To get to the desert, I went through the desert, and also over a mountain. (Like I said, it’s always about journey.) I went on a tour with Camel Safaries, one of the many tour companies operating out of Marrakech, and over the course of 3 days and 2 nights, we wended our way over the High Atlas Mountains through Tizi n’Tichka Pass, stopped in Ait Benhaddou, drove through the Dades Valley, walked in a bit of Todra (Todgha) Gorge, and sped across the the black sands surrounding the small town of Merzouga, where we mounted up on camels and trekked into the Erg Chebbi part of the Sahara Desert. It was a heckuva road trip.
Look up, because you might see something wonderful. If I were to make one of those dreadful inspirational posters, that’d be the caption and the photo would feature one of the ceilings of the National Palace of Sintra. Because “look up” might be bland life advice, but it’s just plain practical when it comes to this palace.
Sintra, a hilly region slightly northwest of Lisbon, has been used by rulers for centuries as a place to establish power and build pleasure palaces. There’s nothing left of the Al-Andalus building that was once here (luckily the so-called Moorish Castle up the hill is another UNESCO site you can visit). What remains today is a mostly medieval and Renaissance construction, with decorations and furniture ranging from the 15th to the 19th centuries.
There’s a lot of mention in the castle of the Manueline style, which looks vaguely like it’s from the Tudor period (because I live in the UK and most of my sense of this type of architecture comes from here, Tudor is my reference point), and indeed the style is named after King Manuel I, who reigned 1495-1521, overlapping with Tudors Henry VII and Henry VIII of England.
I love when you can see different fields directly influencing one another in specific historical times and places — as in, this type of literature is directly related to the political turmoil of a time, or in this case, this type of architecture is directly related to the major expeditions of exploration Portugal was making at the time. Taking elements of the Gothic style, architects in the Manueline style added influences from places Portuguese ships had ventured to — especially India (which included Islamic elements, and of course the previous rulers of Sintra were Arab Muslims, the Moors, and so it’s all intertwined). The Manueline style also incorporated elements that referenced the Age of Discovery directly, including ships, anchors, items from the sea, and botanical flourishes. (This is especially apparent in the monastery in Lisbon — stay tuned for a post on that!)
Legend has it that King João I decorated the Magpie Room as a public rebuke: his wife caught him cheating, and he had as many magpies as there were women at court painted on the ceiling of this room, not because he felt guilty but because he wanted to chastise the women who gossiped about the affair.
Most of the rooms in the palace are by now known according to what graces their ceilings: the Swan Room, the Mermaid Room, etc. One room, however, has the most boring name but the most magnificent ceiling: the Coats-of-Arms room. Manuel decorated this ceiling with the coats-of-arms of the most prominent 72 Portuguese families at the time — although a couple hundred years later, one of those was removed, because members of the Távora family were convicted of plotting against the king. Oops.
The National Palace of Sintra was in use by the Portuguese monarchy up until the founding of the Republic of Portugal in 1910, at which time it became a national monument. A few decades later it was restored, and in 1995 it was listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO as part of the Cultural Landscape of Sintra. It’s open to visitors who want to catch a glimpse of royal splendor — even if it means getting a neckache from looking up.
Dearest fellow travelers, I have been to many amazing places and seen many incredible things on this trip, like Uluru and Angkor and Machu Picchu, and while those all awed me, none filled me with joy the way Iguazu Falls did. I walked a lot the two days I visited the falls, but my sorest muscles are in my face, from the non-stop grinning.
The week before I visited, there were such heavy rains that the subsequent flooding at the falls set records. This meant that a couple of the cool walks were closed on the Argentinian side–the bridges over the falls in those areas had been swept away–but there was still plenty to see.
Here, let’s look at a bunch of photos together:
And now a break, in which I show you pictures of raccoon-like animals that you might think are kind of cute but are actually vicious little food thieves and biters. Coatis are wild animals native to the area, and although the ones outside the tourist areas keep to themselves (as wild animals ought), the ones in the tourist areas have figured out that they can get food a lot more easily by begging and outright taking it from tourists. I had food in my bag, and when the bag was hanging by my side while I took a selfie, a coati pounced on it! I won that fight, but yikes.
Back to the beautiful, this time on day 2, when I went to the Brazilian side of the falls:
I hope we shall be in Bath in the winter; but remember, Papa, if we do go, we must be in a good situation. (Persuasion, p. 29)
I hadn’t seen my parents in nine months of travel, so I was excited to meet up with them in Bath last May. We were in a very good situation–they’d found a great bed and breakfast for us to stay in, and I settled gratefully into my own bedroom with en suite bathroom after months of shared dorms and bathrooms down the hall. I mean, the woman who owned the house we were staying in made her own soaps. I was using handcrafted soaps in Bath, which actually fits my image of that town perfectly.
In Jane Austen’s time, it was a playground for the rich, a place for fashion, gossip, and soaking in the thermal baths that give the town its name. Today, it mostly trades in tourism, for the baths themselves and for the Georgian architecture that dominates downtown. It’s not the fashionable spot that it once was, but it’s still pretty expensive.
The Roman Baths
We visited the Roman baths on a blustery day, but the surface of the large green pool barely rippled in the wind. This seemed right to me, because for all their atrocious laws and conquest-hungry power moves, the ancient Romans were fine architects, and they built things to last. Why shouldn’t the very water of the place be as still as the columns and statues surrounding it?
Of course, as with most things the Romans stumbled upon, the local people had been aware of the baths for hundreds of years. The Celts built a shrine to local goddess Sulis, and when the Romans built up baths here in about 60 CE, they folded her into their conception of the place, and dedicated the baths to Sulis Minerva. The audio guide and educational texts posted around the baths emphasized that taking the waters was a religious experience for the Romans and locals. They were immersing themselves in sacred waters overseen by a wise and stern goddess.
That doesn’t mean very human concerns didn’t have their place here. The museum displays dozens of curse tablets that were unearthed here–mostly requests for the goddess to inflict severe pain upon whoever stole the supplicant’s clothes while they were in the baths. Some people even helpfully provided a list of names of possible culprits, an extra step which I’m sure the goddess appreciated.
The baths were a marvel of construction, of course; there were steam rooms and smaller pools in addition to the great pool, and an elaborate system of pipes and drains underneath kept it all in working order. No one uses these pools to bathe in anymore, although there are pricey places in town you can visit if you want to take the waters. Apparently people even drink the water sometimes, in an attempt to access those healing powers the sulfuric stuff is known for. I had a sip at the museum and can’t recommend it.
She disliked Bath, and did not think it agreed with her; and Bath was to be her home. (ibid, p. 9)
Jane Austen could have been writing about herself with that line. She disliked the bustle of Bath, but she had to live there a couple different times in her life. I’m willing to call it ironic that the center dedicated to study and appreciation of Austen’s works is based in the town she loathed. Ah well, she might appreciate that irony if she knew.
The Jane Austen Centre is just up the street from Queen Square, so that’s where Mom and I left Dad when we went in to see the exhibition (my dad is an enlightened modern man, but we still haven’t convinced him to like Austen yet). We were ushered upstairs and sat in a Regency-period drawing room, where we listened to a college student in costume give us a few quick facts about Austen’s life in general, and her time in Bath in particular. Then he fielded questions, which was a little tricky, as the audience ranged from people who have only seen the Pride and Prejudice movie, to amateur experts with very particular questions.
The next stop was a too-crowded set of rooms downstairs, which acted as museum display. Our guide said he’d be available for questions, but I didn’t see him again. The focus in these rooms was on Austen’s life in Bath, and on the bits about Bath that appear in her novels. One corner contained a rack of dresses and a box of hats and fans; I have never played dress-up at a museum for adults before, but it was kinda fun.
I liked the last couple rooms the best; in one, the only known painting of Austen was hung, and right next to it, a modern painting, taken from descriptions in letters and journals. The official portrait (by Austen’s beloved sister Cassandra) is, frankly, ugly, and the artist who made the new one justified it by pointing to letters from Austen’s relatives who complained that Cassandra’s portrait didn’t capture Austen’s liveliness or prettiness.
The last room holds some photos from the movie version of Sense and Sensibility, and a charming handwritten letter from Emma Thompson. Also, an inkstand and paper so you can try writing like they did back then. It is hard. You have to write in the tiny, cramped script you always see in original documents; writing any larger just dries the ink out of the quill and leaves a mess.
There are a few independently designed places in Bath–Robert Adam’s Pulteney Bridge and the 16th-century abbey in the center of town come to mind–but for the rest of the city, it’s all John Wood. John Wood the Elder and John Wood the Younger, a father-son team of architects who designed the Royal Crescent, The Circus, and other grand residential places in a neoclassical style. (Apparently, the correct term is Palladian, after a particular architect who revived Greek and Roman styles in the 18th century. The more you know.)
It’s this consistency of design that got Bath listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list, and while I think I would go a bit crazy if I had to live in a town this uniform in style, it is striking to see, and I can appreciate the harmony of the local yellow stone forming row after row of columns. After all this uniformity, it was all the more surprising to see two front doors on the Royal Crescent painted a different color than all the other front doors. Surely there’s a fine for such an affront to the 250-year-old look!
Upon my word, I shall be pretty well off, when you are all gone to be happy at Bath! (ibid, p. 29)
Yes, Mary, we were all very happy at Bath, indeed.
World Heritage sites are meant to protect and preserve sites of cultural and natural beauty around the world–that’s a given. But I was surprised by Hoi An, a city near the coast of the middle part of Vietnam, whose old town is a World Heritage site. Although people live and work there–bustling about selling food and trinkets, ushering tour groups through historical houses, calling out to children down the street–I somehow still felt as if the place was stopped in time, like an insect suspended in amber, mid-flight.
The buildings are a combination of Chinese-style shophouses and French colonials. Almost every single one is painted a bright yellow, decorated with hanging lanterns, the occasional flowering vine, and not much else. Simplicity seems to be the decorating byword here, and it works really well. Everyone took photos against the backdrops of yellow houses and magenta flowers, sometimes with an old-fashioned bicycle as a prop. I’m no exception.
But that’s what the whole “ancient town” felt like–a prop. My mom asked me if a town that was so carefully preserved felt like a display at Disneyland, and it kind of did. Part of that was due to the restrictions on vehicles; only human-powered vehicles were allowed, so the usual crush of motos, cars, and buses was missing, and only cyclos (bicycle taxis), bicycles, and handcarts rolled through the streets. This made me less fearful for my life, but it also made it eerily quiet. There was so much space; although the buildings were all full of businesses, somehow the streets weren’t as full of people visiting them as they were just a few streets away, on the other side of the UNESCO sign.
Most of those businesses seemed to be for tourists only, and I guess that’s the basic point: I’ve never been anywhere else that’s had such a sharp tourist/local divide, where locals only venture to make some money off tourists. Except for maybe Navy Pier in Chicago.
Which is not to say the houses and their contents weren’t beautiful, or historical, or worth preserving. They were all of those things. But the liveliness that surely accompanied the building and decorating of those houses had faded away.
The Japanese Bridge
Hoi An was a trading town for centuries, and both Chinese and Japanese merchants settled here and had a large influence. One of the main sights of the town is the small, lovely covered Japanese bridge over one of the estuaries of the river. It was built centuries ago, connecting parts of town where different ethnicities lived, and for a while was called the Friendship Bridge. You can pay to see the tiny altar in the center of the bridge, or you can just walk on the wooden structure, admiring the curlicued beams above and the solemn dog and monkey altar statues below.
I lucked out on the first day I went down to the old town. You have to buy a multi-ticket packet and use one ticket per attraction. I wasn’t sure where to buy a ticket when I got down there, so I asked a couple of Canadian women outside the Tran Family Chapel where to go, and they said, “oh actually, we’re done for the day, take the rest of our tickets.” Excellent!
The Tran Family Chapel
The Tran Family Chapel is one of the names for this 200-year-old building, constructed in the style of a Vietnamese garden house. The central entrance was only used on very high holidays, and normally men and women enter from different side entrances. The altar was surrounded by small, thin boxes that I believe contained the ashes, or perhaps the mementos of deceased members of the family. You can’t walk through the place by yourself; a guide gives a short speech on the architecture of the building (Japanese-style three-tiered wooden beams; a door sill that trips you up if you’re not careful, so you are forced to look down when crossing it, thus showing respect for the ancestors as you cross into their space) and then brings you into the back room, which is full of ceramics, coins, and trinkets you can buy as souvenirs. It wasn’t too hard a sell, happily.
The Tan Ky House
The Tan Ky House is the most visited Chinese house in Hoi An. It’s over 200 years old, and it’s been owned by the same family that whole time. An older woman, sixth generation of that family, handed out tea to visitors and smiled serenely as each tour leader pointed out her importance.
One of the major reasons the town is a World Heritage sites, these old houses are all built in the same way: doorway, opening foyer with altar, outdoor courtyard, back room/kitchen. Sometimes beds were set up in the back, but it looked like most bedrooms were upstairs (we were only permitted to see the downstairs in each place). Guides pointed out the Chinese elements (the writing, the shophouse layout), the Japanese elements (the three-tiered wooden beams in the foyer), and the Vietnamese elements (the building materials and particular family touches) that appear in each house.
The river has flooded many times over the last few decades, and one wall of the Tan Ky house was chalked up with how high the waters rose during various floods. The houses looked good for how many times they’ve been submerged.
The lacquered woodwork found in the Tan Ky house and the Quan Thang house (another place I visited), and mother-of-pearl inlay in the former, were beautiful. The inlay looked like calligraphy, and some of it even made Chinese characters out of “brush strokes” in the shapes of birds, which was just lovely. The woodwork in all the houses shines from polishing, revealing pastoral scenes of flowers, animals, and twisting plants.
Fukien Assembly Hall
The Fukien Assembly Hall was built in the 17th century as a temple and was also used as a gathering place for the Fukien Chinese people who built it. It’s a long approach, past a fountain and through a triple gate, past two large paintings depicting heroic stories, through the open courtyard hung with giant prayer coils, red and smoking, and finally into the main room containing the large altar and another small pond. The altar room had some beautifully carved and painted pillars, and a feast laid out for the ancestors and gods on the altar. This was a great reminder of the huge Chinese influence in Vietnam, and how strong that influence still is.
Hoi An is the main tailoring hot spot in Vietnam. I am not exaggerating when I say that out of eight storefronts on one street, seven of them were tailor shops. I had some silk I’d bought in Thailand, and I had it made into a skirt for my cousin, which turned out beautifully. I had almost decided not buy any clothes for myself, but I succumbed to a different shop owner’s persuasions. She made a long-sleeved black linen/cotton shirt, which I generally like although it can be a little shapeless, and a pair of cream linen pants, which pilled after two wearings, and which she hemmed too short. I should’ve stuck with my original plan!
Hoi An was picturesque as any town I’ve been to, and it was a relief to walk around in a mostly pedestrian-only area for awhile, relaxing into the bright colors and quiet atmosphere, eating cao lau noodles and running my hands over rich fabrics in the shops. But even though I wandered at night under the lanterns strung across the streets, a part of me still thinks that maybe they shut the whole set down overnight, then open up this peculiar theme park again the next day.
The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew are almost as large as their name is long. They run along the River Thames in the southwest of London, taking up about a half mile square (121 hectares, in case the hectare is a unit of measurement that means something to you). They’re on the World Heritage list because they’ve maintained their size and purpose for over two centuries; they do a lot of plant research here, and have one of the best orchid collections in the world, for example. When my friend Sessily and I met up in London, we decided to pack a picnic and make a day of it at Kew. We spent a lovely day in the warm sunshine, admiring the trees and flowers, gazing out over the pond, having an ice cream, watching kids run around excitedly, listening to the sound check for the Human League concert taking place there later that night… You know, normal gardens stuff.
I don’t know the names of plants, and a lot of plants didn’t have labels (or none that we could find), so I can’t name most of these for you. Feel free to educate me in the comments!
UNESCO put Luang Prabang on its World Heritage Sites list because it’s a town with a well-preserved mix of Laotian and French colonial architecture. After the jumble of rowhouses and tiny shops of Chiang Mai, it is striking to see the long, broad buildings of Luang Prabang, painted a colonial yellow and set at a dignified distance from the brightly decorated Buddhist temples.
Dignified, stately, slow-moving: these are the words I kept coming up with as I wandered the streets of Luang Prabang. A little in keeping with that stately feeling (and certainly in keeping with its colonial history), there were a lot of fences and walls; more space is cordoned off in this small town than I saw walled away in all of Thailand.
Every evening, vendors set up outside those walls for the night market. In Thailand, the markets are set up on card tables, but in Laos, the goods are laid out on tarps and blankets on the ground. If you want to inspect the goods at a particular booth, you have to squat down, or use one of the tiny plastic stools the vendor whips out for you. I would gingerly lower myself onto these unstable pieces of plastic and smile genially as all the women selling quilts and table runners laughed. Just about every stall has a woman holding a baby, and some stalls are staffed by men or teenagers. I saw one little boy playing on an iPad while his parents sold handicrafts–it’s a shrinking world, indeed!
I picked out wedding presents and souvenirs from various stalls, but my favorite spot was the bombs-to-bracelets stall. The US waged a secret bombing campaign on Cambodia and Laos in the late ’60s and early ’70s, as part of its campaign against the Communist bogeyman. The villagers of Ban Napia in eastern Laos took the aluminum from the thousands of bombs dropped on their homes and, in their words, turned it from “something that kills into something that feeds,” producing spoons. They later added bracelets and charms to their collection, and the number of bombs dropped can be guessed at by the fact that they’re still making jewelry today, nearly 40 years after the bombs stopped falling. I chose to support the artisans, although there is some controversy in doing so, because villagers have to collect scrap metal to make them, and there are a lot of accidents and sometimes deaths with the UXOs (unexploded ordnances). As with so many potential purchases, it’s complicated.
Of course, there’s food. One woman sliced watermelon with a machete while another flipped sweet potatoes on a small woodfire grill. A narrow alley of food vendors included pork and fish on sticks, dumplings, grilled sticky rice, and two giant all-you-can-eat buffets. I had really good veggie and pork dumplings, and a non-spicy lemongrass sausage (a specialty of the area).
Luang Prabang has dozens of Buddhist temples, and a high concentration of monks and novices (those under age 25 are called novices). The temples, or wats, are painted in elaborate, intricate scenes, sometimes both inside and outside. The grounds are spare, with just a little greenery carefully confined to a few areas, and the rest tiled courtyards between buildings. Monks and novices move around on the edges, running errands, doing homework (many boys enter the monastery to get a good education), making adjustments in the temples.
Probably the most famous wat in Luang Prabang is Wat Xieng Thong, sometimes called The Temple of the Golden City. Since Luang Prabang is on the World Heritage list, there’s a lot of upkeep work going on at various temples, funded by various countries–and this temple is no exception. The US Embassy is supporting efforts to reinforce the structural elements of the temple, and scaffolding was set up around the buddha when I visited.
The main building was painted a maroon color inside, and then gold leaf designs were painted on top of that, on every available surface–ceiling, columns, walls. Inside, a long wooden pipe sat along one wall, and at the end of it sat a small buddha in a glass box. During a water-based festival, water blessed by monks travels through the wooden pipe and washes the buddha. My favorite part of this temple was a separate building, which housed a giant dragon boat. The back wall was red, covered in intricate, colorful mosaic scenes and accented with sparkly glitter. There was no way to get a decent picture to show just how big and full of life it was, but I tried. Exteriors of some other buildings were dotted with similar mosaics.
Mount Phousi rises above the center of town, and a small temple sits atop it, with various buddha statues and shrines scattered below it, so each step of the climb to the top takes you past a holy site. At the top, if you can balance yourself between the edge and the dozens of fellow tourists, you can see a beautiful sunset over the Mekong. On the walk up, off to the side is the Imprint of the Buddha’s Foot; it’s a large, vaguely foot-shaped indentation in the rock that someone decided was a holy sign. (In that way, it reminds me of the Virgin Mary water spot under the bridge on Fullerton in Chicago.)
The foot is just past a pavilion with a view of the Nam Khan River to the east, and on this pavilion stood a young novice. His name was Tip, and he was doing homework. He clearly stations himself here most nights in hopes of practicing English, because he was eager to ask and answer questions with me. He was 17, he’d been a novice for many years, his wat was across the river, America sounded interesting… I didn’t have time to ask for a photo or chat with him further, because a couple teenage Laotian boys entered the pavilion, and Buddhist monks aren’t supposed to be alone with women. I didn’t want him getting in trouble, so I said goodbye and he said, “I hope you have many happinesses in your travels in Laos.”
I like to pretend that my short time in Ayutthaya, ancient capital of the kingdom of Siam, was spent in the manner of a ruler from that era: whisked from magnificent stupa to impressive monument in my personal chariot, all doors open to me. In reality, of course, I bounced along in the back of a tuk-tuk and paid the same entrance fees as everyone else, but when the afternoon sun is beating down and you only have a few hours in a place when you’d planned to have two days, you have to inject a little romance where you can.
Ayutthaya is a World Heritage site, and as such it’s better maintained than many tourist sites in Thailand. All the guidebooks suggest renting bikes to get from one site to another, which sounds nice in theory, but in practice it still means dodging terrifying traffic and sucking in mouthfuls of exhaust. Some friends did bike to different temples, and they said those were the problems exactly, plus it’s super hot, of course. So all in all, I’m glad I paid $20 for a driver to take me door-to-door for three hours.
The city of Ayutthaya was founded in the 14th century, and at its peak at around 1700 CE it had 1 million inhabitants, which made it one of the largest cities in the world. In 1767 the Burmese invaded, burning the city to the ground and committing blasphemous acts like cutting the heads off the stone buddhas in the temples. The kingdom would be fought over and rebuilt over the next few years, but the capital was never re-founded on the same site, and it’s remained in ruins to this day.
Some of the temples seemed to be out of use, while others contained buddha statues, yellow or saffron cloth coverings, and other signs that they were still active places of worship.
Guards stationed themselves by the head in the tree of Wat Phra Mahathat to make sure people took respectful photographs. It’s considered disrespectful to put your head above that of a buddha or monk, so any time you’re in a temple you have to watch yourself. Since this particular head somehow got wrapped up in the roots of this tree, it’s even lower than statues usually are, and you have to kneel on the ground to make sure you’re not breaking any taboos.
I visited Wat Phra Sri Sanphet, which a fellow American told me was the site of some scenes from Mortal Kombat–look familiar, anyone?
The reclining buddha of Phra Budhasalyart, according to legend, got in that position because a giant was boasting about how big he was, and how therefore he didn’t need to pay proper respect to the buddha. The buddha made himself bigger than the giant and just laid out on his side, like, hey, what’s up, we can play this game if you really want to. (I presume the giant was humbled, though accounts don’t say.)
The last stop of the day, Wat Phu Khao Thong, was one of the nicest simply because the sun was going down and the site was deserted. Once my driver dropped me off at the bridge that served as the entrance, it was just me and a determined evening jogger as the sun descended and the temple folded itself in shadow. It was a peaceful end to a busy afternoon of temple-hopping, and kudos to my driver for arranging it that way.