Shanghai, 2011

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Shanghai: China’s Hyperkinetic Mega City


Before the banking crisis of 2008 a quarter of all the construction cranes in the world were in use in Shanghai. The rapidity of growth in Shanghai has been breath-taking. The Shanghai guidebook I used as a reference to the city was 3 years old in 2011, the year I visited. Near the back of that book was a map of the Shanghai subway system showing 6 different subway lines. By the time I arrived there were 13 subway lines!

With a population of over 20 million, Shanghai is a megalopolis. It’s galloping growth has been largely fueled by the throngs of country dwellers pouring in to flee the poverty of the countryside.

If you arrive in Shanghai via Pudong International Airport you have the option of journeying to the center of the city by taking the Maglev train in. This should not be missed.

The Maglev is the fastest train in the world. It can top out at 430 km/hour (270 miles/hour). Each car has a digital speedometer displayed overhead that allows passengers to know the speed the train is going. The ride is quite smooth and reasonably quiet until another train going the opposite direction passes by. Oncoming trains announce themselves with a loud bang as air is rapidly compressed between the sides of the passing trains. This lasts only a fraction of a second because of the incredible speed the trains are moving past each other. It’s quite a jolt when it happens to you the first time.

Maglev is short for “magnetic levitation”. The smoothness of the ride is due to the fact that the train travels along a guideway that uses magnetic forces that provide lift as well as propulsion. Friction is greatly reduced this way.

The Maglev travels 30.5 km from the airport to the outskirts of central Pudong in only 8 minutes. It’s like an allegory for the breakneck pace of development in Shanghai in recent decades.

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Thailand, 2009

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Thailand Enticed Me Back For Another Visit

My first visit to Thailand was during the winter of 2008. The second visit was in September, 2009. I had believed that it wouldn’t be much hotter in late summer than it was in the Thai winter because it had been so scorching then. That assumption was incorrect. Every photo of me from that second Thai outing shows me drenched in sweat. Very becoming. Temperatures often exceeded 40 degrees Celsius.

Bangkok was especially torrid and muggy. The humidity was ghastly. I had never appreciated air condition so much before.

September also falls within the rainy season in Thailand. When it did rain – which it did often – it was came pounding down in torrents. You don’t experience rainfall like that outside of the tropics. Before long though the rain would stop and it would get sunny again. Then I’d start sweating again.

One of the drawbacks of being an avid photographer is being cursed with a stubborn insistence on lugging around a lot of camera gear where ever you go. No little compact shooter or smart phone will do. When I find myself traveling in a very hot place I sometimes can’t help but feel like a pack animal after carrying my camera kit around in the blistering heat for a while. But there have been occasions when I did leave my gear behind and ended up missing opportunities for getting some good photos. One night in Saigon I was sitting at an outdoor table at a restaurant and some young Vietnamese boys put on a fire-eating show on the street to wheedle some tips from the patrons. They were quite fearless and put on quite a spectacle They could spew flames out of their mouths and stick burning wands down their throats without harming themselves at all. Despite their young age they were clearly comfortable with what they were doing. It was quite electrifying to see. What fantastic images I could have captured with my camera if I had it with me.

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Beijing, 2009

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Beijing: Very Modern and Very Ancient All at Once

Beijing is a huge city with nearly 12 million inhabitants. However because of it’s extensive and modern subway system it’s easy, and affordable, to get to most places of interest easily and quickly. It’s also helpful that all the street and traffic signs are in English as well as Chinese.

I made a stop over here on the way to, and coming back from, Thailand. I had never been to Beijing before but having been in a number of cities in the developing world I arrived here with certain expectations about what I would encounter. I had assumed that the city would be dirty. Carefree littering is a hallmark of life in the third world. But Beijing was not dirty at all. Well, the air was definitely not clean. I also thought that street-food carts would be virtually everywhere. There are almost none in Beijing. The only ones I saw were at the Donghuamen Yeshi Night Market near Wangfujing Road, the place to go for high end boutiques and designer labels (not my thing at all, I went for the food). I was also surprised by how much green space there is in the city. Behai Lake and Houhai Lake for example are surrounded by expansive, leafy grounds that provide a soothing escape from the scramble of the metropolis. The grounds of these parks are very well maintained and orderly, and no, there’s no litter in sight.

I was very impressed by some of the modern architecture there. Some of it is really stunning. The CCTV building is very eye catching since it looks like it shouldn’t be able to avoid toppling over. The train station in Terminal 3 of the Capital City airport is one of the most appealing modern constructions I’ve ever seen. It has a massive vaulted ceiling that’s mostly clear glass. The floor of the station is polished stone so it reflects the light coming through the ceiling.

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Vietnam, 2008

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Vietnam: The Emerald Green Land in South East Asia

My trip to Vietnam began in the town of Chau Doc, near the Cambodian border. I arrived by boat from Phnom Pehn Cambodia.

It was incursions into and around Chau Doc by the Cambodian Khmer Rouge regime that led to Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1979. The Khmer Rouge crossed the border several times to chase down and kill people who had fled Cambodia to escape their genocidal madness. Many Vietnamese were also murdered in these raids.

While in Chau Doc I went to see a fish farm on the Hau Giang River. I hired a small boat captained by a kid about 13 years old and he ferried me out to some houses anchored to the river bottom. These houses were on wooden stilts just above the river’s surface. Inside each house was a trap door in the floor. One of the home owners opened a trap door and I could see the river’s surface below. After he tossed a scoop of fish pellets into the water dozens of fish came roiling to the surface with their mouths agape. Under each of the houses in the river were nets crammed with fish.

Saigon can be nerve shattering. I’ve never seen a city so abuzz with motorcycle traffic. They’re everywhere and their riders have little regard for traffic regulations. It’s actually quite dangerous in Saigon because when you are walking anywhere motorcycles can seem to come out of nowhere bearing down on you fast enough that you really have no time to react. I came very close to getting hit by one a few times. I wasn’t distracted during these occasions. In fact in each case I was trying to detect as much around me as possible to avoid a collision and almost got run over anyway. Crossing a street, any street, in Saigon takes audacity. Sidewalks aren’t safe either. When they’re not clogged with parked motorcycles, people on motorcycles are using them for speedways. The only time I felt safe from motorcycles when I was outside is when I was on the back of one being taxied somewhere. In Saigon there’s always someone around who’s willing to take you where you want to go on their motorbike in exchange for a dollar or two.

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Cambodia, 2008

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Cambodia: From the Marvels of Angkor to the Horror of Toul Sleng


Cambodia was the second country I visited during my first trip to South East Asia. I entered the country from the Isaan region of Thailand. Isaan sees relatively few foreign visitors. I guess because of this, there were no onward buses to destinations further into the country after I crossed into Cambodia. The Thai people that had been on the bus from Surin with me were traveling to Cambodia to buy cheap goods for sale right on the border. The number of people crossing here that needed some public transportation to elsewhere was too small to warrant the presence of a bus station or even a bus stop. I hadn’t reckoned on that.

A Cambodian border guard told me that if I wanted to continue on right away I would have to take a taxi and he offered to call me one. And he did.

About 100 meters into Cambodia the asphalt surface came to an abrupt end and a very rutted dirt road began. The taxi driver had to go slowly as the car wallowed from side to side and up and down over the hillocks that were the road. Filthy shoe-less children with barely any clothes were playing in the fields. The houses – huts would be more accurate – were made of bamboo and straw and in a dilapidated state. One of these huts had been burnt to the ground. Thailand was the land of milk and honey compared to this. I certainly had not seen such depths of poverty there.

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