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Taipei: Four Must-See Sites

By | Taiwan | No Comments

Taiwan’s capital city emerging as a popular Asian vacation spot

The Arizona Republic — April 30, 2017

TAIPEI, Taiwan – As visitors enter the world’s second-fastest elevator to take them to the top of the world’s eighth-tallest building, a sign tells them to prepare for a “journey that’ll change your life.”  The sign calls the elevator “the greatest vertical road to instant urban tranquility.”

Taipei 101

Taipei 101 is built to resemble a bamboo tree rising from the Earth

From its impressive skyline to its massive metropolitan population of 7 million, to a state-of-the-art mass-transit system as clean and efficient as any in the world, to its unconventional street markets that offer everything from pig’s blood rice cake to duck tongue, Taipei is anything but understated.

This capital city of Taiwan, an island just over 100 miles east of mainland China, offers a fascinating mix of exotic Chinese culture topped by a heavy dose of Western capitalism.

Long overshadowed by more well-known East Asian destinations like Hong Kong, Tokyo and Shanghai, Taipei is emerging as an up-and-coming vacation spot.  In fact, it is now the 14th-ranked city in the world in terms of attracting foreign visitors, with more than 9 million tourist arrivals in 2015, up 5 percent from the prior year.

It takes a full week to seriously explore Taipei and its environs.  Here are my four favorite sites from a recent visit:

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall

Taiwan, officially named the Republic of China, has a complicated political history with an uncertain future.  The best place to make sense of it all is the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, which honors the island’s first president.  Chiang was a military and political leader in mainland China before being defeated by the Communists after World War II.  He retreated to Taiwan in 1949 and led the government there until his death in 1975.

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall

The iconic Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall

The memorial, surrounded by a large park, has 89 steps, representing Chiang’s age at the time of his death.  There are three floors, where visitors can examine historical documents, photographs and films.

The centerpiece of the facility is a large bronze statue of Chiang, watched over by two military guards.  There is an hourly rifle-twirling changing-of-the-guard ceremony that draws big crowds (see video shot by the author at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial: Changing-of-the-guard ceremony).

China claims Taiwan as its own territory and wants the island unified with the rest of the country.  Even though it has the 22nd largest economy in the world, Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations.  It was expelled from the U.N. in 1971 – due to Chinese pressure — and hasn’t been allowed to return.

Taipei 101

View from Taipei 101

A youngster enjoys the view from the 89th floor of Taipei 101

Built to resemble bamboo rising out of the earth, this skyscraper has more character than many of the world’s other superstructures.  Taipei 101, so-named because it has 101 stories, was certified as the world’s tallest building from 2004-2010.  It has now slipped to 8th on the list (Burj Khalifi in Dubai is the tallest), but still boasts the world’s second-fastest elevator, behind a tower in Shanghai that opened last year.

For such a speedy ride, the trip to the top is surprisingly relaxing.  While listening to new-age music with the lights turned off, visitors are smoothly whisked to the 89th-floor observation deck in just 37 seconds (about 38 miles-per-hour).  It may not be a “life-changing” event, but it’s certainly worth the 600 New Taiwan dollar admission price (about U.S. $20).  Needless to say, the views of Taipei’s skyline, ringed by a volcanic mountain range, are magnificent.

Designed to withstand typhoons and earthquakes, fairly common occurrences in the region, Taipei 101 houses an upscale mall, restaurants and offices.

National Palace Museum

National Palace Museum

The National Palace Museum houses nearly 700,000 artifacts spanning 8,000 years of Chinese history

Originally founded in Beijing’s Forbidden City in 1925, much of the museum’s collection was moved to Taiwan in 1948 to protect it from China’s civil war.  It now houses nearly 700,000 artifacts encompassing 8,000 years of Chinese history.

Among the most popular items on display is a 3,000-year-old bronze ceremonial cauldron called Mao-Gong Ding.  The inside surface is inscribed in 500 ancient Chinese characters arranged in 32 lines, making it the longest bronze inscription in the world.

The National Palace Museum annually attracts more than 6 million visitors.

Northern Coast

A day-trip to the island’s northern coast can be a welcome respite from the densely-populated city.  Keelung City, just a one-hour drive from Taipei, is a fishing village known for hiking and outstanding seafood.

Queen's Head

The famous Queen’s Head rock formation at Yehliu Geopark

Just outside Keelung is the Yehliu Geopark, which features a cape with several remarkable hoodoo rock formations created by centuries of wind and erosion.  The most famous formation, known as the “Queen’s Head,” is 4,000 years old and was named for its supposed likeness to England’s Queen Elizabeth I.

The elements continue to nibble away at the formations and some geologists think they may not survive more than another 50-100 years.

Travel Tips

Taipei is easy to traverse, whether by subway, bus, reasonably priced taxis, or just plain walking.  It’s one of the most pedestrian-friendly cities in Asia.  I stayed at a centrally located business hotel called Palais de Chine, located next to the central bus and train stations.

Taipei street vendor

A street vendor prepares traditional Chinese dumplings in downtown Taipei

The hotel also is within easy walking distance of numerous noodle shops and food stalls selling outrageously cheap – and tasty – bowls of Taiwanese cuisine.  You won’t go hungry in Taipei, which is said to have one of the highest densities of restaurants in the world.

There are direct flights to Taipei from several American cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle.  Visas are not required for stays of less than 90 days.

Aside from its unsettled political status and tensions with China, Taipei used to be known mainly for its championship Little League baseball teams and as a quick stopover for North American and European tourists on their way to more trendy Asian destinations.

Now – due to its culture, history and urban delights — it’s rightfully earning a reputation as a memorable vacation spot in its own right.

© 2017 Dan Fellner

Preserving Jewish Life in Taiwan

By | Jewish Travel, Taiwan | No Comments

Taipei’s Jewish Center meets the needs of locals and foreigners alike

Jewish News of Greater Phoenix — May 5, 2017

TAIPEI, Taiwan — When you’re the only full-time rabbi in a relatively small and isolated Jewish community – like that found on the Asian island of Taiwan — you’re expected to do much more than lead religious services.

Rabbi Shlomi Tabib

Rabbi Shlomi Tabib in the sanctuary of the Taipei Jewish Center

Among the many duties performed by Rabbi Shlomi Tabib, director of the Taipei Jewish Center, are hand-delivering Kosher food to visiting Israeli Knesset members, leading a weekly discussion group on Jewish-related topics, and working with the Taiwan Minister of Education to develop Holocaust education in the local schools.

And, while it’s not his favorite part of the job, the rabbi will occasionally even slaughter a chicken in accordance with strict kashrut law.

Such is the busy life of the Chabad rabbi, who moved to Taiwan in 2011 from Israel with his wife Racheli to open the Taipei Jewish Center, the only synagogue on this island of about 24 million people that is just over 100 miles east of mainland China.  At 13,855 square miles, Taiwan is slightly bigger than the state of Maryland.

Tabib estimates the Jewish population in Taiwan to be about 1,000, 85 percent of whom live in Taipei, the capital and largest city. Taipei, which features the eighth-tallest building in the world, Taipei 101 (so-named because it has 101 stories), is a densely populated metropolitan area with about 7 million residents.

Unlike China, where the Jewish community can trace its roots back to the 10th century, significant numbers of Jews didn’t arrive in Taiwan until the 1950s.  Many of the first wave of newcomers were American soldiers.

Taipei Jewish Center

The Taipei Jewish Center is located in the Daan District in downtown Taipei

In subsequent decades, American troops left Taiwan but Jews in other fields arrived.  Some work in the country’s thriving high-tech industry, while others are employed as diplomats, in the diamond business, banking and education.  Additionally, there are numerous Jewish tourists who visit the island.

Regardless of their age, occupation or level of religious observance, Jews wanting a chance to connect with other Jews and celebrate Shabbat and other holidays are always welcome to visit the Taipei Jewish Center.  Tabib says Friday night services and dinner typically attract 30-40 people, most of them visiting tourists and business people.  However, getting a minyan for Saturday services can often be a challenge.

“There are not many observant people residing here,” lamented the rabbi, who added that “a large percentage” of Jews living in Taiwan have intermarried.

Nevertheless, the Jewish Center is busy catering to the needs of both locals and visitors alike.  It houses the sole Kosher kitchen on the island, importing most of its food from Israel and the United States.  Aside from serving food at the facility, an average of 10-15 meals per week are delivered to hotels, businesses and convention centers.

View of Taipei

View of Taiwan’s capital city from the 89th floor of Taipei 101

The Jewish Center also offers a Sunday Hebrew school, coordinated by Racheli, with assistance from two volunteers from Israel.  About 25 children are currently enrolled, aged 3-10.

Tabib said being an isolated community with a small staff has both its pros and cons.

“It’s kind of challenging being far away from everything — any other synagogue or any other rabbi,” he said.  “It gives a lot of responsibility on our shoulders being here, and with that, we also have a lot of satisfaction when things go well.”

The 33-year-old Tabib, who spent three years in Hong Kong as a rabbi, said the Taiwanese people have – for the most part – been quite welcoming.

“Overall, their approach is very positive,” he said.  “The Taiwanese people are known to be very generous to foreigners.  It is embedded in their culture that the Jewish people are smart and successful and I think most of them look to us in a positive way.  That said, many people here don’t know much about Judaism.”

Unfortunately, there was an incident in December involving a high school parade in which students dressed as Nazi soldiers and carried swastika banners.  As a result, the principal of the school resigned.  A few years earlier, a restaurant with a concentration camp theme opened but soon closed due to controversy.

The rabbi attributed the incidents more to ignorance than blatant anti-Semitism.

“People don’t really know about the Nazis,” he said.  “I’m not saying this is an excuse, but these people have no intention to go against the Jewish people or the state of Israel.”

Still, the rabbi is working with the Taiwanese government to enhance Holocaust education in the schools.

“We are working on a plan where people will have more education to learn what happened during World War II,” he said.  “Once they are given the facts, they will back off and say ‘this isn’t something we stand for.  This isn’t something we want to endorse.’”

The Jewish Center is located in a building on a side street in a commercial district of Taipei called Daan, not far from the city center.  Tabib said visitors are welcome to contact him for information about services, other events and obtaining Kosher food: rabbi@jewish.tw.

Ultimately, he would like to see a permanent synagogue erected, the first in Taiwanese history.

“The problem is we want to buy land, but land here is really expensive,” he said.  “You wait for a big donor.  You wait for a lot of things for something like this to be possible.”

In the meantime, Rabbi Tabib goes about his daily business – doing whatever needs to be done to preserve Jewish life in Taiwan – even if that means slaughtering a chicken every now and then.

“There are many challenges for us, so we need to do a lot of things on our own,” he said.  “I think telling our story and showing that we have a thriving community here demonstrates that there is a future for the Jews in Taiwan.  If there is anybody who is thinking of moving here because of business reasons, they should know that they will be in safe hands.”

© 2017 Dan Fellner

Beautiful and Mystical Bali

By | Indonesia | No Comments

 

Traditional dance reflects Indonesian island’s unique and devout culture

The Arizona Republic — February 26, 2017

JIMBARAN BAY, Bali – Ask a local here about the island’s population (about 4 million), and they will most likely answer in terms of “souls” rather than people.

Bali Hindu temple

One of the most scenic Hindu temples in Bali, Puri Ulun Danu Bratan is on the shores of Lake Bratan.

It reflects the deep spirituality of Bali, where there are Hindu temples on virtually every street, shrines in most homes and businesses, and where many Balinese present offerings of flowers and candy to the Gods each day before going to work.

Yes, Bali offers beautiful beaches, high-end resorts, world-class surfing and spectacular sunsets that are found on many tropical islands.  But what sets it apart from other warm-weather destinations is the devoutness of its unique culture, which permeates all aspects of Balinese life and envelopes tourists as soon as they arrive.

Appropriately known as “Island of the Gods,” Bali is one of more than 17,000 islands in the Indonesian archipelago and – by far – the country’s most popular tourist destination.  Its 2,200 square miles – full of rice paddies, volcanic mountains and traffic-clogged cities — make it approximately the same size as the state of Delaware.

Bali dancing

A traditional Balinese dance performance in the courtyard of a Hindu temple at the Four Seasons Resort

While Indonesia’s population has a Muslem majority, Bali is a pocket of Hinduism; more than 80 percent of the island’s population identify as Hindus.  The Balinese speak their own language, although most also are fluent in Indonesian.  English isn’t widely spoken beyond tourist areas.

Regardless of the occasional difficulty in communicating, I found the Balinese to be welcoming, quick with a smile, and rightfully proud to show off their island.  Even mispronouncing the Balinese word for thank you – suksma – which I did repeatedly, would bring a cheerful grin (it’s pronounced sook-sum-uh).

I was especially fascinated by the beauty and elegance of traditional Balinese dancing, which isn’t only considered an art form, but an inseparable part of the Hindu faith.

My first exposure to local dancers came at an interactive class at the Ganesha Cultural Center in Jimbaran Bay in the southern part of Bali. Located inside the grounds of the posh Four Seasons Resort, Ganesha (named after a Hindu god) also is open to visitors not staying at the hotel. It was inaugurated last summer to showcase the work of local hand-picked artists and preserve Balinese culture.

Bali dancer

A Balinese teenager demonstrates the finger contortions and intense facial expressions of traditional Balinese dancing

At the Ganesha dance class, two 15-year-old girls from the local village demonstrated some of the techniques that make Balinese dancing so compelling – intense facial expressions, rhythmic head-bobbing and fluid hand movements.  There are other traditional dances around the world – the Ukrainian hopak comes to mind – that may be more acrobatic, but few are as pleasingly graceful and exquisite.

That’s not to say, though, that being agile and dexterous isn’t an asset.  In addition to mastering some pretty tricky head and foot movements, Balinese dancers can contort their fingers in a way that makes Mr. Spock’s Vulcan salute seem pedestrian.

“It’s all about practice,” said Ni Luh Gede Suryatini, assistant manager of the Ganesha Cultural Center.  “You need to start learning from a very young age.”

Some Balinese dances are like watching a play with a plotline.  When the plot calls for it, facial expressions can involve eye-bulging and scary snarls.  Other dances – based on humorous stories — can veer toward slapstick.

Balinese priest flooding

A Balinese priest presents an offering to Hindu Gods in a ceremony at the Hindu temple at the Four Seasons Jimbaran Bay

“We have dances about war, we have dances about love, we have dances about how to welcome our guests,” said Suryatini.  “That determines the expressions of our dancers.”

That evening, I was treated to a dance performance in the courtyard of the Four Seasons’ onsite Hindu temple, which has its own resident pemangku, a Balinese priest who blesses visitors and demonstrates Hindu rituals.

Backed by an eight-piece, percussion-heavy band playing traditional Balinese instruments, a group called Teba Banjar from Jimbaran village performed five classical dances in brightly-colored costumes and intricate gold headdresses (see video shot by the author at Four Seasons Jimbaran Bay: Balinese dancing at Jimbaran Bay).

The Ganesha Cultural Center offers classes in other traditional Balinese art forms, including woodcarving, ceramic painting and hand-weaving.  There’s also a class on how to make a canang, a small palm-leaf basket used by Balinese to present daily offerings – such as candy, coins and flowers — to the gods.  The Four Seasons donates all proceeds from the cultural center back to the local artists.

I also took a daytrip to Ubud, a town in central Bali that is considered the spiritual and cultural center of the island.  Full of art galleries, spiritual healers and meditation centers, it’s vibe is somewhat evocative of Sedona. There’s even a popular spa in Ubud named Sedona.  A portion of the 2010 movie “Eat Pray Love,” which chronicled writer Elizabeth Gilbert’s quest for inner peace and starred Julia Roberts, was filmed in Ubud.

There are no direct flights to Bali from the United States, but there are easy connections from major Asian hubs like Hong Kong, Tokyo and Singapore into Denpasar, Bali’s largest city.  Balinese food is flavorful, spicy and reasonably priced.  Unlike in India, which practices a different strain of Hinduism, beef is on the menu in many Bali restaurants.

Bali sunset

Sunset over Jimbaran Bay in southern Bali

When Bali first began attracting significant numbers of tourists in the 1930s, Indonesia was a Dutch colony.  Many visitors came to experience a culture with a diverse mixture of Chinese, Polynesian, Indian and European roots that was unlike any other in the world.

Nearly a century later, more than 3 million tourists visit Bali each year.  The hotels now are far ritzier and the traffic is in a seemingly perpetual state of gridlock.  But the tourists still come for the same reasons.  That’s why Suryatini said it’s vital that the culture is preserved through dance and art.

“We know the tourists are coming to Bali because of its culture” says Suryatini.  “If we don’t save this culture from now on, who will do it?”

© 2017 Dan Fellner

Boise’s Surprising — and Splendid — Historic Synagogue

By | Idaho, Jewish Travel | No Comments

Idaho’s capital home to the oldest temple west of the Mississippi

Jewish News Service/Jewish News of Greater Phoenix — November 18, 2016

BOISE, Idaho — Sometimes you’ll find the most splendid synagogues in the places you least expect.

Boise synagogue

Boise’s Ahavath Beth Israel, the oldest continuously in-use synagogue west of the Mississippi

Such was the case during my recent three-day trip to Boise, Idaho, a popular gateway for skiing, river rafting and hiking that isn’t exactly known for being a hotbed of Jewish life.

Yet, there at 11 N. Latah St., just a five-minute drive from downtown, sits the oldest continuously in-use synagogue west of the Mississippi River.

And it’s far more than just a beautiful wood building.  As I learned, Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel is the centerpiece of a surprisingly robust Jewish community with a fascinating history.

I was able to meet Nina Spiro, the synagogue’s director, who was kind enough to show me around the building on the busy day before Yom Kippur eve.

“People love this building,” she said.  “We can’t believe how blessed we are.  It’s cozy, it’s homey and the acoustics are great.”

Boise, a city of about 200,000 residents at the base of the Rocky-Mountain foothills in southwestern Idaho, is the state’s capital and largest city.  Rooted in the potato industry, the area has recently emerged as a budding high-tech center and growing destination for tourists.  The locals pronounce it Boy-see, not Boy-zee.

Nina Spiro

Nina Spiro, the synagogue’s director

Before my visit, I had read about Ahavath Beth Israel and knew a little about its history.  It was built in 1895, when there were only about 25 Jewish families in Boise.  Many had emigrated to the U.S. from Germany and worked as merchants, farmers and ranchers.

One of the original members of Beth Israel – as it was known at the time — was Moses Alexander, who became the mayor of Boise and later was the first elected practicing Jewish governor in the entire country.  He served two terms, from 1915-1919.  There is a display at a museum inside the Idaho State Capitol in downtown Boise trumpeting that historical distinction.  To this day, Alexander remains the only Jewish governor in Idaho history.

Today, more than 120 years later, Moses’ grandson, Nathan Alexander, is still a member of the congregation.

For several decades, Boise actually had two synagogues.  After World War II, with the arrival of more Jewish families in the area, Congregation Ahavath Israel was built.  The two congregations merged in 1987 to become the present-day Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel.  Both buildings continued to be used; one as an education center, the other for religious services.

Ahavath Beth Israel stained-glass windows

An original stained-glass window inside Ahavath Beth Israel

But by the end of the 20th century, the congregation had grown to more than 200 families and needed to expand.  Because of the lack of land available where the existing buildings were located, the congregation decided that the original synagogue would need to be moved to a different site.

So, in the middle of a cold October night in 2003, members of the congregation were joined by some 500 people from the Boise community to walk alongside the synagogue while it was slowly moved by truck about three miles to its new location on Latah Street.

Today, the synagogue sits on a beautifully landscaped campus that also includes a 100-student religious school that meets weekly, a social hall, library and administrative offices for the synagogue’s full-time rabbi and other staff.

The interior of the synagogue still features the original wood columns and stained-glass windows.  It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Because the community is so diverse in its religious orientation and the ages of its members – from retirees to young families — Spiro describes Ahavath Beth Israel as “reconservadox.”  While it tries to meet the needs of both religious and not-so-religious members, the congregation is affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism and emphasizes music in its services and events.

In fact, the synagogue has its own klezmer band called “The Moody Jews,” a popular group that performs monthly at a temple event called “Shabbat Unplugged” and at community interfaith events.

Unfortunately, Idaho has a reputation for being a haven of extremist hate groups.  Indeed, about 10 years ago, the Aryan Nation leafletted some Boise neighborhoods with anti-Semitic and racist literature.  Spiro’s home was among those that received the offensive literature.

Anne Frank Memorial

The Anne Frank Memorial near downtown Boise

“It was pretty shocking,” she recalls.  “Since then, a lot of work has been done.”

To demonstrate its tolerance, Boiseans have erected the Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial, which occupies a prominent place adjacent to the 25-mile Boise River Greenbelt, a tree-lined paved pathway that follows the Boise River through the heart of the city.

The memorial first came to Boise in 1995 as a traveling exhibit but the response was so overwhelming by Idahoans, community leaders decided to build a more permanent tribute.  In 2002, the Anne Frank Memorial opened to the public.  Featuring a life-sized bronze statue of Anne Frank, it’s an inspirational and contemplative site in a beautiful setting.

Despite the small pockets of anti-Semitism in Idaho, Spiro describes Boiseans as “welcoming” and interested in learning more about their Jewish neighbors.

“We’re constantly hosting tour groups and church groups,” she said.  “They want to visit the synagogue.  They want to know about Jewish history.  They want to learn about Judaism.”

Spiro says visitors to Boise are welcome to attend Shabbat services, which are held Friday evenings and Saturday mornings, and other temple events as well.  For information, visit the congregation’s website:  cabi-boise.org.

Even if you’re not able to attend services, just driving by and marveling at this magnificent, historic structure would undoubtedly mark a highlight of any Jewish traveler’s visit to Boise.

© 2016 Dan Fellner

72 Hours in Boise!

By | Idaho | No Comments

Idaho’s capital city offers visitors much more than potatoes

The Arizona Republic — October 23, 2016

BOISE, Idaho – Idahoans take their spuds seriously.

Boise Fry Company

Lunch at the famous Boise Fry Company; Idahoans take their potatoes seriously

It was our first meal in Boise and we walked two blocks from the Grove Hotel in the heart of downtown to the Boise Fry Company, perhaps the city’s most famous restaurant and a popular tourist attraction.

“Would you like burgers on the side?” our server Brad Walker jokingly asked as we browsed the menu board showing fries made from six different types of locally grown potatoes — russet, purple, gold, sweet, laura and yam.  They come in five different cuts and are offered with a choice of nine types of house-made sauces and 10 varieties of salt.

We opted for heaping bowls of home-style purple and laura fries topped with garlic salt and accompanied with raspberry ketchup.  And we got grass-fed bison burgers on the side, but more as an afterthought.  We had come for the potatoes.

“Our fries are really the showcase main course,” said Walker, who doubles as the restaurant’s interim CEO.  “That’s how we like to play it, since we’re in Idaho.”

As we learned during a recent 72-hour visit to Boise, Idaho’s capital and largest city offers visitors a menu of activities, sightseeing and food much more diverse than its large variety of potatoes.

Downtown Boise

Boise is home to about 200,000 people

We found a city with a vibrant nightlife, arts community, plenty of trendy, farm-to-table restaurants serving locally made craft beers and wines, and enough outdoor venues to please any hiker, skier or biker.

It wasn’t the boring, northern plains dullsville I had been anticipating.

“We hear that all the time — ‘I had no idea,’” said Carrie Westergard, executive director of the Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau.  “People are surprised, and in a positive way.”

Westergard said tourism is growing in Boise: 400 more hotel rooms will open downtown by the end of 2017, a 35 percent jump from the current total of 1,100.

The city, nestled at the base of the Rocky Mountain foothills in southwestern Idaho, is home to about 200,000 people.  If you want to sound like a local, pronounce the city Boy-see, not Boy-zee.  In case you forget, shirts and hats are for sale in the souvenir shops to remind you.

I decided to spend three days in Boise during Arizona State University’s fall break in early October.  It was a wonderful time to visit as temperatures were still mild with highs in the upper 70s and the leaves were just starting to change.

Why Boise and not a more conventional fall-break choice like Rocky Point or San Diego?  Like a lot of travel addicts, I’ve got an atlas-based bucket list, including visiting all 50 U.S. states.  Idaho was the only state missing from my collection.

Boise River Greenbelt

The Boise River Greenbelt is popular for bikers

But a 72-hour trip to Boise turned out to be much more enriching than perfunctorily completing a checklist.  Here are the top five highlights of my trip to a place that rightfully calls itself “the city of trees.”

Biking the Boise River Greenbelt

Boise’s name originates from the French word boisé, which means “wooded.” Take a bike ride along the 25-mile Boise River Greenbelt, and it’s easy to see why the French came up with that moniker.

The tree-lined paved pathway follows the Boise River through the heart of the city and provides scenic views and access to many of the area’s riverside parks.  The Greenbelt also serves as an alternative transportation route for commuters.   Bike kiosks offering rentals are located throughout downtown.

For those wanting more strenuous exercise, there are 130 miles of roads and trails in the foothills just northeast of the city.

Basque culture

Boise's Basque Block

The Basque flag is displayed on Boise’s Basque Block

Idaho has long been a popular location for immigrants from the Basque region, which straddles northern Spain and southern France.  In fact, Boise is home to the largest per-capita population in the world of Basque people (about 10,000) outside of the Basque region, including Boise’s current mayor.  Basque people first began arriving in Idaho in the late 1800s; many worked as sheepherders.

A “Basque Block” in downtown Boise showcases the Basque culture.  There is a museum, including a historic Basque boarding house, several Basque restaurants, a Basque market that hosts cooking classes and wine tastings, and a Basque community center.

I tried my hand at a Basque sport called pala, played with a wooden racket and hard rubber ball on an indoor court known as a fronton.  I found it to be somewhat similar – but much more difficult – than American racquetball.

Idaho State Capitol

While it’s not the most breathtaking capitol you’ll see, Idaho’s center of government offers an interesting glimpse into the state’s history.

Idaho State Capitol

The Idaho State Capitol

Built from 1905-1912, the architect designed the capitol with skylights and reflective marble surfaces to capture natural sunlight.  The intent was to create a building that was a metaphor for an enlightened and moral state government.

Entrance to the building is free; there are self-guided tours and a museum chronicling Idaho’s history on the bottom floor.

Outside, at the base of the stairs, there’s a replica of the Liberty Bell.  Visitors are welcome to ring it, although the bell is so heavy, it took two of us – using all of our strength – to push it hard enough to earn a couple of chimes.

Dining and arts

This was perhaps Boise’s biggest surprise.  There is a dynamic and bustling downtown full of chic and diverse restaurants.  A chef at the popular Wild Root Café on 8th Street – otherwise known as Boise’s “restaurant row” – aptly described her cuisine as “craft, comfort food.”  We never had a meal we didn’t enjoy.

Boise's Freak Alley

A street mural in Freak Alley

Before or after dinner, there are plenty of places to gaze at art without ever setting foot in a museum.  Freak Alley, in the heart of downtown adjacent to a service alley, is the largest mural gallery in the Northwest.  Each year, murals are painted over and replaced by new ones.  The city also has commissioned local artists to paint street art on electrical boxes, transforming eyesores into eye-catching metal canvasses.

Boise State’s blue turf

The locals simply call it “The Blue.”  It’s the famous turf at Albertsons Stadium, home to Boise State University’s football team, and the first non-green artificial football field in the country.  Originally considered a gimmick when it was installed in 1986, the turf has come to symbolize the football program’s blue-collar work ethic.

Boise State blue turf

The famed blue turf at Boise State University’s football stadium

Visitors can see the blue field by entering the Allen Noble Hall of Fame, at the southwest corner of the stadium.  One of the museum’s displays features the football used in perhaps the most famous play in Fiesta Bowl history – the 2007 game in which Boise State’s Ian Johnson scored a two-point conversion on a statue-of-liberty play to beat Oklahoma in overtime, 43-42.
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Boise is a safe and affordable city for visitors.  Restaurant prices are about half of what you’ll typically pay in Scottsdale.  There are non-stop flights every day from Phoenix to Boise on American and Southwest.  Roundtrip fares are about $250.

While many tourists fly into Boise as a gateway to Idaho ski resorts, hiking trails or national parks in neighboring states, it’s well worth spending a few days in the city before heading to points beyond.

Boise offers more than enough options to keep you active, engaged and sated — even if you opt to skip the fries.

© 2016 Dan Fellner

India’s Jews: Curry and Kreplach

By | India, Jewish Travel | No Comments

Contributions of country’s Jewish community far outweigh its size

Arizona Jewish Life Magazine — September, 2016

MUMBAI, India — Numbering only about 5,000 in a country of more than 1.2 billion people, Jews constitute a minuscule fraction – 0.0004 percent — of the inhabitants in the world’s second-most populous country known far more for curry and cricket than kreplach and kippot.

Gateway of India

The Gateway of India greets visitors to Mumbai

Yet the unique historical legacy and important contributions of India’s Jews have far surpassed their size ever since they first began arriving in this south Asian country more than 2,000 years ago.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to visit five functioning synagogues in India and learn more about the Jewish presence in a country that historically has experienced little anti-Semitism and in which Jews continue to practice their faith; where raditional Judaic roots are entwined with colorful facets of Indian culture.

My trip to India was part of an 18-day Asian cruise on the 650-passenger Oceania Nautica that began in Hong Kong and included stops in Cochin and Mumbai, where the cruise concluded.  In both Cochin and Mumbai, I took tours arranged through the ship that included visits to Jewish-related sites.

Perhaps the country’s most famous Jewish attraction is found in Cochin, a port city on the Arabian Sea located on India’s southwestern coast. Jewish traders from Judea first arrived in Cochin in 562 BCE, making it India’s oldest Jewish community.

Even though only a handful of Jews now live there, an older section of Cochin is still commonly referred to as “Jew Town.”  Its centerpiece is the oldest functioning Jewish house of worship in the former British Commonwealth – the Paradesi Synagogue.

Cochin Synagogue

The historic Paradesi Synagogue in Cochin

Built in 1568 by Spanish and Dutch Sephardic Jews, Paradesi (which translates to “foreigners” in several Indian languages) remains an enduring symbol of what was once a thriving Jewish community that had seven working synagogues.  For much of its early history, the synagogue served a community of foreign-born Jewish spice dealers.  In 1968, the 400th anniversary of the synagogue was celebrated in a ceremony attended by Indira Gandhi, the Indian prime minister.

Since there aren’t enough male Jews living in Cochin to form a minyan, Paradesi only has services when enough foreigners join with locals to celebrate a Jewish holiday.  In accordance with Hindu tradition, visitors are required to enter the synagogue barefoot.  Other facets of Paradesi that are the result of Hindu influence include the wearing of brightly colored clothing and the distribution of grape-soaked myrtle leaves during various festivals.  Unfortunately, our ship was in Cochin on a Saturday, when the interior of the synagogue was closed.

But we were able to admire the synagogue’s exterior in a courtyard at the end of Jew Street, which includes a 45-foot tall clock tower that was added to the complex in 1761 and was restored a decade ago with funding from the World Monuments Fund.

Cochin Jew Town

Busy street in the “Jew Town” section of Cochin

“Jew Town” remains a popular tourist attraction in Cochin and the busy street on which the synagogue is located is full of shops selling everything from Judaica to t-shirts to Indian spices.

Two days later, the Nautica docked in Mumbai, the 13th largest city in the world with a population of about 18 million.  Known as Bombay until 1995, the city is home to most of the country’s Jews and has eight active synagogues.

I was fascinated to learn about a historic community of Indian Jews called Bene Israel (“Sons of Israel”), who arrived in India several hundred years ago and comprise a majority of Mumbai’s Jews to this day.

Some believe that the Bene Israel are one of the disputed lost tribes and migrated to India after centuries of travel through western Asia from Israel.  The 12th-century Jewish philosopher Maimonides mentioned in a letter that there was a Jewish community living in India; historians think he may have been referring to the Bene Israel.

Shaar Harahamim Synagogue

Mumbai’s oldest synagogue, Shaar Harahamim, built in 1796

Under British colonial rule, many Bene Israel rose to prominence in India.  Later, they became leaders in the country’s new film industry.

At its peak in the late 1940s, the Jewish population of Bombay reached nearly 30,000.  But it has since dwindled to about 4,000, as most Indian Jews have immigrated to Israel.

I was one of 16 passengers on the Nautica who signed up for a half-day tour in Mumbai called “Jewish Chronicles of India.”  The excursion was led by Yael Jhirad, a Bene-Israel who has been conducting tours of Jewish sites in Mumbai for more than 20 years.  Jhirad, whose husband, Ralphy Jhirad, is a prominent leader of the Indian-Jewish community, says Jewish tourists are often surprised to learn about the very existence of Jewish life in the country.

“Jewish visitors are most fascinated by the presence of Jews in India for the past two millennia,” she says, adding that what makes the community especially unique is “its survival in spite of being disconnected with the rest of the Jewish world for centuries.”

Jhirad took us to four synagogues in Mumbai, including the oldest – Shaar Harahamim (“The Gate of Mercy”), built in 1796 by a Bene Israel, Samuel Ezekiel Divekar.  The street on which it is located is named Samuel Street in his honor.  We later visited Magen David, a tall blue Orthodox synagogue that was built in 1864 by David Sassoon, an Iraqi Jew who became the leader of the Mumbai Jewish community.

Inside Shaar Harahamim

Tour guide Yael Jhirad shows visitors the interior of Shaar Harahamim

Jhirad says Jews have encountered little anti-Semitism in India and get along well with the majority Hindu population as well as Mumbai’s large Moslem community.  However, there was a terrorist attack in 2008 by a militant Islamic Pakistani group in which several Mumbai sites were targeted, including the Chabad House.  The rabbi and his wife were among the more than 160 people killed in the attacks.  Chabad reopened the facility in 2014.  Despite the attacks, Jhirad says relations between Jews and Moslems in Mumbai remain on solid footing.

To arrange a tour with Jhirad of the Jewish-related sites in Mumbai and other attractions in the area, including the famous Gateway to India that was built to welcome King George and Queen Mary during their visit in 1911, send her an email at: yaeljhirad@hotmail.com.

India is not an easy place to visit, especially for inexperienced travelers.  Mumbai is congested, loud and just crossing the street can be a dangerous challenge as cars and motorbikes rarely stop for pedestrians.  What you’ve likely heard about the country’s wretched poverty is not an exaggeration and difficult to witness firsthand.  The food, while tasty, is often substandard in terms of sanitary conditions.  In short, for many Western visitors, the place epitomizes the term “culture shock.”

Perhaps that’s why seeing the Jewish sites in India was so comforting and enriching.  In a sea of crowded chaos and confusion, walking through Cochin’s “Jew Town” and visiting Mumbai’s splendid surviving synagogues brought much-needed solace and a meaningful connection with a little-known, resilient and historically remarkable Jewish community on the other side of the world.

© 2016 Dan Fellner

Germany’s Disneyland for music geeks

By | Germany | No Comments

At Siegfried’s museum in Rüdesheim: “Your ears will be all eyes”

The Arizona Republic — August 14, 2016

RÜDESHEIM, Germany – The quirky and unique Siegfried’s Mechanical Music Cabinet isn’t just a Disneyland for music aficionados, computer nerds or history buffs.

It’s a playground for almost anyone who enjoys watching and hearing extraordinary contraptions make utterly splendid sounds.

Siegfried's Music Museum

Siegfried’s Mechanical Music Cabinet is set in a former 15th-century knight’s manor

The museum, set in a 15th-century former knight’s manor called Brömserhof in the German wine-producing village of Rüdesheim on the Rhine River, attracts about 140,000 visitors each year.  That’s 14 times the size of the local population.

Siegfried’s showcases about 350 mechanical instruments, making it one of the largest collections of self-playing instruments in the world.  Driven by rolls of sheet music and punch cards, some date back to the late 1700s.

From tiny music boxes to elaborate, automated orchestras complete with a band of 27 dolls and a miniature ballet dancer, most are in good working order and give credence to the museum’s fitting slogan:  “Your ears will be all eyes.”

I toured Siegfried’s on a drizzly and cool summer day along with about 150 fellow passengers on the Scenic Opal, which was docked on the Rhine about a 10-minute walk from the museum.  Indeed, a vast majority of the museum’s visitors are on Rhine-River cruises, which arrange private guided tours for their passengers.

Phonoliszt-Violina

A guide turns on the “Phonoliszt-Violina,” the museum’s most popular attraction

We were met at the door by the museum’s manger, Marlis Steinmetz, who was wearing a traditional German dress and hat typically worn at the beginning of the 1900s.  Steinmetz says Siegfried’s fascinates people of all ages who want to learn about music, technology and the role these instruments played in Germans’ lives.

“They like to see the forerunners of modern computers,” she says.  “They are really fascinated by it.  They like the atmosphere.  They like to see the past of music – how everything started.”

The museum is the creation of Siegfried Wendel, who bought and restored mechanical music instruments as a hobby.  There was so much interest in his collection, Wendel decided to open a museum in 1969, the first of its kind in Germany.  Now in his 80s, his collection has steadily grown over the past five decades, and so has the museum’s popularity.

“It’s not a museum in the typical way,” says Steinmetz.  “You don’t only look at things.  You can be very active.”

There is a musical chair built in 1890.  Sit down, and a tiny music movement – built into the seat of the chair — begins to play.  Push the button on a music box.  Not only do you hear a catchy tune, but the box opens up to reveal a cigarette holder.  Pull the trigger on a double-barreled pistol from the early 19th century and a tiny bird appears, sings a song, then vanishes back into the gun.

Old gramophones

The museum houses several oversized, wind-up gramophones

In addition to instruments, the museum houses several oversize, wind-up gramophones that play a collection of 78-rpm vinyl records.  While the guide cranked the gramophone, we listened to a scratchy 1950s recording of Doris Day’s “Que Sera, Sera.”  My CD player at home may sound much crisper, but it certainly lacks the nostalgic character of the old-fashioned record-player.

I especially enjoyed a player-piano topped by six violins from 1909 called the “Phonoliszt-Violina,” manufactured by a company called Hupfeld.  Once a guide flips the switch, the machine launches into a song from Verdi’s “Rigoletto” in perfect harmony (see video: Phonoliszt-Violina)

Some admirers were so enthusiastic when the machines were created that they called them the “eighth wonder of the world.”  It’s estimated that about 3,500 were built through 1930 – the end of the mechanical-music era – but only about 60 of them are still in existence.  Steinmetz says it’s the museum’s most popular attraction.

“Nobody can imagine that violins can be played mechanically,” she says.

Rudesheim cable car

Cable cars high above Rüdesheim offer spectacular views of the Rhine Valley

The museum is open seven days a week from March through December.  It’s closed during January and February, when the riverboats take a winter break from sailing the Rhine.  The entrance fee is 7 euros (about $7.75), which includes a 45-minute guided tour, although a number of higher-end ships like the Scenic Opal include the cost in the price of the cruise.

Rüdesheim is the southern starting point of a picturesque 40-mile stretch of the river brimming with medieval castles called the Rhine Gorge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Aside from the museum, the town features a cable-car ride to a hillside monument that offers spectacular views of the Rhine Valley and its vineyards.

As nothing in the museum’s gift shop caught my eye, I inquired about the cost of the Phonoliszt-Violina, fantasizing about what an amazing conversation piece it would make in my living room.

Steinmetz smiled, as if to indicate I wasn’t the first person to ask about buying a piece of music history that wasn’t for sale at any price.

“Let’s just say it’s priceless,” she said.  “Some things can never be replaced.”

© 2016 Dan Fellner

The Romantic Rhine

By | Cruising, France, Germany, Netherlands | No Comments

40-mile Rhine gorge highlight of rainy river cruise on Scenic Opal

The Arizona Republic — July 17, 2016

MIDDLE RHINE VALLEY, Germany – Even under perpetually gloomy skies and unseasonably steady rain that caused flooding and disrupted the itineraries of numerous river cruises, it’s still easy to see why Germany’s longest river is widely known as the “romantic Rhine.”

Koblenz castle

A rainbow arches over the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress following heavy rains in Koblenz, Germany

The most idyllic portion of the Rhine is a 40-mile stretch in western Germany flowing north from Rüdesheim to Koblenz.  Called the Rhine Gorge, the region is liberally punctuated with remote chapels, terraced vineyards, about 60 villages nestled beneath jagged peaks, and a medieval castle at virtually every bend of the river.

The Middle Rhine has been romanticized over the centuries by numerous poets, painters and composers.  Noting that the gorge “graphically illustrates the long history of human involvement with a dramatic and varied natural landscape,” UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site.

In short, the gorge is a storybook blend of nature and manmade wonders.

The four-hour passage through the gorge was the highlight of a week-long Rhine River cruise in June on the Australian-owned Scenic Opal, a 169-passenger luxury “Space Ship” that was launched in 2015.  It is one of 15 ships in the Scenic fleet, 13 of which are sailing on European rivers this summer.

Pfalzgrafenstein Castle

Pfalzgrafenstein Castle appears to be drifting down the Rhine, its tiny patch of land obscured by high waters

The cruise was supposed to have started in Basel, Switzerland, and then head north on the Rhine through France and Germany before ending in the Netherlands, where the river empties into the North Sea.  But heavy rains spanning several weeks in the region led to high waters and made southern portions of the Rhine unnavigable for larger vessels like the Opal.

Numerous boats that ventured too far south were stranded — stuck up the river without a proverbial paddle.  Fortunately, our captain made a strategic decision three days before the cruise started to park the Opal farther north in Mannheim, Germany, where we were bused after arriving by air in Zurich, Switzerland.  So instead of visiting our first two ports by boat, we were taken there by bus.

It made for a chaotic and exhausting first couple of days of the trip but we were able to see all of the ports on our itinerary, including the city of Strasbourg, located in the Alsace region of northeastern France on the French side of the Rhine.  Strasbourg’s medieval city center, featuring an ensemble of historic houses, museums and churches, is also a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Strasbourg France

The medieval city center in Strasbourg, France, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

We also spent a day exploring the university city of Heidelberg, Germany, which was largely spared from bombing during World War II and thus retains its baroque charm.

By the third day, we were back on schedule and set sail from Rüdesheim through the Rhine gorge.  It didn’t take long to see the impact of the heavy rains and flooding.

The famous 14th century Pfalzgrafenstein Castle, built on a small island near the town of Kaub, appeared to be aimlessly drifting down the Rhine, its tiny patch of land totally obscured by the high waters.  The Rhine has long been a vital transport hub in Europe and the castle used to function as a toll booth for ships.

We later passed the stunning Marksburg Castle, built in 1117 to protect the town of Braubach.  Marksburg is the only castle on the Rhine that has never been destroyed, having survived the Middle Ages, the rule of Napoleon and two world wars.

Koblenz flooding

A popular pedestrian promenade on the Moselle River in Koblenz was several feet under water

Our trip through the gorge ended in the city of Koblenz, located at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers.  Finally, the sun peeked out for a few minutes and we were rewarded with a resplendent rainbow arching over the impressive Ehrenbreitstein Fortress, built high on a mountain in the early 1800s and now connected to the city by a cable car over the Rhine.

The following day we took a walking tour of Koblenz and once again witnessed the flooding that has caused so much havoc in the region this season.  A popular pedestrian promenade on the Moselle was several feet under water.

“We have never had so much rain as this year,” said Homeira, our Koblenz guide, describing an unusual weather pattern that has impacted much of Europe this spring, even leading to a several-day closure in June of the Louvre in Paris after the River Seine reached its highest level in more than 30 years.

Kölsch beer

Kölsch beer in a Cologne pub

While the rain was an annoyance, the surprisingly cool temperatures – highs most days were in the 60s – were perfect for sightseeing.

In addition to the sightseeing tours, Scenic did a good job of immersing the 153 passengers onboard – about two-thirds of whom were Americans and Canadians — in German culture.  There were German language lessons, a performance by a local brass band featuring a long alpenhorn that looked straight out of a Ricola commercial (see video: German brass band), and a lecture about German beer.

We learned about kölsch, a light, all-barley ale brewed only in Cologne, our last German stop on the itinerary and the largest city on the Rhine, with a population of more than 1 million.

Kölsch, produced by more than a dozen breweries in the Cologne area, is typically served in small distinctive glasses called stange.  They are designed as such so that the beer can be consumed before it goes flat.

Scenic Opal

The Scenic Opal docked on the Rhine River in Rüdesheim, Germany

Kölsch is the Lay‘s potato chip of Rhineland beer.  As we noticed during a visit to a Cologne pub, it’s rare to see a German drink just one.

Our cruise concluded with a full day in Amsterdam, where we ventured into the countryside to see the lovely Dutch villages of Volendam and Edam and tour a cheese factory.  The following morning, we were bused to the airport during yet another downpour.  By then, we had grown used to it.

Despite the inclement weather throughout the week, the historic – and romantic — Rhine River gorge had single-handedly made the trip unforgettable.

American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow visited here in the late 1820s and wrote: “Beneath me flows the Rhine, and, like the stream of time, it flows amid the ruins of the past.”

Nearly 200 years later, what Longfellow admired is now even more historic and every bit as magnificent.

© 2016 Dan Fellner

Photo Essay: Rural Vietnam — Cue the Water Buffalo, Stage Right

By | Photo Essays, Vietnam | No Comments

Vietnam rice fields

Putting on a show for the tourists in Nha Trang

At first glance, it’s an idyllic scene — farmers in rural Vietnam tending to their rice fields with primitive tools while a small herd of water buffalo peacefully grazes in the foreground.  If it weren’t for the electricity poles visible in the background, it’s a scene that one would have imagined in the Vietnamese countryside centuries ago.

But pictures don’t always depict reality.

In this case, what I photographed was a scene staged just for us — two busloads of tourists who had paid about $100 each to tour rural Vietnam while our cruise ship was docked near the port city of Nha Trang.

As we filed out of the buses in the middle of the afternoon, we were told by our guide that we would be seeing a “demonstration” of what life was like for local farmers.  However, afternoons in Vietnam can be stiflingly hot and humid and the locals typically do their outdoor work early in the mornings, at about the same time we were stuffing our faces at the breakfast buffet on the ship.

So, our guide explained, the farmers would be reenacting their daily routine just for the benefit of us and our cameras.  As far as I as could tell, they weren’t really accomplishing anything other than looking good for the photo-op.  With some farmers wearing traditional Vietnamese bamboo hats known as non la, their hoes banged aimlessly against the ground while our group clicked away.

I remember reading in the tour brochure that we would also see water buffalo, an iconic symbol of rural Vietnam.

“Where are the buffalo?” I asked the guide, thinking it would be nice to have something eye-catching and quaint to add to the foreground of my photos.  Plus, it was in the brochure and I was determined to get every penny of my $100 investment in the tour.  The guide was silent but gave me a look as if to say: “Relax, you uptight American.  You’ll get your silly picture.”

Nha Trang market

A more “authentic” scene at a Nha Trang market

Right on cue, I heard the jingle of bells and a small herd of water buffalo was paraded across the field and began grazing right in front of us.  Our cameras clicked away at an even faster rate than before.

I had my coveted photo.  But it’s lack of authenticity left a sour taste in my mouth and swayed me not to include it in a batch of pictures I submitted to a newspaper, which published an article I wrote about the cruise.

As a travel writer and photographer, I often come across scenes that are less than authentic.  This is increasingly becoming a problem for seasoned travelers as places that used to be off-the-beaten-path are now becoming overridden with visitors.  It can sometimes be difficult to determine what’s real and what’s staged to make the tourists happy.

In this case, the scene was clearly staged.  That’s not to say, though, that the entire day had been a southeast Asian fairytale.  We also had visited a local market in Nha Trang, a city of about 400,000 people on the country’s south-central coast.

If you want authenticity, visit a local market and watch the locals shop for locally grown fruits, vegetables and the indeterminable body parts of all sorts of animals you’re not likely to see on the shelves at your local Safeway.

As our time at the rice fields concluded, our guide asked us to board the bus so we could head to our next stop on the tour.  We had to be back on the ship in time for dinner.  Lobster-tail was on the menu.

As our buses drove away, I could see the farmers drop their hoes as the water buffalo were led back to their corral.

Exit, stage right.

Copyright © Dan Fellner 2016

Myanmar: Southeast Asia’s Undiscovered Treasure

By | Cruising, Myanmar | No Comments

Cruising an ideal way to visit this emerging democracy

The Arizona Republic — May 22, 2016

YANGON, Myanmar – Democracy is slowly coming to this little-known country in Southeast Asia of more than 50 million people, and with it, so are the tourists.

Shwedagon Pagoda

Yangon’s famed Shwedagon Pagoda

Isolated from the rest of the world for a half-century under a repressive military junta, Myanmar is now letting visitors explore its wondrous Buddhist pagodas, ancient archaeological sites and stately British colonial architecture.

I recently spent three days in Yangon, the largest city in this country formerly known as Burma.  The visit to Myanmar was the highlight of an 18-day cruise called “Imperial Treasures” on the Oceania Nautica that started in Hong Kong and ended in Mumbai, with other stops in Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and Cochin, India.  All told, we sailed more than 5,000 miles.

For me, the most coveted treasure on this exotic itinerary was the port call in Yangon.  Within five minutes of boarding a tour bus taking the ship’s passengers on a one-hour drive from the pier to downtown Yangon, the sense of excitement among the locals was palpable.

“The whole country is very happy,” our guide Khin said when discussing the country’s first democratically elected parliament, which assumed power in February.  The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate and national hero Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory and now controls the parliament.  However, the military hasn’t completely relinquished its grip on power and Myanmar still faces a long road to full democracy.

Aung San Suu Kyi portrait

A street portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi in downtown Yangon

The new political era has led to a dramatic jump in tourism.  According to government statistics, the number of international visitors has nearly quadrupled in the last five years to more than 3 million travelers in 2014.  Projections are that foreign arrivals will reach 7.5 million by 2020.

In that sense, Myanmar evokes comparisons to Cuba.  If you want to visit before the country becomes overrun with tourists and loses some of its character, now is the time to go.

Yangon, called Rangoon under British rule, is a congested city of more than 5 million people who seem welcoming to the relatively new influx of visitors – and the foreign currency they are bringing to this impoverished nation.

The city’s must-see attraction is the spectacular 2,500 year-old Shwedagon Pagoda, a monument to Buddhism that was built on a hilltop in the center of Yangon.  Its glorious stupas, shrines and sculptures sprawl over 12 acres.  The pagoda’s glistening center dome is covered with thousands of priceless gold plates and other precious gems.

According to Buddhist tradition, visitors are asked to remove their shoes and socks before entering the Shwedagon complex.  In the mid-afternoon, when temperatures soar past 100, strolling barefoot on the hot pavement makes exploring uncomfortable, so it’s best to go early or late in the day.

Karaweik Royal Barge

The Karaweik Royal Barge on a Yangon lake

From Shwedagon, it’s a 15-minute walk to the surrealistic Karaweik Royal Barge, a floating palace on the eastern edge of Royal Kandawgyi Lake.  Built in the shape of the mythical karaweik bird, the barge is a stunning example of traditional Myanmar architecture.  It is used as a restaurant and also hosts cultural performances.

The Nautica’s passengers were treated to a performance of one of Myanmar’s most famous folklore groups, when the Ta Khaing Lone Shwe Dance Troupe was brought onboard for an evening show in the ship’s theater.  The performers wowed us with their grace, beautiful costumes, unusual musical instruments and intricate dance moves (to see a video clip I shot onboard the Nautica, click on this link: Myanmar folklore show.)

Interested in the country’s political landscape, I visited the home of the 70-year-old Suu Kyi, where she still lives and once spent 15 years under house arrest for her opposition to the government.  Even though the inside of the home is closed to visitors, it is viewed by many Myanmar people as a shrine.  A large portrait outside the complex honors Suu Kyi’s father, who was the driving force behind the country’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1948.

Novice Buddhist monk

A novice Buddhist monk at a Yangon monastery

Nearby, I also visited the headquarters of the National League for Democracy, which sells Aung San Suu Kyi merchandise such as posters, calendars and books to raise money for the pro-democracy movement. For $2 (U.S. dollars are widely accepted in Yangon), I bought an NLD hat.

About 90 percent of the country’s population practice Buddhism. Oceania arranged to take us to an authentic “noviciation” ceremony, in which three six-year-old boys were inducted as novice Buddhist monks at a Yangon monastery.  After having their heads shaved, the boys donned their purple robes for the first time.  Most males in Myanmar serve as monks for at least part of their lives.

Oceania, an upscale Florida-based cruise line with a fleet of six midsize ships known for high-end cuisine and off-the-beaten-path destinations, has been calling on Myanmar since 2011.  Two Oceania ships – the 684-passenger Nautica and her sister ship, the Insignia, make two-or-three day stops in Yangon several times a year.  The Yangon River is only navigable by midsize and smaller vessels, which precludes the mega-ships from reaching the city.

Oceania Nautica

The Oceania Nautica docked in Phuket, Thailand

Our sailing was nearly full with 652 passengers, about 80 percent of whom were Americans and Canadians.

Having been closed off from the rest of the world for so long, the tourism infrastructure in Myanmar is still lacking.  English isn’t widely spoken, roads are in poor condition and sanitary conditions are sometimes less than ideal.

All this makes cruising an ideal way to explore Yangon, particularly for less-experienced travelers.

At the end of a full day of experiencing Yangon’s hectic pace, backwater charm, emerging democracy and relatively uncrowded sites, nothing beats returning to an air-conditioned ship, a delightful meal with a glass of good wine and a clean bathroom.

© 2016 Dan Fellner