Laos: a country of beauty in a week

A four hour flight took me from Hanoi to Vientiane. You are explicitly informed on entering the country that possession or consumption of drugs carried the death penalty. Having only approximately half a day to explore the country’s capital, it was a quick trip to a few places. This included a massive Buddha park where you could climb inside a structure to the top of it and get a good view of the park – these included several steep steps and narrow crevices which were quite tricky to get up and down. This was built in 1958. Then a trip to Pha That Luang which is the national symbol of Laos. Built in the 16th century, it is a grand stupa covered in 500kg of gold and probably contains the ashes of a very rich family. Then went to Patuxay Victory gate which is a gate with great panoramic views from the top. It reminded me of the Arc de Triomphe and took 10 years to construct using funds from the US government as they had initially planned to build a runway there. The last stop was a temple called Hor Pha Keo which used to house the Emerald Buddha that I saw in Bangkok for 200 years until 1779. Then a journey to Vang Vieng which was amazing – the scenery is stunning. It’s very luscious and green with lots of mountains. But it was another drive through torrential rain. Apparently 75% of Laos is mountainous. After arriving in the town, it was time to wander down to the river where there was a good view and a good bar for a sundowner. The town was nice to walk around – there were lots of small businesses. The next day was a day of fun – I went tubing inside a cave where the current was quite strong, then a 5km kayak down the river – I hadn’t kayaked since I was a child but it was good fun and the weather was nice for it. A blue lagoon finished the day and I jumped from the highest branch which was terrifying! I’ve never been great with heights so it was a real challenge, especially with no ‘Health and Safety’ protocol. It was fun though, even with getting water up my nose! A nice evening out and a bit of a boogie was good to finish the day off. Heading out the next day for 8 hours along winding roads was a bit tricky, but at least it was great to look out of the window at the gorgeous views. Arrived at Luang Prabang and explored this lovely town. There was an extensive night market with a little street full of street vendors. Wandering around the town with the French architecture and French bakeries was quaint. I managed to find some great French baguette which cheered me up a heck of a lot! It only occurred to me here how extensive the French colonialism was and how much of Indochina was dominated. I visited the Grand Palace and a couple of temples as well as getting up a few steps to Mount Phousi which had a fantastic view at the top. Up bright and early to witness the local women giving Alms to the monks. This was mainly rice, and was expected to last them for the day ahead. This was quite a humbling experience as this shows you a glimpse into their lives. This sect of Buddhism allows young boys to become a monk if they wish, and this doesn’t have to be a lifelong commitment. They could partake in the way of life for a year only. I did see a monk smoking a cigarette though. The next leg of the journey was two full days along (approximately 20 hours) the Mekong river to get to the Thailand border at Bokeo. It was a lovely slow boat and a stopover for the night was at a local village half way at Pak Nguen. The people were very welcoming and the kids were friendly and playful. Sleeping with a mosquito net, basic bedding and no electricity gives you some perspective – something that I’m all too familiar with. Bed time at last light was done to ensure an early start for farming. The villagers all live until they are around 100 and it was easy to see why – the way of life was hard work, but happy, healthy and relaxed. The scenery along the Mekong was amazing. Little villages and large fields line the mountains along the way with parked boats popping out of the water. The different shades of green and variation in forestry make it look like a carpet or a quilt. Speed boats fly past occasionally disrupting the peace. Fishermen catching food from we also a regular sight. Crossed the boarder by foot back into Thailand at Chiang Khong and witnessed an almighty storm that evening whilst staying in the town. The black sky frequently lit up, and the wind was so strong that lots of lights wobbled and torrential rain pelted against the buildings for what seemed like ages. Laos has been a country of peaceful beauty. Only having a week to see some of the country has made me appreciate the scenery more. Would definitely like to return – this ‘return to places’ list is growing…..

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. I 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. ​​​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!There 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. Then 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. A 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. I 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. I 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.I 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.

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.Barrels of sake (above)I enjoyed getting my feet nibbled by fish – ticklish at first, but then it was ok!Had some lovely tempura and ramen too!Vending 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.

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 costed me a little more, but the experience was definitely worth the price. Off I went and saw the largest cemetary 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 cemetary. 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 cemetary – called Ichinohashi – and you see a lot of pilgrims pay their respects here before entering.Then 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.I 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. Othersise known as the Cosmic Buddha, the origin is Indian.There 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. I 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 monestery. 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. The 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 insense 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. Above and below: 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!Breakfast: 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. 

Day 1 – the beginning of #lexit

Woke up confused and realising that my life will now be different. Here I am sitting in Gatwick ready to board a flight to Lima (delayed however 🙄) and I’ve just realised how much it has taken for me to get here – all the hard work and planning has finally come to fruition. In this one particular moment, I’ve felt excitement, relief, anticipation of what lies ahead, nervousness (only natural and a positive thing), happiness and that feeling that you think you’ve not done something or left something behind. It’s very surreal. But I’m looking forward and upwards and not focusing on what I’ve left behind. I know I can do this and I’m sure there will be moments along the way that will catch me out but I say “Bring it On!”  Right – I should check the plane status situation – it would probably be a good idea if I got on it first!

A year to go until I fly outta here!

Well, would you look at that! It’s officially a year until I fly out to Lima to start my year of fun. Hurrah!

A friend of mine is also coming to Peru with me which is great as he had always wanted to do the Inca Trail as well. So at least I’ll have a friendly face at the start me off. I imagine I could feel a little overwhelmed initially! I’m hoping a few more friends come out and join me as some will be turning 30 in the same year.

I’ve started to make a list of all the important things I need to think about (visas, jabs etc). I’m not sure how I’d manage to flit between the various types of currency. Do I use my UK bank accounts? Is there a travelling bank account I could use? What if I buy souvenirs along the way and use up my whole rucksack space?? If they’re big items, I could try and post them home but that might be expensive?

Saving is going pretty well – I’m definitely having to be strict. But it’s worth it. I hold some shares at work so will sell them when the share price goes up a bit. I’ll have to look into renting my flat out too. Hopefully someone at work might be interested.

I’m enjoying reading travelling blogs on here and it makes me feel better that others have also felt the same things that I do. The same insecurities and doubts as well as enthusiasm. So yay! I’m not alone!

Exciting tales of adventures!

Last night I visited the Royal Geographical Society in London to hear a series of Microlectures given by 6 or 7 young people who had been on an ‘adventure’ in the last couple of years. Even though each speaker only had 10 minutes, their stories were inspiring. I particularly enjoyed the ones about India and Bolivia as they illustrated that anything is possible if somethings don’t exactly go to plan, or you don’t have a specific plan in the first place – this filled me with some confidence. I wished I had heard them speak more or had the opportunity to ask more questions. But I guess that’s what Twitter can be for if you can hunt them down!

One of the answers given by the Bolivia trip speaker to a question about getting lost was “If you don’t have a map, how can you get lost?”. Too true! All he knew was that he was walking from East to West India and had 2 months to do it. He lived on £1.50 a day and had great stories about things like sleeping on top of a bus shelter to avoid the big animals that had been in the area the night before.

Maybe I’ll have a go at speaking at the same lecture when I return from my travels….? They mentioned auditions last night for the same event next year I’ve never been good at public speaking, but things could change? Who knows!

Check out #rgsibgmicros on Twitter.