Category Archives: General

Signing off – five lessons I’ve learned about travel over the past six months

So, this is it. After 168 days, 56 different places and 11 countries, our time away is finally coming to an end. Today we leave Kuala Lumpur for dear old Blighty. This is my last blog here and rather than focus on any one particular experience, I wanted to share a few thoughts on what I’ve learned about travel since we left London back in January. They’re perhaps not revelatory, but they’ve certainly helped in framing my experience. Hopefully, they might just push a few of you over the edge into deciding that a hefty holiday is for you. Hope you’ve enjoyed the blog and thanks for reading. Continue reading

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Myanmar/Burma 101 – travel info June/July 2012

Myanmar, or Burma as Aung San Suu Kyi still dares to call it, is changing. Fast. This country is at last beginning to open up, with NLD offices apparent in every town we’ve passed through in our three weeks here, not to mention a willingness to openly talk about The Lady herself. Hell, we even drove past the airport the day she returned to Yangon from her European tour and the streets were lined with flag-waving supporters.

For all that, Myanmar remains desperately poor and is lagging way behind the rest of South East Asia. Yangon’s streets are filthy and its people seem abandoned by a regime that’s moved lock, stock and barrel to the fantasy capital Nay Pyi Taw, a couple of hundred miles north.

In the six months since the most recent Lonely Planet Myanmar guide was published, it seems much has changed on the ground for tourists too. So, I thought I’d provide a quick snapshot of what to expect if you’re planning a trip here in the coming weeks. Doubtless, much of this will change as the pace of opening up to the wider world continues, but hopefully it’ll be of some assistance if your Myanmar jaunt is imminent.
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Sapa – how Vietnam’s trekking hotspot has become a byword for unsustainable tourism

The fog clung hard to the hills as we made our way out of Lao Cai and towards Sapa, Northern Vietnam’s prime destination for those after hilly treks and tribal encounters. Having not managed to reach this town and its surrounding villages on my last visit to Vietnam nine years ago, I was excited and intrigued to take in the views and see how the people dealt with an endless influx of tourists.

It became clear very quickly that the answer to the last question would be both complex and leave me with a sour taste in my mouth. Both about how this area has been affected by the hundreds of tourists who take the overnight train here from Hanoi every day and the agencies which arrange these trips. As our bus made its first stop, it was surrounded by local women, dressed in a mix of ethnic headgear and counterfeit sportswear. They smiled as they shouted, “Looking, shopping,” at the tired and bewildered batch of foreigners on board.

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The Z20 from Xian to Beijing West

Incessant tinny Tannoy announcements and the nagging nip of toy dogs at the nearby airport shop suggested we’d made a terrible mistake. Guilin airport, and China’s domestic flying scene, were and are a total nightmare. When Paul Theroux eulogised the joys of Chinese train travel in Riding The Iron Rooster, I thought he was perhaps overindulging his never ending distaste for flying. In fact, he was spot on. Taking short hops across this vast country is an awkward nightmare of expensive transfers, tedious waits and inflight food that would make a pet dog heave.

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Japan’s over packaging obsession

With a beaming smile, the girl at the checkout expertly wrapped my doughnut in grease proof paper, slipped it into a paper bag, taped it precisely and placed the neat package in a fresh carrier bag. Aside from my shameful doughnut habit, rising to a Homer Simpson-esque five-a-day at the midpoint of our Japan trip, this was indicative of a particularly bad habit that dogs shops throughout the land of the rising sun. Namely, endless over packaging.

 

Every single shop we’ve bought something in over the past four weeks has insisted on handing us the goods, whether it’s a single apple or a ¥50 biro, in dainty bags that always, without fail, wind up being shoved in the bin. For a nation so (rightly) obsessed with separating rubbish and ensuring recyclable bottles, cans and papers are separated from combustible trash, this strikes me as utterly bizarre. Carrier bags might be reusable, but more often than not end up in bins. They’re just about the most unenvironmentally friendly object consumers get their hands on.

Most amusingly of all, paper shopping bags from clothes stores are almost all covered in thick waterproof plastic when it rains, utterly negating the point of handing out recyclable paper bags in the first place. The times we’ve said we’re ok to go without a carrier we’ve been met with bemused looks. Asking our Japanese and expat friends about this, they’ve told us this just doesn’t happen.

As a confirmed (and admittedly tedious) eco-bore, I’m amazed by this approach. Moan as I do about supermarket shoppers back home using endless carrier bags, bags for life and totes are always in abundance whenever you pick up a pint of milk at Sainsburys.

But it’s not just bags. A KitKat comes in a cardboard box, with three bars inside, each wrapped in thick, hard to open plastic. Every single vegetable or fruit at a supermarket is tightly packed in unrecyclable cellophane, whether it’s a single apple or a hefty radish. Marks and Spencer’s insistence on putting its over washed and too-perfect groceries in needless packaging has nothing on this

It’s hard to understand just why Japan insists on such standards. Perhaps using so many bags is simply down to a wish to provide helpful service that makes consumers feel valued, while wrapping up produce is aimed at protecting from disease, a distinctly Japanese concern. Either way, surely such an unenvironmentally friendly approach is unsustainable.

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Japan’s Muzak obsession

Buying over-packaged apples to the strains of The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows is not something I ever imagined I’d find myself doing on a cold Monday evening in Kyoto. And yet at the beginning of last week I found myself walking the aisles of a 24-hour Fresco while that particular psychedelic number and a whole host of other Beatles tunes blared out over the store’s speaker system.

The thing is though, this kind of aural stimulation isn’t that unusual in Japan. Or rather, any kind of aural stimulation isn’t unusual in Japan. This is a country seemingly incapable of being anywhere without a soundtrack.

While supermarkets tend to prefer proper tunes (as well as the Fab Four we’ve been treated to Whole Lotta Love and Radiohead’s High and Dry while out grocery shopping), Muzak is the order of the day everywhere else. And I really do mean everywhere. Elevators in department stores, hotel lobbies, street corners, even a floor polishing machine at Shin Kobe station. You name it, whether it’s a xylophone interpretation of every track from Dusty in Memphis or a pan-pipe rendition of the Titanic theme tune, there’s a Muzak version of something for any occasion and every location.

It feels as if there’s an overriding need to provide something to listen to while in an urban environment. Something to mask the general hubbub and roar of traffic. Osaka and Kyoto are the worst offenders. The most unsuspecting of streets in both of these cities are the homes of some truly mind-numbing tunes.

As far as I can make out, this plays largely into a major dichotomy surrounding Japan. When it wants to do quiet and contemplative, few places on Earth can match it. Nowhere allows you to stop and think like hill-top shrines and hidden temples. But when it wants to do urban and brash, it appears Japan has to go the whole hog. Nowhere in town feels sacred, thanks largely to Muzak and music.

Still, hearing Mother Nature’s Son, one of my favourite Beatles tunes, while pondering whether to pay 600 yen for a punnet of strawberries is perhaps my most left field highlight of the trip so far. But with one week left here, I certainly wouldn’t complain if the speakers pumping out Muzak on Japanese city streets fell silent, even for just a few minutes.

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Japan, smoking and endless laundry

Endless laundry has quickly become the biggest bane of life on the road. No sooner have you drip dried seven pairs of boxer shorts, the time has once again come around to start praying that the next place you’re staying has proper washing facilities. It’s that or moving into the dangerous world of underwear recycling. And just 13 days in, it’s way too early for me to consider that.

But what’s made laundry particularly difficult here in Japan is smoking. Prior to fags being banned indoors in the UK, I never really regarded myself as a militant anti-smoker. But I’ve somehow become one of the crushing bores who coughs meekly every time someone nearby sparks up.

Here, it’s a real issue. Walking in the street, ciggy in hand, is banned in many parts of Tokyo and Kyoto. But duck into almost every bar or restaurant and there are at least two people smoking.

A smell which is now pretty much alien to me in indoor public spaces back home has come to dominate everything we do. At one restaurant in Hakone last week, a diner at the same table as us lit up while we ate, then proceeded to dock his tab when his food arrived, before lighting up the stub for a post-meal drag. Of course, I could have said something, but being British I went for the traditional passive aggressive approach and just moaned to Keeley instead.

Japan is seemingly in love with smoking. 40 per cent of the population are addicted and cigarettes are freely available for around £4 for twenty from street corner vending machines, half of the cost in the UK. Cigarette advertising, something that died out years ago in Britain, is still prevalant on Japanese billboards.

That such a healthy nation still allows smoking inside surprises me no end, especially as most European countries and many parts of the US took steps to outlaw it years ago. But more pressingly (and selfishly) right now, my clothes reek as if I have a 40-a-day habit. So if you’ll excuse me, I need to nip to the local laundromat and scrub my sorry clobber clean.

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Best burger in Japan – the search begins

Despite (or perhaps because of) our recent dabbling at the more extreme end of Japanese cuisine, Keeley and I have begun the search for Tokyo’s (and Japan’s) best burger. Ably abetted by our good friends James, Joe and Tom, over in Japan for a holiday, we have spent the past few days traipsing the streets of one of the world’s biggest cities in search of the kind of sustenance only a slab of ground meat in a bap can provide.

Initially, the results were disappointing. Having pumped 300 yen into a web connected PC in a Ginza department store and checked out Time Out’s authoritative Tokyo burger round up, as well as Metropolis’s wide-ranging guide, we set out for Burger 5, a small joint near Ginza station.

Address and map in hand, we struck out. And promptly got lost. Having gabbled a request for directions at staff manning a department store entrance, we were pointed in the right direction by a bridal suite manager, fetched to help thanks to his impressive English. Two hours after we’d scanned the web, we arrived at our destination. Only to be given ‘X factor arms’ by a restaurant proprietor, signalling Burger 5 was no more. Hungry and deflated, we postponed the search.

The next day, however, yielded impressive results. Having taken the Keio line out to Kichijoji to visit the Ghibli Museum, we stumbled across Village Vanguard. An American-themed burger bar, cranking out Beatles hits, it was the perfect find. Not mentioned in any Tokyo burger round-ups, this was a place worth missing breakfast for. Avocado burgers the size of a human head, chili dog burgers to overwhelm even the biggest of meat fanatics and stacks of US craft beers to guzzle on. At 1100 yen a burger, Village Vanguard was a steal too.

But by no means is the search over. We might have left Tokyo for a few weeks, but we’ll be hounding out more meat treats in Osaka and Hiroshima, before returning to the capital and seeing if we can find a place that serves up a burger better than Village Vanguard. Wherever that is, it has a lot to live up to.

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Deep-fried frog and other Japanese delicacies

My Japanese is, quite frankly, appalling. I can manage hello and thank you, but beyond that I’m a mass of confusion when confronted with signs at subway stations or speed-talking waiters. Thankfully, my girlfriend Keeley went to the trouble of doing a language exchange with a Japanese student in London last year. Ordering coffee and asking where the nearest (heated) toilet is doesn’t faze her.

But even her impressive attempts at the local language left her stumped when we went to Hambe, a basement restaurant near Ueno station, where the menus were all in Kanji. We were taken there by Mizuki, Kee’s language exchange friend who’s now moved back to Tokyo. It was his choice and was an absolute winner.

We’d been told to expect ‘Japanese pub food’. What we got was an incredible time-warp feast. See, Hambe’s menu is themed on post-war Japan, its walls bedecked in classic original ads and posters from the 50s. Having given Mizuki cart blanche to order whatever took his fancy, we were treated to an array of bizarre and delicious dishes. I’ll admit I was stumped when the corned beef arrived, but was fully on board when what we believe to be deep-fried sparrow landed on the table. By the time the crunchy frog (pictured above with me pre-eating) was served, I realised this was a culinary experience we could never have had had Keeley not made the effort with the language while I blithely flicked through guide books.

This wasn’t just off kilter cuisine though. Mizuki also ordered Taka-Yaki, deep-fried octopus balls from Hiroshima, as well as Yakitori, grilled meat from Osaka, as well as cardamom infused monja cabbage. This was all washed down with a strong plum liquor on the rocks and plentiful glasses of Japanese beer. 

What did Hambe teach me? I really need to give the Japanese phrase book buried in my bag more attention. And that eating frogs whole is a beautiful thing.

 

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Onsen, or how I learned to stop worrying and get naked

 I’ve never been one for tearing off my clobber in public. Call me British, call me old fashioned, but I just prefer to leave some things to the imagination when it comes to swimming in open spaces or preparing to get sweaty in a steam room. Besides, I can count the number of chest hairs I have on one hand and despite repeated, pathetic attempts to bulk up, have the same skinny frame I had at the age of 18.

Naturally, being this het up was going to be of no use when we made our first visit to an Onsen, a Japanese hot bath. There’s no keeping on your ‘beach nicks’ to preserve your modesty in these small, local spas. Everything is left to hang out so your body feels the benefit of the piping hot natural water.

Keeley and I headed for the Jakotsu-yu Onsen, hidden down a back alley in the Akusaka district of Tokyo. Having slipped our shoes in a locker at the entrance and stumped up ¥450 each to get in, we went our separate ways: Keeley to have a long soak with the ladies of Tokyo, me to stretch my legs in hot water with the city’s salarymen.

Having shoved most of my clothes in a locker, I tentatively shed my boxers and made for the water. Despite being the only gaijin no one paid the least bit of attention to me. Frankly, why should they? They’d seen it all before and couldn’t care less. Lesson in getting over prancing around naked done, I slipped into the 45 degree ‘electric bath’, scolded my feet and felt current surge through my finger tips. This was not quite the chilled out experience I had in mind.

Fortunately, Jakotsu-yu Onsen has two sublime outdoor baths that don’t give you shocks every time you slide into the water. A steaming one at a delightful 42 degrees, as well as an icy plunge pool for boosting circulation. Having soothed myself in these alternately for half an hour, stifling my gasps as I slipped my toes in the plunge pool, I made for the wash area, where Tokyo’s workers were rinsing themselves clean after a hard day at the office.

Clothes safely back on, I headed for the exit, Japan teaching me another vital lesson: no one cares if you strip off (in the right place, of course). Hopefully this will stand me in good stead for next week’s trip to the Onsen of Hakone.

 

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