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!

Our Top 10 Picks for Thailand, Cambodia and Laos

We packed a lot into six weeks and three countries; Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Barely touching the surface of Thailand, we spent just four days in bustling Bangkok before heading to Vientiane, the beautiful, weathered capital city of Laos. After 2 and a half or so weeks in Laos, we ended up in Siem Reap, Cambodia, where we frolicked amongst temples from sun rise to sun set. Another 2 and a half or so weeks in Cambodia, and it was time to leave for Australia, while still feeling as if we had only barely scratched the surface of our Asian adventure…which is true, really. During those 6 weeks, however, we did more than we might’ve done all year back ‘home’…

We met so many people; travellers and locals, and shared memories we’ll hold with us forever. Our lives and perspectives were changed, and we learned so much about not only the countries and their histories, but of their people, cultures, religions, superstitions, beliefs, and ways of life. We learned about each other, and we learned about ourselves. Sometimes we laughed, sometimes we cried…or laughed until we cried! We danced and sang, smiled and frowned. There were things that shocked us to our core, things that stopped us in our tracks, and things that bought us closer together; things that made us fall in love with the world, and things that made us feel ashamed. We made friends and made memories, and fell madly, deeply, completely in love with Asia. Asia grounded us, she pushed us to our limits frequently, she gave us perspective, and taught us lessons we can take with us for the rest of our lives. Asia also gave us the time of our lives…

So, after so much thought and deliberation, a million good memories, and hours of pouring through photographs of our trip, here are our Top 10 South East Asian Picks: Part One (There will be a part two… and probably three… maybe four.)

1. Kuang Si Falls, Luang Prabang, Laos! As hard as it is to pick a winner, Kuang Si Falls has to take the spot. A highlight; awesome tuk-tuk ride there, sweltering heat, amazing hike UP the side of the falls, over the falls, and DOWN the other side… then a cool dip in the crystal blue fall pools. One of the most amazing times in our lives. We would recommend it to anyone, however, the hike up over and down the falls is very steep and slippery and there is little to hang on to. It’s also not the easiest of hikes/climbs but SO worth it.

2. Bike Riding Tours! We did them in Bangkok – Thailand, Vientiane – Laos, Battambang – Cambodia, and Phnom Penh – Cambodia. We thoroughly recommend them to people of all ages and abilities! Grasshopper Adventures is a fantastic company, as well as Soksabike tours – both companies were so well run and real highlights, and they also look after the locals, which was important to us!
We also hired bikes in a few different places; it was always really cheap and a fantastic way to get around! Just be careful of the sometimes chaotic traffic!

3. Temple Hopping! From Angkor Wat to Ta Prohm, Bayon Temple and Pre Rup, Banteay Srei, we tuk-tuked and hopped around, over, in, through, and under historic temples and stone carvings and marvelled as we saw the sun rise, the sun set, and the colours change over these incredible temples. They took our breath away countless times.

4. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S21) and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia! Not a place we ‘loved’ going to, but a place we needed to go to. It’s haunting, gut wrenching, and I was on the verge of tears, if not crying, most of the time while I was there. But I learned so much, and when I left these two places, I stepped out into the sunlight and saw smiling Cambodians. This is a country rising from sheer torment and torture, with a new attitude and way of life. They are inspiring people and gave us perspective, and the saddening visit to these two memorials was something we had to do, and are glad we did.

5. Luang Prabang, Laos! What an awesome place! It’s got everything you want and need. Amazing temples, pagodas and stupas, bike friendly, beautiful river scenery, a fantastic night market and masses of interesting street foods, a relaxed chilled-out atmosphere, a cool morning market, friendly people, interesting architecture, and lots to see and do! How we wish we could go back there…right now!

6. Cooking Schools! Yep – we donned the daggy looking aprons and got cooking in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia! You’ve got to do it; be brave and add that extra birds eye extra spicy chilli, explore those markets and try those very foreign looking herbs, fruits and vegetables! It’s amazing, and even if you don’t cook them back home, it’s so much fun, a great way to meet other people and it tastes so good!

7. Kampot, Cambodia! What a cool, dusty little town to spend some down time in. Find a cool guest house, wander the streets, hire a bike, take a trip on a tuk-tuk to Kep, eat some good food, wander along the river bank, buy some little hand made treasures from a local craftsperson, eat some feel good food for a good cause, and take a tour to see and eat the famous and amazing KAMPOT Pepper!!! So delicious! We’ve still got it in our pepper grinders!

8. ‘Phare Ponleu Selpak’ Circus, Battambang, Cambodia! – A school of performing and visual arts for anyone who wants to attend. These kids are off the streets and working and studying hard, and their talent is incredible! Look at the visual art on display, look at the school, and make sure you do not miss the circus! An absolute highlight of our trip, Battambang was an amazing place…and then we went to the circus. Can’t wait to go there again and see what these incredibly talented kids have to show off!

9. Plain of Jars, Phonsavan! We did a day tour here, to see the Plain of Jars as well as local villages, bombed fields (with live cluster bombs still sitting in the ground!!) and a waterfall trek. The whole day was amazing, run through the guest house we stayed at. Plain of Jars is a must see! Amazing to ponder what they were used for, why there were there, and how they got there…It was also just as amazing to see the landscape of a country once, and still littered with bomb craters and bombs. It’s shocking, confronting, and opened our eyes.

10. Zip Lining at Tad Sae Waterfall, Luang Prabang, Laos! So much fun, but not for those afraid of heights! A trek UP and UP and UP will find you in the tree tops high above the group. You get clipped in, you pull back, you hold on at first, take your feet off the ground and scream with delight as you literally zip through the tree tops, over rain forest and waterfalls. Amazing, and SO much fun.

It was SO hard to limit it to only 10 (and in some cases, we’ve disguised a number of things under the one heading) because we just had the time of our lives, but hopefully this offers you some insight into the best experiences we had abroad in Asia…
Do you have any to add to the list?

Incredible, Exciting, Overwhelming, Terrifying India

India.

It’s a place I often try to imagine, but I doubt very much my imagination will prepare me for what India will throw at us in reality.

The thought of India is overwhelming for me – so much comes to mind. Where do I start?

India seems tantalising on every sensory level. It’s enticing and repulsive at the same time, and just so endlessly fascinating for me… I imagine exotic markets and bazars selling everything and anything, goats and cows wandering through busy alleyways, pots of spices, noise and beeping horns, lethal traffic and jaw-droppin architecture, bare feet and sweating skin, the smell of foods, spices and chai mixes with offensive and pungent scents, smoke and insence, light, smells, and oh so much colour…

India does so much for me, without even so much as stepping into the country. It feeds my thoughts with colour and light and life and sound, and it fills my nostrils with scents and smells; burning insence and the smells of smoke, curry and chillies. It delights my tastebuds with new culinary discoveries, and sets my mouth on fire with spices. It surrounds me with millions of people, and takes my breath away with its beauty and spirituality. It humbles me and challenges my perspectives, and it changes my view of the world…

It also terrifies me.

The idea of travelling in India is overwhelmingly frightening. With all that colour and light, people and smiles, beauty and grace, sounds and smells…there is an unknown that scares me.

I worry about our travels there; our safety and our health…I worry about our security, transport, and how we can keep our health Dheli-belly free…

We plan on being in India for three months; almost half of our travels will be in the one country. We want to see as much as we can – see the diversity of the land, and what each part has to offer. We want to see the different natural landscapes, and taste the different styles of food in the South and the North. We want to experience the different weather conditions, the different people, the cities and the towns… We want to experience India; not just tourist India, but real India.

Jake and I are scared about India, yes; no doubts. But also so unbelievably excited. We look forward to everything; this whole new world – the good, the not so good, the challenges, and sometimes…even the frightening. We’ll go with open minds and open hearts, and hopefully leave with them full. I guess thats what travel is about… and why I love it so much.

We’re not quite ready yet, but with a little bit of planning and more research, I think we’ll be almost as ready as you can be for India…

And if not… then at least we’ve got 3 weeks in Sri Lanka before hand to ‘warm us up.’

What are your thoughts on India?