Singapore – March 2015

31 Mar
Little India, Singapore

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

Our final days in hot, steamy Singapore… tying up some loose ends; sadly waving goodbye to our favorite old haunts; my birthday “weekend”; a boys (with honorary girl) weekend of gluttony, crocodiles, hideous spiders, gigantic monitor lizards, getting marooned way out in the boonies in the torrential rain… and (hopefully) avoiding contracting Mr Fu’s plague…

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

After all the excitement of recent trips we decided to take it relatively easy in our last weeks and enjoy the rest of our time in (now) horrendously hot and humid Singapore. There were a few things we still wanted to see and do… the night lights at the weirdly futuristic Gardens by the Bay… a trip out of the city to the northern reserves and, for old times sake, Geoff wanted to revisit the remains of the village of his toddler years (before Changi Airport was built on it!).

During our absence for most of February it seems that someone turned on the sauna in the city. Apparently it hasn’t reached its worst yet so our imminent departure is, frankly, fortuitous! It makes a summer in Florida look positively chilly…

I managed to catch up again with a girlfriend, Sally, from Melbourne – both of us out of our native territories this time around – and I got to see the inside of a luxury suite at Marina Bay Sands which is undoubtedly as close as I am ever likely to get ;-).  The views from her room and the world renowned infinity edge rooftop pool over Marina Bay and the city were quite fabulous as per all the hype.

My birthday “weekend” was an extravaganza of lattes, cakes and other miscellaneous delicious food gluttonies.

We re-visited all of my favorite places :-). It is so much better to have a whole birthday weekend rather than just one sad lonely birthday “day” ;-).

So… it started with Saturday morning curry for breakfast :-) (which is actually a first) at Lau Pa Sat hawkers stands, we then latte-crawled our way through my favorite various cafes and coffee shops in Kampong Glam (I shall miss this place the most :-( ), endured a long session of Chinese massage (more on the horrors of that below) and finally staggered up to the old refurbished army base, Dempsey Hill, for dinner at my favorite Euro-Asian fusion restaurant, PS Cafe. We will miss Dempsey Hill too with all of its trendy bars and restaurants… but that can only be a positive for our now bulging waistlines ;-).

The same again in reverse on Sunday morning… back to Kampong Glam for more European influenced latte, cake and crab cakes equally as good as any we have enjoyed in Maryland (the centre of the universe for crab lovers), we then braved the wet market in Chinatown for lunch and finally back up to Dempsey Hill for curry with Geoff’s old ex-pat pal from Bristol…

Not surprisingly, we spent the intervening weekday evenings running vigorously around Fort Canning Park trying not to keel over from heat exhaustion…

Our final weekend was passed doing more boy-related activities. I managed to squeeze in one posh final peranakan dinner at Violet Oon’s Kitchen and rather wished we had discovered it earlier in our culinary explorations.

Because Changi Village was still on our hit-list we thought a boys weekend extended beer session might be best preceded by something a little more peaceful and restorative before the booze started to flow… so we took a quick trip out to the northeastern tip of Singapore. Changi Village is a curious mix of 1960’s style lower income housing and trendy coffee shops and bars. From the Boardwalk there you can see Malaysia across the Straits of Johor. As anticipated the beaches were still singularly unappealing re-confirming our decision to take various expensive trips to southern Thailand to get our sea and sand “fix” rather than waste time on the Singaporean beaches. It was definitely more appealing as a sailing bay… unless the thought of swimming in murky waters amongst the floating debris and a large tractor tyre is your thing, of course. Still, although the walk was very pleasant, the air-conditioning in the lunch cafe afterwards was infinitely more delightful ;-).

Thereafter, the weekend was all beer, pizza, beer, curry, beer and beer with Geoff’s old friend Paul (the same friend of previous blog photos and several previous curries and beer nights ;-) ). We all decided it might be advantageous to work off some of the calories of the day before with a brisk walk through the Sungei Buloh Reserve on Sunday. Naturally, none of us could get started without another round of emergency breakfast lattes, cakes and sandwiches just in case we got lost and didn’t make it out of the swamp and back to civilization for lunch ;-).

Without cars in this city you have to travel everywhere by subway, buses and cabs. For us, it is an alien world… it is, however, what 82.5% of the Singaporean population must do…

We are just about used to some of its benefits (speedy, cheap and clean transportation all over the city) but there are occasions when it is just a massive inconvenience not to have your own car. Sunday was one of those days.

So… cab to Paul’s house… emergency food… cab to the wilderness for our walk.

In order to convince me to leave the air-conditioning for the second time in a weekend after our Changi Village excursion, I was tempted to Sungei Buloh Reserve by Paul’s promise of crocodiles, lizards, snakes and mangrove views over pristine waters…

What I actually got (and Paul and Geoff may object all they like!), is 1 long distance croc (perhaps that was for the better, on second thoughts), 2 gigantic monitor lizards (one of which was none too thrilled when it got bashed on its head by some idiot swinging her Gucci handbag about (not really territory for handbags and heels but you do see some unusual sights on this island), a collection of nasty spiders (yuck), mangroves, a lot of tidal mud, copious numbers of mud skippers (difficult, but not impossible to see in the mud of the same color ;-) ) …and quite a bit of scattered trash lodged into the tidal flats… Had it floated all the way from Thailand or was this of Malaysian beach origin? ;-).

Couldn’t believe it was Singaporean as the rest of the island is almost spotless…

Returning to the matter of public transport… the sweaty heavens opened just as we were finishing our walk… not that we could have got much damper anyway… so Paul tried to summons a cab using his cellphone app. This is a fantastic cab calling system with GPS and all the bells and whistles including being able to watch the approach of your designated cab and the license plate of the cab – love it – works wonderfully in the city.

However, it doesn’t work quite as well in the wilderness. Not a problem – a bus was waiting at a stop by the entrance to the Reserve so we hopped on assuming it was going to the Kranji MRT station back out in civilization. I am not entirely sure why we assumed this and the alarm was only raised when Paul (native here for a full 15 years) thought we “might” be traveling in the wrong direction… and, in fact, further into the wilderness…

Perfect. Hot, sweaty, awful hair, starving and thirsty and we had leapt onto a bus without checking where on earth it was going. Still, it was nicely cooled and none of us were quite sure what to do other than sit there trying to dry out for a while and delay the decision for as long as possible. It took us some while to make a decision as to a course of action whilst the bus meandered slowly through obscure park areas and tourist facilities, none of which Paul had ever heard of. It finally pulled up at “Bollywood Veggies – Welcome to Paradise”. The bus driver was vaguely amused that we thought he was heading to the MRT station but did kindly tell us that if we alighted here, the bus for the MRT would be along in 45 minutes.

Bollywood Veggies turned out to be a family destination (perfect again!). It is a hot, sweaty, humid organic farm in the middle of nowhere with exciting diversions for kids such as picking vegetables, walking through muddy paddy fields and cuddling the farm dog (I am NOT joking). For all this fun, there is an entrance fee of $2 per person.

Not feeling inclined to pay $2 each to watch vegetables grow in the rain, we sat in the entrance for the full 45 minutes watching a solar-powered plastic butterfly fly round and round in circles while Paul persevered in vain to use his cellphone app to call a cab to come and find us miles out in the boonies ;-).

Eventually, as Paul’s cellphone battery must have begun to die with all of the repeated SOS cab requests, the 2pm bus finally arrived. Great :-).

None of us could quite believe that it was actually the same driver and the very same bus which had dumped us out in “Paradise” to fry 45 minutes earlier when he might actually have taken pity on us and just let us sit on the bus in the freezing AC until he had finished his circuitous route and returned. Naturally, to add insult to injury, the bus route took us right back to where we had started hours earlier at the entrance to Sungei Buloh Reserve ;-).

It’s a good job we all have a sense of humor :-).

Having said that, this performance would never have happened under my watch ;-).

Note to self… in future maintain strict control over all tourist and travel related activities and never trust 2 grown men to get us where we need to be in a timely fashion using public transport ;-).

So, to end the “car free” return trip from Kranji to Hillview – we then stood outside a hot subway station waiting for a cab to take us back to Paul’s to recover with more food, beer, food and beer until we all passed out with fatigue at 10pm.

It was without doubt interesting and diverting to get out into the island’s north western swampy parts for some fresh air and to stretch our legs and chew the cud with Paul for another day (which was a lot of fun). I had determined, however, from the moment of being deposited in Bollywood Veggies’ alleged Paradise, literally dripping in sweat, bright red and sporting the very latest Hair Bear Bunch affro hair-style, that I would not leave the air-conditioned luxury of our apartment again until we wave goodbye to our host city of the past few months ;-).

In between the food-related activities of our final 2 weekends, we squeezed in a final Chinese foot massage at our “local”. We will very much miss the various delights and torments of a decent Chinese foot massage. Nobody else does it like the Chinese…

I was looking forward to being pummeled by my “usual” ancient torturer at the Lao Fo Ye Wellness Centre in Bugis. However, one look at him perched on a stool in the back of the shop was enough to suggest I opt for an alternative masseur for once. I mean absolutely no disrespect when I say that the Chinese appear to be generally quite a sickly race. It is just an observation from our many close encounters with cab drivers, shop assistants and trips on public transport. For reasons unknown they just suffer from a LOT of really stinky colds, coughs, sniffs, sneezes etc. etc. which seem to spread like wildfire.

Barely sick in Florida at all for the best part of 9 years we have both, during our South East Asian odyssey, contracted nasty irritating colds from our various Chinese-related excursions and interactions – most notably – Hong Kong and any time we have used a cab to get to the airport and have been sneezed on and sniffed at for the entire 30 minute journey by the cab driver :-(. It has got to the point where our obsessive compulsive disorders have reached quite dramatic levels of paranoia and we now sani-wipe our way through the the entire travel experience from the cab door, to anything at all that the sniffly driver may have touched with his plague-ridden hands (including but not limited to credit cards, receipts, luggage handles etc. etc.), to wiping our passports down after check-in, immigration and the endless passport and ticket control checks which are made when you depart Changi Airport if anyone at all has sniffed, or sneezed at us… to the airplane seats, seat belts, arm rests… head rests… you name it….

It used to just be me…now I think poor Geoff will also soon need OCD therapy ;-).

Anyway.. Mr Fu (name changed to protect the guilty) sat for the entire time on his stool, wearing his incongruously labelled “Wellness Centre” yellow t-shirt, sniffling into his equally ancient and greying handkerchief. Then he proceeded to rub it and its contents vigorously and enthusiastically all over his face, mopping at his eyes, forehead etc. etc… sniff, blow, rub… repeat. I thought the horrors could get no worse but then he lodged this piece of bio-hazard cloth firmly between his nose and upturned top lip and there it sat balanced precariously for minutes on end until he repeated the whole grotesque sequence all over again.

Luckily (and I do mean this in the nicest possible way), Geoff was in considerable pain during his own massage (I wish I had been too if the truth were known) so his eyes were clenched shut for the entire massage and, thus, he was saved the full horrors of Mr Fu’s stinking cold…

I wish this were the first and last time I have witnessed such bizarre behavior… but it isn’t… ;-).

With that, I knew that as much as we have loved our time here in South East Asia (and neither of us would have swapped our once-in-a-lifetime experiences here for anything in the world)… I, at least, was almost ready to head home before I caught another cold ;-).

So we leave with some great memories of a beautiful city – with lovely historic buildings and cutting edge modern living side by side. We have had some great meals and piled on the pounds in appreciation :-).

Geoff will be very sad to leave his co-workers here with whom he has built some strong relationships… he has throughly enjoyed working with them all and working for an extended period in a number of entirely different countries and cultures. Geoff’s blog on the topic of working in the APAC region has been getting a lot of attention too. On the matter of Geoff’s blog, I was mildly irritated to see he’s had almost 300 views! ;-)  There I am spending hours writing about my “fascinating” insights into and observations of cultures, food, landscapes etc. etc. and there he is waffling on about boring old timezones and conference calls and he has three times as many followers! ;-) Typical!!!!! ;-)

Anyway, it has been a unique opportunity for both of us :-).

Only one more country to go… adios Singapore… it has been an absolute blast :-) !

Macau, Taipa and Coloane, China – March 2015

20 Mar
Click here for the photos!

Taipa, China

From Macau’s casino chaos and smog to Portuguese architecture overlaid with Chinese color, Portuguese food (egg tarts :-) ) and the far more peaceful and appealing enclaves of Taipa and Coloane…

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

I am pretty much game for being drop-shipped and semi-abandoned in many places in the world to fend for myself whilst Geoff works but never, ever, EVER drop me alone in the middle of 120,000 noisy, excitable mainland Chinese tourists in the largest casino resort in the world.

Whatever lies beyond the gates of hell cannot conceivably be worse than fighting your way through the riotous, chaotic, smoky (allegedly non-smoking) casino floor of The Venetian Macau en route to our room. Geoff was here on business for a few days at a conference and I actually contemplated the pros (numerous) and cons (not so many) of holing up in our rather nice suite (with a view over the mini-golf course which the check-in clerk was enthusiastic to share with us on arrival) and hide until the conference was over and we could fly straight back to Singapore.

During our stay here I witnessed bus after bus load of tour groups streaming in for the day – weaving in long dragon lines behind their guide and mowing down anyone who inadvertently crossed their path. Such was their desperate rush to get to the casino floor they clearly had little or no awareness of the bodies and bags flying in all directions in their wake…

The Venetian Macau is the sister hotel to the Las Vegas Venetian which we also stayed in many years ago. The rooms are reasonably luxurious which was a bonus as the decision to stay put and order in room service for 3 days was far more tempting than wandering out into the 24 hour a day rabble and the general coughing, hacking, sneezing, throat clearing and hawking endemic to this part of the world :-(.

Bearing in mind that The Venetian is one of the most expensive hotels in Macau, we might have expected a certain level of clientele to frequent it (perhaps with the exception of the bus loads of day-trippers arriving in droves to play on the slot machines). The part of the hotel dedicated to conferences run by big businesses in which Geoff was spending his days (without fresh air and natural light) might, one would have imagined, have had the most educated and refined of the guests… Nope… en route to deliver his sermon on risk management and project management best practices, 2 Chinese suits approaching him were busily and enthusiastically clearing their throats and, right in front of him, they leant over a trash can at the side of the corridor and spat vertically side-ways in unison into it… I’m surprised he didn’t pass out on the spot as he’s not well suited to bodily functions at the best of times ;-). Very sophisticated…

The Venetian is 39 stories high, cost around $2.4 billion and is the centerpiece for the seven major hotels on the Cotai Strip in Macau. Unless you are a fervent gambler I cannot think of any earthly reason as to why you would want to come here. It covers 10,500,000 square feet and is the seventh-largest building in the world by floor area. It is the largest casino in the world and the largest single structure hotel building in Asia.

The resort has 3000 suites, 1,200,000 square feet of convention space (I hoped I didn’t need to find Geoff in an emergency – you might think that our cellphones, text or messaging would work in this enormous commercial megalopolis… but… no… nothing worked… that includes the internet which was patchy and sporadic at best) …1,600,000 square feet of retail, 550,000 square feet of casino space – with 3400 slot machines and 800 gambling tables together with a 15,000 seat Cotai Arena for entertainment and sports events… blah… blah… blah… Apparently these are the advertised highlights.

It is, frankly, hell on earth. It has none of the class, style or finesse of the Vegas Venetian which are not words I would normally use in describing a casino resort (as I’m hardly a fan of the Vegas experience either), but this is just so, so, so much worse…

Night and day literally blend into one in these places… no daylight… no air… just a claustrophobic cacophony of chaos and tension – security guards on high alert waiting for something dramatic to happen to make their night (or day..who knows what time it is ? ;-) )… waiting for some disappointed gambler to react badly to losing his game or for an under 21 to try to sneak in…

It is gigantic… an entire terrifying, disorientating indoor “world”… the stuff of science-fiction movies… a world you don’t need to leave for any of your worldly needs (other than a real life). If this is the future we have to look forward to as a race when the earth is so polluted we can no longer breathe outside… or we have moved on to another planet after this one has imploded under the weight of Thailand’s discarded plastic water bottle problem… please just shoot me now… it would be the kindest thing to do :-(.

It is also the worst run hotel we have ever stayed in…

They had us booked in for 2 nights when we actually had a confirmed reservation for 3… then wanted to charge the third night at rack rate ( I don’t think so!!)…

They refused to give Geoff breakfast vouchers to which he was entitled under the conference agreement… and unsurprisingly refused to give me any breakfast vouchers even though the booking was clearly made for 2 people…

Later, they delivered 1 voucher for 1 person for 1 day which Geoff donated to me as he was joining the team for breakfast anyway…

The voucher said in half a dozen different languages (but presumably not Cantonese) that the buffet was between 6.30am and 11am. However, when I arrived at 10am the restaurant was already closed and preparing for lunch :-(

I trotted off to the concierge (having no faith left in the check-in staff whatsoever) and she spent 15 minutes of frantic high-pitched squeaking at A.N.Other on the phone (who didn’t seem to understand the basic problem) before she escorted me across the complex to another buffet restaurant whose staff argued for another 5 minutes as they realllllly didn’t want to honor the voucher for the closed restaurant (who knows why as the $$$$$$ is all going into the same coffers at the end of the day). Eventually they relented, just a fraction before I totally lost my temper, and informed me I then had 20 minutes to gannet as much as I could before they closed too…

First world problems I know, but it wasn’t even greatly appealing by the time I settled in anyway… basically a sticky mass-feeding frenzy… pretty much like Vegas really but without the interesting colored donuts ;-) !

And then there was the weather to add to the general misery… at least Vegas has year-round beautiful blue sunny sky – even if it is pushing 110F in the summer.

We were here in Macau’s spring months – reputedly one of the best times of year for good weather… before the hot, muggy, smoggy, oppressive, summer starts.

Day 1 – forecast to be partly cloudy and sunny – I know the sun was up there because I could see it round and glowing, desperately trying to burn through an eery grey haze… if you looked closely enough you could actually see puffy white clouds and pale blue sky on the other side of the haze… never seen anything quite like it… like someone had drawn a grey gauze veil over a sunny blue-sky day… you know it’s up there but it’s not quite there…

Day 2 – forecast to be cloudy – but I know smog when I see it! The gigantic hotels opposite and the glorious view of the mini-golf course have entirely disappeared… I decided I wouldn’t be going out in whatever that haze was anytime soon as I forgot to pack my respirator :-(. By midday the sun was out again (but not at ground level). I could see the puffy clouds way up behind the grey curtain but at ground level it was thick, dark and filthy… yikes… Having little else to do I surfed (slowly ;-) ) a couple of web sites to see whether it was likely to improve… the only honest one I found did at least concede that it was “severely polluted” outside rather than inaccurately and optimistically “foggy” and would remain so for the next few days… :-(.

…2pm… the sun strained through the smog just about enough to tempt me to wander into the hot, muggy streets of nearby Taipa. I wasn’t holding out much hope that it would be a long excursion into reality but I surprised myself and actually enjoyed wandering through the backstreets of the old town ;-) :-). It is an interesting mix of east meets west… courtesy of Macau’s roots as a former Portuguese colony which makes the architecture a fascinating blend of European and Chinese… The streets are paved with Portuguese style black and white tiles depicting various images… crabs.. .fish… wavy lines… all quite attractive really. It is also almost spotlessly clean and no-one spat in the streets! Things are looking up :-). Could be, of course, because littering and hawking comes with an equivalent $75 US fine ;-).

…7pm… it no longer mattered whether we could see further than the ends of our respective noses… we weren’t going to breathe in any more of the recycled smoke fumes at the overpriced Venetian restaurants so we left the Cotai Strip and headed to Old Town Macau to check out the Portuguese restaurants and the UNESCO World Heritage protected architecture around Senado Square. Still spotlessly clean but with the benefit of really good European food – it was almost like being back in the Med :-)… aside from the gaudy flashing lights of the glitzy hotels…

…10pm… back at the Venetian we got caught up in the “authentic True Venetian Carnevale experience ”. We were amazed to find 2 rather excellent Chinese singers performing opera songs on the balcony overlooking the entrance to the hotel… as Geoff pointed out… it was the first authentic experience in an entirely fake world ;-).

Day 3 – I decided to carry out a different kind of photographic experiment for once so I photographed the view from our room of the weather outside:

9am – the gigantic hotels opposite on the Cotai Strip have been swallowed up again;
10am – thick, dark smog;
11am – the forecast was saying currently “partly cloudy” …outside there was, if I’m being generous, slightly lighter smog… I could just about see the bottom floors of the hotels opposite and the mini-golf course in all of its splendor;
12pm – the sun is shining way, way up… I saw a glimmer of it… I could just about see the top of the hotels opposite… still not desperate to wander out into it though… ;-);
2pm – forecast “sunny”… I couldn’t see it even way up in the sky and the hotels opposite were slowly disappearing again :-(;
3pm – spoke too soon… the sun came out… if you look really hard at the photo you can see the outline of the clouds and some pale blue at the top of the photo… under the gauzy layer of atmospheric grime;
3.30pm – spoke too soon again!… ghastly AGAIN!… gave up and went back to hide under the duvet ;-).

If anyone is any doubt by now that the future of our planet is totally and utterly doomed unless China does something about its pollution problems, then they aren’t really absorbing this… :-(. N.B. it might look like a freezing cold day in winter in the arctic north but it’s actually hot and humid outside…

How do people live in this? I really want to go home now…

Day 4 – forecast sun – and it WAS vaguely visible :-). Geoff managed to squeeze in a few hours away from work before the flight home so we hot footed it around the hot spots (such as they are in Macau). Away from the grungier parts of town we did locate some areas of peace with a European feel overlaid with the more colorful parts of Chinese life and architecture. Warming to Old Town Macau, a few hours checking out the backstreets around St Lazarus Church, St Paul’s Ruins and Senado Square was diverting, as there was plenty of street life and activity to observe. Still, no time to lose (having to make up for time lost to the smog) we scooted down to the fishing village of Coloane (of Lord Stowe’s Portuguese Egg Tart fame). Naturally, we had to visit the original home of the top purveyor of egg tart in Macau as I’d been sampling the competitions egg tarts for days and it was time to do the ultimate taste test ;-). Lord Stowe won :-).

The fishing village of Coloane would undoubtedly have been our favorite part of the environs of Macau if we had had more than an hour to run around it and absorb the most interesting parts of  back street life and the stilted fishermen’s houses. Not quite as immaculately clean as Old Town Macau (probably because the warning signs about the fines for littering and hawking were more sporadic here) it was at least thoroughly authentic. It appears that some of the residents do seem to need a fairly constant reminder not to spit in public :-(. As soon as we stepped out of the cab in Coloane I knew we would like it for its attractive architecture, narrow winding lanes, beautiful back street houses and potted plant gardens and the attractive square in front of St Francis Xavier Church… all of which was a pleasant relief from the plastic nightmare of The Venetian ;-).

I have no doubt that the countryside of China has its stunningly beautiful parts. What I do doubt, however, is that either of us will be rushing to add any of it to the top of the Gardner travel “bucket list” anytime soon. I think this is probably a great shame because China is a fabulously colorful culture, a photographer’s dream and a fascinating world – an entire cultural universe away from our gilded lives in the west… which is the perfect reason to want to go and experience it…

However, neither of us stopped coughing (and certainly neither of us saw real blue sky or the sun in all its un-muted glory) until we got back to Singapore. Whilst I sincerely hope the awful air quality and pollution hasn’t drifted too far from the big cities to impact the countryside too (certainly our experience of China is only limited to Hong Kong and Macau), I suspect I may be hoping in vain…

I wonder whether we can sign up for tickets on the next space ship out to our future planet yet?…

Koh Lanta and Koh Phi Phi, Thailand – March 2015

17 Mar
Click here for the photos!

Maya Beach, Koh Phi Phi Leh

Yippee – Geoff remembered to pack his driving license this weekend so, in addition to the fabulous beaches, we also got to enjoy the grimiest rental car in Thailand and to share the winding, narrow, hilly roads with mopeds driven by kamikaze women in black burkhas, their black abayas flapping wildly in the wind around them!

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

Sun, turquoise sea, flour-soft white sand and Thai curries …. we just couldn’t leave South East Asia without saying a quick goodbye to the Krabi province.

This time we headed to the slightly more remote island of Koh Lanta reputed to be “old Thailand”… not quite as touristy as Railay, slightly more gentrified and (allegedly) with some of Thailand’s best beaches. Certainly, it took longer to get there ;-). The usual quick hopper flight, followed by an hour crossing southern Krabi province through the countryside to a rickety bamboo boat dock in the middle of nowhere. We crossed the hot, swampy coastal waterway by ancient speedboat and spent the final half hour being hurled about in what would pass in any other country for a sun-shaded cattle truck. We were chucked in the back of it with our bags and trundled and bounced from the port town of Saladan to the southwestern coast. For $250 for the round-trip transfer from and back to the airport I was hoping for a little more luxury …silly me ;-) :-).

Expecting to sit in the sun and spit-roast and, more importantly, not move a single muscle unnecessarily for the entire weekend, we decided to splash out a little on The Houben, a thoroughly european, contemporary boutique hotel – the closest thing we have come to home since we left Florida 3 months ago. And we COULD very well have sat in the infinity edge pool overlooking the glistening sea and been happily plied with cocktails, Thai curries and crepes with Belgian chocolate sauce and ice cream… but we didn’t… because we just find it almost impossible to sit still for more than 15 minutes when there are so many other things to do and see ;-).

Having spotted the not insignificant number of bandaged limbs and scabby knees on far too many of the other tourists who were scooting around the island on mopeds we decided against joining the ranks of the injured and opted instead for one of the filthiest rental cars we have ever had to sit in.

This time (at least) Geoff had actually remembered to pack his driving license since the debacle in Tasmania ;-), but in true Thai laissez-faire style nobody bothered to ask to see it – typical ;-). Apparently, because it is still height of season we were told that they don’t have time to clean the cars properly before turning them over to the next poor client. Clearly they must have been swamped with bookings for quite some time as we found a previous unlucky driver’s receipt in the glove box dated 1st October 2010 ;-). I have never seen sand stuck in lumps to the roof over the driver’s head before, nor quite so many ingrained sandy footprints on the backseat of a car but …what the hell… there are far more disturbing sights in Southeast Asia than a few misplaced sandy footprints ;-).

Not wanting to delay enjoyment of our battered lime green Nissan runabout for a second, we hopped in it and covered most of the southern part of the island (the only bit we were interested in seeing) in about an hour and a half – including Lanta Old Town which had some attractive stilted houses, cute wooden shops and cafes and a distinct odor of sewage. This came as little surprise after Geoff spotted a fully plumbed in open-air toilet at the back of a shack which emptied straight down into the marshy tidal area below the deck… presumably the tide hadn’t quite washed everything out to sea…

Across the island we saw the usual combination of rustic Thai architectural charm… bamboo and wooden shacks… potted flowers and the ubiquitous incongruent piles of trash … lodged in the undergrowth … caught in tree limbs billowing in the breeze etc etc. By now you might think we would be oblivious to it all but – no – that would be difficult for a couple of OCD’ers like us. We have neither de-sensitized nor become oblivious, but we have come to a more worldly acceptance that this is just how it is here. It is far better to look past it, endeavor not to trip over any of it or wedge a toe into a rusty coke can than let it impact our enjoyment of the myriad other benefits of the country.

Still, all it takes is a bit of community pride in the environment, some (obviously extensive) general re-education and a government or localized trash collection system to deal with it… hopefully before Thailand sinks into the sea.

We had been told not to miss the attractive sea gypsy village, Sang-ga-u, at the southernmost point of the island on our brief exploration. We drove past it 3 times before we found the narrow side track leading down to the fishermen’s stilted huts… with hindsight we probably should have given up our attempt to locate it on the second pass ;-). But we persevered and were greeted with even more abandoned trash – literally ankle deep in parts but with the interesting addition that every tree was decorated as if for Christmas (unintentionally, in case anyone is confused) – adorned with plastic bags, broken lumps of polystyrene, lengths of old rope, discarded crisp packets and endless water bottles…

How they make a living fishing anything edible out of the local surrounding waters defeats me! As we wandered past one stilted hut we saw plastic bags being unceremoniously dropped from a window above fluttering down to the rocks below… delightful… Where on earth would you even start with tidying this lot up??!!

That was quite enough sightseeing of the Koh Lanta highlights for one day, so we returned to the “posh” side of the island to check out the secluded bays and beaches and tried desperately to ignore the (at least less numerous) old broken flip-flops and scattered water bottles in the undergrowth and instead chose to enjoy the lovely warm waters of the Andaman Sea. The beaches here are very rocky, the sand is much darker and the water not quite as calm as in the Railay area of Krabi which made for some interesting stubbed toe moments ;-). Nothing a few cocktails watching the sun set from the hotel pool or from a hilltop bar (washed down with a delicious Thai curry on the beach with our toes in the sand) couldn’t mend, of course :-).

However tranquil and blessedly undeveloped the beaches are on south-western Lanta (which I don’t deny)… and however picturesque… they just aren’t my kind of “perfect” beach… so poor Geoff was dragged out of bed far earlier than he anticipated for a Sunday morning speedboat ride out to the Phi Phi islands :-). The peace of the morning had already been somewhat shattered in any event by the 5am call to prayer from the local mosque which was loud enough to wake the dead, so no need to linger in bed after that ;-). We probably shouldn’t have been too surprised by the early morning alarm calls as the island is predominantly moslem – obviously very tolerant moslem by the number of thonged foreign butts and bikini tops which are paraded about on the streets in front of the eyes of the locals who barely bat an eyelid. It is certainly the first predominantly moslem place we have been where women in burkhas zip about on mopeds – it is a breed destined to die out however as they exhibited absolutely no driving skills whatsoever and had no regard for life nor limb – their own or anyone else’s.

It has been 20 odd years since we last stood on Maya Beach (of “The Beach” movie fame) on Phi Phi Leh. It is just as beautiful as ever although I am relieved we got an early start because by 11am it was deluged with boats, bikinis and life-jacketed tourists… so we were relieved to wave a fond farewell and head out to Monkey Point for some better than average snorkeling… then off again at speed to Bamboo Beach – equally as fabulous as Maya but without the surrounding towering limestone karsts. Frankly, Bamboo Beach was exactly the sort of beach we wanted to spend the day on… white sand, crystal clear turquoise water etc etc… Bliss :-).

All was going so well until the boat trip moved on mid-afternoon and the driver decided to make an unscheduled stop at Monkey Beach… a tiny strip of sand surrounded by sky high limestone karsts. We were greeted by about a dozen scruffy looking voracious monkeys waiting eagerly on the sand for the boat staff to feed them crisps and give them cans of coke to drink – apparently for the entertainment of the other tourists who thought it was all hysterically funny while Geoff and I, and one or 2 of the others, looked on in abject horror :-(. Thankfully, it was all over in 10 minutes before we hoisted anchor and moved on…

Things didn’t improve much, however, when they dropped us at Phi Phi Don for the longest hour of our lives – to go shopping – our least favorite activity on a hot sunny day… or any day really… ;-).

We would have far preferred lolling about in the Andaman Sea working on our sunburn but instead we got to wander about the market stalls amongst the cheap Chinese imported t-shirts and the roughest looking bunch of tattoo decorated 20 somethings – mostly from Russia and the Baltic states it seemed… all of whom were staggering around bleary eyed as they recovered from the previous nights debauchery ;-). Tragically, it seems that in the last 20 years things have gone somewhat downhill on Phi Phi Don. Now more renowned as a drink and drugs fueled party destination than the area of outstanding natural beauty which it always was. We couldn’t wait to get off the island as quickly as possible and obliterate it from our memories so that it didn’t spoil an otherwise almost entirely wonderful day ;-).

Phi Phi Don was devastated by the 2004 tsunami which was horrendous. But it seems that more long-lasting devastation has been caused by the ghastly, hastily re-constructed hotels and bars and the expansive building site in the centre of the island – all of which is entirely unsympathetic to the natural beauty of the surrounding islands. This is a tragedy. Perhaps even worse is the human devastation to an otherwise gorgeous part of the world caused by the particular demands of the traveling clientele… Needs must, of course, when it comes to making ends meet for the local Thai people but, frankly, wild horses couldn’t drag us back there :-(.

Thank goodness the Thai government had the foresight to designate Maya Beach and Phi Phi Leh as a National Park area. It is one of the few places we have visited in Thailand which is devoid of trash – a miracle given the number of visitors. Perhaps if we had ventured more into the interior we might have found it all piled up in the middle like an Egyptian pyramid – but we didn’t… so we are holding on to our good memories instead :-).

So… our view of Thailand remains largely unchanged since it’s reprieve in January when we visited Railay and Phra Nang :-). It is a beautiful country with, in parts, too much rapid overdevelopment to cater for the boom in tourism and, worse, too much tolerance and encouragement of the “wrong kind” of tourism. All, it seems, at very apparent cost to the culture and the natural environment.

In spite of this, we still absolutely love Thailand, but rather fear that if we leave it another 20 years before we re-visit the Phi Phi islands and the Krabi coast that it will all have imploded under the ever-increasing weight of discarded plastic bottles and coke cans :-(. I do hope not because there are a large number of, as yet, undiscovered islands with crystal clear turquoise waters and floury white sand beaches which we would really love to sail around before it’s all too late!! :-).

Tasmania, Australia – March 2015

13 Mar
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Friendly Beach, Freycinet National Park, Tasmania

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Tasmania – Australia’s southernmost island state. A land of 4 seasons in one day ;-).

Our weekend in the wilderness didn’t start entirely as planned. 10 minutes before landing in soggy, grey and rainy Hobart (forecast to be gloriously sunny), Geoff turned a whiter shade of pale and muttered that we might have a problem with the car rental…. In many ways it would have been less painful for him if he had just headed straight for the emergency exit door at 15,000 feet rather than admit that he had forgotten to pack his driving license ;-).

Unsurprisingly, the poor man behind the Avis counter was unable to change company policy for us which, again unsurprisingly, required sight of a valid license as a prerequisite for driving away with one of their prized possessions.

I am sure he had some sympathy with the stupid Brits who had flown all the way to Tassy for the weekend leaving their driving licenses safely stored in a hotel safe in Melbourne.

Still, he remained unmoved by our plight – marooned without a hotel in the height of season miles from our destination. We should have been crossing the island en route to Coles Bay in Freycinet National Park on the east coast of the island. This clearly wasn’t going to happen.

With true Aussie optimism he did mutter that we might also be hard pushed to find a hotel at the weekend in the middle of summer in Hobart… which came as no surprise at all to the designated vacation planner as it had been a challenge finding accommodation on the island in the first place :-(.

Obviously we were stuck up the creek without a steering wheel and had no option but to grab a cab, head to Hobart, and hope we could find a bed without fleas (or any bed) for the night as we are a little beyond sleeping on our suitcases in the airport waiting for the next flight “home” …

Happily, it turned out that Hobart is a foodie’s destination city which took some of the pain out of the unscheduled detour to the capital so we cheered ourselves up with lunchtime bakery delicacies to rival any great English teashop, and an innovative restaurant for dinner to rival any great city :-).

The sticky matter of the missing driving license remained to be resolved, however, if we didn’t want to spend the entire weekend in rainy Hobart (whilst, of course, we were still paying for a rental house in the National Park).

Let it never be said that miracles don’t happen.

Miracle number 1: a huge and very comfortable bed was finally located 200 yards from the centre of the Hobart universe (Salamanca Place) … from which we could, at least, watch the summer rain pour down the outside of the window rather than stand outside in it like a couple of miserable, drenched Dickensian orphans :-(.

Miracle number 2: the receptionist back at our Melbourne hotel agreed to rifle through our safe, search out Geoff’s license and overnight ship it to our unanticipated abode in Hobart … which really went far beyond the call of duty…

Miracle number 3: the license actually arrived by motorcycle courier, no less, first thing the following morning :-).

The 4th and perhaps the most miraculous of all miracles: the courier actually managed to locate us even though the street address on the business card for the hotel (to which we had requested the license be sent) didn’t really exist… don’t ask… ;-)

Steering wheel finally in hand, we crossed the eastern part of the island at great speed.

When we finally arrived in Coles Bay, gateway to the Freycinet National Park, we discovered 2 things: firstly, Tasmania has 4 seasons and from our, albeit limited, experience of a typical Tasmanian summer’s weekend you will likely enjoy all 4 in 1 day; secondly, most people out in the Tassy boonies appear to favor living in flat-packed, corrugated steel modular homes – the rental properties are the same and they just don’t look quite as appealing in the flesh as they do online.

Consequently, we weren’t altogether delighted with our similarly flat-packed modular “romantic hideaway” on the beach ….perhaps it was a good thing that we had spent a night in considerably more luxury in Hobart after all ;-). We were also less than enchanted by the interior wildlife. There was some consternation when I spotted a crab-shaped spider the size of a logger’s hand scuttling across the wall of the living room. It turned out to be a huntsman spider – apparently it won’t kill you – I didn’t care – the psychological damage had already been done…

And so … the real Tasmania ….rolling hills; vineyards; warm breezes; miles and miles (and miles) of beautiful farmland; blue sky and sunshine; summer berry farms; grey sky and rain; tea shops; howling, freezing wind; seafood so fresh we ate it overlooking the waters of the bay where it had been happily swimming only hours before ;-); puffy white clouds; wilderness trails; dark stormy skies; sparkling, transparent turquoise waters (just about warm enough to dangle our Floridian toes into); red and pink granite rock coastlines; bright orange, red and yellow lichen growing on the coastal rocks; yachts and fishing boats bobbing in the crystal clear harbor waters; secluded bays; fabulous dramatic sunsets; the world renowned Wineglass Bay; the jagged, granite Hazard mountains; and….best of all….flour-soft, white sand beaches stretching for miles with barely another soul on them :-).

If we hadn’t retraced our own footsteps in the sand on one of the beaches back to the car park trail we may very well still be there now trying to find our way out of the never ending dazzling white sand dunes…. which wouldn’t be such a tragedy ;-).

I hadn’t known it at the time I booked our weekend trip to Tasmania but it transpired that the whole island is a big foodie destination. This was excellent news for us – courtesy of their reasonably mild weather and small-scale production, self-sufficient, eco-friendly, organic farming with an ethos of sustainability. We didn’t consume or imbibe a single calorie which wasn’t absolutely worth it – everything was top-notch :-).

Obviously it would have been ideal had we had more time to explore our intended destination (the least said the better as Geoff has only just been allowed to poke his snout tentatively out of the dog house ;-) ). But I guess now, at least, we have a reason to return to the island to spend more time driving and exploring the backroads, beaches, rivers and mountains…so long as one of us remembers to bring a driving license along! :-).

Melbourne and Sydney, Australia – March 2015

9 Mar
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Sydney Harbour

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What is there to say that everybody doesn’t already know about this beautiful antipodean country?

Although this is our third visit down under, we never seem to have long enough to do everything we want to do.

This time, of course, we were there on business so Geoff mainly got to enjoy the fabulous autumnal weather from the inside of various offices across the country ;-).

I made up for his office confinement by spending each full working day out and about enjoying the weather at ground level. It was tough ;-).

Melbourne was lovely as ever – time was frittered re-visiting the parks; chocolate-tasting my way through the fabulous, famous victorian shopping arcades of Royal and Block Arcades; pottering along Melbourne’s Yarra River and the Southbank cafes and restaurants; and checking out the latest in Aussie street art and graffiti in Hosier Lane. At the weekend, together we got to see some of the artists in action (whilst simultaneously trying not to breathe in the carcinogenic fumes from the spray paint wafting through the air).

Best of all we met up with an eclectic group of friends for dinner – 2 old London friends from Geoff’s early US days at Hewlett-Packard (currently on a trip through South East Asia and Australia), an English friend from his Digital days in England (with his Aussie bride to be), and an English/Australian friend of ours from his US Compaq days…. it’s a small world :-). The company and food were exemplary – which pretty much set the scene for our whole trip to Australia.

Up the coast in Sydney, Geoff’s view from the North Sydney office was stunning – right across Sydney Harbour – and if he looked closely enough he would have seen me crossing the Harbour Bridge every day en route to the city where I got to gaze at the Opera House, stroll along Circular Quay with all of its constant boating, ferrying and cruise ship activity, wander through the Botanic Garden and out to Macquarie Point with its wonderful views of the city and the Opera House and… just as in Melbourne, I couldn’t resist chocolate-tasting my way through the even more stunningly beautiful Queen Victoria Building.

Let’s face it – Sydney is fabulous – who wouldn’t want to live here? :-).

Almost year-round sunshine, golden sand and sparkling clear coastal waters (almost warm enough to swim in!! ;-) ). I managed just fine to spend a happy few hours being pummeled by the rolling waves but poor Geoff could barely dip a toe into the Pacific without recoiling in horror like Dracula caught in a ray of sunlight … absolutely pathetic ;-).

Ferrying across Sydney harbour to its seaside communities of Manly (considerably more upmarket than 13 years ago when we last visited it) and the peaceful harbour town of Watson’s Bay (famous for its fish and chips :-) ) was idyllic as you might expect – the wind in your hair and the sun on your back – gliding across the (mostly ;-) ) calm harbour waters.

You never know who you are going to meet…or where… or when in life…. A couple of years ago we kept bumping into an Aussie couple during a skiing vacation in Steamboat Springs, Colorado – on the gondola, in restaurants and in a remote mountainside hot spring … so we got chatting, got together for dinner and kept in touch in that vague way you do when you meet fun people whom you like – but, inconveniently, they lived on the other side of the world in Sydney…

Who would have guessed that we would actually get to catch up again in the flesh on their home turf :-)

For once, someone else got to take us on a weekend guided tour (instead of the other way around!) through their favorite local haunts :-). We were driven in great style through Ku-Ring-Gai National Park with its fabulous view over Palm Beach and Barrenjoey Lighthouse and taken for fish and chips for lunch at a very posh beach shack in Pittwater. I was “encouraged” by Sharon into the Pacific for a death-defying “swim” in the relentless crashing waves on Palm Beach. This turned out to be mainly a lesson in trying to stay upright and not get knocked off my feet and dragged into the surf never to be seen again ;-). Geoff and Gary chose the sunbathing option because the lovely warm water wasn’t quite warm enough for Geoff. And, finally we were chauffeured to Balmoral Beach for sunset and cocktails – another drop-dead cute multi-gazillion Aussie $$$ seaside community …. sigh…. :-).

In a fruitless attempt to burn off some of the accumulated chocolate, cakes and seafood calories we decided to take a Sunday morning stroll on the famous 7km Coogee Beach to Bondi Beach coastal trail on the hottest and most humid day of the week. It was, as it was hyped to be, a beautiful, mainly up and down steps kind of trail with endless views of flower-strewn headlands, beaches, surfers and enormous crashing waves. These are the type of crashing waves for which any other country in the world would close their beaches to the public due to hazardous conditions. However, the Aussies are a fearless nation of swimmers and the terrifying seas were littered with tiny bodies and heads bobbing about in waves large enough to sink small fishing vessels ;-).

In order to recover from the strenuous walk we agreed on one last Aussie fish and chip lunch ;-) …and…rather than endure the embarrassment of baring our flabby, pale skin on Bondi Beach with the local thinner, younger and more tanned bodies we headed off to the far smaller and more exclusive beach at Watson’s Bay. This suited us just fine as, if the truth be known, Bondi is not really all it might be – more tattooed backpackers, empty beer bottles, and discarded fish and chip wrappers than the considerably more pristine, serene and upmarket harbour town of Watson’s Bay ;-).

Even after a full fun-packed day of sweating on the hottest day in fall, Geoff couldn’t resist one last run across Sydney Harbour Bridge, through “The Rocks”, around Circular Quay, past the Opera House and onto the Botanic Gardens… I think he will really miss the view on that run… To be fair, we did attempt to run that route, or some truncated version of it, every day to keep the effects of over-consumption of delicious things at bay but sometimes the actual over-consumption of delicious things won the battle and we just went straight out for dinner instead ;-) :-).

And so, our fun in the sun ended on a high note … but we could have stayed on for another week… or another month… or another year or 2.. :-)

Myanmar – February 2015

21 Feb
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Lake Inle, Shan State, Myanmar

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…and so to Myanmar – a country on the top of our list for a while. Never been anywhere quite like Yangon! Reached dust and pagoda, and in particular, “dusty pagoda” saturation point in Bagan in the central desert state of Mandalay (famous for it’s 2200 ancient temples). The peace, tranquility and beauty of Lake Inle in Shan State saved the day and we left Myanmar enchanted by its charms :-).

Our arrival at Yangon airport was less than auspicious – chaos, heat and thick globs of betel spit all over the sidewalk …. oh boy… this wasn’t Tokyo, my newfound spiritual home of order, tidiness and obsessive compulsive cleanliness ;-).

Clogged, stationary traffic and crawling cars. When the traffic moved at all, we were propelled forward at the speed of light, then the brakes were slammed on, the driver opened his door, hawked up some betel spit and spat it onto the road…. mach 2, brakes, hawk and spit… and repeat for an hour or so… Lovely!

Aside from the betel spit, the city looked relatively clean, tidy and westernized for the first few miles as we crawled past the embassies, parks and luxury car dealerships.

The “real” Yangon was quite a different experience – complete and utter disorder, overcrowding, dirt and, in parts, bordering on squalid.

Yikes! Welcome to Yangon – formerly known as Rangoon, the former capital of Myanmar – the country formerly known as Burma ;-).

Too late for sunset over Schwedagon Pagoda we grabbed a cab to visit the world famous pagoda at night. A temple of impressive beauty and grandeur dated loosely from the 12th century (if you count its inception from the 8 – now enshrined – human hairs given to 2 brothers from Yangon by a newly ordained Indian Buddha). It has been re-gilded and rebuilt since the 14th century until it reached its present height of 325 feet. Sounded fabulous – only almost all of its 325 feet is currently neatly clad in bamboo scaffolding whilst it undergoes one of its many re-gildings – typical!

Knees are a no-no in the temples of Myanmar so I went equipped with a sarong (a great look wrapped over shorts ;-) ). Shoes and socks (as well as kneecaps) are prohibited in Myanmar pagodas. I prefer to forget the full grimness and horror of padding about in the dust, grit and grime of the white marble and stone floors ;-). Ignoring the centerpiece pagoda covered in scaffolding, the huge number of surrounding stupors and shrines were still in perfect gleaming order – which is more than could be said for the soles of our feet ;-).

In the darkness we were vaguely aware as to the likely condition of the streets around our hotel. We remained naively optimistic that it couldn’t be quite as bad as it looked in the dark but under the glow of the early morning sunlight on our first morning, Yangon was revealed in all of its glorious splendor ;-).

We had booked a “Deluxe City View” room (a considerable upgrade from the Deluxe without the window). Perhaps we had misread the online description and it had actually said “Deluxe Shitty View”? ;-). Still, we decided to embrace our 36 hours in the steamy city of Yangon with all of its various as yet unknown charms and settled in to watch the monks collect alms from the locals as we sipped tea and slurped noodles for breakfast from the luxury of the hotel’s rooftop – steeling ourselves for descending into the city to explore.

Stepping into the streets of Yangon is like taking a step back in time … quite a large step for a couple of relatively spoilt westerners…

The city streets are the like of which I have never quite seen before. As we hurdled over the trash and debris of city life, crossed planks over open-sewers (where public works did, at least, seem to be in progress), sidled past chaotically busy street food vendors, tip-toed over market stall vendors sitting in the road, dodged cars and mopeds flying around with little regard for human life, initial impressions were hard to gauge about the city. Part intensely depressing and part bright and vibrant and full of life – either way – it was sensory overload!

Despite the shitty view, the hotel was ideally placed to explore the ethnic parts of the city as opposed to the more sanitized areas around the embassies and new luxury developments towards the airport. Surrounded by Chinatown and Little India and the residential area of downtown we were at least in the thrumming heart of real life Yangon.

The city is famous for the decaying beauty of it’s moss covered British Colonial buildings – previously grand and glorious but now mostly held precariously together by lichen and the roots of ferns growing out of the cracks of the walls. They are undoubtedly an amazing sight.

To be fair to Yangon, everything we saw was an amazing sight in its own peculiar way. It is a travel photographers dream if you are willing to straddle the open sewers, wade through billowing trash and leap out of the way of trucks and mopeds careering about in impossibly narrow and overcrowded side streets – all trying to end your life sooner than you might choose.

There are traders with their various wares sitting on the roadsides. On every street corner there is a vendor rolling betel leaves together with a white paste, betel nut and spices doing a roaring trade…It is well-known to cause gum damage, tooth decay and oral cancer but that doesn’t seem to put off the locals.

Street food is a way of life here – if the outside of the buildings is anything to go by I suspect few would actually want to cook in their kitchens inside them. I wasn’t brave enough to sample any of it… although Geoff did succumb to a very happy Indian selling various flavored vegetable pakoras (6 for the princely sum of $0.20). I am reliably informed that they were some of the best he had ever eaten :-).

Common across most of South East Asia it is often preferred for tourists to pay in $US than in the local currency. Having said that, we discovered almost immediately that we were the proud owners of 100’s of dollars of cash which was completely worthless ;-). It’s not that they don’t like the greenback here – they most certainly do – but only if it is fresh off the press, free of minuscule tears, folds or bends… if not it is chucked back at you and spurned like a rabid dog. Consequently, every transaction took twice as long as necessary – whether paying for a bottle of water, a cab ride or buying food – as the irritating recipient of our hard earned $US poured over each note with a fine tooth comb, throwing back the unacceptable “defective” notes and rifling through wad loads of our money until they found the perfect one. Ironic really, as the ratty state of their own currency had me wonder if most of it wasn’t actually held together with sweat, grease and germs – which is why, of course, Geoff handles all the local currency cash and I don’t go near it ;-).

Before the heat of the day settled in we headed towards the shiny golden stupa at the end of “our” main road, Sule Pagoda. It is far more peaceful and altogether less touristy than Schwedagon but just as grimy underfoot ;-). Shoes off again and an inflated entrance fee for “Foreigners” – still – at least it bought us a sani-wipe each for our soon to be repulsive blackened feet ;-). Myanmar pagodas are undoubtedly some of the most ornate we have seen in South East Asia – intricate and invariably gold clad in one form or another – they are absolutely stunning! :-)

There was a lady selling the “freedom” of a cage full of sparrows for a $1 each – apparently it brings good luck to release the birds outside the temple so we liberated a couple. Geoff’s wasn’t too thrilled at being manhandled and dug its ungrateful beak into his finger before heading off into the trees to be caught, caged and resold again the following day, no doubt ;-).

Freshly sani-wiped and back on the even dirtier streets we wandered aimlessly through roads and neighborhoods specializing entirely in one type of product – paper, or house paint (strangely, nobody was doing much of a trade in those stores ;-) ), plumbing supplies, hardware, fabric and ribbon, fishing nets or electrical supplies.

People were friendly and curious and smiled at us constantly. We were surprised how few westerners there were in the city. Some people stopped us in our tracks just wanting to practice their English. Others surprised us by their ability to speak English at all. I cannot quite imagine why a trader frying pakoras on the side walk would have an in-depth knowledge of the English language, but he did. He also had a better understanding of the geography of the world than a considerably wealthier trader in the rice and spice warehouse who asked “Where you from?” – ”England “ Geoff answered… “Ahh… Crocodile Dundee!!” he exclaimed with a wide dark red grin. His smile another victim of the revolting national obsession with chewing betel nut; he had barely a single blackened tooth left in his dark red stained mouth – its previous companions lost to the side-effects of the betel nut.

Another turbaned street trader stopped us to ask where we were from and was very excited when we said we were English. He had relatives in London — all of his family had moved there, in fact, and they had been trying to convince him to leave Yangon to join them there. With no sign of irony whatsoever he grinned from ear to ear as he threw his arms wide open expansively as if to say – “Here is my magnificent kingdom” – and uttered the inexplicable words … “But why should I leave all this behind me?! I have been blessed. How could I possibly leave this place?“. I resisted the urge to say “I’d recommend your best bet would be on the first plane out of here, love”.

Beauty is undoubtedly in the eye of the beholder ;-).

Heartened by the friendliness of the locals in general (if not their standards of hygiene) Geoff was offered a mahogany seed to try. The lady vendor demonstrated throwing the seed back into her throat and swallowing it. Geoff followed suit but she looked on with some amused horror as he bit into the hard brown shell, spluttered something unintelligible which might have been “Water…water…I’m going to be sick”, grabbed a tissue and spat it all out again. A shade of green only outdone by the verdigris on the collapsing buildings around us, he was rescued by a passing nun who explained that he was supposed to remove the outer shell first and only eat the kernel. The 2 women found it quite hilarious as they watched the strange green foreigner spluttering into his tissue. And this, of course, is why I never, ever sample street food… and why Geoff invariably ends up spitting the spoils of his frequently ill-advised culinary explorations into the drains along with the equally revolting betel spit of the locals ;-).

Continuing our wanderings through the back streets as he slowly recovered from his mahogany shell snack, we ventured through wholesale fabric markets so crowded and narrow that the darkened passageways were barely 1’ wide with dozens of people all trying to simultaneously squeeze through carrying wide bolts of fabric. Decidedly not for the claustrophobic or faint-hearted.. then again neither was the rice and spice warehouse … nor the outdoor fruit and vegetable markets… nor the streets and markets in Chinatown – clogged to overflowing with decorations for the imminent Chinese New Year celebrations.

Whilst some of the streets are bordering on squalid… dirt roads, overcrowding, grime and trash in abundance there is, in the midst of it all (albeit under billions of flies) the freshest looking fruit and vegetables, lobsters, sea bass and other sea dwellers.

On the surface people don’t seem to be short of good quality food supplies but life for some people is obviously very tough which is the hardest part of being a relatively wealthy traveler in developing countries.

In the end, the noise of the relentless car horns, noisy chatter, business activity and squeezing past a constant stream of humanity without being covered in chicken blood or splattered with cooking grease took its toll. We took refuge in a massage “spa” where we enjoyed listening to the belching of the man in the curtained area next to ours – perhaps a sign of appreciation for a good massage in this part of the world? ;-).

I think we liked Yangon …maybe we just survived it..some places are just too much of a culture shock ;-). Anyway, I, for one, couldn’t wait to get on the first plane out to Bagan … the mystical land of 2200 pagodas in Mandalay.

How could I possibly have guessed we would be bordering on bored to death in Bagan and rather missing the chaotic excitement of Yangon ;-) !

In a hot, dry, dusty desert in the middle of nowhere, Bagan (Old and New) and the neighboring town of Nyuang U weren’t going to keep us entertained for long. Bagan must have once been a huge ancient city. Between the 11th and 13th centuries over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were built in the plains. Thank goodness only 2200 survive today ;-) ;-). Our excited designated cab driver for the day insisted on taking us on his ultimate $20 guided tour. We padded around the desert pagodas bare-footed, trying to avoid impaling ourselves on thorns or treading on bat poo. We really could have called it a day and taken refuge in the hotel pool after the first white pagoda, the first gold one and the first brick one. However, the driver insisted he earn his $20 so we kept going until they were all a blur of dust, heat and Buddha statues. According to my copious but useless notes we visited all of the following and probably more (in the end we gave up the will to record any more unpronounceable names): Gubyaukgyi, Bu-Lething, Sulamani, Dhammayangyi, Thatbyinnyu, Ananda, Schwezigon and Schwesandor – this final temple was the only one I knew for certain because the driver was under instructions to get us there for sunset… At least by then we couldn’t see what we were stepping in ;-). They were all quite stunning.

Some temples were busy with tourists and vendors trying to make a quick kyat (or an immaculate dollar ;-) ). In others we were surrounded by gaggles of kids trying to sell trinkets – one of them asked “Where from?” …“England” we answered (wondering if it would be easier to say Kazakhstan in future ;-) )…”Luvvly jubbly!!” screeched the kid in thick Burmese English…. (sorry – American friends – it’s an English joke!)… Where on earth do kids pick these things up?? ;-).

Most temples, however, were empty save for us, Buddha and the scuttling geckos… By the end of the day we were totally pagoda saturated… it was amazing to see so many in such a landscape but the number of them is just too overwhelming to absorb.

Refusing the taxi driver’s offer to take us to even more pagodas the following day we agreed instead to a whistle stop tour of the local market at Nyuang U (a typical indigenous experience only with toilets from the middle ages and a village water well). Notable events were – Geoff being kicked in the butt by a giggling monk as he got in the way of the baby monk getting his free rice alms; me being grabbed, wrapped up, tied into a longhi (the long skirt which men and women all wear here to cover up their offensive knees ;-) ) and the proud new owner of it before I could utter any fruitless objections; and a small grubby child grabbing Geoff by the hand and asking him to play “ball” with a pink heart balloon.

We also took a quick detour out to a farming village (Minnanthu) to explore the dusty streets – the locals didn’t seem to mind that we were wandering through their back yards taking photos. We practiced our “Mingalabar” (hello) in the hope that we wouldn’t get chased off their land and it seemed to work without us getting into any trouble ;-) – which is convenient as it is the only Burmese word we could get our tongues around without embarrassing ourselves.

With hindsight we should have by-passed the trip to the Irrawaddy River and left it to the romance of our imaginations. It was just as filthy as the side streets of Nyuang U and Yangon … only the trash here floated in the river. In essence, the Irrawaddy River around Nyuang U, at least, is just a large toilet and bathing facility – which is fine – needs must etc… and this is how it would have been centuries ago. However, centuries ago the locals didn’t dispose of plastic bottles and bags into their lifeline. So, unless someone advises them not to chuck their used shampoo bottles into the grimy frothy brown waters the many cruise boats on the Irrawaddy will soon be navigating through and bobbing about in unappealing levels of litter and human debris.

Thankfully, the spa offered a welcome 3 hour retreat so we could wash off the dust and kill some time before our flight out the next morning. Never has being knelt and walked upon by a tiny Burmese massage therapist, kicked, twisted and generally manhandled (all for the bargain price of $50) been so appealing :-).

Call us heathens, but 2 days was plenty long enough in the desert despite its obvious beauties so we left the endless pagodas of Bagan behind us with some enthusiasm and headed for the hills of Shan.

Yes – the state of Shan where they declared a state of emergency the day after we arrived due to government and rebel warring factions. Luckily we were heading, conversely, to the extremely peaceful and idyllic Lake Inle in the south of the state.

The airport in Heho could have done with some updating – we have seen cleaner, more appealing and more advanced facilities in Africa….perhaps some toilet paper and a vending machine with basics like water would be nice additions, for instance…..

Even though the Villa Inle Hotel and Spa was an additional bouncy hour and a half drive over a mountain pass into the wilderness and then a 30 minute longboat ride, when we finally arrived at the dock of the hotel we knew we had, at last, finally arrived … so to speak :-).

Thank goodness we had found the Myanmar we were looking for :-). Lake Inle is the second largest lake in Myanmar, covering an area of 45 square miles at an elevation of almost 3000 feet. The elevation explained why the lovely people at the lovely hotel thought ahead and provided sweatshirts for each of its chilly guests to keep as a memento of their fabulous time there ;-). Being more cynical, I suspect they were provided mainly to ensure that the guests didn’t freeze to death at night before they had spent as much money as possible dining in their equally fabulous restaurant, enjoying their overpriced but similarly fabulous private boat trips around the lake and, in Geoff’s case, clearing them out of their supplies of Gin and Tonic.

On that note, we arrived early enough to grab a gin and tonic and leap into a canoe for 2 to watch the sunset over the tranquil waters of the lake. We were guided about silently by one of the local fishermen famous for their paddling and steering skills using one leg and a paddle. It was all quite spectacular and magical :-). Swallows swooping overhead catching mosquitoes, water buffalo grazing in the marshland and the orange and pink of the sun setting on the water.

Our days were spent zipping about in a longboat for 2 from one stilted “floating” village to the next, passing residents bathing in the lake, families cooking on the steps of their stilted houses, tending their patches of floating vegetable gardens, and washing their water buffalo … as you do… ;-) ! Refusing our boat driver’s offer to take us to see the “long necked lady” ;-) we puttered around in the canals checking out where people lived instead. Still, he couldn’t resist insisting on a brief stop at an indigenous market in Indein which was fun – we saw women in their local costume and headdresses and got to tiptoe through the betel spit on dry land again. Not quite as much fun for one of the other tourists who arrived just ahead of us – disembarking her longboat onto the steps of the dock, she missed the dock completely and disappeared head first with her camera clutched in her hand into the canal. I hope her TB shots were up to date ;-).

Back out on the lake, the water was so calm in the backwater canals that the houses cast nearly perfect reflections. It was almost too idyllic to be true… We loved it :-).

The local people are famous not only for their unusual one-legged paddling style but – luckily for me – silversmithing and jewelry and silk weaving :-). By the time we made it to the lotus and silk weavers we had been cleaned out of cash. Not remotely phased by the fact we only had a few kyats left, they let us have our scarves anyway if we promised to pay our boat driver when we got back to the hotel. He would be passing the store the next day anyway and could drop the cash off then. You wouldn’t get that kind of service in the western world ;-).

Lunch was spent in a “cat cafe” on the water – also known as the Burmese Cat, Inthar Heritage House – a home, breeding facility and reintroduction program for burmese cats into the country as they had previously died out here. What could be better for 2 sad kitty deprived travelers – fried green onions with tamarind sauce and a lap full of spoilt, fat, lazy Burmese cats? :-).

Crossing back across the lake we passed through the floating gardens growing flowers, tomatoes, gourds, water hyacinths and vast quantities of lotus plants. Harvesting lotus plants is big business considering it takes 1000’s of strands of lotus “silk” extracted from the stems of the plant to make 1 small scarf!

The day ended (as did all of the following days ;-) ) sipping cocktails and ginger and lime juice whilst watching the sun set behind the village of stilted fishermen’s houses in the canal next to the hotel. Butterflies fluttered through the bougainvillea in the hotel garden and buffalo grazed at our feet ….peace, tranquility and serenity other than the clink of ice in Geoff’s G and T :-).

After 36 hours of being at Lake Inle, Geoff declared that this was the best couple of vacation days he could remember and apparently we were not going to return to the western world in April after all ;-). I wasn’t thinking quite that far ahead. After 36 hours of 5 star hotel, royalty service, a view to die for and top quality food I was considerably more distracted by the knowledge that we would have to leave our lakeside paradise and return to the utter chaos of Yangon in 3 days ;-).

Still, not everything in paradise is perfect. There is a little bit of a wild doggie issue along the lake which we noticed the first night when we awoke to the howling of a pack of “wolves” in the distant villages. The second night they seemed a little closer so we just dug our ear plugs in deeper and ignored it. By the third night things had deteriorated and I awoke to what sounded like the Hounds of Hell shaking the foundations of our stilted villa. I stuck my head out of the window and discovered we were literally sitting on top of a pack of howling dogs who sounded like they were hunting a screaming wild pig. We didn’t find this terribly relaxing (or terribly 5 star ;-) ) for 3 hours from 3am, so bleary eyed the following morning I decided to share with the manager my dissatisfaction that a luxury resort couldn’t keep out a pack of wild hounds.

Apparently it is “dog season” and it transpired that there was actually an unfortunate girl doggie (not a wild pig at all) literally 4 feet under our bed who was, in fact, enjoying the attentions (or not) of the village boy doggies. Hugely apologetic, the manager offered a complimentary Thai spa massage each to mollify us and promised he would station the hotel security guards by our villa that night to make sure we didn’t have another sleepless night disturbed by amorous stray dogs ;-)

It must have worked as we slept like babies and the following morning we overheard an American guest complaining about the “wild tigers” running loose around his villa all night ;-). We recommended he ask for the armed guard to spend the night under his villa .. and to check out the relaxing spa services which were exemplary :-).

Not all of my choices of activity at the lake were as well received as zipping about the glassy waters in a longboat watching the world go by. We rented bicycles to meander through the countryside, paddy fields around Maing Thauck, and the farmland and villages along the lake as far as the Red Mountain Vineyard. This sounded far more idyllic in theory than it was in practice (much like riding an elephant in Thailand ;-) !).

The upside was the scenery… like passing through a living 18th century Constable landscape painting…wooden farmhouses, oxen-powered ploughs… and kids riding water buffalo to the marshlands (not many buffalo in 18th century rural England, I will concede ;-) ).

In reality, the actual experience of cycling the lake was bordering on torturous. The road varied from pot-holed rubble track to pot-holed tarmac… not only did we have to navigate those but it was also covered in thick billowy dust which was churned up in choking, swirling clouds by the occasional truck rumbling by and the mopeds bouncing about all around us. The mountain bikes we rented turned out to be the crappiest, most uncomfortable old jalopies this side of the Nepali Himalaya. They were so badly maintained that they wouldn’t change gear without the chain falling off so we were stuck in 1 gear (which 90% of the time was entirely inappropriate for the road conditions – particularly the uphill parts ;-) ). By the end of our seemingly endless 3 hour bike ride we required surgery to straighten our backs, re-adjust our necks and straighten out our arms. Neither of us were hopeful we’d ever be able to remove the layer of Myanmar dust welded to our skin by the heat of the midday sun. Fortuitously it turned out to be nothing an intensive afternoon in the spa being vigorously salt scrubbed and pummeled couldn’t sort out, though our lungs will never recover….

The dusty tracks didn’t appeal again so we took to the water on the final full day to be glided about the pottery village where we were immediately pounced upon by a local potter as we clambered out of the boat. With no idea of where we were heading, we followed her like innocent children lured by the Pied Piper of Hamelin through the dusty tracks to her house. We were plied with tea and sugar sweets and were subjected (in a mixture of Burmese language and incomprehensible English) to the ins and outs of the pottery business sitting on the floor of the workshop in her house. She tried to sell us some wonky brown glazed bowls which we couldn’t imagine any use for whatsoever. Despite our refusal to buy her wares, she kindly let us use her toilet facilities (the least said the better about the sanitary facilities in the villages of Myanmar) in order to deposit all of the tea she had given us … and for once escaped with little damage done to our wallets :-).

Trade here is still relatively uncommercialised – everything is hand-made by crafts people sitting cross-legged on a dust floor and it seems that, in some cottage industries at least, they haven’t fully grasped the needs of western tourists…which is, I suppose, what makes it all the more appealing :-).

And so our 4 day trip to Lake Inle ended and heavy of heart we attempted to leave :-(. Luckily we discovered the 3 hour flight delay before we left the beautiful hotel and bounced our way back to the airport in order to enjoy it’s non-existent comforts for the afternoon ;-). Instead, I started to write the blog from the shade of the pool bar whilst we watched the longboats come and go and marveled at the kindness of a farmer leading his water buffalo to bathe in the canal and throw water over it’s head with a bucket. A happy buffalo :-).

The people of Myanmar are amazing – it is a shame the politics are such a mess. They are very friendly and always trying to chat. “Which country?”, “Where you go?” and every night at the hotel we were wished “Happy good sleep!” … which was inevitable so long as the Hounds of Hell were procreating underneath somebody else’s villa ;-).

One more night back in Yangon to catch the flight back to Singapore – the city hadn’t improved much in a week – just as chaotic and no cleaner ;-). We arrived in the middle of the Chinese New Year celebrations and got to see the Lion Dancers leaping about their tight-ropes and platforms high up in the air performing to a crowded, seething mass of hot and sweaty people. The lion danced and shook it’s butt, fluttered it’s eyelashes and winked at the appreciative audience as it performed to loud drum rolls and Chinese music. A bit like a giant puppet. Geoff was very excited to see it – unbelievably sacrificing a Saturday night Martini to rush out into the thronging masses ;-).

I’ll admit it really was quite fabulous to see a dancing lion, but by that stage we had pretty much overdosed on grime and crowds and I was far more excited to know that we would be heading out from the chaos to somewhere altogether more “me” than Yangon City in 24 hours – Melbourne :-).

Tokyo, Japan – February 2015

11 Feb
Shinjuku back-streets, Tokyo

Shinjuku back-streets, Tokyo

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

What a surprise! We didn’t have much of an idea what to expect here and other than the vague knowledge that Tokyo was on our eventual “to do” list – we would not necessarily have chosen to visit in the middle of winter!

Having spent my usual extensive research time studying where, when, how and why, I wasn’t entirely convinced that this would be a place for us. My in-depth poring over an online blog article called “25 reasons why you will hate Japan” (in preparation for the anticipated culture shock) probably didn’t create the most positive frame of mind for a visit ;-).

I am quite used to wandering around cities and countries alone whilst Geoff is hard at work but, in this case, I was more than usually concerned about my non-existent Japanese language skills particularly as I would be spending so much time alone. Whilst Geoff would be tackling the problems of the IT world in a warm cozy English speaking office, I would be wandering the wintery streets of one of the worlds largest and most populous cities with absolutely no idea of how to communicate or how to get around. I had already deduced that my usual fallback of walking everywhere to avoid public transport wasn’t going to work as it would probably take a week to walk from one side of the city to the other ;-).

Having survived the entire visit without a hitch I am happy to report to anyone contemplating a trip to Japan that you can safely ignore the above mentioned article (aside perhaps for a bit of background interest!) as there are at least 25 even better reasons why you will LOVE Japan rather than hate it ;-) :-).

I’ll concede that you probably won’t be able to read many of the road signs or some of the menus or a myriad of other useful information which might help you potter about the city, but Tokyo is a lot more western traveller user friendly than either of us were expecting.

That is not to say that one look at the Tokyo subway and rail system map didn’t have me contemplating shuffling back to bed on my first morning to hide under the duvet, but the sun was shining and it all looked far too exciting outside not to at least try to tackle it.

So, PASMO rail and subway pass in hand I headed off with some trepidation. I had already decided against struggling with buying individual tickets for each journey – one glance at the ticket machines and overhead map in the station was quite enough forewarning that that wouldn’t be fun ;-). Having checked out the recommended online Japan Rail and Subway route guide, shuddered (it looked far too challenging for a first run ;-) ), I decided to choose my own route and bit the bullet. My confidence was not initially boosted by a conversation with the receptionist on my way out of the door – she was adamant that I avoid the subway and told me she wouldn’t attempt it because it was just too complicated ….umm… great..

With hindsight, of course, I should have ignored her too!! ;-)

My fears and trepidation were tempered somewhat on arrival at the station.

Joy :-). In addition to being spotlessly clean (every day I saw an employee hand vaccuming the escalator and polishing the hand rail at our local station ) – there were signs in English.

I could read! I couldn’t speak – but I could at least read :-). Yippee! Station names, numbers, line names… it was all there in glorious technicolor English. Even better, when you are on the trains they have announcements in English and most have electronic displays which alternate between Japanese and English – phewy… this would be easy after all :-).

Of course, the ability to understand which station you have disembarked at is one thing – surviving the crowds is quite another. Tokyo stations are some of the busiest in the world…one stop up from ours , Shibuya station, handles over 3 million people every day… and it is only the third busiest in Tokyo…. 3 stops up, Shinjuku station handles 3.6 million people every day (it also has 36 platforms and 200 exits – yikes). Needless to say, that is one hell of a sea of people to get stuck in the middle of when you literally don’t know which way is up and which way is down ;-)

…but I wasn’t planning to stop at either of those on my first foray into the city, so all would be well ;-).

In essence, if you keep your wits about you, do your research beforehand and pin down roughly which of the choice of 20-200 exits you need so that you are (at least) facing in the right direction when you stagger up to daylight from the bowels of the earth, then there is a passing chance that you will be absolutely fine. And with luck your starved skeletal remains will not be stumbled upon in a decade somewhere deep in the under belly of this massive city ;-).

To be honest, the rail and subway stations are so supremely well organized it would have been quite difficult to actually get lost in any of them… the same doesn’t always apply at ground level.

Luckily, I had also read and digested that the Japanese do not read maps oriented in a northern direction like westerners – so their street locator maps are not as immediately helpful as you might think at first glance. Once you’ve worked that out all is fine… and for once Geoff couldn’t laugh at me for turning my city map round and round in circles like a big kid so that it (and we) and the street locator map were all facing in the right direction ;-).

Street names on the street signs weren’t always as westerner friendly as they might have been – some are written in English but then they weren’t always written on the maps..and vice versa! Still, anyone with a good map, a rough sense of direction, an ability to interpret the relatively frequent street locator maps at strategic points on the sidewalks (even if many of them are only in Japanese) … combined with a vague idea of where you should be heading would probably not get TOO lost ;-).

Believe me – I managed it for days all alone before Geoff joined me for the obligatory guided tour of the hot-spots.

Luckily, my first day all alone (wide-eyed and cautious) started and ended on a high note – thank goodness :-).

I gate-crashed a traditional Shinto wedding at the spectacularly serene Meiji Jingu Shrine :-).

You approach the Meiji Jingu Shrine via a long shady tree-lined walk passing under huge wooden Torii gateways; the peace and quiet is broken only by the ritual hand claps of those praying; there are wooden prayer plaques attached to racks in the courtyard and the smell of incense in the air. It was the perfect place to settle in gently into the city.

Heartened, map firmly in freezing cold hand, I wandered back to Harajuku with it’s crazy teenager fashion stores, beautiful eclectic (almost Californian) architecture. No two buildings are the same… steel, glass, wood, traditional and cutting edge all living together side-by-side in harmony :-).

I meandered through the back-streets checking out the coffee shops; chocolate shops (it’s a national obsession which happily resonates with us :-) !); boutiques; plastic food displays (more on this below!); crepe vendors and bars. It was a tough morning ;-).

There were teenagers with pink and purple pig-tailed wigs, sporting the very latest in pajama fashion and furry hats with Mickey Mouse ears. White painted faces with round rosy painted cheeks and bedecked with soft toys and cuddly back-packs they padded about the streets in animal shape bathroom slippers. Another was in a tartan mini-skirt, long black socks, pink stilettos with Greek goddess wings , a black leather jacket and topped with a peaked shiny black military cap (further adorned with chains, key-rings etc etc). She had dark painted cat eyes and I am sure she would have been quite beautiful but that was all  one could see as the rest of her face was hidden behind a  surgical mask which really ruined the look a little ;-). Apparently the wearing of the surgical masks is almost obligatory in winter in Japa…it’s not a look I think would wear well in the western world ;-). Another teen was dressed as Little Bo Peep although without the lamb in tow :-). The crazier the better, it seems!

And finally, to round off the day, I gazed at the futuristic, contemporary glass and steel stores along the tree-lined Omotesando-dori. From one end to the other littered with expensive flagship stores such as Dior, Tod’s, Prada, Louis Vuitton etc etc ….Omotesando-dori is Tokyo’s self-proclaimed version of the Champs Elysees.

Back towards the station I was accosted by a small gaggle of immaculately dressed 7/8 year olds in gold-braided school uniform clutching a clip-board. Ordinarily, I would feign deafness or stupidity in order to avoid verbal contact with anyone under the age of 18 but they were very persistent and really very cute. Even I had to admit that for an 8 year old to tackle a giant strange white foreigner in broken English to carry out a school survey took some guts and probably deserved a little more bravery from me too ;-). They were obviously very happy with my answers to their questions and we all bowed and grinned at each other … still bowing… and grinning as I backed away :-) How cute is that? ;-).

It didn’t take me long to realize that this is probably the coolest city in the world. If I had the chance to be a teenager again (God forbid ;-) ) Tokyo is the ONLY place to do it with real style :-).

It also didn’t take me long to realize that I was already hopelessly smitten and I could barely wait to see Geoff after his first day in the office to tell him I knew he would love it too :-).

Geoff, on the other hand, could hardly wait to share his observations of the day which were far less exciting ;-). I had an in-depth lesson in elevator etiquette and the ins and outs (and ups and downs) of the bowing culture. There is, for anyone planning a trip to Japan, a strict set of rules from which there is no apparent deviation if one finds oneself in an elevator with a Japanese businessman. Everyone must face in the same direction, that is, facing outwards towards the door, everyone must stand equidistant with those around you, head must be bowed, arms must be rod straight at one’s side, there must be no verbal communication at all and absolutely no eye contact whatsoever ;-). These rules still apply even if you have just spent a fruitful few hours chatting happily away with someone and then stepped into the elevator with them … elevator rules are not to be broken ;-). To make it more complicated, when someone exits the elevator, everyone must exit the elevator , one must file out in orderly fashion, eyes down, arms straight, head bowed, and then file silently back in again to continue one’s journey…So, there you have it – let it never be said that this blog doesn’t have its useful tidbits from time to time ;-) !

Day 2 – full of enthusiasm and feeling infinitely braver I decided to take on the full might of the Tokyo rail line AND the subway system. Is there no challenge large enough for me to tackle ??!! ;-)

Of course, this city is somewhat huge… 45 minutes of travel took me half way across Tokyo to Asakusa in Northern Tokyo from Southern Tokyo where we were based, in Ebisu. Following the stream of humanity from the subway it wasn’t exactly hard to locate the busiest, craziest, probably most ornate shrine in Tokyo – Senso-ji. Ram-jammed with school kids, tourists and locals making pilgrimages to the shrine – all crawling slowly along Nakamise-dori – it was absolutely chaotic. Chaos is not something you see much in Japan as it is usually notably orderly and peaceful even when you do get inadvertently caught up in the flow of relentlessly moving people soup.

The entrance to the Shrine complex is impressive to say the least – passing under Thunder Gate with its 1500 pound giant red paper lantern and flanked either side by bronze statues of the gods of thunder and wind. After shuffling through the billions of kids on Nakamise-dori you pass under the Hozomon Gate with it’s 3 giant lanterns. The highlight is, of course, the temple and the 5 tiered pagoda surrounded by busy stalls selling prayer papers, prayer sticks and incense sticks. In the centre of the courtyard is a large incense burner where visitors were waving the incense smoke over themselves for its alleged curative effects.

The central courtyard was filled with smoke and chatter and kids running around excitedly…. I guess it must have been a fun day trip out from school.. lucky me!! ;-)

The downside to being a very obvious foreigner in some of the more popular tourist sites in a city (which surprisingly didn’t seem to have that many western tourists – at least not in the depths of winter!) is that when you are spotted by a teenager wanting to practice English you aren’t spotted by just one…but by the whole class… This lead to some delays to the start of my long militarily planned day of city exploration.

After the second teen with the same set of questions pounced on me at the shrine I was rather hoping I could avoid what I knew was number 3 approaching me with a beguiling smile and an identical clip-board but unfortunately she was accompanied by her teacher who wasn’t going to let me escape. In the end it was one of the few moments of human entertainment I had that day (being the ONLY actual conversation I had all day in my own language ;-) ). At first, the teacher seemed to mistake me for a famous actress which made me smile – perhaps we westerners actually do all look alike to our occidental cousins??! ;-). Then he enquired if I were perhaps a famous singer (I was rather hoping he wasn’t mistaking me for Barbara Streisand) .. eventually he gave up trying to guess and asked me what I do for a living. I told him I was an artist at which point he squeaked to his student – “She famous artist – you hear? Famous artist! you hear?!” at which point he bowed so low I thought he was going to hit his forehead on the concrete path… they wandered off exclaiming excitedly to each other leaving me in peace ;-).

Left alone at last, only 10 steps away at the side of the Shrine, tranquility reigned in the Japanese garden where I finally had some time to wander amongst the Buddha statues and smaller shrines without being asked to take a quick (usually slow ;-) ) survey.

Continuing on through the back streets of Asakusa led to another world… older traditional buildings, some tourist shops and then on to Kappabashi-dori – an entire street dedicated to the sale of items used in the catering business. Each store specialized in one particular kind product: lanterns, neon signs, cutlery and hardware, tea-pots, and my favorite – the stores specializing in the production of highly realistic look-alike plastic food – ice cream, crepes and waffles with 100 different varieties of toppings (cherry, strawberries, cream, chocolate sauce etc etc… you name it there is a plastic replica of it!), pizzas with pre-cut slices suspended in mid-air, pasta with forks flying in mid-air, sushi, plastic meat, salad and vegetables with different colored dressings…. mind-boggling varieties of every possible type and combination of food stuffs known to man…. and not a single one which looked remotely appealing to either of us ;-).

Several miles of walking a roundabout route (I mislaid myself briefly ;-) ) further onwards took me to Ueno (another of the bigger and scarier stations according to tourist legend) and to my intended destination – the Ameya Yokocho Street Market. The stalls are literally underneath the rail line. A busy, traditional, working class market operating against the background rumble of trains overhead, the stalls sell fish, meat, dried food, seaweed, trays of tiny shrimp, fruit, vegetables, and many unidentifiable brightly colored sweets and desserts positively glowing with every variation of food coloring and jammed full of E numbers … they made me twitch even from a relatively safe distance ;-).

By the time I arrived in Ueno I wasn’t planning on actually walking further to my next destination – Yanaka – a more northerly suburb. I had fully intended to brave the subway again. Albeit generally bright and sunny in February it was freezing cold for our thin Floridian blood and I was in fear of hypothermia by mid-afternoon. However, one look at the confusing signs in the entrance to Ueno Station and I almost lost the will to live so I chose the lesser of 2 evils and braved the chilly winds instead.  Distracted by temples and shrines along the way, I hot-footed it across Ueno Park as the sun was beginning to dip in the sky. I started to wonder if I might have bitten off more than I could chew in one day when the previously vaguely helpful street locator maps suddenly dried up at the exit from the Park. As it got colder and darker and even more cold and even more dark – I began to notice that the street names were now only in Japanese. I was wondering if tourists weren’t supposed to wander this far alone ;-). With only my sense of direction (and not generally renowned for my directional prowess) and an almost completely useless map, it came as quite a surprise (and no small amount of relief) that I actually popped up exactly where I wanted to be :-).

Yanaka is a small mom and pop traditional township. Wandering the streets, one has absolutely no sense of actually being in the middle of a massive city… which is probably why we both liked it so much. Small traditional stores, cafes, fishmongers, back-street bakers, interesting winding alleyways and lots of very fat and happy street cats… what more could we want?!

For a moment, on my first visit, I almost felt as if I had walked onto a movie set in small town France. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why….something vaguely romantic about it, old world wooden stores, women cycling up and down the street with shopping in their willow baskets waving at friends on the sidewalk. I almost bumped into an older lady as I wandered aimlessly in a back street and she bowed, smiled and said something I suspected was probably “Good evening”.. although it could have been far less friendly, I guess ;-). Eventually, I realized I was listening to an almost subliminal level of piped music through the main shopping streets – they were playing Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” :-).

On the subject of piped music, the Japan Rail stations play an interesting collection of tunes as you arrive at each station – each one different. Unfortunately, our local station played something which brought to mind a cross between a tune from a Vaudeville freak show (a la American Burlesque of the 1880’s) and a psychotic killer clown movie (a la Stephen King genre of the 1980’s). It was a little disturbing and I’m sure played on my mind in the darkest hours of the night ;-).

And so the scene was set for the remainder of the visit – exploring for the purposes of the guided tour on Geoff’s days away from the grind of the IT world.

As I knew would transpire, Geoff was smitten too after an hour or so of highlights on the Grand Tour. He was, of course, taken on the very best “J Gardner Travel Service” guided tour without a hitch and so he didn’t actually get to experience the full joys of wondering which exit to take of the dozens available at each station ;-).

Together we re-visited my favorite spots and added many more in a whistle-stop whirlwind long weekend tour; Shibuya Crossing (which we enjoyed alongside all of the other 3 million people traversing it from the station to the surrounding high rise shopping malls ;-) ); Geoff also loved the crazy, busy Senso-ji Shrine and the back streets of Harajuku, Asakusa and Yanaka (which we both loved the most for its small-town stores, winding alleyways and what became our favorite coffee and chocolate shop (there is ALWAYS one!); Shinjuku and the seemingly endless thousands of flashing neon lights and business signs (this is, I suspect, what everyone envisages when they think of Tokyo); tiny shrines on street corners and hidden in unexpected back streets; Yoyogi Park where we smiled sweetly at two pretty maiko girls (trainee Geishas) and they obligingly smiled back at us for a quick photo :-); the view of the city lights at night from the Observatory of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building; Roppongi Hills and the Mori Building (the Art Gallery was closed for a few months which was mildly irritating as I was vaguely contemplating taking time out from my busy schedule of daylong exploratory hikes traversing the city to do something more useful… oh well.. the thought was there.. ;-) ); Ginza Crossing with the famous Wako Building and the luxury stores reminiscent of London’s Knightsbridge; the Zojo-ji Temple with its memorial statues of small infants where parents of still-born, aborted or miscarried children can choose one of the statues and decorate it with knitted clothing, knitted red caps, flowers and toys… a poignant experience with the children’s windmills spinning in the breeze and some of the older statues left to be consumed by moss over the passage of years – all under the shadow of the looming 333 meter high Tokyo Tower (taller than the Eiffel Tower but without the full visual appeal and glamour of the Parisian version – sorry guys ;-) ).

One of our favorite experiences was the UN University’s Farmer’s Market where we sampled our way round far too many of the home made cakes and cookies, pickles, green tea purveyors and homemade jam vendors. If we had a dog back home no doubt we would have been tempted to invest in the doggy salt scrub bar to go with the one intended for humans which I bought at enormous expense ;-). We managed to avoid the onset of hypothermia with one of the most delicious latte’s we have had in weeks from a converted VW camper van – who would have guessed ?! :-). In fact, selling one’s wares from the side of a VW camper is obviously de rigeur at this particular market – there was everything on offer from Indian food to sushi to a van with a built-in pizza oven! Although diminutive in scale, it is one of the best farmers markets we have visited – all home grown, home-made and immaculately tidily presented – even the vegetables were tied up like bunches of flowers :-).

The famous Tsukiji Fish Market is top of the list of most tourists “must-see” spots in Tokyo. Frankly, nothing can possibly be worth getting up for at 4am – perhaps the occasional flight to somewhere suitably exotic but definitely NOT a tuna auction – even if it is the largest in the world. Nothing could have compelled us to tear ourselves from a nice warm hotel bed to brave the below freezing temperatures in order to stand around in the icy cold and wet of the trader’s warehouses just to take a few snaps of a tuna auction – so we didn’t bother! ;-). Instead, we drifted through the outer market and wandered into the wholesale market long after the auction action was all over – and that was quite enough! Much more time wandering about there in arctic temperatures amongst the crates of tuna, twitching crabs already pre-coated with breadcrumbs and millions of other unfortunate sea-dwelling creatures and I fear we would both have taken the plunge into full blown vegetarianism. And that would surely have led to starvation in Japan because they don’t seem to sell many vegetables in their restaurants! ,That sentiment lasted however, as far as the first oyster stand – for Geoff at least – even starvation couldn’t convince me to swallow a giant, slimy, grey oyster ;-).

We felt compelled to tear ourselves away from the city for a few hours just because we thought we should explore further afield. So we took a train out into the wider scarier, non-English speaking world – and headed into the very kitschy but attractive town of Kawagoe. Unfortunately, my inefficient research lead me astray and we found ourselves at the wrong station – having disembarked one stop early… ooops..!

Before we had even turned our map around 3 times in a variety of directions trying to locate ourselves, a teenager with a sign around her neck saying “Ask Me!” was by our sides and pointing us in the right direction. We bumped into her again later in the day and she stopped to ask if we were enjoying the town and whether we needed any more help. Impressive. Where we were born and raised gangs of teenagers are more likely to run off with your handbag than offer assistance.

We had been warned that Kawagoe may not be the height of excitement by local Tokyoites but, if you ignore the cheesier of the stores selling penny candy (this town was once the supplier of confectionary for the entire city of Tokyo) it was fun for a few hours. The Edo-era (1600-1800’s) architecture of the renovated warehouse-style kurazakuri buildings was gorgeous; we warmed up on some of the sweetest sweet potato we have ever eaten purchased from a street vendor. This is not the sweet potato of our homeland USA but something more akin to hot candy :-) ); and our visit to the 538 Gohyaku Rakan statues (carved between 1782 and 1825) was memorable if for no other reason than the attentions we received from a supremely friendly ticket collector at the entrance to the Statues who clearly wanted to practice his English.

He was keen to discover in which years we were born and then proudly pontificated that Geoff was born in the year of the dragon and I was born in the year of the snake. Our task was to locate the 12 statues with 12 animals and stroke the head of the animal relevant to the year of your birth. This would apparently bring good luck. So Geoff hunted down the snake for me (my least favorite slithery creature on earth) and the dragon for him and we diligently stroked their heads – as per the photos – only to discover upon later online googling that he had got them completely wrong ;-).

Perfect! Goodness knows what kind of bad luck THAT is now going to bring us. For future reference – it transpires that Geoff was actually born in the year of the snake (1965) and that I was born in the year of the horse (1966) – my second least favorite creature, having been bitten by one as a child and harbored a grudge ever since ;-). Typical!

With Geoff back at work, my final sad day was spent exploring another area I know Geoff will love too … he’ll just have to wait until our next visit ;-).

Kagurazaka, wedged in between 2 stations is another small gem in the city with winding, cobble-stone streets and tiny narrow lanes, many of which meander and then just dead-end. Around any number of corners I found lovely, shady looking restaurants and cafes with tiny Japanese gardens decorated with pots of flowering camellia and miniature bamboo.

And so, finally we left Tokyo, heavy of heart and determined to return not only to explore more of this city (8/9 days really only scratched the surface) but also to travel further afield to Kyoto, Hakone, Osaka, Mount Fuji, Hokkaido and who knows where else….

Tokyo is a city of superlatives….

The most cutting edge architecture and the most beautiful traditional wooden buildings side by side in perfect harmony.

The best Italian food outside of Italy; some of the best Indian food outside of England ;-); and the best patisseries outside of Paris; the best coffee outside of Italy, France or our favorite coffee shop back home in Sarasota ;-); and the best sushi in the world :-).

The friendliest people – if you stand around looking lost for long enough – be that on a street corner with your map upside down, or staring blankly at one of the complicated ticket screens in the station – some kind soul with a smattering of English will try to help you out. I don’t think there are many Londoners or New Yorkers who would invest the time and energy to help out a confused looking lost foreigner when you are rushing to work.

It is, without a doubt, the cleanest city we have ever visited – even more spotless than Singapore!

For reasons we cannot fathom, we actually felt somewhat at home here despite the fact we could barely communicate. Mastering “hello” (konnichiwa), thank you (arigato) and “yes” (hai) doesn’t always cut the mustard for all of one’s travel and food related needs ;-).

What struck us most about the city is it’s subtle beauty. It doesn’t have the jaw-droppingly fabulous Manhattan skyline or the architecture of London’s Houses of Parliament or Tower Bridge, or Paris’s Montmartre  or other such obvious picture postcard images.

For us, at least, its beauty lies in the variety of its neighborhoods, the old and the new side by side in perfect harmony, it’s sense of peace and quiet, calm and serenity even in a crowd (Shibuya and Shinjuku aside!), turn a corner and you are as likely to spot a geisha in a fabulous kimono or a beautiful garden with a shrine, the smell of incense in the air and prayer papers fluttering in the wind.

And where else in the world can you watch (with some considerable admiration) people elegantly eating Indian naan bread or chicken legs with chopsticks; or listen to the sound of a waterfall in a public toilet when you close the door behind you (in order to preserve one’s bathroom related privacy, naturally ;-) ); or (as Geoff tested out with great enthusiasm) have your butt washed with a stream of warm water and then blow-dried by the world’s most complicated toilets with the flick of a few buttons ; or bump into 2 huge sumo wrestlers in a chocolate shop wearing blue flip-flops and carrying matching blue handbags?… or sit next to a beautiful Geisha on the train texting her friends?

It is a city of pure class, simple elegance, design and architectural innovation, history and style :-).

If only we could speak Japanese we would move there :-).

Did I mention just how much we love it? ;-) :-)


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