Back to Bali: The River Bridge and Murni’s Warung

The rest of the day in Ubud was spent relaxing and walking around aimlessly. We went to the bridge area of Ubud, just to poke around and admire a steel bridge going across the Campuhan River.

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DC fiddled about with his camera settings while I played his hapless subject.

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But we both agreed that the river really was quite scenic – and we decided to have dinner at one of the places overlooking the river.

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Here’s us going across the bridge to Murni’s Warung.

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It’s a beautiful place built into the cliff carved out by the river, with four or five floors cleverly making use of the space and scenery to create a warm, convivial atmosphere. We explored a bit of the shop on the ground and upper floor, and then proceeded past the ground floor dining area…

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… down to just above the river level to have a lovely dinner enjoying the sounds of the river while sipping our drinks. I had a young coconut with lime juice, and DC had a yummy strawberry tamarind drink.

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Our dinner was sumptuous and very delicious.

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DC had the bebek betutu, a traditional Balinese dish of smoked duck. It came with urap, a firm favourite, and yellow rice. The duck was flavourful and nicely spicy though not chilli hot at all.

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I much preferred my grilled snapper. I don’t know how they grilled it so perfectly, but unlike most grilled fish, this was insanely tender, I don’t even know how they managed to achieve it. I especially liked how it was charred outside so the fish had a yummy smoky flavour. The bacon and onion potatoes and side salad? Gilding the lily.

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After being stuffed to the gills yet again, we headed to another intermediate floor…

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… where we lounged with our post-dinner drinks. Life is good.

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Bali has a special place in my heart – it’s got good food, laidback resorts and lots to do and not do. It’s one of the places that somehow pulls me back even though there’s so much of the rest of the world to explore.

July in Vietnam: Out on the Mekong Delta

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My next short jaunt out of Ho Chi Minh City was a tour of the Mekong Delta. The Mekong flows through much of Southeast Asia and is of utmost importance to the livelihood of those who live along its banks. When it reaches the sea, the mighty river breaks into many distributories flowing over the vast expanse of the Mekong  Delta, stretching at least a 100km along the coast of Vietnam. Even its distributories are vast, taking some effort to cross.

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At some places, the river was narrow enough to build a bridge across.

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At others, the opposite bank was a bit too far away for a bridge.

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We had to crowd with the motobikes in the ferries to get across. Aside from the usual chickens, ducks and vegetables, one even carried live fish in a makeshift waxed canvas tank.

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The river was their livelihood and people lived along the river even if it meant building their houses on stilts. No matter if there wasn’t land in the front, a hanging garden did the trick.

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Others grew their garden on the balconies, like this house with its dragonfruit cacti creeping down towards the water.

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Further away from the river were places of worship, like this Khmer temple that looked like it had been transplanted from Cambodia.

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This area being close to Cambodia, there was a significant Khmer minority here. Some of the Buddhist temples I saw in this area were of quite a different style from the other Mahayana temples I’d seen in Vietnam. This was definitely closer to the Thai and Lao style temples…

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… even down to the saffron-robed monks running the temple.

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There was also a scattering of other places of worship, like this church here. It looked a little incongruous rising elegantly from the rather scruffy stilt huts along the river.

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As part of the tour, we were taken to see some of the cottage industries. One of them was food manufacture. Here, ladies patiently worked over wood fires making rice paper by hand.

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Others tempered melted coconut sugar to make rich caramelly coconut candy.

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And men did the grunt work of pressing popped rice into blocks which would then be coated in syrup and cut into crispy-crunchy sugary snacks.

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It was lovely wandering through the little hamlets in the area, passing under gardens and other topiary.

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And also chancing on a wedding banquet, where the happy couple was happy to let tourists take pictures of them on their big day.

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There were also some quiet backwaters…

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… which weren’t so quiet when children popped out of nowhere screaming “hello hello!” at passing tourist boats.

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It was lovely to wave back at them…

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… their smiles were such a lovely lift to river experience.

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July in Vietnam: A Viet Chinatown

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Hoi An is one of those paradoxical places: right smack in the middle of traditionally China-hating Vietnam yet if you’re dropped randomly into the town for a look round, you’d think it to be China. Except of course that if you’ve been to China before you’d know better. It’s like a really prettied up version of a Chinatown, what Singapore’s Chinatown would aspire to be when it grows up. It was full of Chinese characters and dragon motifs, yet the odd thing was that no one there spoke any Chinese at all.

My first stop was at the Fujian Assembly Hall, oddly named jin shan si or Golden Mountain Temple in Mandarin. It had such a grand facade that I bet any Chinese trader that would have been suitably impressed.

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Other halls were less impressive, like this tumbledown one on the edge of town. Unlike the others, it hadn’t a name and wasn’t featured in the guide book. Still, the dragon motifs were incredibly beautiful.

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It looked amazing even in silhouette.

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Other typically Chinese places were the temples. The eaves were beautifully, ornately decorated and very impressive to look at.

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Not being a frequenter of temples at home, I was taken aback by these very cool joss sticks that were twirled into cone shapes.

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As it burned, each joss stick gave off plenty of slightly sweet smoke that wafted past the eaves.

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Other traditional houses had craft showcases, like this one with lantern making demonstrations to make the colourful lights still used extensively in the town.

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Of course, not everything looked bright and new and restored. Here’s a little courtyard of a shophouse turned museum, looking very similar in style to Peranakan houses in Singapore and Malacca. I think it’s the tiled fountain against the wall that’s so typical of Chinese-influenced houses in the region.

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And last of all was the Japanese Covered Bridge, oddly not looking anything particularly Japanese at all. It was quite similar to the one in Hue, just that this one was on the edge of town and not in the midst of paddy fields.

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Here, the bridge god was a dog, and a strangely Egyptian-looking one at that. How strange.

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July in Vietnam: Going Where the Locals Go

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In spite of my past experience on the back of a motorbike, I decided that it would be better to sit on the back of a motorbike than try to cycle on my home. A splitting headache from a hangover sealed the deal. I was driven through beautifully green rice fields on the way to the Japanese bridge.

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It’s a beautiful bridge in the middle of nowhere, built in the Japanese style to give shelter to the locals in the heat of the day.

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I’m not sure how true it is but legend says that a childless Japanese woman left money for a bridge to be built in her memory so that people would pray to her in her afterlife. In such hot weather I guess more snoozing than praying is done here!

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I stopped for a light and very healthy lunch at a little place along the Perfume River. The rice pancakes stuffed with herbs and pork and washed down with plenty of cold weak tea did wonders to restore me for the rest of the afternoon. The bowl of bun thit nuong, thick rice noodles topped with the usual herbage and barbecued meat did the trick to keep me full till dinner.

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And then it was off to the Thien Mu Pagoda, famous mainly for being the monastery from which a certain special monk originated. It was on a lovely bend of the Perfume River and was quite pretty to look at.

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Within, there were more halls with Fun with English signs. I have no idea what a “lish” is and how it could be beaten though.

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And here is the car of the monk who drove to Saigon, poured petrol on himself and set himself on fire while meditating. All this in protest of the American interference in South Vietnam. This image was supposedly broadcast all over Western media and played a pivotal role in the anti-war protests in America.

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And then calling it a day, I went to where the locals were – flying kites in the park.

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For dinner, I walked down to Dong Ba market and sat timidly down on the miniature plastic stools surrounding a chao long lady. The rice porridge was thin but the ingredients fresh. I thought I knew my pig parts, but this was a revelation. There was the usual meat, liver, small intestine and congealed blood cube but other stuff I couldn’t identify: large intestine cut longitudinally? strange sausage? bone marrow? Accompanied by basil and a squeeze of lemon, even the blood went down nicely. That hardly made a dent in stomach, so I switched sides and hefted myself 2 metres down to the next lady selling bun thit nuong, which is grilled pork over cold bun (thick rice noodles). Yummy and incredibly cheap (5000 dong approx S$0.45).

I was full by then started to walk back towards hotel. But a chicken noodle stall tempted me and I sat down to a delightful bowl of mung bean noodles (tanghoon) in chicken stock with generous lashings of chicken shreds. Ended up ODing on chilli. While Vietnamese food isn’t particularly spicy, even its “fiery” Central cuisine, I swear their chillies are the hottest in SE Asia. Even Thai chilli padi cannot beat them. There’s a very innocuous looking big yellow chilli that tricks you into thinking it’s going to taste sweet like yellow capsicum but boy does it pack a wallop. I made the very stupid mistake of rubbing my left eye after touching the chilli, ending up crying silently into food for 10 minutes.

(Sorry no photos, the lighting was too poor for the camera to work fine.)

Still, a good foodie end to a good chillout day.

June in Thailand: Kanchanaburi

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Kanchanaburi was my first stop out of Bangkok. It was also the first time in my trip where I was completely without a plan. Previously in The Philippines I had something of a schedule to keep to so I could make my way round the islands and meet my friends in time. Here, I only had to make my flight back in three weeks, there wasn’t a particular plan except a vague idea to stick to land activities and head north to the hill tribe area.

Kanchanaburi was the best place to be. It had such a laidback backpacker vibe and was firmly on the beaten track, as evidenced by the many cheap bars set up for smelly backpackers like me. Later that night I’d be sitting on the road downing the cheap local moonshine called sang som and going slightly upmarket with 50 baht shots of 100 Pipers whiskey (extra 20 baht for coke mixers).

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The touristy part of town was right on the infamous River Kwai, including of course the bridge. It was rather over-touristed, as expected in that part of Thailand and supposedly not even the “real” one.

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Still, the back of town was much nicer. My guest house had a lovely view of the river.

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The view was just amazing in the morning, it was so still and placid the clouds and blue sky reflected beautifully where there weren’t lotus pads and flowers. What a great place to start backpacking in Thailand.

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The Black Manta: Seven Skies Wreck

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It was a short chug over to the Seven Skies Wreck. The Swedish tanker went down in 1969 and settled rather conveniently upright so that we recreational divers could reach the funnel easily and explore to just above 40m. Only the technical divers with special training went deeper to the base of the wreck at about 60m. We used a line attached to the funnel as a guide on our way down and back up again. It got a bit hectic as people were moving up and down the line at different stages of the dive, so lots of patience was needed here.

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I don’t look particularly pleased in this shot, mainly because of the gobs of jellyfish in the water. It was nuts just how many of them were streaming past in a continuous filamentous flow. Sure, they were each rather small, but the trailing tentacles brushed past the exposed bits of my face and neck, leaving trails of fire as I descended. Now I knew why the divemasters all put their hoods on despite the warm water. Thankfully the layer of jellyfish stopped at about 20m, so by the time we got to the wreck, things were a lot more comfortable.

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There were lots of fish on the wreck. One of the reasons why people like to visit wrecks just to swim on the outside is that despite it being a dead ship, lots of coral like to grow on the shell. And where coral grows, there we find fish too.

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I’m still trying to figure out whether this is the wheel or not. It was a bit too far to the aft of the ship and not quite in the right location for a bridge. Hard to tell but still cute to imagine steering the ship of coral with this wheel.

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There were some chambers that had large enough openings to pass in and out of. There was plenty of soft coral encrusted all over and plenty of fish hiding inside, only to scatter quickly when a diver intruded into their space.

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The coral can be very pretty. I like the many shades of pink and orange on this one!

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There wasn’t a whole lot of macro-life on the wreck. The only thing I found was this slightly nondescript nudibranch.

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August in China: Modern-Day Chaozhou

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I wasn’t sure what to expect in Chaozhou. In my mind, Chaozhou has an almost mythical quality, more so than Xiamen. For the Hokkiens have the entire Fujian province as a spiritual home while the Teochews have only the city Chaozhou for theirs. Sure, nearby Shantou speaks Teochew as well but to the overseas Chinese in me, it doesn’t really count. (For those unfamiliar with the local terms, Chaozhou is pronounced Teochew in the local dialect of the same name and Fujian is said Hokkien, again in their local dialect Hokkien.)

There wasn’t much on Chaozhou in my guidebook, so I contented myself with a quick four-hour pitstop in between Hakka country and Guangzhou. I spent most of my time exploring the crumbling streets around the Anping Lu area. Here the houses set along zigzagging alleys dated to the Ming dynasty. It was fun to spot little details yet untouched by restoration for the tourists. As usual, the old seedy area was much more interesting than the prettier but less characterful area under restoration just streets away.

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I wandered the backalleys which often turned into people’s backyards, surreptitiously taking shots of, well, everyday life.

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Here, it didn’t seem like time passed very fast at all. This scene of the crumbling tile and rusty bicycle to me fits fine even a hundred years back.

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I liked how traditions still ran strong here, with freshly calligraphed couplets adorning the courtyard door.

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Here’s another surreptitious shot, this time of old-timers at their usual practice session. Two of them are playing the erhu (a two-stringed instrument vaguely similar to a violin) and a yangqing (conceptually somewhat like a piano). It was great standing at a respectful distance just watching and listening.

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The bridge was the last stop before I turned back to the bus station to catch my coach. I think this could be Xiangzi Qiao which was apparently built in the 12th century. Too bad it was crumbling and not particularly attractive, plus had some kind of exorbitant entrance fee (as usual). I turned around and strolled back past the atmospheric streets I’d just finished exploring, slowly savouring the sights and sounds (for free!) all the way back to the bus station.

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August in China: Zhaoxing Town

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After a whole series of tiny villages made out of clusters of at most fifteen buildings, Zhaoxing was in contrast a village of villages having no less than five large drum towers. It was a bustling town by countryside standards, with several itinerant vendors selling farm produce and wild mushrooms.

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We entered through one of the three main gates to the village. This gate bears the sign proclaiming that it was the first village of Dong country.

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Like many villages, Zhaoxing straddles a stream that provides water for drinking and washing. Clustered along both sides of the river were many houses. Naturally, there were quite a few wooden bridges dotting the river

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Here, bridges were not just meant for crossing. As per Dong tradition, bridges were social places for relaxing, chatting and watching village life go by.

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Of course, drum towers were very important too. Zhaoxing is deservedly famous for its five grand drum towers. They each have different designs, according to Dong tradition that requires every drum tower to be different. Unfortunately we were drum towered-out and couldn’t be bothered to check out each one.

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It didn’t help that the drum towers were rather deserted because the day we arrived was a festival day. People were either busy with the preparations back at home or milling around waiting for the action to start.

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We ended up wandering around quite aimlessly, taking in unusual sights, like this one. Probably the whole village’s shoes were drying against this yellow door.

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I was incredibly tempted by the wild mushrooms on sale all over town. Willy was uneasy about it but I was quite taken by the idea of wild mushrooms fresh off the forest floor. It was too bad that our guesthouse lady-boss didn’t want to cook wild mushrooms for our dinner. She said that every year at least one villager would die from eating a bad mushroom. Her family didn’t eat them, so we couldn’t either.

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That was just too bad, but no mushroom dinner meant that we had time to have a look at the festival in the village.

August in China: Drum Towers of Northern Guangxi

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The Dong minority is also very well-known for its drum towers, probably even more so than its fengyu qiao (wind rain bridges). Every village must have at least one of these structures. Rising above each village, it serves multiple functions. It’s a community centre, a meeting place, a town hall, a fire alarm and all-purpose emergency service.

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Each of them is unique, a variation on a theme. Count the number of tiers and observe the carvings and you’ll notice that each drum tower is completely different from its cousins in the neighbourhood.

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Each is so much a centre of village life that shops open only in the vicinity of a drum tower. Here, they even build a small basketball court in front of the tower. It’s since been converted to a good space for drying rice.

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It was lovely to watch how grandparents congregated in the drum towers with their grandchildren. The sandwich generation was away working the fields, or in recent times, had already moved to the cities for work, leaving their children in the care of the elders.

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This place was almost like a childcare centre, until we realised that the caretakers weren’t really the grandparents.

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It sure looked like the grandparents ran the show, but it was really the TV that got everyone in here.

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August in China: Chengyang Bridge

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In Guilin, I met Willy, a Spanish fella who wanted to go off the tourist loop and see some real villages. We took off after lunch and headed up to Sanjiang (where?) in hopes of getting to Chengyang Bridge before nightfall. It was not to be. The minibuses had stopped by the time we rocked up and we had to take this modified tuk-tuk. It looks a lot sturdier than it feels and of course this photo opp was only possible because of a fuel stop.

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Chengyang Bridge is one of the most famous symbols of the Dong minority group. They are famous for their skill in carpentry, particularly in building bridges and drum towers. The bridges are called fengyu qiao (wind-rain bridges) and are very elaborate structures that look like several pagodas joined together. This is the lovely sight that greeted us.

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We were lucky to arrive so late because the entrance fee was something crazy like ¥100! For obvious reasons, I wouldn’t know exactly how much it cost. We called our inn on the other side of the bridge and the lady-boss came over to get us. She instructed us not to give in if anyone demanded payment and to tell them that any receipts would be at the inn. I guess this shows that the admission fees weren’t going back to the community!

Nonethelss, the fairy lights on the bridge were magical at night. Thankfully, the lights were switched off at 11 pm so it was relatively good for the environment.

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The bridge was also pretty darn good-looking in the day time. It was charmingly rustic and weathered. It was too bad that we couldn’t walk back across the bridge for fear of having to pay the dreaded entrance fee on the way back.

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Luckily, the complex of villages was on our side of the bridge and there was so much else to explore. We walked across several equally impressive bridges, none of them demanding entrance fees. However, all of them asked for a small donation in exchange for having your name carved on a stone tablet as a benefactor. Posterity for ¥10 sounded like a good deal, but since Willy had walked ahead and declined the offer, I didn’t bother and didn’t have the chance to ponder the consequences of donation and stone tablet.

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I thought this bridge was especially spectacular. It was a lot quieter and rose majestically above the fields. I guess it’s less famous for the simple reason that it was further away from the main road.

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One of the bridges led to the market and of course this was the most popular with the locals, especially the elders. It was a great place to hang out as it was breezy and there was a good view of the river. Some people played cards and dominoes while others just snoozed. What a great lifestyle choice.

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On this bridge I found a little niche housing the gods of the bridge. It was pretty old but well-tended. Cute.

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Quite serendipitously, we met this man who asked us what we were up to and invited us to his house for a cup of tea. Turned out that he was a great bridge builder who had done many projects in the big cities and even as far as Shanghai and Beijing. He showed us cut-out newspaper features on him and sheaves of architectural plans of bridges he’d drawn. He had shelves of models of bridges and drum towers all over his house. It was too bad he didn’t allow us to photograph those because he had plans to set up a museum featuring them. He was quite pleased to oblige us with a photo with him though.

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