A Travellerspoint blog

From the historic battle ground to the Vietnamese Capital

Overnight to Hanoi.

sunny 25 °C

Our minibus pulled into the Dien Bien Phu bus station and as soon as we descended to gather our bags we were mobbed by a group of locals offering all sorts of things, from bus tickets to food and anything in between. Yet the worst part was that the good old ‘ignore them and they will walk away trick’ didn’t seem to work, as they would start to tap you on the shoulder or pull your bag to get your attention. We had been warned about the haggling attitude in Vietnam but this was worse than we expected. At this point the group of backpackers that was on the minibus with us starts to disperse as we all have different itineraries, most of them wanting to head for the North towards. We wanted to head East from here into Hanoi. We promptly realised the local’s curiosity towards not only tourists but western tourists, we were ogled by everyone on the streets, really everyone. We were such a rarity that at one point one of the hagglers started touching Teresita’s golden locks perhaps in awe that such beautiful mane could exist. Our departure time is set, we are to buy tickets for the overnight ‘camel’ bus to Hanoi, leaving at 6.15pm and arriving at 6 in the morning the next day. A dash to the closest cash machine, fast-cash withdrawal and we are millionare’s 1’500’000 Vietnamese Dong (about 75 dollars), some food, tickets and we are ready to go. In the meantime we explore the surroundings; we climb to the top of the famous hill that simbolises the victory over the French and although we do not find this town particularly pretty, we do feel Vietnamese people are very approachable and friendly. By 6pm we buy the usual overnight bus snacks and we head to the bus. This one was unlike any other we had taken before, the camel bus as they call it, is basically a dormitory on wheels; 3 rows of bunkbeds covering the length of the bus. We have been assigned seats, yet somehow these are occupied and we land the crappiest seats on the bus. The right row by the bathroom, where the seats are actually shorter and despite city boy’s Latin-American stature it is hard for him to stretch his legs and feels rather uncomfortable. Somehow the little swede has a much comfortable seat in the middle row, so after much consideration we swap seats. A movie is playing in the background, some Jackie Chan Flick dubbed into Vietnamese, there’s people laughing and it is hard to sleep. We are also the only westerners on the bus. A couple of hours later Teresita is gone, mouth open and all, we are woken up by the conductor as we have stopped for a meal. We get off the bus and although not terribly hungry, we are convinced to take a seat by the friendly travellers which explain to us this meal is included. As we move towards the table we feel everyone’s eyes are on us, but as we look around we get some friendly smiles, plus food is good. A run to the facilities before we leave and few minutes later, la monita snoring away, she was loving this camel bus. It is 5.30 am and there is a lot of commotion on the bus, people are getting off, but we have no clue where we are. We have arrived it seems. We collect our bags and move away from the swarm of xe om (moto taxis) drivers offering us a ride. It is better we head to the main station building look at the map and try and figure where we need to go. It is no better at the other side, taxi drivers around us charging inflated amounts for a ride to the old quarter, so we take the bus. The ride takes no time and in less than half an hour we have made it near Hoan Kiem Lake, right in the centre of the old quarter. Most hotels are conveniently located in this area, so we walk. At this time of the day, 6.30 am the city seems very peaceful, there is a lot of greenery and we find people exercising. Finally after having breakfast and a few missed attempts we find a hotel and with the old ‘it’s our honeymoon’ we get a discounted rate and the staff seem incredibly friendly. We shower get changed a few phone calls and we’re out to town. Just when we thought things could not get any crazier, we have arrived in Hanoi!
Forget about the tales, the backpacker stories, this is unlike anything you have ever seen. Hundreds of mopeds, motorbikes of all types, with up to four people on them and sometimes even cars, all driving through an intersection at the same time from all possible directions; regardless of whether there is a traffic light or not and all honking their horns in unison. It’s hard to imagine, you’d have to be here to believe it, but you have to take our word for it, it’s absolutely insane. Now, if you can believe it, try and imagine what is like to cross the streets. It’s a bit like playing frogger. Even walking on the sidewalk is complicated as these are more like an extension of the street, along them motorbikes are parked over this once pedestrian territory and one is forced to meander along the streets with the traffic, now an easy prey to the ever present get-out-of-my-way-I-am-coming-behind-you-horn. One could write an infinite list of Hanoi’s (and for that matter Vietnam’s driving crimes) but the thing is that underneath this dense layer of chaos, mayhem and blaring horns lays a city with a lot of charm and with a fantastic blend of flavours. An underlying communist spice, with some mild French undertones, but above all richly Asian. We explore the city by foot always in search of local grub and much to our delight we find that the Hanoi hagglers are nothing like their Dien Bien Phu counterparts, there is no touching and a simple no is enough to stop the offers of fruit, books, dvd’s, xy clos (bike taxi), xe om (moto taxi) etc. Or maybe is more to do with the fact that at this point in our travels our well-honed haggling skills (Teresita has become ruthless in the art of bargaining) no longer make us easy prey. We try again very many tasty dishes, Pho (or soup with noodles), Bun Cha (Grilled pork and crispy spring rolls over a flavourful noodle broth) and Bahn Cuon (a cooked rice roll filled with pork or chicken) all cooked in the most basic restaurants and in some cases with very basic tools, yet more flavourful than those you’d eat in the more upscale and pricey restaurants The city thrives on local eateries where one is sat on low plastic tools all along the sidewalks and in similar fashion on ‘Bia Hoi’ (Beer Hoi) bars frequented by locals where the beer goes for around 3000 to 5000 Dong (or 25 cents). In the middle of the Old Quarter is Hoan Kiem Lake, a green respire from the mayhem of this city. Ironically enough the streets around it are rather busy, but is easy to walk around the lake and forget about what’s going on around it, it’s all serene until you need to cross the street again. We find that like the lake this city has many corners in which one can easily relax even if in the background one can still hear the honking horns, which make this city (so far) unlike any other we have been to in South-east Asia. After three nights (with an in-between Halong Bay break) and undone by the traffic we decide to head south; overnight travelling yet again!

Posted by RuizJosef 07:21 Archived in Vietnam Tagged food hanoi Comments (0)

The Nam-Ou and Beyond

En-route to Vietnam

sunny 28 °C

Our itinerary is set, we are to head north along the Nam-ou towards Vietnam, but not before enjoying a few more stops in this Mekong Jewel. Our keenness to travel by boat is quickly stalled by a boat driver at the “harbour” which unwilling to make such a long trip for so little money (and miss out on his bread and butter; an hour boat ride along the Mekong river, for tourists to see the sunset, which he kindly offers as we walk away) convinces us to rethink our strategy and do it the easy way, aboard a mini-van. Thinking that 3 hours is better than 6, we do and the next day we hit the road at 8.30am.
At around 12.30 and after infinite near misses (have we forgotten to mention that the definition of driving and traffic enjoy a totally different meaning in the Indochina peninsula?) in which our driver, skillfully avoided, dogs, cows, motorbikes, bicycles and other forms of transport found only in this region, we make it to Nong-Khiaw. We decide to be adventurous and walk to town. At this point we find ourselves walking with two other backpackers, a very chilled out Israeli wanderer travelling with a drum and a very nice Austrian lady. A few minutes later we are in town and what a fabulous setting it is, a valley of green luscious mountains and right in the middle two towns at each side of the Nam-ou. Across the bridge from Nong-Khiaw, Ban Hop Soun, a village with little houses perched along the mountains. Yet we decide to continue up-stream. With the next boat due to leave at 2pm and with only an hour of journey involved, we hang around the boat landing and enjoying a drink and chatting to our new friends, before boarding the boat. 20.000 kip, a few bag loads of food, some locals, more travellers, us, 60 minutes later and we are in the jewel maybe not of the Mekong, but certainly of the Nam-ou. Not sure if it was the battering our bums suffered aboard this local long-boat that made this town seem so precious, but we fell in love with it. Little huts clinging onto the mountains, a steep set of stairs and the river was all we could see from the boat. Once off the boat and up the stairs locals make their way and try to pull as many tourists as possible to their guest-houses, most of which are built along the mountains and overlooking the river. A young girl grabs our attention and leads us to one, our expectations were not very high, in a good way, as we knew accommodation would be very basic and so it was. All made of straw, a double bed with a mosquito net, newspaper on the walls for insulation?, a western toilet (as opposed to the dreaded squatting one) and cleanliness is really all we need and want, plus with a price of 30.000 kip a night (about 3 pounds or 5 dollars) who could argue really? In Muang Ngoi you will find only two main streets but no petrol powered vehicles (except for the generators which provide it with electricity between the hours of 6pm and 10pm), a tourist office and boat ticket office, a series of travel and trekking agencies plus a number of guesthouses and hotels in a per capita ratio high enough to rival with any major city. Our room is not the only one with river views, so is the restaurant of our guesthouse, which quickly becomes the favourite hang-out of most guests in town. It is the first time we have contact with so many back-packers at once and seem to befriend a few really nice and friendly people, including the Austrian lady Maria, all with stories and plans similar and in some cases more outrageous than ours. We are no longer unique; two months travelling is barely a dent in the life of most of these people that have or will be travelling for months and months and in some cases a year. In the evening the only sound to be heard is that of English with various accents and intonations and in the background the chug-chug of four stroke engines burning fuel to light up (but not much) this little village in northern Laos. At dawn silence is quickly interrupted by squeaking roosters, innumerable quantities of them, yet life is still good, is better. The weather is good and shortly after breakfast a group of us decide to take a trek through the mountains, hoping not to encounter any major reptiles along the way. We reach a cave and decide to inspect it, trying hard to go in as deep as possible, but no luck. Our trekking continues amidst rice paddies and we are aiming to reach a local Hmong (native) village. The sign says 20 minutes, yet it is not before an hour that we reach this village and luckily they offer food, not without first giving us a taste of the favourite Lao spirit; Lao-Lao a whisky made of rice which is sometimes bottled up for flavour (and you will find it in the local markets) with scorpions or snakes. Anyway, the village chief, who will not take no for an answer gives everyone in our group at least 4 shots during our meal. During our stay we seek out for the kids in the village as we have taken part in a rather beautiful Lao initiative called Big Brother Mouse, which in an aim to raise literacy in the country, seeks to give to underprivileged children in hard to reach villages books for educational purposes. With 3 offices in the country, it also provides travellers with the opportunity of helping out by buying books and distributing them to remote villages in their journeys. We have purchased 3 books and after a finding someone that spoke a little bit of English we manage to pass them on to the villagers who will take them to the closest school some 3 hours away in the next village. It is the end of our visit and time to head back before it gets dark. A brief stop for a dip and then we are back just in time before the downpour. Dinner, drinks , chat and off to bed. The next day we do nothing, really nothing, we have breakfast (and try some local concoction, sticky rice rolls filled with banana, peanut butter and a drizzle of honey, yum!) the town empties out, and is more quiet than ever, we wait for lunch, chat and eat dinner. Next day we are hoping to catch the local boat heading north to the border town of Muang Khua. It is 9.30 and there are 8 of us on the boat. The 5 hour journey is serene but uncomfortable and Muang Khua is a less than desirable town. A forced stop for most tourists enroute to Vietnam, the Northwest and the South of Laos, this town is dirty, run down and overpriced. Late lunch turns into dinner, and we’re off to bed as our border crossing trip the next day starts before dawn. Flashlights in hand we head for the boat landing at 4 in the morning and meet up with a group of travellers with the same agenda as ours. We all seem to be well versed in the rates and prices for the day, as we do not want to get ripped off. We must cross the river to take the bus which is said to leave at 5 am, yet is well after 4 but our driver is nowhere to be seen. He shows up and immediately 5000 kip each instead of the usual 2000 kip, as he is working ‘overtime’, we have very little leverage power as we need to get to the other side so we pay. We decide to instruct some our fellow travellers that we will not pay more for the bus no matter what (50.000 kip per person as displayed in the Tourist information office). The bus finally leaves at around 6 am, and shortly before departure a number of locals that seem to appear from out of nowhere get on the bus with us. They are all smoking from a strange looking pipe including the driver, which we (wrongly) assume it’s opium to much of our concern. As expected when we are all sleeping the conductor has a go at overcharging the westerners for the bus ride (he wants a 100.000 kip per person), luckily and in true team spirit our friend does not bow down and pays only the official amount to much of the conductors disdain. So much so that by the time is our turn to pay he does not even bother asking for more and simply takes what he is given. It is dark and the road is unsealed, we cross over little creeks hoping not to get stuck and this 100 kilometre ride drags on for hours. Just after 10.30 am and having cleared Lao immigration we make it safely across the border and into Vietnamese territory and see the first of many uncle Ho statues. We then descend into Dien Bien Phu to start our travels in this dragon shaped land.

Posted by RuizJosef 07:24 Archived in Laos Tagged food - laos Comments (0)

Sabadee Mon ami!

In search of the Mekong Jewel - Laos

sunny 28 °C

Antes que nada, quisieramos dedicar este y todos nuestros proximos mensajes a las abuelas, Lucila y Lola.

We would first like to dedicate this and every forthcoming posting on this blog to my Grandmothers, Lucila and Lola.

Queridas abuelitas, queremos que sepan que no ha sido facil disfrutar de este paseo, porque apesar de la distancia la imagen de ustedes esta siempre en nuestros corazones, y con cada dia que pasa pedimos siempre por su bienestar. Ustedes son la llama que llena de vida y de alegria nuestras familias. Pedimos por su mejoria, por poder volver a verlas pronto tan llenas de vida como los son en nuestros recuerdos. Las queremos, las extranamos, Ruiz Josefsson.

Dearest Grandmothers, we want you two to know that it has not been easy for us to enjoy this trip, because in spite of the distance, we carry every day, in our hearts the image of your love and with every fading day we ask for your wellness. Because you are the flame that fills with life and happiness our families, we ask that you get well, so that we get to see you soon full of life, as you are in every single one of our memories. We love you and miss you, Ruiz Josefsson.

We get on yet another night bus to get to Laos. This one has an airconditioner that is about as subtle as a jet engine. We dont sleep much. We cross the border to Laos and have the usual
bargaining fight with the Tuk-Tuk drivers to get into the capital Vientiane, which is about 20 mins away by car. We get there on the back of a truck packed with bags, food and people. A cute little baby girl plays with the zippers on my backpack.
For a capital city, Vientiane is very sleepy and laid back. We will realise later on that this is very much a Laos trademark. No one is in much of a rush here, which is really nice and relaxing if you are not in a hurry, but which can be frustrating if you are in a rush.
LAO PDR – Lao People Democratique Republique (or Lao Please Dont Rush...) has buddhism as their main religion and the people have adopted the core beliefs of buddhism. It is every man’s duty to spend some of their youth as a monk, so it is easy to bump into many youngsters with shaved heads and draped in orange robes in the streets of Vientiane, or for that matter anywhere in Laos. People here are very friendly. We are greeted by a 'Sabadee' which is hello in Lao everywhere we go. As Laos is one of the 20 poorest countries in the world, we were not sure what to expect. Yet we are to be pleasantly surprised by the ability of the Lao-people to speak English.
But Vientiane is more charming, clean and stylish than anywhere we have been in Thailand so far. The french influence is obvious and very much still lingering.
There are cafes serving croissants and baguettes that we get very excited about. Bread! Cheese! There is also, strangely enough a Scandinavian Bakery and we of course have to go there. We find many tantalizing Swedish pastries, and one of them, 'arraksboll' makes it to our table. It is good but not as good as in Sweden.
We have a drink in a bar with great views of the Mekong river and watch the sun set there. Even though Vientiane is beautiful, there is not much to do here so we move on pretty swiftly.

As overnight buses are not recommended in Laos, because the roads are bad and the buses are not great, we take a daytime bus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang (the ancient Lao Capital) that takes about 10 hours. It’s hard to believe however that the trip is only about 300 kms. The quality of the buses seems to be diminishing with every ride, the word VIP in our bus this time only means that it has Air Conditioning and the bus is so surprisingly standard that a Chinese girl who we meet at the station is still wondering if we are taking the right bus and is certainly disappointed that VIP looks like this. But all we can do is simple giggle.
We stop at a roadside diner for lunch, which is included in the bus ticket. It’s soup with noodles and meat. I take the safe option of no meat but still get some protein from a couple of ants in my soup. We seem to survive the quality of roadside cooking and decide we can get a little but more adventurous with our meals from now on.
The second part of the bus ride is spectacular. The scenery is beautiful; we struggle up and down hills and cling to the side of them on narrow roads. We pass little villages with straw huts. It starts to pour down with rain and all the villagers take the opportunity to have showers under the rainwater which they also collect in buckets. They all look delighted about the downpour.
The rain stops and is replaced by mist, the bamboo trees are heavy with raindrops and are bowing under the weight, brushing the top of our bus. I am totally enchanted by this landscape.
We get the usual bus station haggling madness over and get to a hotel in the centre of town. Luang Prabang is more of a village, and the centre is mostly occupied by hotels and restaurants and the odd wine bar, as it is now a very ‘in’ place to go for the ‘in’ crowd. There is a little market where locals are selling hand crafted things and lots of lantern lit cute little restaurants. It’s enchanting, but it is an unauthetic feeling, too many boutique hotels and restaurants, catering vastly to a western market. . This chicness makes it relatively expensive, more so than anywhere we have been before, which is rather ironic considering that this is country in which 80% of the population lives in rural areas.
We spend the first day exploring one of the older temples. There are a lot of monks in this town, and little quiet alleyways to meander down. It’s relaxing. There are a few other out-of-town attractions, including Kuang-Si falls. We venture out on the second day, seeking a little bit of water in which to take a dip, because despite the fact we are well into October the heat does not seem to wane. There are many ways in which to reach this little water haven, and after weighing them all we opt for the more traditional, not to say less exciting one, a minivan with a few other people. It’s beautiful; we jump from the waterfall and Nico swings like tarzan in a rope and throws himself in. There are little fish picking at our feet in the water. Apparently this is a good pedicure, but it tickles!
We go back into town nicely cooled off and decide to find a street where there are food stalls selling all kinds of different local food. Amongst the various menu options we find ‘noodle soup without’, simply meaning that next to the two other options, “noodle soup with chicken” and “noodle soup with beef”, this one has no meat. And despite the rather basic set-up in this little market stall the soup is very tasty and by far the tastiest we have had in our south-east Asia travels. It’s absolutely delicious. It costs about 10 SEK which is just over one dollar. With so much flavour and value for money this market is a great find and we decide to go back there for dinner. In the evening this little alley is crammed with backpackers who have discovered the best place to get cheap and tasty food. Then we climb 100s of stairs up to a temple on a hill and watch the sunset. Life is good.

Posted by RuizJosef 07:12 Archived in Laos Tagged food - laos Comments (0)

Culinary delights of Thailand

overcast 30 °C

We take the night bus again, to Chiang Mai this time. This one is cheaper and more comfortable than the ones we took in Japan. You can lean your seat almost all the way down, and there is rather absurdly a ‘bus hostess’, complete with suit and hat. She hands out water and crisps and sandwiches. Very professional. It’s a bumpier ride than our Japanese trips, and we seem to stop loads of times.
We take a tuk-tuk to the hostel (our first tuk-tuk ride!). There are several cats at the hostel, there must be four or five of them on leashes. One of them is asleep on top of the copying machine. Nico is not too impressed or enthused…he finds cats deceitful. I like them.
Chiang Mai is smaller than Bangkok and prettier, although there are not really any sidewalks around. They are packed with motorbikes and things. I think it’s because no one actually walks here, except tourists. Literally everyone is on a moped or motorbike. Sometimes four people, including kids (no helmets of course) and they don’t stop for you when you try and cross the road so you have to walk out and force them to stop. Then they just veer around you.
We spend the first day having a poke around Chiang Mai, looking at some of the temples, struggling in the heat. There are many monks around in their orange robes. Being a woman I am not supposed to talk to them or sit next to them. They also get special saved seats on buses and at bus stations (see photo) We see a North American woman chasing a few monks down the street asking them to pose for her camera. They look embarrassed and hurry along. She then starts following them. Shocking behaviour!
You also have to be careful with your feet in the temples. Pointing your feet at Buddha is disrespectful. Showing your soles of your feet to anything holy or anyone is a major insult. People who do not cover their legs down to their knees or show too much shoulder need to borrow something to cover themselves up before they go in the temples.
We go for a very tasty Thai meal and then a Thai massage to finish the day – when in Thailand! The massage is 150 baht for one hour, which is about 3 pounds. Bargain – but quite a painful massage! It felt like she was going to break my back at one point. She was sitting on it!
The next day we have booked a full day’s worth of cooking Thai food. We get to go to the local food market and have a look at the products that will go in the food we will be cooking later on. We have a wander around the cooking school’s organic herb garden. Then we get to it, we cook papaya salad, make curry paste, cook curries, noodle dishes, soups and stir fries. We finish with dessert, sticky rice with mango. All tastes fantastic. We are feeling very full and very pleased with ourselves and have had a great day speaking to nice local people and meeting some other travellers, one of the couples cooking with us was on their third round-the world trip. Both 55 years old and able to take 2-3 years off work in one go now and then to be able to go back and do the same job when they come back. How good is that!
We cool off in an air-conditioned tea-house in the afternoon and watch the heavens open while we are in there. That’s the thing about rainy season – it rains for half an hour then it’s over. We finish the day with a wander round a very touristy market and spend the next day buying bus tickets, surfing the web about how to get to Laos and are off on yet another night bus journey, this one not at all as good as the last one.

Posted by RuizJosef 07:42 Archived in Thailand Tagged chiang mai Comments (0)

Sawasdee Krub

(Two) Night(s) in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster!

semi-overcast 34 °C

Is it the air, the food, the water or is it the heat? Whatever it is, it seems that the further south you go, and in particular closer to the tropics, things tend to get more chaotic, everything, for lack of a better word is let’s say a little bit more colourful. Our short stop in Hong Kong was in a way, a good sampler of things to come. Enter Bangkok. A noisy storm does not seem to slow down, honking taxis, breaking buses, squeaky motorbikes fully loaded with all family members, brightly clad tuk-tuks, an array of smells from all the street food stalls, all of which happens in the one block we walk from the hotel to our nearest sky train station. One first glance is enough to give one an idea of this city and its many contrasts. The map clearly shows the split between old and new and on the streets, a swanky new tower neighbours a series of run-down old houses, in some cases abandoned. We feel like tourists again, I guess being blonde and carrying a camera and tripod make it hard to disguise that you’re there for little else. On our venture down to the old town, where the metro or sky train don’t reach, we are surrounded at every stop by “friendly” strangers trying to book us onto a tour, somehow always related with the big Buddha(?) We travel in some of the old means of transport that were so common not long ago, before this city was filled up with asphalt. A water taxi or long boat, along the canals on which the two or three conductors, both male and female, dangle from the side of the boat collecting fares and tying the boat at every stop along the way. The heat is unrelentless and it seems we walk for hours, whilst dodging tuk-tuk tours, to arrive at the ancient royal palace. Architecture is certainly very different, and under the sun these gilded contructions take on all the colours of the spectrum. Shiny mosaics adorn every temple, every wall, every roof, every statue and if you’re lucky you may catch a glimpse of a orangey robbed monk, sometimes even riding a tuk-tuk. A much truer Bangkok, much more charismatic is the one we find on this dazey day, which we finish with a drink at Vertigo a bar atop one of the many new towers, on the 62nd floor. If nothing else refreshing. We are then to head north to have another taste of the many Thai flavours, enroute to the city of Chiang-Mai.

Posted by RuizJosef 21:07 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Néih hóu

Hello Hong Kong!

sunny 31 °C

Upon arrival at such an excitement metropolis, city boy could barely contain his fascination and dismay that the stop was going to be so short. Yet as the city grew hotter and the whole of the mainland started to descend and fill not only all the hotels but also all attractions around the city, his desire for a longer stay quickly disappeared. In comparison to the Japanese experience everything seemed a little bit more chaotic and just too busy. Shopping was not quite the paradise everyone talks about and people seemed rather sterner. There are still many great things about this city. It enjoys a magnificent location, which you can admire from above or just across, by ferry or metro, from the mainland. We did both. On an excursion, in every sense of the word, up to Victoria Peak, including several hours of queues, some pushing and shoving to take the tram, we arrived just at dusk and were able to see how this super dense city and its many towers, transformed from a deep blue from sea and sky, into a glittering and colourful array of lights dispersed along a dark horizon. The ferry ride is no less impressive, towers and towers all over. The concentration of buildings on the Island is so vast that it can feel somewhat cooler simply from the shade these towers provide down on the pedestrian. Failed attempts to hook up with some expats, some intense browsing to book our last night stay due to the China day celebration and bargain shopping at the ladies market were all part of this adventure. The last night took us to SoHo (or south of Hollywood) via a series of escalators that whisk you up the mountain along a street cluttered with western eateries and bars, English pubs, Mexican and Italian restaurants, Japanese sushi and every unimaginable restaurant akin to those you would find along any main street in any western city. It was strange not to feel like a foreigner in a foreign country. All packed up with the bags stored at reception we checked out and it was time for a last tour. A 2 hour queue and away we went, on the Ngong Ping cable car. A rather enjoyable ride, up and through the mountains, not recommended to anyone suffering from acrophobia, aerophobia or any other phobia involving heights. There it was, the largest seated outdoor bronze Buddha in the world set amidst an series of very commercial enterprises, the obvious and always obnoxious Starbucks coffee amongst others. The long queues meant our estimated tour time was extended and we were once again dashing across town and through the metro stations to get to the airport with enough time for a bite to eat before our departure to further southern latitudes.

Posted by RuizJosef 20:54 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (0)

Southern Comfort

I think I’m turning Japanese I think I’m turning Japanese!

sunny 25 °C

Kobe was to become one of our most memorable stops, not only because we celebrated Therese’s b-day in this city, or because it would be a very important transport hub for our next destinations, but also because it was here that we were witnesses of both Japanese friendliness and hospitality, and of the very complicated police system they have. Anyway, first things first.

The morning of the 24th, Therese was greeted by a very plain but loving “Happy birthday” and it was breakfast in the room, cereal, donuts and hot coffee in a can. Off to Awaji-Shima (Island) for some architecture sightseeing. We were both awed and inspired by the magnificent textures and forms of concrete and water, in the Water Temple and in the Yumebutai conference centre. Over the bridge and back to Kobe, we dined to celebrate Therese’s birthday in a most local and friendly restaurant, serving Okonomi-Yaki one of Kobe’s specialties. The owner spoke no English, but luckily some of the clients did (slightly) and gave us a hand in ordering. All great, friendly atmosphere, a day to remember! Next morning off to Hiroshima, packed and ready to go, except once at the bus station we realized something was missing. Perhaps we left it behind at the hotel? No, no luck. Asked at the local store, aided by a very unfortunate couple (as the clerks spoke no English), who would end up driving me around town (all out of concern for our items) first to the police and then to the bus station. They even offered to give us some money! Seriuosly, what the Japanese lack in speaking foreign languages, they make up for in friendliness. Anyway, we headed to Hiroshima a little bit lighter (more than we would have liked). A nice bus ride through the mountains and 6 hours later we arrived.

Although a bustling metropolis, you can’t help but feel a bit solemn, walking around the streets of Hiroshima. The many plaques, memorials and remnants of buildings destroyed in the atomic blast, are there to remind you of the atrocity of this event and the hardships this town and its people endured the morning of the 6th of August of 1945 and many years after. Yet life goes on and people are very happy, everyone here, from the mayor down, is quite committed in making sure such events are not repeated again.

Anyway moving onto brighter and happier things; ever since arriving in Japan, we had been quite keen on trying one of Japan’s famous dishes, Suki-Yaki. A restaurant in Hiroshima prided itself on serving such a delicacy, and without hesitation (despite being the only “gaijin” non-japanese in the venue) we sat at one of their tables. A selection of finely sliced Japanese beef, mushrooms and vegetables laid at the table with a slightly oiled hot pan in which to cook each one of this ingredients, plus some teri yaki sauce to drizzle over for extra taste. A real feast and treat for the senses, best meal so far (in my humble opinion) and a perfect way to end our stay in Hiroshima. It was now time to move away from the neon filled metropolis and have a taste of a different side of Japan. We decided to experience the onsen, or natural spring, so with a stop again in Kobe we changed buses and headed north to the town of Kinosaki. We stayed at a proper Ryokan (Japanese B&B) with rice paper sliding doors, table on the floor, and a little seating area over-looking a garden. Although it rained, it was all beautiful. Decked in Getta and Yukata (wooden sandals and robe) everyone treks along it’s 7 natural springs. Once inside, women on one side, men at the other, and both completely butt naked, to much of city boy’s surprise! Nonetheless, an unforgettable experience. Not to worry in all pictures we appear fully clothed. It was once again down to Kobe, to catch the overnight bus to Tokyo for our last day. Little did we know that a little surprise awaited us at Kobe, and we would once again miss the opportunity of walking around it. Straight after lunch a quick stop at an internet café, we had an email from the hotel we stayed at the first time around, telling us they had found our lost item. Onto the metro and to the hotel. To cut the story short, it had been handed to the police, we were driven to the Kobe Headquarters by the hotel owner’s daughter, and unprepared as we were about this little extra trip, we had no passports with us, which is considered a crime in Japan. And so we were told that in any other circumstance we would have been detained. Anyway, after much debate, Jan’s Japanese compadre and main head honcho in Kobe decided to escort us back to the bus station to ensure we had our passports where we said we did. At one point we were so nervous that we even doubted they were in our bags. All in order, and he even gave us his card. It was our fourth stop in Kobe and all we managed to see was the train and bus station. Bus to Tokyo. After very little sleep we woke up in Tokyo to venture for the last day before heading out to Hong Kong and the Indochina peninsula. Bit of shopping and the last taste of sushi to bid farewell to our first stop in this long tour of Asia.

Posted by RuizJosef 21:33 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

From an Ancient Capital to an Ancient Capital

Train hopping to Nara!

semi-overcast 28 °C

After melting under the sweltering heat and experiencing a bit of ancient Japan on two wheels in Kyoto, it was time to head further south on the Japanese Archipelago. City boy got tipped by some of his University friends about some Jewels of Japanese architecture (since he forgot his Architecture guide) and it was decided that a small detour on our way to Hiroshima, would be taken to experience them up-close. So an early morning departure to catch the train en-route to Kobe, would see us make a stop at Inari, a Shinto shrine located some 20 minutes outside Kyoto, Nara, for some more temple sighting, to then later catch another train via Osaka to finally touch down at our final destination of the day. The morning did not start well, we were woken up by a fierce storm, which did not seem to lose intensity as we were getting ready. Once at the door umbrella in hand and decked in the latest rain gear we headed for the train station.

There is about a 1/10000 chance of delays occurring in the Japanese train system (as many other things in Japan these enjoy the most outstanding efficiency) but the gray clouds over the ancient capital seemed to have wreaked havoc on that particular day and our train was delayed by at least a half an hour. So we waited while the heavens were still wide open and we could only imagine walking around this shrine under the pouring rain. Once on the train, the journey to Inari was not long, we made a run for the locker area to stash away our gear to then meander around this maze of Torii (Shinto gates) sinuously laid along sloping paths. Slowly the rain eased and we were able to enjoy this magnificent sight. How many? Literally thousands, look at the photos and see for yourselves. The temple was quite busy, with monks and visitors, as this was all during a Japanese holiday. Bags out of the locker and on our way.

Due to its reputation (8 World Heritage sites) and history, Nara was one of our most interesting stops in the day’s itinerary. Off the train, bags locked, schedule checked (for our next departure), tickets bought and off to the sites. One very particular characteristic about Nara, which relates directly to ancient times, is that you will find deer, prancing around town. These animals were seen as having a connection with the gods and are seen as protectors of the city, so they are sacred animals, hence why they roam everywhere on the streets of Nara. But beware as tame and cute as they may look, don’t turn your back to them, you could get head – butted (literally a head to the butt) by one of this godly creatures. If you don’t believe it you may want to ask Therese, she will kindly expand with all sorts of detail as to what happened to city boy who, lost in the viewfinder of his camera received a friendly nudge. She only wishes she had recorded a video of such a humorous incident! This and all the other sights were very impressive, 5 storey pagodas, gigantic stone statues, enormous wooden buildings and larger than life Buddhas. All we needed to do now was tuck in some Japanese grub before hopping on a train to Kobe. And so we did!

Posted by RuizJosef 19:57 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Heading South in the Archipielago

Off to Kyoto!

sunny 30 °C

We take the night bus from Tokyo to Kyoto. Its just a normal, no reclining comfy seats but surprisingly we still manage to sleep a few hours, albeit with aching muscles in the morning. When you think Kyoto, you imagine a town with beautiful old buildings and blossoming cherry trees everywhere, and geishas running down the streets.
But Kyoto is a big town with lots of new, not so attractive buildings - you have to go look for the beauty of it.
We are really lucky with our hostel, its tiny (in every way, you almost cannot walk upright inside) and the owner is super friendly. His name is Komeo and he speaks brilliant Spanish after travelling around South America on a motorbike for two years. One of his favourite countries there was Colombia and needless to say he and Nico hit it off from the start. We call him Che but he laughs and says he is not worthy of that comparison although he shares similar ideals. Because the hostel is so small and friendly its our favourite place we have stayed so far, every night we come home to a little lounge full of chattering friendly guests eager to share experiences. They are all teachers from South Korea, but from all corners of the world taking advantage of uni reading week off.

Everyone is cycling in Kyoto - the usually super polite Japanese become reckless on the bicycle. Cycling on the pavement, mowing everyone down that is in their way.
We decide to cycle around and see the sights instead of sitting on a bus all day long. We quickly adopt the Japanese way of cycling. Although all these people almost running us over on the pavement annoyed us like mad when we were walking, we are now ringing our bell asking these slow walkers to move out of our way. And its great.
We spend two days cycling around Kyoto, in heat and rain, we see some beautiful temples and the odd geisha rushing past us on the street. We see tourists dressed as geisha. We discover Okonomi Yaki food to Nico’s delight. We see the house of the shogunate. The alarm system in those days consisted of putting hinges under the floorboards so that they squeaked. Pretty clever.
The shogun was based in Tokyo and stayed there when he came to Kyoto. He also had the top geisha wait on him during his stay. Even though his wife was back in Tokyo.
Some temples are overrun with tourists, making the experience slightly less pleasant. Others we get to earlier in the morning, when there are less people around. We see the Zen rock garden at Ryoan-Ji temple. Its a gravel square with 15 rocks of various sizes in it. You can interpret it any way you like, but my favourite thing about the Ryoan-Ji temple is the inscription in the Tsukubai stone wash basin that reads 'I learn only to be contented'.

Posted by RuizJosef 07:11 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Trains, Bikes, Aeroplanes

Around Japan and onwards, teaser!

overcast 30 °C

Overnight buses, Kyoto, Bicycle riding, over heated, Ryoan Ji, Golden Temple, Japanese holiday, South Korea uni reading week, Kiyomizu-dera, Nijojo Castle, Chion-In, Bamboo grove, Geishas, wannabe Geishas, train rides, rain, Inari, 1000 Torii gates, Nara, Todai-Ji, Daibutsu-den, wandering deer, headbutted by deer, Osaka, Kobe, longest suspended bridge in the world, Awaji-Shima, Tadao Ando, Water temple, Yumebutai, lost, Hiroshima, A-Bomb dome, Peace Memorial Park, children’s peace monument, Okonomi-yaki, Suki-yaki, Kinosaki, Ryokan, Yukata, Geta, naked, Onsen, Miri, Yusuke, found, police, Tokyo, shopping, Narita, dash to the airport, stop over Beijing International, Hong Kong, Golden week (China National Day), overcrowding, push, shove,fully booked, Tung Choi Street (a.k.a. ladies market), Golden Mile, Peak tram, Victoria Peak, night view, SoHo, cable car, Ngong Ping, biggest seated bronze outdoor Buddha in the world, 15 days, 3 time zones, Chek Lap Kok, Thai Airways, Bangkok!

Our schedule not only has been hectic, but internet access also limited, this overview is just to tell you what’s happened since our last posting. But despair not, detailed tales to come!

Posted by RuizJosef 08:04 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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