Memories, like an elephant

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By Brad Walters
Sunday, January 23, 2011

As the elephant I was riding plodded down the river in the hills of northern Thailand, my lifeline to the United States came perilously close to taking a swim of its own.

"Brad, your passport's about to fall out!" yelled the girl riding behind me, just in time for me to grab the document dangling from my side pocket, thereby saving me from an unanticipated extra few days in the most beautiful country I've ever seen. (If it isn't obvious from that last sentence, I probably wouldn't have complained too much.)

That was the closest I came to losing my most important document on a recent trip to Japan and Southeast Asia - maybe no small feat given that I was hopscotching around eight countries over 24 days.

Friends think I'm nuts for taking these sorts of trips, but as someone who's most relaxed when he's on the move, I've found that they serve me well. Armed with four weeks and a Eurail pass, I once visited 15 European countries in a single trip, and I've followed airfare deals to long weekends in Peru, Costa Rica and Spain.

But it's true that when you travel this way, you come home with a jumble of impressions that it takes some time to organize. So in an effort to do that, here are my picks for highlights - and low points - of this latest tour:

Favorite destination: Hong Kong. The city's physical setting is unparalleled - the northern edge abutting the waterfront, the southern edge (less than a mile away) hugging a mountain slope. My itinerary was frenetic by design, but I still devoted a full day to hiking around Victoria Peak and staring down at the tops of the 50-story skyscrapers below. On the other side of Victoria Harbour from Hong Kong Island, the Kowloon Peninsula resembled the teeming big cities I visited elsewhere, with crowded markets where not much English is spoken.

Most frustrating destination: Manila, the city where:

l I was scammed by a taxi driver who charged me twice the going rate for a ride from the Malate area to the airport.

l My nice, harmless compact umbrella was confiscated by airport security (which nonetheless allowed me through with an open beverage).

l A street vendor served me dog meat (see below).

l I paid $30 for the privilege of transferring through the airport twice.

l My one night in a hotel was marred by . . . bedbugs.


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