A Palace of Sorts Myanmar: 4.11.2013

Today was literally spent chit chatting with various people; we hadn’t planned it to be that way but that’s what was probably so great about it. I’m sick of planning; it’s so much better when things just happen and fall into place – and they usually do.

Agreeing we’ll do the one day hike and depart tomorrow, we decided we wanted to see lots of Hsipaw town today; first things first, however, we needed a decent coffee from Pontoon Coffee – a little cafe owned by a chatty Aussie lady, Maureen, who serves up the best coffee we’ve had in Asia so far. She was out when we showed up this morning so we enjoyed our coffee and decided to stop by later. Heading back into town, we visited the market and just strolled through the streets looking at everything going on around us.

We ended up back at our new local, Mr. Shake, for lunch where we enjoyed delicious fruit salads and good conversation with a fellow traveller from Belgium. She’d just returned from a two day hike and agreed the one day trek into the villages was probably enough to get a ‘feel’ for the area.

We’d been really interested in visiting the old Shan Palace here in Hsipaw; the home and ‘palace’ of the last Shan Price. The nephew of the last Shan Prince, Donald and his wife Fern, now reside there and welcome tourists at any time of the day to come and see the palace home and hear the story. Between 2002 and 2009 it was off limits and closed to tourists when Donald was arrested and jailed apparently for interacting with foreigners. Donald was eventually released from prison and again their fascinating story is being told to anyone who wants to know more about it.

Walking out to the Palace, we passed by Pontoon Coffee and thought we’d just stop by again and see if Maureen was around. We were interested in having a chat with her and she was happy to sit out in the sunshine with us for what turned into more than a few hours!

Late afternoon we finally continued on our way up to the Shan Palace – the walk there was short but beautiful and little children and monks pointed us in the right direction as we walked along the dirt track and through the greenery and villages. This place is beautiful.

When we arrived at the Shan Palace the entrance gate was closed; seeing as we’d only read online that it was open to tourists now (the guidebook says it’s completely off limits!) I wasn’t sure if we should just open it and walk on down the path. However, Fern must’ve realised we were there and walked down the path to greet us so warmly. She gave us a brief introduction and welcomed us to walk around the grounds for a while; a few other tourists joined us and soon there was a large group. We were welcomed into the front room of the palace (which is really more like a large, historic Brittish home, rather than a palace) and we were given a wonderful introduction into her family history and their story.
The palace is home to a fascinating history as well as generations of royalty. The story is amazing, shocking, saddening and interesting. We sat for a while and talked, Fern answered any questions and we gave a small donation at the end of our visit. It was an absolutely worth while trip out to the palace and a memorable afternoon.

Leaving the palace, we were planning on heading to Mrs. Popcorn’s Garden – a large, beautiful and chilled-out garden owned by an elderly lady who apparently makes beautiful organic foods and drinks – but I was feeling a little off, so we decided to just go back to the guest house. By the time we’d walked the 20 minutes back into town I was feeling worse, and unfortunately the rest of my evening was spent vomiting into a bin and watching My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Classy…

Yes, finally, more than four months and 6 countries into our travels, I had been struck down.

We asked if we could move to another room with a private bathroom and thankfully they had a comfortable double room with a bathroom right next door to our current room – Jake was able to just move all our belongings (which we’d naturally spread all over the room) next door whilst I lay on the bed feeling sorry for myself.
We’d been planning on booking our trek for tomorrow, but I guess that won’t be happening now which is really disappointing; tomorrow was our last opportunity really to take the day trek as we’re leaving the following day.

On the bright side, I guess, if I have to get sick anywhere, Hsipaw is a lovely place to slow down in for a few days…

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The Myanmar I’d been waiting for: 3.11.2013

Our train to Hsipaw was due to depart at 8:30am this morning, so naturally, it arrived in Pyin Oo Lwin well after 9am. Classic “Myanmar time” – I love it.

It meant we were able to take an unexpected stroll through the little local market right next to the station where produce and street foods were being made and sold. I bought myself a little bag of sticky rice for the journey and gushed over a tiny puppy asleep in a wood pile.

The train station with its quaint single platform was dotted with just a few tourists and several locals; I enjoyed ‘people watching’ as the locals travelled both by motorbike and by foot, carrying all sorts of goods and bits and pieces slowly over and across the railway track, uncaring that the train was due in any minute. The tea stall out the back of the station was busy – packed with people filling up on noodle soups, samosas, a myriad of other deep fried things and tea served with frightening amounts of condensed milk. The occasional woman with a large plate of food balanced perfectly upon her head would wander through the crowds of waiting passengers and along the platform, occasionally setting down her goods and packing little plastic bags full of hot fried noodles, vegetables, rices, curries and a range of unidentifiable foods for customers – along with two bamboo skewers to be used as chop sticks. Myanmar’s version of take away.

Eventually our train rolled into the station and casually everyone moved about whilst people got off, people got on, more food vendors arrived and began making their way up and down the platform, goods were unpacked as well as carted onto the train – lots of bags of cabbages included – and the little portly station master tried to work out where all the tourists in our single “upper class carriage” were meant to sit, even though minutes earlier he’d assigned us all seats on hand-written tickets. He clambered aboard after yelling through the window from the platform, wrote down our seat numbers in pen in a little book, shuffled off, then came back and scribbled out the original, adjusting it so we got a “better view seat.” Nice one Mr. Train Man.

As food vendors moved about, people continued to fluff about buying and selling and eating and sitting and not really doing an awful lot too quickly; it didn’t seem like anyone was too fussed about timings so the pace was relaxed and the people mulling about were disorganised in the most organised sort of way. Somehow, it all works out and I had time to get myself a bag of take away tea for the journey.
Eventually the train blew its whistle and people finally took their seats; the train began to roll out of the station at a walking pace and we sat back in our newly assigned “upper class” seats.

We’d been told that the train journey to Hispaw would take between 4 and 11 hours for the 200km journey. Yes, that’s no typo: between 4 and 11 hours. Preparing for a long ride, we sat back and watched as some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen rolled past our open window at a walking speed. This train is known to be one of the 50 “must-do” train rides in the world. It is also known to be painstakingly slow; at times we were moving at a speed slower than what we probably could’ve walked, but it didn’t matter. It was a wonderful, beautiful and sometimes strange experience.

Most of our time on this ancient train was spent rattling around in our upholstered upper class seats; as our carriage shook and jerked along the tracks we were frequently thrown into the air. Bouncing around, we watched as our carriage jolted and shook, swaying at scary angles as we rolled noisily along the tracks. Maybe this train ride is not for the feint hearted and I tried to ignore the fact that it was only days ago that a train travelling a similar route here in Myanmar had derailed… I could understand how that may have happened as I watched people being thrown about. Still, all in good fun.

I had been momentarily disappointed in myself this morning when I chose the upper class seating option over the ordinary class seat (which was $3 cheaper), thinking I would maybe miss out on the whole “experience…” However, I was grateful to have my own cushioned seat during those moments when my ass parted from the seat and was thrown back down with each bump. Peering into ordinary class, the overcrowded wooden seats, the people sleeping on mats in the isle and the several bags of cabbage rolling about looked interesting – sure, but not for me. Not right now.

At one point I had to use the in-train lavatory and spent a good few minutes holding my breath and my balance whilst squatting over the foul smelling toilet, pissing zig zags and being violently thrown about as the train continued to roll at it’s own special pace.

At each station the train would halt and spend anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes there; the same buzz of people hopping on and off, food vendors with exceptionally good balancing skills would move up and down the platform, people would load and unload more goods and there was always something interesting to see. I liked getting down and watching the flow of people and bought myself some delicious noodle salad for lunch from one of the balancing acts. Sitting back on the train with my little take away bag of deliciousness, I tried not to stab myself in the face with my chop-stick skewers; the bounding, shaking, rattling and jerking made it difficult.

After a nap during the heat of the day, I woke to cool breeze blowing in through the open windows, along with too many little bits of foliage and the occasional strange looking insect. I had no idea where we were or how far away Hsipaw was but that was not important; we were really enjoying the journey.

Mid afternoon Mr. Train Man told us we were ten minutes away from Hsipaw; around 30 minutes or so later, we arrived. We were excited as we rolled into the platform – Hsipaw has been a place we’ve been really looking forward to; it sounds so beautiful and relaxing from what we’ve read and we’re looking forward to doing a hike and exploring in the surrounding areas, as well as checking out what this little town has to offer. When a young boy from Nam Khae Mao Guest house – the guest house we’d been intending to check out on arrival – popped his head up next to our window and offered us a room at a very cheap price, we immediately agreed and were carted into a tuk tuk with a group of other tourists and taken straight to our new home for the next few days. $12 a night (our cheapest accommodation in Myanmar by far) bought us a great room (Myanmar standards) with a shared bathroom, hot water, wifi and really friendly staff. We were in a great location too, looking out over the lovely historic clock tower – complete with a flashing electronic neon sign. Welcome to Hsipaw.

It was already after 4pm by the time we checked in and we were so excited to see the town. We considered briefly walking up the nearby hill to see the sun set but instead decided to head straight into town and explore. We have a few days here to do all the things we want to do. We were too late for the central market – it had just closed, and “Mr. Book”, the book stall guy was not around when we tried to visit his stall, but we did find a very cute toothless elderly man selling delicious chicken and sweet bean steam buns, a road side street food stall selling delicious grilled rice cake with palm sugar and sesame seeds, more little deep fried something-a-rathers and the very touristy “Mr. Shake” juice bar, where Mr. Shake and his wife served up incredibly fresh juices and lassis for a ridiculously cheap price.

We ended up sitting out the front of Mr. Shake until late – an Aussie guy showed up not long after us and we spent a couple of hours chatting and being reminded of how awesome the Australian style of speaking is. We’ve missed it and we didn’t even realise. On a recommendation from the Aussie guy, we ended up at “Mr. Food” for dinner (do you see a trend starting to appear in this town…?) where the same guy we’d met in the tuk tuk on our way to the guest house here was eating alone; we joined him for dinner and learned he was Matt from England.

Late evening we headed back to our guest house and planned a full day for tomorrow; we were trying to decide if we should do the one or the two day hike into the nearby villages and furthermore, if we should leave tomorrow or the next day… We’re still undecided about that, but one thing is for sure; Hsipaw is already a winner – it’s the Myanmar I’d been waiting for and I already adore this quaint, dusty, friendly little town.

Myanmar Eats: 1 – 2.11.2013

Our share taxi arrived on time this morning – and by on time, I mean on Myanmar time – just half an hour or so later than organised. Nice! Earlier than we’d been expecting!

I’d been trying to work out exactly what a “share taxi” would involve – it always seems to differ in every Asian country and after seeing so many different types of rust-buckets and packed full of people transportation zipping about on the roads, I was apprehensive. Jacob was betting on a mini-van, I was betting on a more pick-up truck style vehicle. Turns out, a share taxi is just a normal rusty shell of a car packed full of parcels to be delivered along the way to the final destination – which in our case, is Pyin Oo Lwin.

Our driver packed both Jacob and I, our backpacks, a heap of golf clubs, a few large boxes, two Burmese women and their belongings and a few more parcels into the tiny hatchback before lead-footing it for an entire two hours up massive hills, around hair-pin bend and tight curves and over taking anyone and every vehicle within sight.

We stopped twice (besides the several times the driver parked, leaving the car running, to deliver a parcel): once when the engine got too hot and our driver had to hose it down and again to get petrol. The petrol station was very oddly more like a small party – about twenty or thirty staff in blue tee-shirts and bare feet stood around just chatting and waiting for a car to re-fuel, music pumping in the background to keep them entertained. When we arrived, they all went wild for these two whities jammed into the back of the car, faces almost smeared against the window glass. Whilst our car was re-fuelled, five or ten people stood outside our car door smiling the BIGGEST smiles at us and laughing uncontrollably whenever one of them tried to speak English with us. All we could do was laugh and smile back. Momentarily one of the smiling women left, returning with about fifteen cups of raspberry cordial for us to drink. We took two. We told them we were going to Pyin Oo Lwin and they started hand gesturing a “shivering” motion, explaining to us it would be very cold. I wondered what the Burmese considered to be “very cold…”
Once our car was filled with fuel and ready to roar again, we waved goodbye to several massive smiles and sipped on our cordial as our driver put his lead foot back down.

The drive was wonderful though, beautiful scenery and pretty quick – just a couple of hours and we were absolutely a world away from hectic Mandalay. On arrival, we dumped our bags at our very fancy guest house and headed out to explore the town…

Pyin Oo Lwin was colonised by the British way back in the day and the old weathered buildings and Purcel Clock Tower (the wanna-be Big Ben of Myanmar) had a distinctly British look and feel – a charm that certainly seems to exist throughout this cute, welcoming, dusty town.
We admired the surroundings as we strolled up the main street looking for a place to get some local food for lunch. We discovered what we thought was a local place and had some average noodles there – later we realised what a touristic eatery this actually was. Jacob spied a local curd shop – he’s got a nose for this sort of thing now – and we ended up there sipping thick yoghurt through curly straws, watching the locals around us and the interesting street scenes continually unfolding. Horse drawn carts with wooden Cindarella-style coaches (although not as glamourous – think weathered wooden boxes, filthier, tackier and with sick looking horses) trotted past and locals roasted peanuts by the side of the road. Men huddled around betel nut stands, buying leaves and spitting massive glugs of burgundy goo onto the road and pavement. Women could be seen in their shop fronts, knitting hats and jumpers whilst waiting for their next customer. Children were playing, tea shops were busy, the air was fresh(ish) and it felt really nice to be here.

We took a stroll through the big Central Market area – it was filled with all sorts of goods and bits and pieces. There was cooking items, house hold items, clothing, shoes, underwear, food items and lots of knit wear that was oddly enough, exactly the same at every shop – besides one lady we found who was crocheting gorgeous little beanies. Moving away from this area of the market, we found ourselves out in the open-air produce market where all sorts of fresh foods were being sold. Deep fried insects, scary meats, unidentifiable items and lots of beautifully coloured fruits and vegetables dotted the ground and small tables. Women were fanning fresh fish that were displayed in metal bowls under the heat of the sun, right next to whole dead chickens, fried birds and little quail eggs. I think I’ve said it before, but I adore these types of wet Asian markets, and I never tire of looking through them; there is always something new to find that we didn’t see the last time we looked..

People were smiling at us, babies were being taught to wave and blow kisses and smiled when they saw us, the women kept telling me I was beautiful and pointing to my skin… People here were friendly and no one was touting or trying to sell us anything. It felt like a place where we would be really able to experience the local life style in an honest, non-touristic manner.

Evening time and we were hungry for some street food. We heard there was a night market here that sold “Myanmar snacks” but what we found was an entire street filled with tents and plastic chairs, metal tables and wonderful smells. Smoke and steam was rising from the hundreds of hot pots, woks, stove tops, barbeques, grill plates, coal fires and steel pots at every different street stall. Men and women and children were all busy – either cooking or eating – everyone seemed to be there. There was so much to choose from, so many different foods being cooked and prepared, boiled, chopped, fried and stirred. The organs and pig heads being cut into bite size pieces with house-hold scissors may have been immediately scrapped from our list of choices, but the vegetarian options were in abundance and there was certainly no threat of going hungry. We strolled by each stall looking and choosing what we might want to try. We ended up at a little noodle tent, slurping Shan Noodles and enjoying being amongst it all. Moving on, we found a place that was jam packed with people and with a queue forming for take away. The staff were under the pump and we decided this was the place to be. We enjoyed a clay pot of steamed vegetables, tofu and various noodles mixed with chilli and other spices and sauces. $1.50 bought us an incredible dinner; one of the highlight meals of this entire trip to date, and we were definitely coming back tomorrow night.

Taking advantage of the fast internet back at our hotel, our evening was spent watching one of my favourite movies of all time and drinking hot 3-in-1 milo. A tiny bit of normality for us; it felt a bit like home.

I really like this place, it’s quiet and calm and slower paced – I’m not missing the overwhelming honking and pollution that we found in Mandalay and Yangon. However, we’ve found this ‘quieter’ pace to be the case since arriving in Myanmar and it’s been olldy enough a little difficult for us to adjust to.
Maybe we were expecting something completely different? Although, I don’t actually know what we were expecting – or if we had any specific expectations at all.
It’s certainly a country I want to know more about, but at the same time, I wonder if it’s possible for tourists to get a real insight into what’s been happening and what is currently happening. We feel very much like outsiders – very much tourists – with no way of getting closer to the locals.
Furthermore, our budget is quite limiting – due to such high accommodation costs we can afford little more than accommodation, some transport and food/drink each day for about $50 – 55 (a lot more than the $35 we’d planned on spending). I guess Mandalay, for example, could’ve been completely different for us had we been able to afford more.

I’m hoping that as we move away from the big cities – now in Pyin Oo Lwin and into Hsipaw and Inle Lake – we’ll be more mesmerised and captivated by this country. We feel it has a lot of noticeable similarities to other countries we’ve visited – we keep being reminded of Laos and Thailand – and we hope Myanmar offers us something wildly different and makes us fall in love with her. No doubt there is immense beauty and a fascinating culture and history to be discovered here if we take the time to find them.
I think maybe I had this picture of what Myanmar would be and besides the temples of Bagan, I haven’t quite found it yet…

Our second day in Pyin Oo Lwin turned out to be pretty awesome and left us feeling way more motivated and back in “travel mode” than the previous day (and this morning).

We ended up organising a tuk tuk to take us out to the starting point of the Ani Sakan Waterfall hike early this morning; whilst we knew it would be spectactular and feeling as though “we should absolutely go,”  for some reason we were feeling unmotivated. I guess, as I’ve learned during this trip, “the scariest moment is just before it starts” – aka, “the hardest part is getting out the door.”  As soon as we jumped into the back of the rust bucket open-air tuk tuk and began hurtling down the bumpy, dusty roads, we were loving it. The cool breeze was beautiful against our faces and we enjoyed watching life whizz past us – often in the form of men hanging out of or clinging onto the side of pick up trucks whilst they waved and called out to us.

Arriving at the start of the short trek, we grabbed a couple of chewy lychee drinks and set off downhill. Instantly a group of very young Burmese girls began following us without saying a word and expected payment to walk with us down to the falls and back. I wished they were at school instead. We declined their service and continued down the path that almost instantly became steep and windy and continued that way for the next 40 minutes or so as we made our way down, down, down. The path was steep and often muddy or covered in loose stones and rocks. Images of my ass getting covered in mud from a potential (hilarious) slip often crossed my mind…
The scenery was breath taking and we often paused to marvel at the sheer cliff faces, forest, waterfalls and mountainous backdrop before us.

By the time we reached the bottom we could hear the massive falls so close and see the mist rising through the forest. The track turned to watery mud and we inched our way closer, trying even harder not to slip. When we made it up a small muddy incline the falls came into view: roaring and massive, they fell from a huge height and the mist almost instantly covered us in a fine layer of water. So refreshing.

Climbing down from the falls we passed smiling monks who greeted us with “mingalaba” and laughed as we all slid around in the mud and slush beneath our feet. The only difference was we were kitted out in hiking boots and they were barefoot. I think we were at more risk of slipping.

Downhill had been “easy” in comparison to going uphill and it took us just over 50 minutes to climb the steep incline and arrive back at our starting point; puffed out, we were happy to get back into the tuk tuk and ride through the cool breeze. I love sitting in these open air tuk tuks watching the scenery and the life going by. Firstly, the scenery is beautiful and secondly, there is always someone hanging out of their car/truck/van/tuk-tuk/pick up/motorbike/bicycle waving and smiling and laughing at us foreigners. At one point a man on a motorbike drove past carrying hundreds of dead chickens all hanging off the back. Oh Asia…

Back in Pyin Oo Lwin, we took another stroll through the streets and found ourselves back at the “night market” which, at 3pm…wasn’t so night-y. It was never the less full of street food stalls with smoking woks and boiling pots, cooking smells wafting and people everywhere eating and cooking and sitting at metal tables on TINY plastic chairs under tents. People were hard at work – and then there were those hard at eating. Last night it had been a bit dark and overwhelming when we came here and we’d chosen the sorts of meals we knew were ‘safe’. Today that was not happening – we wanted to try everything these little Myanmar food stalls had to offer. Most snacks and meals cost us between 100 – 300 kyat, (10 – 30 cents) which meant that we could hop from vendor to vendor, try every new delicious food, end up extremely full and with only the equivalent of .80c less in our wallet.
We had noodle soups, deep fried tofu, grilled fruits, rice paper pancakes, takoyaki-type rice balls, coconutty things, vegetable bits, salads, some sort of nut thing…

We returned late that night to the night market for another snack (or five) and the best cup of Burmese milk tea we’ve had. It amazed me that this night market was absolutely tourist-free, the three times we have visited this central place in the past two days we’ve not seen one other tourist – and there are a lot of tourists here. The Chinese restaurant down the road, however, seemed to be brimming with them. I wonder how much longer this market will remain a local-only type of place, souvenir and tout-free.

Back at our room we followed our standard ‘the night before we leave this place’ routine: we acknowledged we needed to pack our cases, we procrastinated for a good hour (or three) and then finally – way too late at night to have the energy or motivation to do so – we got our things together and packed our packs.

After today’s little trekking adventure and the joyous experience of trying new things and eating with all the locals, I feel my excitement about travel and being here in Myanmar start to heighten a lot more; I feel so much more motivated and excited to be here than I was feeling when we were in the big cities.
Tomorrow we’re taking the scenic train from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw. I think the distance is something like 200km and takes around… oh, you know, between 4 and 11 hours by train! It’s been described as one of the 50 “must-do” train travel routes in the world, but also, as being “painfully slow.” I’m a little apprehensive about what a train trip involves in Myanmar, but at the same time I of course want to experience it. If it’s anything like some of the scenery we’ve seen else where in Asia, no doubt it will be stunningly beautiful… if it’s anything like the crowded, jam packed trains we’ve seen else where in Asia, 4 – 11 hours may end up feeling a lot longer. We shall see.

From what I have read, Hsipaw is a pretty magnificent place and I am looking forward to getting there and seeing what’s on offer. It sounds like a place you can really start to ‘feel’ and take your time in – I love those sorts of places. I much prefer to travel and just get a feel for a place rather than hop from tourist attraction to tourist attraction, so Hsipaw sounds like it will  be perfect…

For now, Pyin Oo Lwin – you’ve been pretty great.

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?

Our Top 10 Picks: Reasons to Travel

Hard to believe it’s already March – I thought Christmas was just last week…? At least, it sure felt that way!
12 months ago today, we arrived back in Australia after backpacking in S.E. Asia for just 6 short, but 6 incredible weeks. Ever since then we’ve been dreaming of, and talking about “our next big trip.” We’re obsessed; we love to travel. Why?… here are our Top 10 Picks for ‘Our Reasons for Travel:’

1. Culture! – We’re culture buffs, and we love to get in amongst the local culture, traditions and customs. We love learning about different cultures and the way of life for people in different countries. Asia is so exciting in this respect – there is so much to learn and discover, and to appreciate and admire when it comes to learning about and experiencing culture. We love to simply ‘people watch’ – it gives incredible insight into the day-to-day lives of people, and it teaches us something.

2. Food! – We are wanna-be Asian chefs; anyone who looks at the cookbooks in our bookshelf, the ‘Asian Food’ section in our pantry, or at Jake’s ever-growing herb garden, will quickly realise this. We LOVE Asian food – the herbs and spices, the sauces and aromas, the cooking methods, the foreign looking vegetables and other things we probably aren’t pronouncing correctly, but add to our dishes anyway…
We love to eat where the locals do, sample hawker foods, participate in cooking classes, and eat the local specialties. We’re food obsessed; we feel it’s a big part of experiencing a country’s culture and way of life, and it’s really important to us that we try (almost everything…) when given the opportunity.

3. New Perspectives! When we first travelled to Asia, both of us grossly underestimated how life-changing it would, and can be. But of course it’s not just in Asia – travel anywhere has the ability to give people a new perspective; ‘open your eyes’ so to speak. It isn’t until we experience situations, or witness events that alter us, and affect us in some way, that our perspective is changed; and usually, this is a really positive experience!

4. Learning Experiences! – How much have we learned from travelling? So much; and what we have learned is invaluable; it’s not stuff you can read in text books, or learn in lecture theatres. A lot of the time, it’s not things you can learn by being told by someone else. It’s the people you meet and the things you do yourself, experience yourself, witness yourself, and achieve yourself, that teach you. It’s those life experiences that you learn from, that hold you in good stead for the rest of your life.

5. New Experiences! – Cliche? Yes, but oh so true. How often in your life can you watch the sun rise over ancient temples, or eat heart stew and rice at a local’s house in Laos? It’s not that often I’ve been able to dance with the Khmers on the river banks of Phnom Penh, or that Jake has got to drink beer with his tuk-tuk driver and their extended family. We’ve seen down pours of rain that have caused Phnom Penh flood in a matter of minutes, and  ran through the streets of Bangkok with water up to our thighs. We’ve eaten street food that was incredible, and street food that made us sick. We’ve watched monk processions, and lit incense at memorials.
Whatever we’ve done, we’ve tried to make the most of it, appreciate it, and remember the experience for what it was.

6. Meeting New People and Making New Friends! – We are social people. We love meeting new people; be it new friends for the evening, the week, the month, or for life. We love talking with the locals, communicating (or trying to) with silly faces and exaggerated hand gestures. Bartering over the price of fruit at the wet markets, or chatting over a beer with our new” house mates” in our dorm rooms. People are so interesting, and the more you talk to them, the more you learn about them, yourself, and the world. We’re going travelling together, but we’re also going with many, many friends… we just haven’t met them yet!

7. Adventure! – We love a good thrill.  We (usually) don’t mind getting a bit lost in a maze of little alley ways and old town squares, as long as there are interesting people to watch, beautiful buildings to be seen, and interesting sights on display. Be it zip lining through the tree tops, or getting caught in the masses at a local bazar, we can’t wait for new and exciting adventures.

8. History and Architecture! – We love to learn about the history of the countries we are travelling in, and marvel at the architecture. When we learn more about the history of the place we are in, we feel we can better appreciate where it has come from and where it is now. Not only do we gain insight into the country, but also about its culture, food, way of life, it’s people, beliefs, and – about the architecture!

9. Challenges! – Travel challenges you; physically, emotionally and mentally. You are often pushed to your limits or put into uncomfortable, awkward or challenging situations. These can be character building and help you to grow as a person. In the past, being pushed to our limits travelling has had some incredible positives, and been the base for some amazing experiences! We like challenges! (Most of the time!)

10. Facing Fears! – There are things we’ve done while traveling that have scared us. And then we got through them. It all comes back to learning experiences, and facing your fears and coming out the other side, better than you were before. (You hope!) There are things about our upcoming trip that scare us, but maybe it’s because we’re frightened of the unknown. Stepping out of your comfort zone can be really rewarding, and that is exciting.

What are your reasons for travel?

Happy travels.