Saturday, January 30, 2010

Alone in Kyoto

Since arriving in Kyoto, I think I have literally ridden a bicycle from north to south and east to west a few times over. My butt is sore. But it is a pretty flat city and quite safe to ride in, no one even wears helmets. Kyoto reminds me a little of Melbourne. There's not very many high rise buildings and there are old 17th century wooden buildings just hidden amongst the modern ones. I got lost walking to my hostel and found myself down this little backstreet with a mossy water wheel out the front, I kid you not.

My last few days in Tokyo were okay. I went to the Kabuki-za Theatre in Ginza to see a real life Kabuki performance. The theatre is a cool traditional building, but it's going to be torn down in April so I got in first! It was definitely interesting - only men perform in it and they all paint their faces white and the sets are quite intricate; they have a mechanical rotator on the stage that changes the sets. I couldn't understand a word of course, but I had an English audio guide. I guess the best way to describe Kabuki is like a Japanese version of Shakespeare. I also spent some more time with Claire and a few of her friends in Shibuya/Shinjuku which is the neon wonderland you always see in photos. We went to the top of a tower for a stellar view of the massive metropolis that is Tokyo, illegally ate some ice cream on a ferris wheel and then booked a private room for a Japanese Karaoke experience.

I rode the bullet train or shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto, and that was an experience in itself. That thing is fast! I got from Tokyo to Kyoto in about 2 and a half hours. By bus it takes about 8. They have seats like on aeroplanes, but with heaps more leg room. Just as well really, because it costs about as much as an aeroplane too. But it had to be done.

My hostel is very quiet, but comfiest bed ever. And it's pretty central to ride to anywhere, which I have been doing. I have seen enough temples, shrines, waterfalls, Zen gardens and castles to last me a lifetime. The best temple so far was Ginkaku-ji, The Golden Pavilion, which true to its name, was golden.

Yesterday I followed this path up into the mountains around Kyoto from one of the temples and I kept going and going until I was afraid I might be lost. There was not a sign of civilisation anywhere and I had veered off so many forks in the road I wasn't sure I could get back. But I did. It was a nice little walk. Then that night I rode into Gion where there are lots of old buildings and exclusive tea rooms where the geisha hang out in. I walked down a dark road and sure enough, a few minutes later a taxi pulled up and two geisha got out and walked into a building. I think they may have been apprentice geisha or Maiko because they looked pretty young and their shoes were really high.

Not much happening on the work front - I don't have a Visa and I can't get one here, so it hinders my progress a little. If I can't get work I may need to cut my Japanese adventure a little short, as it's too expensive to stay here for two months without income.

Wish me luck!

x meg x

Friday, January 22, 2010

Lost in Tokyo Translation.

Well, if I thought things would become less interesting when I was on my own, I was wrong.

My last few days with Ash were spent literally shopping until we dropped. Bangkok must have some of the cheapest shopping in the world. So we went around town in buses, tuk-tuks and taxis to some of the biggest markets and shopping centres in Bangkok. Among these were Chatujak Market (15,000 stalls), Pat Pong Market (best place for knock-off handbags, watches, etc.), Khaosan Road (backpacker central) and Union Mall. Union Mall was something we stumbled upon and it was definitely somewhere undiscovered by tourists. But we began to get paranoid that people were ripping us off simply because we were foreigners. This made us coin the code "NFF" which means "Not For Foreigners". My feet were so sore after this marathon shopping fest.

We also took a tour to a place 2 hours out of Bangkok where we saw the Bridge over the River Kwai and rode on the "Death Railway", which wasn't dangerous, it was called that because in WWII the Japanese made the prisoners of war build a railway so they could get supplies in to their soldiers and a lot of them died building it. We also got to ride an elephant (yay for Ash!) and ride a bamboo raft. The next day we did the floating market, which is pretty cool to see. Basically there are a series of canals where people float around on boats and try to sell you stuff. We had people pulling our boat over with hooks and trying to get us to buy their stuff. It was crazy. Ash got to feed an elephant, but alas, she was trying to stick the food up its trunk. For those of you zoologocally educated, you will know that this is like trying to stick food up someone's nose. Poor little elephant.

So then Ash left me :( and I was all alone. I stayed at a hotel near the airport for my last couple of nights and it was definitely an NFF area. Everyone was staring at me when I walked down the street and the Thai boys were wolf whistling at me, which was a little unnerving. I met a guy at the hotel from Brisbane, who reminded me of someone I know. He had rented a motorbike and said he needed someone to ride on the back and hold a video camera for him so he could film the ride into Bangkok. Having no idea who this guy was and having had so much bad luck with motorbikes previously, I would like to say I declined the offer. But then that wouldn't be very interesting would it? So I jumped on the back and off we went. Of course, I didn't realise then that he had no idea how to get into Bangkok from where we were, which was about an hour out.

So we kept stopping at intersections and tapping on taxi windows to get directions. Not the most effective GPS. We even found ourselves at a service station at one point surrounded by workers trying to draw us a mini map. So we ended up riding around for hours until we found signs leading to the airport, which was near our hotel. But we went too far, then got stopped at a tollbooth because motorbikes aren't allowed on expressways apparently. By now it was nearly 1am and I had dirt all over my face and was about to fall asleep and I had to get up at 5:30am to go to the airport. He started swearing at the toll guys and I thought this is it. This is when I get arrested and have to stay in Thailand forever. But the toll guys were actually very nice. They showed us where to do a u-turn then and we got back. Then, just 200m away from our hotel we were stopped by a police barricade. What luck hey. When I got back I felt like I had ingested the whole smog cloud hanging over Bangkok and then some.

I arrived in Tokyo a few days ago and caught a train out to my backpacker's hostel. I'm not going to lie to you, I was scared out of my wits and I had a bit of a cry on the train. My first impression is that Japanese people are quite cold and uninviting. No one smiles at you and the cold inidifferent way they look at you in passing is almost worse than the wolf-whistling from the Thai boys. The more I learn, however, the more I realise they are particularly shy and also not so used to foreigners. Japan has a very low immigration rate, which is probably just as well, because the small island country is packed full of people. When you look out at the sea of faces, it's very rare to see anyone not Japanese, or at least Asian. You could imagine how I must stand out. So I was feeling pretty sorry for myself the night I came in.

Then Claire walked into my dorm. She was a friendly American who lives in Korea but speaks fluent Japanese. She invited me on a day trip to Nikko. Having no idea who she was, or where Nikko is, I of course said yes. She was a very handy travelling companion to have. We caught a train to Nikko, about 2.5 hours north of Tokyo and it was 2.5 times better than Tokyo. The place was a very quiet and peaceful mountain village, very picturesque. We were surrounded by dark mountains sprinkled with snow at the top. All the little shops and cafes were traditional Japanese style with sliding doors and everything wooden.

We walked uphill to some temples and shrines which they must have paid millions to restore, because they looked magnificent. All gold/bronze trimming and intricately carved archways, poles, dragon heads, colourful wall and roof murals - everything you think of when you imagine Japan. Claire was an invaluable guide. At one point an old Japanese man muttered something near us and she turned around and blasted him in Japanese then stormed off. I was like what was that about?? Apparently he had said something like "very big" in slang Japanese and she thought he was talking about her, as she is quite tall for a girl, even by Western standards. So she turned around and said "I speak Japanese and that was very rude!" then stormed off. In hindsight, she said he may have been talking about the bloody big temple behind us.

We went further up the mountain and it was COLD. We saw a beautiful waterfall that was falling on rocks covered in snow, it was very pretty. We had lunch in this cute little Japanese restaurant where we were the only customers and the old Japanese lady looked after us with some suba noodles. It was deliciously warm. Once again I was grateful for Claire, because the menu was all in Japanese.

We then went to visit a friend of Claire's in a place about 45 minutes away. While we were waiting for her at the train station, Claire convinced me to try on a kimono. I thought why not, it will make a good photo. So next thing you know I'm walking out of there having bought the whole kit and kaboodle - kimono, obi, undergarments - for about $70 aussie dollars, which is pretty cheap.

Then to top off my day we went to a quintessential Japanese restaurant with low tables and cushions around. The food was delicious. The wait staff were uber-polite, bowing to us and treating us like royalty. I let the girls order, as once again the menus were all in Japanese. But they taught me a helpful phrase "osusume wa nan desuka?" which means "what would you recommend?" for next time I can't read. All in all a great Japanese day - the food was great, the people friendly and the scenery breath-taking (or maybe that was the cold). I just had to get out of Tokyo.

Now I'm job hunting without much success yet. Fingers crossed!

Love Megan

Friday, January 15, 2010

Bangkok Bargains

So we were pretty happy to get out of Vietnam in the end. Alive.

After our experience in Saigon, we caught a sleeper train to Hoi An, a little town where they have HEAPS of tailors and old buildings from the 1800s. The sleeper train was an experience in itself. We were the only foreigners on the whole train and were in a cabin with a Vietnamese lady and her obnoxious son who didn't speak English, but were pretty happy to use the cabin as a rubbish bin. Seventeen hours later we gratefully arrived at a pretty swish hotel in Hoi An where Ash and I went crazy getting some outfits made at the tailors. I'm pleased to say I controlled myself and only bought 2 winter jackets and a work skirt. I've heard it's about -2 degrees in Japan at the moment so they might come in handy. However, I am desperately running out of room in my backpack. I think a post pack home is in order. The tailors are crazy - there's hundreds of them and you can go and pick a style out of a magazine, get measured up in the morning and by that afternoon they will have your clothes ready for a second fitting. We got a glimpse into the factories where they have people working around the clock - crazy. I also was riding on the back of the tailor's motorbike at one point and we were crashed into by another motorbike. Luckily he wasn't going very fast. We went out one night in Hoi An, but it was pretty quiet. We did have a shot of Cobra Blood though, which was... interesting.

Now getting out of Hoi An was a very hard task, and our dreams of cutting across Laos to Chiang Mai were hindered by Visa requirements, time constraints and expensive flights. So we flew up to Hanoi, but we weren't too keen to spend very long in another big city, so we booked a tour to Halong Bay. We went on a cruise in a junk boat, which was beautiful. But no one told us how cold it would be on the bay. And it was very cloudy, so you can't see as far as you want to, but it was still beautiful, with limestone cliffs jutting out of the water to massive heights. We stopped at a cave which was huge and very beautiful, then went kayaking around. That night, after dinner, we discovered the karaoke machine in the dining room. After the tour guide started us off with his asian-accented version of "Unchained Melody", we were a bit reluctant to have a go. But some subtle persuasion from a bottle of $6 vodka bought from a lady in a rowboat (one of about 5 who were hovering around our boat and competing with each other for sales) off the side of the boat, no one could get us off it. We met 3 aussie girls on the boat who were hilarious and we were singing so late into the night that even the bar tender was begging us to stop so he could go to bed.

Waking up on a boat in the middle of the bay surrounded by cliffs and calm water for miles is quite an experience. The next day we went across to Cat Ba Island, a cute little island in the middle of the bay. I went on a trek to the highest peak there for a breathtaking view, even though we had to practically go rock climbing to get there. We stayed in a hotel on Cat Ba island and had a few hours to kill, so we took the advice of the owner and decided to hire 2 motorbikes to ride down the coast. So the owner gave Ash a crash course in how to ride it, while I got too confident and took a crash course of my own. Within seconds of getting on the bike, I had attempted a u-turn and crashed straight into a pole. I was as shattered as the front mudguard, mainly because my dreams of riding along a coastal road a la Top Gear had been ruined. Luckily I escaped with only a few bruises on my legs, massive though they were. After that, needless to say, he was reluctant to hire the bikes to us and I had to pay 90US dollars to get it repaired, which was not very awesome at all.

From Hanoi we flew into Bangkok, where we are at the moment. We were pretty relieved to be out of Vietnam, even though we did have some good times, I think that Thailand is superior to Vietnam in so many ways. The people are generally nicer, the food ever so much more flavoursome and the people slightly less inclined to rip you off. I'm beginning to detest taxi drivers in general, as they drive like crazy men, overcharge you and rarely know where they're going. It is a terrible thing to hop in a car and be at the mercy of someone else for 20 knuckle-whitening minutes.

In Bangkok we treated ourself to a 4 star hotel (which was still only $25 each) with a pool and buffet breakfast etc. It was heaven after some of the filth we had been staying in and we recuperated so that we were ready to start shopping! The shopping in Bangkok is ridiculously cheap and the clothes are so cute, I am trying to control myself (post pack, post pack...) but who needs to when you can buy cute little dresses and skirts for $6-$13. I am in heaven. My bank account is rapidly depleting though, so I'm sort of counting on getting work in Japan.

So tomorrow we've booked a tour to the River Kwai and Ash is going to ride the heck out of a big elephant, as she's been wanting to do it the whole trip. We're also going to do the Floating Markets and probably some more shopping :)

5 Days until I fly to Tokyo, about 330 days until I see you all again.

Love Megan xo

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Good Morning Vietnam

So my big adventure has begun. I don’t think it has completely sunk in that I will be travelling for a whole year without going home, but when it does I will probably be a mess. So easier to keep on partying, and we certainly have done a lot of that in the short space of time I have been in South East Asia. Ash and I flew in to Phuket, Thailand on 30th of December, ready to celebrate New Year’s. We both let off a paper lantern into the night sky on Patong Beach, and watched as they disappeared into the night sky, wondering what 2010 would bring. If the last week is anything to go by, it will be very eventful.

Crazy people were selling fireworks to any old idiot on the beach and letting them off without any warning. It was truly crazy. We then had a few drinks at the notorious Aussie Bar, where we were sure to leave the bar mats well alone. We met a few Aussies there (of course) then trailed onto the beach for the fireworks and to get sprayed with silly string. Lots of lady boys and pole dancers adorned Bang La Road as we navigated through it all to go to a night club called Hollywood. We danced with a guy who looked like Fabio, then decided did the obligatory Maccas run, just like at home :)

The next day we got an “Oil Massage” which apparently is Thai for “we will massage your whole body, including titty rub and pelvic hand thrust”. Ash and I can pretty much safely say the only thing they didn’t touch was our faces. We laughed about it later, but at the time it was a little awkward. As soon as the massagers left Ash and I looked at each other then almost wet our pants laughing, literally rolling on the floor with the towels over our violated bodies. Hilarious. That night we saw Thai Boxing, it was quite fun actually, although the first fight was between two 6-year olds, which lasted about 30 seconds, because the first kid kicked the other one and he started crying. It was heart-breaking. But they got older from there, and the main fight was between an Aussie and a Thai and the Aussie won, so we were chanting “Aussie aussie aussie, oi oi oi”. We met these crazy Frenchmen at the fight who insisted on going out with us afterwards and taking photos of our feet. So we sat on the beach with them eating banana pancakes, singing and laughing until about 4am. It’s easy to lose track of time around here.

From Phuket we caught a ferry to Phi Phi Island, where we stayed in these cute little bungalows on the beach, made out of straw and bamboo. No air-con, but a fan and mosquito nets. The best part was that the bungalows were part of a beach bar which played sweet tunes until 1am and had a crazy fire show every night. First fire twirlers, then out came the fire skipping rope, then fire limbo. Of course I had a go at the last two, and got a free shot for my efforts. These pyro guys were like Thai rockstars, they set everything on fire and walked around with bottles of grog and no shirts on; we were there 3 nights and they partied every night we were there and never tired. Then we befriended some Thai guys in a tattoo parlour who had one of the only guitars on the island, so we sat down for a jam and before too long people of every nationality from Swedish to Thai were singing along to tunes that cross continents like Oasis and Phil Collins. We moved to the beach and stayed there with beers bought from the mini mart until the early hours of the morning... awesome.

We went on a snorkelling and kayaking cruise, which was fun, we saw Maya Beach, where the movie “The Beach” was filmed and it was beautiful, white powdery sand, crystal blue water... bliss. That night we smoked a She-sha pipe, which is like flavoured tobacco that you smoke through a tube attached to a hookah. We had a licorice flavoured one very interesting.

Last night we flew into Ho Chi Minh, or Saigon as I prefer to call it, as it sounds nicer. So far, however, this city has done nothing but rip us off, discriminate against us and try to run us over. I have never seen so many motorbikes in one city and when it comes to pedestrian crossings, I think green man actually means “run me over” rather than “stop because I’m walking”. We have learnt to just have no fear. After waiting at the airport for 2 hours for our Visas to get processed, we were not in a good mood when the taxi man majorly ripped us off for a ride home. I’m too embarrassed to say how badly we got fleeced, but let’s just say the 20 minute ride was closer to Melbourne taxi prices than Vietnam taxi prices. The currency over here is off tap. 1 aussie dollar = about 16,500 Dong, which as you can imagine, is a bugger to convert. I’m not so good at my 16,500 times tables.

So after getting ripped off by a taxi, I bought a Lonely Planet guide which was photocopied, then we both rode on a cyclo (seat on the front of a bicycle) to a restaurant that served me something slimy that certainly was not satisfying. From there we hopped on the back of two motorcycles (who thankfully did not rip us off, but very nearly killed us) to see the Vietnam War Museum. It was pretty horrific, but made the American soldiers out to be monsters, which I guess some of them were, but I feel some of it was a bit Herald Sun. I also knocked a 1970s missile shell from its holder in front of a display. The whole museum was silent until my big *CLANG*, and everyone was staring at me, Ash was about 50 metres away pretending she didn't know me and I was standing there waiting for some guards to come and escort me from the premises. Luckily, it didn't happen.

Then we got a taxi to the railway station to book a sleeper train, and the cab driver took us the wrong way, then expected us to pay extra. We argued over 20,000 dong (which is about $1.25) because on principle we were sick of the city and it’s rip-off merchants. So after that we were mad. Then we come back to the hotel only to find the free spa is “only for men” and the karaoke was “only for Koreans”. The only thing an Australian female could get was a massage, and we knew what THAT entailed, so we declined. So here we are using free Internet. What a weird city. We’re pretty keen to get outta here and move on to Hoi An, where we can get cheap clothes tailor-made and have a few drinks without getting hassled. Here’s hoping :)

Miss you all already, keep up the e-mails and messages.

 x meg x