Asia

Five things you should do in Seoul

If you’re planning a visit to Seoul, there a couple of things that you should know before you go.

  • It’s absolutely MASSIVE.646
  • It’s really difficult to navigate your way around. The subway system is extensive but there are very few signposts pointing out the way to the various tourist attractions.

Put these two things together and the result is that you won’t manage to fit in nearly as much as you think you will. Therefore, I’ve selected five things that I think you really should do whilst you’re in Seoul.

5 – Gyeongbokgung Palace

There are several former royal palaces in Seoul but the biggest and grandest is Gyeongbokgung. If you arrive at the right time, you can see the changing of the guard ceremony. Even if you don’t time it right, you can still get pictures with the traditionally dressed guards before wandering around the palace grounds. The view of the palace, with the mountains behind, when you walk through the main gate, is extremely impressive.

How to get there: Gyeongbokgung station is on Subway Line 3.

4 – Insadong

Insadong is (or is trying to be) to Seoul what Gion is to Kyoto or the Hutongs are in Beijing. In a city where antiquity definitely takes a back seat to modernity, Insadong is a place where you can still find pockets of traditional Korean culture. There are lots of quirky little shops and art galleries to explore. The main attraction is the traditional tearooms and restaurants, where you can get authentic Korean food. We paid 12,000 KRW each for Bibimpbap (rice topped with sautéed vegetables), pajeon (a delicious savoury pancake) and all the accompanying side dishes, including the ubiquitous kimchi. The restaurants in Insadong certainly aren’t cheap, but the food is some of the best in Seoul. Be careful about ordering a kimchi and pork broth though. I’d lived in Asia for two and a half years before eating this and I was completely unprepared for the atomic spice hit that I got. I think my lips stopped stinging about eight hours later.

How to get there: Anguk station is also on Subway Line 3. Insadongil (the main street in Insadong) is a two minute walk from the station. It’s also possible to walk from Gyeongbokgung.

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3 – Escape the city for a day

According to Rough Guides “the vast majority of tourists to Korea get no further than Seoul.” Considering the compact size of the country and its excellent rail network, it seems like a lot of tourists are missing an opportunity. With the exception of Jeju Island, pretty much everywhere in South Korea is accessible in a day trip from Seoul. The most popular trip is to the DMZ, which is the no man’s land dividing the two Koreas. Unfortunately for us, our attempts to go there were about as successful as the supreme leader’s diet. We were reliably told by various sources that we could book DMZ tours four days in advance. However, when we arrived in Seoul, we discovered that all the days we wanted were booked up. If you really want to go I’d recommend booking a couple of weeks in advance. Alternative day trips close to Seoul include Bukhansan, reputedly the world’s busiest National Park, and Suwon Fortress. If you can spare a couple of days though, do what we did and go to one of the many ski resorts that are within a couple of hours of Seoul. Alpensia and Yongpyong, where we skied, are due to host the downhill events in the 2018 Winter Olympics. So we were kind of blazing a trail for the pros.

How to get there: There are buses to Yongpyong ski resort every morning from outside Seoul Olympic stadium. We booked our three day ski trip with a company called Sally Tours, whom I’d highly recommend. They also do DMZ tours.

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2 – Namsam Park and N-Seoul Tower

Namsam Park is an oasis of greenery in the midst of a concrete jungle. The park is pleasant to walk around but the main attraction is the N-Seoul Tower, which gives spectacular views of Seoul’s vast urban sprawl. From Seoul station, it is a ten minute walk to the park entrance. You can then walk up to the top of the hill, where the tower is located. Alternatively, if you’re pregnant, have mobility issues or you’re just plain lazy, there’s a cable car that does the same trip. To walk from the park entrance to the tower, it should take around 45 minutes to an hour. It gets pretty steep in parts so be prepared to get a bit hot and sweaty. Once you get to the top, there’s a plaza area where there are dancers and cultural performances. My favourite was a sword fighting demonstration. There are also a number of shops, including a Teddy Bear Museum, which absolutely delighted Janey. You can then pay 10,000 KRW to go to the top of the tower. This seems steep but the views are definitely worth the admission fee. I also liked the window displays, which showed how far various domestic and world cities are from Seoul. The fact that Pyongyang is closer to Seoul then Busan is seemed to underline the absurdity of the division between the two Koreas. Namsan and the Tower make a great afternoon out and I think it would be particularly appealing to anyone travelling with children.

How to get there: Seoul station is on Subway Lines 4 & 5. Walk out of the main exit and follow the signs for Namsam Park.

1 – Great Taekwondo Demonstration

Taekwondo is Korea’s national sport and one of the world’s most popular martial arts. It is unsurprising therefore, that Kukkiwon, the world taekwondo headquarters is based in Seoul. Every weeknight from 5 – 6 pm, tourists can go and watch a one hour demonstration performance. I love martial arts so I was always going to go. It’s testament to how incredible the show was that Janey, who isn’t really a fan of pugilism, enjoyed it nearly as much as I did. Mixed gender teams of young martial artists demonstrate an incredible repertoire of kicks jumps and throws, showing incredible grace and agility in the process. Interspersed with this, there are a few traditional dance segments, which I think are designed to show how taekwondo forms an intrinsic part of Korean culture. The best part of the performance is when the martial artists break blocks of wood with flying kicks and flips. At the end, audience members are invited up on stage to have a go at breaking one of the wooden blocks. There was no way I was missing that opportunity. I thought I was going to end up flat on my arse but somehow I did it. The kick was true and the wood broke into two pieces. The fact that the wood was almost certainly balsa is entirely irrelevant. At that moment, I felt like Bruce Lee.  It was the perfect ending to a truly memorable experience. Surprisingly, there were only about thirty people in the audience for the demonstration. It might not be one if Seoul’s best known or most popular attractions but, for me, it was definitely the best.

How to get there: Take Subway Line 2 to either Gangnam (yes that Gangnam) or Yeoksam. Kukkiwon is roughly equidistant between the two.

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Categories: Asia, Seoul, South Korea | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Ten things to do in Myanmar

Myanmar has an incredible amount to offer to travellers. Ancient cities, unspoilt countryside and some pristine beaches all combine to make it one of Asia’s most exciting destinations. However, it is also a fairly big country with very poor infrastructure. As most visitors only have around 2-3 weeks there, it’s unrealistic to think that you can see all of the country in that time. Personally, I would have loved to have seen Tsipaw, Ngapali Beach and the Mergui Archipelago but it wasn’t possible in my two week timeframe. Based on the experiences that I did have though, I ‘ve put together this list of ten things I think you should do in Myanmar.

10) Yangon Circular Train

The name is a bit of a giveaway for this one. There is a local commuter train that takes a circuitous three hour loop through Yangon’s suburbs and into the surrounding countryside. The attraction is that you see a real picture of daily life in the city, which obviously makes for some brilliant photo opportunities. However, I wouldn’t recommend doing the whole three hour loop, as we did. After a while it starts to get a bit monotonous and it certainly isn’t comfortable. Alternatively, get on the train, travel a few stops and take a few pictures, then get off and take a taxi back to central Yangon.

 

9) Red Mountain Winery

They make wine in Myanmar? Really?! Yes, that was my reaction as well when I first heard about it. It’s true though. Around ten to fifteen years ago, some French and German winemakers set up some vineyards near Inle Lake. Red Mountain, the French owned winery, is just a 40 minute bike ride from Nyaungshwe, on the shores of Inle Lake. What you can do is taste the wine (3000 Kyat will buy you tasters of five of the most popular wines) and enjoy a delicious meal in a stunning setting. We treated ourselves to three courses, a taster set and an extra glass each and it still only come to around 12,000 Kyat each! Don’t expect that much from the wine but it’s perfectly palatable and well worth the ride out of town.

8) Experience a festival

This shouldn’t be too difficult in Myanmar. They seem to happen all the time! The day after we arrived in Yangon it was a full moon festival. In Kalaw, we saw a fire festival. At Inle 3000 monks and nuns were heading to a temple on the lake for an almsgiving ceremony. In Popa, we saw young girls and boys all finely dressed up in preparation for entry into the novitiate. If you do see one of these festivals, you probably won’t have a clue what’s going on. Don’t worry about that though. Just sit back and enjoy the craziness.

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7) Sunset at U Bein Bridge

U Bein is a teak wood bridge that stretches across the Ayerwady River, near the town of Annapura, about 20 kilometres outside of Mandalay. The picture of local people walking across at sunset is one of Myanmar’s most iconic images, right up there with the balloons over Bagan. For 12,000 Kyat you can pay a local boatman to take you out into the middle of the river, from where you can get the best photos. Yes it’s clichéd. Yes it’s crowded, but the classics are the classics for a reason. The photos are amazing.

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6) Innwa

Myanmar seems to have had an incredible number of capital cities in its tumultuous history. The one that served as the capital for the longest though was Innwa, until it was devastated by a massive earthquake in 1839. Today, you can visit the ruins of the city, which are situated on a bend in the Ayerwady River, not too far from Mandalay. It’s actually possible to combine Innwa, U Bein and Sagaing into a single day trip. The ruins are probably small enough to walk around if you can endure the heat. The thing to do in Innwa though is to hire a horse drawn cart to take you around the ruins, for 10,000 Kyat. It takes about an hour and a half in total and you can stop and take as many photos as you like. Be prepared for some extremely persistent salespeople though. One lady actually jumped on her bicycle and followed our cart until we eventually felt so guilty that we had to buy something from her!

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5) Mandalay to Bagan ferry

Travel in Myanmar isn’t easy. It’s still an incredibly poor country and the roads are not in great shape. Overnight trains are supposed to be unspeakably horrific and domestic airlines have rather dubious safety records. So just once, why not treat yourself and travel in a more luxurious way? That’s what we did when we took the ferry from Mandalay to Bagan. It was $42 as opposed to $18 on the bus. I can assure you that it was worth every cent of those extra $24 though. You get two meals and you can order beer, tea or coffee on board. If you like, you can sit up on deck and take in the views. You could snooze the journey away. Or you could do what I did and read pretty much all of George Orwell’s “Burmese Days” in the country where it was set. Truly idyllic.

4) Bagan

I wrote about Bagan in more detail here so this is the concise version. There are hundreds of temples and pagodas spread out over a massive plain. They are all pretty impressive in their own right but throw in the spectacular sunrises and the balloon rides (presuming you’re as rich as a Russian oligarch) and you can see what makes Bagan so special.

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3) Inle Lake

Bagan’s main rival for the most popular tourist destination in Myanmar is Inle Lake. Located in Shan State, Inle can justifiably claim to be one of the most beautiful and unique places in South East Asia. The way the locals live their lives on the lake is fascinating. From the standing rowers, to the floating gardens and the stilt houses, the views are constantly captivating. It’s also a great place to just go and relax for a few days. I spent my birthday there. I certainly wasn’t disappointed.

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2) Kalaw trekking

What could be even better than Inle Lake? Trekking there from Kalaw of course. For me, this was the highlight of my time in Myanmar. The countryside is incredibly picturesque, the trek isn’t too challenging and you get to witness a way of life that is seemingly the same as it has always been. I’ve done quite a few treks in South East Asia. This was my favourite one. Read more about it here.

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1) Shwedagon Pagoda

If any one place could be called the cultural and spiritual centre of Myanmar, it’s Shwedagon. This enormous golden pagoda is located in the heart of Yangon and attracts pilgrims and visitors from all over the country. The best time to visit is late afternoon for two reasons. Firstly, you have to go barefooted. If you do this in the middle of the day, you will burn your feet pretty badly. Secondly, at dusk (around 6:20 on the day we went there) the lights are switched on and the pagoda appears to change colour. The effect is absolutely spectacular. It’s one of the most impressive religious buildings I’ve ever been to.

 

 

Categories: 10 things to do in Myanmar, Asia, Myanmar, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bagan

It was 5:30 am, pitch black and freezing cold. We were on a small country road in Myanmar and the lights had just failed on Janey’s rented E-Bike. This wasn’t the start we were hoping for from our trip to Bagan.

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Bagan is Myanmar’s answer to Angkor Wat. Hundreds of temples and pagodas are scattered across a vast plain in the south-west of the Mandalay region. When Tony and Maureen Wheeler travelled around South East Asia in 1975 (the trip that spawned the first Lonely Planet book) they declared Bagan to be their highlight of the entire region. For years though it was neglected due to Myanmar’s self-imposed isolation and a devastating earthquake the year after the Wheeler’s visit. Now though the secret is well and truly out. Hordes of tourists are flocking into Myanmar and Bagan is the top destination on most of their lists.

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The most popular thing to do in Bagan is watch the sun rise over the plains, thus illuminating the temples and the hot air balloons that fly over them at dawn. This was how Janey and I found ourselves in our little spot of bother. It was our first full day in Bagan and we’d set the alarm for the ungodly hour of 4:45, to ensure that we’d find a good spot to watch the sunrise. As the temples are spread out over a very large area, you need some transport to get around. Unlike Siem Reap, there are no tuk-tuk drivers waiting around for a fare at 5am. You have to go it alone. Consequently, the most popular type of transport are E-Bikes; noiseless environmentally friendly electric scooters that work on dirt tracks as well as the main roads. Surprisingly for someone who has travelled so much, I’ve never actually ridden a motorbike. There was a misadventure involving a quadbike and a wall in Ecuador, which I’ve always maintained was down to the bike locking up, but may have involved the tiniest bit of driver error but that’s all. Therefore, it was with more than a little trepidation that I got on the bike and tested it out. It was then that I made my first major error of the day. I asked the guy if he had any helmets. The look he gave me was half horrified, half pitying. “What is this halfwit thinking?” he presumably muttered to himself in Burmese. “This is Asia, we don’t do helmets here.” I was crushed. He must have taken me for some sort of Asia freshie, not the gnarled veteran of many Asian campaigns that I like to think I am.

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Nervously, we edged the bikes out onto the road, trying not to think of what my mother would say if she could see me riding without a helmet. In the middle of the night. In a country with notoriously bad roads. Everything went reasonably well at first; we got confident enough to push the speed up to a dizzying 30 kph. Then things started to unravel. We couldn’t find the temple we were looking for and then Janey’s bike light failed. As so often happens in situations like this though, a guardian angel appeared. His name was Lin Lin and he was just cruising around on his motorbike at 5am. We explained our predicament to him and instead of guiding us to the place that we had intended to go to, he took us to a much smaller pyramid. We had it all to ourselves and arrived in time to witness a truly mesmerising sunrise. Afterwards, it turned out that Lin Lin wasn’t just an altruist. He did have some paintings to sell. They were of such good quality though and he had been so kind that we bought two of them. They now hang proudly in the living room of our flat. Thanks Lin Lin!

Over the next three days, we took the E-Bikes all over Bagan and saw as many temples as possible. So now, there’s some advice I’d like to impart to anyone who is thinking of visiting Bagan. Firstly, don’t go chasing particular temples. Bagan isn’t very well signposted and if you do this you’ll just end up getting frustrated as you’ll spend a long time trying to find what you’re looking for. You may even end up with the E-Bikes stuck in thick sand as you’ve gone off track to “find a shortcut.” It’s far better just to ride around and stop whenever you see something that you like, which will be frequently. Secondly, it’s asking a lot of yourself to see sunrise and sunset in one day. Try to spread it out so you see one of each on different days. However, if your time is limited and you really have to choose, go for sunrise. The colours are better and the balloons over the temples are wonderfully photogenic.

Earlier, I said that Bagan was Myanmar’s answer to Angkor Wat. So, how does it compare to South East Asia’s most visited tourist attraction? Thee honest response is it’s great but it isn’t as good as Angkor. Part of this is due to the fact that it seems less authentic. A lot of the temples were crudely rebuilt after the earthquake, meaning that it doesn’t have the same feeling of antiquity. Furthermore, as more and more tourists flood into Myanmar, the local authorities will need to start signposting things better and providing maps that are actually accurate! However, taken on its own merits, Bagan is a highly photogenic and pretty unique place. It’s certainly worthy of its top billing in Myanmar. I’d highly recommend it.

TRAVEL TIPS

You have to pay $20 US to enter the Bagan Archaeological Zone. Once you’ve bought this, you’re free to travel around as much or as little as you like.

Categories: Asia, Bagan, Myanmar, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Trekking in Myanmar

There are few countries in the world that are changing as rapidly as Myanmar. Ever since the military junta started the transition to quasi-democracy in 2010 the country has been transformed. Friends of ours who lived in Yangon from 2010 – 2013 reported that at that time there were no ATMs in the whole country and smartphones were something that only existed in other parts of the world. Now these are becoming just as ubiquitous as everywhere else.  The other effect of Myanmar shaking off its self-imposed shackles has been a sharp increase in the number of tourists coming to the country. Myanmar is now what Cambodia was like fifteen years ago; the up and coming destination in South East Asia. Although travelling there is still a unique experience, the natural inclination is to feel like you’re a little late to the party. However, it is still possible to see the more traditional side of Myanmar. You just have to put on your hiking boots and get out into the countryside.

One of the most popular trekking destinations in the country is the town of Kalaw, on the southern edge of Shan State. There are about ten different trekking companies in town. We chose to go with Uncle Sam’s, which is the oldest and most well-established of the ten. Uncle Sam himself is now a rather old man but in 1989 it was he who pioneered the idea of trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake. Back then, there must have only been a few intrepid travellers. Now though it’s boom time. Several groups make the trip every day, choosing between two and three day options. We decided to go for the two day trek and were joined by two German ladies and a Canadian man. On the first morning, we were driven to the village of Larmine where we began our trek. We instantly felt like we’d been transported back in time about 100 years. The villagers were using oxen to plow the fields and their carts didn’t even have tyres on the wheels. Clearly, Apple and Samsung hadn’t made it this far yet. The other striking thing was the breathtakingly beautiful landscape. Gently undulating hills and patchwork fields proliferated as far as the eye could see. Our track crossed over a railway line. It was so overgrown and in such a state of disrepair that it couldn’t possibly be in use. Of course I was wrong. Ten minutes later a train came puffing and straining along the track at a snail’s pace. If it was racing us to Inle, then we surely would have won.

Our first stop was at a Pa O tribe village where we witnessed an old lady weaving the elaborate traditional garments which the tribes sell at markets. Later, we continued to a second village where Su, our guide, cooked us a mouth-watering lunch on just an open fire. The afternoon  was a bit more challenging as the sun got higher and the terrain became rockier. The views over the Shan hills were more than adequate reward for our exertion though. Finally, we arrived at the village where we would spend the night and had some extremely welcome cold Myanmar beer. Once again, Su worked some miraculous culinary alchemy with incredibly meagre resources. By 9pm, we were all in “bed” (thin nobbly mattresses on a wooden floor). The livestock slept under the house below us. Needless to say, it wasn’t the most comfortable night’s sleep and it was a relief when Su woke us with glasses of hot ginger tea, which she had bizarrely filled with salt. She couldn’t get everything right I guess.

The morning of Day 2 was my favourite part of the trek. A cloak of mist hung low over the valley we were in and the dew was still falling. We walked across moorland which was surprisingly reminiscent of North Yorkshire and into a forest. The trail was winding its way up through the trees when, all of a sudden, the sun started to appear through the mist. It reminded me of the scene in “Lord of the Rings” when the White Wizard appears to Gimli, Aragorn and Legolas in the forest!

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Soon the trail met the road and we were able to look down on the clouds which were still hanging over the valley.  Pick-up trucks full of saffron clad monks roared past us. Later we would encounter them all chopping up a fallen “holy” tree for firewood. Some of them must have been as young as ten but not a single one of them was complaining about the hard physical labour. After a final refreshment stop, it was all downhill to the village of Tone Le were our trek finished.  From there, we were taken by boat onto Inle Lake where we saw the floating gardens and marvelled at the famous standing rowers. If I tried that, I would most definitely end up in the water. Eventually, the boat docked at the town of Nyaungshwe where we made our way to our hotels and much needed hot showers.

Before going to Myanmar this trek had been one of the things that I had most looked forward to. So, did it live up to my expectations? Absolutely. Away from the hustle and bustle of the big cities, Myanmar is a staggeringly beautiful country. It was also a real eye-opener to see people still living without basic amenities such as running water or electric light, things that we take for granted in the developed world. Despite these handicaps though, the people seemed genuinely happy. In the next ten to twenty years this will probably all change and the and the villagers will embrace the progress of the modern world. However, I’m glad to say that I saw it now, before these traditional ways of life start to disappear forever.

TRAVEL TIPS

I cannot recommend Uncle Sam’s highly enough. Su, our guide, spoke excellent English, was very knowledgeable and was an outstanding cook. The price of the trek depends on the number of people in the group. As there were five of us, it cost us 40,000 Kyats each. You can find the Uncle Sam’s office in Kalaw. It’s opposite the Nepalese restaurant, which is imaginatively named “Everest.”

Categories: Asia, Myanmar, Trekking in Myanmar | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Twelve reasons to love Vietnam

  • There is no such thing as a load that is too big to be carried on the back of a bicycle or scooter. Pigs, patio chairs, lawnmowers; they can all fit on the back of a tiny Honda cub. It’s also not that uncommon to see entire families of five or six people on the one moped.
  • Standard traffic rules don’t seem to apply in Vietnam. When approaching a crossroads, you shouldn’t slow down, you should continue at exactly the same speed and honk your horn. It’s everyone else’s responsibility to get out of YOUR way.

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  • Being on the back of one those speeding motorcycles is simultaneously the most terrifying and most exhilarating moment of your life, up to that point.
  • Pavements are definitely not for walking on. They are where business is done. Entire shops and restaurants are situated on tiny patches of pavement. If you want to walk, you’re going to have to take your chances in the road.
  • Speaking of the street hawkers, there is literally no dish that the Vietnamese cannot prepare in a wok whilst crouched down on the street. Ask them politely enough and they’d probably be able to whip you up an entire Sunday roast.
  • Sticking with the food. It is SENSATIONAL. Easily some of the best that South East Asia has to offer and surely there’s no higher compliment than that. Any cuisine that can make both tofu and cucumber taste good must truly be one of the world’s finest.
  • The coffee is pretty bloody awesome as well. In Hanoi, don’t be alarmed if you get egg in your coffee. The Vietnamese are just so good at this kind of thing that they actually make egg coffee work.
  • If you happen to like a beer or two, than Vietnam is the place for you. It has absurdly low prices. In Hanoi, I got two pints for eighty-three pence. TWO PINTS FOR EIGHTY-THREE PENCE! It’s probably a good job I don’t live there.
  • The Vietnamese appear to be rather fond of a drink themselves. We went cycling in the countryside round Hoi An one Saturday morning and passed a couple of wedding parties. Everyone was leathered and the karaoke had already started. It wasn’t even midday.
  • We went on a Halong Bay cruise. Some of us jumped off the top deck of the boat into the water. The captain went absolutely mental. Five minutes later the other crew members were throwing beers down to us, that we drank in the bath like waters of one of the world’s most beautiful bays.092
  • Every hour is happy hour, not just in bars and restaurants, but also at market stalls. Happy hour can also be extended from a 10pm finish until a 3am finish if enough people are buying cocktails.
  • The real highlight of Vietnam though is the people themselves. They are friendly and innovative (especially when it comes to making money) and they have some of the best standards of customer service that I have encountered anywhere in the world. They’ll go out of their way to ensure that your stay in Vietnam is a memorable one. And they’ll succeed.

TRAVEL TIPS

Two places that we stayed at in Vietnam are worthy of the highest praise and recommendation. Finnegans, in Hanoi, was one of the best hotels that we’ve stayed at in Asia. It’s got a great location in the heart of the old town in Hanoi, and the staff are absolutely outstanding. When we took a taxi to the train station to take us to Hue, one of the hotel staff followed us on his motorbike just so he could show us to our beds on the train. http://hanoifinneganshotel.com/

Just as impressive was the Tea Gardens homestay in Hoi An. Thanh, the lady that runs the place (pictured above)is absolutely lovely. No favour was too much to ask and every question was met with a smile. Furthermore, for the price, the room was seriously luxurious. http://teagardenhomestay.com/

 

Categories: 12 reasons to love Vietnam, Asia, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , | 8 Comments

The top 5 places to visit in Kyoto

It isn’t easy planning a trip to Japan. The land of the rising sun has an incredible range of options for tourists. You could go skiing in Hokkaido, shopping in Tokyo or scuba diving in Okinawa. Pretty much every city has a wealth of cultural options, outstanding local cuisine and lots of opportunities to party hard. With this much to choose from, how do you decide where to go? One city features on nearly every tourist’s itinerary though; the truly outstanding Kyoto.

Kyoto was the capital of Japan until it was usurped by Tokyo in 1868. In many ways though, Kyoto is still the cultural capital. Whereas the vast concrete jungle of Tokyo can sometimes feel a bit soulless, Kyoto is everything you imagine Japan to be before you go there. From the geisha district of Gion, to smoky little izikaya bars, to the many temples and shrines that are dotted around the city, Kyoto has something to offer everyone. The fact that the city is absolutely beautiful doesn’t hurt either! We weren’t too bothered about spotting Geishas, so for us the main attractions were the temples and shrines and we certainly weren’t disappointed. Here are what I think are the top 5 best places to visit in Kyoto.

5) Sanjusangen-do (the one with the 1001 Buddha statues)

Sanjusangen-do is a long wooden temple, located in the East of the city. It’s not that spectacular from the outside. The inside though is an incredible spectacle. 1001 Buddha statues stand to attention, guarded by some truly bad-ass looking warriors. It’s a really incredible sight and well worth the entrance fee, even though you’re not allowed to take photos inside.

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4) Kiyomizu-dera (the one that hangs over a valley)

Kiyomizu-dera is one of Kyoto’s most famous and popular attractions. The temple itself juts out over a valley, meaning that the best photos are actually taken from the hill opposite the temple. From the bus stop on the main road, you have to walk up a very steep hill, which is lined with shops and restaurants selling all kinds of snacks and souvenirs. Be warned though, we went on a Sunday afternoon and it was absolute bedlam! I’ve rarely seen so many tourists trying to crowd into one place. For this reason, Kiyomizu-dera is probably best visited early in the morning.

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3) Kinkakuji (the golden temple)

If Kiyomizu-dera is one of the most famous attractions in Kyoto, then Kinkakuji is one of the most famous in all of Japan. This is the mythical sounding golden temple. Even if you’ve never even thought of going to Japan, there’s a good chance you’ll have seen a picture of this place. The temple sits on the edge of a lake, and on a clear day the image of the temple is reflected in the water. It looks spectacular and is well worthy of its exalted reputation. On a slightly unrelated note, it also had one of the best badly written English signs I’ve ever seen!

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2) Fushimi-Inari (the one with all the orange pillars)

Unlike the other places on the list, Fushimi-Inari is a shrine rather than a temple. The reason for its fame and popularity is the four kilometre path, which leads to the shrine at the top of the hill. More than 10,000 “tori” gates line the pathways, giving the impression of being inside a tunnel. It’s really atmospheric and totally unique. The four kilometres up and then down are also great exercise and a good way of working off all the previous night’s excess sake and yakitori chicken consumption.

1) Ginkakuji (the silver temple)

It’s rare that silver is better than gold, but in Kyoto it is. Ginkakuji was built in the same style as its more famous relation. The builders didn’t just succeed in paying homage to Kinkakuji though. They went and made somewhere even better, and it’s undoubtedly my favourite place in to visit in Kyoto. The temple is approached by walking along the evocatively named “Philosophers Path,” which follows the side of a canal that skirts the hills on the eastern fringe of the city. The path is beautiful in its own right, but what lies at the end of it is absolutely stunning. The temple is surrounded by a perfectly maintained Zen garden. A circuitous path takes visitors all around the garden, and offers views of the temple from a variety of different angles. What’s great about Ginkakuji is it’s not nearly as crowded as any of the other temples, meaning that you can experience moments of pure solitude and tranquility. Believe me, that is extremely difficult to manage in Japan! I’ve lived in Asia for nearly two years. I also have a fiancée that could never get tired of visiting temples so I’ve visited an incredible number of them over that time. Ginkakuji was right up there with the very best.

TRAVEL TIPS

With the exception of Fushimi-Inari, you could fit all of these places into one long day if you wanted. To do so, you’ll need a one day bus pass which offers you unlimited travel on all city buses, and is excellent value at just 500 Yen. That’s about £2:60 or $4 USD.

Categories: Asia, Japan, Kyoto | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Another side of Penang

As evocative nicknames go, Penang’s claim to be the “Pearl of the Orient” takes some beating. But is it accurate? That name conjures up images of pristine beaches and wild untamed jungles. There’s a lot to love about Penang, mainly the outstanding food and a wealth of cultural attractions, but unspoilt it most certainly is not. The entire East side of the island has been massively overdeveloped. This has led to subsequent environmental problems, including landslides, traffic congestion and air pollution. Not what one would imagine the Pearl of the Orient to be like! The West side of the island is an entirely different proposition though. There, high rise condos are replaced by traditional fishing villages. Glitzy shopping malls are nowhere to seen. Instead, paddy fields and mangrove forests dominate the landscape. It’s like travelling back to a time when Penang’s claim to be the Pearl of the Orient was justified.DSCF6038

Prior to this January, I’d lived in Penang for a year and a half but hadn’t yet visited the less explored side of the island. This was until a colleague recommended a company called Explore Balik Pulau who conduct guided cycling tours around that area. As my brother, also a cycling enthusiast, was coming to visit, this seemed like the perfect opportunity. To get to Balik Pulau we first had to drive to Teluk Bahang at the northwest tip of the island and then turn inland. The road from there to Balik Pulau is high and winding and not for the faint of stomach! I felt rather queezy by the time we arrived. The Explore Balik Pulau office is located on the main road, between the village of Sungai Pinang and the town of Balik Pulau. We began our tour from there and first cycled to a traditional Malay stilt village. Our guide, Eddie Chew, explained that in days gone by that if one of the villagers had wanted to move house, they would do exactly that! They would uproot the house from where it stood and the entire community would lend a helping hand to move it.

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From the stilt village we cycled along the banks of a small river, where beef cattle were grazing, until we reached a Chinese fishing village. There wasn’t a lot to see here apart from a charming little Taoist temple. However, the main point of interest was just how different life is from the other side of the island. It’s highly unlikely that the residents of Georgetown could leave their front doors wide open when they go out! The fishermen also seemed to use very basic boats and tools. This was subsistence living, not big industry fishing.

After a short time in the village we got back on the bikes and continued cycling. Penang can sometimes seem like quite a large island. Our next destination showed us that this certainly isn’t the case. Eddie led us to a point on the coast where we could see the northern tip of the island in one direction, and the southern tip in another. The sea seemed quite choppy so we didn’t stray too close to the edge. You wouldn’t want to get swept out to sea here. The closest landmass is Sumatra, two hundred kilometres away to the west.

For the next leg of the journey we cycled back inland to a mangrove forest, where we got off the bikes and took a short walk. Then it was onwards to the best part of the trip; the paddy fields. It was absolutely surreal to think that this was the same island as the concrete jungle to the East. Along the road we stopped for refreshment. A local Malay woman had set up stall under a tree in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. There she sold fresh coconut and sugar cane juice for 1 ringgit a cup. Not only was this ridiculously cheap but it was also wonderfully refreshing and sustained us for the final leg of the journey. As we left her stall, the sun was beginning to set over the paddy fields making for some spectacular views. Some local kids seemed beguiled by our presence. In Tanjung Bungah or Batu Ferringhi a white face wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow. This was another reminder of just how different the west side of the island is.

It was a short ride from the paddy fields back to the office. In total we had cycled fourteen kilometres and seen a great variety of different places. What I enjoyed the most about the tour was the sense that this was a side of Penang that very few tourists, or even locals, actually see. To be honest, I hope it stays that way.

TRAVEL TIPS

The tour was extremely cheap at just 30 RM per person. You can contact Explore Balik Pulau via their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/explorebalikpulau?fref=ts or by calling them on +60 16 452 2100

Categories: Asia, Balik Pulau cycling, Malaysia, Penang | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Skiing in Niseko

Ask most non-skiers where they think the best ski resorts in the world are, the chances are they’ll say Switzerland or France. Some might suggest the Canadian Rockies. Hardly any will mention Japan. However, surprisingly to many, the land of the rising sun is one of the world’s very best skiing and snowboarding destinations. Japan receives an incredible 5.5 metres (18 feet) of snow a year, nearly all of which is fresh powder. If you’re into winter sports, that’s the stuff that dreams are made of. There are also over five hundred different ski resorts to choose from. One stands head and shoulders above the others though; Japan’s answer to Whistler, the truly majestic Niseko.

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Janey and I were lucky enough to spend four days in Niseko over Christmas, the centrepiece of our three week holiday to Japan. From the moment we arrived there, we fell in love with the place. That was despite having to endure a blizzard on the way from the bus station to our lodge. We later found out that we could have organised a pick up! The lodge itself was a large part of what made our stay in Niseko so memorable. Sat by a roaring log fire, with a cup of hot mulled wine, whilst the snowstorms raged outside, it felt like heaven on earth to me.

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Our first day of skiing, on Christmas Eve, was a frustrating one. It had been twenty months since our previous trip to the Sierra Nevada in Spain. Where had all the progress gone? I couldn’t seem to even change direction without falling over! The only consolation was that falling into the powder snow, felt like falling into the softest pillow you could ever imagine. December 24th was spent in Gran Hirafu, the largest of the four connected resorts that make up Niseko United. On Christmas Day, we went to Annupuri, which was much quieter and far closer to our lodge. I started tentatively at first, but bit my bit my confidence started to grow. I was doing entire runs without falling over! Then, on about my fourth run, I just let it go. I was skiing with complete confidence and freedom. The feeling of liberation was incredible. On the final run before lunch, we then got an amazing surprise Christmas present. For the first time in three days, the clouds cleared, and were treated to some absolutely mesmerising views of Mount Niseko.

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When I woke up on Boxing Day, every muscle in my body ached. My lower back was stiff and walking downstairs was a bit of an ordeal. Even though it was our last day, I couldn’t find any motivation. That was until Alan, the lodge manager, told me “there’s not many times in your life when you’ll ski on sixty centimetres of fresh snow.” SIXTY CENTIMETRES?!?! Was that really how much had fallen overnight?! Apparently it was and remarkably all my aches and pains disappeared rather rapidly. Within half an hour we were back out on the slopes for one of the best days of my life so far. In the morning, we sessioned the green runs four times, to refine our techniques, in preparation for taking on a red run. This had been my aim at the start of the three days. Now it was time to make it happen. When we stepped out of the gondola, at the top of the red run, the conditions were atrocious. Visibility was about two metres, the temperature was about minus ten, and the winds meant business. Getting to the bottom in one piece was going to be a bit of a test! Amazingly, we proved to be up to the challenge. It took about half an hour as we had to frequently stop to check that we were going in the correct direction. However, in the end we made it to the bottom without falling once. This was utterly exhilarating and a proud achievement. So we did it again for good measure, this time in slightly more clement conditions.

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The only thing that could top that morning was what was to come later in the day; night skiing. If there is one problem with Niseko, it’s that the majority of time the visibility isn’t good. The Siberian winds and eighteen feet of snow might have something to do with that. However, once the afternoon light fades, the floodlights are switched on, and the effect is just magical. Visibility is perfect, and to make it even better, the slopes are practically empty. Skiing through thick powder, on an almost empty piste in what felt like the middle of the night, is one of the best things I’ve ever done. We rounded off the day with a trip to the natural onsen (a volcanic hot spring) and some hot sake. Life really doesn’t get much better.

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Leaving Niseko the next day was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I’ve caught the skiing bug badly. Our first trip to Sierra Nevada planted the seed. Niseko made it blossom into a true and burning love! I now think regularly about different places we could ski in around the planet. Mongolia, Serbia and Chile are some of the more random ones I’ve come up with. One thing is for certain though; wherever we go next, it will be almost impossible for it to match up with Niseko.

TRAVEL TIPS

Annupuri Oasis Lodge is one of the best places I’ve ever stayed in. I’d choose to stay there over any five star hotel. Visit their website at http://www.annupurioasislodge.com/

Categories: Asia, Japan, Skiing in Niseko | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Operation Snow Monkey

Japan; the land of the rising sun. Home to sushi, sumo and samurai. It’s one of the most evocative and distinct destinations on earth. Prior to last December, I’d wanted to go there for years. Our three week Christmas holiday gave me the perfect opportunity. Janey, my better half, was somewhat sceptical though. Understandably, she was concerned about the financial impact of three weeks in one of Asia’s most expensive countries. I had to do something to persuade her. Thus, Operation Snow Monkey was born.

During my research about Japan, I’d found out about a group of Japanese long-tailed monkeys who live near Kambayashi onsen in Nagano prefecture. Their claim to fame is that they escape the bitter winter cold by bathing in the onsen, a natural volcanic hot spring. They’re also exceptionally cute. And Janey has a big weakness for cute fluffy things. Part one of Operation Snow Monkey involved “accidentally” leaving my phone lying around or my laptop screen open, with pictures of cute snow monkeys on them. “Who are they?” Janey asked. “They’re called snow monkeys, they live in Japan” I casually declared. The seed was planted. After a few days of this, the build up was over and I went for the winning shot. “You know if we went to Japan at Christmas, you could see the snow monkeys…………..” SUCCESS!! We were going to Japan!

The day after our flight arrived in Nagoya, we stepped off a train in Nagano, right into some of the foulest winter weather imaginable. It was cold, wet sleet. By the time we had walked the short distance to our hostel we were freezing, miserable and soaked to the skin. Had it all been a big mistake coming to Japan in the winter? The next day assuaged our doubts spectacularly.

After a morning spent visiting Nagano’s stunning Zenko-ji temple, we boarded a bus to take us to the monkey park. Throughout the journey the snow was coming down really hard and the bus even had to stop to put snow chains on the wheels. Then, all of a sudden, we were deposited by the side of the road in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. From the road, a track meandered up through snow covered pine forest towards the monkey park. Our guidebook understated the length of the walk (it took us forty minutes rather than twenty) but overstated the difficulty level. It’s actually an easy stroll, as long as you have strong footwear.

During the walk a full scale blizzard started. At one point it was blowing horizontally into our faces. We were going to have to work to see these monkeys. It was well worth it in the end though. The onsen, despite being a bit of a tourist trap, was a truly unique place. Some of the mother monkeys clutched their tiny offspring to their bosoms for warmth, while others sat in the water, enjoying the searing heat. Occasionally, a fight would break out but for the most part, the monkeys seemed gloriously content in their little oasis from the cold. All the while the blizzard raged around us, making the visit even more memorable.

On our walk back to the road, night was beginning to fall, giving the forest an almost ethereal nature. At times it felt like we were walking through Narnia! A cup of hot sake, in the café at the bottom, warmed our bones and put the seal on a truly unforgettable experience.

Over the next three weeks, Japan completely exceeded our expectations. The visit to the monkey park remained one of the very best days though. Operation Snow Monkey was a complete success!

TRAVEL TIPS

We took a bus from Nagano station to the monkey park. It took us about one hour and cost 1300 Yen. These leave pretty frequently throughout the day. Be careful not to miss the last bus back from the monkey park though! This departed at 5:30pm.

Categories: Asia, Japan, Snow Monkeys | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Climbing Mount Rinjani

When I was a young boy my parents always used to take my siblings and I walking. Every bank holiday weekend, when our classmates were going to the seaside or to a theme park, we were tramping up and down the hills of the Lake District or Snowdonia. Needless to say, at the time we hated it. However, over the years, this fostered a love of the great outdoors that still persists to this day. By the time I was fifteen, I’d climbed all the three peaks of Britain. However, until last year, my love for walking had gone cold for a long time. That was until I climbed Mount Kinabalu and it completely reawakened my enthusiasm. New challenges needed to be sought. A colleague suggested Indonesia’s Mount Rinjani, reputedly even more spectacular than Kinabalu. In no time at all, flights were booked and a reservation was made. We were going trekking up an active volcano!

Situated on the island of Lombok, Rinjani is Indonesia’s second highest volcano, no mean feat in a country that has over a hundred of them. The summit of the volcano stands at 3726 metres. However, the main reason for Rinjani’s popularity is not the summit, but a spectacular crater lake, with the volcano’s new cone rising out of the centre. There are a plethora of trekking options available, ranging from one day to four days. We booked a three day, two night trek, which gives the option whether to go the summit or not.

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On day one, our trek began from the village of Senaru. The first section of the trek was through the jungle and was actually very comfortable. The heat wasn’t too stifling and the gradient was only slight, a far cry from the steep steps of Kinabalu. After around three hours we stopped for lunch and we saw the first negative aspect of Rinjani. The picnic area was covered in rubbish. Furthermore, the lunch that the porters cooked for us, although delicious, was far more than we could possibly eat. This meant that large quantities were wasted. As trekking up Rinjani becomes more popular, the companies are going to have to try to manage their environmental impact much more carefully.

After lunch, the walk became more challenging. Once we cleared the tree line, we emerged into savannah style terrain. Here the topsoil was almost non-existent, making maintaining our footing extremely difficult. The dust that this created stung our eyes, throats and nostrils. I resorted to drastic measures and wrapped my sweat towel around my face to combat it! Finally, after about seven hours of walking, we arrived at our campsite overlooking the crater rim. The second part of the trek had been arduous and the night time temperatures were freezing. However, the views of the lake, the stars, and Bali’s Mount Agung in the distance, made all the effort worthwhile.

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On day two we had the option of getting up very early and heading for the summit, or a trek down into the crater to swim in the lake, and visit the hot springs. Having been to the summit of South East Asia’s highest mountain a couple of months earlier, we had nothing to prove to ourselves and decided to have a few hours rest in the tent. On reflection, the walk to the summit probably wasn’t much harder than what we did. The crater is deceptively deep and it took us nearly three hours, down a steep winding path to reach the shore. Swimming in the lake was adequate reward, the hot springs much less so. Like the picnic area the previous day, they were absolutely filthy with food waste and even used toilet paper. It was a shame to see such a bucolic spot so tarnished. The trek back up to the crater rim was done in the height of the midday sun and took just as long. When we finally got there we wished we’d gone to the summit! Day two didn’t finish there either. Due to our desire to get to the Gili Islands the next day, we descended to Camp 3, just below the tree line. The dustbowl was even more precarious on the way down as our shoes had no traction at all. I took one very heavy fall, and awarded myself a large number of man points for bouncing straight back up!073093

Our final day began with a 5am wake up call. Following a delicious breakfast (the quantities were too large but the quality of the food on the mountain was consistently excellent) we embarked on a fairly straightforward three and a half hour trek to the bottom. Another three hours later, we were recuperating on the stunning Gili Islands, another of Lombok’s crown jewels.

The trek was challenging, but not as brutal as Kinabalu. The scenery, particularly the crater lake, was absolutely breathtaking. The only downside was the aforementioned litter problems. If you can get over this, I’d recommend Rinjani to any walking enthusiast. As for us, we’re taking a little break from climbing mountains for a while!

TRAVEL TIPS

We booked our trek through a company called Andreas Expedition. They were friendly and well organised throughout the booking process. However, we were not very impressed with our guide. Unlike the wonderful Diona on Mount Kinabalu, he was very impatient with Janey for her lack of speed, which clouded our opinion of him and the company somewhat.

Categories: Asia, Indonesia, Mount Rinjani | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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