Explore the Charm of Old Geisha Districts: Visit the Historical Streets in Kyoto

When in Kyoto, follow in the footsteps of Geikos and Maikos down the narrow, charming cobblestoned streets. Take a walk through the pleasure districts, where teahouses, restaurants and bars, as well as Geisha residences line the historic districts of Kyoto. Red paper lanterns indicate you are in one of the four remaining Geisha areas.

Red lanterns of Pontocho-dori Street

Wood blocks with calligraphy names hanging above or to the side of doors indicate this is a geisha residence, featuring the names of the residing Maikos.

Geisha House: Maiko name tags indicating who lives in this household

You will spot Geikos and Maikos rushing down the cobbled streets as they run between appointments to entertain wealthy business men or foreign dignitaries. During the day Maikos are dashing down the streets for cultural lessons in song, music, dance and tea ceremonies. You have to be a member of clubs to enjoy Geisha entertainment.

Geikos are in high esteem: In Kyoto Geishas are referring to themselves as Geikos, meaning ”women of art”, while the apprentices are called Maiko. A Maiko starts her training to become Geikos at a very early age, around 12, and is living as an apprentice at a Geisha house for about 5 years, receiving training in the art of entertaining and traditional culture, musical instruments and dance. A Maiko can be recognized by her elaborate hairstyle, hair ornaments, white painted face and neck with scalloped patterns.

Spotting a Maiko: note her exquisite kimono and hairdo, hair ornamentation and white painted face

A Geiko has finished this apprentice training (and has paid off her debt to the Geisha residence owner). She can now use a wig instead of getting her hair done for hours weekly, and do not need to paint her face white. Each Geisha district features their own Geisha households, tea houses and clubs and have their own rankings of lineage, such as names, kimonos and dances. Competitive Geisha cultural events are taking place during the cherry blossom festivals in April, where the Geisha districts compete in the art of entertainment. At other times you can visit one of the Kabuki Theaters to see traditional performances.

The pictoresque Geisha District in Gion offers great street photography opportunities. This is not a Geiko or Maiko, but many young Japanese will be wearing their charming kimonos and generally love being photographed.

Gion is the most famous district, which is now a Unesco Cultural Heritage site, featuring a large amount of renovated historical townhouses. The most famous geisha districts can be found on either side of the Kameo River, and are great to visit both during the day and night, changing ambiance like a chameleon:

Night scene at Pontocho-dori Street
  1. The six block long narrow Pontocho Street is packed with teahouses, restaurants and bars, and during the warm months some of the restaurants feature decks facing the river. Traditional architecture is maintained throughout the street. Kimono clad customers enrich the cultural ambiance of the narrow alleyway. Pontocho has been a geisha district since the 16th century.
  2. Across the river you will find Miyagawacho south of Shijo: a large geisha and entertainment district with Kabuki theaters where performances are held all year.

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    Geisha District in Gion late at night
  3. The most picturesque area is along the Shirakawa Canal with its traditional houses and is a popular setting for traditional weddings and selfies by kimono clad young Japanese. Shinbashi-dori is considered the most beautiful street in Japan.

    Charming old architecture along the canal in Gion
The perfect romantic setting for a wedding proposal

You will find an array of antique shops just a couple of streets away, with museum quality art and artifacts, along Nawate-dori Street, Shinmonzen  Street and Furumonzen Street; many are housed in old traditional wooden townhouses which have been in the same family for generations. Tatami mats are used for both seating and display, often overlooking small Zen gardens.

The antique district in Gion offers delightful insight into Japanse culture and traditions, with their tatami mats and Zen gardens. Often inherited through generations

Written by Zia Hansen. Photos by Zia Hansen

What Does a Golden Temple and a Zen Rock Garden Have in Common: The Two Most Popular Places for Contemplation and Reflection in Kyoto

Golden Pavilion in Kyoto

The two most popular temple sites in Kyoto seem to be opposites:  stunning versus serene, flashy versus quiet introspection.  The Golden Pavilion at Kinkakuji Temple and the famous Rock Garden at the Ryoanji Temple are just a few bus stops away from each other, located on the North West side of Kyoto. They are seemingly worlds apart, but in some ways these two temples have much in common. Both temples make your mind and thoughts pause to contemplate the beauty in nature. Both temples are Unesco World Heritage sites.

Golden Pavilion in Kyoto

The Golden Pavilion is both flashy and serene, located at a small reflection lake, surrounded by beautiful pine trees and poetically placed rocks. The Zen-Buddhist Temple was originally built as a retirement villa in 1393 for Shogun Ashiraga, who lived in abundant luxury while Kyoto’s people suffered from famine, earthquakes and plague. His son turned the pavilion into a Zen temple. Oddly, each floor features a different style of architecture: first floor contrasts the upper gilded floors by featuring the Shinden-Zukuri style architecture with solid black treated timber frame and white plaster. Second floor is gold leaf finished in Bukke style, similar to Samurai residences, whereas the third level features a Chinese Zen style gilded inside out. Sadly, the original temple was burned down by a disenchanted monk in 1950, but was rebuilt a few years later.

Golden Pavilion, Kyoto
Temple grounds at the Golden Pavilion, featuring pine trees trimmed to perfection

The Golden Pavilion cannot be visited inside, but the mesmerizing golden reflections of the pavilion in the  lake makes this a very poetic place worth visiting, although it gets a lot of visitors. Expect to take turns to photograph this poetic scenery and try to avoid selfie sticks. Walk around the reflection lake to admire the temple and its stunning reflections in the lake, but do not expect a contemplative spiritual experience. A path leads through the temple garden to an Edo period teahouse and small shrine near the exit.

Address: Kinkakuji Temple1 Kinkakujicho, Kita-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 603-8361. Tel: +81 75-461-0013. Admission: 400 Yen, open from 9am to 5pm.

The backside of the Golden Pavilion

On the other hand, the most famous of all Zen rock gardens at Ryoanji Temple, built in late 15th century, features a small, carefully composed miniature landscape of rocks arranged in gravel, which is raked to perfection by monks daily. It represent the endless ocean and ripples in water. Renowned for its simplicity and purity, this is the most abstract of all Zen Gardens. The garden is small, about the size of a tennis court, enclosed by ochre walls, and can only be seen from the raised deck of the temple. Visitors are seated on long steps facing the rock garden, lending a perfect space for meditation and introspection.

Zen Rock Garden at Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto. Fifteen rocks are meticulously placed in five islands surrounded by carefully raked gravel

The fifteen rocks of different sizes and shapes are meticulously placed in five different islands in such a way that you cannot see can see all rocks from any place. In this way they will always leaving room for improvement, as an aid to incite meditation about the true meaning of life.

Meditation and introspection at the steps facing the Rock Garden

The white gravel symbolizes water, purity, self-discipline and emptiness and is used to stimulate meditation by reducing nature to abstract form. A landscape seemingly suspended in time. A powerful abstract garden which is meant to induce a deep state of meditation which evokes thoughts of peace and beauty.

Meditation and reception hall facing the Rock Garden featuring tatami mats and decorated sliding screen walls

The meditation and reception halls facing the rock garden are very minimalist with their tatami mats and beautiful simply decorated sliding screens.

Address: 13 Ryoanji-Goryo-no-Sita-cho, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto City. Tel.: +81-(0)75-463-2216. Open Year Round: Winter (December1-End of February) 8:30-16:30, (March 1-November 30) 8:00-17:00. Admission: Adult 500 Yen

Written by Zia Hansen. Photos by Zia Hansen

Explore the Old Pleasure District of Asakusa in Tokyo: Where Old World Charm meets Serenity

Springtime in Japan
Shopping street leading to the Senso-Ji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo

A place of old world charm, spectacular temple grounds and great food, Asakusa is a vibrant oasis to visit and stay in Tokyo. Traditions are alive and the area oozes of ambiance. What used to be an area filled with gangsters, samurais, writers, artists, geishas and courtesans is now mainly a safe leisure and spiritual area, anchored by the Senso-Ji Temple founded in 628.

Senso-Ji Temple on a busy Sunday. Thousands of people visiting the shrine every day

The large Thunder God Gate is vibrant and impressive, and creates a powerful spiritual transition between the bustling life of Tokyo and the old world charm. A long shopping street leads to the temple, offering the best souvenirs of Tokyo as well as delightful mouthwatering street food. It is extremely crowded during the day with temple visitors. Take the side streets if you want to move faster, or savor the experience of being carried away by the crowds. Large gates with huge lanterns create the transition between the shopping arcade and the temple grounds.

Large lanterns at the temple gate

The temple architecture is impressive, with its layers of red roof structures, lanterns and shrines. Incense burning adds a sensory delight, but is overshadowed by the many young women in their bold patterned kimonos. I was delighted seeing the traditions are kept alive. Several smaller shrines and Japanese gardens dot the large temple grounds, making it a perfect weekend excursion for Tokyo’s residents and tourists alike.

Traditions are alive in Asakusa, where families arrive at the temple dressed in kimonos

Several quaint shopping arcades lead to the temple grounds from the side streets and offer some of the freshest sushi I have ever tasted, due to its proximity to the fish market. Old ramen houses and Izakaya restaurants are lining the side streets in the neighborhood. During the day the food stalls are competing for your attention, offering an array of freshly grilled seafood and beef skewers.

Street food stalls offer fresh seafood and many other delights

If your passion is the samurai history you will find several shops that can cater to your alter-ego whims, -or you will find numerous kimono rental places that will transfer you into a feminine seductive goddess or a stunning traditional couple.

Night life in Asakusa: charming young women

At night time the neighborhood slows down to a provincial old town charm and offers a very different ambiance and experience.

Shopping street in Asakusa turn into a samurai/geisha gallery at night

The local food will tantalize your taste buds, or you can walk around the old samurai district with the possibility to meet one of the remaining 40 Geishas.

Dine with the locals in Asakusa, even on cold evenings you can enjoy the street ambiance

Visiting the temple ground at night is a much more serene experience of calmness and devotion.

Temple grounds at night

I highly recommend staying at the Richmond Premier Hotel, which offers views over the temple grounds and is just steps away from delightful local restaurants and the charming shopping arcades leading into the Senso-Ji Temple. The guestrooms are very comfortable, and spacious and the staff is very helpful. Richmond Premier Hotel,  2-7-10 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo. Tel; +81-3-5806-3155

View from our hotel room over the temple grounds with the Skytree in the distance

Traditional Ryokans are also available in the area. Asakusa is easily reached by the Ginza metro line at Asakusa Station.

Please share if you enjoyed reading.

Writing and photography by Zia Hansen

Explore the Happiest City in the World: Wonderful Copenhagen


Denmark is consistently rated the happiest place in the world. Some of the reasons why: Steeped in rich history, Copenhagen offers a wide spectrum of architectural, cultural and urban delights, the best of modern design and food as culinary art form. The city has much to offer travelers within a short radius and new cheap airfares make a visit from the US very tempting. The laid-back artful city center is located just 25 minutes from the design infused Kastrup Airport, and is easily reached by a new efficient metro system.

Here are my favorite places you should not miss:

Nyhavn is a charming old canal lined with pastel colored houses, bars, restaurants and wooden schooners, great for people watching
  1. After a long transatlantic journey Nyhavn is reached by metro in just a few stops to Kongens Nytorv. A quaint canal, flanked with old wooden schooners and pastel colored 17th century historic houses, is lined with lively restaurants and bars. During summer and winter, -especially those long Nordic summer days where the sun barely sets-, this is the perfect place to stroll, people watch, eat, drink or embark on a harbor cruise. The Danes love to gather here and warmly welcome tourists. Some bars are open 24/7.
  2. Nyhavn is the perfect starting point to explore the city from the water: rest your feet and enjoy a 1 hour Harbor Cruise through idyllic canals, where guides will tell the history behind the most beautiful churches, castles, old historic buildings and new modern architectural delights. Guided tour: Dkr 80, free with Copenhagen Card. (3 Nyhavn, 1051 Copenhagen K, Tel: 45 32 96 30 00)
  3. Amalienborg Castle is where the royal family presides. On axis with the harbor and the impressive rococo-baroque Marble Church, four identical classical-baroque palace buildings frame a large octagonal square. Watch the Royal guards change guard shifts: every day you can follow the guards as they march from Rosenborg Castle through the streets of Copenhagen and end up at Amalienborg, where the changing guards take place at 12:00 noon. (Amalienborg Slotsplads 5, 1257 Copenhagen K)

    Rosenborg Castle in Kongens Have (courtesy Pinterest)
  4. Nearby Kongens Have (Royal Garden) with the renaissance Rosenborg Castle is a favorite park for locals. The castle houses the royal crown jewels, diamonds and tapestries. (Oester Voldgade 4A, 1350 Copenhagen K +45 33 15 3286)

    Rundetaarn was built as an 7 story equestrian ramp to King Chr. IVs observatory
  5. Walk up the seven floor high brick paved equestrian ramp of Rundetaarn, a 17th century tower built by King Christian IV as an astronomical observatory in the heart of the old Latin Quarter of Copenhagen. The brick paved spiral walk offers stunning architecture and breathtakingviews over the roofs of old latin Quarter of Copenhagen. (Koebmagergade 52A, 1150 Copenhagen K)

    Illums Bolighus is a mecca for modern design
  6. Denmark is world known as a design mecca. One place not to miss is Illums Bolighus, a retail store representing the ultimate in modern living, showcasing jewels of both Danish and international design, fashion and furniture innovation. (10 Amagertorv, 1160 Copenhagen K. )

    Danish smoerrebroed – open sandwiches – a culinary art (courtesy Pinterest)
  7. Copenhagen is a food lover’s dream destination. Noma is internationally acclaimed as one of the world’s best restaurants. Traditional Danish food is hearty and comforting, but Danish Smoerrebroed (the open sandwich translation does not do it justice) is now a vanishing art form. Beautifully decorated dark rye bread is ornamented with layers of decorated, at times pungent, meats, herrings or old cheeses. Try one of the few classic remaining old lunch café’s, my insider’s choice: Kanal Cafeen, an authentic place which oozes of old-time ambiance under the low ceilings a few steps down from the street level – or try their open air boat in the canal overlooking Christiansborg Castle. Smoerrebroed is best when paired with beer and Danish Aquavit. (Frederiksholm Kanal 18, Copenhagen K. Tel: +45 3311 5770. Reservations recommended)

    Koedbyen – a culinary and cultural mecca
  8. A new buzzing culinary and cultural mecca is Koedbyen (Meat-town), the Modernistic 1930’s meat packing district in Vesterbro. There is a certain rawness to the place and all the charisma from the old days is still authentically there, but now offers an array of rustic restaurants, underground clubs and bars. Butchers still arrive early in the morning, but the old halls and the square are now full of ambiance, food, art and music, offering a multitude of hip food venues and the hottest nightlife in town. The district consists of three separate areas: the white, the brown (oldest brick buildings) and the grey “Meat-City”, based on the buildings dominant colors. The square is packed with people on summer afternoons and evenings. The local food market is open Saturdays and the first Sunday of the month from spring through fall. Try Koedbyens Fiskebar with a simple Nordic design, long communal tables and couches. (Koedbyens Fiskebar, Flaesketorvet 100, Copenhagen V +45 3215 5656)

    Market halls at Israels Plads: artisan breads, flavorful cheeses and fresh markets
  9. The new Market Halls at Israels Plads are bustling with activity and house fresh market delights, cafes and eateries. Find healthy artisan bread, cheese caves with a mouthwatering selection of fragrant or stinky cheeses, fresh fish, meat and seasonal vegetables. (Frederiksborggade 21, 1360 Copenhagen K, 10AM-7PM)
    Fristaden Christiania: a social experiment at an old military fortification area (courtesy Pinterest)
    Christiania: a vibrant social experiment (courtesy Pinterest)

    Architectural experimentation in Christiania (courtesy Pinterest)
  10. As a social experiment, Freetown Christiania offers an insight into a self-proclaimed alternative society, a grass-root movement which is still independent of the Danish Government. An abandoned military barracks area was taken over by squatters in the late 60és –and was saved from speculative development. Old military barracks have been turned into café’s, bars, performance spaces and residences. Creativity and experimentation has always existed, as has illicit drugs. This area is raw and may not appeal to everyone. The main entrance is called Pusher Street, but drug sale is being combated by the police. A great place to eat is Spise Loppen in a casual old gunpowder warehouse with exposed old ceiling beams, a collective-run venue with global chefs and bright art. Get a creative meal at a decent price. Vegetarian choices. (Baadmandsstraede 43, 1407 Copenhagen K +45 3257 9558)

    Louisiana Art Museum
  11. If you have an extra day Louisiana Art Museum in Humlebaek is a delightful contemporary art museum with sprawling pavilions in a lush sculpture garden, which offers breathtaking views to the ocean. A place where modern art, lush gardens and ocean meets. About 40 minute train ride from centrum of Copenhagen to Humlebaek, and a 15 minute walk. A great museum café offers tasty selections of contemporary Danish food. (Gl. Strandvej 13, 3050 Humlebaek +45 4919 0719)

    Tivoli Gardens: an old-time entertainment park in the heart of Copenhagen (courtesy Pinterest)
  1. Finally, the Tivoli Gardens is the quintessential Danish experience, with a sense of quaint adventure. A historical amusement and pleasure park with Pantomime Theater, several free concert venues, expensive food, fun rides and beautiful gardens. Located across from the grand Central Station and the City Hall. A great place to stroll and have a fun time, open from Mid-April to End of September. (Vesterbrogade 3, 1630 Copenhagen V +45 3315 1001)

Author: Zia Hansen, born in Denmark and lived in Copenhagen for many years. Photos by Zia Hansen unless otherwise noted

Go Glam at the Ultimate Aprez-Ski Yurt in Park City

Imagine ending your day of invigorating skiing in an ultra-chic cozy yurt, filled with eclectic mountain style furniture and European antiques, warmed up by pot bellied open stoves with flickering flames. A place where champagne flows and caviar is melting on your tongue. The perfect place to share classic European and inspired avantgarde American bites that all pair well with champagne.

Luxe Aprez-Ski Yurt in Park City

Deer Valley in Park City is known for luxury, amazing service and offers a number of great restaurants and food outlets on the mountain, but most places are large and efficient (think quick in-and-out on the slopes again) and lack intimacy and coziness.

Time to take a rest at the Veuve Cliquot Aprez-Lounge-how do you get a pair?

After braving the moguls or cruising the smooth corduroy groomed runs, this cozy bright orange circular hut is the ultimate in comfort for body and eyes: filled with art, antiques, fur throws, antler decorated lounge chairs and sofas, a wooden bar that reminds me of the Adirondacks, and amazing views out to the snow filled slopes. Old snow shoes, sledges, plaid covered furniture and pillows galore make this a yurt I would love to stay in for a couple of days. It is time to design a cozy yurt hotel!

Cozy  champagne & caviar bar at Aprez-Lounge yurt in Deer Valley

Beyond champagne and caviar, try the black truffle popcorn, Korean chili lime popcorn or lobster corn chowder. Food selections vary and the yurt can be reserved for special parties and events with bespoke catering.

A yurt filled with Swiss antiques

The lounge is open every day from noon to 4 pm during the ski season and is located in Empire Village in front ski lifts at the Montage Resort Hotel. The adventure is pricey, but a very rewarding and truly memorable experience. (Montage Resort, 9100 Marsac Avenue, Park City, UT 84060. Tel 435.604.1300)

Cozy-up

Written by Zia Hansen. Photos by Zia Hansen

Life Elevated in Park City: Where Anything Can Happen

Not only can you can challenge yourself on snowy white groomed-to-perfection slopes or participate in Nastar races on the runs skied by Olympic contestants during the 2002 Salt Lake Olympic Winter Games; you can also enjoy sleigh riding, snowmobiling, dog sledding, snow shoeing or heli skiing during the winter. Or, you can choose to be entertained in one of the many aprez-ski entertainment lounges in the ski resorts or on Main Street. How about champagne and caviar aprez-skiing at a cozy yurt? Two of the world’s best ski resorts: Deer Valley and Park City Resort, offer some of the best skiing in the world.

Sundance Film Festival Park City 2017

During the 10-day Sundance Film Festival showcasing American Independent and international films, the old mining town is filled to the brim with actors, producers, film critics, investors and over 40,000 movie lovers, all in fluffy down jackets, knitted beanie hats with furry pompoms and aprez-ski booties. A great place to spot celebrities, or attend forums discussing issues and topics which are motivating both film makers and audiences. Any movie could become a breakout hit, any new talent could be discovered. The air is filled with the anticipation of boom or bust.  One third of film features come from first-time film makers, and one third from foreign countries. Hotels and restaurants are fully booked, one fourth of all retail stores and galleries are turned into Sundance VIP Lounges.

World Cup Freestyle Aerial contestant

Just a few days after the Sundance Film Festival has left Park City back to its slow normal pace, the World Cup of Freestyle Skiing embarks on the mining town with a completely different energy and enthusiasm. For three afternoons and nights the best and most exhilarating dare devils of the world compete for world recognition at Deer Valley Resort. The Freestyle Aerial competitions display stunning breathtaking acrobatic excellence, as the Aerial Freestyle competitors twist, fly and dive, and the Dual Mogul competitors display amazing speed racing combined with aerial flip and turn talents. The final night this year was packed to the brim with an estimated 50,000 spectators and the energy was contagious, filled with cheers or sympathy for those who crashed and lost their chances for medals. What a great event which even is free of charge to all lovers of the sport and excitement.

World Cup Freestyle Skiing: Cheering audience

Once again, after the completion is over, the old mining city is back to normal, where weathered skiers and snow boarders pack the lounges after a day of thrills. The steeply sloped Main Street is packed with art galleries, restaurants and bars, luxe realtors and retail stores, offering an artsy all-American Main Street charm. The ski reason ends Mid-April, after which the city slows down to a hiatus until Memorial Day Weekend.

Deer Valley Resort-Peak view

Summer activities: during summer the mountain is again filled with non-stop activities such as mountain biking, hiking, golfing and horseback riding to hot air ballooning. Music filled evenings offer a variety of outdoor concerts, from symphonies, rock, folk or jazz, where you can enjoy custom gourmet picnic baskets or bags. Silly Sundays on Main Street are fun and packed with tourists and locals, enjoying live bands, fresh food markets and food vendors. Bicycle races and soccer tournaments bring new masses of tourists to town.

Hot Air Ballooning: summer activity
Fall colors are spectacular near Park City

Food: the resort town caters to families and couples who enjoy eating and relaxing as much as they enjoy skiing or mountain biking. Healthy, comfort and delicious food options are plentiful, both on the resorts and on the charming Main Street.

For an unforgettable dining experience try Chimayo, located on Main Street: a charming Tex-Mex romantic style restaurant on Main Street, which offers delicious Tex-Mex food, I especially recommended the Elk and the Tortilla Soup. A perfect setting for a romantic dinner complete with fire places. Reservations recommended. 368 Main St, Park City, UT 84060-5223 Tel: (435) 649-6222 www.chimayorestaurant.com

High West Distillery Park City
High West Distillery Park City: a historic western monument

For a locally made whisky tasting experience and gastro-dining, try the High West Distillery just behind Main Street. This western historical monument is a wonderfully renovated old western garage turned into a cozy restaurant and bar. Try their Flight 101 and taste the difference, best sitting at one of the cozy bars, where the bartender can walk you through the difference. You can purchase the whisky you tasted and get food pairing suggestions. Reservations are recommended as the place is very popular. 703 Park Avenue, just one block off historic Main Street. www.highwest.com

Stunning America As Seen Only From The Air

Travelling by air always reveals amazing sights that tell a story about the world below. I confess to being a window seat addict. My favorite time of travel is mid afternoon in the wintertime as the sun is setting low in the horizon creating long shadows and stunning vibrant and painterly coloration.

Aerial Newberry Springs, CA
Aerial above Newberry Springs, CA: desert with traces of highways and irrigation

Sunny days are a treat, but even cloudy days provide amazing photo opportunities through the fluffy beautiful clouds and patches of land below.

In just 1 1/2 hours of travel time from Newport Beach in California en route to Salt lake City in Utah you can explore poetic coastlines, dense suburban urban areas, mountain ranges, dramatic desert landscapes and snow clad mountain ranges.

Aerial Newport Beach towards Huntington Beach
Aerial at Newport Beach towards Huntington Beach: endless white beaches and stunning coast line

Flying from John Wayne Airport in Newport Beach is always thrilling as the planes take off at a dramatic roar to quickly reach a high cruising altitude, then almost stilling the engines while flying above the stunning Back Bay areas and the charming Newport Marina, then quickly turning around above the ocean rendering stunning views of endless wide white beaches.

Cruising above seemingly endless suburban areas and packed freeways for 5 minutes to reach Riverside and the green hilly mountain ranges of Lake Arrowhead; suddenly the desert landscape takes over, a reminder of the dependency of irrigation in Southern California. Western America is so vast and empty, with only traces of life below.

Aerial at Ludlow, CA: sand dunes stretching seemingly endless
Aerial at Ludlow, CA: sand dunes stretching seemingly endless without a trace of life

Traces of roads crossing sand dunes with amazing windblown formations and bluish purple colors merging the yellow and red sand formations. Solar farms with their reflecting mirrors, dry lakes and old mining areas pop into view for just seconds.

Aerial at Mesquite Wilderness area: solar farms amid sandy valleys

Flying past Las Vegas and Lake Mead, the Mohave Desert is stunning and spectacular, its long shadows emphasizing the unruly geology. Valley of Fire with the intense red coloration quickly transitions into the lower Grand Canyon plateau, with its table mountains and jagged lines carved by rivers for thousands of years.

Aerial above dramatic arroyos tracing through the desert feeding Lake Mead National Park and Valley of Fire National Park
Sunset aerial above Eureka, CA: long shadows render an almost surreal landscape

Slowly the snow clad mountain ranges of Southern Utah appear with light fluffy layers of clouds, painted orange and pink by the setting sun. The Greater Salt Lake and Salton Sea are different geological sights, while the plane is preparing for landing, with the white mountain ranges as a backdrop.

Aerial approaching Salt Lake City with snow clad mountains as a stunning backdrop

Relax, enjoy and explore during your travel time being airborne.

Written by Zia Hansen. Photos by Zia Hansen

Destination Vietnam: Surrender to the Charm of Ancient Hoi An

Imagine a place where time seemingly stands still and ambiance invades all your senses. Tranquility, beauty, poetic romance and friendly welcoming local people. Not only is Hoi An one of the most charming old towns I have ever visited, the colors of the ancient buildings’ architecture ageing poetically is a visual feast that will remain a fond highlight on your mind’s hard drive, but the local food is a sensory delight as well. Hoi An is now a designated Unesco World Heritage site, saving the ancient town for the future generations.

intriguing ornamentation on temple roofs
Hoi An temple roof ornamentation

The drive from Hue to Hoi An along the scenic route was long, but certainly offered some beautiful views and historic sites of previous horrid war events. We arrived at Hoi An just before sunset, perfect timing, just when the various shades of ocher old buildings glow intensely.  The Unesco World Heritage designated city is even more alluring than I remembered from a previous visit. Our small gem of a villa hotel, Villa Hoi Su An – or endearingly and appropriately named Villa Frangipani – at the outskirts of the town, adjacent to a lazy river, was an unexpected and very charming location. Only 8 large villa rooms facing a koi pond with a central old wooden pavilion surrounded by the heavy scent of blossoming frangipani trees.

Tranquility at Villa Frangipani

No time to unpack yet, as we wanted to get into the old town before sunset. The old town is a pedestrian zone where only bicycle rickshaws are allowed. The ocher colored old houses are incredibly charming.

Ocher colored ancient houses line the narrow cobble stoned streets

Most buildings are around 200 years old, many were and are still owned by Japanese or Chinese merchants. Some merchant houses are open to visit if you buy a reasonably priced coupon book. It is fascinating to see how families still live here and especially still cook multiple meals here in the very primitive kitchens.

Old Japanese merchant houses
Entrance to old Japanese merchant house

The sun is now setting along the river and the restaurants in the quaint houses along the river and the small narrow streets are starting to get busy.  Some old fishermen are sitting on primitive wooden scaffoldings pedaling the huge fishing nets up from the bottom of the river, while old smiling women are sitting in their old rowing boats with their Vietnamese straw hats, begging you to take a sunset river ride, or at least pay them for letting you take their photo.

Fishermen pedaling from their bamboo shacks to raise their fishing nets from the river
Take a sunset boat ride on the river

The bicycle rickshaw guys are relaxing, chatting and eating or taking a nap on a street corner, waiting for business to pick up.

The next morning we bicycle into old town again, parking the bicycles in from of the old market building. Strolling down the cobble stoned old streets we discover old shop houses, stunning old Chinese Buddhist temples, wonderful cafes, galleries and tailors. I have never seen so many tailors in one place before. Check out the quality carefully before you order, as I learned by sad experience that the quality and styles vary tremendously. Overnight you can have your suit, dresses or shirts made. I recommend going to one of the larger and recognized places as their designers and tailors are excellent, and I recommend that you bring images of what you like as some of the style books are quite dated.

Step into into the vibrant temples

The old Chinese Buddhist temples are colorful and wonderful with their extraordinary roof ornamentation, bright hues and spiral incense hanging from the ceiling. Most temples require a ticket to get in, which is a bit annoying, but it certainly is worth it as the temple interiors are so stunning.

Burning red incense coils add to the visual and olfactory experience

My absolute favorite experience is exploring the many charming narrow alleyways running perpendicular to the river. The moss over-grown ocher walls and old colorful metal gates offer glimpses into how life is still lived today, simple. Families sitting on the floor watching TV or families gathering for a shared meal. Mainly old people are gathering, while an old fan is blowing a welcome breeze during the very hot day. You can spend hours crisscrossing the alley ways while trying to depict the residential charm of the past. Beautiful old ceramic tiles adorn many floors.

Venture down the narrow alley ways to explore local living

One of the most famous landmarks is the old Japanese covered wood bridge. Other of my favorites are the old Japanese shop houses, still belonging to the same family with many generations  living under the same roof, and still relatively untouched.

Hoi An
Old Japanese bridge

Food is wonderful and generally inexpensive. Vietnamese beers are cheaper than water and great companions to the spicy, simple but very tasty noodle dishes which Hoi An is known for. You can order tasty fresh Vietnamese spring rolls if you prefer non spicy food. Relax during the heat of the day with a cold Vietnamese coffee with icecream in one of the many charming cafes.

Street vendors outside the market hall

I love exploring the market halls. Around noon many of the vendors are napping on the benches and metal tables. Great food is freshly cooked in and being shared in some of the stalls, while spices and fresh vegetables are piled up in photogenic piles. Outside the market you will meet many Vietnamese ladies with their double baskets over their shoulders or squatting barely above the ground. Lovely ladies, who love to chat and laugh. Along the river you will find fresh fish and crabs with their claws tied up with colorful rags of fabric. Although the crabs’ future is limited, the craftsmanship of tying the claws with colorful strands of fabric is poetic. Beware, the halls are primitive and the smelly slimy fishy water makes it so slippery. I almost took a nosedive into the river, much to the entertainment of the old ladies, who had warned me. An occasional rat running in-between my legs made the experience even more authentic. The photo opportunities made the experience double memorable.

Crabs at the market hall
Catch of the day outside the market hall

Life is slow and it is a wonderful experience to meander through the old city for some days, as charm and architecture is truly romantic and stunning, the town offers full immersion. Some years the river will flood the streets dramatically, best to check the weather report before planning a trip. Nearby beaches should be quite good, but I just cannot get enough of the old town which is such a visual treasure.

Wedding photo in the old town

Biking back to the small hotel and getting served freshly cooked food cooked by the receptionist, surrounded by the frangipani trees, was a welcome respite after a very hot day of leisure.

Written by Zia Hansen.  Photos by Zia Hansen

The Unexpected Enchantment of a Bike Adventure in Bangkok

What a wonderful way to start a new year: exploring something new: for me, a solo female expatriate, a bike tour through the side alleys and guts of Bangkok’s Chinatown and ThonBuri district.

In retrospect, New Year Day is a great day to bike through frenetic Chinatown: a lazy day, where most people are hibernating and recovering, most businesses shut down, making navigating the very narrow alleyways, giant potholes, lazy breaks and sharp turns a bit easier for a novice biker. I decided to go on an action packed 1/2 day tour on a very hot New Year Day.

 

An action packed day so full of visual impressions and so little time to photograph the charm of the decay and urban grit.

Temple in Chinatown, Bangkok
Chinese temple in Bangkok

temple offering in Chinese temple in Bangkok

When we stopped at temples and the Chinese flower market we had a few photo opportunities….otherwise I was honestly clinging white knuckled onto the handlebars of my wobbly bike -at the end of the tour a few battle scar bruises later, having had a fantastic action packed experience and vivid memory for years to come.

img_0874Flower market in Chinatown, Bangkok on a lazy New Year Day
Flower market in Bangkok

I highly recommend this urban excursion. I honestly never ever thought of bicycling in Bangkok before-but never say never…. ! This is an amazing way to explore the gritty, charming urban decay, context and life in the exotic multilayered city away from the CBD and shiny malls. Very real and surreal at the same time.

Temple in ThonBuri, Bangkok

The ThonBuri experience was uniquely different; a sleepy tour through charming, laid back neighborhoods and stunning temple grounds, culminating in climbing up into a beautiful stupa across from the river. The brick construction was a stunning engineering creation.

The guided biketours by Van Kessel, a Dutch bike tour operator, gives you an amazing series of action shortcuts through the maze of Chinatown – and a very safe way for solo female travelers to explore the “darker” , lesser known, side of Bangkok, in good company. I love adventures and destineering, learning more of the local culture and local way of living. A few well-deserved scrapes were well worth the experience of scrambling the bike through the tight and narrow alley ways, banyan trees and gators.

Written by Zia Hansen. Photos by Zia Hansen

Celebrate New Year by Exploring a New Adventure

Longboat in Bangkok

New Year for most of us feel like a crossing time, a time for reflection. What will the new year bring? Opportunities, adventures, love and happiness?

One of my goals is to take the time to open my eyes and explore the richness of my local context. Urban adventures are so inspiring and enriching. Explore the galleries, the side alleys, the urban richness with all your senses: the gritty, the artsy and the beauty. Be an adventurer! Explore with all senses -plus explore the world through the lens of a smartphone.

Longboat in Bangkok

The day before the New Year 2016 I explored the “darker side” of Bangkok (meaning less known) by taking a 2 hour longboat ride of the lesser known Thonburi Khlongs around Chrak Phra on the opposite side of CBD (central business district). Under the King Taksin Bridge at the BTS station Saphan Taksin you will find numerous boat tour vendors, and if you are persistent in negotiating, and insisting you are not a tourist, you can get a great deal for a 2 hour shared long boat ride.

Continue reading “Celebrate New Year by Exploring a New Adventure”

Rainy Weather Adventures in Sunny California

It never rains in Sunny California, or rather, almost never. We are taken by surprise by a late November storm with horizontal rain, strong winds and dramatic black, purple and grey clouds intersected by short sporadic bouts of sunshine. Driving in rainy weather is one of those extremely rare sensations. In California we are about as challenged by slick wet asphalt and worn out window wipers as the East Coast is challenged by snow and sleet.  We are so blessed by sunny warm weather most of the year, that we felt like creeping under a warm cover, but the day – and life – is just too short for such selfish miserable pity feelings.

Windy weather embraces Newport beach, CA
Windy weather embraces Newport beach, CA

I remembered how the Germans love to encounter severe weather, whether rainy, windy and bitterly cold beaches in Denmark during winter storms – or the hottest sweltering days in the desert of Death Valley, Nevada during August (so hot venturing outside your air conditioned car can be deadly.  

Dressed for the wind and weather

Today we chose to embrace the weather, found weather proof sailing jackets and baseball caps and took a walk on the windy beach at the long, wide and sandy Newport Beach to let the wind and sand sweep into our faces. Powerful waves were beating the sandy beaches, foam was gathering along the edge of the water.

Whisking cold waves

The seagulls were all facing into the wind, in strange, seemingly non-sociable large formations, to keep their feathers straight. No day for ruffled feathers. Wonderful unique photo opportunities of rare weather phenomena were everywhere. A kite surfer was whisking back and forth creating a great daring spectacle with his bright orange kite for the less daring and adventurous of us.

The seaguls are facing the wind to keep their feathers unruffled
The seagulls are facing the wind to keep their feathers unruffled

The pier was standing strong and somber against the sinister looking waves, and a walk into the ocean was a stronger, more challenging sensation of wind power. This was not a perfect day for surfing or fishing. A different day in otherwise sunny California. The skinny palms were bending dangerously in the wind.

Kite boarding on a glorious windy weather day

Written by Zia Hansen. Photography by Zia Hansen

Under the Desert Sun: Discover the Treasures of Palm Springs

Palm Springs may conjure memories of celebrities, piano bars, endless golf, tennis, date plantations and maybe even vague spring break memories. Located only 1 hour 45 minutes east of Los Angeles and Orange County, Palm Springs offer wonderful unique getaway opportunities. 

This desert oasis vacation destination is returning to its glory days as a Hollywood oasis, and is becoming a gathering spot for modern architectural design connoisseurs, as well as musicians and artists inspired by nature. The Rat Pack lived, loved and played here in the golden days. Stars such as Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Lucille Ball built homes here and you can now rent these homes!

Parker
A whimsical Modern living room at the Parker Hotel

Here are 5 treasures to explore in the Palm Springs area:

1.       Modern Architecture: In the fifties and sixties the mountains and the deserts of Palm Springs inspired a Modern Movement in Architecture, which became known as the Desert Modernism. The architecture embraced mountain views and the warm climate, defining a lifestyle of informal elegance, often designed for celebrities and Hollywood socialites, but still seems very appropriate and desirable for today’s living. Recognizable by its use of walls of glass, deep roof overhangs, horizontal lines, screens, and a mixed use of natural and manmade materials, much of this architectural legacy still exist. You can buy a map of Modern Palm Springs listing 82 architectural gems, for $5 at the Visitor Center, to explore legendary hidden jewels of architecture and desert acclimatized, sustainable architecture by great architects of the past (most of them have passed away). Palm Springs Visitor Center: Palm Springs Visitor Center: www.visitpalmsprings.com  Tel: 760.778.8418 2901 N. Palm Canyon Dr., Palm Springs, CA 92262

Former Coachella Valley Savings & Loan, now Chase Bank designed by Stewart Williams in 1960
Former Santa Fe Federal Savings and Loan – now Palm Springs Architecture & Design Center, designed by Stewart Williams in 1960. Metal screens were adjustable to be able to modulate and control lighting during the day

2.       Uptown Palm Springs Design District in the northern end of Palm Springs, at North Palm Canyon Dr. between Vista Chino and Alejo Rd, is a delightful up-and-coming lifestyle shopping area lined with vintage and modern shopping, great restaurants, galleries, vintage furniture shops and a few well-known fashion designers, such as Trina Turk, who started out in Palm Springs, when this area was run-down. Take the time to stroll down the street, chat with the vendors who love the special “air” about Palm Springs, and duck inside every so often for a refreshment as it does get hot, or stay at one of the renovated hotels such as Skylark Hotel or the new ARRIVE Hotel to be in walking distance. If you love Modern Design, visit Palm Springs during Modernist Week, February 16-26, 2017. www.modernismweek.com

 IMG_1888Sunnylands

3.       Desert Gardens at Sunnylands: Nine acres of desert gardens surround Sunnylands Center. Definitely a place to visit if you appreciate stunning, contemporary desert landscaping and if you love photography. Designed by landscape architect James Burnett, the gardens include more than 53,000 individual desert plants. The gardens are located at the historical Annenberg Residence (Camp David of the West) in Rancho Mirage, designed by Architect Quincy Jones, which is now a museum, but you need to buy tickets one month ahead for the museum. Visit the gardens for free, Thursdays-Sundays, from 8:30 am to 4 pmwww.sunnylands.org. 37977 Bob Hope Dr., Rancho Mirage, CA 92270 Tel: 760. 202.2222   

4.       Shopping: If you are looking for amazing discounted deals, the biggest Outlet Shopping Mall in California at Desert Hills Premium Outlets is located just 20 minutes outside Palm Springs off the 103 freeway. Here you will find a stunning collection of almost any of your favorite fashion designers, ranging from Jimmy Choo to Polo, Rags and Bones, Vince, Barney’s, Yves Saint Laurent – just to mention a few – in a delightful new mall, with discounted prices ranging from 20%-65% or more. www.premiumoutlets.com. 448400 Seminole Dr., Cabazon, CA 92230  Tel: 951.849.6641

Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park

5.       Joshua Tree National Park: Located about 40 miles North East from Palm Springs, the Park is a daytrip which covers 2 distinctly different desert areas: the lower Colorado Desert (part of the Sonoran Desert), covers the eastern half of the park, best known for creosote bushes, spidery ocotillo and cholla cactus. The Mojave Desert is higher, and slightly cooler, best known for its unruly Joshua trees. Rugged mountains, arroyos, and playas form a mosaic of immense beauty and complexity in nature. The fragile desert environment provides space for self-discovery, and can be a refuge for the human spirit. www.nps.gov/jotr Tel: 760.367.5500  74485 National Park Dr., Twenty Nine Palms, CA 92277

 Tile floor at Parker

Palm Springs is very hot and arid, especially during the summer months, where you can get amazing deals on hotels. Winter months January to April is peak season with more comfortable temperatures for most, but much higher prices. Also famous for spas, hot springs and a vibrant alternative lifestyle.

A Temporary Place Where Light, Geometry And Reflections Capture The Poetic Beauty Of Ocean And Place

Some of the best, most memorable experiences are temporary. In a fleeting moment, time comes and goes, as a reflection of what was, is, or could be.

Beacons of light
Beacons of light

For 3 days only, a quarter mile arc of seemingly ephemeral reflection poles embrace the ocean while reflecting it day and night. During day reflecting the white sand, the blue sky, clouds and ocean. At sunset they capture the beauty of the ocean and become beacons of light, changing colors minute by minute; at night they capture the glow of the city, traffic lights and moving cars. It is a truly engaging, captivating and moving art encounter. Tall square polished chrome poles are carefully measured, engineered and installed to all be emanating from the same vantage point in the ocean.

Reflecting time, space and light
Reflecting time, space and light
Seemingly a wall of reflection during sunset time at a certain vantage point
Seemingly a wall of reflection during sunset time at a certain vantage point

The ¼ Mile Arc art installation by artist Phillip K. Smith III embraces Laguna Beach for 3 days only, from November 4-6 as a commissioned installation of the Art & Nature Festival sponsored by Laguna Beach Art Museum. What a wonderful eye opening installation. Watching peoples surprising encounters, wonderment and photo explorations was mesmerizing. How I wish it could remain much longer than just 3 days. How I wish I could camp out on the beach day and night to capture each fleeting changing moment of time.  Sometimes the fleeting memories of passion and love enrich life forever, lights a tiny flickering candle of magic memory in your soul forever.

How fortunate we are to be able to experience this mesmerizing fleeting moment in time – and to have the opportunity to reflect, wonder and capture some of the moments for eternity.

During the sunset hour the markers become beacons of light, reflection the changing colors of the setting sun and ocean reflections
During the sunset hour the markers become beacons of light, reflection the changing colors of the setting sun and ocean reflections

 A temporary marker of changing light and reflections in Laguna Beach, a permanent marker in the soul of everyone who has experienced an hour of sunset with sandy toes – or a foggy morning embraced by a veil of mysterious beach fog.

A temporary spectacular seemingly ephemeral installation merges with the ocean – hurry up, grab your best friend and a camera and head to Laguna Beach at the Boardwalk, California. Open day and night for free for 3 days only, from November 4-6, 2016. Sponsored by Laguna beach Art Museum. Best time to watch the sunset is 5:45PM to 6:45PM.

Written by Zia Hansen. Photography by Zia Hansen

WHERE TO GO FOR WHISKY TASTING IN PARK CITY?

High West Distillery exterior

For an unforgettable locally made whisky tasting experience and gastro-dining, try the High West Gastro-Distillery just behind Main Street in Park City.  The whisky tasting is excellent! Take a flight 101, let the whisky tantalize your tongue and nostrils, taste and feel the difference.  The old western historical monument is a wonderfully renovated old western garage turned into a cozy restaurant and bar, paying homage to the history of old western saloons frequented by miners in the old mining town.

High West Distillery facade

The interior design is a wonderful contemporary western style and delivers a warm rustic and unique ambiance. The back wall is covered with ambient wall sconces and the open ceiling structure with huge warm glowing pendants creates a great rustic warm ambiance accentuated by the rough wooden flooring, blue whisky bottle displays and rustic simplistic furniture.

High West Distillery

The restaurant is anchored by a long rustic bar with metal mesh grille work- this is where the whisky tasting takes place.  The bar tender will guide you along with the tasting. The menu of light western-country food and cheese options looked very tempting.  I want to return for dinner soon, but be aware you need table reservations!  This restaurant is very popular, and deserves to be.  Service was excellent and very informative.  A restored old Victorian style house is connected to the old garage via a glazed distillery building with distillery tanks in-between; although both buildings offer authentic old western experiences the old garage is far a cozier unique ambiance.  Come twice to get the full experience. A tiny retail area sells the whisky you tasted and other memorabilias to take home as a souvenir. 703 Park Avenue, just one block off historic Main Street, Park City, Utah. Tel:   435-649-8300 www.highwest.com

The majority of the whisky is distilled 25 minutes away from Park City, high up in the Wasatch Mountains, where whisky distillery and tasting tours can be made and a light western country menu can be savored. 27649 Old Lincoln Hwy., Wanship, Utah 84017 Tel: (435) 649-8300 www.info@highwest.com

Written by Zia Hansen. Photos by Zia Hansen

IMG_5522

WHEN CHOOSING THE WRONG ACCOMODATION PUTS YOUR LIFE IN DANGER AS A SINGLE FEMALE TRAVELLER

 

I love to travel and explore foreign countries and have traveled many countries alone.  As a single female traveler one of the most important aspects of each trip we take is where we stay during our travels.  I can speak of personal experience as I have had some really bad hotel experiences and unsafe locations have totally ruined my vacations for the first day, until I decide to forfeit my money paid upfront, in pursuit of finding more comforting, pleasurable and safe places to stay.

Today most of us spend hours searching online for the best possible accommodation based on location and price point.   Our accommodations are usually chosen based on authenticity, location, comfort, cost, and the way they reflect the local character.   However, even after hours of viewing alternatives, we sometimes end up with a bad choice which totally ruins our experience of a location.  The photos of the hotel and travel websites may look great or the reviews of the properties are good, but something glitches. Seemingly small things, such as the great looking pool in the center of the hotel property is under repair and workers start drilling at 7:00am in the morning, making your stay totally miserable, especially if you have had a long international travel and jetlag.  Or, you just needed that long peaceful weekend to distress alone, reading and writing.

30 years ago there were no travel websites, hotel reviews and smart phones.  The first time I arrived in Chicago 30 years ago I made 2 big mistakes.  First of all I had not made any hotel reservations ahead of time (I was traveling for 2 months with no fixed itineraries) – and I arrived in Chicago at 4:00AM in the morning.  I was from Europe and had no concept of American cities and the potential danger certain neighborhoods could pose.  The airport was dead at that time in the morning, no tourist information was available, and no car rentals were open.  What do you do?  I could not even get a map of Chicago in the airport.

I chose to take the metro, without knowing anything about the city.  Looking at the metro map it seemed that 6th Street would be near the center of town, and I decided this could be a good place to start my hotel search.  I was traveling in style, dressed in red crocodile lacquer heels, a black jumpsuit and a huge red suitcase on wheels.  I was travelling for 2 months through the USA for the first time in my life.  I arrived underground and had to carry my heavy suitcase up all the stairs from 3 levels below.   As I finally ventured up in street level I was horrified as I saw no city center; only a deserted old butcher house area-skid row-where homeless people are sleeping on the street amongst broken glass, rubble and garbage with the burned out ambers of the bonfires of the night.  Downtown could only be seen in the far, far horizon.  What do you do?  I could have ventured downstairs again to take the metro to a different stop, but I would still have no idea where to get off the train.

I decided my best option would be to start walking towards the far horizon of the luring lights of Downtown. I remembered the song “Woman in Red” and filled my mind with great energetic energy while I started walking over broken glass and rubble, careful not to get too close to any of the sleeping homeless people.  The wheels of my suitcase did however betray me with the clonking sound and numerous people were rubbing their eyes in disbelief.  Finally after an hour I see a bus and make it stop, but I still had no idea of where to go.  I figured First Street would be as central as I could get as my starting point and I remembered there was a YMCA on First Street, thinking this would be my saving grace.  I arrived around 6AM in the morning, but “Sorry Mam, everything is old out”…..Some elderly people were begging to stay another night as their welfare checks had not yet arrived.  Certainly they needed this roof more than I did.  I asked the reception if they could recommend any place to stay, but the answer was no.   Aimlessly I started wandering down the streets of Chicago, stopping at every hotel asking about any possible vacancies.  A huge convention in town had booked all hotels.  Downtrodden, my feet were blistering, and I desperately needed a shower after my red-eye flight and my long morning hike in heels.  All the hotels along the streets were fully booked, until I finally found a couple of dilapidated brownstone buildings, one of them Tokyo Hotel.  First I went into the adjacent hotel to ask for a room for 2 nights.  The receptionists giggled and told me this was for long term accommodation only…..on my way out I noticed a blue movie bar at the entrance, and although I naively did not know what that was, I sensed discomfort being a single female traveler.

Then I stepped into Tokyo Hotel next door.  The carpet was tattered, the place was run-down, but, yes, they did have a room.  The receptionist had stared me up and down, with her perforated acne scarred face, which felt uncomfortable, but I really needed a room.  “It’s $29 per night.  The room is non-refundable”. Ok, I grabbed the key and stepped into the elevator, which must have been one of the first elevators ever built in Chicago as an old man grey faced man on a stool in the corner of the elevator was pulling old chains, brackets and bolts. Finally the ramshackle lift reached my floor level: “Jump, Mam”.  It turned out I had to jump across a 12”gap and 8 “up to reach my floor.

Finally I reached my room, which only could be described as a “slimy”, tattered room.  As expected, the lock did not work….My heart was beating so fast, sweat running down my back in anxiety, what to do? I pulled an old tattered armchair in front of the door and loaded it up with my heavy suitcase while letting the hot water fill my bathtub.  Time to think – what were my options?  Being an architect I really wanted to explore the great architecture of Chicago and decided to take a risk and explore the city all day, hopefully sleeping soundly at night.  Chicago is an architecture lover’s dream.  I had a fabulous time exploring until I met with a famous architect I had previously met at the American Institute in Rome, and he asked me where I was staying.  Ashamed of my non-prestigious accommodations I hesitated, but he insisted I tell him: Tokyo Hotel. “Oh, no”, he told me! “You must get out of there, no matter what! That place is notorious for prostitution, crime and drugs.”

Shocked, but also grateful that this famous architect truly seemed to care about me, I started my journey back to the hotel.  I stopped at a motel nearby which I had visited earlier that morning, but it was still fully occupied.  When I shared my story to the 2 female receptionists they were horrified and told me they would cancel one of their reservations and give me a room across from the reception where I could be safe.  I was so grateful for the kindness of these 2 women.  30 years later I am still grateful for their extremely kindness.  Now I still had to go back to Tokyo Hotel to get my belongings. While waiting in a long line at the reception desk I overheard an old man complaining about his room service last night: he did not like her….The old lady reminded me of the no-refund policy, but I scurried off to my room to get my belongings almost tumbling over the rolled up worn-out carpets, thinking my life is worth so much more than the $29….and slept peacefully at the nearby hotel the next 2 nights.

After this experience I learned a hard-earned lesson: as a single female traveler safety comes first, no matter how central the location is.  Do your research ahead of time and at least book your first hotel night in advance when visiting a new city.  During the first day of exploration you can always find a better place to stay, if needed, after seeing the place in person.

I just researched Tokyo Hotel online and wish I had found this information 30 years ago:

Per Wikipedia: The Tokyo Hotel, located at 19 E. Ohio Street, was a hotel in the North Loop of Chicago. Designed by architect Ralph C. Harris, it is 15 stories tall, and has 150 rooms. It opened in 1927 as the Devonshire Hotel. Before it closed in 2013, the Tokyo was not aimed at tourists, but rather longer-term residents, and earned a reputation for being home to “prostitution and criminal activity.”[1]

Written by Zia Hansen

WHAT CAN A PHOTO TELL?

 

Halong Bay

THE STORY BEHIND ONE MYSTERIOUS SENSUAL PHOTO

Q: Where did I take this photo?

This photo was taken during a trip to Halong Bay in Vietnam in march 2016. Small junkets sail you in-between the magnificent rock formations.

Q: What time of day?

This was a cold, foggy day with a light layer of drizzling rain, which made the journey quite moody and a great setting for mysterious and emotionally evocative photography. Initially I thought this weather would ruin my chances of photography, but it turned out to provide the perfect setting for a sensory photography journey. This photo was taken around 10:00 AM from the backside of an old wooden junket vessel.

Q: Anything worth sharing about lighting?

The foggy weather created the perfect setting for a mysterious and sensory photo, as the fog covered part of the horizon with layers of horizontal veils.  The contrast between the cold green hue of the bay was subtly off-set by the mist covered rocks reflecting into the water, creating crisscross subtle shadow patterns.

Q: What equipment did you use? (Camera, lens, tripod?, flash?, other?)

This photo was shot on my IPhone 6S without a tripod or flash.

Q: What inspired me to take this photo?

Halong Bay is a unique Unesco World Heritage site, known for its scenic beauty, mostly depicted in bright daylight with sparkling blue waters in tourist brochures.  It was honestly initially quite a disappointment that the weather was foggy and drizzling this day of junket boat trip. It turned out to become a much more mysterious and sensual journey as the horizon was shortened and the depth sensation was distorted and reduced. I was inspired and intrigued by the juxtapositions of the foggy weather conditions, the icy green clear waters of Halong Bay and the majestic rock outcroppings and wanted to instill a similar peaceful, moody, mysterious emotion in others when watching my photos. I wanted to create a sensation of tranquility, reflection and introspection, a deeply touching emotion.

Q: Did I do any post-processing? If yes, tell us about it!

For this photo I used the Camera+ App to adjust the sharpness, enhance the contrast, luminosity and grain.

Q: What equipment do I normally have in your bag?

I am a world traveler and choose to travel as light as possible. I truly appreciate the possibilities the IPhone 6+ camera provides when supplemented by editing Apps. It is always at hand, ready to capture instant opportunities, without carrying a large and heavy camera around. Editing is instantaneously available and offers so many different opportunities through a variety of editing Apps.  Camera+, Enlight and Snapseed are my favorite editing tools. I have been greatly inspired by Emil Pakarklis IPhone Photography School lessons in IPhone Photography.

Q: Any advice for others trying to capture something similar?

Halong Bay is known for seasonal changes and spectacular sunsets, but as this was a visit planned weeks ahead you have no control of the weather. The coastal weather changes almost daily depending on time of year and day and often multiple times a day. I advise to find the beauty and unique character of any place, at any time, and to keep exploring new vantage points, juxtapositions, layers and shadow patterns. As this trip is explored by a motor junket boat you have many different opportunities, as other junkets in motion constantly change the horizon, framed by the rock formations and the rippling patterns in the water. The view of the rock formations constantly change as the rocks are silhouetted and layered.  Clouds and a light drizzle can offer unique opportunities for great photography, thus venture out, feel the moisture and drizzle on your face and lens while capturing images that tell the story and gets ”under the skin”‘ of spectators. Get wet and cold, feel it and capture the unique sense of place and time. Translate the sense of mystery, choreography and sensuality. Each photo is an opportunity to create a new sense of choreography in time and space.

Written by Zia Hansen. Photo by Zia Hansen

Synchronicity: arriving in a foreign city at the time of a disaster

Erawan  Shrine bombing in Bangkok  1 year ago

 Erawan bombing

TV image of the bombing disaster at Erawan Shrine

I arrived in Bangkok just 30 minutes before the horrific bombing took place at Erawan, one of my favorite holy shrines which I visit as often as possible, on a Monday evening one year ago. I probably sat on that particular bench a number of times where the bomber took off his backpack which caused the implosion. This place had such a strong spiritual energy. The mere thought of the disaster sent chills through my body during the hot night.

Erawan shrine
Erawan shrine: a holy place for prayers

The sound of the implosion shook the car as I was arriving into the Central Business District in Bangkok  from the airport. What had happened? The sky looked particular somber that night.  After checking into my hotel room my TV showed the disaster that had happened when someone, I believe still unidentified even after one year, imploded the holy site.  Quite terrifying when you find yourself  alone in a foreign city where you do not understand the language.  Everyone I met were extremely supportive, although shocked and horrified.  I was going to visit our office in Bangkok the following 2 days and so many colleagues were checking into each other via WhatsApp. This is such a great tool when you are traveling.  Everyone were rattled in disbelief that anyone could cause such a horrible disaster at a holy shrine visited by thousands daily in prayer. Thankfully no one from our office in Bangkok were injured, although one of my American colleagues was very close, shopping for food for an office reception the following day.

Bangkok noir
Bangkok at night that night seemed very somber

I have a fascination of Bangkok by night. The massive BTS train structures, the silent lanes of cars lining up, grid locked, stop and go. How the neon lights at the CBD add that layer of mystery and reflections. It became a bit of a tense week, but the following days I felt safer seeing so many police officers at every major building or important infrastructure.

Bangkok noir
Bangkok at night near Chong Nonsi BTS station

Thankfully the second attempt at bombing the bridge at the river landing and BTS only 2 stops from my hotel near Chong Nonsi BTS (sky train) failed. It felt somber and too much of a close call, as I also frequent that area often to go along the river in a long boat. The Thai people were all wonderfully supportive and caring while the government was on high alert all week. What a horrible thought that someone would bomb sites that are so dear to all and holy, symbols of world peace.

Bangkok noir
Bangkok noir: neon signs across from  Chong Nonsi  BTS reminds me of timing and synchronicity

Written by Zia Hansen. photos by Zia Hansen

 

DESTINATION VIETNAM: IMPERIAL CITY HUE

Imperial Palace Hue

You can arrive at Hue in several different ways, by train or flight from Hanoi. We traveled from Hanoi to Hue via Danang Airport. Based on our experiences, by all means avoid flying Vietjet Airlines as they apparently are notorious for cancelling flights, causing us a “common” 5 hour delay.  From Danang the supposedly scenic route became a grueling night drive through roads full of road construction and huge trucks whirling rocks and dust. Our driver tried a slight shortcut resulting in a shredded tire around midnight with endless rows of speeding trucks passing by on a dangerous construction corner in the middle of seemingly nowhere.  The car’s spare tire was installed by the dim light of our Iphone’s flashlight and turned out to be only partially inflated.  Our driver continued at a speed of 10 km per hour.  The drive seemed endless and our 4 star hotel seemed to be fast asleep with staff sleeping on couches in the lobby-that is a first experience during my frequent travels. 

Why visit Hue?

Imperial Palace Hue
Part of the stunning Imperial Palace entrance across from the Citadel

Hue is designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site and has an intriguing past as both former Imperial City and National Capital.  It was both the residence of emperors and the national capital from 1802-1945, until the communist government moved its government in Hanoi.  Hue’s central location very close to the border between the North and South during the Vietnam War placed the city in a very vulnerable position during the Vietnam War.  The city suffered double damage, due to a combination of the American military bombing of historic buildings held by the North Vietnamese, and also by the massacre at Hue’ committed by the communist forces. After the war ended, many of the historic features of Hue’ were neglected as they were seen by the victorious communist regime and other Vietnamese as “relics from the feudal regime”.  Many historical areas of the city are currently being restored after the designation as Unesco World Heritage Site.  The Imperial City occupies a large, walled area on the north side of the Perfume River.

Imperial Palace Hue
Spectacular ceramic roof ornamentation adorn many of the restored buildings

The vast 19th century Citadel and Imperial Palace are delightful to visit, surrounded by a moat and thick stonewall fortifications, encompassing some well restored palaces and shrines as well as parts of the forbidden Purple City, once the Emperor’s home.  Only the emperors, concubines, eunuchs and those close enough to them were granted access-alive.  Throughout the Citadel visual and written descriptions provide good insight into the cruel and lavish lifestyle within the walls in multiple languages.  The architecture is spectacular.

Imperial Palace Hue
Part of a wonderful reception hall
Imperial Palace Hue
Study the details: Intriguing roof ornamentations
Imperial Palace Hue
Exit gate to the Imperial City

Outside the Citadel bicycle rickshaw drivers are uncomfortably aggressive trying to drum up a business opportunity.  One driver tried to block the pedestrian intersection.  In my opinion there is really no need to use a rickshaw as most hotels are in walking distance and the area beyond the Citadel appears to be of limited visitor interest.  Perfume River seems almost unused, only one café’ has taken advantage of the location almost across the Citadel as well as a smaller night market mainly geared on tourists.  

Dragon river boat

Primitive colorful family owned river boats with dragon painted tin decorations were lined up along the river, and as this was a quiet time of the year the boat owners were hawking business.  Truly a family business, many boats were hawked by the older daughter, while the mother or father were running the boats, and their younger daughter would try to sell tourist souvenirs and refreshments while cruising the river.

Riverboat Hue

Families seemed to be living on the boats, which were only outfitted with loose plastic chairs arranged loosely on vinyl flooring resembling imperial carpeting.  

Riverboat Hue

Along the river are monuments, including the tombs of several emperors.  The tour along the river is not the most charming adventure, but can offer plenty of opportunities for future tourism development.  We took a tour to the Thien Mu Pagoda which was beautiful and in a stunning location at a river bend.  I have seen many much more stunning pagodas in other parts of the world, but this location was spectacular. Unfortunately this pagoda structure was not accessible.

Pagoda Hue
A majestic entrance to the pagoda from the river
Pagoda Hue
Thien Mu Pagoda

Hue remains a tranquil and conservative city, without much city life, and in my opinion is worthy of a full day of visiting, but not much more during the colder time of year.  Supposedly there are several good beaches about 15 minutes away.  The somber history of the Vietnam War era can be explored by day excursions to the tunnels dug by the Vietcong forces. We skipped this tour and only saw the scenic route driving to Hoi An.

Written by Zia Hansen. Photos by Zia Hansen

 

A TALE OF 2 CITIES AS DIFFERENT AS NIGHT AND DAY

 

 

Bangkok city center
Bangkok Central Business District by sunset

 

CBD2

Singapore Central Business District by night

 

BANGKOK AND  SINGAPORE: 2 CITIES SO CLOSE AND YET SUCH POLAR OPPOSITES 

Singapore so lush and green, tropical, clean and orderly.  Well planned. Life is easy, although most work hard and efficient.  Houses are coated in fresh paint, in myriads of fresh pastels, crisp and fresh. 

Geylang Singapore

Shophouses offer a wonderful natural architecture for the tropical weather in Singapore

Lotus pond at the Sands in Singapore

Lush lotus pond at the Sands in Singapore

The city is safe, clean and very tropical.  Almost daily tropical rain makes everything exceptionally lush, green, hot, humid and very tropical.  You can leave your purse on the street and still have a good chance of finding it hours later.  It is safe to walk at all times of the day even as a single woman. Mosquitoes are abated monthly, yet the tropical paradise can offer sightings of flying Timorous Beasties. 

Tropical canonball tree in Singapore

Tropical beauty: Canonball tree in Singpore

Pavements are straight, orderly and clean for the most part, no black gum spotting, no spitting’s.  Only the red mud from daily rain tracks into your front door.  Transportation is efficient and cars are limited through permits that are so expensive that most people’s dream of owning personal cars will remain a very distant dream.  Public transportation on the other hand is efficient and well planned.  Air quality is good, except for neighboring countries’ uncontrollable wild fires. Covered roof structures will provide shelter against the almost daily sudden down-pour.  Noise is limited to the roars of Ferraris and Lamborghinis trying to rev-up before the next traffic light: No chance to ever reach the maximum engine possibilities on the small island-or chirping exotic birds and expressive utterings from tropical frogs.  Old traditional shop houses are juxtaposed by new slender mid-or massive high-rise condo towers, HDB government subsidized housing blocks or crisp white or pastel colored carefully restored colonial buildings.

 

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Old colonial shophouses are overpowered by huge HDB apartment buildings at Duxton Hill

Bangkok on the other hand is unruly, and has a dirty urban grit.  Diversity and difference are key differentiators for Bangkok.  The city is unplanned and chaotic, with a large amount of imperfection.  Bangkok forces  and allows people to live without plans.  Chaos and a large degree of randomness is everywhere.  Old wooden shacks are flanked by office buildings or condo towers.

Riverfront in Bangkok  

Old shack houses at the main river, Chao Phraya in Bangkok

Tucked away in side alleys you can find gems and oasis of restaurants and cafes, if only you know how to get there, have a car and a GPS to get there.  It is almost impossible to walk, squashed between cars, Tuk-Tuks, motor bikes, street vendors and utility poles with dangerous infernos of electrical wires hanging overhead, dimly lit or not lit at all at nighttime.  Walkways are uneven, tiles are broken and under seemingly constant repair-in-progress, dirty and haphazard, aligned with the fumes of street food vendors’ temptations of fried fish, bananas, sausages, plastic bags of fresh cut colorful fruits, peppered by exhaust.  The city is grey and trees are far and few in-between.

Erawan shrine
Erawan shrine in Bangkok, cornered by the BTS skytrain

Well-kept street temples and offerings of yellow and fragrant flowers, incense, fresh coconuts and orange juice for good fortune provide a poetic juxtaposition to the dirty urban fabric of unpainted buildings, graffiti littered fences and the double-stacked ugly concrete structures of time saving and quite efficient sky trains.

Offering alter in Bangkok for hungry spirits
Offering street alter in Bangkok for hungry spirits

When in Bangkok try to live close to the BTS or be prepared to spend the next hour or hours grid-locked behind your personal car’s or taxi’s steering wheel.  Personal freedom means having your own car, but sacrificing your time and patience.  Grid-lock is everywhere, seemingly at all times of the day

Bangkok transportation

Gridlock seemingly everywhere and at any time of day in Bangkok

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Juxtaposition between colonial building and new condo towers in Bangkok

Food are the favorite hobby in both cities and joyful sharing of sumptuous meals are favorite pastimes in both cities.  In Singapore Chicken-rice or chili-crab is the all-time favorite national food, in Bangkok crispy fried street food, spicy curry dishes or chili flavored mango salad.  Shopping is becoming a second hobby for both cities.  New malls with ice skating rinks are alluring both Bangkok shoppers to become their new destination and pastime.  Singapore offers almost nonstop shopping, mall after mall after mall seemingly competing with the same high end luxury items.

Offering alter in Bangkok for hungry spirits
Offering alter in Bangkok for hungry spirits

Streetfood in Bangkok

Streetfood in Bangkok

Street signs in Bangkok are an inferno, competing for massage, yoga or snatch-thief warnings. Slippers are scattered in front of buildings indicative of a favorite luxury, taking time for a cheap Thai massage or foot massage treatment on-the-go.  Every Thai I have met is smiling, welcoming and love to enjoy life.  When asking a Thai what he or she loves to do: party is a good answer.  Singaporeans are more reserved and offer less facial expressions.  When asking a Singaporean what their hobby is, the standard answer is: eating and shopping.  Street signs are offering luxury lifestyle or food.

Shopping at Orchard Road in Singapore

Each city has so much to offer in such different ways.  

In Bangkok you need to discover pockets of art and sub-culture dispersed in seemingly unlikely places, hidden in small soi’s but a rich underground culture and appreciation of design and creativity is spreading roots; design and creativity is becoming a national differentiator.  Thailand is becoming the first country in Asia to come up with the idea of establishing design as a national agenda.  Creative freedom as differentiator. In Singapore life is very organized, efficient, a bit uptight, yet you can find pockets of alternative museums and galleries, especially in some of the old colonial military barracks. Art is more controlled, as is life, where only groups of people up to 5 are allowed to gather in the streets.

Written by Zia Hansen. Photos by Zia Hansen

EXPLORE STUNNING LAOS: TANTALIZING LUANG PRABANG

 

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A perfect location for spiritual contemplation and gourmet delights.

Temple at the old palace
Temple at the old palace

Luang Prabang  is a place where time runs slowly, where the whiff of fragrant freshly baked flakey French croissants merge with the scent of incense and the tantilizing gourmet spices of the French-Laotian cuisine.  A place where body and mind truly reunites. Encircled by hazy green mountains, Luang Prabang is located on a peninsula between Nam Khan and the grand Mekong River.  Now is the time to discover the splendor of Luang Prabang, before it is too late: in a few years a new high speed train will connect from mainland China, adding large volumes of loud tourists to a spiritual sanctuary.  A city so pervaded by an intangible charm and spiritual calm could change very rapidly.

Streetlife along the main street
Streetlife along the main street while having lunch

Luang Prabang was an ancient Royal capital and is still the main center for Buddhist learning in Laos. The more than 33 wats (monasteries) are worth exploring, all displaying the unique Laotian gold temple roof embellishments, gold stenciling, and wood carvings. Doors and windows are decorated and hand carved with tales of life: heaven and hell.  Since 1995 Luang Prabang was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site, meaning no cars and trucks are allowed: this place is so peaceful and such a delight, with a strong spiritual ambiance. The city is best explored by foot as treasures abound around each corner – or negotiate a ride on one of the local colorful local Tuk-Tuks, a motor bike rickshaw, the only mode of transportation admitted in the old quarters – or take a day off relaxing your feet on a river cruise on the Mekong River aboard one of the old charming long wooden junket boats to the Buddha Caves and a hilltribe whisky village.

Sunset along the river
Sunset along the river: a romantic moment in time

Glistening Buddhist architecture merges with Colonial French into a magical and alluring dreamy visual and auditory sensation. Not to mention the scent sensations: flaky French patisseries and spicy Laotian dishes fused with French cuisine. I wish I had taken the time to take a cooking class in one of the restaurant kitchens along the river.

French colonial house - now one of the charming small hotels
French colonial house – now one of the charming small hotels in Old Town

French colonial villas house the majority of the guesthouses, small cozy hotels and Indo-French fusion cafes and restaurants and artisans. The friendly multi-ethnic Laotian people and nearby colorful Hmong hill tribes captivate even the most jaded traveler.

Temple stencil details
Temple stencil details and guilded ornamentation

Color ornamentation and tantalizing scents are the first of Luang Prabang’s virtues greeting travelers. Frangipani and magnolia trees with their heady perfume and vibrant flowers, the vibrant saffron colored robes of hundreds of young monks and novices walking with their colorful rice umbrellas are mesmerizing. Roosters awaken the city prior to dawn, getting the Laotians ready for giving alms to the silent 6:00 AM progression of monks and novices through town. The gonging of nearby temple drums add a sacred balming layer to your busy minds. I wonder what all the roosters in their woven baskets are really used for, except as alarm clocks? I may not want to know…

Laotian girl at hte night market
Laotian girl at the daily night market craving some attention

The town is a juxtaposition of faded French colonial villas, old traditional Laos homes creaking on stilts, interspersed by spiritual architectural treasures. Patisseries makes the nostrils vibrate and yearn. Tranquility and charm are the key words.

Temple
Temple and frangipanis

French Indochina culinary fusion deserves explorations: try grilled marinated buffalo in coffee grain sauce at 3 Nagas or the amazing grilled red pepper and tomato soup layered with pepper and spring onions at Jarvos for a lazy lunch on the street porch, squandering a few lazy hours on a very hot afternoon. Street food offerings are abundant, especially during the daily night market: try thin crepes, grilled corn on the cub, grilled unmentionables, or grilled bananas delicately wrapped in banana leaves.

French colonial shophouse
French colonial shophouse: a French bakery

The gonging of giant drums sounding from neighboring wats signal a balming spiritual retreat for a stressed traveler, urging you to stop and inhale with all your senses.

Mainstreet charm
Mainstreet charm.  No cars are allowed, only local Tuk-Tuks

One of my favorite places for lunch and contemplation was an outdoor restaurant at the tip of the peninsula, with a view of the suspended bamboo bridge and the 2 joining rivers.

Bamboo bridge is rebuilt each year
The bamboo bridges have to be rebuilt each year due to raging rivers

Take time for long boat cruises along the muddy Mekong River to visit hill tribes and/or the Oak Ou Buddha karst caves which are depositories for thousands of Buddha figures.  This experience is truly overwhelming and worth a half day trip.  Hundreds of steps lead up the journey to the 2 levels of Buddha filled karst caves.  Once inside you cannot help but wanting to capture the experience, over and over.  It truly leaves a spiritual impact on your soul.

Buddha cave
Buddha cave
Buddha cave
Buddha cave

Luang Prabang is indeed a very special place worth exploring. I left part of my heart and soul in Luang Prabang.  Devote some days to just unwind and indulge: surrounded in frangipani scents, incense, excellent spicy French inspired Laotian kitchen and French bakeries, and do indulge the fifth sense by trying Laotian massages.  This is one of those places in the world that gets under your skin. In a good way.

Written by Zia Hansen. Photos by Zia Hansen