Bamboo Fishermen, Neck Rings, Floating Farms and Cat Monestry Myanmar: 8.11.2013

It was an early morning start; we woke at 5:30am, wolfed down the usual terrible guest house breakfast and headed out into the cold morning air. We met Matt at the bridge overlooking the boats on the canal before 6am; it was already light outside although the sun had not yet risen over the mountains. We needed to find a boatman and agree on a route and destination before the sun rose any higher, otherwise we’d miss sun rise completely.

We found a boatman with ease and agreed on 25,000 kyats for a full day going right down south of the lake; this area was supposedly much more picturesque and less touristic than the “standard route/area” of Inle Lake. Once we’d done our very easy and hassle-free/scam-free negotiations, the boatman teenager arrived and proceeded to unfold chairs, lay cushions down on the seats and then provided us each with a blanket, life jacket and parasole. Luxury...

With the motor of the tiny boat roaring and our boat-teenager ready, we were off for our full day on the water, and what an absolutely incredible and memorable day it turned out to be…

As we gained speed and pushed through the water the morning air was indeed so cold we had to use those woolen blankets I’d previously laughed off. Sitting there on our little cushioned seats with blankies on our laps, I had to smile to myself. At least I wasn’t decked out in an oversized life jacket…
The boat continued out onto the lake and we were indeed able to watch as the sun rose over the mountains that seemed to form a wall on both sides of the lake. It was pretty spectacular to see and reminded me once again how lucky we are to be here. It’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Soon after we had left the canals the lake began to open up to reveal the massive body of water that is Inle Lake; we were struck by the natural beauty surrounding us and entertained by the several Bamboo Net Fishermen in their boats who appeared to be posing for photos quite willingly. The caught their feet into the edge of their nets and stuck out their legs; balancing on one leg with their conical nets jutting out looked rather comical and a little unnatural, but I guess made for a good photo. The push for money after they had finished posing was hardly there, if at all, and made me wonder what this area of Myanmar will become in the near future…
We did notice these fishermen had pristine “uniforms” on rather than the odd worn lungis and scrappy t-shirts, no fish in their boats and no equipment besides their one conical bamboo net…

The more authentic looking fishermen were just as impressive though – if not more – as they paddled the lake using their legs and feet rather than their hands. With their foot, ankle and lower legs wrapping around the paddle, they balanced perfectly on the other foot and went about using their hands for fishing. Their balance alone was something to marvel at and their perfect paddle strokes even more so.

I loved watching the fishermen paddling, fishing with their nets and working on the lake; it was more impressive for me than the pristine posing fishermen and when our boat-teen turned off the motor and let us float silently for a moment amongst the fishermen I felt truly calm. Another reminder of how amazing this whole experience is.

Our first destination for the day was the Floating Markets. Whilst it sounds touristic and flashbacks of the nightmare that is the Bangkok Floating Market came to mind, it turned out to be brilliant and we were so lucky that the market happened to be active the day we chose to explore Inle (the markets in this area are on a weekly rotating roster-type system).

The floating markets were pretty spectacular for a number of reasons, but what made it even better was the fact that we’d started our day so early; the local section of the market was in FULL swing whilst the tourist stalls (selling the same generic crap that no one would want at ridiculously overpriced rates) were all just starting to set up and had not really opened yet.
For this reason, our first destination for the day turned out to be the highlight.

Instead of being hassled to buy creepy wooden masks, beads, fake silver, wooden cats, miscellaneous objects, random things and bits and pieces of wood, bamboo and bone that Australian customs would no doubt have a fit over, we were able to wander around the more local area and take in the sights, colours, sounds, smells, tastes and the people.
People were everywhere: eating, cooking, buying, selling, socialising. Women from different tribal villages wore stunning clothing, head pieces, scarves, wraps and we saw several of the Long Neck-Ringed women shopping and socialising with the other women.
There were so many stalls cooking and selling food and the sounds and smells were beautiful. I bought a local tofu salad from a little man sitting on a tiny plastic chair, cutting up tofu and cabbage with big pair of hand-made kitchen scissors; the salad turned out to be one of the most memorable meals I had in Myanmar.The produce looked so fresh and colourful, the tomatoes so red, the carrots so orange, the herbs so green. It was truly an overload of colour, contrasted against the colourful head scarves and tribal clothing. It was actually a pretty special event to witness and be immersed in.

The scenery on the lake was so beautiful and it wasn’t long before the cold air changed to warm and then hot. It was warm on our skin and as we floated through the lake I fell asleep briefly in the sunshine.
I woke minutes later to see our boat moving through tiny canals and little “laneways” amongst the high grasses and foliage. Tiny lilly pads and bright pink lotus flowers burst out from the water’s blue surface.

Beautiful.

We rode through floating villages where bamboo and wooden houses stood on stilts above the water and it was fascinating to catch a glimpse of how life on the water might be like for these Burmese people.

We stopped at a Lotus Weaving factory; women weaving using thread made from the fibers of lotus flower stalks made intricate and beautiful items. We were shown how lotus flower stalks are broken and the sticky fibers stretched to create a thin thread. A painstaking and laborious process: in one day a woman can make 15 – 20 metres of lotus thread. Whilst we didn’t even consider purchasing anything from the in-factory shop (where prices fetched more than $300 USD for some items and were absolutely not in our budget), I found it really impressive to watch the craft and making processes; it’s hard for me to comprehend how these women learn and memorise these ancient weaving patters and operate such complex looking looms.
Back on the river, I noticed many of the houses on the lake had a loom and often, a woman working at it.

Our next stop was at a large pagoda area that is also another market location. We missed that market today as the floating market was happening instead, but we’d already been lucky enough to visit one market so no dissapointment. We were given a whole hour here to explore (I think purely so our boat-teen could have a nap in the sunshine) and ended up marvelling at the pagodas and then sitting for the rest of the hour in the tea house drinking packet-mix Burmese tea. It’s interesting to have another traveler with us; Matt had some fantastic stories to share about his travels abroad and it’s nice to meet someone who’s as passionate about Asia as we are.

Throughout the day we traveled by boat through so many little – and not so little – floating villages and I really never got tired of looking at the houses on stilts.

A floating Village called ‘Namba Village’ was especially interesting and gave us a glimpse of life on the river. Our boat-teen turned off the motor and we were able to witness a large group of male “carpenters” (what looked more like a group of local men working together) building a new home. Large bamboo frames were being installed into the lake, stilts and frames jutted out of the water and boats were being used to cart bamboo poles around the water. It was so impressive and it was so lovely when they all made the time to stop, wave, smile and say hello to us.
It was truly a joy to see the life on the lake and felt very authentic; it was non-touristic and we were often the only tourists around.

Some looked to weathered and worn and were standing on complete slants or angles, threatening to fall over at any moment. Others looked newer and stood proudly over the water. Clothing hung from under the house or through open windows. There was no glass on windows or no closed doors; the houses were open to the elements and exposed the insides of rooms.
Cats slept on windowsills in the sunshine, elderly people and children peered from windows and so many homes had looms out in the open.
It was nice to imagine what village life on the lake must be like. Taking a boat to pop down to the local store, cafe, tea house, work… it’s a lifestyle I can’t imagine.

Lots of hotels, cafes, restaurants and resort-style accommodation could be seen throughout the lake – even beauty salons complete with photos of Justin Beiber and shops selling packet-mix Burmese tea.

We stopped off at another area where boats were being built in the mud at the waters edge by barefooted craftsmen. Boats take two months to make and cost around $2000 USD.

Another stop off at a local cigar making factory where several women sit each day crafting cigars by hand with a mix of tobacco, honey, tamarind and banana, rolled up in dried leaves.
The women spent their entire time smiling at us all as they went about their work.
They worked with such speed, getting paid for each cigar they complete, rather than by the hour. It was interesting to see as we’ve seen these cigars all over Myanmar and in the mouths of many Burmese people. Apparently they’re pretty tasty.

I liked that there was no hard sell at any of the places we went; we were fine to just visit, observe and learn rather than be forced to part with money. I did wonder if these factories were purely set up for tourism or if they existed prior to the influx of visitors.

There were countless silversmith factories located throughout several of the villages we passed through but we never stopped at a workshop. We weren’t so interested in seeing those sorts of factories and were more interested in seeing life on the lake.

Our lunch stop was at a floating restaurant packed with tourists – no doubt every boatman had taken their tourists here. We ordered fish dishes and ate fresh fish (hopefully) straight from Inle Lake.

In the afternoon we headed first to a BIG pagoda where gold leaf was everywhere. It felt a bit like the Disney Land of pagodas with flashy entrances, tourist stalls, drink vendors, photography exhibitions, murals that stretched across the walls and ceilings, camera fees and gold as far as the eye could see.

There was no tourist entree fee and a sign warning tourists about purchasing gold leaf from street peddlers. We’ve seen a lot of signage like this in Myanmar to date; signs telling locals to “warmly welcome tourists” and “take care tourists.” I love Myanmar and its non-scammy ways.

We watched as men bought patches of gold leaf and stuck them to gold leaf covered buddhas on a podium in the centre of the pagoda. No women were allowed on the podium, nor allowed to place gold leaf anywhere sacred… It makes me wonder…

We headed on towards the floating gardens that cover a decent portion of Inle Lake. Various vegetables are grown on floating gardens and held in place with bamboo poles. The gardens seemed to stretch for kilometers with lane ways and canals dividing them so that boats can move through.
Having a boat-teenager at this point was awesome because he found a decent patch of garden, stopped the boat and let us jump out onto the floating garden. At first, when he skipped out of the boat and along the floating walk way, the three of us were a bit shocked… and then, when he invited us up, there was no hesitation.

Yes, it’s silly but true: wobbling, jumping about and flouncing around on the floating garden was a real highlight and has become a stand-out memory of our time in not only Inle Lake, but also Myanmar.
The water was soaking up through the mulch past our shins and our movements made each other wobble off balance, just as much as our laughter. It was all a bit surreal; here we are in Myanmar, frollicking about on a patch of garden that is only inches thick, floating above the massive Inle Lake. Loved it.
Loved it even more when a group of life-jacket clad tourists rode past in their boat with looks of horror/envy. Their boatman wasn’t as fun as ours.

Back off land and in the boat, school was out and that meant countless little boats began emerging with uniform-clad children. Parents paddling, children paddling – I even saw a small child paddling with his foot! We saw so many children throughout the day mastering skills like paddling, rowing and fishing; I was truly amazed and impressed. At one point I saw a toddler – yes, a toddler – rowing a boat.

Our final stop for the day was at a famous floating monastery, well known as the Jumping Cat Monastery. Unfortunately, there were no jumping cats (any more) but there were a lot of lazy looking cats hanging about. Apparently one of the monks here taught some of the cats to jump through hoops and… well, there are a few different stories so I’m not exactly sure what the deal is, but supposedly the monk – or the cats – got sick of the hoops and the jumping and performing…or…apparently the monk died. Who knows.
Regardless, the monastery was impressive and packed with locals. There was a large group of women sitting in a circle peeling and crushing handfulls of garlic with pestles. The sound of the pestles thudding against the garlic and mortar was rhythmic and in time whilst the women socialised and took more garlic cloves from the central dish.
It was a pretty touristic place and appeared to have been extended massively to incorporate tourist shops and vendor stalls, food and drink carts, a silversmith shop and some other sales focused stalls. There were a lot of tourists being bought here and whilst it was interesting, not exactly my favourite stop of the day.
Back in the boat late afternoon, we began the journey back to Nyaung Shwe. We asked our boat-teen to go back slowly so we could see more fishermen on the lake and enjoy the sunset. All three of us had really loved just observing the working fishermen on the lake and the stunning scenery and vast body of water was so beautiful (and created brilliant photo opportunities).

It was all so stunning and beautiful I don’t think any of us had really wanted the day to end. It had been such a brilliant way to spend the day and our time here in Myanmar. As the sun began to set behind us, I was so grateful to have had today – it will remain as one of the more memorable days to date.

Back at the boat docks we ended our day on the lake. Our boat teen smiled and helped us off the boat; there was no touting, no asking for more money or tips, no awkward “requests” (aka demands) that we’ve so often had to deal with in these sorts of situations. I really appreciated that and it’s something that continues to stand out for my in Myanmar. I truly hope it stays like this.

Matt, Jake and I headed to a local joint for a few beers in the evening and then dinner at a Burmese restaurant. It was the first time in Myanmar we’d had beer and we made sure to try the local specialty, Myanmar Beer… it was late before we moved on for dinner and ate more local style foods, curries, shan noodles and fermented tea leaf salads.

By 9:30pm we all called it a night – we were all exhausted after what felt like a massive but incredible day. It was so awesome, I actually can’t even begin to describe how it felt. All I can say is amazing, amazing, amazing.

A true highlight of Myanmar, and our Asian Adventure.

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Memorable Kyoto: 8.10.2013

Today has been incredible, and I’m so excited about the fact that it was all possible because of couch surfing. It was a wonderful chance to spend time with new friends and end our time in Kyoto on a high.

Karim, Jacob and I all woke up feeling pretty gnarly after last nights mammoth ramen; all that oil, fat and salt left us dehydrated and with grumbling stomachs – even Yudai and Hiroki felt a bit rough around the edges. We attempted to remove the garlic taste from our mouths with copious amounts of toothpaste and breath mints and empty our stomachs of those ramen demons; that noodly beast left us feeling as though we’d had a big night out on the booze… in reality, it had been a big night out on noodles, bean shoots, garlic, stock and chunky fat. I’m still not sure what’s worse for the body….

It’s Yudai’s day off today so the four of us are spending it together exploring this amazing city and it’s surrounds. First stop was Doshisha Univeristy – Yudai’s University – where we had the opportunity to see what a Japanese university looks like; in particular, how amazing a Japanese university food hall is. With all of us still suffering as a result of last night’s ramen explosion, we passed on the food and took advantage of the free water.

Semi-hydrated, we moved on from Doshisha and took a bus to Nijo Castle – a UNESCO World Heritage castle that is famous here in Kyoto… and probably in Japan now that I think of it. The castle was very beautiful and pretty spectacular, really. I was certainly impressed, but then again, I’m always impressed by Japanese architecture. It’s pretty awesome.
We spent a while wondering through the castle and the surrounding gardens; it was beautiful and we had a lot of fun taking photographs and strutting about in our little group, even if it did start to rain a little.

Following on from Nijo Castle, we headed by bus to Shijo Street again where we had lunch – wait for it… not at Yoshinoya!… Instead we went to Karim’s budget Japanese food chain of choice, Sukiya, where meals are similar in both price and content to that of Yoshinoya. I ordered the usual beef bowl but was evidently still too full from the ramen to eat it.

Another bus ride took us out of Kyoto to  the suburb of Arashiyama, which is a pretty spectacular place and probably good for at least a half-day visit, if not a full day. Unfortunately we’d arrived pretty late in the afternoon and had just enough time to visit the beautiful bamboo forest area and take a short stroll around the area. Judging from the number of temples and sights to see on the tourist map, the many cute shops and the countless beautiful looking food stalls and eateries, you could really go to town here. If I wasn’t dying as a result of ramen poisoning or on a tight-ass budget, I may have treated myself to some hand-made yuba tofu… or a green tea ice cream… or maybe even a mix of the two – who’s to say?

As a group, the four of us had a lot of fun. There was always something to talk about or laugh about, a stupid pose to be made in front of someone’s camera and a lesson to be learned. We had great conversation and it was brilliant to explore Kyoto with new found friends. It’s fantastic being able to spend time with locals – it opens up this country to us in a completely different way, and I really am grateful for this opportunity.

As the sky turned to dark the four of us hopped onto another bus and traveled back to Kyoto, back to Shijo street, where we visited a traditional Kyoto sweet house and enjoyed more free tastings of yatsuhashi as well as bought a few as gifts.
Yudai took us a few doors down to visit a “plum shop” where we tried sour and sweet plums and plum juice that was oh so delicious!!! Again… if I wasn’t on a budget… Oh Japan, why must you always tempt me?

We walked through Pontocho street – the famous street in Gion – which was lit up and busy with people; the street lined with spectacular houses and traditional buildings, as well as many bars and restaurants with high, high prices. Looking out from Pontocho street over Kyoto’s Kamo River, we watched as couples sat along the banks – somehow leaving the same distance between each of the couples, making it quite a sight to see. It’s quite romantic really, and the sound of the river is beautiful at night…

Eventually night time got the better of us and we headed back to Yudai’s by bus, once again stopping by the supermarket for discounted sushi and instant cup noodle soups. We spent our last evening in Kyoto chatting and laughing; this couch surfing experience has been absolutely wonderful and we have really loved every moment of being here. Yudai has been such a wonderful, generous host and we couldn’t have had a better experience. As well as also having Karim to share it with, making a new friend whilst traveling is always a wonderful experience. It feels as though our travels have been made all the more richer through couch surfing and spending time with locals; whilst I’m sad we have to say goodbye to Yudai, Karim and Kyoto tomorrow, I’m so happy there’s more of this to come!

Big Smoke India: 17 – 19.08.13

We arrived into Mumbai – the big smoke – stuck in a traffic jam, and after stepping off the bus after 10am, rather than the estimated 7:30am arrival time. The bus dropped us on a random street where cars raced past, buildings soared, dogs roamed and taxi drivers circled us.
We had no idea where we were, we had no idea where we were going, we had no idea where we were staying, and we had no idea who to trust. Excellent.

A driver in a camo-cloured doo-rag style hat hearded us into his taxi and drove us across the city to Colaba – the tourist and sight-seeing hub of Mumbai. He hid his meter with a dirty towel “because he has to” (for a reason he did not explain) and continually told me “do not worry about money, you always worrying about money, do not ask me about money, don’t worry, I don’t want any money, I not asking for any money”, which made me worry almost to bursting point. Of course, he wanted money, of course he charged us some ridiculous “luggage fee”, and of course, he took us to the most ridiculously priced, shit-box of a hotel/cell, where we were greeted by possibly the rudest Indian man in the world.
Whilst Jake stayed in the taxi, I went to check the room.The manager grunted at me that the room was 1200, and when I almost died of shock, he told me it was actually now 1500. Mumbai was a lot more expensive than we’d expected.
Back in the taxi, I weighed up our options with Jake, and the driver agreed I could barter the manager down.
Back up in the hotel again, I was now told the price was 1700. I’m still wondering why I didn’t walk away then and there, but instead I bartered to 1300 which was flatly refused, so my very generous driver offered 1400 – was he personally putting in that extra 100 for this cockroach infested cell? I doubted it, but the offer got accepted.
The driver left us with our bags and we trudged up the stairs, feeling as though we were about to enter into a contract we didn’t want to but were somehow unable to get away from.
Of course, without the driver by my side, the manager was even ruder and told us no air conditioning would be included in that price. I argued, and we walked away – and should’ve kept walking – but eventually Mr. Rude manager man had a change of heart and very generously let us stay for 1400… with air conditioning.

It was only after we had paid that we discovered stained sheets, cockroaches, and one single dirty, cigarette smelling towel. When I asked if we could please have a clean towel, and furthermore if we could have two, the manager almost screamed at me telling me it was clean. When I refused his answer, he angrily bought us a “clean” (still stained) towel, and grunted “one room, one towel.” Hmmm.

Out in Mumbai at last, we walked through Colaba and towards the gateway to India monument, past the famous Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. The architecture is incredibly beautiful here, absolutely stunning – our heads were in a constant craning state as we looked at the architecture towering above us, mouths open in awe.

We walked towards Leopold’s Café – one of the hard-hit locations in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, and also the once local hang-out of the author of Shantaram  – I was keen to see if this establishment lived up to my imagination… On the way, we dropped into Reality Tours office, to book a tour of the Daravhi Slums. A few minutes later, we were walking briskly towards Churchgate Station to meet for our tour of the biggest slum in Asia, to see what “the real Mumbai is like” – apparently.

I still can’t quite work out how I feel bout visiting a slum as a tourist, but the tour company we went with pours a huge portion of it’s money back into the NGO it runs within the slum, which we were able to see in action. We went as a group of 6 along with a guide who met us at the station and took us on the local Mumbai train towards the slums. He explained to us “three stops before we need to prepare to get off the train. Lots of eople will be getting on and off very quickly and the train will only halt for 15, maybe 20 seconds.” … Oh, shit.

Surviving our first local Mumbai train, we walked over the bridge and down into what looked like a very normal, very action packed street going about daily business. Chai and food stalls and vendors, shops, businesses, buyers and sellers, traffic and people about everywhere… We were in the business district, and it is here that several huge export and import, as well as nation-wide products are made, cooked, sewn, created and recycled, turning over a profit of around $650 million USD annually.

We walked through the business district, and the recycling area first, where plastic comes from all over India – and the world! – to be recycled. The absolute sprawl and mounds of plastic that could be seen from the ground and from the roof top stretched so far and covered every surface, and I was in absolute shock at the…mess, maybe? I can’t even decribe what we saw. These incredible people work tirelessly, in very difficult conditions, and their business is non-stop.
We passed tailors and men dying materials to make saris and clothing – for men in one section, and for women in another.
We passed welders and people building machinery, working with metals and welders, barefooted and shirtless – without any sort of safety precautions or protection.
We passed bakers rolling tons of pastry dough, and women drying poppadoms on the slum floors that, eventually, will be exported world wide.
We passed leather workers who dry, treat and cure the leathers they receive and turn them into bags, wallets and everything else that will then eventually be stamped with Gucci and Prada stamps, exported, and sold for thousands in fancy shops.
We passed through the pottery area where thousands of clay pots were being turned and sitting to dry in the sun.
We walked through tiny, tiny alleyways with holes in the ground and electrical wires dangling dangerously low. The stench was sometimes overwhelming.
We worked our way through to the residential area, where children were keen to follow us – and put their hands in our pockets! The slums are alive with people; the tiny area of around 1.75square km is home to more than a million people! There is a Muslim section, and a Hindu section, and somehow, people manage to live together in such compact space like one big community.
The residential area made me both happy and sad – I think – I haven’t quite worked it out yet. People live in absolute mess – the smells are overwhelming in some parts, and we walked out into an open area where children were playing and walking bare footed amongst an absolute rubbish tip. The toilet block was making it hard for me to breathe, and the smell stung my eyes.
We spent the entire time we were there staring at our feet, watching each and every step – ensuring we did not stand in the muck and mess, the holes and putrid contents that continually covered the ground.
The tiny slum hut, one of which we were able to see empty, was smaller than my bedroom; a bathroom, a kitchen, a TV area, a living area, a bedroom, storage space… and five, six, seven people might occupy that area! No privacy, no space. Astounding.
But the people seem happy, and busy, and hard-working. Most of all, it feels like a community, even from an outsider perspective – you can simply see and observe it. I’m still trying to work out how I feel about it all, and what my thoughts are, but I’m happy we were able to take the opportunity to learn a bit more about a part of this world and the people in it.

The six of us on the tour took the train back to Churchgate Station together and spent the evening at Leopold’s. The bullet holes still fresh in the walls was a stark reminder of what happened here just a few years ago, and my head full of the words of Shantaram bought me right back to the dodgy wheelings and dealings that would’ve once happened, right there.

Having used our air conditioner to the maximum and after surviving the hoards of cockroaches, we checked out early and, like sleepy turtles, carried our backpack shells heavy on our backs. We wern’t allowed to leave them with Mr. Rude Guest House Manager.

Today, India and I clashed. It’s true. It was a build up, I think, of three weeks of (amongst a million other positive things) being frequently cheated, lied to, tricked, scammed, harassed, begged, and  ripped off.

Our morning was spent being lied to by various street touters and people offering “free tourist information.” After hours or messing around, being told one thing and then another, and then something else entirely, we ended up handing over a wad of cash for two train tickets to Udaipur which were then never given to us – instead, we’d receive them via e-mail apparently on Monday, the day before our train.

I was so upset at the fact that nothing seemed to be working here for us today; we’d been ripped off and harassed and furthermore, lied to continually, and booking tickets for trains seemed impossible. We left with no ticket, no receipt, a lighter wallet and the words of the tourist information guy saying “anything is possible in India if you put money under the table” ringing in our heads.  On the street, continually we were harassed by people wanting money, wanting to show us their hotel rooms, offers for weed, offers for taxis, offers to “help” us find a “nice something to wear”, shoe shining, ear cleaning, and more people claiming their office was the real tourist information centre. I was ready to scream. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the ‘process’ that we go through every day here in India, fighting off touts and tricksters, and sifting through lies to find the truth. I was tired of the fact that we have to be suspicious of everyone, and when a stranger happens to help us, we find it hard to believe they’re being genuine.
I was overwhelmed that to book a train took hours after hours, too many mixed messages and stories, and that people were happy to go above and beyond to hide important information and trick us. After three weeks of it almost continually, I was sick of this maddening bull shit.

Eventually, we ended up at VT station – apparently the biggest train station in Asia – the incredible station that we should’ve gone to first thing this morning. First floor, counter 52, a few forms and I was able to book our train tickets. Just. Like. That. No bull shit, no lies, no stories of why they will have to change the price, no poor treatment, rude comments or jumbled facts. The man just booked the dates and trains that I had written down and printed out the tickets for us. So this is the way to do it, hey?… Lesson finally learned.

From VT station, we booked a pre-paid taxi out to Andheri, where we were staying for the next 3 nights with a Couch Surfing Host. Our poor taxi driver then spent the next two or more hours dodging, weaving, or sitting motionless amongst a chaos of horns and impatient drivers. At one point I tried to count the number of ‘lanes’ of traffic: pointless – the traffic sprawled so far around our car that I had to give up, it was utter madness and it was a real thrill. Hello to the Mumbai I had imagined.

Eventually, we arrived at our Couch Surfing host’s home, where she welcomed us warmly and gave us a delicious home cooked Indian dinner. We took a tuk tuk later to a local shopping mall and she introduced us to Kulfi, a delicious Indian dessert.

Our second day in Mumbai was spent in fits of exhaustion and frustration, feeling as though we couldn’t handle – didn’t want to handle – India’s complexities any longer – but then it ended on a high. We knew that tomorrow could only be better.

Our third day in Mumbai was spent exploring Colaba a little bit further. Being Sunday, the trains were “not so busy” – meaning I was able to breathe slightly more easily, didn’t have to share the roof handle with another hand and didn’t have to fight with people in order to exit the train. The Mumbai trains are madness, but oddly enough we love them.

Arriving into Churchgate Station, we stepped out into the street to be immediately greeted by the bare bottom of a woman who’d just taken a decent sized poo in the middle of a busy main road. As if proud of her achievement, she stood – bare bummed – next to the pile of waste for way too long whilst I struggled to re-gain my composure.
We watched, sipping chai, as a Bollywood scene was being filmed in the street, and ignored the hassling touts – one of whom invited us to his cousin’s best friend’s sisters’ niece’s wedding somewhere in Rajisthan some time next month.
We admired art in a gallery, and even more outside where local artists were selling their paintings and were proud to show us their work. I adore moments like these.
We explored various shops and walked through the city area, visiting the local Colaba Market and avoiding another tout who was sure we’d love the clothing at his best friend’s wholesale shop.We had a fancy lunch at Delhi Dohbar, where I broke my vegetarian diet and ate some mutton.
Our afternoon was spent walking along Marine Drive, looking out over the Mumbai city scape and sky line. Chai vendors offered us chai and a woman with a monkey on a leash tried to get us to pay her for a dancing monkey show – which we very flatly refused.

Late evening we took another local Mumbai train back to Andheri, where we visited the local shopping mall. Tuk tuk drivers outside tried to charge us 150 rupees for the 20 rupee ride back to our host’s home, and refused to turn on the meter even though they have to normally. It was infuriating to be treated so unfairly, and I felt that frustrated feeling from the previous day returning. Eventually though, we found a driver who was happy to turn on his meter and took us safely home to our wonderful host and her handsome cat.

Our third day in Mumbai was a nice, easy going day; we didn’t really rush this morning, and spent our day in the outer suburbs away from the tourists. We’re so used to being the only whities these days; it’s starting to not phase us so much. Outside of the tourist area of Colaba, the people who spoke with us were friendlier and more interested in simply talking to us, rather than trying to take our money however possible.

We took a tuk tuk to the Andheri train station, where peak hour meant we were caught up amongst thousands of frantic commuters. The first train we attempted to board was so packed (to the point where people were hanging out the doors and along the side of the train!) we were not able to board. A young woman told me to get in the ladies carriage, and never attempt to take the men’s carriage… that meant Jake and I would be separated, and that worried me when we were about to attempt to get on – and would consequently have to eventually get off – the local Mumbai train.

As the train we needed pulled into the station, it was a sight to be seen – one I have difficulty describing. It was, simply put, a manic mess of chaos and crowds. Before the train can even completely stop, people are jumping off and attempting to jump on. As the train slows and finally stops, masses of people at every door have already started shoving, pushing, kicking and pulling; fighting their way into and out of the carriage. No order, no rules, every man for himself. It was madness, and the facial expressions and the way people behaved was shocking, to say the least. I was pushed, shoved and hearded into the ladies carriage by the kind young woman who then checked to make sure Jake was safely in the men’s compartment. So kind. Within the confines of the female carriage, I observed as every woman assessed the other – including many stares directed at me – often staring each other down in a manner that, more than once, made me feel self conscious.
When the train finally pulled into my destination, I was quick to learn I’d need to fight my way off. Along with every other woman pushing and kicking and shoving to get on – and off – I elbowed and shoved and escaped, free at last.

More help from locals saved us the hassle of trying to negotiate with trick tuk tuk drivers, and eventually we found one who was happy to use the meter to take us to the ferry landing, so we could head across the ‘creek’ (more like a massive lake!) to the Global Pagoda – a golden beautiful structure that was really impressive to see. People come here for 10 day meditation work shops which are apparently really highly regarded.
Arriving, I think we were just as impressed by the structure as we were by the fact that it was free to enter.
The area was beautiful and really impressive, and it was well worth the visit out there.
After slipping in the mud and falling hard on my bum, checking to see if anyone saw, then laughing about it for way too long, we took an empty ferry back over the creek and a tuk tuk back to the station, before catching a train back to Andheri.

This evening we were meeting our host at the local plaza to see a Bollywood movie, but arriving early, we decided we’d and spend some time in what turned out to the the worst (and most hilarious) excuse for an arcade.
We wanted to have a game of 10 pin bowling but only one of the 6 lanes was working. The other lanes were “maintenance,” according to the staff. We put 100 odd rupees onto an arcade game card and went to swipe a game for some good old fashioned fun… but quickly realised the game we had selected was “undergoing maintenance.” This was the same for the next game, and the next, and the next, and the next, and this went on throughout the entire arcade for all except one game – the basketball hoopy game. So, whilst laughing like lunaticks, we spent a happy few minutes playing the same one game; shooting flat basket balls into a hoop, cackling the entire time. At the end, we had acquired a whole 6 tickets, and seeing as there were only three different ‘prizes’ behind the massive glass counter for 50, 200 and 5000 tickets, we fortunately didn’t get any sort of tacky plastic souvenir.
Oh India, you make us smile.

We met our host and went up to the level our cinema was on, only to find it had been moved to another cinema. So, down two levels, we bought popcorn and prepared for our movie to start, only to find out it had been re-scheduled for an hour later… So instead, we sat, talked and ate way too much popcorn. It was brilliant.

The movie was excellent but quite difficult for us to follow – lucky we had our host there to explain a little of the plot. After a late finish, she took us to a fantastic Punjabi restaurant where we enjoyed an absolutely amazing meal together. Tandoori chicken with lime and yoghurt, beautifully steamed rice, a bean dahl and a specialty of fried garlic cloves, along with an incredible traditional Indian sweet and a betel nut drink to freshen our mouths once we were done. Dinner at midnight, and this place was still packed. The food was one of the best meals we’ve had in Mumbai, and our beautiful host was so generous to take us out.

It honestly was such a wonderful way to celebrate our short time spent with her, and we are so grateful to have found such a wonderful person here in Mumbai. Tomorrow was to be our final day in Mumbai before heading off on a train journey away from the West and into the North to Rajisthan: first stop, Udaipur.

Our Top 10 Picks: Ways to Save Money for Travel

To save as much as we can before we head overseas, we have been following these “rules” reasonably religiously. 

Feel free to add any of your own ideas and suggestions.

 
1. Live in Share Housing: 
Although not for everyone, and not without it’s annoyances sometimes, share housing can really be great! 
Rent and bills are super cheap in comparison to living alone, meaning you can save more money instead of paying off someone else’s mortgage. It’s also an opportunity to make new friends!
 
2. Cook at home instead of eating out:
We’re not the best when it comes to following this rule, but we have improved immensely since we began saving. We usually eat out a couple of nights a week, but we eat cheaply (around $10 per meal) – our reasoning is that it can sometimes work out to be just as cheap to eat out, and you don’t have to wash up!
 
3. Shop at the markets instead of the supermarket
We hate shopping at the supermarket.
We shop at the local markets and the price difference is unbelievable. The quality and range of produce is so much better, and it’s a great experience to just wander around the bustling markets. Going towards the end of the day means there are even bigger discounts.
Every bit we save means the more we can do while overseas.
 
4. Stop buying coffee:
Although we haven’t stopped buying coffee out completely, we’ve cut down on it A LOT! Jake buys coffee beans and makes his own, and Em has a ‘keep-cup’ she basically carries at all times. $3.50 here and there might not seem like a lot at the time, but in the long-run it adds up to a huge amount. Making your own drinks saves you so much money, and you don’t miss out.
 
5. Stop buying stuff for the sake of buying stuff:
We don’t buy anything really unless we need it these days. Our “big spending” in the last 6 months has been on plane tickets, immunisations ($280 each for Japanese Encephalitis…ouch!), travel gear, visas and insurance… There’s simply not anything we need, and as our focus is travel, fancy shoes and other things don’t seem as important.
 
6. Go to Free events:
We live in Melbourne, which means there is ALWAYS something on that’s interesting, fun and free.
We still pay to go out to shows and gigs occasionally, but cutting down and choosing to go to a select few means we enjoy and appreciate our outings more. Going to free events means we experience things we might not have otherwise if we weren’t consciously making an effort.
 
7. Have a budget: 
We really are not great savers. We don’t have a weekly budget or put away a specific amount each week… But in saying that, we knew from the beginning, roughly what the bare minimum amount of money was that we could depart Australia with.
From there, we knew how much we had to work towards, and we decided to put away whatever we could each week. We’ve saved a lot more than we were aiming for already, and we’ve still enjoyed luxuries and treats like coffee and concerts along the way!
 
8. Know the Worth of your Dollar:
We know how far one Australian dollar can stretch in the countries we are going to be visiting… And it can stretch a bloody long way. A $5 drink is one or two nights accomodation OR meals for both of us OR transportation to another place OR a fair few beers. Knowing the worth of our dollar makes us realise that even small amounts of money we ‘waste’ can make a real difference to our trip.
 
9. Use what you have:
We have everything we need, really. We haven’t bought new clothes this year – last years clothing is still perfect. We are using to the stuff that has been sitting in the back of our pantry, instead of buying other foods. We use things for longer, and have also started using things we’d put away for a “rainy day.”
 
10. Cut down on alcohol:
We’re not big drinkers in the first place, but buying alcohol in Melbourne bars and pubs can empty your wallet really quickly! We drink very occasionally, and when we do, we usually buy it at a liquor store and take it around to a friends place. It works out so much cheaper and we still have a great evening. Our friends and us also do other things together instead, that don’t involve drinking alcohol. 
 
All these simple things make a bit of a difference to our savings, and combined they have allowed us to save a great deal without compromising on our lifestyle.
 
What we save now, we can enjoy while abroad, and in the end, that’s our main goal.

Drop-Pin Map of Asia

Recently, I’ve started putting together my own version of a drop-pin map of the countries we’re going to visit in Asia.

I saw some coloured cardboard in the news agency a few weeks ago, and some of the colours just stood out and reminded me of Asia…
So I bought them, for nostalgia.
I’ve been looking over so many maps of Asia throughout our trip planning, and I thought it might be a nice idea to make my own – so our family can follow our journey of where we are.
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Tracing and cutting around the fine detail, piecing the different countries together and looking at the shapes laid out on the table left me thinking how incredibly big the world is, but somehow, how small it feels sometimes.
ImageLooking forward to sticking some pins into this!
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Have you ever bought or made a drop-pin map?

A Taste of Asia

It’s probably obvious by now, that we love Asia. We heart it with all our might; especially the people, the cultures and the foods!

I was feeling terrible yesterday; homesick for Asia, and as such, just ‘happened’ to end up at the Asian grocery store in the CBD.

Strolling through the isles, familiar smells filled my nostrils and the sight of some of the products made me feel really nostalgic.
I ended up walking out with just a bottle of ‘Oishi Green Tea’, and felt a lot better instantly. This tea had been a staple for us during or Asia trip, and when I fell violently ill for several days, Oishi was the only thing I could keep down. Ever since, I hae had cravings for it.
That, and Yakkult…

All this nostalgia got me thinking about the miriad of different foods (common and not so common) that we fell in love with while abroad.

…In Laos, ‘Laughing Cow’ cheese, baguettes and fruit shakes fast became ‘the usual’, replaced further North with hawker style foods and lots of rice. Oreos – they were our staple snack throughout Laos; cheap cheap and readily available no matter how remote we were. Larp filled with fresh herbs and sticky rice was a dream dish, and warm Lao bread is a must eat if you happen to stumble across it on a menu! (Hard to find!)…
We had delicious smokey grilled chicken on bamboo skewers, and lots of noodle-y dishes, which always left our stomachs satisfied. Often, we washed down our meals with either a yakkult, a cup of bitter, strong black coffee, or a big Beer Lao.

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…In Thailand, we ate copious amounts of cut fruit, whole pineapples and freshly squeezed pommegranate juices. Yakkult, Bubble Cup and fresh Thai iced coffee/tea were our daily drinks.
Insects were a nice experience, but mango and sticky rice was a real treat. Most of our other meals came from hawker stalls, where we stood eating, surrounded by smoke and BBQ smells.

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…In Cambodia, Em fell inlove with a vegetarian hawker food – spinach, garlic and ginger wrapped in a pummelled rice dough and fried until golden brown, and the inside veggies cooked through. The plump stall owner promised, in broken English, he would be in the same spot each night, but unfortunately, was never to be seen again. Crushing.
We came across fresh sun-dried bananas, fresh banana candies, and fresh BBQ’d banana – all were eaten almost as quickly as they were discovered.
Jake salivated over some salty doughnut thing (really, any sort of doughnut), and we found delicious treats and delacacies and random foods on every street corner and at every second market stall.
We gorged on mounds of fresh Kep crab, and still grind our Kampot-grown (and bought) pepper onto our meals.

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…In Singapore and Malaysia; dahl, roti, naan and teh tarik were readily available, and were a daily feast for us. Nasi Lemnak saw Em devour blue coloured rice, and the pineapple cookies were so delicious!
Chendol and Ice Kechung were savoured treats, with joy in every spoon of the grass jelly and weird beans.
Banana-leaf meals were a real experience, and downtown China Town and Little India let us explore more of what the countries big cities had to offer.

…In Japan, everything we ate was a piece of art and tasted as such; amazing – it’s impossible to say what the best meal there was; there were too many to count!
But, it was those little things – the egg cubes on a stick, the sushi rice triangle-shaped snack things, the interesting flavoured ice creams, conveyor belt sushi and sheets of sea weed that were our ‘go-to snacks.’
Green tea and Royal Milk Tea from a can, hot or cold, were the drinks of choice.
The tempura melted in our mouths, we drooled over the okonomiyaki frying on hotplates infront of us, the takoyaki balls were incredible, and the ramen left us slopping and slurping….

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…Come to think of it, really we have had hardly any mediocre or ‘bad’ meals whilst travelling in Asia. Food was, and is a rich experience for us, and something we really enjoy exploring. It is important to us to see and taste  local flavours and traditions; to eat what the locals eat (within reason – no beating snake hearts for us, thank you). Meals bring people together. Many times, eating and sharing a meal was an unforgettable experience: from simple grilled street food skewers to a Japanese banquet.

We honestly can not wait to see and taste more of the foods of Asia.

We’d love to hear from you: What were your favourite foods and ‘go-to’ snacks, drinks, sweets and meals whilst you were travelling the globe? What foods and drinks would/wouldn’t you reccomend?

Happy eating. 

Em’s Top 10 Picks: 2 Weeks in Japan

Last year in September/October, I spent two glorious weeks in Japan, travelling with my amazing mother.
We arrived into Tokyo with eyes wide open, so excited to embark on the next two weeks of travelling together in this inviting country.

There were a couple of things we noticed instantly about Japan: the friendliness of the people, and the amazing public transportation… these two wonderful characteristics of Japan were constants throughout our short-lived travels there.

Stepping out into the fresh air of Tokyo, it felt spectacular to finally be there. Japan is a country I’ve been dreaming about for many years, and to set foot in it felt similar to coming ‘home.’ This trip had, within a matter of minutes, confirmed that Japan is my ‘spiritual homeland,’ and I was instantly, madly, head over heels in love.

The next two weeks were spent filling every possible minute with new experiences and different places, and my mum and I had such an amazing time travelling together – we can not wait to go back to Japan.

Months on since returning, Japan has never really left my mind. It’s one of those ‘dream countries’ for me, and I know it’s somewhere I’ll return to over and over again
I’m always re-living memories and looking back over photographs of the trip time and time again, and so decided I should do a ‘Top 10 Picks’ about my Japan trip… So, here it goes: Em’s Top 10 Picks: 2 Weeks in Japan!

1. Food! – What more can I say; it’ absolutely takes the number one spot. Everywhere we went, from street vendors and market stalls, to sushi trains, tempura bars and ramen shops, train station bento boxes and stand-and-eat curry shops, food courts and supermarkets… The food was always incredible; served like it was a piece of art. The tempura was melt-in-your-mouth, the Hida Beef steam buns were to-die-for, and salmon and tuna sashimi skewers with soy, lemon and sesame seeds has left me dreaming for more… Food was one of our biggest experiences in Japan – we tried the local specialties wherever we went, and always without ever breaking the budget!

2. The People! – The people in Japan are unforgettable. From locals in the street, commuters on the trains, shop assistants, information assistants, train station assistants… everyone was so helpful. People went out of their way to make sure you were okay. I once asked a lady on the train if this train was going to a certain destination. She got off the train, found a train station attendant, asked him, and then got back on and told us where to go instead, meanwhile, her own train was just about to depart!… I remember another time I dropped my train ticket on the ground, and another commuter way down the carriage saw. He walked all the way down the carriage, picked it up and gave it back to me. I recall thinking “I don’t think this would happen back home.” The politeness of people, and the absolute respect they showed not just to us but to everyone else was astounding. People respected one another – Tokyo station at peak hour, with millions of commuters trying to get home, was a peaceful flow of people, unlike back home with people racing and pushing and darting and cutting-off one another. People watching was a great activity to undertake whilst in Japan; they are inspiring.

3. The Culture! – Japan’s culture is rich, ancient, traditional, modern, new, old, exquisite, an art form, precise, a little bit odd at times but always interesting, and absolutely inspiring. The food, the music, the clothing, the sports, the festivals, the traditions, the way-of-life, the oh-so-mystical geishas, tea ceremonies, sugar cakes, gift giving, comics and characters, neon signs, shopping…and then everything else and more. Impossible to experience it all in just two weeks, but we scratched the surface.

4. Takayama! – Words can not express my love for Takayama. It is simple; you MUST visit this incredible small city, and fall in love with it just as I have. The people, the markets, the river, the preserved lane ways, the food, the shops, the scenery, the guest houses, the strange ice-cream flavours, the Hida beef steam buns, the sarubobo dolls (go there, and you’ll know what I am talking about), the art and crafts, sake brewers, the exquisite chop sticks and hand-made items… I could continue, but it’s making me homesick.

5. Tokyo! – Tokyo is so much fun; it really is a paradise for children and adults alike (and for people like me who are children in adult bodies). The noise, the colour, the hustle and bustle of a busy but gentle city. The trains that take you wherever you want to go, and send you to new and interesting places. You could spend weeks just finding new neighbourhoods and exploring… meeting and watching the locals, the sub-cultures, the groups of girls in strange costumes, and the dogs paraded around in prams, dressed in the latest upmarket fashions…
Go early for the markets, explore local supermarkets, if shopping is your thing visit the many mega malls, or go at night to see a skyline of neon flashing and moving signs…Get lost, explore, eat, listen, see, smile, share… wherever you go, you’ll find history and modern life merging, and it is never ever boring.

6. Kyoto! – Kyoto is famous, of course, and we along with probably every other tourist fell in love. But the highlight for us was found in wandering about with no time-table, no schedule, watching people; tourists and locals. It seemed, for us, you didn’t have to really do much in Kyoto to be surrounded by culture and life, and to be able to enjoy yourself. There is a beauty and magic that can be found wherever you look…
Oh! and those sashimi skewers at Nishiki Market are still making me drool!…

7. Nara! – Who doesn’t love incredible scenery, delicious food, friendly people, and petting deer after deer after deer! I do! I do! Nara is a whole lot of fun, combined with ancient tradition, temples, stone lanterns, culture, religion, beliefs, practices…, yummy food, great guest houses, and a whole lot of cracker-loving deer!!! Nara was a highlight all round, but the walking tour we took gave us insight into temples and religion in Japan that we would’ve otherwise been blind to.
Tip: Get some deer crackers and get snap-happy with your camera!

8. Mt. Koya San! – High up on the mountains, you can instantly feel the spirit of the place deep within. Steeped in ancient tradition and spiritual practice and beliefs, this is a place I highly recommend to anyone. You can stay in temple lodging like most tourists will, and experience amazing vegetarian food, tatami mats, onsens and a 5am wake up call to watch traditional ceremonies taking place. Walk amongst Mt. Koya Sans incredible cemetary, and feel the energy around you. In that sort of incredible environment, it’s hard not to…
Tip: There is a cafe on the main street; a hippie looking Japanese guy makes the best Chai Latte I’ve ever had… we had 4 or 5 – indulgence at its finest, I know, but oh so worth it.

9. Osaka, Dotombori! – Get ready for a feast of Okonomiyaki served to you on a grill, and Takoyaki balls like you’ve never eaten before. A foodies paradise, we did not have enough time here. The people are trendy, the cars are flashy, the hair-styles are high, and the fashion is the latest. The starbucks was never empty, and as the sun set on Dotombori Street, the neon lights and mechanical crabs came alive. People are everywhere, and you can hear the pachinco machines loud and clear as they ring out whenever the doors open. There are dog clothing shops, and you’ll find the weird and whacky. Grab yourself some pumpkin flavoured ice cream, and enjoy your time there into the night…
Tip: If you’re interested, or even if you’re not…head to Osaka Aquarium. Children and Adults (and me, the child-adult) will love the amazing displays. Who can say no to a smiling puffer fish?

10. Public Transport! – It’s pretty much a guarantee that if I’m using public transport at home, I’ll experience delays or cancellations. People graffiti the walls of the train, people are loud, rude, put their feet up, curse and carry on, and are just generally not so considerate of anyone other than themselves. Come to Japan, take a train, and for me, it was like entering a whole new world. Pristine trains that arrive to the second, conductors who bow and take their hat off as they leave each carriage, polite and respectful commuters, and travel that is incredibly fast! Japan trains are like a dream.

What did you love about Japan?