Bangkok. Friday. Evening. Cool (relatively).
I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many down vests, knitted hats, and overcoats along Sukhumvit Road as I did this morning. It was 24 degrees Celsius outside, and several Thais I encountered seemed to be shivering and freezing.
Despite a couple of visits to bars last night, I woke up at seven and looked forward to going out for a few laps in Benjasiri Park, a long-time favorite lung here in Bangkok. A lap around Benjasiri is about 700 meters, and today there were over 100 of us, some walking briskly and others, like me, jogging.
The variety of running techniques offered the usual delightful spectrum: from the slightly rigid T-Rex style where arms barely move and stay close to the body, to those who seem to float on feather-light legs and aerodynamically shining arms. It’s starting to feel perfectly fine to be overtaken more often than passing people – as long as those passing me are younger…
I noticed that in the middle of the park, around the pond with pedal boats, a couple of aerobics classes were taking place, and a group of seniors was practicing Qigong or Tai-Chi. A young guy was shooting penalty shots with a bright green basketball, and the old guy who welcomes everyone at the park’s entrance stood in the warm morning sun, watering Christmas flowers with a content smile on his face.
A few years ago, during a dinner in or near Malmö, I can’t remember where, a friend asked us what it was about Thailand that made us return time and time again. I don’t remember what we answered, probably because there is no simple answer. And to be totally honest, I’m not sure they would understand even if I tried to explain.
Hooked on a feeling, as Swedish singer Björn Skifs once sang.
My first visit to Thailand was in 1988, and I still haven’t been to any country in the world that comes close to offering everything that Thailand still has: friendly, polite, honest people, fascinating culture, delicious food, fantastic natural experiences (mountains, jungles, beaches, islands, cities), and a reasonably solid infrastructure, making it easy (and safe) to stay and enjoy life here. Neither Charlotte nor I would want to live permanently in Thailand, but being able to come here and stay for a while from time to time truly enriches our lives.
Of course, it’s a different Thailand today than when I traveled around the country 35 years ago. Back then, despite my backpacker attire and limited budget, I always felt like a fairly wealthy Westerner who often received more respect than I deserved. Of course, there were well-off Thais even back then, but they were barely visible. Today it’s the opposite. I’m still respected, perhaps mostly because I’m now an older man, and I still wear a variation of the same backpacker outfit (T-shirt, cargo shorts, sneakers). Old habits die hard, I suppose.
But for many years now, there’s a large and visible Thai middle class with a standard of living comparable to that of any average Westerner. And I’m no longer an exotic curiosity from the West but just a slightly older man in backpacker clothes paying with an embarrassingly weak currency (Sweden’s krona).
During my very first visit to Bangkok, there were only a few bland department stores (Robinson’s). Today, there are at least a dozen gigantic luxury department stores and an equal number of large, lavishly designed shopping malls – unparalleled in Europe and the USA. Except for some Russians, Chinese, and Japanese, the majority of those shopping in these extravagant palaces are Thai nationals with clearly more disposable income than I have.
Tonight, another mall, EMSPHERE, was inaugurated, where, among many other well-known brands, IKEA has a city store. We were there for the grand opening, but after just a few minutes in the swelling crowd, I felt a hint of claustrophobia and quickly retreated to the aforementioned oasis, Benjasiri Park, where tranquility gradually returned.
Despite the significant changes Bangkok has undergone since my first trip from the old Don Mueang airport in a Tuk-Tuk, as a newly arrived 25-year-old in the late 1980s, fortunately, many of the delightful contrasts that make the city so incredibly exciting and interesting are still abound. High and low, big and small. Ancient and brand new, side by side.
After our flight with Air Asia from Osaka landed at Suvarnabhumi Airport on Tuesday around noon, and our passports were stamped with new visas, we connected our phones to a Thai mobile network and took the express train from the airport to Sukhumvit Road. The sun was setting between the city’s forest of skyscrapers, and downtown seemed to bathe in a beautiful glow. We both felt great to be back in Bangkok. A kind of homecoming.
Ten years ago (2014), Charlotte, Elle, and I lived here for six months, just a few hundred meters from where I’m writing this on Soi 24. We rented a reasonably large apartment with two bedrooms and two bathrooms in a hotel (Oakwood) with a Swedish GM and super-friendly Thai staff. We really appreciated all the conveniences included in the rent and definitely the practical location. Being close to so many good restaurants, department stores, and almost next door to Phrom Phong Skytrain station, if we wanted to leave the neighborhood, was absolutely fantastic.
Unsurprisingly, I have a vast collection of photographs and countless hours of video footage from that lengthy stay and all the times we visited Bangkok before and since. A coffee table book is in the works and should be ready early next year. The above scene of Pooky, a local model and yoga instructor (incidentally married to a Danish fellow), was captured near the pond in Benjasiri Park and might be included in the aforementioned book
Captured this just as we were about to board our flight to Osaka yesterday morning at Naha Airport in Okinawa. The cabin crew were genuinely happy when we handed them our flyer for Charlotte’s popular airline website www.airlinestaffrates.com
Flying southwest today.
Meanwhile, in Osaka…
Japan. Evening. Sayonara.
Just a little while ago I was sipping on a glass of Suntory Soda in our hotel room’s small bathtub. Lying there, I was contemplating our trip how much fun we’d had and all the great food we’d enjoyed. Clearly the most enjoyable trip to Japan so far. And the most affordable. The weak yen makes even the weaker Swedish crown stretch quite far.
Before my bath, we had enjoyed a delicious dinner just a few hundred meters from the airport hotel where we were staying tonight. We’ve got an early flight heading southwest tomorrow, so no Osaka this time around.
For most airport restaurants that I’ve ever visited, this principle applies: not good but expensive.
Tonight’s meal offered the opposite: a delightful dinner for a reasonable price: 185 SEK/person, including a large draft beer each (served, as usual, in chilled mugs).
We couldn’t think of any of our meals in Japan that we hadn’t described with at least one superlative followed by an exclamation mark. Even the convenience store food we’ve had a couple of times has been surprisingly tasty.
Will miss Japanese food. And the heated Japanese toilet seats.
But also the Japanese politeness, friendliness, modesty, and honesty.
There is still a deep-seated sensibility here. But also anxiety or reservation that I think we from Sweden both recognize and quite appreciate. At least people of our generation probably feel that way.
Here, you are treated (and judged) based on how you behave, especially us foreigners, the so-called “Gaijin.” I haven’t bowed so much in a long time. But it felt natural to respond to politeness with at least as much politeness.
Yesterday we ate at Jam, one of Okinawa’s many teppanyaki restaurants where a skilled chef cooks your food in front of you on a massive steel grill.
The first time I had Japanese food was in the mid-1980s seated along a teppanyaki table at Mikado in Gothenburg. Mikado was located above White Corner at that time if anyone remembers that place.
There was a lot of showmanship yesterday, but the chef also made really good food, and the drinks at Jam were not watered down. We even had a bit of interaction with the family from Nagano sitting next to us.
After dinner, everyone around the teppanyaki table was ushered to the restaurant’s lounge area where dessert was served (ice cream and green tea).
It took a while, but the Nagano family couldn’t resist and approached us a bit shyly, asking if they could take a group photo with us in it. We agreed, of course. Much chatter and laughter ensued!
I think it was a full moon as we walked back to the hotel at Moon Beach on Okinawa late last night.
Right now, here in Osaka, it’s raining (not to be confused with Åsaka, where my grandfather Eskil comes from). But it looks like it will be sunny in Bangkok tomorrow afternoon…
Sayonara, Japan, and thanks for a couple of magical weeks!
HereFrom a facility perspective, there are definitely more benefits than drawbacks of staying at a huge resort. Most resorts have at least one pool, a sizable gym and offer a decent breakfast buffet.
On the other hand, these larger places tend to make you feel like you’re in a holiday factory, one of numerous anonymous guests shuffling between beach chairs, dining tables, and hotel rooms.
I’ve come to prefer a middle ground, hotels that are somewhere between the small, personable boutique hotel and a ginormous resort. Moon Beach Museum (pictured above) is huge but since we’re here during the off-season and there aren’t many other guests, we’ve had a lot of space and zero crowds to deal with.
Went out for a 5k jog yesterday morning, then breakfast, then laundry, then the beach, then a fabulous dinner at Jam, a Polynesian-style restaurant nearby. Time to head for Osaka.
It sounds strange, but when I’m in Tokyo, I think about Trollhättan, the city where SAAB cars were once made and where I spent formative time with my grandparents as a youngster.
Let me explain.
For about a year, sometime in the early 1970s, I lived with my grandparents Eskil and Agnes Andersson on Örtagårdsvägen 17 in Trollhättan. At the beginning of this nearly year-long stay with them, communication between my grandfather and me was pretty much impossible. His English vocabulary was just as limited as my Swedish. Grandmother Agnes was no linguist, but she had studied basic English at night school for a few semesters.
When my grandfather and I shared breakfasts, there was often silence at the kitchen table. The only sound was the loud slurping noise when my grandfather ate his thick morning porridge or drank coffee from the saucer with a sugar cube between his teeth. He had already done an hour’s work on the farm before sitting down to have breakfast with me.
Grandma Agnes always had a lot to do in the mornings and rarely took the time to eat with us.
After breakfast, my grandfather would retreat to his study, carefully cutting out the TV schedule from the last page of the local newspaper. With his thick, rough fingers holding a black ink pen, he would circle the television shows he planned to watch that evening.
Eskil Andersson was born in 1901 and was not an educated man. I don’t think he had more than six years of schooling. On the other hand, he was very practical, curious, and eager to learn.
He followed the news on TV, listened to the radio, and meticulously read both the regional paper “Göteborgs-Posten” and the farmer’s specialty magazine “Land”.
He never touched grandmother’s stack of weekly magazines. I, on the other hand, enjoyed them for their cartoons. My favorite was “Året Runt” (Year Around), where the cartoon about the delightful anti-hero “Mister Kronblom” was published.
On weekdays, when my grandfather returned from either farming, the stable, or the smithy in the evening, we had dinner together with my grandmother.
If I didn’t have any homework, we would meet again just before the news program “Rapport” aired in his study, where the TV was placed at the far end of a disproportionally large wooden desk (which, as I recall, was covered with light veneer).
There, my grandfather always sat in his creaky, semi-circular wooden chair with armrests and squeaky wheels. He reached the TV’s volume knob and channel selector (two buttons, one for each channel) by grabbing the desk and pulling himself along the floor.
Once he’d found the right program and adjusted the volume level (he was hard of hearing even back then), he pushed the chair back across the floor, took out his pipe, stirred the burnt tobacco in the bowl with an old match, tapped out the ash, and pressed a fresh pinch of Borkum Riff or John Silver into the pipe.
Then Grandpa lit the tobacco with a new match, leaned back in his chair, took a puff, and exhaled smoke through both his nose and one corner of his mouth. I remember being completely fascinated by his pipe ritual.
During these TV evenings with my grandfather, my grandmother would come in after a while with a bowl of carrot sticks or sliced winter apples for me to snack on.
By then, Grandpa’s study was already filled with smoke, and despite being asthmatic, I really liked the scent of tobacco fumes. Today, whenever I see someone with a pipe or smell the aroma of pipe tobacco, my thoughts immediately go back to those lovely moments with my grandfather Eskil.
Ok. Let’s move on to the connection between Tokyo and Trollhättan.
During lunch break one Friday at Lyrfågelskolan in Trollhättan, the school I attended for a semester, the boys in my class were enthusiastically chatting about a monster movie that would be shown on TV later that evening.
I, of course, wanted to see that movie, but I thought it would be difficult to persuade my grandfather to skip the news at 9:00 PM and instead watch “Destroy All Monsters” with “Gojira” (ゴジラ) aka “Godzilla” in the lead role over on the other of Sweden’s two channels.
When I came home in the afternoon with my blue gym bag over my shoulder, I went straight to my grandfather’s study to check which tv shows he had marked for the evening. To my delight, I saw that “Destroy All Monsters” was circled several times, and that the news show “Aktuellt” was even crossed out!
It was later that Friday evening that my then seventy-something grandfather Eskil and I were introduced to Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, King Ghidorah, Angilas, Minya, and Spiega. And to the city of Tokyo and the mighty Mount Fuji, where part of the film’s exciting plot unfolded.
Here in Okinawa, we don’t hear sirens from police or fire trucks as much as we did in Tokyo last week. But there and then, I often associated those alarming sounds with the old Godzilla movies. And above all, to that very first one that my grandfather and I watched together on the outskirts of Trollhättan back in the early 1970s.
Okinawa. Thursday. Evening. Joyess.
It’s our last evening in Naha. Tomorrow we head to Moon Beach in northern Okinawa. I will probably miss our amazing corner room (#912) at this hotel more than Naha itself. I must remind myself always to request a corner room in the future.
Strata Hotel is the 22nd or 23rd hotel we have stayed at in 2023, and we have at least 4 hotels left before the year is over. That count includes the hotel nights in the converted movie theatre Draken (Dragon) in Gothenburg over the Christmas holidays. I haven’t celebrated Christmas in Gothenburg since the pandemic. I haven’t been to Draken since Ben-Hur played there in 1978.
To travel is to live. To live is to travel.
Now, after turning 60, there is nothing more important to me than to continue traveling and challenging myself by letting serendipity guide me more often than a map.
Tired after a day of aimless wandering through Naha, we decided to skip eating dinner at a restaurant and instead have a picnic in our beautiful hotel room.
After happy hour in the rooftop bar as Naha bathed in a golden glow from the very last rays of the day, we took the elevator to the ninth floor and laid out several beautifully packed sets of store-bought sushi.
Not entirely surprisingly, the fish turned out to taste significantly better than what we are served by the cheerful Vietnamese folks at our local sushi joint in Västra Hamnen. Whether Japanese food is best cooked by Japanese people in Japan, I’ll leave unsaid.
Just after the last nigiri piece and maki roll were eaten, Elle called from Barcelona. Our hearts filled with love as we talked about how cozy it’s going to be to celebrate Christmas together in Gothenburg. After that call but only for the second time during this lengthy trip, I felt a bit homesick.
After some deliberation and exploring other options, we finally decided to have dinner last night at a place about a block from bustling Kokusai Street (the main tourist street here in Naha) and close to our hotel called Mazemen Mahoroba.
From the moment we stepped into this small, rustic place, I immediately noticed that the owner, sporting a knitted hat, radiated a passion for his restaurant. It was evident that he and his team were committed to delivering an exceptional dining experience, promising us one of those truly memorable meals.
What sets Mazemen Mahoroba apart from all the other places we’ve eaten at so far is not just the extraordinarily tasty noodles with a smooth and satisfying texture, paired with a seafood broth rich in umami (making every bite a burst of delectable goodness).
It’s also the laid-back ambiance, excellent service, and reasonable prices. Mazemen Mahoroba is a must-visit destination for noodle enthusiasts and discerning diners alike. I’ve included the receipt from yesterday’s wonderful dining experience to show just how affordable this place is. But not just there. Right now, Japan is one of the most affordable countries in Asia, especially in the get-the-most-bang-for-your-buck category. High quality all-around, great food, friendly folks, super-interesting culture and excellent weather.
Here are a few clips that Charlotte helped me film around Tokyo as I continue the surprisingly steep learning curve of juggling three balls. We’re now in Okinawa, the main island in the south of Japan where the weather and temperature are most comfortable. Should be able to manage a few juggling sessions here as well. That is unless Supreme Leader Kim over the pond in the oxymoronically named The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea doesn’t decide to annihilate us while launching another missile. We had just barely eaten dinner last night when we were warned via an SMS (in Japanese) that such a missile was expected to be hurled into the heavens by DRNK. Stay tuned…
Tokyo. Japan. Evening. Dark (again).
I’m writing this from a minimalist folding table at one end of our tiny but brilliantly designed hotel room. A half-eaten, triangular-shaped egg and tuna sandwich lies untouched on the right side of the computer’s slightly crumbly keyboard.
I just bought the aforementioned, beautifully packaged sandwich at our nearest Lawson (a more luxurious, cleaner, and neater variant of 7/11), where the friendly staff now seems to recognize us after our daily visits. Right now, both Charlotte and I are exhausted and have stocked up for a cozy Sunday evening here in our “incubator” on the 10th floor.
We were provided with plenty of sunshine today and it warmed our cheeks as we walked along the coast in Kanagawa. Kanagawa is probably best known for the woodcut with the great wave by the artist Hokusai.
With us for most of today’s adventure, almost like a painted backdrop, was the iconic Mt. Fuji.
When the commuter train we took from Tokyo Station rolled into the city of Fujisawa after just 40 minutes of travel, we walked with eager steps through the pedestrian street and quickly over the bridge to the island of Enoshima.
Once we had climbed the 254 steep steps to the island’s highest temple area and taken the elevator to the top deck of the observation tower, we were rewarded with a classic view: the sea in the foreground and the almost unbelievably symmetrical, snow-covered Mt. Fuji in the background.
I think we fell in love with Tokyo in 2006 when we were here to shoot and gather impressions for half a dozen travel articles and guides about the Japanese capital for several Swedish travel magazines.
I vividly remember that we scuttled between Shinjuku, Shibuya, Harajuku, Ginza, Asakusa, and Roppongi to gather impressions and visual material. We almost had to buy extra luggage space to bring all the inspiration with us after that visit!
The relationship with Tokyo was strengthened on our next visit in 2015, and now the feelings have come to life again… because just like almost 17 years ago, Tokyo is still incredibly awesome!
The city is grand and small-scale at the same time and always, always interesting: conventional-futuristic, ultra-commercial-meditative, minimalist-extravagant, and decently-perverse. A wonderful contradiction that gripped us then and still hasn’t let go.
Here, I can hardly put my phone down before it goes up again to film or shoot something that has caught my interest. Incidentally, this is the first time I’m in Japan without bringing any other camera than the one in my year-old phone.
Tokyo is still clean, fresh, well-organized, and extremely easy to navigate. Tokyoites are still friendly, polite, and considerate. Not all the new skyscrapers and high-rises are beautiful, but nothing in the city environment or anything else has been left to chance. Everything has its place, and public communication is rather overt than risking being misunderstood. Everything works!
Sure, the Japanese are only marginally better than Thais at stringing external power lines, and the noise level in the subway is sometimes a bit too high. But everything else works so unbelievably well – trains are on time, the mobile data network is super fast, the food is delightfully good and relatively cheap, and you never need to worry about being robbed, assaulted, or deceived.
The weather this November Sunday reminded us of a beautiful Swedish early summer day. After a couple of months of intense heat in Vietnam, it has been really great with Tokyo’s cooler autumn climate. Soon, we’re heading to the country’s southern islands with diving, surfing, and other activities on the agenda.
We arrived early this morning at Narita International Airport outside of Tokyo, Japan. Since the Vietjet night flight from Saigon/HCMC wasn’t full, both Charlotte and I were able to grab and sleep (fetal position) in a three-seat space.
After checking in at our hotel and getting over the fact that our room is just marginally larger than our bathroom in Malmö, we headed to the nearest convenience store, a Lawson, where we bought all kinds of food to try out.
Top of my list was the above egg salad sandwich that Anthony Bourdain recommended during one of his show’s episodes filmed here in Japan. Unsurprisingly, it was really good. Tonight we’re having sushi with our travel buddy Erik at Sushi-Go-Round deep inside Tokyo Station.
Here’s one of my favorite street portraits from Vietnam. When I think of Asia, especially Southeast Asia, which I have been visiting regularly since 1988, I think of how often one is greeted with an infectious smile here. The street life, with its pungent smells, the deafening cacophony of relentless traffic and the dense population, keep me coming back for more. But it’s also all the smiling people I meet and greet on the streets of Bangkok, Singapore, Saigon and Luang Prabang.
Here’s a timelapse I compiled from clips mostly taken from our hotel room. Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City is intense. It’s fluid, though. Coming from the relative calm of Da Nang, it takes some time to get used to. Crossing major streets and boulevards is an endeavor with very little wiggle room for hesitation.
I like HCMC more and more. There’s a lot of interesting street life to see here. I only wish I had visited already back in the 1980s before the city’s ongoing transition to a metropolis began.
From one of the windows in our new room on the seventh floor of the extraordinary Silverland Hotel, which from the inside looks like a futuristic, luxurious spaceship, we can see the sprawling Bến Thành Market, one of Saigon’s most famous bazaars.
Lest I forget: we ate a delicious lunch at a cool restaurant called Propaganda, which one of the reception staff recommended to us. Kudos for that.
Tuesday. Evening. Saigon. Grateful.
Today is our daughter Elle’s 23rd birthday, and because I’m a sensitive dude, I always become a bit more sentimental on November 7th. When I think about how privileged I am to have such a wonderful individual in my life, which in itself is proof that I didn’t completely fail as her father, I become simultaneously teary-eyed and proud.
In a considerably darker place, deep within my soul, I wish that my parents were alive now so that they could see with their own eyes how I, of course, together with the incredibly kind and stable Charlotte, broke the curse they left behind.
Naturally, we are extremely happy and proud of Elle’s ongoing academic achievements and her evolving creative spirit. But it’s her generosity, empathy, and humor that make us feel especially happy today. And grateful.
Here’s a view of Ho Chi Minh City and the colorfully lit skyscraper, Landmark 81 to the right. We’re staying a night at a sparsely furnished “aparthotel” near the Saigon River and moving to a proper hotel tomorrow in Thao Dien (District 2). Humidity here in southern Vietnam feels like it’s off the charts, at least when compared with Da Nang where the evenings were beginning to provide much cooler and more comfortable temperatures.
Saturday. Evening. Da Nang. Dark.
Just like last weekend, Charlotte and I took a 10k walk on the beach on this beautifully sunny Saturday. We saw a gigantic jellyfish that had washed up on the shore. It literally lay there like a huge blob of jelly. Tried to feel sorry for it, but couldn’t. I had never seen such a large jellyfish before. Charlotte said it was one of the poisonous kinds.
Today’s stroll was the last for this revisit to Da Nang. Of all the things we’ve enjoyed during our over a month-long stay here, I will probably miss My Khe Beach the most. But soon, we’ll get to experience entirely new beaches… By the way, it’s my 80th day of sobriety. Feels good. One day at a time, right?
Wednesday. Evening. Da Nang. Content.
Woke up reasonably well-rested this morning. Brushed my teeth, got dressed, and stumbled out of the hotel, slowly making my way to the gym seven, eight blocks westward. Along the way, I passed a couple of bars that were still open. Some of the patrons looked to be my age. Phew.
I checked into “My An Sports Center” at 06:05 and warmed up with a long run on the treadmill. A few stations and some weightlifting later, I began the highlight of my morning: juggling.
I’m gradually getting the hang of coordinating hands, eyes, and my tiny, morning-weary brain cells. Quite fascinating that I can still learn something entirely new. Didn’t break any records today, but now I can easily manage 15 and sometimes even 20 throws in a row.
On my way home from the gym, I noticed that the aforementioned bars had closed. Two gray-haired guests were fast asleep, snoring loudly on a scruffy concrete bench on the sidewalk in front of one of the bars.
The sun was already scorching hot, and I thought about how sweaty it would soon get for the old dudes once the sun had gained a little height.
Mrs. Raboff treated me to dinner. We take turns inviting each other to lunch and dinner, more or less every other meal. It’s everyday luxury and generosity, evenly divided between the two of us.
We ate at a vegan place. Healthy and fairly tasty, albeit a bit on the dry side. For the first time since we left Malmö, at the end of September, I missed our kitchen and my own cooking…