A visit to Emei Shan, China’s holy mountain

Emei Shan (Mount Emei) is one of China’s four holy Buddhist mountains, a place of pilgrimage for nearly two thousand years, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Traditionally, pilgrims hiked to the top of the mountain, a distance of about 30 kilometres, while stopping off at temples and monasteries on the way. Many monasteries still provide overnight accommodation. Modern pilgrims can take the easier option of ascending by bus and cable car, and staying in hotels.

Like important pilgrimage sites elsewhere, many now visit Emei Shan for reasons other than religion. The walk up the mountain is the pinnacle of the experience, and is reputedly a place of enlightenment in the Buddhist tradition. Pilgrims and hikers often use thick bamboo poles to assist their climb, a reminder of the wooden ‘Pilgrim’s Staff” traditionally used for the Camino de Santiago, the long walk to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain.

Emei Shan is 3099 metres high (10,167 ft), providing superb views of misty mountain slopes reminiscent of classic Chinese landscape paintings, lush forests, mirror like lakes, waterfalls and rushing streams. The temples and monasteries, of which there are more than one hundred, vary in age and style, and are often constructed to best fit into the landscape and exploit the views. Those interested in temples, Buddhism and Chinese history will find Emei Shan very rewarding, while hikers can enjoy the natural world and challenging walks.

Our friends from Chengdu observed that the admission fees paid to each temple or monastery, given the numbers of visitors, indicated a substantial source of income. An interesting point. Religious institutions often do have a very successful business model, whether in China or elsewhere, one that supplies more revenue than required to simply meet the spiritual needs of their devotees.

Before arriving at Emei Shan, our friends mentioned that on the return journey of a couple of hours to Chengdu, Sichuan’s capital city, they could take us on the ‘Narrow Road.’ Not quite understanding the meaning of this option, we agreed. During our several days on the mountain, they kept us informed about weather conditions, eventually explaining that the absence of rain meant that we could undertake the trip as there would be no landslides, and the road would not be too slippery. Should we have been more alert and a little alarmed? This road was not one of China’s modern tollways, or even a modest country road. It was something much more challenging. But that is another story.

This is my contribution to Fiona’s A-Z Guidebook, this month starting with the letter ‘E’.

A-Z Guidebook Badge


Graffiti: street art or vandalism?

Graffiti has been around for centuries. The Romans in Pompeii and the Vikings in the Orkneys showed a distinct bawdy tone in theirs. Graffiti can portray the spectrum of artistic and linguistic expression, from brilliance and innovation to blind rage, loss, despair, and garbage. It can be political, apolitical, satirical, sardonic, funny, sad, artistic, whimsical, ribald, or just plain vandalism, depending on the viewer.

Graffiti is usually defined as illicit drawings scribbled, scratched or sprayed on a wall or other surface in a public place. Authorities are often ambivalent about graffiti, but recognise that prohibition usually doesn’t work. Sometimes therefore, limited acceptance occurs. In Melbourne, the city council authorises controlled street art that has become a major tourist attraction. In Valparaiso, Chile, the local authorities have at times commissioned and encouraged street art, although recent moves in Chile suggest a negative approach through plans to regulate graffiti by punishing parents for the actions of their children.

On my daily train commute to work in Melbourne, I was always amused by the slogan painted on a bridge beside the train track: ‘Don’t vote, it only encourages them’


Here are some recent photos taken in inner suburban Brunswick, Melbourne.


Valparaiso was once the major port on the South American Pacific coast for ships crossing the Straights of Magellan/Cape Horn to and from the Atlantic Ocean. When the Panama Canal opened in 1914 Valparaiso lost most of its maritime port trade and declined. The city is now having something of a resurgence, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s renowned for its colourful housing, lanes and stairways, its ascencores (funicular railway system) linking the steep residential neighbourhoods with the port, and has some truly noteworthy graffiti.

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Even an old car can become a canvas in Valparaiso
Even an old car can become a canvas in Valparaiso, as the old graffiti behind it fades away


I left the previous photo at a wonky angle to allow those with Spanish skills (or who want to translate) the chance to read the sign. Deposed former President Salvador Allende’s image appears on the red door, and I’ve written more about Chile and Allende here.


If you might be offended by strong language or sexual connotations, don’t look at the next photo.

Graffiti in Fort Kochi, India
Graffiti in Fort Kochi, India

Rome 2008

I’ve left the worst for last. Without claiming to be the arbiter of good taste, for which I am grossly underqualified, I share the general view that some graffiti is bad. In Melbourne, crude scratches mar the windows of many expensive new train carriages, and pathetic and meaningless swirls of paint appear in the wrong places. However, generally in Melbourne and elsewhere, there is a level of respect for older buildings and surfaces.

I haven’t selected Rome as my candidate for a bad graffiti award because of dislike for the city, as it’s one of my favourites. I was dismayed to visit in 2008 and discover that large numbers of classic centuries-old stone buildings were indiscriminately and unattractively sprayed, with no message, appeal or communication. Perhaps that was the point: a sign of urban decay, despair, powerlessness? It was the year of Silvio Berlusconi’s return to political leadership as prime minister for the third time, surely evidence that Italy had fundamentally lost its way. Of course, there may be other factors not readily apparent to a visitor.

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Rae&Stu2 289

Good and Evil in Santiago, Chile

I innocently booked a hotel room in a central location in Santiago in 2008, not knowing that it was in a street holding extremely emotional, divisive and disturbing memories. I chose Londres in fashionable Barrio Paris-Londres, a quaint and attractive neighbourhood with its winding cobblestoned streets, ornate metal street lights, and stylish historical facades. The photo of Calle Londres (London Street) was taken from my hotel room window.


Barrio Paris-Londres, is a vibrant area with excellent restaurants, cafes and bars, is a 5 minute walk to San Francisco Church (Chile’s oldest Colonial era building), a few more minutes to the city centre, and has easy access to Santiago’s excellent underground train system, the city park with a stunning view of the city’s backdrop of the snow-capped Andes, and is near the best lively inner city suburbs.

A little history is needed to appreciate the nature of the evil secret lurking just down the street from the hotel. In 1970 after a fair and democratic election, and proper legal rules being followed, Salvador Allende, a socialist, became Chile’s President. In a USA-backed military coup in 1973, Allende died and was replaced by General Augusto Pinochet, who headed a brutal regime until 1990 that engaged in a terror campaign against the opposition; seizing, kidnapping, torturing and killing many thousands of its opponents.

On my visit 35 years later, Santiago was alive. I went for a 5 minute stroll from the hotel to Avenue O’Higgins, the major thoroughfare through the city, and saw thousands of protesters chanting slogans, waving banners, and tearing cobblestones from the street and hurling them at police and other authorities, whose armoured vehicles moved in using water cannons to disperse the crowds. I later discovered that the protest, one of many around that time, was about the state of education in Chile.

Mrs Nomadic and I became fond of nearby Cafe Radical, where the patrons seemed to have stepped from a 1960’s or 70’s film; most sipping red wine, ostentatiously smoking, the men frequently wearing a beret, the women elegantly alluring, in an atmosphere of equality, debate and style.

Cafe Radical, Tinto and atmosphere.
Cafe Radical, a cheap glass of tinto with radical 60s atmosphere.

After a few days in the city, we noticed a nightly phenomenon in our street. There were large gatherings outside a particular graffiti covered building . One night it was music, the next night a screen was erected outside the building and seemingly endless pictures of people were displayed while their biographical details were detailed over the sound system. This was in memory of the disappeared, victims of the Pinochet regime’s atrocities. 38 Londres was where many of the victims were taken to be detained, tortured and killed.

A 2008 commemoration of the disappeared at 38 Londres.
A 2008 commemoration of the disappeared at 38 Londres.

Like many countries with a fractured and polarised past, Chile has not yet exorcised the demons of history.

In spite of efforts in the late 1970’s by Chilean military connections to erase the memory of 38 Londres by altering the address to 40 Londres, the persistence of those who did not want this to become a forgotten era prevailed, and 38 Londres is now a National Monument, open to the public as a place of remembrance.

This photo of an image of Salvador Allende was taken in Valparaiso, Chile’s atmospheric port city, and the site of much impressive graffiti.


A Mekong River Meander

One of the world’s great rivers, the Mekong, rises in the Tibetan Himalayas, flows through China, provides a border between Myanmar and Laos, then Laos and Thailand, before journeying through Cambodia and Vietnam to the sea.

The 196 kilometre road journey from Nong Khai to Chiang Khan in northern Thailand keeps the river in sight for most of the trip, and Laos across the water. Travel guides rightly describe this as one of the most scenic trips in Thailand. As a drive of about 4 hours without stops, it’s an easy day trip allowing for local sights.

My journey began at Nong Khai, a small riverside city that has hosts a lively river trade, and the Friendship Bridge between Thailand and Laos, the closest border crossing to Vientiane, the Lao capital, about 25 kilometres north-west.

Sometimes the river valley is a few kilometres wide, while at others times forested hills plunge straight into the river. The journey offers beautiful river scenery, the varying moods of the river itself, running wide and deep, or more treacherously through rapids, islands and shallower water, bordered by fertile productive agriculture of seemingly endless mixed uses, the opposite of monoculture – rice paddies, coconut palms, fields of pineapples, many varieties of vegetables, banana palms, papayas, ponds for fish – along with sections of  lush rainforest.

There are other attractions: important and historic forest wats (Buddhist temples), riverside villages and towns far removed from urban Thailand, a waterfall in the rainforest, and the often surprising and varied sights of rural life.

Impressively along the way, there are kilometres of paved and fenced riverside walks for local use, even in tiny villages, a reminder yet again how many ‘poorer’ countries focus on improvements for the whole population as many wealthier first world countries limit access to those who can pay.

Laos always lies on the other side of the river, sometimes appearing prominently like the riverside buildings of Vientiane, but more usually in a less populated and wilder form than the Thai side.

Chiang Khan is proudly re-inventing itself, a town of 5000 or 6000 residents stretched along the river. Most old teak wooden houses and shophouses have been restored and renovated, and tourism has brought increased wealth. The style is retro chic. The bicycle is a popular form of transport and a town motif.

As a visitor who prefers that tourism does not cause a locality to overly pander to us and ultimately lose its identity, to me Chiang Khan is doing well. I have seen enough beautiful localities transformed into false and inauthentic playgrounds for short-term visitors, be they the Costa Brava in Spain, or some of the beaches and islands in Asia.

Chiang Khan currently has the advantage of being a destination mainly for Thais. I only noticed about 4 or 5 other farang (foreigners/Europeans) on my five-day visit, and certainly, signage, menus, the absence of western food and other indicators suggest the absence of a western invasion, hopefully to remain so.

Once in Chiang Khan, if you rise at 6am, it will still be hot (27 degrees celsius when I checked) and there is an opportunity to see monks receiving alms in the street over the next hour or so, as well as to view the river emerging through the morning mist.

Dawn on the Mekong at Chiang Khan
Dawn on the Mekong at Chiang Khan

Later in the day a relaxing stroll is in order after watching the fishermen negotiate the river currents, At night, particularly on weekends when Bangkok visitors arrive, things get busier. Join the promenade to sample the sights: street food everywhere, musicians playing traditional Isan (northern Thai) music as well as modern styles, girls in tribal outfits dancing in the street, cyclists and strollers enjoying the festive atmosphere, eating, drinking ….

Sunset is best seen next to the river as a few small fishing boats return home.

The hills of Laos
The hills of Laos


Travel Options

Car rental from Udon Thani (1 hour south of Nong Khai) is quite reasonable. Avis quoted TBT560 (about AU$22) per day plus insurance excess cover for a small automatic gearbox car.

Driving yourself might be a reasonable option, noting that Thais drive on the left. Once away from the bigger city centres, Nong Khai and Udon Thani, traffic is quite light. Most major traffic signs are in Thai and English. However, some of the sights off the road are only signposted in Thai. Also, parking could become an issue.

I opted for a car and driver. I recommend Mr Chang from Nong Khai (Phone 081-369787) whom I contacted through Mut Mee Garden Guesthouse. He is relaxed and pleasant, and drove safely and reasonably; an important attribute to me as I have had more than my share of suicidal Thai drivers whose main mission in life is to speed excessively and always opt to pass on the most dangerous corners and crests. We agreed on TBT3000 (AU$115 or US$81) for the day.

The car and driver option makes the journey more flexible and independent, while it does mean missing out on some of the experiences, positive and negative, of public transport in remoter parts of a foreign country.

A hired motorcycle an option. 

Boat travel is not available, presumably because some of the river along this stretch is not navigable.

Bus connections are available, but there is no single bus trip connecting Nong Khai with Chiang Khan. I decided that it would take too much time to be feasible in my circumstances.


Chiang Khan

Tonkong Guesthouse for basic inexpensive accommodation. TBT700 for a double per night (AU$28 or around US$19) with Air Con, breakfast and free WiFi. Own bathroom and toilet. Room 8 on the first floor is the best room with windows looking directly onto the river, and the room opens onto a guest terrace that also overlooks the river.

Located between Soi 2 & 3.

Nong Khai

Mut Mee Garden Guesthouse (mentioned in all the guidebooks) is a good budget choice with varying prices, TBT1400 (AU$56 or about US$38) for the best rooms (try Arun – Room A) – with Air Con, own bathroom and balcony overlooking the river. The best room is Arun (room A). The riverside restaurant is a good place to while away some time. Inform the cooks that you prefer spicy food if you prefer real Thai tastes.

Wild in Bangkok

After many visits to Bangkok over the years, last week I saw something extraordinary, something that seemed unimaginable. This was in Banglamphu, one of the oldest areas of Bangkok.

In the klong (canal) outside my hotel, the water was being churned, splashed and swirled around by what looked like a Loch Ness Monster: a long tail thrashing in and out of the water, a slender reptilian head emerging, forked tongue flashing, eddies and swirls in the water, then another head appearing.

My mind was also swirling. Perhaps it was some mutant, malformed by exposure to the less than pristine water.

I turned to point out the extraordinary event unfolding 30 metres away to some locals, who were sitting in the shade of the big trees by the canal and enjoying a cup of tea and conversation. My embarassingly meagre Thai vocabulary did not equip me to do anything other than point dramatically in the direction of the primaeval happenings, now transformed into a couple of large creatures swimming on the surface of the water. With the usual Thai response of being polite and patient when dealing with a deranged farang (foreigner), they smiled understandingly, indicating that the spectacle was the equivalent of being alerted to the fact that there were cars driving on the road. This was an everyday occurrence.

After some comments in Thai, eventually one of the spectators said ‘komodo’, and everything started to make sense. So, my astonishment was just fed by ignorance. In fact, it’s well known that Bangkok’s waterways are frequented by the Water Monitor (varanus salvator), a species that lives throughout South East Asia and can grow to 3.2 metres long. 

Thailand’s Water Monitor, hia in Thai, looks familiar to Australian eyes, because it’s a close relative of the goanna, or Lace Monitor (varanus variius), which grows up to 2.1 metres long, and is also related to Indonesia’s komodo.

A young sunbaker.
A young sunbaker.

A refreshing dip in the klong
A refreshing dip in the klong

When camping in the bush or by the sea back home in Australia, it’s always nice to be visited by a goanna or two as they wander around the campsite using their forked tongues to smell for food.

I never expected to see a similar sight in the middle of a big Asian city. Travel definitely broadens the mind.

Return to Dali: travels in Yunnan province, China

A quiet afternoon in Dali
A quiet afternoon in Dali

Two decades ago, I visited the ancient walled city of Dali in China’s Yunnan Province and left with vivid and fond memories. I returned last year, curious to see whether the city and its surrounds had changed, and a little apprehensive that my recollections would not be matched by the reality.

Then, transport to and from Dali was uncomfortable. The sleeper bus from Kunming offered a coffin-like bed on bumpy roads, so that sleep was virtually impossible. The return trip by day bus was even more challenging; no leg room, and no toilet stop for many, many hours. This time, the train from Kunming in Soft Sleeper class (the best train class in China) and then onwards to Lijiang was bliss.  Mrs Nomadic gave this mode of travel her unqualified approval.

Dali is picturesque, wedged between the impressive Cangshan mountain range (reaching 4122 metres high), and forty kilometre long Lake Erhei. Like much of Yunnan province, Dali and surrounds is famous for its ethnic minorities, and their distinctive cultures, traditions and attire.

One of the highlights of my earlier trip was to journey by boat to a village market across Erhai Lake, enjoying the reflections of the mountains in the water, seeing the old Buddhist temple located on an island, small fishing boats, and traditional cormorant fishing.  The most memorable images are of the village market: the women and girls all dressed in strikingly colourful outfits.

Twenty years ago, Dali was a popular place for backpackers. A couple of main streets had numerous cafes, restaurants, and shops catering for their interests, including the quaintly named Salvador Dali Cafe. Besides boat trips on the lake, and opportunities to see traditional village life nearby, there were, and are, many outdoor activities like cycling, walking, hiking and climbing pursuits available.

In two decades, much has changed in Dali, as in China. One of the most striking differences in Dali is the level of domestic tourism. Even in the couple of streets where westerners were so visible 20 years ago, they are now relatively rare in a sea of Chinese faces. I like seeing this change, as part of China recovering its identity.

The old town has spread, but rather well generally, in a manner reflecting increasing prosperity. A short walk of a few hundred metres outside the city walls two decades ago took you into the town’s rural fringes, up the hill to catch the view to Lake Erhei with the town in the foreground, or looking in the other direction, to the peaks of the Cangshan mountain range. A slightly longer walk allowed you to stroll around Dali’s famous 3 pagodas. Now the 3 pagodas are enclosed, with a large park for buses and cars, and access by paid admission only.

On my latest visit, I initially wondered whether the traditional dress worn by the women in Dali was part of a tourist thing. Generally this was not so, as traditional dress is still worn in the locals-only markets, both in Dali itself and in the outlying villages, whether the women and girls are working or not.

How true are recollections from twenty years ago? The lake now has a road right around it (something new, I think), the water doesn’t seem as crystal clear, cormorant fishing is now an event to see on a day tour, and motors and pulleys located on the side of the lake haul in large fishing nets dropped out far into the water by boat. Not quite so romantic and quaint, but life evolves.

Thank you Dali.

This is my contribution to Fiona’s A-Z Guidebook, this month starting with the letter ‘D’.

I have posted some tribute photos to the women of Dali here.