Evan, Fiona, Kohji and I all just got back from our winter travels this past Monday morning. It feels like ages since that trip started already, and yet I am still shocked that it’s January 14 already. Time truly does fly when you’re having fun!
For those who don’t know, here’s a rundown of our itinerary:
- 2 nights in Yangon, Myanmar starting on December 26
- 2 nights in Bagan, Myanmar
- 2 nights in Mandalay, Myanmar
- 2 nights in Vientiane, Laos
- 1 night in Huay Xai, Laos (north against the border of Laos very close to Chiang Rai)
- 2 nights in Bokeo Nature Reserve, Laos
- 2 nights (sort of) in Luang Prabang, Laos
- home by 10am on January 9
We were able to see and do so much in that short time, it is really pretty amazing. Although it’s very obvious that Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia share a lot in common, now that I have been to all four it’s clear to me that they are very different from each other too, both culturally and socio-economically.
Myanmar felt a bit more wild and less developed than Laos did. That was apparent just from walking down the street. In Laos the streets were generally pretty quiet. There were tuk tuks, but not a lot of motorbikes. Even in areas of high traffic there wasn’t a lot of honking and beeping in the streets either. In general, the cities in Laos felt more laid back and chill, and nobody seemed like they were in too much of a rush to get anywhere. In Myanmar there was a lot of traffic pretty frequently and tons of motorbikes on the road with two or more people on them (often whole families) except for where motorbikes were illegal, like in Yangon. The roads felt really hectic too, with pedastrians crossing at all times and a general disregard for street lights and signs. Add in the constant honking from all directions, and the simple act of walking down the street quickly ends up feeling like a high stress survival situation. That’s how it felt to me, anyway.
It wasn’t until we reached Mandalay and met a really nice cab driver with very good English that we started being able to decode the method to the driving and honking madness. We asked him how he could stand to drive in all the chaos and he seemed pretty mysitified that we were percieving the roads that way. He said the honking was just a way everyone communicated on the road, not a sign of rage or impatience like we thought. One honk means “I’m coming from behind you,” two honks means “I’m going to pass you,” and three honks means “I’m in a rush and going fast.” And while going through a four-way intersection, throw your hazard lights on to let everyone know you’re going straight. I wish I had known all that before riding our scooters around Bagan, a mildly harrowing and white-knuckle experience for someone with as little driving experience as me, even without all the sand threatening to put me in a tail-spin left and right. After learning the signs I do admit things did seem more orderly than I had realized before, but regardless I just don’t think I can get used to all that noise.
Something that stood out about Myanmar especially was how different the local fashion was. Practically all the local women wore long sarong-type skirts to at least the calf or ankles, which isn’t so different from Thailand, Cambodia or Laos. But in Myanmar, the men wear skirts too. The skirts are called longyi and they are actually over-sized tubes of fabric you slip on, grip tightly on the left and right side, then tie in a special knot in the front near your belly button. The majority of guys we saw all wore them starting from teenagers to elderly men. By the end of my time in Myanmar, I really learned to love the look of them.
Another Myanmar fashion that I haven’t seen anywhere else is thanaka. Thanaka is a yellow-white paste made from grinding a special type of tree. It is then applied on the face (mainly on women and children but sometimes men) in different patterns like stripes, circles and leaves. The designs are decorative, but the properties of the thanaka itself is supposed to protect against sunburn, cool the skin, and also prevent acne and fungus. Although I think it’s striking I wasn’t sure if I particularly like it, and I found myself wondering often about whether Myanmar men found thanaka attractive. Does a Myanmar man walk down the street and get drawn to a girl with the leaf patterns? Like, dannnnng I like a girl with leaf thanaka, look at her work that paste. Just a thought I had.
I uploaded my pictures to my computer just a bit ago, and I haven’t had time to go through them properly and pick out my favorites (the two pics above aren’t my own, just a couple I found in a Google image search). Tonight I will organize them so that I can post pictures between my rambling bits of writing. So for now I will cut this post abruptly short, and then finish my epic saga later!
To be continued…
After taking a couple days to recover, catch up on sleep, and generally settle back into typical, every day life, I think I am finally ready to write about my recent travels (although grocery shopping, cleaning, and laundry are another story entirely, lol). As I have mentioned in previous posts, my good, old friend Riley came to visit Evan and I! It was the first time we’ve seen him in about a year, and also Riley’s first trip abroad. He arrived in Tokyo and did some traveling about on his own in the city for a couple days. Eventually Evan and I went by shinkansen (bullet train) up to Kamakura Station where we met up with Riley and began our adventuring together.
The last time Evan and I were in Kamakura was four years ago, on Evan’s maiden voyage to Japan. It was winter and the town was quiet. Although the shrines and temples we visited were a bit crowded, there really weren’t all that many people walking the streets. Kamakura felt like a quaint escape from the bustling crowds of Tokyo, a place to settle down with a family and grow old in.
Going to Kamakura at the height of summer Obon season is a totally different animal though. The train to the station nearest our hostel in Kamakura was crowded with tourists and their luggage, and being packed like sardines into those small train cars only intensified the already very hardcore heat. In fact, we were pretty much sweating all over each other, haha.
This same feeling of overcrowding was pretty strong in Enoshima, the nearby small island connected to Kamakura by bridge. The initial street leading up to Enoshima Shrine was filled to capacity with both souvenir shops and prospective shoppers. And I swear almost everyone was playing Pokemon Go! While exploring Enoshima we traveled up and down loads of stairs and through some beautiful caves. We caught a lovely sunset on the rocky side of the island too.
Our hostel was a very short walk away from the beach, and I was rather surprised by the very youthful party atmosphere it had. Bikini-clad sunbathers, people hauling surfboards, young couples canoodling under beach umbrellas, and beers abounded. I admit, it was a lot of fun to splash about in the ocean and enjoy the laid-back atmosphere there, even though the sand was so hot that walking on it felt like fire. A short note about our hostel called Slams: it was Slam Dunk themed! It turns out Kamakura is the setting for Slam Dunk, which I never realized before! Slams is also a restaurant which serves a very delicious burger they call The Dunk, so if you’re ever in Kamakura and looking for a hip spot with a yummy Slam Dunk themed burger, that’s your joint.
My favorite day in Kamakura was our shrine day. We woke up early, rented a set of bikes, and combed Kamakura for its best shrines and temples, of which there are many. Although the sun was oppressive yet again, the breeze from riding felt really great. We were also able to cover way more ground than if we had walked, which meant more shrines and more goshuin-collecting (aka. Evan’s version of Pokemon Go haha; goshuin are unique stamps and calligraphy that you get from each temple or shrine as a way to commemorate your visit). It was so cool going to the same temples that we went to four years ago, and especially seeing how different they felt in summer compared to winter.
Our next stop was Nikko, a mountain town a couple hours north by train and home to a set of shrines and temples that are both Japanese National Treasures and World Heritage Sites. Nikko was a wonderful respite from both the crowds and, more importantly, the heat. The weather in Nikko was cool and dry, which made walking all day throughout the World Heritage area so much more enjoyable and less grueling. It really was a relief not sweating all day! The bright red and elaborately decorated temples and shrines were so beautiful against the background of the misty forests and mountains. Actually, the cool temperatures combined with the mountain scenery and abundant cedar trees (which stand in contrast to Kyushu’s many bamboo forests) really made me nostalgic for the PNW.
The hostel and the neighborhood it was in were all very sweet and quaint. We appreciated our host’s helpfulness and generosity immensely. We also got a pretty good sense of the town itself during our forays to the local music festival, izakaya, snack bars, cafes and karaoke spots. I would really love to go back to Nikko again in the fall, when it is supposed to be at its most beautiful during koyo time (when the leaves turn bright red).
Next we shot down further north to Hakone, where our main goals were to get a good, clear look at Mount Fuji and take loads of onsen hot spring baths. Hakone is also a mountain town, and riding in the trains up the mountain was really interesting. I have never ridden a train that’s needed to go up switchbacks nor climbed to such great heights before. Also, the views from the train windows looking down into the valley below were some of the nicest all trip.
Although the weather was really beautiful the day we did most of our exploring, everyone was abuzz about the incoming typhoon bound to hit that area in the following days. While riding the cable car the clouds were really gorgeous against the bright blue sky, but the view we got of Fuji was only a partial one. Damn you, typhoon! Regardless, the following pirate ship ride was lovely, cool and clear. We also made it to a nice festival with fireworks that night, but the weather turned a bit nasty on us right when it started. They didn’t cancel the show, but we all got soaked through and were pretty cold by the end of it. Luckily we were able to warm up with that onsen bath I mentioned, but I have to say that the hot spring water was by far the hottest I have ever experienced, almost to the point of being unpleasant… though not quite!
Our last big destination was Himeiji Castle, which we hit between shinkansen rides on the way home. We got there just in time to have an hour or two explore the castle, which was conveniently situated a short walk away from the station. I felt like the overall modesty of the city as a whole was a great backdrop for Himeiji-jo and really set off its majesty. I was actually rather surprised by how small the interior was because it looks so immense from the outside. It was Riley’s first castle and another tick off of my Japan World Heritage bucketlist. Very glad we made it out there!
Even though I didn’t take a lot of pictures after returning home, that doesn’t mean the adventures stopped there! Evan and I took Riley to our favorite haunts in Chikugo, and then to Fukuoka city where we enjoyed the Lockup with Kohji, Vicki and her friend Su visiting from London. Karaoke was enjoyed, nomihoudai (all your can drink alcohol buffets) were abused, delicious food was eaten, goshuin and Pokemon were caught… Honestly, I don’t think Riley’s trip could’ve been better. It was truly a great time.
Spent Saturday in Kitakyushu with Johnny, Mikayla, Vicki and Evan wearing yukata, seeing Kokura Castle, and experiencing the Wasshoi Hyakuman Natsu Matsuri (the biggest festival in Kita-q), then Sunday biking around Mojiko and walking through an underwater tunnel to Shimonoseki with Evan. It was so great to be by the ocean again, and I caught so many water-type Pokemon too! It was a lovely, magical, and totally tiring weekend and I had so much fun. And look how pretty we all look!
I took about 400 pictures at last weekend’s hanabitaikai (fireworks show). I narrowed the best down to 100, but I think my favorites are these 13. I was a bit sad because I forgot that Evan’s mother recently gave me a really brilliant new lense for my camera, but I didn’t bring it with me… Guess that means I have to go see more fireworks soon!