Returning to Thailand

After a flight from Yangon to Bangkok, it was time to spend a bit more time in Thailand, as I’d only had a few days in Chiang Mai, and a day or two in Bangkok. A trip to see the Bridge over the River Kwai was a great thing to see although it took a bit of time to get there. A train ride over the “Death Railway” was incredible, if I am able to use that word appropriately. The amount of suffering by the POWs who had to help to construct the railway was horrible. After visiting a local museum where the living and working conditions were shown to be brutal, it was understandable why so many people had such a hard time here. A friend was meant to come with me, but was stuck in Hong Kong where there had been a fierce typhoon, so she stayed there for another day until the weather cleared. The airline then misplaced her luggage, so she arrived in Bangkok and her suitcase hadn’t left Hong Kong yet. Thankfully it got delievered a few hours before our flight to Koh Samui, otherwise it would have been a bit more of a hassle. 

The first day on the islands was getting the flight to Koh Samui, and then the ferry to Koh Phangan. A nice relaxing afternoon on Thong Nai Pan Yai beach was welcome. It was peaceful and was meant more for families. Both of us were exhausted after having a few early mornings. We spent the next day relaxing and having a wander around. I have to admit that I got my first bout of proper sunburn at this point even in the semi-shade.The following day we did a snorkelling trip to Koh Tao and saw lots of lovely fish. The speed boat was very bumpy, but fun. I felt as though I wobbled off it when I got back to shore.​​Getting a ferry back to Samui the next day was good, although I left my Vietnamese hat on a minibus en route. I had been carrying it round for a good month or so since leaving Vietnam so was a bit annoyed, even if it was a bit battered. In Samui, we stayed on a more touristy beach – Chaweng Beach – although at the quieter end in a nice little boutique hotel with a pool.A day trip on a jeep exploring the islands was fun – a lot of dirt tracks and good scenery. We sat on the top of the jeep for a bit which was fun and got thrown about (deliberately, of course!).​​The last day was spent relaxing with a massage overlooking the beach. Even if you ask for one type of massage, you typically always get a Thai one where you’re bent about a lot. There was a lot of back cracking, and it was a bit tricky as I am not the most flexible of people, so bending in certain ways is unpleasant. Anyway, I felt a lot better after it. I was nice to walk up and down the beach. I definitely felt the ‘party’ atmosphere closer to the more tourist centered section. If I had been perhaps 5 years younger, I probably wouldn’t have minded, although I did feel quite old. An afternoon reading and nursing the sunburn finished the islands trip.An early flight the next day returned us to Bangkok where I would spend my final day on my own. The week went very quickly, but I think it was just about enough time to do things without getting too bored. I am not the sort of person who can go away and relax on a beach the whole time for a holiday, but having the odd morning or afternoon to read or catch up with friends or life was good. It definitely made me realise how exhausted I had become. A final day in Bangkok was spent without any rushing around or a massive amount of travel – I felt quite lost! An attempt to get into the Sky Bar was ruined by the fact I wasn’t in smart/casual attire. Apparently, a t-shirt and shorts aren’t appropriate. Oh well! A little tuk tuk took me to Chinatown where I found a rooftop bar on top of a hotel where I got a good view of the sunset with a G&T in hand – shame it was Beefeeters though! 

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Popping into Myanmar

From Chiang Mai it was time to head to the border crossing at Mae Sai and head to Keng Tung. The scenery was amazing, especially when the sun was setting. A bit of a walk and a visit to a local village where a small community lived was great but hot and sticky. The village was up a hill, so it was a good bit of exercise after so much sitting around on transport. The community have their own calendar, but don’t know how old they are – a different form of time keeping! The people were very friendly. The ladies kept on trying to sell their goods with a nice smile which sometimes revealed black teeth. This was down to many years of chewing the black betel juice from the leaves which is a local form of dental protection. The ladies also wore what looked like a white paste brushed on their faces. This was meant to be a good cosmetic, as well as prevent the harm of UV rays and is done by rubbing the bark of a Thanakha tree with water to produce a liquid. The country is fairly religious and Buddhism is the most popular religion. Some customs are also quite strict e.g. No affection to be shown in public by couples. Local sticky rice – was very sweet!An internal flight from Keng Tung to Heho was fun as it was a little byplane which seemed to take off as soon as it has landed and exchanged passengers.Then travelled on to Nyaungshwe on the outskirts of Inle Lake. This massive freshwater lake houses many different businesses and lots of families. Racing around the lake and its surroundings in a little boat was incredible. There were lots of fisherman who are famous for paddling with their legs while their arms are used to manoeuvre the nets in the water. It was an impressive balancing act.​​

Many businesses include making a form of paper out of tree bark and carpenters producing lovely parasols.A group of long necked women with rings around their neck were weaving scarves. The metal rings remain on their necks all the time – even when asleep. This has been a long standing tradition of the Padaung tribe on the lake and was compulsory to do so (only until 20 years ago) by order of the tribe leader. Rings get added gradually from quite a young age, and women can have around 35 rings in total. According to a legend, this was done because a tribe leader had a dream that a tiger would have attacked his baby daughter by the neck, so the rings were added for protection. Back on the boat and it was a visit to Inlay Shewe Inn Tain Pagoda. This was a complex full of a mixture of stupas, both old and new and the site is around 1000 years old. In the main temple, there is a separate place for women to pray, and they cannot enter the most sacred part. This is because women can distract men from their concentrated prayer. On the way, I tried some little spring onion dumplings from a street vendor which were very tasty. Another business on the lake is making silver jewellery. The silver was mined in the mountains nearby, but has to be separated from the other metals in the rock. This was done by using a very high heat which makes the other components evaporate leaving the silver. Then it is combined with a tiny amount of copper for strength, as the silver can be quite soft.A visit to the Phaung daw Oo Pagoda showed five original old Buddha statues. It is said that bad luck has happened if they are removed from the sacred place. Again, women are not allowed to enter the central section. Weavers make a lot of different types of clothes using thread which has been taken from the stem of the lotus plant. These are quite thin, so they are combined together and dried out to start weaving. I got some Thanakha on my face at this point and hoped it would add to my suncreams protection on my face.

Cigar and cigarette making are also a popular produce. They were made using bamboo leaves and sticky rice was the glue. There were many different flavours that could be mixed with the tobacco including star anise. Going from place to place, there are a lot of floating gardens on the lake where are a lot of crops are grown including tomatoes which are a local delicacy in this part of Myanmar. I tried a fish ‘curry’ with a tomato sauce and it was amazing.The last place to visit was the jumping cat monestary where there are a lot of old artefacts….and cats. They were trained to jump over certain things by a monk, but he had died, so they stayed at the monestary. I explored a bit of the backpacker town which had an interesting market. There was lots of local goods.A cycle into parts of the countryside in the rain was great, although being completely drenched wasn’t so great. Lots of lovely farms were seen including a cashew nut and chilli plantation. Getting the bike over a rickety bridge was a test as the bike could have easily fallen through the gaps of the rickety bendy wooden boards that made up the bridge. I sampled some amazing coffee which was sweet and a tea leaf salad which was mixed with garlic and nuts. Then sampled some Burmese wine at a local vineyard. Not sure I’d try the wine again but it was good to give it a go!An overnight bus to Bagan was windy and bumpy. But the arrival was just in time to see the sunset over the 2000 pagodas and temples that pop out from the grass over a huge area. It was amazingly peaceful and quiet, and I really appreciated the lack of tourism at this point. I hate to think that in about 10 years, there will be a McDonalds or a Starbucks popping up too. There was one large hotel complex, but you could tell that it had tried to blend into the surroundings. This complex is stunning, but is not officially recognised by UNESCO due to clashes with the government over building construction in the area, so relies heavily on donations from locals and tourists to support the upkeep of the temples. The temples were mostly funded by the royalty of the time when they were built – 11th/12th century. Food (e.g. Rice) is offered for certain special occasions, as well as supplying the local monestary for the homless. Donations are also offered to ensure certain things in the next life e.g. Water is for peace, flowers for beauty.


One of the temples was Manuha which housed some very large buddhas, one of which was a sleeping one. It is one of the oldest temples (built in 1067) and is named after the King who sponsored the construction.Gabyauk Gyi is another amazing temple which is covered in old murials inside. These included images of the Buddha, white elephants (which are an important symbol) and hermits. It was built in 1113 and has its number (out of approx 2000) inscribed on the outside – it is Number 1323. Dahammayan Gyi was also visited and this is the biggest temple which was built in 1163. Ananda temple is the largest and one of the most famous temples; built in 1105.There are two original massive Buddhas inside where the face changes depending on the distance you keep from the statue. Up close, it looks angry, while far away, it smiles. This is to distinguish the status of the worshippers. Wandering around some of these temples can make you believe you’re in a maze. Then went to Shwezigon Pagoda which is meant to house a relic of Buddha’s rib. It was an amazing pagoda and built in 1090. It was stunning and was actually covered in bamboo rugs while the gold leaf is being preserved and restored. Visiting the local area was also good. A trip to Toddy Palm workshop where coconut juice is made from the fruit of the trees, and brewed into a beer was interesting. The coconut syrup is also combined with different flavours including ginger to make confectionary. There were lots of gourds hanging around which I almost walked into on many occasions. Peanuts are also farmed and collected and crushed to produce oil. Mount Popa is an extinct volcano in the region and I went to the top which included climbing 777 steps and trying to ward off the cheeky monkeys who try and take your belongings – just like the ones in China. The views were great from the top. There is a temple at the base (and a temple at the top) to nat spirits, each of whom is responsible for a different aspect of life. You pay your respects to the one who you want to bless you in that particular aspect. I then visited a lacquerware producer who explained the process of lacquering bamboo to craft lots of different things including bowls, cups etc. Laquer is made from bamboo sap which has been oxidised. Lots of patterns are etched by hand – it can take 6 months to make just one cup. Then got taken to Min Nan Thu Village and was shown round. I was surprised how clean it was. A sunset from a high point was spectacular. One night was on a temple and another was from a high tower where you had a great view over the land.Next, onto Mandalay: this visit included temples and a sunset at the top of Mandalay Hill.One of the sites to see was Kuthodaw Pagoda which is massive and is surrounded by lots of white structures each containing a marble slab – there are 729 in total – which depict Buddhist teachings. The U Bein Teak bridge was also a highlight which was used to connect the old capital city to where the royal palace used to be. It is 1.2km in length and the oldest wooden bridge in the world, although parts have been restored for obvious reasons, as it was a it wobbly! Then a visit to Mahagandhayon monestary to see the 1000 monks and apprentice monks (young children wearing white robes instead of red) queuing to eat their main meal of the day as food is not consumed after 12pm.2 further temples were also visited on Frock hill before an overnight bus to Yangon, the former capital. On arrival into Yangon after another night bus, it was a lot cooler as the rain has been heavy. A quick walk after a shower (both rain and actual) to see Sule Pagoda and some of the old colonial architecture was good, apart from the heavy rain starting again. Some of the nice buildings looked a little bit run down.

Shwedagon Pagoda was amazing and very big. It is the oldest in the city, and possibly in Myanmar and houses a couple of relics. It looked great lit up at night.I learnt that my Myanmar Buddhism zodiac sign is a dragon because i was born on a Saturday. Around the temples there are individual Buddhas with the corresponding animal for each day as they each mean something different. You are meant to bless the Buddha and the animal statue that belongs to your birth day a certain amount of times with water.  I also walked past the building where Aung San and his colleagues were assassinated. It’s a lovely building, and only open to the public once a year on the anniversary of his death. That is one thing that surprised me when I was in the country – I heard no mention of any politics. I never heard ‘The Lady’ referred to. It’s still a delicate situation, and I guess it’s similar to Cambodia where politics is a taboo and cannot be spoken about in public too much. Visiting the Scott Market was nice – the old building houses a large collection of jewellery and wood work. Speaking to some students studying English in a monastery was enlightening. They were so keen to learn and talk to improve their language skills so that they could have more career options e.g. Becoming a teacher or a translator. Sometimes, I thought they were the ones teaching me English! You see a lot of men wear the traditional clothing called a longi. This is a long piece of material which is wrapped around the waist and almost looks like a long skirt. There are ones also for women which are a bit more colourful. Chit (my tour guide) wore one occasionally, especially in the temples. On my last night, the whole group was invited to his house for a home cooked meal with his family which was so humbling

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this wonderful country full of lovely people and peace – what a great two weeks!

Next stop: Thailand

Vietnam in two weeks

Left Cambodia early to make the border near Chau Doc. The security is fairly tight – each side double checking that you’ve left and entered either country. To get into Vietnam, you have to bribe the officials with a dollar to get an entry stamp otherwise they’ll chuck your passport at you without allowing you to go into the country. Even though I thought I needed a visa (and got one), I didn’t actually need one as a UK citizen for the amount of time I was in the country for – foreign money is what is wanted instead. A long bus journey to Can Tho lay ahead, and already I was noticing the differences to Cambodia – apart from the rain. There are a lot more rice fields – Vietnam is one of the major exports. The colour of the fields is similar to the ones in Cambodia where the green looks like it has come out of the Microsoft Paint colour palette – it’s such a light green. The roads are a bit nicer – less bumpy. Everyone seems to ride a motorbike or scooter here – it’s almost one per person of the total population (93 million). They are everywhere – especially busy during rush hour. IMG_7581IMG_8183There are a lot of banana and coconut trees surrounding the roads as you drive through the country. Also, everyone seems to be wearing the typical straw hat – I’m making it my mission to bring one home with me. Throughout my travels, I have collected something from every place that I’ve been to as a good reminder of all the different countries, although the hat will be a pain to carry around. IMG_8132I stayed in a home stay in Can Tho for the night. This involved staying in a family run little place off the beaten track. It was a great experience to see how the locals live. The food was lovely! Lots of very freshly cooked things including tofu in a tomato sauce, and some great spring rolls, as well as a typical Vietnamese pancake with an egg and spring onion batter. Basic bed and mozzie nets were in order, along with the odd friendly gecko, cockerel and coackroach. I slept quite well and avoided being completely eaten alive. IMG_7583IMG_7587In the early morning, it was off to a floating market on the edges of the Mekong river to see the local selling their goods to others. It happens every morning and people go and buy breakfast (usually some sort of noodle soup) or groceries. There were a lot of pineapples which were very juicy to eat. Local coffee is also meant to be a speciality – made with condensed milk and ice. I didn’t try this though – wasn’t going to test fate with having some ice frozen from dodgy water. The Mekong river runs from the South China Sea through the south of Vietnam, up through Cambodia and into Laos, so it is fairly long. IMG_7612Next, it was a 4 hour bus journey heading north towards Ho Chi Minh. Passed by a whole cow on a spit on the way while driving to the Chu Chi Tunnels. These were an amazing set of tunnels built underneath the ground during the Vietnam War. The country had been split after the French left the country after a long occupation – about 100 years up until the end of WWII. The north of Vietnam was led by the Ho Chi Minh and his communist government, with the backing of the Chinese government and the South was controlled by the Vietnemese resistence with help of the Americans. I met an old man who fought alongside the Americans during the war as part of South Vietnam as a communicator and he had lost a few fingers on one hand due to shrapnel whilst using a communication device. The tunnels were all dug by hand by the independent southern army, and were twice as narrow as they are now – the 100 metres that I went through was still pretty narrow. They were used to escape the booby traps laid down by the northern army. He explained how all the booby traps worked and there were a couple of originals in tact. I didn’t know much about the Vietnam War, or how long, costly and painful it was to the nation. This became clear when I visited the War Museum in the city. I had a go at shooting an actual AK47 at targets (I don’t think I’d be a very good solider as I missed all the targets) and it really hurt my collar bone when the shot was fired.IMG_7625IMG_7628IMG_7630IMG_7649IMG_7638The rain hammered down in the afternoon again, much to my dismay. This also helped a bus ride take an hour longer than it should have done. Arrived into Ho Chi Minh having endured rush hour in the rain with the millions of scooters after almost a busy 12 hour day. Even the Uber drivers are on the motorbikes – I was glad I didn’t pick up an Uber here! Apparently there was a religion called the Coconut religion – this was founded in 1945 and monks live off milk and flesh. This doesn’t exist anymore, as most of the followers did not live a healthy lifestyle this way. Catholic is 10% of population – this was evident in the French architecture of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh. Buddism is 2/3 population. A walk around the city was great – a good leg stretch after sitting around on buses for so long. Found a great (and non dodgy) street food market for lunch called BenThanh where I had a nice kofka wrap and got a free beer! IMG_7700IMG_7703Also did a cycle tour where I visited the war museum, had a look at the cathedral (although it was being renovated so you couldn’t go in) and the post office. The French architecture mixed with typical Vietnamese buildings was a real clash of worlds.IMG_7857IMG_7861IMG_7665A 10 hour overnight train to Nha Trang was next – the train was a lot nicer than the ones in China. There was a western toilet too! It had decided to rain torrentially too just at the point of travelling to the station which was a bit nasty so that put a slight downer on things. It is the rainy season, after all! It can go from being quite nice and sunny to torrential rain a bit quickly. Got into Nha Trang station early in the morning and went to have some breakfast at a nice cafe – had a coffee for the first time in ages. Then took a boat to Hon Mun island to see a fishing village. This is a nice area of coastline on the east of Vietnam. Luckily the sun was shining nicely – too much in fact as I got a little burnt while snorkelling.IMG_7894IMG_7896IMG_7927There were lots of fish and coral, as well as a lot of sea urchins. Some of the sea was very clear. I’m feeling fairly fatigued by this point but not sleeping as much as I should be doing. I was definitely looking forward to some sort of a lie in but wasn’t sure that I would ge one for at least a couple of weeks. Another walk around the town was nice and it was odd seeing a Christian church (Nha Trang Cathedral) in the middle of the town.IMG_7915It was built in the early 20th century by the French in a gothic style. The beach looked good but it was so hot at 9am, I didn’t fancy my chances of sitting by the sea in the heat of the day.IMG_7903Picked up some more sun block and Aloe Vera gel for sunburn/bite relief. I actually got myself a one hour (for only 150 Vietnamese dong) blind sunburn massage at Mokba which was done with fresh Aloe Vera. It was such an experience – a bit unnerving in parts but my back definitely felt better after it, even if I did smell of stale milk for a while. Some random parts of my body were rubbed where I wasn’t sunburnt, even though I had only specified that I needed my back and shoulders doing. It definitely helped to ease the sunburn….for a bit anyway. Enough to lift and carry my big bag onto the night train that evening at least. Another 10 hours of a sleeper train was met with an hour or so delay either side. The next stop was Hoi An and the weather was sunny upon arrival, if not a little too much on the warm side. We Brits are never happy! I now realise that we actually do talk a lot about the weather – I guess because it’s so varied in the UK and we’re not used to dealing with extreme conditions. Hoi An is a very pretty place with no cars in the historical centre which was nice. Had a decent breakfast nearby and then explored the town a bit. I went to the old house of Tan Ky which is 200 years old and has housed seven generations of the same family – the latest generation still occupy the second floor. It has Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese influences. There were markers on one of the walls to signify the flood levels over the last 50 years. There is also a little wooden bridge built in the Japanese style which was quite pretty. I really liked this town. I felt I was almost in a part of Spain.IMG_7934IMG_7966IMG_7968IMG_7973A short ride on a boat up the river a bit when the sun was setting was nice – all the lanterns that hang around the streets all light up. Candles in paper boxes get placed on the river by people for wishes.IMG_8010IMG_8011IMG_8016IMG_8044I learnt about how rice noodles were made from a small school which endeavours to improve the lives of young Vietnamese from difficult backgrounds who want to forge a career in the hospitality industry. There are many different types of noodle and it was good to see how each are made.IMG_8067IMG_8070IMG_7578Another wander around the town with the odd temple visit and a bit of time for shopping. I gave in, and bought a hat. I also felt a bit spoilt as I also had a room to myself for a couple of nights – what a luxury!IMG_8079The variations in water levels due to flooding. The next day was a 4 hr bus ride to Hue – the old capital. I’m making my way up the east coast to Hanoi. A ride on a scooter as part of a trip was fun – I got to see a lot of places including some old American and French bunkers as well as an old burial tomb for one of the kings, although his remains are thought to be somewhere else, as the French did not see them when they raided the tomb.IMG_8139IMG_8296IMG_8183IMG_8225IMG_8227Also saw an old colosseum where tigers and elephants used to fight – the tigers would be maimed to ensure the elephant’s victory, as the elephant is a symbol of royalty and power.IMG_8250IMG_8270Popped to a local village to see how incense sticks were made. The view of the river was amazing and going off road in the rice fields gave an amazing sense of freedom. The torrential typhoon appeared the following day. But that wasn’t going to stop an explorer from exploring! Off to the citadel with a friend in the rain which didn’t cease. The raincoat failed me after a while and I couldn’t feel my feet, but it was good to get out and about. It was so nice to get into dry clothes and have a hearty stew lunch.IMG_83042017-07-IMG_8312IMG_8314IMG_8331The typhoon could have provided an issue with getting a train to Halong later that day, but climbed aboard without any issues. Apart from breaking a bottle of red wine on the platform specifically purchased for the night train 😔. The rainy season is incredibly random. Sometimes it can rain for a few moments and be ok again, but then it can rain all day and be very sunny the day after.After a 12 hour night train to Hanoi, where I actually slept quite well after watching something on Netflix, it was another 4 hr transfer to Halong Bay. I was fairly exhausted overall by this point. I could feel it. I think I recognised I was in definite need of some actual downtime where I wasn’t constantly on the move. Explored the seas of Halong Bay on a nice boat with some good food and amazing scenery. It is recognised by UNESCO for the geological landscape, as well as the pearls that are farmed here.IMG_8341IMG_8352IMG_8380Went into Dong Thien Cung cave with lovely stalagtites and stalagmites.IMG_8361Then out in the evening for some local food – of course, there was too much of it and lots of people wanting to take their photo with you. Back to Hanoi again on a bus via a pearl farm where pearls are made from oysters that already contain good quality pearls. I still find myself looking out of the window a lot on the long journeys at the wonderful landscape which varies so much when moving from the south to the north. Had a couple of days in Hanoi and there was a lot to see. It is a bustling city where there are lots and lots of scooters and motorbikes that almost always try to run you over. Staying in the Old Quarter made it seem busier and more vibrant as the streets are narrow. I walked around Hogan Kiev Lake and visited the small temple on it. It’s a very tranquil place. On the way there, I had one of my sandels taken off my foot by a street vendor and mended with superglue and resoled a bit without me even asking. Of course, he expected payment, but looked a little annoyed when I didn’t have the amount he was expecting and of course, I was trying to ask him not to do anything, but he wouldn’t listen. Well, at least my shoes are better to walk in!

The next day was a long walking day for me, which I was glad about. I felt that I had spent quite a lot of time sitting down on a coach or a train. I walked to Ho Huu Tiep lake which is north west of the city. There is a wreckage of a B52 plane which was shot down in 1972 just before the end of the war.IMG_8457I then walked to the Temple of Literature which was built in 1070 and is where the first university (Imperial Academy) was built. There are 82 stelae (or stone tablets) in one courtyard (there used to be more) which mark the achievement of scholars and to encourage students to work. These are each attached to a stone turtle, which signifies longevity – a popular concept in Asia.IMG_8471The ‘Hanoi Hilton’ was next – you might think that this was a hotel, but it is the nickname for the Hoa Lo Prison. Built by the French in the late 19th century, this was designed to house Vietnamese resistors (mainly political prisoners). It was expanded to hold more prisoners in 1913, and they were subjected to cruel torture, as well as life in extremely subhuman conditions – hardly any food, lots of disease etc. I was told once that the Vietnamese hate the French, and it was only here that I understood why. The prison was later used to house American POWs during the Vietnam War after the French had left the country. They were the ones that gave it its infamous sarcastic nickname. John McCain, the Presidential candidate, was a US Navy pilot who was kept here.IMG_8493Then off walking again to the national history museum which housed a good collection of items and some interesting artefacts about the Vietnam War which I hadn’t seen.

The final day in Vietnam was an early start and off to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum where his body is preserved. He died in 1969 during the Vietnam War. It was an odd experience to see a body embalmed in that way – it doesn’t seem real that he died almost 50 years ago. Also saw his house and office and there were a huge amount of Vietnamese visitors coming to pay their respects to a man who gave them independence.IMG_8484IMG_8489 I’ve really enjoyed learning about Vietnam – a country that I didn’t know too much about as I had never studied the Vietnam War at school. There is such an extensive backstory to the war that goes back to the fact that the country had been ruled by others for years. The people continuously fought for their freedom and this was a hard and long struggle. Eventually, the French left Vietnam in 1954, but the Vietnam War started and went on for 20 years. It makes you realise how much of history is intertwined. I might have to invest in a few books when I get home, although I’m sure there will be bias one way or another.

I’ve enjoyed the variety of food, although I am really getting sick of rice. I’m missing potatoes and nice bread quite a lot. Maybe the next step of travelling will involve me going carb free….? I would definitely like to return to this lovely country and see a bit more of it – a day or two in some of the places isn’t enough. I’ve really enjoyed learning about the history too.

Next stop: Laos!

24 hours in Hong Kong

A whole day to explore this city (mainly Hong Kong island) started with a trip to the top of ‘The Peak’ via a funicular. A birdseye view of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak was great, even though the weather wasn’t. I imagine it is better on a clear day, but unfortunately I didn’t have much choice. Funiculars have been the mode of transport up the mountain since the late 19th century – it had been sedans before! Important non-Chinese officials used to have summer residences on the peak in the early 20th century. Properties are still available to buy but they are very expensive – maybe the most expensive in the world. IMG_6955IMG_6965IMG_6970I also found St John’s Cathedral where I could hear an organ playing ‘Eternal Father, Strong to Save’. With that and the metro looking like the London Underground, I was constantly given little reminders of home. Traffic also drives on the left hand side, but it was the right hand side in China. Western toilets were also very welcome. I also walked up and down Des Voeux road where there was a Marks and Spencer’s and a Harvey Nichols amongst others! Hong Kong had recently celebrated its 20 years of independence from Britain. IMG_6906IMG_6944IMG_6977IMG_6979
It took me a while, but I made it to the Tian Tan Buddha on Lantau island. It was only completed in 1993 and is 34 metres high. The cable car gave a nice view of the Buddha and the monastery beside it.  It is a Buddhist pilgrimage area and I saw a lot of people coming to pray, as well as a lot of tourists. IMG_7006IMG_7014
Back to Kowloon and a visit to the Temple St market to pick up some new sunglasses was in order. Saw a lot of Figit Spinners too – some looked quite dangerous! I have to confess that I had to get taught how to use one as I didn’t know what it was, and am not completely sure if it is for me. IMG_6933IMG_6936
Went down to the Victoria Harbour and saw the light show on the buildings – I didn’t think it was anything too special as it’s meant to be the biggest light show in the world. The harbour is pretty at night anyway. Also caught up with some old school chums for some good food to end the day. IMG_6911IMG_6921
Next stop: Bangkok! I am knackered!

3 weeks of fun in China

Getting into China provided its own tale of fun. After leaving the hostel in Tokyo and taking the scenic monorail to Haneda airport, I was a bit miffed to discover the seven hour delay on the flight. Even more miffed about the complications arising from missing the Beijing connection from Guangzhou. After some talks with China Southern Airlines, they managed to get me on a different flight a little earlier than the one that went to Guangzhou but I’d have to sort out a connection to Beijing when I got there. It looked as though they were quite regular so I was hoping to get one plane later that night, if not the next day. I was told that I had to take my hold bag onto the plane with me so I could easily get it and go straight through to a domestic transfer desk to sort out my connection. This meant that I had to give up most of my toiletries when I went through security as most of them were over 100ml. It was a bit annoying as I had bought mostly new stuff for travelling and had only been away three weeks. But it wasn’t the end of the world. It could’ve been much worse. I eventually made it to Beijing at 3am the following morning after managing to get on a late flight which was also delayed by a couple of hours. Got to Beijing seven hours later than expected. What a faff!

After a few hours sleep at a hostel, I had to transfer to a hotel. This meant working out another metro system which actually was fairly straightforward. You have to put your bags through a security check and there is an army presence who are always standing to attention without looking at anything. The single use tickets look like Oyster cards. IMG_5170Until now, I have always relied on Google to get me around but Google is something that is banned in China. Having to use another search engine or the Apple Maps app took a bit of time to adjust to. Facebook/Instagram/Twitter are all banned too. This was an odd feeling, as I know that many of us are often tied to social media in some way or another. In a way, I think it’s quite liberating not to be able to use social media. I couldn’t be bothered trying to deal with a VPN or a proxy server – I’m only in China for three weeks. Managed to acquire some more toiletries and get some money sorted. I didn’t realise how exhausted I would be. Beijing is quite hot and there is a bit of a haze in the air. It’s quite a busy city traffic wise and lots of people on scooters/bikes who think they own the road. I haven’t seen many helmets worn though. There is a cycle system here where you can pick up a bike from anywhere random by unlocking something on the back wheel . There aren’t any cycle stations like there are in London.

After some nice food, it was time for some much needed sleep. An early start the next day was required to get to a well preserved section of the Great Wall of China in Mutianyu. This section is 14th century and in pretty good nick. The whole wall took many centuries to build. Sections of the wall are separated by towers which are numbered. There are a couple of ways to get up to the wall – you could walk up about half an hour or get a cable car to a high tower. There was also an option to get a ski lift up to a tower slightly lower down and walk up to (and beyond) where the cable car is. This also allowed people to take a toboggan down (which I obviously did!). The wall could be seen all around – you could see the towers at certain points on mountain tops quite far away – definitely an efficient way to keep the enemy out! Walking up and down the many steps was quite a challenge, especially with the increasing heat and the growing amount of people. Some of the steps reminded me of the Inca Trail steps – nice and steep haha. When I had walked back to the tower that I had arrived at to go down, it dawned on me how far I had walked. The distance of fourteen towers to the top and the same on the way back was about five miles. It was a good three hour walk up and down. The views were amazing and sliding down was fun! It was definitely something to do earlier in the day – the heat and the people would be too much later on.IMG_5188IMG_5207IMG_5209IMG_5217IMG_5275Tianamnen Square and the Forbidden City were next. The square is absolutely huge, and while I was a little ignorant of the complete history of it, the magnitude and atmosphere were evident. Mao’s presence is forever present, both by a portrait of him hanging on the gate into the Forbidden City, as well as his remains embalmed in a mausoleum opposite. I was talking to someone who mentioned that there are some things that are not spoken about in China. The ‘Tin Man’ episode in the square is one of the taboo subjects. I found it very odd to see the extent of how much is controlled – some young Chinese people don’t seem to fully understand. IMG_5305IMG_5309IMG_5310IMG_5316The sense of tradition is also strong – women are still expected to marry a husband young to provide a family, and the man is the breadwinner. For a woman to be without a husband at the age of 30 can provide pressure within the family unit to produce heirs, but the one child policy seems to be a bit more relaxed – or couples keep on having children until they have a son. Someone I spoke to was the second child (and a girl), and her parents had to pay to register her when she was born, but they had chosen to have a second child. While boys are still preferable, girls are also still required for evolution, so I think that there can be a fluctuation between the desire for a male child and the desire for a female depending on the gender ratio. I was questioned why I didn’t have a husband or a family, and why I would want to travel by myself at my age instead. I wasn’t sure how to respond at first, but came up with something.
The Forbidden City was the old palace of the Chinese dynasties – mainly Ming and Qing who ruled over China for the best part of 600 years. The term ‘Forbidden’ comes from no one being allowed to enter the palace apart from the emperor, unless you had an invitation. This is why there are no green spaces within the grounds until you come to the Imperial Gardens at one end – so that intruders could be easily spotted. Courtyard after courtyard rolls along – passing through gate after gate after gate to give a distinction between certain areas (work and living). You could easily spend a whole day wandering around getting lost in this place. It had become more crowded and hot later on – lots of Chinese tourists wanting a glimpse inside the various buildings that had were such an important part of their history. There was a lot of pushing and barging to grab the photo opportunity. Some parts of the palace were older than the others and you could spot the difference with the fading of the colour.IMG_5345IMG_5346IMG_5347IMG_5369IMG_5392IMG_5412IMG_5414IMG_5420Visiting a local district called Hutong made me understand the importance of the family values and community – there are houses which have been passed through several generations. There is a tradition where the status of the family is illustrated by the beams outside the house, as well as the number of steps going inside the house. They should complement each other, so they preferably match – a balance illustrating the recognition of Feng Shui. Stopping for a home cooked lunch inside someone’s house was lovely and humbling – the food was simple, but delicious and the lady of the house made all the food herself while her husband was out at work.  Visited a cricket trainer who developed the fighting talents of the crickets for gambling purposes – he would train the cricket and then sell it for a price depending on how good a fighter the cricket was. When looking for some food, I stumbled across a street market, and there were scorpions on sticks! You could see them wriggling around before they had been cooked – slightly odd.IMG_5440IMG_5425IMG_5442IMG_5448IMG_5455IMG_5472Boarded a fast train to Shanghai which took about five hours. It was nice to read my book for a bit and they reminded me of the Shinkansens in Japan. There was a completely different feel to this city. There was also a lot more cloud/fog/smog around. The day after I arrived in Shanghai, the weather in Beijing had turned from sun and heat to tropical thunder storms which made news headlines. The Great Wall access could get shut and there was news of a massive mudslide due to the weather – it was good that the Great Wall was seen in the sunshine!

Shanghai was certainly a metropolis. The financial city was full of skyscrapers and the buildings were all very British looking after the Brits had come and developed the original port town. There is also a district full of French architecture. It was such a contrast to see the skyscrapers and architecture – part of me felt like I was at home. Unfortunately, the weather was a little disappointing, so the tallest skyscrapers on the Bund were difficult to see. But a night time boat ride was great so that I could see the buildings lit up. The Shanghai museum was good – there was a lot of old items inside which were ornately decorated. A visit to the Yuyuan bazaar was fun – it was originally part of the old town, but had been rebuilt to look old. It was a contrast to see the ‘old’ buildings with the tall skyscrapers behind. Walking down Nanjing road was busy – lots of modern shops and malls. The Shanghai Circus was fun to watch – all the acts are people who failed to get into the Olympic team. They have set a few world records – one included 8 motorbikes circling around inside a steel dome.IMG_5492IMG_5643IMG_5662IMG_5680IMG_5681IMG_5521IMG_5525IMG_5531IMG_5547IMG_5593IMG_5517
Shanghai to Xi’an – overnight train. It took about 16 hours in the end and was fairly comfortable, apart from the toilet! Wine and a pack of cards helped to pass some of the time. I spent the last day in Shanghai exploring the Xin Tian district which looked very French and found the Chinese version of Pizza Express. Had a nice mid afternoon noodle meal but I realised I had left my iPad in the hotel room after I checked out so I wasted a bit of time having to collect it. Also thought I had lost my wallet on train but was fine. It was stealthily hiding behind my bag – that could have been a real pain to try and sort if I had lost it. I seem to have developed a habit of misplacing things. Either that, or I am just too tired and busy to concentrate. Got to Xi’an feeling pretty grimy so a much needed shower was very welcome. A city walls cycle was next – the perimeter was 15km so took a while to get round in the heat but it was nice to be back on a bike again. An evening enjoying a banquet dumpling was also very nice.IMG_5726IMG_5732IMG_5743IMG_5756IMG_5757IMG_5760Visited the Great Wild Goose Pagoda and the temple which originally built in 652 and is now a little bit wonky due to an earthquake. The temples were very decorated and each ones housed different Buddhas for different things e.g. One symbolised wealth etc. I was able to buy something made of proper Chinese jade here too – a nice bangle but it was a bit on the expensive side. You could buy something from a street vendor, but it obviously would be fake. Then went to the Muslim sector of the town which was beside the Bell Tower and Drum Tower – these were originally used to signal the presence of the enemy, as well as give the town a sense of the time of day – bell was rung at the start, and drum sounded at the end. The Muslim quarter was one long street full of vendors selling different foods. These ranged from battered squid and crab to bread and nuts. Tried a variety of hamburger which was called a pancake – I think it had mutton inside. Found a great little place to eat on a rooftop where food and drink came to about a fiver each! It’s a lot cheaper to eat here than in Japan.IMG_5784IMG_5785IMG_5796IMG_5846IMG_5856IMG_5863The Terracotta Warriors were amazing – they were only discovered in 1974 by a couple of local farmers working the land. The army was buried with Emperor Qin, who was an important ruler during the dynasty over 2000 years ago, along with things for the afterlife – the warriors were there to protect him, but had been broken into pieces by the enemy at the time who discovered the tombs after they had been betrayed by one of the workers. Usually, the workers were killed so that the secret could be kept, although I don’t think the actual tomb has been found yet. The excavation is still going on and more pieces are being put back together. Each warrior is individual and is a replica of the creator of that particular warrior, as one person usually made one. There were approximately 700,000 builders, so you can only imagine now many constructions happened. There is a large collection of the fully reconstructed ones on the site where they were found (about 2000 on display), and you also had the opportunity to look closely at a couple contained behind some glass. You could see the detail on the clothes and faces.IMG_5872IMG_5875IMG_5880IMG_5887IMG_5917IMG_5944IMG_5981IMG_5983IMG_5984IMG_6002It was then time for another overnight train from Xi’an to Emei mountain. This was a 19 hour one and it was a bit more comfortable than the last one. There was some great scenery. Finally arrived and then went to the accommodation, which was another monastery near Emeishan town. Everything was basic and the communal showers could only be used at certain times in the late afternoon. Three nights here in the tranquillity after the hustle and bustle of cities. I did feel a bit intimidated walking through certain parts of the temple to go to the loo in my pjs – I felt that the Buddhas were looking at me disapprovingly. Oh well!IMG_6023IMG_6029IMG_6035IMG_6039IMG_6042IMG_6043A hike next day into Mt Emei was welcome after a long train journey. There were a lot of carvings in the rock walls on the way up to certain temples, as well as streams and lovely bridges. After having had my photo taken with several Chinese people by their relatives, it was off to try and find some monkeys. A few monkeys were encountered and they were definitely ‘wild’! One or two looked into people’s bags and nabbed the odd face wipe. Luckily, I (and my possessions) remained intact, but they definitely looked fierce.IMG_6049IMG_6050IMG_6060IMG_6068IMG_6072IMG_6078IMG_6098IMG_6115IMG_6142IMG_6156IMG_6162IMG_6170IMG_6181IMG_6182IMG_6194A long soak in a hot spring was a good reward. I thought that inflatable toys in the pool were much more fun, but I fear that I lost all dignity when I attempted to leap frog onto a little van called ‘Wave Attack’ (I now think that this was probably meant for small children). I jumped and went right over the darn thing ending up head first in the water and getting water up my nose. I rose out of the water to fits of giggles, but I was not going to be defeated. I managed to conquer the crocodile and the massive pink flamingo successfully in the end. With a bit of help. And many attempts.

Anyway, the next day was a trip to the Leshan giant Buddha. It was absolutely massive and completely hollow. It is 71 metres high and was built in the 8th century. It took a while to carve as it was started and stopped on many occasions. You could definitely see the difference in perspective from looking at the people standing at the base of the statue.IMG_6200IMG_6202A local neighbourhood nearby was interesting to visit – there are a lot of very happy and relaxed people, compared with the citizens of the city who are rushing around and barging you out of the way. They are all still working at an old age – maybe in their 80s and 90s as there is no pension system, and if you don’t have children to help support you, then you have to continue working. This life isn’t easy, but they make the most of it – perhaps by drinking copious amounts of tea and playing mahjong. A local market was quite an eye opener – at home we are used to seeing meat packaged in supermarkets or a local farmers market being clean, but the way meat is prepared here is slightly different. For the Chinese, if they cannot see the meat being prepared, then it is not fresh for them. For me, if I see some meat on a stove in the sun on the street, I wouldn’t go near it, as I wouldn’t know how long it had been sitting around, especially with flies etc. On the plus side, one of the vendors did think I was 17, and was a bit surprised when I told them my real age. Winning!IMG_6220IMG_6223IMG_6230IMG_6242IMG_6244IMG_6259
After the town, it was time to go to a local tea plantation. I even had a go at picking tea! Different varieties of tea are made from the different types of leaf from the same plant. The leaves are then dried and cooked to remove the moisture. The spring months are the best times to pick the leaves, and this is when the process becomes a bit more industrial in this plantation, rather than doing it all by hand. I was shown the traditional way of how the leaves were dried – it can take a long time! They would only sell the tea leaves after they were ready to be used as tea to wholesale companies.IMG_6268IMG_6270IMG_6284IMG_6287IMG_6302IMG_6303I’ve been lucky enough to taste a lot of home cooked traditional food which include different types of meat and vegetables. Rice comes with pretty much everything. I’ve never been too much of a rice person, so haven’t had too much which is never a bad thing, although I am missing my bread intake. A typical Chinese breakfast is a rice porridge with some sort of bun, but I wasn’t tempted by this. I found somewhere that actually made eggs on toast, so ate here three mornings in a row. Bread isn’t a common food here – I was starting to miss lovely bread.

Next stop: Chengdu on the bullet train. Arrived early afternoon and it was time to sample a Chinese hotpot which is similar to fondue, but you dip different meat and veg into a simmering broth and allow it to cook. You could choose the level of spicy for the broth, but I think the heat can get quite strong! It was good to explore a small section of this massive city for a bit. A trip down Zhaixiangzi Alley was nice – there were lots of little independent shops and tea rooms, and it looked as though there were several places that put on shows. Then it was off to see the pandas! They were amazing and definitely played up to their audience. A few small ones ended up rolling around. I was actually quite glad that I had bought a selfie stick, as this was the first time I had properly used it to see over heads as there were a lot of people and it was quite difficult to get to a good spot. Chengdu is famous for its panda conservation.IMG_6326IMG_6335IMG_6337IMG_6339IMG_6344IMG_6358IMG_6360IMG_6390IMG_6445IMG_6478IMG_6507It was time to set sail on board a boat down the Yangtze River from Chongqing to Yichang. I was prepared for basic accommodation, possibly dormitory style cabins and shared facilities – almost like the sleeper trains but was pleasantly surprised with what I found. Nice cabins and own bathroom, along with some decent food and a deck on top. The Yangtze is the third longest river in the world, after the Amazon and the Nile. It isn’t actually called the Yangtze in China – this name was given to it by a European who first came across it in the town of Yangtze, but the Chinese translation means ‘long river’. I got off to see the Fengdu Ghost city on Ming mountain. It was believed that your soul or spirit would come here to be judged when you die, depending on what sort of a person you have been in this life.  A series of tests would have been done to see if you were a good person or not – one of these was crossing over a bridge in odd steps, another balancing your foot on a small metal stone for a number of seconds. Of course, I passed all the tests, so no need to worry about going to hell or coming back as a slug in the next life! Some parts had been reconstructed after the earthquake in 2008, but the Temple of Hell at the top is still in its original state and had been built in 1666. The whole city is almost 2000 years old.IMG_6522IMG_6528IMG_6537IMG_6541IMG_6543IMG_6550IMG_6558IMG_6565IMG_6568Going up the Yangtze continued through the three gorges. The river is quite murky in parts and this is something to do with the sediment collection. Went up Shennv Stream – this was shallow in comparison to the Yangtze and the water was a lot clearer. Surrounded by high cliffs both the Yangtze and Shennv Stream have varied climbing mountains either side where different names given to certain rock edges which are meant to look like things e.g. a seated Buddha. The water mark is clearly visible where the face has disintegrated and no trees grow. Exploring the Three Gorges Dam was amazing. It is the biggest one in the world, but only supplies electricity to 3% of China’s population – which is still a lot of people, but not as many as you’d think. IMG_6730IMG_6752IMG_6757IMG_6780IMG_6796IMG_6805
Off on another overnight train (only 16 hours this time, and I was armed with the Chinese version of a Pot Noodle which took me back to university days) to Yangshuo – this is a little backpackers town which had only been hit by torrential rain just prior to arriving, The scale of the floods were pretty bad – small businesses have lost a lot of stock and were badly damaged. While the government will send help to clear the streets, the businesses often do not have insurance. The chaos in the streets ensued; people were trying to dry out anything they could. Electricity was scarce. Such devastation was difficult to comprehend in parts, and vendors were desperate to sell anything they could to make some money to restore their business. The power and strength of nature is not easy to deal with.IMG_6828IMG_6830IMG_6832IMG_6839IMG_6853IMG_6856IMG_6861IMG_6870IMG_6889IMG_6890I did manage to attend a cookery class, and also cycled around the local area (although parts were shut off due to collapsed trees etc). The scenery is stunning. It was still very humid – I walked ten minutes and I was already dissolving into human prune situation. Factor 50 was not enough either. It was nice to cycle along some lovely roads with mountains either side, and lots of fields. The weather brightened up, so this made cycling rather warm. Navigating the roads (and being on the wrong side) was interesting, but the speed of the traffic was quite slow on the main roads – no helmets got given though due to the storage place being flooded. But it was definitely a memorable way to end the three week trip in China – a country full of different landscape and culture. Finished by entering into Hong Kong for a day – reminded me of home!

Things I have learnt in China

  • Don’t bother indicating when you drive, just honk the car horn and other drivers will either move or just pay attention. Weaving in and out of lanes, very heavy breaking and a lot of noise is how I would describe life on a Chinese road.
  • Don’t try and get on inflatable toys in a pool, if you know what is good for you, and you want to retain some sort of dignity.
  • Making a horrific noise to clear your throat, and then spitting anywhere is acceptable.
  • Wine is hardly sold in glasses. Only bottles.
  • Drinking tea all the time and smoking leads to a healthy, long life.
  • Don’t let the locals do all the barging. Lose all Britishness and don’t bother queuing – act as though you are constantly trying to get to the bar.
  • Helmets are not common on the roads.
  • Although I am a tourist, I am also a tourist attraction – have had many photos taken with Chinese people, either with or without my permission. The ‘stealth selfie’ photo is fairly popular, where people are not trying to be so obvious, but it’s easy to notice.
  • Looking like a 17 year old will not get me very far.
  • A Western toilet with a seat is a rare and beautiful thing – hoping that I will have much stronger thighs by the time I return home!
  • The Birdie song is something that’ll surprise the English when they hear it in a foreign place, and will shock them so much that they have to dance.
  • I’m definitely getting a travellers tan!

Tokyo: Japan experience comes to an end

Tokyo is a city that is also different from the other places I have visited in Japan. It is absolutely huge and can take a while to get from one side of the city to the other – not too different from London, I suppose. Spending seven nights here, with a couple of day trips to escape the hustle and bustle has been great and it has been nice to base myself somewhere without constantly having to take my bag everywhere. The hostel was pretty decent and quite close to Tokyo station as well as a metro station and the Imperial Palace and gardens.IMG_4745I walked through them and they were quite pretty in parts. After working out the Metro, I found myself at Shibuya where the big and famous pedestrian crossing is. ​​IMG_4806IMG_4807

​It was such a busy district full of colour and noise. The tall buildings with screens on were quite imposing initially. Lots of billboards climbed up the buildings. I walked up to Harajuku which wasn’t too far away and this was another shopping district known for its trendy fashions which engulf the youth. There is a street called Takeshita Street which was very very busy and full of random shops selling odd things – I even found some Percy Pigs in a sweet shop!IMG_4793IMG_4797IMG_4799IMG_4789There are some places to eat where you choose and pay outside in a little machine and then hand a voucher over inside at the counter when you sit down. IMG_4766Then got a train to Ebisu which was fairly close and had some lovely dim sum at a place called Le Parc but it was a little expensive. IMG_4831A day trip to Kamakura was next which is about an hour out of the central city. This was a lot quieter and had a lot of temples and shrines, as well as a big bronze Amida Buddha (Kotoku-in temple) which was constructed over ten years in the mid 13th century. You could climb inside him and have a look at the construction of the metal work. It was originally located inside a large temple hall, but this was destroyed during a natural disaster. It has been standing in open air since 1495. IMG_4842IMG_4849I found a great little sushi place to grab some lunch in where it was made directly in front of you. I was brave and tried sea urchin – tasted very much like the sea. I also tried some squid crackers which were tasty. IMG_4896IMG_4898IMG_4836I found a temple called Hasedera which was fairly close to the Buddha. It had the largest wooden statue of Kannon (over nine metres!) as well as a pretty garden with lots of different coloured hydrangeas.IMG_4856IMG_4858IMG_4852IMG_4854IMG_4873I also did another day trip to Hakone which was only half an hour away from Tokyo. This was very scenic – lots of lovely lucious mountains. Managed to get to Lake Ashi which took a few trains, a cable car and a bus replacement service (that’s right, they have them here too!) past a clearly active volcano and through some hills. I took a sightseeing boat over the lake with the intention of catching a glance of Mt Fuji but I didn’t see it. I got off the boat and had another look at the lake from the shore. The clouds were low in the sky, but the sun was out and shining nicely. Then, all of a sudden, I saw the top of the mountain! Then went through a nice cedar avenue.IMG_5082IMG_5089IMG_5102IMG_5125IMG_5128

Back in Tokyo and I visited Sensoji Temple (which is Tokyo’s oldest temple), Meiji Jingu Temple (where there is a lovely garden full of irises and ponds), the Tsukiji market and the national museum, as well as a few districts. The Tsukiji market is famous for its daily tuna auction at 3am. Somehow, I didn’t have the will power to witness this although I did go down one rainy morning and sample some of the goods on offer.IMG_4946IMG_4952IMG_4954IMG_4997IMG_4914Barrels of sake (above)IMG_5006I enjoyed getting my feet nibbled by fish – ticklish at first, but then it was ok!IMG_5037IMG_5133Had some lovely tempura and ramen too!IMG_5058Vending machines selling alcohol and cigarettes are on most streets (also in other places around Japan). I found this odd as the legal drinking age in Japan is 20. I see a lot of business man drinking beer on the way to work on the train. Highballs are also a popular drink here – mostly containing whisky – I’ve seen a lot of highball specific bars.There was a place to eat which was run by robots (I didn’t go in because the entrance fee was 8000 Yen – which is £60) and that was not including food….I’ve really enjoyed visiting this varied country. Getting around has been really easy. I still find it odd that smoking is allowed inside certain places, as well as train carriages. Everything is very clean – there are no litter bins on the streets or graffiti. There’s no one eating on the street or chewing gum. Jay walking is something that just isn’t done – everyone waits at the crossing for the green man. The people are all very friendly and polite. Although I came across some travellers from Belgium who had said they were waiting for their friend who was in a Japanese prison cell for letting off a fire extinguisher while drunk. Anyway, next stop – China!

Koyasan: a place of tranquility 

An early alarm and a quiet sneak out of my dorm in the morning, and I was prepared for the day ahead! Unfortunately, because it was a Sunday, there was nothing really open en route to Osaka station to grab a bit of brekkie. But Starbucks was open at the station (of course!), so I put up with an overly expensive coffee and some rather tasteless breakfast food. I caught a train to Shinimamiya and quickly changed to get to Gokurakubashi. I had to rush to grab a ticket at this point, as this was not covered by my JR pass, but it took a while to know what the right fare was. You have to look at a train line map and it shows the fare payable depending on the distance away from the station you are in. After arriving, I caught the cable car up to Koyasan station, followed by a bus into the town. Koyasan is a little town up in Mount Koya where Shingon Buddhism originated in the 9th century.

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I hadn’t bought the right ticket to get me through the train and cable car, of course, so there was some sort of fare adjustment I had to pay which was easy enough to do. I bet it regularly happens to tourists. Anyway, there was a helpful bus attendant fellow, who made sure I got on the right bus to where I had to go. There were 3 different lines and you get on at the back of the bus, and exit and pay the fare at the front, depending on where you had got on. He gave me a very useful map of the town. I managed to find the temple that I was staying the night in – Kongo Sanmai-in – and leave my bag whilst I went exploring. It was built in 1223. I had to reshuffle a few dates around when I was in London, so I ended up getting quite a large room all to myself (a triple…!) which cost me a little more, but the experience was definitely worth the price. Off I went and saw the largest cemetery in Japan – Okunoin. It is where a lot of feudal dynasties have been buried since the age when the town was founded. Kobo Dashi is also interred here in a mausoleum at the end of the cemetery. He was the founder of this community and sect of Buddhism and was an influential monk. It took a long while to wander around as it is fairly big, but very peaceful and thought provoking. I get the impression it could be quite an eerie place during the evening, or when there is fog around. This is the traditional entrance to the cemetery – called Ichinohashi – and you see a lot of pilgrims pay their respects here before entering.IMG_3932IMG_3967IMG_3937IMG_3938IMG_3946IMG_3949IMG_3959Then it was a nice little walk through the town, which is essentially just one long street full of unique shops and the odd cafe. I had a quick pork miso soup and sesame tofu thing for lunch which was about right and continued.IMG_3968I then found myself in the Danjo Garen complex at the other end of the long street which consists of a series of temples dedicated to Shingon Buddhism. Kobo Dashi played a big part in the design of these.  Apparently, he founded the community here because he found his ceremonial tool in a pine tree that he threw from China. The pine tree has become known as the three-pointed Vajera pine tree because the pine needles only fall in clusters of three and not five. The temples were all rebuilt several times since they were first constructed due to several lightening strikes over a period of time which has caused them to burn down. This has happened a lot in Japan. The main temple is the Konpon Daito Pagoda. Inside is a statue of Dainchi Nyorai who is the main Buddha worshipped in this particular sect. Otherwise known as the Cosmic Buddha, the origin is Indian.IMG_3972IMG_3973IMG_3985IMG_3988IMG_3991IMG_3994There is also a large hall called the Kondo Hall which is where major ceremonies are held. I also went to Kongobuji Temple which is the headquarters of this sect. There are lots of prayer rooms heavily decorated, with sliding doors.After a pop into the Reihokan museum, I headed back to the temple to check in. I was told that my evening meal would be served in my room at 17:30 and that the temple would be closed by 8pm. IMG_3948I was invited to attend a morning prayer ceremony in the morning at 06:30, and then have breakfast after. I was shown to my room and it was amazing. No shoes, obviously, and very basic to fit in with those who lived in the monastery. There was also a public bath (onsen), and this would only be available in the evening. I would be sleeping on a futon bed which would be made up after I had finished eating. I enjoyed the peace and quiet after a few hectic days. The food was incredible! No meat or fish, but I think there was tofu….I thought it would be quite a lonely experience, but I enjoyed the time to register my experiences so far….and to sort my bag out! Living out of a bag can be like playing a lucky dip sometimes – you’re never quite sure what clothes you’ll pull out. I was able to relax. IMG_4007IMG_4008IMG_4021IMG_4036IMG_4041The prayers the next morning was something that will stay with me for a long time. Even though I did not understand any of what was happening, there was a sense of spirituality and dedication from the monks who devote themselves to this way of life. We were invited to make a wish on a piece of wood which would get burned, as well as contribute to the incense burning by adding wood chips, and think about those who we would wish good health. It was quite meaningful actually and I would recommend it to anyone. IMG_4023IMG_4024IMG_4026IMG_4028IMG_4030IMG_4031IMG_4033Above: my supper! All of this just for one person….! In the big red dish on the floor was a huge amount of rice that I could not finish. You also got served rice for breakfast too. It was way too much food and consisted of mainly vegetables and carbs – but I wasn’t sure what most of it was. There was some sort of miso soup which was nice. Lots of tea!IMG_4043IMG_4044IMG_4045IMG_4046Breakfast: mainly pickles, seaweed, soup and rice. Oh, and gallons of tea. For the prayers in the morning, you had the opportunity to write a wish on. a piece of wood which would get burnt during a ceremony and the wish would be granted. Traditionally, these are more commonly known as Ema in the Shinto sect and are usually left hanging at the shrine to be received by the gods. IMG_4091