Japan part Ni: kyoto, nara, osaka

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In honor of Sakura, the internationally renowned spring cherry blossom season, we continue our journey through Japan.  Next destination: Kyoto.  One of the most magical cities in Japan, it feels like you’re a character in a novel from eons ago when you’re here.  Literally, if this city does not make you feel like you’re in Memoirs of a Geisha or Shogun, then Sayonara, Felicia.

Kyoto has a dark magic feel to it, the city of geishas.  You just know there’s secrets hidden in the dark, wooded architecture.

If these rice paper walls could talk…

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4 days in Bangkok

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Bangkok, Oriental setting, but the city don’t know what the city is getting — Murray Head

Bangkok is an amazing city.  It’s the type of city that will pick you up, turn you upside down and shake you.  It’s crazy, exciting, fun, and always a whirlwind.  It’s very seedy and uncomfortable in parts, and yet the most luxurious high end classy experience in others.  You can’t catch your breath here, there’s always night markets or bars or beach or grand palaces to see.  Some of the world’s most opulent architecture exists smack dab in the middle of this metropolis, I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.

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As you drive into the city from Suvarnabhumi airport, you’ll see the skyline filled with skyscrapers.  Bangkok is a financial center for Southeast Asia, with a lot of commerce and business, despite mostly being known for having a huge tourism trade.  The Chao Praya is the large river that runs through the city, and there are any resorts and hotels dotted along the banks of this body of water.

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The best thing about staying on the shores of the river is that each hotel has a water taxi that will take you to and from town.  They’re the fanciest ferries you’ll ever see.  You’ll pass lots of high rise condominium buildings and yachts, and even a giant reclining Buddha.  He is very popular amongst locals and tourists alike.

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The best thing about Thailand’s busy streets is that there are open air markets on every corner, really, everywhere you turn.  Try some exotic fruits! Fresh, juicy, tropical flavors burst in your mouth, it’ll change your life and make you hate supermarkets.

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There is an abundance of it, and it’s so fresh and cheap, you could make all your meals fresh fruit and no one would fault you for it.

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i’ll rambutan you for it

If you’re fancy, head to the Mandarin Oriental hotel for tea.  This extravagant hotel boasts Lord Jim’s, one of Bangkok’s 4 star dining experiences.

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tea at the mandarin oriental

Next door is the fabulously trendy China House, which has sleep, sexy decor and elevated new Asian cuisine.

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Close to our hotel, was the Asiatique shopping center, which is a lively entertainment district at night.  Visitors like to catch shows, ride on the big wheel or dine at any of the areas many restaurants on the river.

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We had a decent dinner at its al fresco Thai spot, Baan Khanitha.  When in Thailand, you must drink young coconut milk.

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There’s lots to see here and it’s pretty family friendly (not so much the case for other locations in Bangkok).  This bloke allowed me to take his picture because there’s no way in hell I would let parasitic fish bite my feet after biting other people’s feet.

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On your first full day in the capital city, make your way to Wat Pho, one of Bangkok’s oldest temples, thought to be from King Rama I’s reign.  Buddhism is the official religion of Thailand and there are MANY temples and shrines throughout the country.  This, however, is probably one of the most iconic.

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There’s no time like now because this place is always crowded.  You will be elbow to elbow with people from all over the world, and it can be very congested at the most popular sites, so try to get there as early as possible.

You’ll pass more markets.  Don’t worry, the mangosteens and longans will still be there when you’re done.

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Make your way to the reclining Buddha.  This symbolizes Buddha’s entry into nirvana and the end of reincarnation, and is therefore a popular image in Buddhism.  This particular gold-plated statue is 46 meters long, and 15 meters high.  He’s gorgeous.

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maxin’ and relaxin’

Thai architecture is some of the most striking in the world.  I can’t get enough of it, I’ve spent hours looking at pictures of their tiered stupas and temples.

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praise the roof

So intricate, so extraordinary.  The thought and planning that goes into every mosaic or decorative element.  It’s incredible.

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Phra Ubosot is the term to designate a main hall used for Buddhist rituals.  There’s a gold Buddha that sits below a tiered umbrella, which is supposed to represent Thailand.

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Wat Pho is known as the birthplace of Thai massage, an ancient practice of wellness, now popularized and practiced all over the world.  Based on pressure points, it’s like acupuncture but with direct touch.  You’re going to have to get a massage while in Thailand–literally like $10 for an hour on some of the beach towns.  It’s the best.

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Another must see (there’s a lot of them) are the cloisters of Phra Rabiang.  These halls are where you can find hundreds of Buddhas all from varying time periods and regions all brought to the temple, restored and covered in gold leaf by King Rama.

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On your way back to the hotel, you’ll pass many sites including the UN complex and the Royal Palace, Dusit.  Recently, Thailand’s beloved and long serving King Bhumibol passed away, so the country continues its mourning as his son is set to ascend to the throne.

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The next day, visit the Grand Palace.  They’re not overstating with this name. It is a huge complex of over 2 million square feet, where the Kings of Siam held court since the 1782 until 1925, when absolute monarchy started its decline into abolishment.

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Garudas are hybrid bird man creatures that represent a hybrid of Hinduism and Buddhism.  The Prius of mythical creatures, if you will.  Their brut force and violence are used in a positive way as stewards of guardianship around the country.

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stupefying stupa

Again, the detail!  These patterns were all hand lain tile and glass!

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Gilded thai architecture is something to behold once in your life.  Astounding.

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The palace grounds also boast lovely frescoes depicting scenes from history and Thai folklore.

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The hallways are filled with these images which have been immaculately restored.

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Wat Phra Kaew is the temple of the Emerald Buddha.  The Buddha is wonderful, but the building its housed in, its Phra Ubosot, is something else.

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Depending on the different seasons, the Emerald Buddha has different outfits.  Here he is debuting his Summer finery.

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Garudas and their sworn enemy, the snake Naga adorn the exterior of the ubosot.

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I just can’t.  It’s incredible craftsmanship.  I can barely tie my shoes.

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I couldn’t get enough of this and could literally take pictures for days.  One of the most beautiful manmade places in the world for sure.  THE DETAIL THOUGH.

When you’re all splendored out, shock your senses in another way by fighting through throngs of people at Pratunam Market.  This is one of the cheapest places you can buy clothing and textiles.  This is where you go to buy the ubiquitous elephant pants and Chang beer t-shirts that every young tourist wears (including me, sorry not sorry, it’s hot as hell in Thailand).

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Spend the afternoon exploring a different kind of manmade wonder, a shopping mall. Bangkok has a ton of gargantuan shopping centers I’ve seen.  There’s so many of them, and they’re all crowded somehow.  One of the best is Central World, conveniently located a few large city blocks from the market.

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Central World has a large open air market in front of it selling stalls after stalls of glorious food.  Pad Thai, while I know is very basic and American of me, is one of my favorite dishes of all time.  I ate my weight in it while in Thailand because they have many street vendors and restaurants that serve it up like the woman below.

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There’s so much food here that I almost forgot about shopping.  That’s how amazing it is. There’s something else you should try while in Thailand.  It may be the most polarizing thing in the world, with people either declaring war on it or greedily hoarding it away.  It’s the durian.  This spiky fruit is like no other, literally there is no other food that tastes like it.  It smells like hell, but it is buttery and smooth and delicious.  I’m of the unpopular opinion, but I enjoy it in small doses, like when tripping through Asia.  It is not allowed in any hotels, so don’t try to take a souvenir with you.  They’ll ban you, for real.  Worth a try though, seriously.

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Tonight head to the infamous Patpong red light district of Bangkok.  It’s something worth seeing.  I’m not going to lie, some of the things I saw there grossed me out.  And it’s not like I was heading to the hidden fetish clubs or anything, but more than anything it made me feel fortunate to not have to be in certain situations in life.  There’s a lot of characters around, many that probably know better, but many that probably traveled to this part of the world for this purpose.  This is not an area recommended for kids.

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It’s always struck me that Bangkok has such a lurid underbelly because traditionally, Thai people are very pious.  I guess sometimes you have to do what you have to do to survive and that’s led to somewhat of an evolution in culture.  But, as it most places in Thailand, there’s thriving night markets around the area, and there are lots of bars and pool halls that aren’t as depraved as others.

After finishing our trip throughout southeast asia, which you’ll read about someday I’m sure, we returned to Bangkok for another full day–always recommended because there’s always more to see.

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Ride the skytrain to Siam Station, one of the most popular stops to get to all the malls. Siam Square not only has all of the huge shopping complexes, but also has street vendors everywhere.  On your walk from the station to Siam Center, grab some street foot.  It smells too good, will power not strong enough.

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Siam Center is a huge plaza.  There’s a huge Muay Thai boxing ring in the middle of it, for some added entertainment benefit.

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There’s pedestrian bridges that link the big centers, and MBK is a more understated center, but they have an international food court, and that in itself is notable.

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Now, Thailand is famous for its gorgeous floating markets.  These tourist attractions hail back to the days when water commerce was a necessity of life–not so much now with your Amazons and your drones and what have you.  But these visually aesthetic markets draw in a lot of people and rightfully so.  The most famous is Damnoen Saduak which is about a 100 km journey from Bangkok and from what people tell me, it’s super touristy and expensive and crowded.  That was too far for me this time, and maybe one day I’ll see it, but there are lots of local markets in Bangkok that are more easily accessible.

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Taling Chan is a floating market that’s more like floating kitchens, but the perfume of seafood grilling makes it worth visiting.

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Save your appetite though because you’re heading to Or Tor Kor market, where fried delicacies can be seen to the horizon.

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More pad thai!

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There’s fruit too, but whatever.  Fried food!

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Speaking of fried foods, just down the road is Chatuchak Market.  This maybe rivals the flea markets in Paris as my favorite outdoor market.  There’s an unending abyss of stalls selling antiques, ceramics, clothes, home goods, art, fabric, animals, food, books, you name it.  It’s like the best flea market swap meet in the world.

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Chatuchak is open on the weekends and has 8,000 stalls.  The clock tower in the center of the market was built to commemorate King Bhumibol’s 60th birthday in 1987.  Use it as a meeting place because you can very easily fall down the rabbit hole of shopping and get lost.

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Get a foot massage at any one of the parlors located in the market.  Your feet are going to hurt after walking around for a few hours here.  Before heading back on the skytrain, grab a McDonald’s parfait with pandan sticky rice and mango.  Love foreign McDs treats.

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Siam Paragon is probably one of the nicest malls I’ve ever seen.  And I’m a bit of a mall connoisseur.  There are top brands and luxuries from all over the world.  There’s a Garrett Popcorn and Fauchon and Laduree for pete’s sake.  We can’t get a Garrett Popcorn in Los Angeles, but they’ve got one in Bangkok.

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There’s also a spendy international food court, with meat on a stick, which is a great way to end this trip and any trip, really.

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Actually, there’s one thing that would be even better…more durian 😉

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lovers in japan: tokyo and mt fuji

Japan is a special place.  Its culture is unique and traditions well preserved.  Tokyo is probably the most interesting city in the world, as it is a city of contradictions.  There’s an avant garde, boldness to it, but yet there’s also a timid sensibility, too.  It’s both modern and ancient, debaucherous and pious.  The food, the facilities, everything is deliberated over and planned out, but there’s spontaneity around every corner.  It’s edgy, real and fearless.  Yet, for a city of its size, it’s unimaginably safe and tidy.

Japanese citizens have a sense of responsibility in keeping their homeland organized and neat, and proudly show off their incredible technology and forward thinking nature.  I love everything about it.  There’s so much to see and do in Japan, and often times not enough money.

turning japanese

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know before you go: Siem Reap (REP)

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Siem Reap is the airport that serves Angkor Wat, one of the world’s great ancient ruins.  If you ever get the chance, go!  It’s an incredibly humbling place to visit, you will be in awe of the engineering and intricacy of these ancient structures.

Although it is Cambodia’s busiest airport (yes, even busier than that of the capital Phnom Penh), it’s still pretty tiny with only 10 gates.  But, this makes it easy to navigate.  It serves basically every regional Asian airline you can think of, with popular flights to and from Thailand and Vietnam.  It is the hub for Cambodia Angkor and Sky Angkor Airlines.

The design is very classic Khmer with the sloping roofs and when arriving, it makes you feel like you’re already visiting the sacred temples.  And you basically are, as it is located a mere 5 km from Angkor Wat. And about 4 km from the city center where all the restaurants and gem markets are abound.  You will (siem) reap the benefits when you visit this culturally rich area.

Remember: ✈️ = wat’s going on to ✈️✈️✈️✈️✈️ = turn down for wat

Convenience to the city: ✈️✈️✈️✈️ (a short taxi or tuk tuk ride away)

Ease of navigating through terminals: ✈️✈️✈️ (there is just one building)

Convenience of check in/security lines: ✈️✈️ (customs isn’t the fastest and there’s a bit of scrutiny, consider getting an e-visa before you arrive)

Dining: ✈️✈️✈️ (it doesn’t have to be great for a regional airport, but there’s actually a Starbucks, a small Asian food court, Dairy Queen and two other coffeehouses)

Bathrooms: ✈️✈️  (could have more)

Charging stations/wifi: ✈️ (no wifi, sorry)

Amenities: ✈️✈️ (souvenir shops, bookstore, flower shop)

know before you go: Bangkok (BKK)

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Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand is one of the largest (4th) and busiest (20th) in the world.  Certainly it is the busiest in Thailand, as the popular tourism destination brings more than 50 million passengers through each year.  It is the hub for Thai and Bangkok airlines, so you’re likely to spend more than a few hours here if you’re heading to Chiang Mai or Phuket via those airlines.  I, in fact, have spent one night in Bangkok (Airport).  Sorry, not sorry.

Be aware that there are some unscrupulous individuals looking to pray on tourists by acting as unofficial tour guides and cab drivers.  Be safe and be careful, as these people can be very slick and in some cases have relationships with airport workers.  Check and double check that is via the most legitimate channel before going anywhere with anyone.

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It is about 16 miles from the city center, and depending on the traffic, it can take a long time to get there.  You can also get to and from the airport via rail.  There is one main terminal split into 7 concourses A-G with about 120 gates, with C-G serving international flights.

There’s a ton of things to see here, and it holds the distinction of being one of the most instagrammed airports in the world.  There’s statues depicting Thai folklore, there’s Garudas in the departure ticketing area.  There’s actual plays and live music depicting Thai legends before you even enter the main terminal.  It’s a great place to have a layover, but if you’re so inclined, there’s also a Novotel Hotel on site.

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There’s basically a high end mall’s worth of shops here: Armani, Burberry, Celine, Chanel, Chopard, Dior, Fendi, Ferragamo, Gucci, Hermes, Longchamp, Prada and Zegna.  There’s airline lounges abound, and I will say the Bangkok Airlines lounge has really great snacks and juices available.

The food options are just okay.  There are a lot of fast food options, asian and grab and go mostly, but there’s Burger King, Starbucks and a Kinramen, which has a decent bowl of ramen.  There’s a lot of Thai coffee shops and also a Mango Tree, which is an international chain.  The thing I don’t love is that the asian food is located near the asian airlines, while the western food is near the flights from US and Europe.  There’s a lot of walking involved in this airport.

Remember: ✈️ =  thai again to ✈️✈️✈️✈️✈️ = thai to stay here as long as possible

Convenience to the city: ✈️✈️  (taxi, rail, a little far from the city)

Ease of navigating through terminals: ✈️✈️✈️  (very large, a lot of walking)

Convenience of check in/security lines: ✈️✈️  (it’s a very busy airport)

Dining: ✈️✈️✈️  (could be better)

Bathrooms: ✈️✈️ (there could be more available, like I said there’s a lot of walking)

Charging stations/wifi: ✈️✈️✈️ (free wifi not available, decent amount of charging)

Amenities: ✈️✈️✈️✈️  (lots of things to see, Thai souvenir handicrafts and shops, airline lounges, observation deck)

 

 

24 hours in Hoi An, Vietnam

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Hoi An was easily my favorite stop in Vietnam.  It was a colonial trading post, and has a completely distinct feel from any other city in Vietnam.  One, the Old Town architecture preserves the history of this port city and adds to its charm.  Two, foreign influences laid the foundation of international sophistication since Hoi An was a stronghold for the Cham people in the spice trade centuries ago.

I only spent a very short day here while traveling through Vietnam, but that was more than enough time to enchant me and make me want to plan my trip back to this coastal town.

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know before you go: Tokyo Narita (NRT)

 

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Japan is one of my all time favorite traveling destinations; it’s also a busy layover spot to get to the rest of Asia.  It is amazing to me how a country can be universally reserved and orderly while being culturally avante garde.  Japan is an amazing contradiction of tradition and progress.  Unfortunately I’ve only been there twice, but hoping to go back many more times in my life.

Traveling to Japan, the tone is set when you arrive at Narita Tokyo International Airport (NRT).  This airport is huge and awesome and clean.  There are three terminals encompassing somewhere around ~155 gates. Terminal one is split into a North and South wing, with the North serving Delta/SkyTeam carriers (Aeromexico, Air France, China, China Eastern, China Southern, KLM, Korean, Vietnam), Hawaiian.  The South encompasses United/Star Alliance carriers (Air Canada, ANA, Egypt, EVA, Lufthansa, Singapore, South Africa, Swiss, Thai, Turkish) and Etihad.

Terminal 2 is where Japan Airlines operates along with American, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, FinnAir, Iberia, Qantas, Tam and a few airlines from other Asian countries.  Terminal 3 is for low cost carriers.  This airport is amazing for layovers as there’s a ton to do, but it is somewhat far from the city, so you can’t just make a quick trip into Edo itself (it’s 40 miles away) if you only have a few hours.

The food here is amazing, but I am biased because if I can get a decent bowl of ramen in an airport, it’s shooting to the top of the list (that’s right, Heathrow ;).  There’s your regular McDonald’s, Starbucks offerings for western food, but if you’re laying over in Japan, enjoy Japanese food! There’s udon, soba, sushi, curry, yakatori, ramen, donburi, tonkatsu shops, and a food bar where you can get ALL of these things.  I spend most of my time here stuffing myself (but if you’re flying on JAL, save your stomach for their snacks and yuzu sky time drink).

There are luxury and duty free shops galore: Ferragamo, Tiffany & Co, Burberry, etc, but I recommend hitting up the Japanese convenience stores, Hello Kitty, and souvenir shops.  Where else are you gonna get your last minute Japanese KitKats for your flight?

Remember: ✈️ = Sayonara, sucker  to ✈️✈️✈️✈️✈️ = domo arigato, mr. roboto

Convenience to the city: ✈️✈️✈️ (far from city center, BUT there are trains that go directly to the airport)

Ease of navigating through terminals: ✈️✈️✈️  (it’s very large, but there’s an abundance of clear signs in Japanese and English)

Convenience of check in/security lines: ✈️✈️  (it’s a very busy airport, but they go as efficiently as they can)

Dining: ✈️✈️✈️✈️✈️  (Japanese food bonanza)

Bathrooms: ✈️✈️✈️✈️ (like everything in Japan very clean, and has their musical toilets with the automatic seat covers)

Charging stations/wifi: ✈️✈️✈️ (free wifi not available, decent amount of charging)

Amenities: ✈️✈️✈️✈️✈️ (lots of things to see, shops, food, japanese culture, kabuki, shower and rooms available to rent, airline lounges, observation deck to watch takeoffs and landings–I want to live here)

 

 

know before you go: Taipei (TPE)

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The Taipei Taoyuan Airport (TPE) is one of the most popular layover spots to and from the US to any destination in Asia (serves as a hub for China and Eva Air).  It is so popular, they’re planning on adding a whole new terminal in the next few years to increase the population traveling through by about 45 million/year (that’s like 80 million total)!

I have been through this airport several times to and from Asia, and it never disappoints (even when you’ve missed your flight due to delays and have an unexpected extra night here before being re-routed through another unplanned destination before going home, oh and by the way, they’ve lost your luggage–luckily, there are loungers that are pretty comfortable to sleep in).  There’s a gym where you can shower for free, arcade games, playground areas, a library, and massage areas to pass your time.  And everything is super clean here.

However, it can be confusing to navigate for not having technically that many gates (~ 40).   First of all, it is located about 30 minutes from Taipei, so plan accordingly, as traffic can be a bear.  Once you get there, it’s pretty big for only having two terminals.  Terminal 1 has concourse A (north) and B (south).  Terminal 2 is split into concourse C (south) and D (north).  It’s a little counterintuitive.  Terminals are connected by a SkyTrain (although not the easiest to get to); concourses are connected by the main halls (immigration, passport check, etc). Lounges are on the 4th floor, the departures happen from the 3rd floor, while the arrivals are herded to the 2nd floor from the same gates.  There’s a lot of up down, down up happening in this airport. Fortunately, there are a lot of signs in both Mandarin and English, which helps a lot.

Terminal 1: Emirates, Vietnam, Malaysia, Cathay, etc (flights to most Asian countries)

Terminal 2: Delta, United, Eva, China, China Southern, China Eastern, Singapore, Japan, KLM (flights to non-Asian countries)

Once in your concourse, it gets easier.  There are a lot of restroom facilities, breast feeding rooms, cultural displays, and restaurants–mostly fast casual.

The food choices are mostly Taiwanese/Asian inspired except for standard Starbucks, McDonalds and Subway.  I had an above average Taiwanese beef noodle soup in the Terminal 2 food court.  The shopping has a lot of local Taiwanese souvenirs, teas, aboriginal gifts, but not so much in terms of luxury boutiques (for some reason I only remember Van Cleef & Arpels and Bvlgari).

The best thing about this airport are the themed gates.  Namely one…the Hello Kitty gate.  Eva Air features a Hello Kitty flight, so one of their gates is decked out in all her glory.  IMG_0602.jpg

Remember: ✈️ = goodbye, kitty to ✈️✈️✈️✈️✈️ = hello, kitty

Ease of navigating through terminals: ✈️✈️

Convenience of check in/security lines: ✈️✈️✈️ leaving Taipei (the luggage carts are free), but immigration line on arrival was ✈️✈️

Dining: ✈️✈️✈️ (not bad for Asian food, not the best for variety)

Bathrooms:✈️✈️✈️✈️ (very clean facilities and a plus for availability of free shower)

Charging stations/wifi: ✈️✈️✈️  (free wifi available)

Amenities: ✈️✈️✈️✈️ (gym, arcade, cultural exhibits, Hello Kitty, airline lounges, places to sleep, however I expect more variety from duty free shopping)