This was my second time travelling to Japan. My previous visit was short but sweet staying in Osaka with a day trip to Nara & Kyoto for less than a week. Japan is definitely one of those countries that can and need to be explore multiple times. I travelled to Japan with Mike, Manwai, Cassie, Glenn, John, Karen & Chi with guest appearances along the way. The flight deals were too good to miss out on especially during Hanami (cherry blossom festival). We found our deal on www.nextdeparture.ca for $730CAD roundtrip to Tokyo (1 stopover in Chicago each way). Originally, it was just myself plus Mike & Manwai that booked together. As the next few weeks past and a few meals Mike & Manwai had with friends, our group became 8. During the trip, I mainly travelled with Mike & Manwai. Total of 14 days.
We booked many of our accommodations with Airbnb. If you haven’t joined and booked with Airbnb yet, follow the link and get credits for your first booking. www.airbnb.ca/c/ruu
Included in this Itinerary, I have included some helpful information to know in advance before you go.
–www.hyperdia.com – This is awesome for figuring out your bus and JR routes but you need to know what stations you are leaving from and arriving to.
-Google Maps works well too. If Google Maps does not load/poor connection, enter the directions into the internet browser.
-100y = $1USD roughly.
-The Japanese use cash over credit for majority of their day to day living and it isn’t unusual to break a 10,000y bill on something small.
-The 2000y bill is actually quite rare in Japan as its been phased out and was started in Okinawa for unknown reasons. When exchanging money outside of Japan, you may receive 2000y bills which a few Japanese collect HOWEVER, not all the machines take 2000y bills.
-For many Japanese, they may or may not accept it at their work establishments but some will keep as a keepsake similar to Canada’s old $2 bill that is now replaced with the toonie.
-You can pay for some meals in coins alone as the largest valued coin is 500y which is roughly $5USD.
-For 14 days, I took out just over $100CAD a day. $1502.45CAD – 123000Yen
Book in Advanced
–Studio Ghibli Museum tickets can only be purchased 1 month in advanced and sells out quickly. The 10th at 10AM Japan time of every month. Much cheaper to purchase from site than through a tour group (service charges are killer). The actual ticket is only 1000y
-JR Pass must be purchased outside out Japan. Maximum 90 days before your trip. JTB Canada is where I purchased mine. For 14 days of travel, my JR Pass was $539CAD
–Sumo Wrestling Tournaments are held 6 times a year. If you have the chance to go see it, tickets will go on sale a month in advanced so be aware they are highly sought after and sell out fast. Another option if you are going during non tournament months is to go visit a Sumo Wrestling Beya (practice) at multiple locations and watch their early morning practice.
-I highly recommend bringing a portable battery pack to keep your phone charge especially if you are using your phone for directions.
-JR Pass holders need to go through the manned gate to get through at each station.
-You need to make reservations on certain trains but if you don’t, there are a few carts where it is first come first serve or you can sit but if the person with the reserved seats shows up, you give them the seats. The reserved seats also swivel to have 2 facing one another if preferred.
-With the JR Pass, if you miss you train, you can easily get the next one without any penalty fees.
-If you plan on reserving seats for trains for peak times, go earlier to reserve them.
-If taking the bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka/Kyoto etc – request mountainside view to see Mt Fuji!
-Make sure to purchase ekibens before your ride (bullet train specific meals that differ per region and have have seasonal regional speciality foods – all cold)
-Eating is not permitted on trains besides Shinkansen
-JR Pass does not cover all train lines – only JR lines (minus Nozomi/Mizuho/Hayabusa (Shinkansen)) and a Suica or a Pasmo card (similar to Octopus card of Hong Kong or Toronto’s Presto) are indeed very useful and refillable
–Pasmo & Suica cards can also be used to pay for other things such as drink machines and whatnot.
-Pasmo can be used in Tokyo, Osaka & Kyoto (from my experience)
-There are women’s only carts depending on time of day
-Trains end around midnight-1AM. There are taxi queues.
-The Japanese are large in numbers but when walking, they don’t necessarily have a sense of urgency and the pace to my standard is slow
-The Japanese do stay in shape by the amount of stairs they need to climb each day while commuting. The train stations are floors upon floors with limited elevators and some floors have escalators while many are just stairs upon stairs.
-You stand on the left side and pass on the right on the escalators. (Although in Osaka, they did opposite)
-Walking is the same – Walk on the left side
Weather (From what I experience this April trip)
-It is normal for Japanese people to stay covered up even it is hot outside as they care about their skin getting dark (similar to Hong Kong) They are more conservative in terms of covering cleavage but will wear short shorts. I wore a tank top because it was hot but got looks.
-April – light jacket/trench coats (Japanese fashion trend) and umbrellas are key.
-Tokyo is humid. April – average temp – high of 20, low of 6 – chances of showers high but muggy.
-Kanazawa – chilly and windy but otherwise warm during the day, can see breathe in the evening
-Takayama – Hot during the day – really hot as in we got slightly burnt but once the sun goes down, cold and chilly.
-Kyoto – Hot! (average 21-26C during the day) but cools down at night.
-Osaka – Just right! Not too hot, not too cold; bearable to walk around in a t-shirt majority of the day.
-Carry your passport around for many places you go shopping you can get tax free!
-Outlets are the Western 2 prong style instead of the american 3 prong
-There are a lot of people but they tend to move slower than the average if compared to Toronto foot traffic.
-You don’t tip in Japan – the only time you tip are in fancy high end restaurants or when you see fit.
-There are designated areas for people to smoke but the smoke still billows the streets and still litters the streets
-Smoking is not allowed while you are walking
-Smoking is allowed in certain food establishments
-There are rarely any garbage cans on the streets of Japan – 1 reason – you mainly goto establishments to eat or eat at home. 2 – in the past, terrorist attacks with packages left in garbage bins now detour garbage bins
-non combustibles and combustible garbage separation
-some wear masks but others don’t and when they sneeze or cough, they just let it out so be aware of that. Coming for Canada, where its customary to sneer into your elbow or cover your mouth, this might put you off a bit like it did me.
-Sailor moon make up by Beaute Creer – You can pick this up at Its Demo stores.
-In some cities like Takayama at night, they have flashing red lights outside of an establishment to signal that they are still open as other stores or restaurants close early.
Now onto my actual Itinerary. My itinerary got very extensive and ambitious with things and places I wanted to see and goto. Everyone else built their own itineraries but we made sure at certain aspects, we would all meet up in a different city for certain events such as the Takayama festival in Takayama and Temple running in Kyoto. In the span of 2 weeks, my goal was to make it through all these cities (Tokyo, Yokohama, Enoshima, Kawasaki, Kanazawa, Takayama, Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya) but of course not all goes to according to plans and we cut out some areas to explore other areas more. This was the itinerary that actually happened. There will always be another time to visit Japan once again to get more accomplished and more land covered.
Some places and things I originally had on my itinerary for the surrounding area but wasn’t able to accomplish were the following:
-Baseball – much different than Western Baseball – Hanshin Tigers VS anybody – the atmosphere is completely something to take in
-Enoshima – fujisawa – cute city – view of Mt Fuji in painting
-Ramen museum (yokohama)
-Cup Noodle Museum (yokohama)
-Kawasaki Warehouse – arcade games
-Tokyu Plaza – escalator & rooftop
-Akihabara Gachapon Kaikan – Tōkyō, Chiyoda, Sotokanda 3-15-5 Gee Store Akiba – 11AM-7PM
-Nagoya Dome – Purchase tickets – ticket booth near gate 1 – 10AM-5th inning
This trip to Peru has been in talks for years with a certain group of people and it finally happened about 3-4 years after our original discussions because a flight deal popped up on www.nextdeparture.ca to Lima, Peru (with stopover in Panama) for only $417 CDN roundtrip including taxes with COPA Airlines. Within a 2 hour span of sharing this deal with my friends, initially 2 plus myself booked the flight egging on others to come join.
I am usually one of the main people to do the organizing and research for my trips but this one all goes to Karen with some help from Chi. My schedule got really busy and I wasn’t able to provide my organizing skills to this trip but Karen is a 1 woman team and does a stunning job of it including her signature little booklet she makes with everything including tips, timing for buses, train, taxis to dinner reservations and other bookings.
After the initial booking, we were able to add on my brother Andrew and then Karen’s friend’s Sofia & Ronan from SF and slowly after that, Andrew’s friends Gayaanan and Partrick joined us making it a 8 person trip with the priority of time focused on the inca trail hike to Machu Picchu. We chose the 4 day 3 night hike in late November and luckily the weather was absolutely perfectly timed for us. I travelled with Karen & Chi the entire time as the rest split off after the Inca Trail trek on other adventures.
FLY – YYZ->PAN->LIM
-Parque de la Reserva – Water show
-Sleep Lima – 1900 Backpackers
FLY – LIM->CUS
-Inca Trail Briefing – Alpaca Expeditions
-Lunch – Chicha
-Taxi to Urubamba
-Sleep Urubamba – Amaru Valle Hotel
-Maras Salt Mine
-Dinner – El Albergue
-Sleep – Ollantaytambo – Kamma Guesthouse
-Alpaca Expedition – 4 Day 3 Night Hike – Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
We slept in a bit and left at 11AM. We grabbed a tuktuk and went straight to the airport. The line to check in luggage was long but luckily we found the 3 small kiosks and checked in skipping that line only to headed upstairs for security check line which apparently was 3 separate lines that combine into one which took forever. We got through and then made it our gate with plenty of time to spare. This time we flew Airasia and it was about an hour and 10 minute flight but took longer to get the bus shuttle out and then the line up for taxi cabs – NOTE: goto Gate 8 and grab a taxi there! metered taxi is cheaper than the stalls you see up front right out of the arrivals. They were going to charge us 800baht plus we would have to wait 30-hour for a cab to get to our hostel. We lined up at gate 8 and the cab ride wasn’t too bad considering it was rush hour and the hostel was in the downtown core so 40-45 minutes away.
NOTE: if you take the highway, there are tolls you pay immediately (70baht then 50 baht) then on top of the actual metered fee is 50baht for the driver so our final ride was 420baht. We ended up getting to the hostel by 430PM. We are staying atD Hostel – 103 Bunsiri Rd, San Chao Pho Sua, Phra Nakhon, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10200, Thailand. We got upgraded sort of to a 6 person dorm as they didn’t have a 4 person mixed dorm available. We asked about volleyball and alas there was nothing! I guess the moment when Adam and myself peppered on the beach in Koh Samui counted as our playing volleyball in Thailand. D Hostel has concrete interiors and very clean. It is however hot in there though. No elevator and we are on the top floor – 404. Because it’s a mixed dorm style, the rooms are clean and have 3 sets of bunkbeds and nothing more (besides a little ledge, reading lamp and a little cubby to store your phone at night with an outlet. Outside your door are lockers where you can lock up your things. Each floor either has a men’s or women’s bathroom and the second floor has laundry. There is a common room where breakfast is served and there is a movie room. Unfortunately Andrew was leaving for his 5AM flight and was leaving around 1130PM to catch a cab to the train station and take the train from there to the airport.
Our friend Emily (who joined us for Hanoi/Ha Long Bay earlier) had mentioned this one place we had to goto for phad thai in town called Thip Samai – 313-315 ถนนมหาไชยแขวงสำราญราษฎร์, กรุงเทพมหานคร 10200 – iMaha Chai Road – It is always busy and has a line outside so you know that it is good. They are known for their phad thai omelet – 90baht and they make it so quickly. The kitchen is open concept and on the sidewalk so you can watch them throw egg into a wok and make a thin layer then throw the phad thai into the egg and fold it then plate it. We grabbed ours to go. The orange juice here seems fake but the fresh stuff is made with their oranges which are more like clementines so the colour is like Hi-C. We walked a bit to find somewhere to eat as the restaurant was overflowing. We sat down to eat at King Rama III Memorial – Phra Nakhon, จังหวัดกรุงเทพมหานคร – While we sat down and ate our delicious meal, they were setting up christmas lights everywhere and all of a sudden they turned on and it looked spectacular.
We walked Soi Damnoen Klang Tai past the Democracy Monument and somehow ended up on a street similar nearby Khao San Road that was quieter but we were on the lookout for massage places. We ended up choosing Smooth Massage 1 – 145 Soi Ram Buttri – 250baht – 1 hour thai massage. It was heavenly. I have a high threshold for pain and the man that worked on me just went full out. I know he was complimenting me on looking all sporty before we went in but then I think I surprised him by how flexible I am. He found all the knots and a thai massage felt more so like visiting a chiropractor than an actually massage which I like much better. At one point, he was even stepping on me and he even found the really tight knots at the base of my neck and tried to get them for me. He even cracked my neck for me. At one point I was lucid but could’ve fallen asleep even with the pain that felt so good.
We walked over to the famous Khao San Road – Tons of bars and restaurants and food and clothing vendors – Very touristy. I bought a Adidas tank top for 150baht and a McDonalds cone for 9baht. We walked home from there and Andrew went wandering for a bit before coming back for a quick shower and out he went to catch a cab to the train station then train to the airport.
Flying Bangkok Airways to Chiang Mai this morning. We woke up and had our final breakfast at the villa before they transported us back to the airport. It was an experience to be in Koh Samui but I don’t think I’ll come back. It’s #1 income is tourism and it’s so touristy that they just bring you in, you take a tour and then you’re done and on to the next. Sandalwood is beautiful and all but the fact that it is on top of a giant hill and the only way down is to either get shuttled down or taxi, it limited us to exploring on our own timeline. They offer free shuttles to either Lamai or Chaweng areas starting at 11AM and last returning at 5PM or you pay 400baht. I would recommend if anyone were to come here is to stay at maybe a nice luxurious villa that is beachside and close to the Central Festival mall because it’s close to everything including food and the night market experience and of course the beach.
We said our goodbyes to Sew and Mr. Chai (our driver) and got through check in at the kiosk no problem at the airport but it was a long walk outside to get to our gate. It looks like a outdoor mall in the airport before getting to the security portion then it’s just fans going off. Once again, Bangkok Airways offers free beverages and light snacks as you wait to board. 2 hours to fly to Chiang Mai from Koh Samui.
Landed and got a taxi from the airport for 10 minutes (160baht) to our hostel Green Tulip Hostel (Mueang Chiang Mai District). We didn’t know they only accept cash so we all had to go exchange more USD/CAD. We had to walk about 10 minutes to Siam TV – second floor and exchange there. But before we left the hostel, we booked a cooking class so we had to pay for that as well. The cooking class was 800 baht. And we divided up the cost of the hostel and paid 3300 baht for both cooking class and hostel. After putting aside cash for the elephant tour, I was running low of baht and money to convert. I packed roughly $900USD for the entire trip but didn’t expect all these tours to pop up (as we prepaid & booked ahead for a few).
The hostel is owned by a Singaporean man but Stella and her family have been running it since day 1. Stella is intense but in a good way. Very nice, aggressive and informative. She wants to make sure you are having a good time and getting the best deals. Since arriving in Thailand, you can notice the culture shift – Koh Samui – more skin showing, tattoos. Chiang Mai – the hipster look and those earlobe hole earrings. The way they dress feels kind of like home.
We got 2 rooms – 1 with a double bed and 1 with 2 single beds which were adjoining rooms so we asked them to unlock those doors. The group took a nap before our cooking class as I explored the hostel. When you enter the main entrance, it is an open cafe style area with computers, pamphlets and whatnot available. You enter the back area to the rooms – no elevator but only 4 floors with its multi-colour walls and doors. We were in 202 & 203. There is a rooftop but the view isn’t so great which I guess is a good thing for privacy sake. I stayed up there for a while to attempt one last dry out session for my camera. I came back in to test it out and the smallest glimpse of life but nothing more, nothing less. Devastating. Shooting with my phone does nothing in comparison to my DLSR.
We got picked up in a Thai tuktuk which looks safer than a cambodian one. We booked Siam Rice – cooking class (800 baht for evening session) with May/Melody? as our teacher. We were joined by a mother-daughter duo from Ohio – Jenny & Allie (celebrating her 25th this week) and 3 from San Francisco who were here for a wedding and one who just recently moved here – Collin. We got driven to a food market to get familiar with ingredients then driven off to Siam Rice kitchen for us to cook. We got to choose what dishes we were making – soup, noodles, curry dish and either a thai dessert or a starry vegetable. I chose hot and sour soup, pad siew, jungle curry and pumpkin in coconut milk.
We all had our own little stations with the ingredients that we needed to prep. Once completed, we moved over to our own individual stove tops and May would walk each of us through our dishes as we would cooked them in the woks simultaneously squirting coconut milk in for the dishes that required it. All the food we made was so delicious. After completing and devouring our food, we had the tuktuk drop us all off at the Sunday night walking market (Rachadamnoen Rd, Mueang Chiang Mai District) that spans a few blocks and goes in a cross shape. It’s more established and more difficult to bargain here. So crowded but tons of things to purchase and eat if you’re looking.
We slept in today as it was such a long gruelling day in the sun. We finished packing and went for breakfast – the poached eggs were on point this morning. After breakfast, we checked out and Mr Dany drove us to the airport at 11AM. The check in was speedy and because we are flying Bangkok Airways, we get complimentary food and drink similar to Porter service. I also didn’t know that both our 1 hour flights, we receive meals/snacks which in the end became really filling. We had a stopover at Bangkok airport and just pretty much walked from one end to the other to get to our next gate. We are actually the minorities on this plane. When we touched down in Koh Samui, the landscape is very LA/West Coast/Hawaii-esque. The #1 source of income here is tourism and then #2 is coconuts. We exchanged money in Koh Samui as the rate was 35 instead of 33 in Bangkok. 100 baht = $3USD.
Different from the rest of the trip as they drive on the left side of the road here. We are staying up in the middle of the island at Sandalwood Villa (211/7 Moo 4, Tumbon Maret, Amphoe Koh Samui) and holy hell the street leading up to the villa is on a 60-70 degree angle and winds. Sandalwood offers free shuttle service from the airport and so they picked us up in a SUV and now I understand why they would need such a beast of a vehicle. The streets here are quite narrow (single lane) and there are some road rules here and there but if you want to over pass someone you can do it then drive right back into your lane but also trying to avoid hitting stray dogs, people and motorbikes and other on coming vehicles or stopped vehicles. We were greeted by R at the villa and the lobby smells like heaven. The view is spectacular because we are higher up and right beside the main lobby is the public infinite pool and lounge area.
Our villa is the Amarin Villa which seems like a trek to get to. We go down the driveway then see where the stairs connect then walk through an area where you need to brush the tree vines to get through then you see the spa and make a left down those stairs then turn right and back up a pair of stairs. Our villa is massive. There is a kitchenette then the main room has a giant queen bed with such a high ceiling. The joining room has a double bed but both have sliding doors and just windows everywhere to enjoy the view. We have a jacuzzi o our balcony along with some lounge chairs and a egg swinging chair. There is a washroom and the main bathroom is massive with a stand up shower and a tub but just so much room. There is also a fridge and they give you free water everyday but also they provide free fruit and other drinks if you purchase. Unfortunately, there was thunderstorm previous to arriving which actually knocked out the wifi so Amy and Adam complained and somehow convinced them to give us a ride to Chewang – Central Festival and back for free which would be $20USD RT in a taxi. Central is their main mall are and they have a night market setup outside and continues down to the river front. We saw a basketball court and volleyball court but its further away from the mall and we only had 3 hours before we would get picked up. You need a Thai license to drive a motorbike out here. To enter the mall parking, you need a valid thai passport or license to get through in your vehicle.
There was a night market going on where they were selling the souvenirs plus cheap food. We eventually went inside the somewhat open concept mall to my favourite store – Uniqlo. I ended up purchasing 2 pairs of pants and Adam and Andrew also bought a bunch of stuff which resulted in qualifying for a VAT refund when we depart. We stayed in this area and also crossed the street to the extended part of the night market then walked back to get picked up back at the mall. And that was our first night.
Turns out November is not a good month for Koh Samui because its monsoon season here. March/April is the perfect time to come here. Since the weather conditions are bad, Ang Thong (the national park which also houses the beach that inspired the movie “The Beach” with Leo DiCaprio) is closed until December.
We stopped by Delta – (Road 13, Corner of Road 38 | Opposite Athena Hotel) for brunch before leaving for Siem Reap. I was able to grab coffee beans that they grow and roast at their plantation. You can also purchase beans that haven’t been roasted for those of you who want to roast your own beans. The dessert case looked really good. They give you a pencil and paper to write down your orders. I ordered the Skinny Minnies drink – lemon, orange, cantaloupe, basil seed and got baked eggs served in a little pan with ground beef, ham and cilantro on top with a fresh baguette and butter on the side (the baguette was so fresh!). It was a good meal and I wish I had more room to eat one of their cakes. Went to a convenient store and grabbed a few snacks and off we went.
Off to Siem Reap we went with Lao Airlines. Visa on arrival – $30USD not $20USD. Once you fill out the customs forms on the plane ride over, you fill out visa form on arrival then head to a line where you hand over the money, forms and passport then go to another line where you will get your passport returned to you. Then you continue to the security desk where you need to write in the visa number you just got and also scan your fingerprints on the pad. The airport is much more modernized and looks higher quality than the smaller ones of Luang Prabang and Siem Reap. So basically, the exchange is $1USD=4000 Riel. USD and/or Riel is used but most prices are in USD. Not much of a need to change USD to Riel but also they don’t use coins here. The lowest bill is 500 riel. We stayed at Secret Pavilion Boutique Hotel (120 Angkor Night Market St, Krong Siem Reap 17252, Cambodia) and they offer free airport transfer and we got Mr Dany who picked us up in his tuktuk with a carriage in the back different from the ones in Laos. Our hotel is located just a street away from the night market and within hidden streets with locals but we need to walk out and around to get anywhere but it’s still a nice facility. A little bumpy ride though as the street isn’t a normal paved street. The hotel is really nice and we were greeted by Surien, one of the ladies at front desk as they got us to sit down and she gave us information about the area and they gave us complimentary drinks as they got our room ready. Nate also works here who went to school in California so his accent is different. They helped us carry our bags in the stairs. We booked a 4 single bed room and ended up on the inside corner in room 53 that overlooks the inner courtyard and pool. They beds are memory foam and the bathroom is the asian style where the shower isn’t separate from the rest. It’s so hot outside that if you hang something, it will be dry in no time. Humid.
Our main goal once we settled in was to do laundry which we sent it off just next door where its 1KG=$1USD and we will receive it back tomorrow evening. We then went off to look for a pharmacy or optics store to purchase contact solution. My contact solution (Clear Care) does not exist over here! Amy at some point lost her glasses in the jungle as the bottom portion of her bag opened and it fell out so she needed to purchase a new pair. The prices were so cheap compared to prices back home that Adam and myself also grabbed ourselves a new pair each. We went to Royal Optic just outside the laneway that enters into the street that leads to our hotel. Amy is the bargainer in this group and got the guy to take off at least $10USD off. Her frames were $36USD + lenses $18USD or something ridiculous like that. I was trying them on for fun not intending to purchase but when I tried it on, I realize the market is geared towards asians and well I can smile and the glasses don’t touch my cheeks like the average ones back home do and I don’t even need to customize with added nose pieces! You have no idea how happy I was for this! I purchased a pair that fade off at the bottom and are thin on the side which make me look more hipster/nerdy. The frames were $21 + $18USD for the lenses and I got them for $38USD! That is a definite steal for sure! In the end, for 3 pairs total, we got it for $147USD and the turnaround service was only 30 minutes (minus Adam’s who’s style isn’t in stock until tomorrow). We decided to hop into Nice Cool (Tepvong St | Taphul, Siem Reap) nearby because there was wifi and cold drinks which after looking at the menu, we saw food that looked delicious so we decided to eat dinner around 530PM. I ordered a giant green tea with milk $.75USD and Beef Lok Lak with rice and a fried egg on top. The sauce on the beef was a little salty but It came with a citrus-pepper dipping that when the sauces mixed tasted amazing and it was only $3USD. We thoroughly enjoyed our meals. One of the employees or owner here is originally from Seattle. I absolutely love the kids here in Asia; they are so cute and big eyed and I got to play with a few today.
After we went back to the shop to pick up our glasses, we continued onward to the night market street. We went into the first little area where there were neon signs than looked like a small pavilion of little shops where we bargained and I purchased coffee beans ($5USD), a little ceramic buddha faces statue ($3) and elephant capris ($2USD). I ended up getting asked if I spoke Khmer by one lady who thought I was Cambodian and another asking if I was Japanese because of my eyes. They are little too aggressive already approaching and asking you “you want to buy something lady? souvenir? I give you good deal” but we will be back. There are also supermarkets here! Amy and Adam bought some Off! bug spray and a few other items. On our way back to the hotel, we bought a nutella crepe from a cart and also a shop that sold shakes for $0.75USD – I got the apple shake and also got to play with this little girl and interact with her two older brothers – they were all so adorable and the oldest served us. You can get 60 minute massages here for $1USD which to me is insane. Back to the hotel and went for a night swim and then settled back into the room and stayed awake until 1130PM as Andrew was flying in to join us for the remainder of this trip.
Woke up bright and early to attend the morning market and purchase some food that we can give to the monks at alms giving. The morning market opens at 5AM and the alms giving goes for an hour from 5-6AM. This morning alms giving of food serves as the main means for which the monks to get food and it also serves as their one meal for the day as they enter into 6 hours of meditation. Women must dress modestly wearing tops that cover cleavage and arms and shorts that cover up to the knee at least.
There is a large tourist attraction for Koreans to come here and there are actual Korean shops around. Either way, there are tons of expat here that have opened up shop.
We walked the morning market which opens at 5AM and grabbed sticky rice with coconut and sugar for 5000 kip and then grabbed a stack of bananas to hand out to the monks at the morning alms giving. The women and some men give offerings with prayers on the side of the road and in the end, the monks bless them before heading back to the temple to sweep and meditate. The first round, Amy and myself didn’t separate the bananas quick enough to give to all of them but we did hand them out before the van of older Korean ladies came out and went straight into the faces of the monks at alms giving with their iPhones. We walked through the market again as the sun came up and walked down a random street where it was lined with more street vendors selling fresh vegetables, fish, meats and tons of unusual things I never see at market such as dead bats, little birdies, live frogs with skewers in their leg so they can’t go anywhere to live chickens in a bin.
We walked over to the National Museum of Luang Prabang to take photos and across from it are stairs to goto Mount Phousi (The best view of Luang Prabang). You can buy flowers or birds in cages to bring up with you as offerings. The first staircase is free to climb but once you reach the top of the stairs, there is a platform where people leaving the flower offerings. The second staircase that leads to the top, you need pay 20000 kip to get to the top. We did not go. We walked around a bit then made our way back to the guesthouse and relaxed on the balcony. We also met a man named Joe who is originally from Chelsea England and worked as an engineer but now is a world nomad working remotely on digital marketing for a Swiss company. Also meet a guy on the balcony named Kevin. He’s from America – Videographer who studied math economics who is planning on going to Hakaiddo next year to work and shoot snowboarders and skiers.
I really wish we had stayed here longer as the weather is amazing, very similar to Hawaii with a dry heat but humidity is low. I don’t think I’d love to live here but I definitely want to come back. It’s also the number one spot to travel to for 2014/15. It’s very different from Vietnam out of what I’ve seen of it. More modern, less crowded and everyone is friendly. More personality and character for sure. Tuktuks are everywhere but they share a narrow road with cars and motorbikes.
It’s actually expensive to purchase land here. Robin showed us a plot of land that was worth 1 million USD. The homes here are regulated in terms of architecture wise as they have to be built in the same style as the colonial French design from centuries ago. Apparently there is only one cement mix truck here and usually they hand mix their cement. French influence everywhere and you can get good baguettes and croissants here.
The drive from the guesthouse to the airport is about 15 minutes and we passed the old airport which got abandoned once the new one was built. The airport looks like a mall plaza on the exterior. We got through no problem and hopped onto our little plane with Lao airlines once again.
The plane ride with Lao Airlines was quick and good quality for what we paid and to Southeast Asia standards. We landed around around noon in Pakse and it was blazing hot outside. The taxis wanted 80000 kip to drive us to our hotel – Salachampa Hotel – No. 10 Rd . We ended up going with a tuktuk driver who we bargained down to 30000 kip.
The weather here also reminds me of Hawaii as it’s a hot heat but no humidity but can also cool down as the sun goes down. We went to grab lunch at Vida Bakery but I ended up reading the google maps offline wrong and we went the opposite direction and found ourselves at Champasak Plaza which is a shopping centre and we found a supermarket (first one since coming to SEA) – Tang Frères – Grabbed a few things and then we trotted back out into the blazing heat to make our way to Vida Bakery (188, Rd 12, Ban Thaluang) for lunch. I had a ham and cheese croissant & the daily fruit smoothie. Vida Bakery is ranked high on the TripAdvisor list and it was really good. Its owned and run by British expats but they hire “Vida boys” hirings locals that offers them employment skills and is somewhat a school environment similar to George Brown with Chef House as their teaching restaurant.
After our late lunch, we went back to the room to cool down from the heat. We later went back out around 5PM and went to Sinouk coffee shop to buy coffee beans but it was closed for renovations so we decided to walk a bit more. We passed the shopping plaza from earlier today and walked south on NO. 46 Rd and noticed in the darkness people playing volleyball. We found volleyball! We asked if we could join and they agreed. Made new friends. So many names but Xay (Sai) and Nan/Aw were the most fluent in speaking english with us.
We played for a while and we’re completely drenched. We told them we wanted to eat but they said we should get coke first since we played for so long and needed to be refreshed. We actually hopped onto their motorbikes and off we went. We literally went a block or two, grabbed a giant table and coke and other drinks were being brought to the table by these little girls. We wanted to pay for their drinks but they wouldn’t really let us. Very Asian way of doing things and they said they wanted to treat us. They originally thought we were Japanese maybe Chinese. We told them we were hungry and we wanted them to bring us to one of their favourite spots so again we hopped on the motorbikes and we ended up on a sidewalk with plastic tables and chairs set up with very limited dim light and we ate meatballs and sweet sausage with a side of veggies. Our new friends are university students studying finance, IT and economics. From the names I remember at the table – Gino, Wit, Billy, Tank, Nan, Sai and Bo. We asked them if they would be playing volleyball again before we left and usually they play every night but that Saturday Tank was moving to a new home so they were holding a house warming party which they did invite us to. We are off to the jungle in Paksong for an overnight stay so we said we would check in with them via Facebook when we returned. I think they had class the following day so they kindly dropped us off at our hotel and went on their way. One photo from the night was posted and within an 30 minute over 60 likes and dozens of comments but Lao slang which can’t be translated. I find that the focus here is more so on being better educated, and more regulated rules, but bit more refined in a old new world. The design here is definitely the leftover of french colonization. We added a few of them to Facebook and notice they goto a french university. We should’ve tried to speak to them in french; maybe it would have been easier to communicate french than english.
This morning, I awoke to a huge thunder crack that seemed inches away at 4-5AM. We got packed and had breakfast and booked a airport transfer with our group of 5 to the airport. $18USD for 5 people isn’t bad. We got there and literally walked up to front desk and then off we went. The airport is pretty decent but everything you purchase in there is USD. This must be the most efficient experience I’ve ever had from checking in, security, flight and customs. We had to go downstairs to where we were transported via shuttle bus to the small plane that pretty much loaded us up and off we went. We flew with Lao Airlines. The plane lifted off smoothly and we were even served a mini snack and Adam and myself had Laobeer – Not my taste in beer. The landing was by far the smoothest of all the flights so far on this trip. We got off and lined up for the arrival visa. The process is pretty smooth. You fill out the forms on the plane then hand off to stage 1 with your passport and 1 passport photo; if you don’t have one then you pay $1USD for a photo on the spot. Next you goto another line where you get your passport back with the sticker visa and pay. Canada pays $42+1USD (service fee). USA pays $35USD. The final line you just stand on the footprint stickers as they look at the papers you filled out. Our main purpose of going to Laos was to do the tree top trekking in Pakse but I have been told by many that Luang Prabang is a place that you cannot miss especially if you are in Laos. We made it happen and only had about 17 hours in Luang Prabang.
We came out and awaited our ride. We exchanged about $20USD and whatever leftover Viet Dong we had. We had been waiting for awhile so we decided to check in with the info desk to see if we could call them and turns out there was another gentleman named Song Hu who’s from San Francisco waiting for Jimmy as well and was also staying at the same guest house. He used to work for Twitter and is a liberal arts guy who can’t really code. He’s been on a whirlwind travel adventure going from China to India, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and currently Lao. He is in fact Korean born in America but the first dark Korean. We booked a RT airport transfer with Jimmy for $25USD for the three of us. Our one night stay is at Apple Guest House (Xatikhouman Rd 01 / 05 Xiengmoun Village) where Robin – an expat originally from the mountains near Golden Coast in Australia is now living with her adopted son Jimmy who is originally from Laos. She is retired and now runs this hostel with her family plus she runs a free english class for people in Luang Prabang. She came back to Laos because of her son. He was having trouble finding love in Australia so he came back to Laos originally in Vientiane working for the Australian embassy and was unsuccessful until he came to Luang Prabang where within a 2 weeks he found love with a beautiful women and are currently about 3 weeks awaiting the arrival of their first child is born. The guesthouse itself is very quaint and is tucked away from the main street by a block and is very quiet with timber slippery dark wood floors and a little balcony. It is essential to take off and leave shoes at the front door before entering into the building.
We quickly un-packed and changed into our swim wear. Robin had suggested this one particular tour that she has connections for (started at 1PM and we arrived at 1250) so it would be $25USD/pp and it was a elephant ride (wash was extra $5USD), visit the black moon bears and a free trip to Kuang si Falls including tuktuk. By the way TukTuk is pronounced took-took. We opted out of it as we really want to experience the waterfalls experience. Robin called up a tuktuk for us right away and Johnny picked us up. In the tuktuk already were 3 guys from Brighton, England. Connor, George and Peter who were all chefs back home in a mexican restaurant who recently quit and have been travelling for awhile. They were a fun group. Johnny could definitely drive Tokyo drift the way he drives. The roads outside of the main area are a mix of cement, wooden single lane bridges to mud/dirt with potholes. We got to the falls in good time. From what I’ve seen so far of Laos; most particular Luang Prabang, some places they live in are reasonably decent looking homes but also there are those homes on the side of the road. Definitely different experience than Vietnam where the people selling products aren’t as intense in your face but also the way they work, it’s lax but more civilized if that makes any sense. Anyways back to the falls. It costs 20,000 kip to enter the falls. The falls themselves are gorgeous but there are multiple layers to walk to. I only recommend watershoes for the actual swimming portion if you really want or at least wearing crocs as the steps can be sharp or all of a sudden there isn’t a rock to step on and just drops.
Continue walking and you get a glimpse of the bottom of the falls where we see a few people swimming. We decided to continue to the top first and make our way back down to find the best place get in. The water is extremely cold and a green blue colour and definitely not clear but it is indeed freshwater! I went barefoot in but be careful for sharp rocks and parts where the rocks drop into nothingness. We swam around one waterfall for awhile before moving onto another section. And then it happened… Amy ended up tossing Adam’s GoPro at him in one of the deeper areas thinking there was a floaty device on the handle but unfortunately she threw short and Adam dove under trying to find it but two different currents were swishing around and it’s not clear water and that is the end of life for his GoPro as it sits in the caverns of the Kuangsi waterfalls. There were tons of rocks and trees around the area so it couldn’t haven’t gotten past that area but it massive sunk deep within one of the caverns never to be seen again unless some wonderful soul finds it one day and gets to experience the last 6 days of our adventures. The section we lost it in for future reference of any friends that are strong swimmers/divers go there one day and attempts to find it (bring goggles). It’s the second section of the top level just underneath the tier that people aren’t allowed to swim. Where there is an angled tree in the middle that has two medium sized branches that you look at and want to climb which your can. Just in front of the area where people can sit on the edge in the middle. It is in the middle of that area that out now lives. It’s a GoPro hero 4 with an LCD back on a waterproof selfie stick with a rugged handle with metallic green on the bottom of the handle with a wrist strap attached. Adam gave up looking as the water was just too cold to stay in longer and down we went to the next tier where there is a rock out tree ledge people can jump off of. I wonder how many devices get lost in this waterfall.
Back onto the tuktuk to head back. We didn’t get to see the sunset on the Mekong Delta but on the back of a tuktuk. We got back and Song Hu found us. We walked over to buffet street which is what it is named after. About 10 stalls with a huge selection of dishes to choose from. You pay 15000 kip for an all you fit into one bowl meal with grilled meats as a separate fee. We thoroughly enjoyed all of it but wished there was a breeze.
After dinner, we walked dessert street and the night market street. Be warned tall people, your neck will hurt as it’s tents that you will need to bend under. After awhile they are ask selling the same merchandise. I never thoroughly liked night markets because it’s all the same things. After the market, we decided to head towards The Hive (Kingkitsarath Rd) (as of Jan 2016 – has closed down) which Robin suggested. The hive is owned by an Aussie expat and they run a fashion show that showcases fashion from the last 100 years or so. It was also suppose to have a hip-hop dance performance but we either missed it or it wasn’t happening that night.
I keep waking up early – 530AM. Grabbed breakfast at the hotel buffet and then off we went to the airport one last time to head over to Hanoi via Vietnam Airlines. They are very flexible in timing here as my original flight to Hanoi was scheduled for 930AM but then they rescheduled us to a later flight which actually got pushed back in timing. The flight itself was pretty easy and we also got a full meal there. We touched down to see rain. We hopped in a random taxi although we wanted to take a Mai Linh or Vinasun but I believe Hanoi taxis are more regulated and won’t cheat you out of a ride. It was raining hard and takes about 45 minutes to get into the city from the airport which is roughly 300.000-500.000VND. The hotel we stayed at was Royal Palace Hotel 2 (95 Hàng Bông, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội). We were greeted by a young boy who was the bellhop who brought us refreshments and then the lady at the front desk – Hang, who was very professional and informative. She told us that the street we are staying on is also known in english as cotton street because in the old quarters back in the day, this street was where people sold cotton.
First looks at Hanoi, it looks very old world in terms of architecture with old structures buildings. A mix of modern with a little more design flair. Reminds me a little bit of Hong Kong with buildings built narrow and high. Very jungle meets city incorporated. HCM did have giant trees embedded into sides of the streets but here, the vines and trees just take over certain parts. Plus I absolutely love walking down each street with so much character and all these narrow alleyway / corridors that create dynamic vignettes.
Adam and Amy are in a different room as I was rooming with Lixin and Yu Ling. The hotel is very quaint and french inspired which is so lovely. We decided to walk a bit of the town as we awaited their (Lixin & Yu Ling) arrival from the airport. Lixin and Yu Ling were Amy’s roommates back in London in uni . Amy’s friend Emily and her fiancee James also joined us for this little portion of our trip (Hanoi – Ha Long Bay) who are originally from Carolina but Amy met Emily in the Sahara Desert and now Emily and James live in Singapore.
We walked to the centre of town by the big river/pond – Hồ Hoàn Kiếm then returned to the hotel to meet with them. We walked over to Hanoi Street Food tour (74 & 76 Hang Bac Street at Kim Tour’s Building) where we met Emily and James. It costs $23USD but lasts 4 hours or so and includes multiple stops and different local cuisines. Our tour guide Phuong aka Phoenix is a 22 year old university student who was very friendly, social, knowledgable and spoke english pretty well. She would yell Stickyrice and that was her signal for us when we crossed the street so we would stick together and not get hit especially in the very crowded areas.
Our first stop we had ben cha (boon cha) – rice vermicelli + pork. Thanh Hop – 12 Dinh Liet.
Second spot we had banh cuon nong – hot rice crepes that we made ourselves! The lady put down the rice flour and we used a long flat bamboo stick and you push against it then turn the stick to the left against the surface a few times then pull up. The other lady filled them up with shrimp or something which is similar to churn fun. Banh Cuon Nong My Van Than-Mien Luon – 14B Bao Khanh.
Third Spot – we had tea chanh – lime tea, tra quat – kumquat tea, bo bia – coconut rolls – Cafe Giai Khat Tra Chanh – 26 Nha Tho. We also ate sunflower seeds here that are non salted and you pretty much throw the shells on the ground.
Fourth spot we had nem cua be – sea crab spring rolls, banh goi – pillow cake, banh tom – shrimp cake, banh ran man – savoury donut, & banh ran ngot – sweet donuts. – Banh Goi – 52 Ly Quoc Su.
Fifth spot we had Nom thit bo kho – papaya salad. Long Vi Dung – Nom Thit Bo Kho – Gia Truyen — Banh Bot Loc – 23 Ho Hoan Kiem
Sixth spot we had Caramen thap cam – caramel mixture, kem coi – sticky rice + ice cream, caramel nep cam – caramel + black sticky rice, caramel sua chua long noon – caramel + longan + yoghurt, sua chua nep cam – black sticky rice + yoghurt, chedau xanh – green been soup, sua chua mit – jackfruit + yoghurt. Banh Cuon Nong – 95 Hang Bac
Seventh spot we had banh mi – bread rolls that were heated and pressed. But we also had a specialty of Hanoi – ca phe bung – egg coffee & tico trung – egg coco. Hanoi Street Food Restaurant – S07 Cho Gao
And our final spot was a corner where we had the best beer from Hanoi for 5000vnd and we had great entertainment as the streets are pedestrian only where 12 year boy and girl were dj-ing hardcore with speakers and a iPod where tons of little kids just danced on the street. Bia Hoi Pho Co – 1 Ma May, Hang Buom
I think my favourite flavour that we ate was when we sat down at Cafe Glai Khat Tra Chanh on the corner across from the cathedral to have kumquat or lime green tea with sugar cane. They had this thin crepe/rice paper-like wrap with sesame and filled with sugarcane sugar and coconut.
Facts about Hanoi:
-Hanoi – Legend has it that a dragon formed the islands.
-There aren’t many supermarkets as majority of people go out to eat at restaurants that make specific dishes if not just one dish in particular that they specialize in. If its their livelihood I can understand. They eat that particular dish then hop on over to the next spot for something else. Also, smaller portions – not american sized portions here.
I think the reason everyone likes to eat outside on the street is because it is very similar to the way of life for the French; it’s all about the open concept people watching style but instead of wicker furniture, it’s small plastic furniture but same idea of tables facing outwards into the streets. Very different I’m so glad we chose to do this walking food tour on a weekend because all the locals are out late including children. Phuong brought us to so many places that oozed the energy of Hanoi with food as it’s fire.
We got a decent deal on flights ($1024CAD) with United Airlines from Toronto to arrive in Ho Chi Minh / Saigon and fly home from Bangkok however for this trip to be slightly cheaper, there were multiple stopover: YYZ->IAD;IAD->EWR (really UA.. you can’t just fly us to New York instead of detouring out to Washington); EWR->HKG;HKG->SGN. Flight home will be BKK->NRT;NRT->DEN;DEN->ORD;ORD->YYZ.
The flights weren’t actually that bad and I think because it was so broken up in the beginning it didn’t feel as gruelling until we finally made it to Hong Kong and awaited to board one more flight. The airport in Ho Chi Minh is basic. We lined up at the visa counter and handed in our visa approval forms (that we already booked online -$19.99USD ($27.16CAD) – http://www.myvietnamvisa.com/) then had to complete another form with the same basic information (you can leave passport info blank as they take your passport) then fill in your address, profession, accommodation location etc. Then you line back up and hand in that completed form with a passport photo (1 only) then sit down until they call your name. When they call your name proceed to the counter and receive your passport with the visa ticket inside and give $45USD and you are all set. One final bag screening and then out the door you go.
I exchanged $20CAD right away for cab fare and Adam did $20USD. We got swindled off the bat – NOTE FOR FUTURE: STICK WITH MAI LINHS AND VINASUN taxis and negotiate fare before hopping in. There is a exit fee of 10.000 NOT 100.000 which our driver showed us who probably did a switcheroo. When we got to our destination, the meter read 83.0 which is 83.000 but he kept insisting it was 830.000 which we didn’t have enough of anyways but we did give him nearly 700.000. We got ripped off completely but it was also our fault in the beginning because we told him its our first time there… All in all, we are down about $35 already on one taxi ride. If you can arrange a airport transfer, it could be cheaper or same price but less hassle.
We stayed at Hosen 2 Hotel – 4A Thi Sach with a double and a single bed. We ended up falling asleep around 230-3AM and I had set my alarm for 10AM. I easily awoke to 530AM and the sun rises around that time. We started our day around 645AM with our hotel’s buffet breakfast. It wasn’t bad at all as it included normal western food such as omelette, sausage, potatoes, egg, cereal etc but also noodles in soup, custard steam bun, rice, noodles, DIY banh mi, fish, meatballs, squid etc.
After breakfast, we went out to exchange money while trying to spot certain places such as Nhu Lan Bakery and Ben Thanh market. We walked by the water and experienced our first traffic jam with motorbikes, cars, vans, taxis and humans crossing through. I learned how to cross the street by just literally watching an old lady cross the road. You go slowly and keep eye contact with one hand sort of out; this way you and the motorcyclists know whats happening and both can adjust. We found Nhu Lan Bakery but then remembered we didn’t have any cash on us at that point so we went nearby to exchange currency. They round up here in terms of money and also don’t use coins. They barely even use their small bills (500,1000,2000,5000).
After that, we explored Ben Thanh market area which is very similar to every other night market Ive been to selling souvenirs, food and clothing. We walked around some more in the vicinity and ended up at Trung Nguyen Coffee where we sat on the second floor and people watched below and enjoyed some cold beverages. I had the green tea latte with coffee jelly (49.000VND). We then walked around more and ended up going to the Independence Palace which is their version of the white house then continued our walk back to our hotel. We relaxed for a bit and it was perfect timing as it started to pour really hard outside. We watched a little television and re-cooped then off we went to the airport to pick up Amy. This time, the fee was correct with roughly 122.000VND going in and about 155.000VND coming back due to traffic. Amy has been in Asia for 10-12 days prior with family and other friends. Since Amy came in later, we were unfortunately too late to do the Cu Chi Tunnels tour and we didn’t want to spend $52USD/pp to do a private tour since it was only half day and our Mekong Delta (full day) was $50USD/pp.
We got back to the hotel to drop off her stuff then off we went to get lunch at Nhu Lan Bakery (50-64-68 Ham Nghi St. Dist.1,) Trip advisor had this place highly recommended for their Banh Mi and they were pretty good. If you like hot then keep the pepper in but if not, either ask them to leave it out or pull it out. It left a tingle going on inside my throat and on my lips but it was very good. 20.000VND which is $1USD. We grabbed it and continued on our way to Ben Thanh Market with Amy. After visiting Ben Thanh again, we walked around trying to figure out what we wanted to see next since Cu Chi Tunnels wasn’t going to happen. We walked towards the cathedral but it looked packed with tourists so we went across the street to the Saigon Central Post Office (2 Công xã Paris, Bến Nghé, tp.). From there, we ventured to Vincom Centre (70 – 72 Le Thanh Ton | District 1) where it is filled with UK brands and a store that sold some Canadian brands like Venque and Natives. We ate and drank at Mochi Sweets (72 Lê Thánh Tôn, Tầng B2 Vincom, Bến Nghé, Quận 1). I can’t turn down good japanese treats such as mochi! I got the Green tea ice cream drink – 49.000VND (started off just tasting like water until the ice cream melted. We also decided to get 2 mochis each. I got the durian (with real durian chunks) and peach cream – both were good! We also had green tea, chocolate mousse, apple and purple potato. 28.000 each.
We decided we should get pho for dinner and looked up the top 5 places; we settled for one of the top ones which was also one of the farthest. I suggested we go because it was getting dark so it was a little cooler out plus we wouldn’t be walking that far into that area otherwise and I wanted to walk unfamiliar streets to take in more. Pho Hoa Pasteur (p. 8, 260E Pasteur) where I had Tiger beer with a small Tripe pho bowl. Tastes different but nonetheless still really good! We then took our time to walk back and battled the traffic once again and made it back to our hotel for a good nights sleep as the following day we are to do a Mekong Delta tour which starts at 5AM.