Sunday, November 9, 2008

Japan - Kyoto

The local train from Osaka only took half an hour, good job as it was so busy I had to stand the whole way! Anna had a nice comfy seat though... We got to Kyoto's glass house of a station mid morning so we had plenty of time to sort out our onward tickets to Tokyo for two days later.

After several attempts we eventually managed to get hold of our guesthouse owner who insisted we caught a taxi to her place at her expense! So after a ride in a lace doily clad taxi, complete with uniformed cabbie, we arrived in a narrow back street right in the centre of the city. Miss Tani Jr met us and paid for the cab. She then led us up a couple of flights of stairs to a room/appartment so small it was comical. It was all we needed though and surprisingly homely.

We dumped our gear and headed out on foot to tramp miles round the backstreets of Kyoto visiting several temples during the remainder of the day. We even spotted a couple of women dressed as Geishas, they'd probably paid a fair amount for the priviledge! Footsore we returned to our mini-pad to crash onto our futon.

The next morning we set off early to try and beat the crowds at the Golden Pavillion. Unfortunately everyone else had the same idea and the bus there was rammed with school kids and pensioners on their way there too!

After a quick tour of the Golden Pavillion we caught a bus and a train to the Fushimi Inari-Taisha temple. This was one of the most impressive we saw. Its paths are lined for about four kilometres with bright orange Torii arches. They're packed so close in places they almost block out the light!

For dinner we went to a local sushi train restaurant which was excellent. Anna's not so keen on raw fish though so she had to settle for the smoked duck which was pretty good! Tired out from all the walking we crashed early again!


Japan - Osaka

Our first stop in Japan was Osaka. After an overnight flight from Singapore we arrived worn out at the city described as the 'Manchester' of Japan. Not as big as Tokyo but still impressive. We caught a local train to near our hostel in an allegedly homeless area of the city. In all fairness though we only saw a few on the street and I think they were only hanging round waiting for the Christian aid centre to open up.

After catching a few zees we navigated quite easily the underground system to the Namba district to search for food. The Rough guide recommended this as a popular area and it certainly was on a murky Saturday afternoon. The streets were overflowing with people, plenty of them dressed up like it was Halloween already!

We found a little Okonomiyaki restaurant which didn't look too busy or too pricey and after a bit of pointing at the menu we got our cabbage pizzas cooked on a griddle in the middle of our table. Later, we did a bit of exploring and found a 100 yen shop near our hotel where we picked up supplies for dinner.

The next day we were up early to see the Castle. One of the most visited tourist sites in Japan, harshly said because there is not a lot else to do in Osaka. Which we found not to be true! As it was raining our plans of visiting temples in the afternoon was scuppered so we headed to the fabulous Osaka aquarium.

We spent several hours meandering from the top round the spiral descent past tanks that span several floors on the outer side and the inner main tank of over 4 floors! The main tank was incredible. There were all manner of sharks and rays swimming about in it, including a pair of gigantic whale sharks, hammerhead sharks, manta rays to name just a few. It really was a great way to spend a rainy afternoon.

That evening we headed to a 'food theme park'. An entire building on Dotonbori street has been renovated to resemble traditional Osakan street stalls and restaurants. Each serves one or two styles of Osakan cuisine such as okonomiyaki (cabbage pizza), tako yaki (squid balls), gyoza (mini fried pasties) and potato karoka (fried mash).

With empty wallets we headed back to the hotel to get ready to head to Kyoto the next day.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

Cambodia - Siem Reap & Angkor Archaeological Park

Our alarm went off at 3am on Sunday morning. We both had bad food hangovers from the excesses of Old Airport Road hawker centre. We had made the mistake of letting my old colleague Jason and his fiance Suzanne order for us!  By 8.30am we were eating breakfast in our hotel in Siem Reap having been picked up by Mr Han and his trusty tuk-tuk. 

Our guide Mr Now arrived around 9am to escort us round the 'Old Market' which is a real local market complete with live fish, chickens with heads and feet attached, veggies galor and a wide variety of smells ranging from nice to extremely nasty! Having bought a souvenir or two almost our first of the entire trip, we were taken to 'Artisans of Angkor' an organisation dedicated to improving rural Cambodians' quality of life though arts and crafts. 

We were shown round the apprentice workshops where villagers are trained to create high quality items to sell in the attached gift shop and other stores across the country. Normally we'd give gift shops a wide berth but the items on offer were really quite nice and we ended up parting with more cash than we intended!

After a spot of lunch we had to retire to the coolness of our room to catch up on some sleep before heading out to the Angkor Archaeological Park (AAP) to pick up our passes and check out the sunset from Phnom Bakeng. We joined the hoard to climb up to the top of this crumbling temple to try to snap a shot of Angkor Wat and its surrounds as the sun set in the distance. The earlier rains had left some reslient clouds though so the colours weren't quite what we'd hoped for. It was still good to get an idea of the geography of the area we would explore in more detail on the following day.

Once the sun had dropped below the horizon it got dark rapidly and without a torch the climb down was a little daunting to say the least. We met up with Mr Han again at the bottom to ferry us back into Siem Reap. We decided to check out the night market which is billed as being aimed at tourists and it lived up to its reputation. The quality and prices were higher than the Old Market but we still bought a few trinkets and early Christmas pressies!

We had another early start the next morning to beat the crowds to Ta Prohm. We left the hotel by 6am and were following Angelina Jolie's (Tomb Raider was filmed here) footsteps through the decaying temple complex before too long. We had the place almost to ourselves, we only saw three other tourists the whole time we were there. The jungle is trying to reclaim lost land and seeing trees growing out of the temple ruins really is awesome.

We headed back to the hotel for breakfast while the crowds were on their way to Angkor Wat. By the time we'd finished and headed there ourselves the crowd had thinned significantly and although it wasn't as quiet as Ta Prohm we only had one Korean tour group to contend with. Mr Now kept up a constant stream of information that to be honest I'm struggling to remember already. Lots of stories of Vishnu and King Suryavarman II, there were so many it was hard to keep up. We were joined by some trainee tour guides too who kept things entertaining though. 

After several hours of wandering around in the heat we were ready for a break and some lunch. So we stopped at a rest area overlooking Bayon. Here we watched as the tourists swarmed out to head back to their hotels and the town for lunch as we munched our packed lunches. By noon the place was deserted and we almost had the place to ourselves again.

Bayon was superb the towers were all covered by faces on each side. We had a lot of fun taking daft pics before moving on to Bauphon and then other parts of Angkor Thom whose names I forget, except for the Terrace of the Leper King, which I thought was a cool name...

By now we were hot and tired so we headed back to the hotel for a well earned drink and rest before the evening entertainment of an Apsara show started. Apsara are the celestial nymphs depicted all over the Angkor area in carvings and statues, all are topless but for modern modesty the real ones we saw dancing were fully clothed...

We really enjoyed our stay in Siem Reap although we only wish we'd had longer to explore even more of it.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Malaysia - Perhentian Islands

From Adelaide we flew to Singapore for a wild weekend with old friends there. On the Sunday night we caught the train from across the causeway in Johor Baru to Wakaf Baru (the nearest station to Kota Baru) in North East Malaysia. The sleeper carriage we were in was a bit like a huge travelling dormitory with bunk beds running down each side of the aisle in the middle. As people got on and off at each stop through the night we didn't get a great deal of sleep even with our trusty earplugs and eye masks on.

We arrived in Wakaf Baru around 8.30 on Monday morning and although all the guide books and travel guides suggest this is the best place to catch a taxi to Kuala Besut there was in fact only one waiting. So after a fair amount of haggling and a good deal of silence as both sides tried for a win-win situation, we hopped in the rusty bucket of a cab for the hour long trip to KB. On the way the cabbie had to stop for oil and petrol just in case. The fake leathery plastic seats and no aircon made it a very sweaty experience even so early in the morning and with all the windows wound down.

The cabbie stuck to back roads and tracks so we didn't see any sign posts for KB until only a few kms out. This always makes me nervous and stupid thoughts of jungle robbery spring to mind! But he got us to the jetty in one piece and before long we boarded the big speedboat filled with other travellers. We were almost the last people off so we got a good tour of the islands while the boat dropped others at accommodation ranging from very basic to five stars.

We'd decided to stop at Long Beach on Perhentian Kecil (pronounced per-hen-t-ian ke-chill not perhenshian kesil as we first tried) the small island. We figured as most places were closing for the end of the season (monsoon season is on the way) we stood a better chance of finding somewhere still open. We ended up at Mohsin Chalets which were up on the hill overlooking the beach. They were clean enough and had power between 6.30pm and 7.30am so the fan worked while we were asleep! The room did have 24 hour water though which was a real selling point as a lot of places didn't.

We spent the rest of the first day relaxing and eating lots of tasty Malay food. The next two days we went on snorkelling tours round the two islands (Kecil and Besar, small and big). We enjoyed it so much the first day we had to do it again the next. Both days we saw at least 3 or 4 different green turtles, more than ten black tipped reef sharks and tons of other tropical fishes including clown fish (nemos) by the bucket load. On the second day we even got a chance to see the turtle sanctuary and saw some just hatched baby turtles which was magic. Both evenings we ate at restaurants on the beach serving fresh barbecued fish and other goodies.

On the boat back to Kuala Besut we met an Australian couple going back to Kota Baru too so we shared a cab with them to the city, and spent the afternoon with them (mainly eating and drinking) before we all caught the night train back to Singapore.


Friday, October 17, 2008

Australia - South Australia

After the long drive along the Great Ocean road we briefly stopped in Mount Gambier for a night. We stayed at the Old Jail hostel, where we slept in an old cell turned into a double room. We had to double check we wouldn't be locked in when we shut the door! It has got a lot of potential as a hostel but is in need of some serious TLC.

We were up exceptionally early the following morning to get to Adelaide before midday. We were staying with our friends James and Emma in their new house in a lovely suburb there.After a quick tour of the house and garden we all headed out for Sunday lunch and some wine tasting in the Maclaren Vale region a short drive away. Thankfully Emma drove us home so we got to sample tons of tasty tipples and even ended up purchasing a fortified shiraz that was too good to refuse!

We spent the next few days,
our last in Oz, chilling out and preparing to leave. We still managed to squeeze in a trip to the excellent Cleland Wildlife Park, a tour of the market followed by a picnic in the park and a nice lunch with Linda (one of Anna's relatives). All of these were packed in around a lot of playing with James' toys; the Wii and pool table were real time wasters! And lots of fun.

Our time in Adelaide disappeared way too quickly and before we knew it we had to pack our backpacks and head off to catch our flight to Singapore.