Sayonara Japan

25 02 2011

It’s amazing to think that the whole time I was travelling – immersing myself in new cultures, trying new activities and flitting from place to place – I always managed to find time to update my blog but since I’ve been back in the “real world” I’ve somehow not found the time to create the last few entries. Somehow the day-to-day grind of being a feckless, unemployed bum has precluded my ability to write the last posts. Whether it be the occasional foray into looking for worthwhile employment (a tricky endeavour when despite 18-months away from the workplace I’m still not sure what I want to do – and any major change of direction results in problems such as lack of experience and skills); the (what seemed interminable) search for a new place to call my own; or even basking in the park reading a book during the UK’s recent heatwave, have all conspired to stop those final words being submitted to the interwebz. And then, of course, there has been my recent attempt to learn Java by coding a computer version of Yaniv (maybe one day coming to an Android phone near you), the game I played so much whilst travelling which has kept me busy too. Who knew that grappling with complicated GUIs using the swing class or trying to do simple things like print the output in UTF-8 format (so that I could display the symbols for playing cards correctly: ♠♣♥♦) would cause me so much pain and anguish? Maybe the subconscious reason for my tardiness is that once those last two blog entries are written I have finally drawn a line under my wanderjahre. Even now I keep reminding myself that this time last year I was sunning myself in Mancora with Andy or cursing Julia for the double-whammy of taking me on another high-altitude trek through Santa Cruz (having sworn after my Kilimanjaro experience with Hiten that I’d never put myself through that again!) AND the worse offence of continually beating me at Yaniv. But anyway, without further ado, here is the penultimate blog entry:

My last weekend at the hostel in Tokyo promised to be busy. All the dorms were full so I had to check into a single private room. If I’d expected this to be luxurious I was sadly disappointed: there was barely enough room in the little box for the mattress on the floor, let alone my luggage; and the lack of windows added to the prison cell feel. Still, at least unlike a dorm, I could leave my laptop charging up whilst I wasn’t there. After dropping off my luggage and grabbing a quick shower it was time to head to Shibuya to meet Lisa at the Hachikō dog statue. Unfortunately, everyone else in Tokyo also seemed to have arranged to meet there and it was much harder than expected to find the tall, blonde form of Lisa than you might expect in the midst of a crowd of short, dark-haired Japanese. Telfort’s risible roaming agreements had once more left me without the ability to use my mobile in an emergency but we found each other eventually and set off for some dinner.

It was great to catch up with Lisa and gossip about all the people that we knew from the previous June back in Colombia but after a great dinner of Japanese “tapas” and some fruity, sour cocktails the evening was over much earlier than I expected and it was back to hostel for the night. The care-free party animal Lisa who I knew from Medellin was now weighed down by an hour-hungry job and exhausted at the end of a long week. Did this fate await me when I went back to work for the man? I wondered. Fortunately, apart from the annoying omnipresence of overly-camp Paul (see previous postings) in the hostel lounge, there were actually some normal people there and I chatted to Stephen quite a bit. I was particularly excited when he revealed that there was an even-newer version of my camera available – the TZ20 – and since mine had been behaving erratically for some time now I decided to pick one up  in the electronic city of Akihabara. Unfortunately, after much fruitless searching, I discovered that only Kanji models were available – the English ones weren’t going to be for sale until the next month. In light of what happened to my camera a week later in India, this was probably for the best.

Karaoke - The end of Under The Bridge

The next evening I went to karaoke with a Norwegian couple that I’d met in Kyoto. Despite my best efforts around the hostel I failed to conscript anyone else to join us, although a newly arrived French couple did briefly contemplate it, and the three of us returned to Shibuya in search of a suitable venue. We probably walked past 5 before we finally noticed the words “karaoke” blazing back at us in neon from various alleyways. It was an extremely strange experience – we were locked away in our own private room – and it reminded me more of Singstar on the Playstation than karaoke as we know it in Europe in front of the general public. Unfortunately all the video footage of my wonderful renditions of Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Frank Sinatra and an ill-judged Wham request (“Last Christmas” hardly the correct season either!) are now lost in time and space. I know a lot of you are thanking the Lord for small mercies at this potential assault on your eardrums.

Despite the fact that the Norwegian couple had threatened to go home with the last subway, we soothed our weary vocal chords with a few drinks in a bar just down the road from the main station. We met a friendly Aussie couple there and a couple of French expat girls who, despite joining us at our table, then spent the whole night chatting up some Japanese guys, before suddenly realising that they were way too drunk and going home early. We also chatted (often with the aid of a pen and paper and some Pictionary skills) to a Japanese girl who made Pokemon and Dragon Ball Z toys for a living. After a while in the bar, during which time we’d easily missed the last train home, we decided to head over to Roppongi Hills and check out a nightclub there. Unfortunately here too (much like the French girls and the Australian girl) the alcohol soon overcame the Norwegian girl and after arriving at our destination, we quickly made the call to head back to the hostel without even stepping out of the taxi. Considering we were going to get the last train home, however, our 2:30am finish was much better than I expected. Fortunately she didn’t need to make use of my toque as an impromptu sick bag either.

The Aussies and the Norwegian girl (all names now forgotten!)

For the rest of my time in Tokyo I went to Yoyogi Park – famed as a place where all the alternatively dressed people hang out. I don’t know if I got there too late but apart from a lot of strange Elvis lookalikes and ornate dogs that looked like they should have been on Crufts being taken for walkies, I didn’t see anything too edgy. I also decided to visit an Onsen – the Japanese hot springs. There was a big sign outside forbidding yakuza and tattoos. I never realised before that both were crimes of equal parity.

Dancing Elvises in Yoyogi park

My destination was the Oedo-Onson Monogatari: a posh onsen resort in the Southeast of the city by the Telecom Centre and, after checking in, I picked up my yukata robe and sash belt and headed to the changing rooms. I thought it might be a bit of a challenge putting the yukata on, but it came with pictorial instructions and other possible faux pas such as whether I should wear underwear beneath the robe (I should!) were explained in English next to the pictures.

Suitably garbed, I first went to visit the outdoor foot bath (fortunately, given the cold weather, they also provided additional outdoor robes) and then it was on to the main event: the single-sex springs. Here too, I was unsure if I was supposed to take the towel into the baths with me or not but the helpful attendant told me to leave it behind and so, decked out only in the clothes that I was born with, I headed into the baths proper. Whilst this might once have upset my British sensibilities, a decade of living amongst the less prudish Dutch, meant that I wasn’t particularly bothered as I strode sans vêtements into the springs. Besides, if the old saw about Asians and their magnitude is to be believed, I hardly had anything to be embarrassed about. After wallowing in various different baths of different temperatures and chalkiness I decided to splash out for a body scrub in the adjoining room. Any hopes of some cute Japanese nymphet running her soapy hands over my body were quickly dashed by the sight of my older attendant. Still, it was an interesting experience, although I think a massage is probably more fun and relaxing.

Asahi Brewery Headquarters

I didn’t do a great deal else in Tokyo in my last days. I went to Asakusa to see the infamous Phillipe Strack-designed Asahi Breweries headquarters topped with the distinctive golden flame (or is it a turd or some discoloured sperm?), followed by a boat trip down the river and then onto the tallest building in Tokyo – the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building – to view the crepuscular skyline. This was free entry, as opposed to the more popular Tokyo tower, so it appealed to my backpacker sensibilities. I was also supposed to meet up with a friend of a friend, Matt, but we never quite got our diaries in order. I did go to the gyoza place in Omotesando that he and Laura had recommended so highly – it was definitely a great insider tip, the restaurant didn’t have any English displayed on the outside and I would have walked past it on my own – and washed multiple portions of one of my favourite Japanese foods with a few beers and some sake.

Afterwards I found a local Japanese bar where I was lucky enough to find both a barman and a customer who spoke passable English and I discussed my travels with them (including showing lion pictures and Machu Picchu on my laptop). The customer was a voice actor for animé films and we talked about her experiences there. Eventually it was time for me to catch the last subway home and I headed back to the hostel for my final night. In the lounge I sat up drinking beers with Stephen and a big group of Australians. One of the Aussies was thinking of becoming a stand-up comedian and for a moment it looked like he might actually give us an impromptu performance; in the end he resorted to doing it in the Aussies’ dorm – away from people that he didn’t know – so we only heard about it from one of the other Aussies, Paulette, later. Finally it was time for my last night’s sleep in Japan. More so than any of the other wonderful places I visited, Japan is definitely a country that I want to see again – although in retrospect given the earthquake, tsunami and radiation; it probably is a good thing that my stay was shorter than I originally planned. The next day I would be flying to India for my final week on the road.

Lost in Trans-Osaka Station

24 02 2011

There were still plenty of temples for me to see in Kyoto – there are so many I think you could take a whole week and not have seen every temple and shrine – but I decided to mix things up a bit and got the train to the nearby city of Osaka. This was only an hour away so it made it good day trip with Kyoto as my base. Upon arrival, however, I couldn’t find the tourist information office so I wandered around aimlessly for a while before finding somewhere for a late breakfast. This proved to be the undoing of any power-sightseeing of Osaka that I might have had in mind; I ended up staying in the restaurant for more than an hour and a half until I’d finished reading the compelling The Girl Who Played With Fire. After buying a copy of the final installment of the trilogy from a nearby book store I was still at a loss as to where the tourist office might be. After asking directions I finally found it and then asked for some advice of what to see.

Aside from the Universal Studios Japan and the local aquarium most of the attractions were, of course, more temples and shrines. I decided to visit the Osaka Castle Museum to begin with. Much like castles anywhere the tall outer walls were surrounded by a wide moat but the actual castle building was much more ornate than the Tokyo one – with gold gilt adorning the roofs. The whole building was given over to the museum where I read lots of unmemorable facts about the shoguns that had lived there. It was a nice way to spend the afternoon but I was hardly writhing in paroxysms of enthusiasm as I went around.

Osaka Castle

That most common malady of my travels – temple fatigue – hit me afterwards so, after a brief visit to the Shitennoji temple, I decided to wander to the Tsutenkaku Tower and ascend that. A lot of the Japanese cities seem to have a big Eiffel tower-esque structures in them and Osaka has one of the first (although this is now the second on the site). Obviously it offered great panoramas of the Osaka skyline from the top although without any extremely famous buildings it didn’t really give me a lasting impression.

Osaka skyline

After descending, a friendly street vendor shouted out to me and offered me a gaijin special of 8 takoyaki for his normal price for 6. I’d seen the strange balls of batter for sale all over Japan and had no idea what they actually were. Despite the obvious language barrier the street-seller was extremely affable so, in a fit of daring, I decided to take him up on the offer. The dumplings were like a cross between two of my favourite Dutch foods (I never ever thought I’d juxtapose those words together): poffertjes and garnalenkroketten. The batter was filled with a creamy savoury goo containing pieces of octopus and the whole thing is topped with a brown takoyaki sauce, mayonnaise and shavings of katsuobushi (smoked and dried tuna). It was delicious – although I scalded my mouth painfully with the first one; they were molten-hot inside.



It was now time for me to head back to the hostel in Kyoto. My 8-bed dorm was now empty – the other 2 guys having vacated that day – and the hostel was very quiet. I decided to do my laundry which, for the first time on my travels, I actually had to do myself instead of putting it in a service wash. I was, after all, in a much more expensive country than those I’d visited in Africa, Latin America and South-East Asia. Fortunately the laundry room was located next to the TV room so I was able to hang out there whilst I waited for it to finish. In the TV room I chatted to a couple of strange German guys that I’d met the night before and a really young Norwegian couple who I’d arranged to go to karaoke with in Tokyo on Saturday.

I heard an Australian couple in the corridor asking if anyone knew a good place to go out. Had I not been waiting on my laundry, I think I’d have forced myself on their company, but I still had some time to wait and I didn’t manage to hear their recommendations either. It was clear that no-one else in the lounge was heading out so after I’d finished my laundry I decided to head to that mainstay of solo travellers everywhere: the local Irish pub. It wasn’t exactly busy but eventually struck up a conversation with a friendly old Scottish expat. His friendliness was probably due in some part to alcohol but, as a professor of philosophy he was very interesting enough although most of our exchanges (wherein I must have told my whole life story) ended with his sage advice of “F**k them”. He was keen to understand my views of Japan and Japanese culture and I mentioned how often as a gaijin, Japanese people wouldn’t sit next to you on the subway – I’d interpreted this as possible rudeness or fear of strange foreigners – but he informed me that this was them being polite. Eventually, of course, the conversation covered Japanese women: how beautiful they were, and how I should definitely make sure I slept with one before I left. I am also now blessed with the indispensable knowledge that apparently geishas don’t wear knickers. I think he may even have been trying to set me up with the barmaid, who was half-Korean and half-Japanese (the most beautiful combination my sage companion informed me), but I think she was just being friendly and ensuring good tips by flirting with the clientèle. In any case, I ended up with an extremely small bar tab by the time I left, my new Scottish friend having bought most my drinks for me.


"Tourist" geisha

The next morning I wandered around a few more temples in Kyoto and tried to find some real geisha near the tea houses but, although there were some that weren’t obviously tourists dressed up as geisha for the day, I’m not sure if I actually saw any real geisha. I also revisited a snack stand that I’d seen with Alex when we first arrived in Kyoto because I really wanted to try the Japanese equivalent of bapao (as I knew them in Holland) or steamed buns. Whilst the Dutch versions have an innocuous mush of minced meat more akin to something you might feed your cat, these contained delicious chunks of steak in a juicy, oozing gravy. Once again I was rapt in my appreciation of Japanese cuisine. In the early afternoon I got the bullet train back to Tokyo where I was due to meet up with Lisa, a travelling friend I knew from Colombia, who was now living and working in Japan. It promised to be a good start to the weekend.

Beef buns

Taking a Bullet For a Geisha

23 02 2011

Alex and I had arranged to meet at 7:30 in the hostel but, after scarcely being ready on time myself, there was no sign of Alex. After waiting for 10 minutes I ran up to his dorm room which was fortunately unlocked and whispered “Alex” into the gloom. I wasn’t sure which bed he was in and it was still early in the morning so I didn’t want to raise my voice too high. There was no response and we’d already eaten into our contingency time so I had to leave – I just hoped that Alex had already decided to leave without me.

I bundled quickly down the road, weighed down by my full rucksack, and got the metro to Ueno. From there I jumped on the JR line which would take me to the main Tokyo station. It was the middle of rush hour so it was extremely busy and it was hard work moving through the masses with my heavy burden. Like the tube in London, Japanese people are very good at standing on one side of the escalator so that people in a rush can pass them by. Of course, the one time you actually need this to happen, the crowds hog both sides of the escalator.

I arrived at the bullet train with minutes to spare and discovered that our carriage was at the opposite end of the platform. I strode quickly down the platform and finally found our seats. There was no sign of Alex and I doubted I’d see him now. It looked like I’d be visiting Kyoto on my own – I hoped he’d at least be able to get some of his money back towards a later train. Just as the train was readying to pull out of the station, a flustered looking Alex appeared at the end of the car – he’d made it after all!

The train journey was incredibly smooth and there was no way of telling how fast we were actually going. I’d hoped that there would be a digital speedometer in the carriage telling us how fast we were going but no such luck – so I have absolutely no idea how fast we were going as the Japanese countryside hurtled past us. At one point a huge snowcapped mountain crowded the view – perhaps this was Mount Fuji – my Japanese geography is still not very good.

After a couple of hours we arrived in Kyoto station and a short metro journey later we were at the Kyoto Backpackers hostel. This had proven to be an absolute nightmare for me to book. Even though it was a sister hostel of the one in Tokyo (hence the equally inventive name) I couldn’t pay for it there and they insisted on having a credit card to guarantee the room. Since I’d lost my only debit card in Vang Vieng I didn’t have any valid cards to guarantee my reservation with. “Well Alex is coming with me. Can we use his card to guarantee my bed?” “No, it must be your card.” “Well since it’s just to guarantee the room, can I leave the money here in an envelope as a guarantee for the reservation?” “No, it’s a separate hostel.” Despite all my inventive workarounds the receptionist was complete intractable and offered no solution of her own. Then I thought of one. “Wait. Do you take Amex?” And so I handed over my American Express card as a guarantee for the room. The fact that the card had been cancelled two months beforehand and could never have been charged if they’d tried didn’t seem to matter – foolishly they did no pre-authorisation – and I managed to book okay.

I dropped off my pack at the Kyoto hostel and we asked where we should go if we only had a day to see the highlights of Kyoto. The receptionist underlined a few highlights and pointed us in the right direction for the bus and then our whistle-stop tour of Kyoto began.

I really liked Kyoto from the get-go. It is an incredibly picturesque city filled with temples, canals and traditional buildings. It is also the home of the geisha and it really brought home parts of the book and film Memoirs of a Geisha as I walked around. Parts of Kyoto are also incredibly touristy (both international and Japanese tourists) but the marauding hordes don’t take much away from its inherent charm. Our first stop of the day was Kinkaku-ji – the temple of the golden pavilion – a gorgeous shariden (containing relics of Buddha) covered in gold-leaf and set amongst beautiful Japanese gardens overlooking a mirror pond. The golden pavilion was located quite a way outside of town to the Northwest but it was mercifully small so after a quick march around there we jumped back into the bus.

The golden pavilion

Our next destination was Nijō Castle, home of the Tonkugawa shoguns from the 17th century. This was a large compound surrounded by sturdy walls, moats and ornate Japanese gardens. The centrepiece was the Ninomaru palace where the shogun received his guests in different rooms dependent on their status. The corridors were laid with “nightingale” floors which squeaked whenever you walked on them. This was to protect the feudal lords from unexpected visitors and potential assassins – Alex and I tried our best to walk along them without the tell-tale squeak and almost succeeded but it was impossible to walk on them without any noise.


Inside Nijo Castle


After exploring the grounds there for quite a while it was back on a bus (the tourist information girl didn’t quite point us in the right direction) and we headed to our last destination of the day: Kiyomizu-dera temple. The approach to the temple was up a long hilly road. Tourists thronged the path and, on either side, souvenir shops and cafes vied for attention. There were uniformed guides pulling tourists along on wheeled carriages and a lot of shop staff in traditional costumes. Nearly all the tourist shops sold ornate chopsticks: Alex should have saved his shopping mission which had taken us all across Tokyo for Kyoto instead. At the top of the hill we entered the main temple complex: inside it seemed to be like a Japanese Blackpool. Little booths along the way were selling good luck charms and prophesies and inside the complex we found the Jishu-jinja shrine which is dedicated to Okuninushino-Mikoto, the Japanese god of love and match-making. There were two “love stones” there about 20 metres apart – legend has it that if you can walk between them with your eyes closed you will find true love; Alex gave it a go and arrived safely at the second stone, although I think I was supposed to tell him before he crashed into it.


Me and Alex in front of the temple


Throughout the temple there was lots of geisha wandering around. They weren’t really working geisha – these are now a rarity in Kyoto – but rather tourists who had got dressed up as geisha for the day. Alex managed to find two particularly attractive tourists and get his photo taken with them; I think he was hoping that his true love prophecy might already come true. After the shrine we went to the Otowa waterfalls to catch and drink some of the sacred waters; supposed to give the visitor wisdom, health and longevity – although the Japanese believe that you may only choose two. We just thought they granted you a wish.


Catching the sacred waters at the entrance to the temple


We were now pretty exhausted with the whole tourist trail and had a couple of hours before Alex got his train back to Tokyo. So after some aimless wandering around through the restaurant area of town (most of them seemed to expensive for our backpacker budgets) we found an eat and drink as much as you like place where we did our best in our 90 minutes there to do just that. We ordered plate after plate of meats (not necessarily the choicest cuts) and cooked them on our little grill in the table. After dinner it was time for Alex to head back to Tokyo – this time he allowed plenty of time to catch the bullet train – and I headed back to the hostel lounge, where I chatted to a few people there before calling it a night.

Two Gays One Cup (‘O Noodle)

20 02 2011

Japan! What a feast for the senses to the world-weary traveller. A place that I’ve always dreamed of visiting and somehow never quite made it. A Western standard of living and yet weird and foreign through root and branch. I was instantly mesmerised by the bright lights and strangeness of it all and yet intimidated by the fact that speaking the lingua franca doesn’t really help much in the Land of the Rising Sun where everything is written in Kanji and few people speak English. Fortunately a lot of the tourist information and subway signs are written in English – it was actually easier than it could have been.

The luggage took a long time to appear on the belt; although considering how long it took to walk from the aeroplane to the baggage hall this was probably not that surprising. Finally, I collected my stuff and headed to customs. “How long are you staying in Japan for?” he asked. “About a week and a half” (Not long enough by far but from here on in I was on a tight schedule). “And will you be staying here the whole time?” he said, pointing at “Tokyo Backpackers” on my immigration form. “Probably not the whole time. I plan to travel around a bit but I’m not sure where yet.” My vague answer or perhaps my unkempt (I think of it as backpacker chic) appearance triggered some suspicions on his part and so he started searching my bags. Eventually after feeling around through my dirty clothes for a while he seemed satisfied enough and let me carry on. I’m just glad he didn’t discover my zip-lock plastic bag of Malarone malaria tablets – most of which have spilled out of the blister-pack; they looked suspiciously like the meta-amphetamine pills in the anti-drugs poster at the airport.

It was quite easy getting into town from Narita airport. The staff at the counter for the Keisei line spoke good English so I soon had a ticket to Ueno for 1000¥ (12$US). It wasn’t the quickest way into town – it took 80 minutes – but I was in no immediate rush and it was the cheapest. I was amazed on the train at how many people I saw playing on their PSP’s. I’ve never seen so many in one train carriage before. At Ueno I got the Tokyo Metro’s Hibaya line for two stops to Minowa station. Even just those 4 minutes on the subway were an aural marvel – some of the announcements at the station reminded me of the strange commentary on a Bubble Bobble type game that I’d played on the Playstation and piped birdsong thronged the air at the stations. It occurred to me that my exposure to Japanese culture hasn’t been that high – the Final Fantasy games, one Manga film and copious consumption of Japanese food.

This part of the journey had been quite easy but I still wasn’t quite sure where the hostel actually was. Luckily I ran into 3 Aussie guys who’d just come back from snowboarding just outside the station who were also looking for the hostel so I joined them in trying to find it. We still managed to walk straight past it and had to head back down the road slightly but it was all good in the end. The hostel seemed a bit quiet though and I couldn’t seem to find anyone to go out to dinner with – I hoped that it was just because it was a Sunday and everyone was still recovering from a hard weekend. I got chatting to an American kid, Charlie, who seemed to have major beef with his parents. I got the impression that they were quite well-off and the only reason he was in Japan skipping a semester was to annoy them and spend their money. He also told me how he’d worked at McDonald’s for 3 months for the sole purpose of annoying them. Inevitably we got onto a discussion about the metric system and I had to explain what a stone was and the weird hodgepodge of different systems that we use in the UK. I’ve had these discussions a lot on my trip – still, it’s always a good excuse to point out that, apart from Belize, the USA is the only country in the world to still use Fahrenheit.

He was drinking some beers on the terrace and I decided to go off and get some as well. His directions for the shop weren’t that good though – I found myself wandering through a red light district of ladies bars at the end of the street. Big bouncers in dinner jackets kept trying to usher me into their club (most of them had Dreams in the name) – eventually I backed up and found the convenience store and brought some beers back. It was quite cold in Tokyo; especially after the warmth of Laos, so after another beer run and buying a Cup O’ Noodle for my dinner we headed into the lounge on the 2nd floor.

Here, an incredibly camp guy called Paul completely dominated the conversation. He was vaguely amusing at first but, after many days at the hostel, I came to realise that, as well as being crass and lewd, he was a complete Münchhausen. I quickly tired of his high tales which were designed to shock everyone in the room and would normally concern his sexual exploits that day (although I’m never quite sure when he fitted these encounters in; he always seemed to be in the lounge) or the differences between the tastes and sizes of penises of different cultures. He would even start playing gay porn on his iPad and showing it to everyone – “It’s not porn, it’s educational,” he would say. One time he even put it on the television; I was fortunate not to be in the room when that happened. I knew that if I made a comment against his salacious stories I’d probably be accused of being homophobic; eventually I coped with his endless verbal diarrhoea (which undoubtedly involved at least two guys and a cup) by listening to The XX on my iPod so that I didn’t have to listen to the XXX in the lounge. I’m sure if I’d told similar stories about any heterosexual exploits or started showing everyone straight porn on my laptop I’d have been roundly ostracised and possibly banned from the hostel.

I spent the whole of my first morning in Tokyo trying to sort out my Indian visa. This wasn’t helped by the fact that I went first to the Indian Embassy and then discovered that they’d outsourced the visa applications to another company over the other side of town in Myogadani. In the course of my travels I discovered that Tokyo has two different companies running the subway lines (Tokyo Metro and Toei) and although they intersect at regular points and you can travel between them the tickets do not work on the other lines. This resulted in a few tickets being swallowed by the machines before I’d completed my journey or having to swap them with the attendants at the gates. I resolved to get the Tokyo equivalent of an Oyster card to make my journeys easier in the future.

The map that they’d given me at the Indian Embassy was a crooked photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy and most of the Roman alphabet writing on it was illegible; the Kanji was in an even worse state so, when I initially couldn’t find the visa centre, I also struggled to ask directions of the local people. When I finally found the office it was almost 11am and it closed at 12:30 for lunch. I grabbed a ticket number, filled in the application form and then watched as the ticket numbers clicked over incredibly slowly. I decided to risk heading back to a coffee place where I’d asked for directions earlier and wait it out there for 30 minutes – there were still at least 10 numbers before mine when I returned at 11:50 and I was one of the very last people to be served in the morning session. I was lucky I did manage to get seen before lunch: it took 8 working days to obtain the visa and applications after lunchtime took 9 days – there didn’t seem to be any leeway on this even if I’d offered them more money for an express service. Fortunately, the 8 days was just enough: my visa was due for pickup on the 2nd; the day before the flight that I’d already booked to India. I decided to keep hold of my passport so that I could use it as ID and was told that I’d need to return it on the morning of the 1st at the latest – otherwise my visa would be delayed by additional working days.


Pedestrians crossing the road at Shibuya


With that all sorted I headed back to the hostel and asked where the famous square was that everyone talked about: the Times Square of Tokyo and the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world. The receptionist looked puzzled at the Times Square reference but on further explanation she told me it was Shibuya. This commercial and nightlife hub of Tokyo was about a far away from my hostel as was possible; it was my first inkling that the hostel was located a bit far out. I’d first heard about the scramble crossing by Hachikō square from Happy, an Icelandic girl that worked at the hostel in Antigua, Guatemala. She’d told me that every time she crossed the road here (which she did repeatedly) she’d worn her trademark big grin – and it was indeed fun. The traffic stops at all four compass directions at the same time, allowing pedestrians to bundle across the road in which ever direction they desire – there are even diagonal zebra crossings; although when the traffic is stopped you can pretty much walk where you like.

I was starting to feel peckish at this point but although there were lots of restaurants around it was hard to know which ones would actually offer an English or picture menu. I felt quite intimidated by the Kanji and foreignness of it all. I imagined myself to be like Dekkard in Bladerunner: the last Gaijin left on planet Earth whilst all the English-speakers had headed off-world to seek a brave new world of opportunities. Finally I found a ramen bar with a picture menu and ordered what I think was a minced beef ramen with an almost raw egg that you cracked into the top and a side plate of gyoza. This was delicious and I, of course, washed it down with a Kirin beer.


Beef ramen


After dinner I headed back to the hostel and sat in the lounge. Once again, no one seemed to be in any hurry to head out on the town – I think half the problem with the hostel was because it was so far out you really needed to head into town earlier so it involved more forward planning than most travellers are used to – and a lot of the guests seemed to be permanent residents with jobs with no interest in drinking every night. Somehow, even though I had to keep putting my earphones in to block out the blue balderdash of camp Paul, I met an English guy, Alex, that night and we arranged to meet up the next day to visit the Tokyo Imperial Palace together.

Alex knew a good restaurant on the way to Minowa station which was uniquely Japanese. We walked into the restaurant; inserted our coins into a vending machine at the entrance; pressed a big button with a picture of the food we hoped to receive, and then handed the ticket to the chef. It was like freshly cooked FEBO and the food seemed to come almost as soon as we handed the ticket over: which defied all expectations of how long it should take to cook it.


The moat around Edo castle


After our brunch we headed to the Imperial Palace and wandered around the gardens and the remnants of Edo Castle there. Even though it was too early in the year for the main season, I was pleased to see that some cherry blossoms (technically they were plum) had braved the cold weather just for me.


“Cherry” blossom


After struggling to find an English book the previous day in Shibuya (quite why they translate the names of the stores when they don’t sell anything suitable for foreigners I’m not sure), I’d Googled a store near to the palace. It took us a while to find it and, contrary to the information I’d read online, it didn’t sell any English books or Japanese guidebooks. We were clearly going to have to look elsewhere in town. Alex was looking for some chopsticks for his girlfriend so we decided to go to a big shopping centre in Roppongi called Roppongi Hills. Here we discovered, much to our surprise, that it is incredibly difficult to find chopsticks in Tokyo – or at least chopsticks that looked fancy enough to give as a gift. I did at least manage to find a bookstore with a small selection of English books and bought the Girl Who Played With Fire to feed my new Larsson addiction. I decided against buying a travel guide – they were too expensive and I decided I could find out the necessary information at the hostel.

Alex asked another Gaijin there if he had any ideas where we could buy nice chopsticks and he suggested a department store in Shinjuku called Tokyo Hands so we headed over there. We exited the subway in completely the wrong place and, after wandering around aimlessly for a while, asked an American businessman (at least with the gaijin you were pretty sure they’d speak English) where the shop was. We found it and Alex was able to complete his mission to find some present-worthy chopsticks – although we both baulked at the price.

From there we decided to head up to Akihabara Electric Town – I needed a new hard drive to back my computer up with; my previous one had given up the ghost and I was worried about not having a backup of all my photos from the past 18 months, and Alex wanted to investigate some iPod ripping software. Huge stores filled with every kind of electronic toy lined the streets; I was in heaven. With my new hard-drive in hand we then got another metro back up the road to Ueno where we wanted to buy shinkansen (bullet train) tickets for the next day to Kyoto. A local guy with weird bandages all over his hands decided to help us find the subway – we weren’t immediately sure why but it became apparent as we went to board our train and he asked for some money – we declined and left him behind whining pathetically. I felt a bit guilty but I couldn’t go giving money to every beggar around – Japan was expensive enough.

Neither Alex nor I had invested in a rail pass which, if we’d applied for it whilst we were still outside the country, would have saved us an absolute bomb in rail fees; but this did at least mean that we could get the fastest of the bullet trains – the Nozomi; with an impressive operating speed of 300kmh. We booked this for first thing the next day and then headed back to the hostel to rest our weary feet after a full afternoon of sightseeing and shopping.

After relaxing at the hostel for a while it was once more time to get some food so we went to a Chinese restaurant down the road. The proprietress didn’t speak any English but we were eventually able to order some food by pointing at the pictures and enlisting the help of a guy at the bar who spoke a little bit of English. He then offered us a glass of sake each which, as is the habit of Englishmen when presented with a small shot-sized glass, we both immediately downed. From the looks of shock and disbelief on his and the owner’s face, I think we were supposed to sip it. Sensing a challenge from these strange gaijin, our new friend then bought us another sake from the top shelf. We also demolished this with a flourish – I think they expected us to breathe fire after necking the 56% proof brew and were disappointed when we sat there quite unaffected.

After our dinner we retired to the hostel and then went to bed early, ready for our trip to Kyoto early the next morning. We couldn’t have imagined how much difficulty we’d have meeting up the next day.

The 300th Post: Life is Like a Box of Chocolates

18 02 2011

Well here it is! Post number 300, which surely deserves a strident fanfare of trumpets – especially for anyone that’s actually followed the itinerant Barry from the beginning. Of course, if I’d blogged my earlier African adventures with more than this brief summary of my first six weeks and maintained the one-entry per day format; that number would be far, far higher. Still, for those of you bored of the constant Barry-spam on your Facebook walls or those living their lives vicariously through my vagabond lifestyle, we are now nearing the end.

I have mixed feelings about my return. On the one hand I’m actually looking forward to being in one place: maybe even having a wardrobe and chest of drawers to put some clothes in and not just be pulling the selfsame attire out of a rucksack all the time. Also I’ve felt for a while that being on the road has become so commonplace that I no longer fully appreciate the amazing sights that I’m seeing; the new experiences that I’m taking part in; and the wonderful opportunity that I’ve been given to roam the world without worrying too much about money. I’ll also miss the chance to meet new people on a daily basis and listen to their stories and adventures around the world.

On the other hand, the idea of going back to w*** gives me the heebie-jeebies. Hopefully I’ll find something that challenges and reinvigorates me in much the same way that my travelling gave me new strength when I started off. Like Forrest Gump, one day “for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run.” Okay, there were reasons at the very start: some minor annoyances like dissatisfaction with my career and a failing marriage but those quickly fell by the wayside as I travelled on: “I ran to the end of the road, and when I got there, I thought maybe I’d run to the end of town.” What drove me on was a compulsion to go to places I’d never been before, to experience the world as you can’t see on a two-week vacation, to test myself with new experiences and push myself in ways that I’d never been pushed before. On the whole I think I succeeded but, eventually, like Forrest “I’m pretty tired. I think I’ll go home now.”

One question that I’m often asked about my travels is “What have I learned in all this time on the road?” Firstly I think I’ve become less concerned with material things although I’m still very attached to my MacBook Air. Probably because it is my window to the outside world and stores my prized photographs of my trip. My iPod too has been a travel essential – I doubt I could have endured some of the long bus journeys without it. Apart from that my head-torch and Swiss Army knife are items that I’d be reluctant to travel without in the future. Carrying my thoughts forward, I’ve learned to appreciate the smaller things in life: a comfortable bed, a fluffy towel, a hot shower and a toilet where you don’t have to squat and can flush toilet paper down. And although I don’t think I’ve ever been particularly asocial, I think I’m now even more able to mingle with a roomful of complete strangers. The other thing you learn (although this will probably evaporate when I get back to the real world) is to be patient: when you’re travelling a few hours delay here or there doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things. You also learn to be very adaptable and more spontaneous: if you have a plan you can change it; if you don’t have a plan you can always make one.

Anyway, after this indulgent introspection, it’s time to move on with the travels. On my last day in Laos I said my goodbyes to Jan and Yana (who’d been my travelling companions for most of my Laos trip) and Ellen (who I’d been running into since Hoi An). I think I’d said goodbye to Sarah and Manon the night before – which was just as well because, much to our disbelief, they’d finally left the island after days of saying that they would. I was on my long way to Japan, which due to the hefty prices is a bit off the backpacker route. I’d be unlikely to see anyone there that I knew from elsewhere. After a boat and bus ride I arrived in Pakse once again. From here I got a bus across the border to Ubon Ratchathani. The border crossing was quite smooth; although some people somehow managed to cross to the Thai side without having an exit stamp in their passport – which caused a bit of a delay. At Ubon, I was happy as a pig in clover when I discovered a coffee shop in the bus station offering free, good quality WiFi – I’d missed that in Laos; but unfortunately they didn’t do any food so I still had to leave after a while to get a dose of Thai cuisine: we only had an hour at the bus stop.

I’d bought The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo the day before and found myself compelled to read it to the very end, even if it meant I wouldn’t get a good night’s sleep. Even when the lights on the bus went off, I strapped on my head torch and carried on. I finally finished it at around 11pm. The bus wasn’t a sleeper so it wasn’t the most relaxing trip ever and we arrived two hours later than expected at almost 8am. I had been travelling for 23 hours and still had another 17 hours to go before my 15 hour flights to Tokyo. I wasn’t sure whether to just hang out at the airport for all that time or check into a hostel for the day. In the end I decided that 55 hours without a shower might be pushing things a bit far so I headed to the Lub*D hostel for the day. This was quite pricey for a Bangkok hostel and far away from the normal backpacker haunts on the Khao San road but it was located right next to the Sky Train which made it easy to get to the airport later than night. Unfortunately none of the other backpackers at the bus station were heading in this direction, so I shared a taxi with an Australian couple to Khao San and then got the boat down the river to the main sky train terminal.

Chang beer

I couldn’t check into my room until 2pm – so, after being in Indochina for 2.5 months and somewhat limited in my culinary options, I did what any self-respecting foodie would have done when in Bangkok: I went to McDonald’s and got a Big Mac. For the rest of the day I had a small afternoon nap and just chilled out at the hostel using the WiFi. I couldn’t even find it in myself to socialise too much: it seemed pointless when I was leaving before the end of the evening. The hostel seemed really nice and in some ways I wished I stayed there longer but at 10pm it was time to catch the sky train to the airport, ready for my journey to Tokyo. This involved a brief stop-off in Beijing where I think I paid $11 for a coffee (isn’t China supposed to be cheap?!) and finally after more than 2 day’s travelling from Laos I found myself in Japan.

Been There Don Det

14 02 2011

The sleeper bus down to Pakse was a bit of surprise. Instead of the single-berth beds that had been the norm in Vietnam the bus had two lines of double bunks down the bus. I was next to a German girl. I’m not really sure about the etiquette of spooning with complete strangers so I tried not to get too close as we slept – although they were really narrow beds so this was sometimes difficult. I spent the first part of the trip watching Run Fat Boy Run on my laptop – not my facesake Simon Pegg’s greatest movie; but enjoyable enough.

In Pakse we swapped to a regular bus which drove us to a ferry crossing on the Mekong where it was a short boat trip to the island of Don Det. I was wandering down the main street and ran into Ellen, who I knew from Hoi An and had run into again in Vang Vieng, and Sarah (German) who I knew originally from Luang Prabang and had also seen in Vang Vieng. They were with a French girl called Manon. I sat down with them for a while and eventually checked into the guest house just opposite the cafe where the girls were also staying. In the afternoon we decided to rent some tubes and go tubing in the river. This wasn’t really the same as it would have been in Vang Vieng. The river currents were quite mild – the only place they were wilder in this area were those parts of the river leading to the big waterfall (it was generally NOT a good idea to go tubing there) – although I seemed to struggle more than anyone else actually paddling my way across the river.

The Four Thousand Islands are pretty enough (I think the “islands” can often just mean any random tree that is growing on a 1m² patch of land and I doubt that anyone has really counted them all) but I’ve been spoilt by being on too many exotic rivers over the past year or so. I scarcely found anything in the view that I felt was worthy of a photo. I really had become a jaded traveller and it was another clear reminder to me as to why I needed to stop soon.

Cow on 4000 islands

In the evening we went for a curry at the local Indian restaurant. The food here was absolutely amazing and once again in Laos I’d find myself in a curry house every single night of my stay in a town. The only downside of the restaurant was that it took a minimum of an hour to get any food. We eventually got around this by working out when we were most probably going to feel hungry and going there an hour beforehand to pre-order. We’d generally only have to wait 30 minutes for our food to arrive when we came back. The Indian was packed every single night there – it was far and above the best eatery in town – I can only imagine what additional profits they would have realised if they’d sped up the cooking process.

After the curry house we went to the reggae bar which would become another staple element of my time in Don Det and chilled out on the cushions there whilst we drank a few beers. There were quite a few French people at our table and Sarah is at least trilingual so the conversation would often lapse into French and I couldn’t understand a word of what was being said. Me and Ellen got our own back by speaking to each other in Dutch. The next day the bar was having a big all-day party on a random island outside of town and we all decided to go. The boat left at about 11am, I just hoped that Jan and Yana would arrive in time so that they could come too. I’m not sure why I worried so much – like reggae bars the world over, accurate timings were not strictly enforced. I’m sure there’s a reason for this.

There was a big party on the beach that night for Valentine’s Day and for wont of something to do we wandered down there. There was a DJ playing lots of tracks and everyone was sitting around in the sand drinking beer. It was a lot of fun and (perhaps because we were far away from the mainland) we were all able to drink away until 3am. It was probably the only time on Don Det that the party went on so late. When I went to the toilet I discovered that some people had remained in the main bar there and were singing some very bad karaoke. I was glad the sound was drowned out by the DJ on the beach.

The next day I had breakfast in a restaurant just overlooking the beach where I hoped the boat would drop Jan and Yana off. They arrived just before 11 and I quickly rushed them down to our guest house where they managed to get the last room. We bustled to the reggae bar – I barely let them get breakfast – and then signed up for the party. As could be easily predicted it was at least another hour before we actually got on a boat and headed to the island.

I was a bit out of sorts for the first hour of the party; perhaps the late night the night before had tired me out more than I thought and I didn’t really make much effort to mingle with people outside of my existing acquaintances but we had a really good time sitting on the beach and swimming in the Mekong all day whilst supping on Beer Laos. Eventually it was time to head back to town and, as was our pattern, visiting the Indian restaurant and the reggae bar.

An informative sign on the bridge between the islands

The next day we rented some bikes and cycled over to the nearby waterfalls. Unfortunately, Yana’s had a puncture and we had to keep stopping along the way to get some air in her tyre. Some of the locals were more than willing to help out a damsel in distress; others were less than helpful and would give a simple shrug that eloquently said “Well, if you’d rented a bike from me instead this wouldn’t have happened”. When we finally got to the Khone falls, which we got to by crossing a bridge to the neighbouring island of Don Khon, I was disappointed to discover that there was nowhere to swim there. I’d dreamt of a quick dunk in the Mekong to wash off the sweat from our bike ride through the midday heat but there wasn’t anything like that. We then debated whether to carry on further to see if we could see the rare Irrawaddy dolphins but we knew this would involve a lot of negotiating with a boat captain to get a boat into the middle of the Mekong so we instead headed back towards town.

Khone falls

That evening, in addition to our usual trips to the Indian and the reggae bar we all decided to head down to a local party. This was actually a funeral but they didn’t seem to mind a load of falangs sitting at the fringes. Rather than the sombre overtones of a European funeral the Laotians have a 5-day festival to celebrate a person’s life. We’d probably have sat a bit closer to the centre but the noise coming out of the stereo was a discordant mash of white noise and the incessant jabbering of the compère. The microphone was way too loud for the speakers to cope with. The compère was even making jokes about all the falang at the party and eventually, after another goading, we all risked bleeding eardrums and got up to dance with the locals. It was a fun evening and I’m glad we went but I’m sure my ears were suffering the next day.

I didn’t do that much on my last full day in Don Det – most of my time was spent trying to organise my onward flights (on the appalling and expensive Internet there) and finishing reading Marching Powder so that Jan could read it after me. Obviously the evening involved the usual schedule of the Indian restaurant, the reggae bar and a few games of Yaniv. I enjoyed my time on Don Det but maybe it was little too chilled for my tastes and the absence of WiFi annoyed my need to feel permanently connected to the real world. The next day I would start with the 11am bus on my long trip to Bangkok.


11 02 2011

I met up with Yana and Jan at the Spicy Laos hostel first thing in the morning ready for our bus to Laos’ capital, Vientiane. We were going to go straight to the hospital to visit Idiet but Kate’s mum let us know via Kate’s Facebook that they were already moving on to Thailand. The hospital in Vientiane had apparently been horrendous and they were going to a more modern, Westernised facility in Udon Thani just across the border.

It took about 5 hours to get down to the capital city. We were dropped right in the centre and it was a short walk to the street with all the guest houses on where we found a triple room at the Youth Inn 2 for 40,000 kip each. We weren’t planning to stay long in the capital and resolved to get the night-bus the very next day down to Don Det in Si Phan Don (the Four Thousand Islands) on the border with Cambodia. Obviously, Laos is a landlocked country so these islands are situated in the middle of the Mekong.

Vientiane was initially quite refreshing for a capital city. There really is no comparison to the other regional metropolises of Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh – most of the time I kept asking myself if this really was a capital city. The roads are quiet; there is none of the mayhem, noise and pollution that characterises the other cities and everything seemed very orderly and sedate. It felt more like a small town than the capital of anywhere. We went for lunch at the Swedish Pizza & Baking House and the smell of the fresh pizza was absolutely amazing – even though it was quite pricey compared to my normal backpacker fare I knew I’d have to have one. It was as delicious as it smelt!

Jan and I played a few games of Yaniv there whilst we waited for Yana to get back from the bank. This was annoying on at least two counts – the first was that he was absolutely thrashing me; he got more than 10 Yanivs in a row which should be statistically impossible. And the second was that at one point he asked me whose turn it was to deal. “Mine” I said immediately, forcing me to do 10 push-ups in the middle of the restaurant – it somehow seems unfair to catch people out playing the Game of Life when you’re not even drinking.

For the rest of the afternoon I desperately tried to find anywhere that did free WiFi. Most of the restaurants only seemed to offer chargeable WiFi from various local Telecom companies. We finally found a bar on the same street as our hostel (it turned out that this was where all the WiFi spots were) which offered a very ropey connection for patrons. At least now I was able to update my blog and get in touch on Facebook. There was still no word from the girls over in Thailand – we hoped that everything was okay.

In the early evening I was pleasantly surprised to meet the English full-time lads from Sapa and Halong Bay sitting on the terrace outside our guest house. I thought they were already in Luang Prabang and hadn’t expected to see them again before I left Laos. We had a good catch-up over a beer – apparently they were still playing Paper Telephone and the drinking game 21 that I’d taught them. At least I got an invaluable tip out of them on what to do in Vientiane before they left to catch their bus – Buddha park sounded like a must-see place. Jan, Yana and I headed down towards the Mekong River (ultimately disappointing – it was set so far back from the town and wasn’t the atmospheric river front I imagined it might be) to find a place for drinks and had another chance encounter with Julia and Jemima, the Aussie girls from Luang Prabang. We went for a few drinks with them in a Tex Mex bar down the road. It seemed okay to begin with but as we left it was filled with a lot of dodgy looking characters: sex tourists, lady boys etc. It seemed that Vientiane did share some of the characteristics of the other capital cities in the area after all.

Jemima wasn’t feeling too good so she headed home but the rest of us went to the market and grabbed some food there. It probably wasn’t actually that much cheaper than a local restaurant and didn’t particularly stand out. Afterwards we went for a few more drinks in one of the bars by the guest house and chatted away there till the bar shut (not particularly late). I finally traded one of my books with Julia for a copy of Marching Powder, which I’ve been wanting to read since Bolivia. We talked about going to the nightclub in town but we were all a bit tired and from Julia’s reports it was quite weird anyway so we headed off to bed instead.

After a late breakfast the next day we headed back to the guest house to book our bus ticket to Four Thousand Islands and discovered that the buses were all full. “But you told us it would be fine yesterday,” we protested to no avail. I decided to book one for the next evening but Jan and Yana put it off by one more day. At least it meant they could sort out their Thai and Vietnamese visas on Monday. I kept complaining that I was going to be “all by myself” which I of course sang like Rene Zellweger in Bridget Jones. I wasn’t jealous of them spending another day in Vientiane though, I was fast finding it too quiet for my liking and without any real tourist attractions.


Chicken in the bus

After we’d sorted out another night’s accommodation we got a local bus to Buddha Park. The bus was probably not the quickest way to do it but it was very cheap and you always get the most interesting experience travelling on local buses. At one point a monk was sitting next to us and a woman brought a squawking chicken into the bus on her lap. The journey took more than an hour; we first drove to the Thai border and Buddha Park was the last big stop.


The pumpkin of heaven and hell

The park itself was quite impressive; more than 200 Hindu and Buddhist sculptures vie for your attention – and some of them are really quite bizarre. One of them is sized like a giant pumpkin with a tree coming out of the top and you can climb your way through it to get a fantastic view across the whole park. Apparently the three levels are supposed to symbolise Hell, Earth and Heaven as you go up but this imagery was lost on me. The climb would probably have failed every health and safety guideline in a Western country – the stairs were sized for tiny-footed people; garden gnomes would have struggled with them.


Buddha Park

After clambering around the various sculptures and admiring the statues for a small while we headed back into town. There I finally decided to get my beard trimmed. It was getting to the stage where I could store food in it and hibernate for the winter; which is pretty gross really. I finally found a hairdressers near our guest house – the old woman led me to a back room; which she first needed to set-up to make it usable. I’m guessing that she didn’t get many customers there – at least I felt that I was making a direct contribution to the local community.

We didn’t do a lot else in Vientiane: we played innumerable games of Yaniv and drank a few casual beers but nothing really worthy of note. Before I knew it I was heading south to Don Det. I was travelling on my own for the first time since I arrived in Laos.

I Think I’m Going to Jerk Off

5 02 2011

Vang Vieng: the Mecca of backpackers. Once a beautiful, idyllic town where you could take part in various intrepid outdoor activities: tubing down the river, climbing up the limestone karsts, kayaking all the way down to the capital Vientiane – now the Benidorm of Laos where young twenty-somethings drink beer, Mekong whiskey buckets and magic mushroom shakes all day whilst watching endless reruns of Friends and Family Guy in the chilled out cafes. The New Zealand Herald describes it as “If teenagers ruled the world, it might resemble Vang Vieng.” I know what you’re thinking. How would I, a late-thirty-something teetotaller, possibly fit in with this Lord of the Flies playground? Obviously it was going to be a huge struggle.

Vang Vieng

Practically everyone who I knew in Spicy Laos headed down to Vang Vieng that day – the hostel had emptied out. I’d been of two minds as to whether to head straight there or go to Phonsavan and visit the Plain of Jars but I decided to follow the masses. I could visit the Plain of Jars just as easily from Vang Vieng. Jan and Yana decided to hitch-hike down there but I went for the more relaxed option of getting the early afternoon bus. Just as I was boarding the bus, Jan Zwei surprised me by suddenly saying that he was coming too. It was going to be a big party.

It was hard to sleep on the bus – Laos was never invaded by the Romans so the concept of a straight road has never really entered into the national psyche. It seems that the innovations of John McAdam are not strictly enforced either. The windy, twisting, potholed roads of Laos are liable to create nausea in the most settled stomach. At one point we made a stop for refreshments and the happy place; my foot had gone to sleep in the cramped condition and as I staggered out of the bus I managed to stub my toe on the ground causing it to bleed copiously. I’m used to walking around with gaping gashes in my big toes but it the first time since Latin America that I’d actually injured my foot and this was before I’d started drinking.

Jan Zwei and I arrived in Vang Vieng at about 7pm and then spent at least an hour wandering around with our backpacks looking for somewhere to stay. Everywhere we went the answer was the same: no room at the inn; try again tomorrow. Never mind about tomorrow, we thought. We need somewhere for tonight! As we wandered around facing rejection after rejection, we ran into Jan and Yana in an Indian restaurant: it was quite clearly a small town. Eventually we ended up at the Cocoon resort – this was a lot more money than we’d normally spend but we were starting to get desperate. Besides, they even had a swimming pool – although in daylight it was shown not to be worthy of mention. As we’d been wandering around we’d seen tuk-tuks full of drunk youths coming back from “tubing” – they were very loud, barely standing and covered in marker pen tattoos. I’m sure when we went we’d do it with a greater degree of decorum.

After we’d dropped off our stuff I went back to the Indian with Jan and Yana – the food was pretty good (in fact I went nearly every day that I was in Vang Vieng) but they didn’t really believe in much spice: even the mutton Vindaloo was milder than a medium curry back home. As was our wont, we played a big round of Yaniv. It was fast becoming our favourite pastime. Some American guys we knew from the hostel in Luang Prabang who all taught English in China – Frank, Vinny and Craig – wandered past and told us about the Oh La La bar around the corner that did buckets for 10,000 kip for the next half-an-hour. We decided to join them there and ran into Cheryl and Fiona from Spicy Laos too. We ended up on a big table playing card drinking games – mostly Asshole and F**k the Dealer. Jan in particular got quite messed up when he was the dealer and said that he couldn’t drink any more: “I think I’m going to jerk off,” he said. “WHAT?” we all cried out. He, of course, meant that he was going to throw up but, much to our mirth, the English idiom had failed him at a crucial moment. He obviously didn’t live that down the whole time I travelled with him.

I also ran into Tegan from Hanoi there; although she was so incapacitated that I don’t think she recognised me and I doubt that she’d ever have remembered the conversation the next day. Vang Vieng was that type of place. We carried on playing drinking games and it seemed to be Jan Zwei’s turn to get really drunk – something he did with apparent zeal as he kept giving everyone huge hints as to what card they should guess when he was the dealer. After a final drink or two at Bar Q down the road – everyone gathered on the street outside – it was time to head home for the night.

Outside Bar Q

The next day was disappointing to say the least. The Germans were all so hungover that any attempts to go tubing were met with limited enthusiasm. I decided to compromise by going to the nearby Blue Lagoon but only Yana was capable of going anywhere – the Jans just wanted to sleep their headaches off – and we couldn’t find a tuk-tuk willing to take us there for a reasonable price. So we didn’t do anything all day and eventually just settled down in one of the Friends cafes and watched back-to-back episodes.

As we sat there we saw tuk-tuk after tuk-tuk dumping off the raucous hordes from the tubing; amongst them five girls who were having a big disagreement. Everyone in the bar stopped watching Friends and instead cast their eyes on the action unfolding in the street; even the staff stopped what they were doing (although that didn’t affect the service in any noticeable way). It was the ultimate bitch fight with hair-pulling, weak slaps and high kicks and an audible sigh of disappointment spread through the restaurant when the girls ran off further down the street and the tableau was finished.

Jan and I decided to revisit the Indian restaurant for dinner and, much to my surprise, we ran into Kate and Idiet who I’d last seen in Hoi An at Jean’s birthday. None of us realised that the others were even going to Laos after Vietnam. Vang Vieng was fast becoming a crossroads where I was going to run into people from various different points of my travels: at another point in the evening I also ran into Maud who I also knew from Hoi An. We arranged to meet up the next day for breakfast so that we could all go tubing together.

It seemed to be the night for fights and crazy drunken behaviour. We witnessed a local guy who was completely sozzled and could barely stand; trying to get on his motorbike which he kept falling off, before a couple of Westerners hauled him off his bike to safety. At Bar Q, however, we witnessed the most serious event. A Westerner who was completely off-his-face (he’d been seen running naked through the streets) was in a scuffle with a local guy. At first I was full of sympathy for the Laotian – apparently the Westerner had broken into his shop and house and tried to rape his wife. But as the story carried on it seemed unlikely that much of this had happened. It was possible that he was indeed guilty of breaking and entering in a moment of ill-considered drunken behaviour but when the Laos guy said the police were coming and then his friend (who was definitely NOT a member of the local constabulary) started to get some handcuffs out I realised that it was, in all likelihood, an excuse to extort money from the most wasted foreigner in the neighbourhood. It sounded like the drunkard and the wife had never even encountered each other, so the story of intended rape was also just conjecture. The fact that the Laotian guy was also holding a brick above the other guy’s head and was preparing to hit him with it was actually quite scary. The Westerner did finally leave and headed back to his hostel so we didn’t have to witness him getting his head pounded by a large rock. After a relatively relaxed night on the booze we headed home for bed.

After meeting up for breakfast it was like herding cats trying to get everyone together ready to depart in a tuk-tuk to the first bar on the tubing circuit: it took at least forty-five minutes before all of us were assembled in the same place. Most of us decided not to actually go tubing itself – half the fun was just going on a big bar hop between the first four bars – and the chances of your tube getting stolen or punctured are apparently quite high: so we instead decided just to concentrate on the drinking. We did this in quite some concentration.

And so began two solid days of mayhem. Beers, buckets, marathon games of beer pong and horrendously high swings into the water below became the norm. We were covered in tubing “tattoos” written in marker pen or spray-painted through stencils. My back proclaimed me to be “Barry, Hairy, Quite Contray [sic]” It was, of course, supposed to say “contrary” but English is clearly only a second language to Americans so they struggle to spell it correctly. During a random conversation in Oh La La one night, I suddenly realised that Jan Zwei was in the Game of Life and we soon enlisted the others too. It was no longer okay to use the first person possessive pronoun in response to a question – I lost count of how many times I was forced to do push-ups after saying “mine”. And doing them on the floor of a tuk-tuk on bumpy roads is really not easy.

In the tubing at Vang Vieng

For our second consecutive day of tubing we all decided to get different colour Ray Bans and we were known by our colour name for the rest of the day. Anyone caught using a real name was forced to drink. I became henceforth known as “Blue”; sometimes with the additional appellation of “Gay Blue”.  This became very awkward when you were talking to new people or had to remind past passing acquaintances of your own name – but I did get around this by saying “it sounds like Larry but with a B”. I ran into lots more people who I knew from elsewhere whilst we were tubing: the South African girls, Candice and Cliflyn; the Aussies, Julia and Jemima; Irish Emma and Dutch Ellen from Hoi An too. I also met American Matt who everyone else in our group seemed to know from somewhere previously and an American tour rep called Heather.

I’d love to describe some interesting anecdotes from those 2 days tubing but it’s all a bit of a drunken blur really. Maud told us later that she’d seen us all staggering off the back of a tuk-tuk coming into town singing and shouting away. We had turned into the very people that I’d seen on my first few days in Vang Vieng. At least we weren’t fighting.

After two days “tubing” we were due for a break and decided to head up to the Blue Lagoon. Jan Zwei left us that day – he had to meet some friends in Thailand. The Blue Lagoon was an ultimately disappointing experience: the water was indeed blue but it looked quite mucky and a strange oily residue covered the top. It didn’t really look like something I wanted to swim in. There were also some caves there with a reclining Buddha inside. We trekked our way up to the top of the hill up an interminable number of stairs; once again not the easiest of tasks in flip-flops and then arrived at the cave. Most of the others stayed at the top but Jan and I decided to amble down to the Buddha and then I crawled through a tiny cave system: Jan decided not to because he didn’t have a torch with him. Luckily I found a random American girl that also wanted to crawl through it. It was pitch-black, claustrophobic and often there was scarcely enough room to squeeze through. There was also the omnipresent fear that we might get lost and not be able to find our way back to the start. I’m not sure if we could have gone further but without a guide we both decided to head back the way we came. I was glad I had company in the cave anyway – I’m not sure I’d have gone so far on my own and if the batteries had run out in my torch I really would have been stuck.

Reclining Buddha

That evening we all debated whether we’d stay for one final day tubing. Matt was quite adamant that he was going to leave; Idiet seemed ambivalent and Jan really wasn’t bothered with it. However, once Kate, myself and Yana had committed ourselves to another day the others decided to join us to. In retrospect, given what happened, it would probably have been better if we had just upped sticks and moved on.

Kare and Idiet playing beer pong before it all went to hell

The bars seemed quieter that day but eventually we settled into our usual routine of beer pong (which I completely suck at) and umpteen beers as we did our usual crawl between the first four bars. On numerous occasions someone would make the mistake of saying “mine” and be forced to do 10 push-ups. Idiet and Kate were playing beer pong with a couple of Canadian guys in the second bar and, after not really feeling a great vibe in the fourth bar we decided to head back and join them. Once the game was finished, one of the Canadians grabbed Idiet and carried her towards the edge of the water – it was probably a 15 metre drop-off to the water. After play-fighting a bit at the edge he decided to push her off but didn’t take the rocks just beneath the bar into consideration. Idiet was covered in blood and screaming in pain. After we’d got her out we quickly rushed her up the hill to a tuk-tuk and put her on the floor of it. She was complaining about the pain in her arm and her ribs and kept saying that she couldn’t breathe. We needed to get her to the hospital as soon as possible but the roads (which is a liberal use of the word given the state of the rutted tracks that led down to the tubing bars) were appalling so we kept asking the driver to slow down.

It was a very scary journey. Idiet seemed to keep slipping in and out of consciousness. “Stay with us, Idiet!” we kept saying and I talked to her in Dutch in the hope that her native language might be more soothing; although I’m not really sure that Dutch ever sounds soothing. At the hospital the situation didn’t improve much either – there was another scheduled power cut in Luang Prabang so there was no way they could power the X-ray machine to see what was happening with Idiet’s chest. “I can’t breathe,” she kept saying. “I think there’s water in my lungs.” As the nurses busied themselves with stitching the cuts on her arm and head she would scream out “I need air. I can’t breathe. And don’t worry about my arm you need to look at my chest NOW.” She could also feel every needle going into her but the nurses had already given her all the drugs they were going to. It was an extremely worrying time and we had to keep lying and say that the doctors were doing everything they could. It all seemed too relaxed and haphazard for the kind of attention that we felt Idiet deserved.

Finally the power came back on and they took her off for some X-rays. We decided to phone her insurance company and see if they would fly her to a more modern and better equipped hospital in Thailand but we then encountered another problem with the hospital: there were no telephones. The nurse did offer us the use of her prepaid mobile but I doubted that she’d have enough credit for an international call so I went down the road to an Internet cafe and phoned them from there. They would cover any extraction costs but it needed to be recommended by the hospital. Eventually we convinced them to at least put her in an ambulance to the capital city, Vientiane. So Kate went back to the hostel and packed up both their things whilst Jan and I headed off to the cash machine to get the money to pay for the ambulance.

I went back to the hostel and got both my bank cards just in case I couldn’t get enough out on the one card and somewhere in all the confusion I managed to lose one of them. This was the only debit/credit card that I owned and it would cause me problems for the rest of the trip: especially when it came to booking flights home. Eventually we waved goodbye to the girls in the back of the ambulance. Yana, Jan and I planned to meet them at Vientiane hospital the next day. My plans to visit the Plain of Jars were now completely shelved. Matt was carrying on his journey up north to Luang Prabang.

The whole thing had been a very sobering experience and none of us were really in the mood to drink that night. Although I did still find myself having a few drinks in Bar Q at the end of the evening. I didn’t really know many people in town any more (most had moved on) but I did meet up with Nik again who I knew from playing Sabidee in Hanoi. Finally it was time to go to bed ready for the bus to the capital the next day.

Luang Prabang! Thank You, Man

2 02 2011

I wasn’t quite sure I was going to be let out of Vietnam. The immigration officer was scrutinising my passport so closely I think he thought I’d bought it on the Khao San road – quite why he thought I’d managed to pass through the rest of the world (as evidenced by my stamps) with such a fake I’m not sure. After five minutes meticulous examination he seemed satisfied and handed it back to me.

I also had another problem at the airport – I knew I’d need to pay for my Laotian visa with dollars so I decided to stock up. At the bureau de change I was told that they don’t sell US dollars. I decided to opt for Euros and hope that Laos would accept them. My trials weren’t over, however. “Do you have a receipt for your dong?” “No. I just got them out of that machine there and put the receipt in the bin” – it was the first time in the whole country I’d actually even got one, most of the other machines had a green option where I said not to bother printing out the receipt. “It’s in that bin there,” I protested. The bin in question had a little letter box at the top for posting your unwanted receipts. There was no way I could get my hand in and pull out a receipt. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but I need a receipt.” After a few minutes arguing about it, she finally caved in. “Next time, keep your receipt,” she informed me tersely. It was quite a typical interaction with the surlier North Vietnamese. I much preferred the friendlier Southerners.

After my short flight I arrived in Laos. I was able to use Euros – although I’m sure I was stung on the exchange rate – and then I caught a taxi to Spicy Laos hostel. I hadn’t bothered to book anything and it was already early evening but I hoped it would be okay. Already I was struck by the differences in Laos. After the mayhem of Cambodia and Vietnam, everything seemed really relaxed here. The roads were quiet and everyone drove at a relaxed and sedate pace. The hostel unfortunately was full but rather than turn me away they offered me a place on the TV room floor. It was a mattress with clean bedding on it – I’ve slept in worse places – so I took him up on the offer. I think I was actually supposed to pay a small amount for that night’s accommodation but I never did.


A classic car on the streets of Luang Prabang


Disaster also struck as soon as I arrived at the hostel – one of the straps on my backpack decided to come out. The next day the guy from the hostel assured me that they could fix it. My rucksack sat there for 2 days before he admitted, no actually it’s too difficult. I ended up buying a really cheap rucksack (which is actually too small) and leaving that one behind. I’m so glad I waited an extra month for it to be repaired before I resumed my travelling.


Monks on the streets of Luang Prabang

As soon as arrived at the hostel I started to drink. I’d seen Beer Lao – universally acknowledged to be one of the best beers in Southeast Asia – a lot in Cambodia but since I was going to Laos I vowed not to drink it until I got there. It is a good beer but at the end of the day it’s just another lager. I suddenly realised when I was on my third or fourth beer that I hadn’t really eaten much all day – since I’d arrived so late I decided to carry on rather than waste time finding somewhere to eat. This may have been a mistake.

That evening I met Erin, Cara (both American), Malcom and Kevin (I think they were Canadian), Yana (German) and Fiona (from Nottingham). We were sitting on the patio of the hostel chewing the fat before finally decided that we should head into town. Everything shuts down in Laos around 11pm which was about the time we rolled up to Utopia. Like most bars in Utopia this was really chilled; everyone sits on cushions around a big table. We managed to get a drink in there before we got kicked out and then we all piled into the back of a tuk-tuk to take us to a nightclub.

I remember the nightclub being quite strange but my memory at this point is quite patchy. Apparently I also met Amos (Israel) and Julia and Jemima (Australia) in the club but it was only when they reminded me the next day that I realised I’d even been there. Eventually the club closed down too and we all headed back to the hostel for the evening. I didn’t sleep too well – the TV lounge was right next to the patio where most people hung out all night so I got up quite early.


One of the rivers of Luang Prabang

The next day I was all ready to go out and explore the town but then suddenly realised that my camera battery was dead so my departure from the hostel was severely delayed whilst I waited for the battery to charge. Eventually, I got my first daylight viewing of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang – a title that seemed well deserved. The Nam Khan and Mekong rivers frame the edges of the town and the architecture is a blend of traditional Laotian wooden houses with some European influences; from when Laos was part of the French colony of Indochina. The streets are clean and almost devoid of traffic – I’d heard about the change of pace I could expect in Laos but I never imagined it could be this relaxed. And after the cold of Northern Vietnam it was fantastic to wander around in shorts and T-shirt once more and bask in the sun. And the people were so friendly; you were greeted everywhere by a smile and a cry of “Sabidee!”

I stopped off for some lunch at a little cafe where I had my first taste of larp and sticky rice on Laotian soil. This is a minced meat (normally although I also saw fish and tofu/mushroom variants)  salad mixed with chilli, mint and fish sauce. It’s very tasty – although the cucumber in the accompanying garnish was the most bitter I’d ever tasted and therefore inedible.


Larp, Laap, Larb or Laab (don’t you just love transliterations)

Luang Prabang is an absolute treasure trove full of wats, temples and monasteries. Rather than visit all of them and be overtaken by yet another debilitating attack of temple fatigue I decided to visit only the oldest and the best: Vat Xieng Thong. Even I couldn’t fail to be impressed by the gilt paintings all over the walls and the beautiful gold façades. Some of the buildings also had amazing detailed friezes decorating the outer walls.


Vat Xieng Thong

As I was wandering around I suddenly heard some deep drums resounding through the courtyard. All the tourists turned towards the sound and began to walk towards the source, I did likewise – were we the Pied Piper’s children wandering towards impending doom? At the rear of the monastery three monks had locked themselves in a cage and were banging away on different instruments – a really low bass drum, some saucepan lids (okay, they weren’t but it best describes their appearance) and a pair of cymbals. We all stood there transfixed by the sound – at times I thought they were coming to a close but then the rhythm would carry straight on again.


Monks in a cage

Eventually I left the monks bashing away at their apparently random rhythm and after snapping a few final shots headed back to the hostel.



Wat flowers


In the evening I played Yaniv with Yana, Jan and Jan Zwei (all German) and Simone (a French girl). Like me, Yana is a big Yaniv addict but I think it was the first time the rest had played it. I’ve lost count of the amount of people who I’ve taught the game to since I learned it just before St Patrick’s Day 2010 but I think I may be nearing triple figures. At one point we all headed off to the night market to grab some food – here you could pile a big plate up with vegetables, rice and noodles and they warmed it up in the wok for you for a mere 10,000 kip (~$US1.25). In the evening we weren’t going to go out at all but Erin decided that she wanted to go to Utopia briefly so we all headed there but stopped halfway when we ran into Amos and group of other Israelis just leaving. We walked back to the night market where some of the others got some baguettes; I was still stuffed after my dinner. At one point one of the locals driving past offered Jan Zwei a woman for the evening. “How much is it?” he enquired, apparently only out of curiosity. “300,000 kip” he was told. “I’ll do it for 150,000!” one of the older market stallholders joked to him with a big wide grin on her face.

I stayed up quite late on the terrace that evening drinking beers and chatting away until we met a load of people coming back from the infamously bad nightclub. Amongst them was Emma (Irish) who we’d run into quite a lot on our future adventures. Towards the end of the evening we were joined by a very annoying French guy, he wasn’t even staying at the hostel and was doing his best to annoy everyone at the table so quite why he was there I don’t know. Eventually I offloaded him onto Emma and went to bed.

The next day I signed up for a trip to the Kuang Si waterfalls. I’ve seen a lot of falls during my travels so they have to be quite special to stand out but these really were pretty awesome. The water was a beautiful colour too – it reminded me of the glacial melt water from my time in Patagonia a year beforehand. The falls emptied out into multiple pools on different levels where it possible to go for a swim and they were set within a pleasant forest with an easy walk amongst them.


One of the pools


There were lots of people on the trip that day – we filled two large tuk-tuks (unlike the ones in Cambodia the tuk-tuks here are more like vans) – but I probably spoke most often to a Canadian girl from my dorm, Cheryl, two South Africans (Candice and Cliflyn) and the two Aussies (Jemima and Julia). I also spoke to a big group of American guys but I can’t remember any of their names!


Me at the bottom of the main falls


At the very start of the park there was a big enclosure filled with Asian Black Bears that have been rescued from poachers and gall bladder farms. It was fun watching them strolling around the cage although they seemed to move behind something just as I got my camera lined up on. Once we reached the main waterfall, we all decided to walk to the top. This was a steep half-an-hour climb on slippy terrain; it would have been easier if we hadn’t all been wearing flip-flops. Back down the hill it was time to go for a swim. One of the pools had a big rope swing over it which I immediately had to do: although I’m not sure my swing looked particularly impressive. The hardest part about it wasn’t the swing itself but retrieving the rope: there was a hooked stick to help out with this but it was still a big balancing act on a slippery tree branch before you could get it.

In the evening, we once again played lots of Yaniv and I went back to the night market with Jan and Yana. I finally gave into my tiredness from Hanoi and the last two nights in Luang Prabang and went to bed relatively early that night. This was just as well: I was off to Vang Vieng the next day, known for being one big party town.