There are basic bungalows on 2 beaches, Ao Pante Malakka, and Ao Molae a few kilometers down the road. Considering you traveled here to get away from it all you choose the further bungalows at Ao Molae. Neither have electricity after 10pm. The heat will be equally oppressive at either location.
    Stepping off the high back of the converted transport truck at Ao Molae, the beach is pristine, and the only souls around are a smiling employee of the National Park restaurant, and a few very hot, heavily panting dogs

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    Ao Molae Eatery

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    Ao Molae Bungalows

    A walk around the corner reveals the row of basic, but comfortable bungalows. All facing the immaculate white sand beach. This is what travelers search for. This is home for the next week. No televisions, no cell phone signal, no crowds.

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    Ao Molae Beach

    The first morning comes slowly, as the heat became suffocating the night before. The creaking electric fan shut off around 10 pm, leaving you to toss every few minutes, trying to find a cool spot on the sheets. There were none. The beach outside the bungalow faces West, giving a few merciful hours before the sun rays come over the mountain directly behind it. Walking over to the restaurant, you anticipate a quick breakfast before setting out on a rickety bike for the real destination that brought you here. The ruins of Ao Talo Wow Prison.

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    Rock Karst at Talo Wow Harbor

    Koh Tarutao was once home to a number of prison complexes. Prisoners from the overcrowded penitentiaries in Bangkok were given the option to be shipped to Tarutao. In what seems to have been a serious case of “the grass is always greener”, thousands volunteered to be transferred to the remote island, in a bid to escape the terrible conditions in the mainland’s capital. The long journey from Bangkok would likely have been filled with thoughts of a relieving change of scenery, and likely increased opportunities for escape. The site of Ao Talo Wow Prison lies only about 15km from the mainland, over serenely calm waters. A seemingly surmountable obstacle to freedom in the eyes of those captive there. The prisoners would soon learn that the choice to be held on this island would bring a fate worse than any they could have conjured in Bangkok.

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    A Fallen Mannequin Amongst the Ruins

    The daily routine in the prisons of Koh Tarutao consisted of bad food, forced labor, and the everpresent heat. The main staple of a Tarutao prisoner’s diet was badly milled and watery rice, which was not fit for sale on the mainland. This was supplemented by sweet potatoes and leftovers of fish which would be made into a thin curry. The memorable days brought bananas and sugar, but these were a rarity which were not often savored.  Malnutrition soon became a problem within the prison population, and scavenging and hunting, once punished, became an accepted means of survival. 

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    A Flying Lemur

    From the late 1800’s through the 1930’s the quality of life in the prison steadily improved. Changes included the education of prisoners in skills such as construction, nursing, and handicrafts. Those lucky enough to receive menial duties may have even led a relatively easy, if uncomfortable existence. New structures were built to house and feed the prisoners, and a reliable supply chain of goods and materials was established. A co-operative was opened and sold food, tobacco, and even alcohol to those who could manage to afford them.

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    Prison Housing

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    Prison Housing Interior

     Despite the modest improvements, life in the jungle never reached a level of comfort that would meet any current UN regulation against cruel and unusual punishment. And the hazardous nature of the land they inhabited remained constant. Threats from sharks in the water repelled thoughts of escape, while more terrestrial dangers such as snakes, crocodiles, and mosquito borne illnesses meant constant vigilance was needed in order not to meet a gruesome fate.

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    A Venomous Green Vine Snake

     As the 1940’s and the years of the Second World War arrived, the Thai government, having been invaded and forced to give passage to Japanese troops, began lacking in manpower and resources to maintain the supply chains to it’s outer reaches. Tarutao is about as far from Bangkok as you can get within Thailand’s borders, and being a prison it was a very low priority. In the years that followed as the Japanese marched to present day Malaysia and Burma, the residents of Koh Tarutao were forced to resort to extreme means to survive. Without reliable sources of food on the island, starvation began to set in, and the struggle forced the inmates and the guards to band together and plunder the passing merchant ships en route to and from Malaysia. The piracy afforded them the food and supplies needed to survive in the short term. Some guards reportedly became so effective as pirates they were able to settle on the mainland and make a handsome profit selling their plunder.The group dynamics caused by this shift in authority must have been a social psychologists dream study, but little remains in the way of reliable accounts of the time.

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    A Massive Jungle Tree

     From 1941 to 1945 casualties from starvation and illness began to mount. Malaria, once a treatable affliction with basic medical supplies, became a death sentence, It is estimated that over 80% of the up to 3,000 inmates succumbed to the disease. The extremely limited medical facilities could not begin to cope with the overwhelming demands of the ill.

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    The Small Prison Hospital

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    One Of Two Treatrment Rooms

    Any semblance of order and structure began to collapse, and those who did survive were faced with a bleak and likely hopeless reality. Salvation came for a few. By 1948 the prison was officially closed. Any surviving prisoners were evacuated to other prisons such as the one located on another present day paradise: Koh Tao. The war came to an end, along with the Japanese occupation. A prisoner was still a prisoner, a guard still a guard, and the heat remained everpresent.

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    A Solitary Confinement Cell. AKA The Oven

     As you return to the somehow more comfortable bed of your bungalow after a long day of biking the steep roads of Koh Tarutao, the reality of what happened here 70 years ago remains forefront in your thoughts. The heat won’t be the only thing keeping you awake tonight.

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  • Koh Tarutao National Marine Park, Thailand. 4k Timelapse and Aerial Photography

    For the past ten days I have been exhaustively photographing the stunning locations within Koh Tarutao National Marine Park. The park encompasses a large archipelago in the Andaman Sea, located at the extreme southwest tip of Thailand, on the border of Malaysia. The islands within the park are virtually undeveloped, with very little infrastructure aside from a few government run bungalows, and rudimentary roads on the largest island, Koh Tarutao, from which the park takes its name. 

    At the southwest end of the park, just outside it’s border, lies the island of Koh Lipe, which is more developed than the park islands. Lipe boasts dozens of small hotels and bungalows, and remains a small secret for intrepid travelers, however this may not be true for much longer, as word is getting out about the quaint atmosphere and perfectly clear turquoise waters.

    In this video I did my best to show the beauty of the islands and give a glimpse of what is becoming so rare today: ta truly beautiful destination, largely unspoiled by modern development.

  • Travel Plans – Larung Gar and Sertar

    I have begun formulating a plan to travel to the pristine and little known area of Sertar in the Kham region of Tibet/China. Sertar is home to the Larung Gar Monastery and Buddhist University, the largest dedicated settlement of Tibetan Buddhist Monks and Nuns, and the world’s largest Buddhist University. Very little information is available on this amazing place, and I have had to track down a few savvy travelers on the web who have actually been there, and can assist in navigating the journey from Chengdu. It will be a 2 day bus ride, a very bumpy one I hear, from Chengdu to Sertar.

    I first heard of Sertar while attending a teaching by Khenpo (A title denoting a Buddhist Scholar) Tsultrim Lodro, the successor to the founder of Larung Gar, Chogyel Yeshe Norbu Jigme Phunstok. His talk and the insight he gave into the already familiar Buddhist teachings on compassion and the need for unity were a welcome re-introduction to Buddhist philosophy in my life, and he even chose to answer my question about lucid dreaming, giving a detailed and fascinating description of Dream Yoga and it’s use in Tibetan Buddhism. After the talk I became entranced by the (admittedly very few) photos of Larung Gar I found online. I was told by some that it was heavily restricted area, and not open to foreign travelers. I was quite dissapointed to hear that!

    A few months passed and I ran across an online discussion regarding travel to Sertar. My eyes lit up when I saw people discussing the fact that travel is currently open to the area, and I set out to find all the information I could. I found a great travelog called straightondetour, where the author Prue Sinclair offered me advice and a heartfelt recommendation to travel there. I also ran across the stunning photos of Larung Gar by Wanson Luk (below), and decided to contact him. He has been very helpful in detailing the route I should take, and the details of what it is like in this truly foreign place. So if you’re reading this Wanson, Thanks!

    So my plans have begun to solidify. I plan to go in May or June of 2016, to arrive between the bitter cold winter, and the grey monsoon. I am hoping this time period will allow me to take some long exposure and timelapse photography of Larung Gar, that I have come to learn is quite rare. Photography may be my main mission, but I am also very interested in visiting such a bastion of Tibetan Buddhist culture, something akin to what Lhasa must have been like in the 1950’s before the Chinese began transforming it into… what it is now. 

    I have a number of months of hard work and saving ahead before I can comfortably up and leave, but the thought of this adventure is more than enough to keep my hand steady at work, and my mind pining for a new adventure. The road beckons once again!

    The best photo I have found of Larung Gar. Credit Wanson Luk, who is also asssisting me in finding my way

    The best photo I have found of Larung Gar. Credit Wanson Luk, who is also assisting me in finding my way.

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    Another fantastic photo by Wanson Luk

    You can visit Wanson Luk’s Instagram @ https://instagram.com/6ws/

     

  • Delhi: Business Class Upgrades and Goat Brain Curry

    Kathmandu had been, for lack of better words, a life affirming experience. Opening the door to the taxi, departing the Suwal Mansion was a difficult decision. I felt so grounded, I truly did not want to leave.

    The airport was predictably chaotic. And the line for immigration was both snakelike in length and snalelike in pace. An hour later I finally made it through immigration and security. I had to run to catch the bus which had thankfully waited for me on the tarmac. I boarded the plane and did the usual routine of showing my boarding pass to the stewardess. I gave her an inquisitive stare when she pointed me to the first, big, cushy chair on the plane. A second look at my boarding pass confirmed I was in fact seat 1A. Many fellow travelers will be aware of the fabled “upgrade”, much discussed, but rarely experienced. Not only had I been upgraded to business class, but I also had the window seat facing the Himalayas on one of the most stunningly gorgeous flights in the world. What had I done right to deserve this?

    So many people think Kathmandu is way up in the mountains, which it's not. Here's a good shot to show perspective.

    So many people think Kathmandu is way up in the mountains, which it’s not. Here’s a good shot to show perspective.

    The view was indescribable.

    The view was indescribable.

    I was acutely aware that India was going to be more chaotic, more dirty, and more frustrating than Kathmandu. I had formulated a rough plan for destinations, but hardly had a set itenerary. I had booked a hotel in new Delhi, without doing much research, aside from a glance at tripadvisor. I would soon learn that this was to be a rather terrible decision.Pahar Ganj, by the quick skimming I had done on the internet, was referred to as the “backpacker area” of New Delhi. I was soon to learn that the term “backpacker area’ held two completely different meanings between Southeast Asia and India. The street was a psychedelic maelstrom of rickshaws, neon, and burnt out hippies sipping tea in darkened alleyways.
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    My hotel was central to this madness. I stepped out of the taxi, as he helped me with my bag from the trunk. I reached for my wallet… “No! don’t show any money here! We must go inside the hotel first.” The words “Welcome to India” were all too apparent in my mind. My time in Delhi was interspersed with frustration, boredom, and thankfully one night of enjoyment. I had reconnected with an old classmate from Le Cordon Bleu Bangkok who was a Delhi native. Arjun and I were not particularly close when studying in Bangkok, but our mutual love for food, along with his hospitality, and willingness to show me another side of Delhi made for a great night.
    After a walk through a park, we headed for a few drinks, and discussed the gastronomic options of the evening. I had read about a famous reataraunt, Karim’s, which was located near the oldest mosque in India.
    We parked in a makeshift parking lot, “fly by night parking” as Arjun referred to it. The restaraunt was a few blocks down the road, and we were soon immersed into a street scene which seemed right out of Pakistan. Aside the largest mosque in India was an Imam bellowing political rhetoric relating to the upcoming elections. If nothing else, i knew this was going to be an extremely authentic meal.
    Karim’s was celebrating it’s hundredth year in business, and as we walked in the dimly lit hallway,

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    Note Karim’s Great Grandson, top left.

    the first thing we saw was Karim’s great grandson overseeing the preparation of an array of various curries in large silver cauldrons.

    Scenes like this let you know you're in for a truly special meal.

    Scenes like this let you know you’re in for a truly special meal.

    Karim’s serves strictly Halal food, and the clientele, hundreds of people on any given night, are predominately strict Muslims. The cover of the menu was a picture from Time magazine, which named Karim’s as one of the best restaraunts in Asia.

    You can read all about it if you click for fullsize.

    You can read all about it if you click for fullsize.

    The menu itself only consisted of 3 simple pages, which in my opinion is always a good sign, as any restaraunt that tries to create too many dishes, often fails in upholding quality. One item that immediately stuck out from the menu was Goat Brain Curry. I jokingly suggested it to Arjun, who said he was a big fan. We ordered a huge array of meats, breads, kababs and of course goat brains. Up until this point I had been quite careful about what I had been eating in India, but considering this restaraunt had been in business over 100 years, I was pretty confident that I would be safe.

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    From Bottom: Mutton curry, Goat Brain curry, and Chicken Biryani.

    The curry itself did not differ in appearnce from any other. The oily orange-brown sauce covered up the real treats within. With the confidence instilled in me by the beer earlier that evening, I scooped a spoonful onto my chapati (indian flat bread) and lifted the previously semi-conscious matter into my mouth…. I had no idea what to expect, aside from the vaguely disconcerting description of “creaminess” which I had previously read about…. I say this without any boastfulness that accompanies eating exotic foods, GOAT BRAIN IS DELICIOUS! I put aside any mental (hehe) associations, and just savored the texture and flavor. I’ve since been trying to find a worthy comparison to relate the texture to. The best I can come up with is…. a mixture between Foie Gras and Ricotta Cheese…. I am so sorry as I know this will not contribute to many of my readers partaking in brain curry in the future. All I can confidently say is, if you are in Delhi, please do not pass up the opportunity to visit Karim’s, and if you are even the least bit adventurous, go for the brain curry. Live a little

  • Kathmandu: A Homecoming. Part 2

    After the first 24 hours in Kathmandu, I was sure of one thing. I would be staying here longer than the ten days  originally planned. Being back at the “Suwal Mansion” and reconnecting with people who had been so far away, but were now so close and welcoming made this choice an easy one. One morning, Swayambhu brought out his guitar and wanted to play a few songs. We were both a little more than hungover, and I honestly just wanted to sip my tea. Once I heard him playing though… I was absolutely astounded. Here is what we recorded on that morning. If you pay close attention, you can see me getting rather emotional in the reflection of the window. This kid can play!

    Awakening to warm tea and smiles became a routine I easily fell into. And the hecitic day to day pace of Kathmandu was easily thwarted with escapes to Barat’s shop in Thamel. Even though Thamel is a bustling tourist/backpacker area, Barat’s shop was tucked away in a quiet arcade square, and provided a perfect respite.

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     During the day Swayambhu and I would sip tea, while debating whether tonight would be a Whiskey night or a Beer night. The days slowly drifted by in the way they only can when one is at peace with their surroundings. On the quieter evenings we would head up to Swayambhu temple (For which my brother received his name) in the hills over Kathmandu. Barat is one of the major benefactors of this ancient temple, and was responsible for overseeing much of the renovation in the past years.

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    Not only has Barat named his son after this beautiful Temple, but he has been arriving every evening without fail for the past 8 years to play devotional Buddhist music with his group of friends . Barat plays the Tambla drums. Sitting and listening to their otherworldly rhythms while observing the slow pace of the Kora (circumambulation of the temple) was simultaneously invigorating and meditative.

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    That’s Barat on the left.

    The slow moving days sped, as they often do, as the end of my visit grew nearer. I was delighted when Carrie, the lovely Chinese girl I had met in Pokhara contacted me and told me she was now in Kathmandu. She had been on my mind, and apparently I on hers. She asked if I knew a nice place to meet in Kathmandu… 

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    Carrie contemplating Kathmandu

    The next few days were a mix of happiness and the sad realization that I was leaving, and Carrie would be headed back to her small hometown in China soon. Anyone who has done a fair amount of traveling will surely become familiar with the inherently shortlived relationships which develop. I knew that I would soon be parting ways with the city i loved, and the girl i was only getting to know.

    There was one thing I needed to do before I left Kathmandu, and that was to arrange a recconnection with the “kids”, now all adults, who my mom had sponsored since they were young refugees from Tibet. I had spent much time with Pasang, Dawa, and Dawa Lhamo when I was living in Kathmandu around 2002. We had been relatively out of touch since then, aside from the occasional facebook like. I was amazed to hear Pasang’s voice on the phone, as last time we had seen each other, she was quite shy and rarely spoke. Now she was a nurse, taking a respite from the rigors of New Delhi to volunteer her time and skills to assist her kinfolk of Nubri, Tibet, at a hospital on the outskirts of Kathmandu. We all met for dinner, the eight of us quickly bridged the temporal, geographical, and least of all to my surprise, linguistic bridges that had separated us for so long. Smiles, stories, and rememberences were shared. Most of these stories and rememberences centered around my Mom, and her all encompassing love, which we all agreed had brought us to this table tonight. To see the true gratitude and happiness which she has introduced into our lives made us all smile contentedly. “Auntie Janet” was crowned the hero of the night.

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    From top clockwise: Pasang Bhuti, Barat Suwal, Dawa Gyalsten Lama, Basker Suwal, Me, Carrie, Dawa Lhamo (Not pictured: Swayambhu the photographer)

    We all left, full of both food and love. I have no idea why or how I am blessed to know such compassionate and happy people. I only know that when one has the chance to be surrounded by such a group, the opportunity to enjoy it should not go unheeded. I think the smile on my face says it all. While this was not my last night in Kathmandu, it was by far the most important and uplifting. My love for this place and the people that send that love back will outlast any struggles and difficulties I might face. Kathmandu will always be home in my heart.

  • Travel Plan Update! Time To Get Chilly!

    Will be leaving Kathmandu, with great remorse may I add, on Nov. 15th for New Delhi, where I will spend a few days. Then off to Leh, in Jammu Kashmir state, India on the 19th. I have read many accounts of extreme cold and altitude sickness. I hope the old adage that great risks are met with greater rewards rings true here, and if i see even one vista like this, it surely will

     

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    Looks like something out of a fantasy novel.

      Click the left arrow to bactrack my previous destinations so far.

    • The Secret Of The Abandoned Fish Mall

      Down a nondescript soi in old town Bangkok lies a relatively unknown hidden gem. Without a good knowledge of Bangkok geography, one would be hard pressed to believe anything interesting lies behind this gate.

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      The posted sign reads in Thai “strictly no entrance beyond this point”

      New World shopping mall, a four storey former shopping mall. Originally constructed as an eleven storey building. It was found to be in breach of old town Bangkok’s four storey limit on building heights. The top seven floors were demolished to adhere to building codes in 1997. In 1999 the mall burned due to suspected arson committed by a competitor in the area. The disaster resulted in several casualties, and the building has remained abandoned ever since. Not having a roof, the basement floor remains under several feet of water year round. 

      At some point in the early 2000’s an unknown person began introducing a small population of exotic Koi and Catfish species. The small population of fish began to thrive and the result is now a self-sustained, and amazingly populated urban aquarium. I will not tell exactly where it is, as locals somewhat discourage people visiting it. In fact we had to wait for a policeman who was parked on his motorcycle in front of the gate to leave before we timidly entered. Below are a few pictures to give you an idea of the absolutely staggering amount of fish. Enjoy! and if you are really curious as to where it is located, you can email me at jesserockwell26@gmail.com

    • The Phuket Vegetarian Festival (Graphic Content)

      Serendipity once again struck me in my travels, as I have arrived in Thailand during one of the most unique, and to some, discomforting festivals in the world. The Phuket Vegetarian Festival. This festival takes it’s roots from Chinese history and mythology, but is unique to Thailand, and experiences it’s zenith in Phuket, where it took it’s current form in the early 1800’s.

      Although conflicting accounts as to it’s origin exist, most agree it was the result of political maneuvering in Phuket in 1825. During this time the capitol of Phuket was located in Thalang district, but the current governor of Thalang district decreed that the capitol was to be relocated to Kathu District. The main reason for this was the abundance of Chinese tin mines and a resulting nascent economy. Although Kathu was still covered in dense forest at the time, the governor foresaw great things for the area.

      During this period a travelling Chinese Opera traveled to Kathu to entertain the tin miners. At or around this time a terrible epidemic of fever and death was overtaking the mining community. The Opera singers however, never fell ill. The miners, desperate for a cure sought advice from the traveling performers, who informed the miners of their strict adherence to a vegetarian diet. The miners proceeded to strictly adhere to this diet, as well as abstain from alcohol, sex and killing of animals for food (doesn’t sound like too much fun). The epidemic quickly vanished, and was cause for great celebration. Thus occurred the birth of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival. The locals, so thrilled with their newfound health sent an envoy to Kansai, in China. The envoy returned with holy incense and inscribed tablets. Two objects that still feature heavily in the modern day processions. 

      While the modern incarnation of the festival still retains many of the original practices, the most famous (read infamous) spectacle, is the invocation of the god Lam Tao. Those who channel the deity are bestowed great abilities to withstand personal pain and mutilation. They use this power to inflict very grievous bodily harm upon to themselves, which they shoulder in order to lessen the suffering of those around them. These displays are not for the weak of heart, and cause some people to be repulsed and even physically ill.

      Below you will find some photos that may disturb you, you have been warned.

       

    • Kyoto: I Needed More Than A Day

      After a week to acclimatize to the mystifying and often outright alien things that happen seemingly every minute in Japan, I was somewhat relieved to have a break due to rain in Kyoto. Unfortunately in retrospect, I could have spent a lot more time there. The one clear day I did have to spend was packed with both aimless wanderings, and happenings upon places that cemented my reasoning and desires to come to Japan. Unlike Tokyo, Kyoto held a palpable sense of history which was jutting up against a recent foray into modern architecture. Tokyo on the other hand was becoming consumed by the ultramodern, while struggling to maintain vestiges of it’s long-reaching history.

      After figuring my way out of the large train station, my first stop, although unintended as I misread the map, was Sanjusengando (or Rengo-in) Temple. Set among an extremely minimalist courtyard with various pools and orange hallways is one of Japan’s largest and most sacred temples.

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       The main temple building holds 1001 statues of the Goddess Kannon (A Buddhist deity of Mercy), along with her protective deities, which range from Zen, to Hindu, to Buddhist in origin. It is also the longest wooden structure in japan to this day. Here is a view of a portion of the main structure, with the wind doing it’s best to accent the architecture. Unfortunately photos are forbidden within the main shrine. I truly am disappointed I can’t show you the inside, I guess you’ll just have to go for yourselves.

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       And another view to give a perspective on the size of the structure, this is about half of it.

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       I was quite happy with my mistakenly getting off at the wrong bus-stop and stumbling upon such an interesting and historical temple. I decided to take a walk to the historical riverside Higoshiyama district, which looked on the map to be around 2 miles. It turned out to be about 4, but I was not at all bothered as the streets of Kyoto are far less bustling and hectic than those of Tokyo. I passed innumerable interesting sidestreets and shrines, but knowing I had a limited amount of time, I continued toward my destination. And being Japan, of course there was a giant cartoon cat in uniform to guide me. Across the river is Higoshiyama.

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       Higoshiyama consists of a few square kilometers of claustrophobic alleyways, mostly populated by high end restaurants, and traditional teahouses. I was very tempted to have a nice meal and cold drink after the long walk, but the prices quickly dissuaded me. There was nothing under $80-100 for a good sized lunch!

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      After getting lost in the small alleyways, I got on the subway and proceeded to get far more lost on my way to Fushimi-Inari mountain temple. I thought I was on the right train, but started to get a sinking feeling when we passed about 5 train stops and continued speeding up. End result was me at the far northern edge of Kyoto, surrounded by factories. That little detour cost me about 2 hours, which was worrying as my planned hike to the top of Fushimi-Inari was supposed to take 2 to 3 hours, and it was already beginning to get darker. After much pantomiming, and broken English, which I had become quite accustomed to at this point, I finally made it to the bottom of the mountain and decided to get to the top as quickly as possible. 

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       I had seen a few pictures of this place before, and knew of thee vermillion gates, which had been dedicated by wealthy patrons of the temple over the course of many years. What I was not prepared for was the sheer numbers of them, thousands after thousands! The reason for the color of the gates is the fox being the guardian of Inari mountain. 

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       The hike began to steepen, and my pace began to quicken as the light was fading and I had no idea how far I had left to go. I took an apparently mistaken turn, which again led me to one of the more impressive sights I had seen on the trip. A perfectly split forest between towering bamboo on one side and massive pines on the other.

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       I was sure this was not the right way, but it was so intriguing I had to continue…. I happened upon this graveyard, which as you can see has smaller versions of the vermillion gates set on the headstones, presumably as a blessing to the dead, by relatives who could not afford a full size model.

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       At this point I was a few miles into the forest, and hadn’t seen anyone. The trail was becoming extremely steep, and the light was fading fast, but I kept spotting vermillion gates, so assumed I must be headed in the right direction.

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      By now I was 2 hours in and increasingly unsure if I’d make it to the top, but suddenly the trail opened up,  and the summit came into view.

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      Like many difficult hikes I have been on, it was not the summit which turned out to be the most exciting, but rather the return. The vermillion gates, and temple buildings were all backlit in the quiet darkness. This led to an eerily beautiful trek toward the bottom.

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       After seeing this place I was truly sad I would be leaving Kyoto the next day. I knew there were countless more secrets to explore, countless surprises that would have to be left to my already manifesting desire to return.

    • Tokyo to Kanazawa.

      After an extremely hectic, and relatively sleepless 3 days in Tokyo, I was happy to be headed in a more tranquil and quiet direction. Namely Kanazawa, on the west coast of Japan. Being me, I left the planning to the last minute, and was grateful to have help from one of the capsule hotel staff. He was a local University student, and had recently traveled extensively in Europe, so his English was quite good. He wrote me an itinerary in both English and Japanese! Arigato gazai mashta Koya-san! I left the capsule hotel with a sigh of relief, as I knew that my next hotel would have something I hadn’t seen in over 4 days and 6,000 miles. A real bed! 

      I hopped on the subway with a modicum of confidence, as I only had 2 stops to get to Ueno station. I was giddy with excitement knowing I would be departing on the Shinkansen, or Bullet Train, something I had always wanted to experience.

      DSC_8025

      Futuristic, Fast….

      For some sadistic and infuriating reason, every photo and video I took on the Shinkansen didn’t get saved on my camera….. Never happened before, perhaps the immense velocity at which I was traveling (~318 km/h) caused my camera to malfunction, no that’s silly, but every picture before and after worked fine… Odd. I changed trains in a sleepy mountain town called Echigo-Yuzawa. It was extremely scenic, and I was half tempted to take a stroll and delay my trip for a few hours. I thought better of it, and waited the 90 or so minutes for my connecting train to Kanazawa.

      DSC_8093

      My bags, looking lonesome in the quiet train station.

      When the train arrived, I mistakenly got on one of the reserved cars, and sat down. I had no idea some cars were reserved, and some were open. After a brief episode of pantomiming and bowing to the ticket-taker, I made my way to the non-reserved car. The trip from Echigo-Yuzawa to Kanazawa was amazingly scenic, with brief passes near the Sea of Japan interrupted by tunnels that often seemed to go for miles.  After emerging from one of the longer tunnels, I was stunned to see a valley which was completely unlike the previous scenery. If I hadn’t of known better, I would have sworn I was in the Swiss Alps!

      Wow!

      Wow!

      After about three minutes of this breathtaking backdrop, we entered another tunnel, and emerged in a completely industrial mining town. Amazing how quickly the scenery changes in Japan! By this time, the sun was setting, and I was glad I hadn’t taken those few hours to sightsee in the previous town. Nothing worse than arriving to an unknown and potentially confusing place after dark. We pulled into Kanazawa Station around 6 pm, and I was a bit stunned at how large and modern it was. After finding the tourism information center (I try not to rely on such things much, but I have found them indispensably helpful in Japan!), I was pointed in the direction of my hotel. Thankfully it was only a five minute walk from the station! I couldn’t resist setting up my tripod to get a  shot of the amazing entrance to the train station.

      Traditional vs. Modern

      Traditional vs. Modern

      I was exhausted and extremely relieved to arrive in a hotel lobby that was both tasteful and welcoming.  I had a hard time believing such a fancy looking place was only ~$55 a night! Aside from the rooms being about 12 feet by 12 feet, everything was new and immaculate. I hardly remember my head hitting the pillow.