My mental state during my last 10 days in Japan is hard to describe. I had suddenly booked a flight back to the United States so I knew this was it – the end of my trip abroad, the big trip I’d dreamt about, worked towards, and lived for for most of my recent past – and that affected my experience in a couple different ways. On one hand, I knew I had to go out well, finish strong with adventures in cities and nature, and stay true to how I had lived for the past year. On the other hand, I was distracted. Soon I would be reunited with some of the most important people in my life back in the country I called home. My mind constantly wandered to how I would carry out surprising my friends in Arizona and what food I would stock in my parents’ kitchen in Vermont. But I still had the island of Kyushu to explore so I pushed those thoughts to the back of my mind and forged forward. I wasn’t done just yet.
Two days after I made the decision to go Stateside I flew from Tokyo to Fukuoka, the largest city on Kyushu. First brought to my attention by my train companions in India, all I really knew was that it was the birthplace of tonkotsu ramen, which I was supposed to eat near a river, and a good launching point for nearby excursions. At first Fukuoka seemed to me like a big personality-less city. Sure there were a few pretty temples, as always, but for the most part it seemed to me like a city of sterile streets lined with nondescript buildings. I didn’t have an immediate connection with it. But as I continued exploring the city grew on me. It was more relaxed than its neighbors to the northeast but still had enough things to do.
Looking back, the parts of my visit that stand out in my mind are a stroll through Ohori Park and a leisurely rainy day at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. Also the yatai, I can’t leave out the yatai.
Ohori Park is on the outskirts of the tourist center of Fukuoka, which is actually a very walkable 20 minutes. When I went I expected to find a lawn to sit and read in, but when I arrived I discovered there was a lot more to this park. I entered at the site of the Fukuoka Castle Ruins. All that’s left of the castle is the stone foundations but in and around them is more parkland, quirky trees, the end of the cherry blossoms, and a fantastic view of the city. Well worth a stroll. I continued to the lake, which is actually huge and a hub of activity. On the path surrounding it people were jogging, pushing strollers, doing calisthenics, or simply passing the time on park benches. In the center of the lake there is a strip of land connected by a few picturesque arching bridges. It was a lovely walk with water on either side and places to stop and contemplate the scene. I chose a bench on the far side, after walking the center island, to sit down and read for a bit. It is so nice that Fukuoka has a large, welcoming park so easily accessible.
The day I went to the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum it was raining. Luckily Fukuoka has some good covered options for rainy days – the underground mall in Tenjin is right next to this small museum. Located on the 7th floor of an office building FAAM could be hard to find, but it would be a shame to miss it. It is just a few galleries housing rotating exhibitions but it only features contemporary Asian artists. Two of the galleries are free and one is a small charge (I stuck to the free ones, Japan was brutal on a budget traveler). The first exhibit was all quilts. I did not expect such a traditional medium to be on display at a modern art museum but I am happy it was. The quilts were modern patterns expertly executed and I found their placement in this gallery intriguing. Leave it to the Japanese to still consider quilts as part of the contemporary art scene.
The second exhibit though is what captivated me. A collection of contemporary artists from around Fukuoka, the paintings in this gallery made me pause, appreciate, and smile at their beauty, complexity, and talent. There were multiple pieces on display that I wish I could have taken with me. And in the most interesting twist of all, an artist was also in the gallery creating a new piece. I wondered when I walked into the room why there was music playing – a change from the typically silent museum experience that I thoroughly enjoyed – but when I turned the corner I discovered it was for the artist Miyamoto Daisuke who was right there, painting, adjacent to a work of his that was a part of the show. I must have sat on a bench for half an hour and watched him decide where to make quick calligraphic lines or blot on thick paint until it dripped, all in hot pink. I revisited the gallery before I left to see he had turned the canvas so what were previously drips were now strong horizontal lines and he had started to add yellow.
In between my sessions watching Daisuke I sipped on a mocha in the cafe overlooking the city. I wrote a little, read a little, and reflected on where I was and what I was doing. It was one of those quiet moments that I have enjoyed in cities across the world over the past year. It was 3:00 in the afternoon and there I was, after seeing a stunning exhibit, relaxing with a mocha, looking down at the bustling city and across at the tall office building housing floors of desks stacked like pancakes, scenes in which I used to belong, just another one of those people rushing through life, and now found myself detached from, a quiet observer happy to have liberated myself from all that came with the nine-to-five existence. I was content. I never wanted it to end. But I felt at peace with the decision to go back to the US, knowing full well that instead of rejoining the rat race I would continue to run the opposite direction, towards what I had no idea, and that was the point.
My final highlight of Fukuoka is probably what it is most known for: yatai. These small street stalls seat maybe seven guests and serve a variety of skewers, gyoza, seafood, and the famous tonkotsu ramen, which has a very rich broth made with pork bone. The first night I went to one of these alone, on a street by the fishing docks, but it was apparently still too cold; there were just three options instead of the typical back-to-back row of stalls and they had their walls up, making them into tiny dining rooms. I slurped my ramen in between two men chatting up the chef. If only I spoke Japanese; they were friendly dining companions with whom I would have loved to be able to communicate more. The second time (my last night in Japan) I was with two new friends at the location on the canal where there was a line of stalls. It was picturesque and busy. Both times I had the ramen and while it was a good treat it’s just too rich for me. But it’s a right of Fukuoka passage so I had to try it.
I departed Fukuoka pleased with my time there. What started as a potentially hard situation with my distracted mind and unsure feelings on the city ended as a relaxed urban experience attesting to the things I have realized I love most in cities around the world: parks and small galleries. I also had decided on, and booked, a plan of how I would spend my final days in Japan: Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Mount Aso, then back to Fukuoka to fly out. With a mixture of city, castle and volcano, it seemed to me like a good overview of Kyushu. And it was.
Our second day trip from Kyoto was to Nara.
Nara is known for two things: temples and deer. I’ll start with the deer. The deer in Nara are described as freely roaming in the town’s parks, which initially brought to mind images of dozens of Bambi’s happily coexisting with people and nature. But the first thing we saw when we got to Nara Park was a sign warning that the deer are wild animals and they may attack you in a variety of ways, such as kick, bite, knock down, or headbutt. Bambi would never headbutt me. Bambi also didn’t have stunted devil horns coming out of its head. These were a different breed of deer, more beast than Disney character. I also would not call their presence happily coexisting in nature as much as benefiting from tourists buying deer crackers to feed them. They actually stood in the way just hoping to get fed. It felt like a petting zoo we couldn’t escape.
The temples though were different. If they were not like I imagined it’s because I underestimated them. At first glance the Kofukuji Temple appeared as impressive as Ninna-ji in Kyoto had, with another five-story pagoda and one-story temple, but once we got entry into the Eastern Golden Hall and the neighboring National Treasure Museum it went beyond previous temple-going experiences. The Hall was filled with statues of Buddha and his allies and protectors. We were given a sheet in English that explained each figure’s importance, which I greatly appreciated. Inside the museum were more statues important to the temple, including the three-faced six-armed Ashura Statute, a highly important Buddhist sculpture in Japanese culture and history. It was spectacular. The entire collection was well worth seeing.
The Todaji Temple had the same result as the Kofukuji Temple. The approach, entry gate, and building at first seemed familiarly impressive, but once I stepped inside and saw the towering Buddha and his guards I was taken back. That was one big Buddha. The wooden sculptures, as well as the building interior, dwarfed everyone and seemed to assert their importance in their stature. Even with another large crowd, they were able to steal all the attention.
Our Nara day ended with a Japanese must-do: sake tasting. There is a neighborhood in Nara that was known for its merchants and still maintains an old school charm. We found it and one of the local shops that sells an abundance of alcohol, so we asked if it was possible to do a tasting there and sure enough it was. 3 big pours of sake for Y500 was a great deal and I learned that I like the most high quality one the best, of course. There’s no better way to wash down a full day of deer, parks, and temples than with some locally produced sake.
Everyone loves Kyoto. When I said I was coming to Japan so many people told me to just make sure I go to Kyoto, and Matt had heard the same. This earned it top billing on our mental list of places we would like to get to, and why we tried so hard to find somewhere to stay there after Tokyo and Lake Yamanaka and eventually just went for it from Hiroshima. So when we finally made it there imagine our surprise when both of us had an immediate negative reaction.
It’s freaking crowded. Tokyo is busy, but Kyoto felt congested. From the packed train station to the pedestrian-filled streets it was a game of dodge the people, not a fun task with our backpacks on. Then the ease of finding a good manga cafe that we had just experienced in Hiroshima didn’t exist in Kyoto, and after choosing one because we didn’t want to go back on those streets with our bags it took half an hour to even arrange where to store them until we checked in for our 12 hours at 9 pm. We ended up having to rent a karaoke room for them. The next day we left them in a hotel lobby that took pity on us, and the next in a locker at the train station.
We tried to regain our positivity as we ventured out to see the city. We had three days in Kyoto and allocated one each to our top priorities: 1) see the city center and Geisha district Gion; 2) temple hop; 3) walk through the bamboo forest.
As we wandered through the city center that first afternoon my impression of Kyoto was like a yo-yo, constantly fluctuating between liking the city and finding it overrated. We walked and shopped in the covered arcade, which I’ve now learned is the center of every city in Japan. They love these things. They are great on a rainy day, but they’re also just lined with stores, and when you’re traveling on a budget shopping can only entertain for so long. The one in Kyoto had a temple right off the main street, which was an interesting contrast to the commercialism surrounding it.
On our way to Gion we encountered a canal lined with full blossom sakura trees, which made for a lovely stroll one way, and then we had an equally lovely stroll back next to the big river, where Kyotans line the banks and enjoy a beverage as the daylight fades to dark (and well into dark too). Gion was again pretty to walk through at first, an area seemingly stuck in an age long ago, but then we realized it was just upscale restaurants. When we did return for dinner one night we had delicious shabu shabu (thank you Matt for the amazing early birthday dinner) and did actually catch a glimpse of a real Geisha, so in the end Gion came out on the positive side.
Temple day was fantastic and exhausting. We started big: Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion. It’s gorgeous. The gold leaf-covered building reflecting in the pond beneath it is a site to see, that is if you can see through all the people. Just like the rest of Kyoto, it was a tainted experience; to get a view of the pavilion required a lot of patience (or an aggressive move) to get to the front of a mass of tourists who only saw it through their electronic device screens. Have I become jaded? Maybe. I know at this point I like the less traveled locations, so when tourists overrun a place I can be easily peeved, and since Matt is the same way we probably just encouraged each other. I took a deep breath and refocused on the temple. That’s the reason we were there, and it was beautiful.
We moved on to Ryoan-ji, known for its rock garden, and enjoyed the serenity of the landscape. The garden was nice, but it was the lake and the plants surrounding it that captured our attention. Next up was Ninna-ji, a large complex that took way more time than expected but was a great display of the variety of temple architecture. We followed a raised wooden path through large and small pavilions within a sandscape on one side and a lush pond on the other, culminating in a shrine. We craned our necks up to marvel at the five-tiered pagoda. We peeked through a gate at the colorfully painted Kyusho-myojin. And we quickly walked past the other buildings once we realized we were starving. The only problem with these temples is part of the reason they’re so wonderful to explore: they’re far from the center of town.
Once satiated we had time for one more shrine in a different part of town, Fushimi Inari-taisha. The main draw of this shrine is the thousands of torii that line a path leading up and around Inari mountain. The seemingly infinite line of orange gates are stunning, and instead of letting the crowds get to us this time we turned the walk into a game of “try to get a picture alone before anyone else shows up.” We were actually pretty successful. It was a fun end to the day.
Our last day in Kyoto it rained. Bummer. Our plan had been to go to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, an outdoor day, and for a minute we hesitated, considering indoor options. But when the rain seemed to lighten we decided to go for it. The rain was not lighter where the forest was, it was in fact more constant, but there was no turning back. What started as a wet depressing walk turned into an awesome sight. Bamboo towered up above us on either side, thousands of stalks deep. It was like a fantasy land, and I didn’t care that I was soaked. It’s not like I could get any wetter. So I slowed down and took it all in, my final view of Kyoto’s allure.
In the end, Kyoto is a wonderful place. While the city itself may have overwhelmed at times, it has an undeniable beauty and importance in Japanese history. If I went back, which I think I should at some point, I would stay on the fringes of the center of town, but not quite outside it. Our last two nights we stayed in a hostel (which luckily had opened early for the busy season, which is why we were able to get a reservation and were among its first guests) outside the main part of the city and we felt stranded at night out there. I feel like Goldilocks who never found the perfect in between. Maybe next time Kyoto.
I had one more place I had to see in India before I could leave. Travelers around the world said I had to go to Hampi; even when I was debating just staying in Goa for my last few days, expats who loved Goa enough to make it their new home still told me I had to go to Hampi. So in a final push, despite my tired frustration with India transportation, I committed to going to Hampi.
Thank god I did.
Hampi was everything I’ve loved on this trip. It was beautiful, nature, history, architecture, new friends, middle of nowhere, motorbikes, sunrises and sunsets, effortless enjoyment, peaceful, an instant connection, and a hard place to leave.
I arrived as the sun was rising, sometime around 6 am, with a business card for a recommended guest house from a traveler in Hampi whose address was “On the Other Side of the River.” This is how everyone told me where I should stay: the other side of the river. But what side of the river had I been dropped off on? Was this the side or the other side?
After talking to one of the many rickshaw drivers who had swarmed the bus, I found out we were on the Other Side. So I set off with two new friends who I’d just met getting our luggage off the bus, Sam and Guy, to find Manju’s Place. We skeptically reached the end of the street and were directed to a small path cutting through a rice field. That way? That way. As soon as we decided to go for it I could have cared less whether or not the hostel was at the end of this route – it was – walking down this dirt path flanked by green rice plants as the sun was rising over hills made out of boulders was one of the best arrivals to anywhere I’ve been. It was a sign of what was to come.
Manju’s was the perfect place to stay. We each had our own little clay hut, complete with double bed and mosquito net, in a clearing surrounded by palm trees. The common spaces were two covered pavilions with cushions on the floor, welcoming lounging day and night. And every time I went anywhere I had two choices: walk through the rice field or along the river. There was no bad choice.
The river walk was our next discovery. After we checked in we went to find breakfast and chose to go this other route. We climbed down through trees and overgrown bushes so we couldn’t see what was up ahead, but when we popped out the other side we all gasped and laughed at the beauty of the scene in front of us. More mountains of boulders glowed in the dawn light, as did the tall Virupaksha temple and all of the ancient ruins across the river. I think this was the moment we all fell in love with Hampi.
Most of my three days in Hampi were spent ogling my surroundings. One day was dedicated to walking around the immediate area across the river, climbing up and around the scattered ruins, trying to imagine what this place was like in its heyday. We paused in our explorations to watch dozens of monkeys run around on the walls and temples. Even after months of monkeys and temples there was something different about this sight. I was mesmerized. We ended the day on the hill for sunset. Kids came by offering chai and lemon juice, and a group of about 50 gathered to play music. Apparently sunset is the big event of the day every day and I could see why: the view, the vibe, it was all perfect.
The second day started with sunrise again, back up on the rocks. This time it was just me and Sam watching the day begin. Then it was time for more temples further outside of Hampi town. We gave in and took a rickshaw, it was 41 degrees Celsius (that’s 105 Fahrenheit) and they were pretty far away. Our driver was stunned when we spent three hours at the first place, Vithala Temple. I was happily surprised by how amazed I was. Again, I’ve seen my fair share of temples lately, but something about this place was different. The amount of detail was incredible, the carvings ornate, delicate and sturdy at the same time, and the subterranean walk around the center was eerie and breathtaking. We roamed two more places – the Queen’s Bath and the Lotus Mahal – before returning to Manju’s exhausted, sweaty, and thoroughly satisfied. Everything we saw was beautiful and worth making it out to.
The third day was my third sunrise, this time at the river by myself. It was my last real morning in India (I would be on an overnight train that night on my way to my flight out of Delhi) and I wanted to give it the proper goodbye. Sometimes I do these solo sunrises and usually I find them peaceful, contemplative, rejuvenating. But this was India, and instead of the total clarity that I usually experience I was worried about the pack of stray dogs trying to get close to my perch, and then the two men wandering close by with no one else around. Couldn’t you just give me one moment of happy peace? Nope. So in some way I suppose it was a good end to India. It felt like it was time to leave.
But first I had one final day of adventuring in Hampi. Sam had rented a motorbike, so we jumped on and went in search of the lake people had mentioned. Turns out it’s a reservoir with a crocodile – swim at your own risk – so we just enjoyed a picnic on the shore. It was still pretty, like everything in Hampi. Riding around on the bike was a highlight in itself: we were on a road lined by palm trees winding through more rice fields with boulder mountain backgrounds. We drove behind a truck with tons of kids tirelessly waving to us. We almost got hit by a stubborn cow crossing the street. We stopped at a random hill with a temple and scampered up to the top, rewarded for our efforts with the most stunning view over the insane landscape that surrounds Hampi. It was the perfect last day.
Before I sum this up, I have to give a quick shout out to Sam. All the “we” in this post is because from the minute I got off the bus until I left town I hung out with Sam. It was like Sam and I had decided to come to Hampi together; you’d think we’d known each other forever with our exploring compatibility and easy conversation. He’ll always be connected to my time in Hampi and for that I’m very grateful. There have been people along the way (who I’ve mentioned here) who have had a lasting impression on me and I hope will be in my life forever, and Sam is one of those people. And since he lives just up north in Canada, I am not even a little bit worried about seeing him again. That’s inevitable.
Hampi was my favorite place in India. It was unlike anywhere else I’d been, but also so like places in other countries that I put at the top of my highlights list. It was small, removed, and the daily activities were wander around a gorgeous landscape, watch the sun rise and fall, and chill. It was exactly what I needed after two weeks of traveling around that insane country, but more importantly, exactly where I needed to be when I reached the end of my Round the World itinerary. I wrote my blog post marking that momentous occasion from my favorite cafe in town (the site of one breakfast, two lunches, and one dinner) on the afternoon of my last day, an hour before I left to catch my train. I don’t believe I could have written anything like that anywhere else. Hampi inspired me; it affected me in a way I want to thank it for.
Go to Hampi. Like everyone told me before, I’m telling you now, you have to go to Hampi. Then you can understand why you will be the next person telling the world to go to Hampi.
The array of buildings in Bagan is impressive, there’s no denying that. Looking out over the landscape dotted with thousands of temples, pagodas and stupas takes your breath away. To me, this is the best part of Bagan, seeing it from an elevated viewpoint. When it’s dawn and hot air balloons are floating quietly past it’s even better.
Let me rewind. I had three days in Bagan and think that was the perfect amount of time: Day 1 for biking around the Old Bagan area and all the most popular temples, Day 2 for sunrise and an afternoon boat trip on the Ayeyarwaddy River (which will have its own post), Day 3 for the southern circuit of temples and New Bagan. It’s impossible to recount every single temple I saw, so instead I’m going to try to describe the overall experience of exploring Bagan and let the pictures speak for the specifics.
I set out on my 1,000 kyat/day bike with a strong feeling of anticipation. This was one of the most important sites in Myanmar and one of the reasons I wanted to come here. As I cycled past the first brick buildings I became giddy; my day was dedicated to riding a bike around in summer weather through an Archaeological Zone surrounded by temples. This was a great way to spend a day.
I was also happy to be alone; if somewhere looked interesting I went there, or if a tour bus full of camera-wielding octogenarians pulled up I could get out as fast as my legs would pedal. That was the best part about exploring on a bicycle: I had the freedom to stop anywhere I wanted to and as much (or as little) as I wanted to.
The first building that caught my attention enough to pull over – Htilominlo Temple – was huge and intricately carved. It was a good example of how elaborate the buildings Bagan could be. I did a slow circle around the temple, soaking in the beauty of what I was standing in front of and the fact that I had made it there. A kind woman showed me the way to a neighboring ruin that I could climb for a view of the area, which was good for orienting myself, before she led me to her shop and tried to sell me things. This was my introduction to the other side of Bagan: peddlers. People are set up at every major temple asking if you want to buy their clothing, paintings, postcards, books, or jewelry. I heard this is a recent addition since tourism has grown and wonder what it would have been like to visit before, when your approach to the temple was quiet instead of “please just looking.” (This is an interesting approach that’s used in Myanmar – instead of “would you like to look at my stuff” they say “please just looking yes?” which is true but you can’t say that or they try to sell you more.)
I continued on, making my way down the main road to Old Bagan and pulling over to explore a number of temples, from small ones I didn’t know the names of to big ones highlighted in my guidebook. The big ones certainly were big – I could see them from across the land so approaching them was almost daunting – and some were white, which was a nice contrast to the rest of the mostly brick structures. Old Bagan was much smaller than I anticipated. I biked from end to end with a stop to look at the river in probably an hour, which was good because I needed lunch. I tried another round of chicken curry and decided that it’s just not my meal. But for 1,000 kyat I wasn’t complaining. And I do still enjoy the colorful variety of little side dishes it comes with.
The afternoon was more of the same, checking off the main attraction temples on my way down to the one I would watch sunset from. I avoided the most popular sunset temple – Shwesandaw Pagoda – so I didn’t have to fight hundreds of tourists for a view. I did stop there though to see what all the fuss was about and have to admit that the view is fantastic. The one I chose instead – Pyathada Pagoda – was probably second most popular, but thanks to a huge rectangular platform there was enough room for all of us. Sunset honestly was a bit disappointing; it was great to see the expanse temples, as always, but the sun did the same performance as in Mandalay, disappearing behind hazy cloud cover that denied us a colorful sky.
Dawn was not disappointing though, quite the opposite. I got up at 5 am and so did my dormmate, so we decided to take on the task of finding the recommended stupa for dawn – Buledi – in the dark together. We biked through the barely-lit streets wearing our headlamps. At one point we heard a strange loud sound and then saw fire shoot up into the sky; it was where the hot air balloons launched from, but with just the noise and fire in the dark morning it was kind of spooky. Once we found the stupa (the little lights of other people’s flashlights on top helped us out) we climbed to the top in the light of our lamps, claimed an east-facing spot, and waited.
I love how the sky slowly starts to light up for sunrise. It’s a hopeful time of day, filled with anticipation as the rising sun approaches and breaks through the horizon line. A misty layer made the tops of the temples appear like they were floating as the sky went from black to blue. Shortly after the sun was up, it was the hot air balloons’ turn. They added a magical element to the scene. Watching these orbs float by, some close enough to our stupa that we could wave to the passengers, with the temples as their backdrop was the highlight of my visit to Bagan. It was gorgeous.
My last day was focused on the less popular temples further south. From the beginning I could feel that I was less enthusiastic than I had been on my first biking day but told myself that would change once I got out there. My first temple was a quiet one; no one there but me and the nice man who, on his day off from the Archaeological Museum, gave little tours and sold his paintings. He was delightful, telling me about the design and history of the temple, clarifying what made it a temple (temples you can climb up and go in, pagodas you just go in, stupas you just go up), and answering any other questions I had, like the different positions of Buddha. I gave in and bought my first real souvenir from him: one of his paintings of the Mynamar zodiac, with months and days of the week. There’s something fascinating to me about this importance on the day of the week you were born, something that I learned more about Yangon that made me even happier to have this souvenir. More on that later.
I cycled on happy with how the day had started but quickly started to lose steam. The next temples were in Myinkaba Village, which made them feel a little congested, and on the road to New Bagan. I still explored but with a little less energy, eventually stopping for a mediocre tourist lunch in New Bagan. I pushed through the heat and the dust to make it to my final stops, listening to my iPod as I cycled around to help make the ride a bit more enjoyable. What saved this day was that most of the temples I was seeing were known for their murals instead of their size. It was a good change from just walking up, down and around ruins. These had preserved images inside, and they weren’t just a few scattered paintings but whole walls covered with intricate art.
By the time I made it back to Nyaung-U I was exhausted and all templed-out. I didn’t mind that my 6 pm bus to Inle Lake caused me to miss my final sunset. Even with a strong interest in architectural history, I don’t think I could have visited any more temples. At some point they all start to blend together. At one point I overheard a foreigner who, when being convinced to walk into another pagoda, sarcastically summed up how I felt by the end of the day: “Let me guess, there’s four sides, and each side has another Buddha.”
Even so, Bagan is spectacular. It entirely deserves the praise it gets and is a must-see for anyone going to Myanmar, even if you just make it for a day – as long as that day includes sunrise.
Luang Prabang is one of those cities that I instantly liked. It’s a small city with lots of character. French colonial architecture and traditional Lao temples peacefully, and picturesquely, coexist. Bakeries have delectable croissants, both regular and au chocolat, and markets have cheap Lao dishes. On the peninsula roads are orderly and sidewalks exist, but further south rocky roads wander through green forest. It’s the kind of city that doesn’t need time for attractions but for just living; where I could see spending days hanging out by the river, having coffee and croissants while people watching in town, or reading a book at the amazingly chill bar Utopia.
Again, I had two days in Luang Prabang, but with a day out of town and a day in town I felt like it was a good window into what this place has to offer. The mountainous landscape around Luang Prabang is known for its waterfalls, so the day we arrived we went straight to the best one: Kuang Si Falls. The light turquoise water didn’t look real, and the multi-level cascades were just too perfect. It was one of those jaw dropped at the beauty of it all moments. We hiked up to the top and looked out over the water and the land. Laos is pretty. Then we tried to go in and that didn’t last long. It was so cold! We found a patch of sun to stand in to try to get warm and dry.
That evening we discovered Utopia, an oasis bar with a view that made it onto Simo’s top bars list. A great place to enjoy some Beerlaos. We wandered the Night Market, which has to be one of the more impressive ones I’ve been to; they close down the main street for multiple blocks and venders are set up along and in the middle of the street, creating two lanes. Neither of us bought anything but it was fun to walk through. We stopped at an alleyway for dinner: 15,000 kip for a bowl that you could fill as much as you want with anything from the many dishes on a table. Our eyes were bigger than our stomachs but I was pleasantly surprised how good it was (and that we didn’t get sick). We ended the night with a sidewalk glass of wine, watching the activity on the street.
The next day I had to say goodbye to Simo. We had a final brunch at a restaurant overlooking the river and reflected on how great Laos had been. It worked out so well meeting up and traveling with Simo, and it was sad to say goodbye. It always is. But he lives in San Francisco, and we have some people in common, so I know I’ll see him again. And I’m sure when we do reunite all we will be able to do is talk about the awesome time we had together in Laos.
I spent the rest of the day wandering through the city. I went in every temple that didn’t cost money, hiked up and down the big hill in the center of town, and made it all the way out to the end of the peninsula to see the rivers meet. I also ran into the Israeli guys from the border again, we took a selfie, and Susan, the Dutch girl I met in New Zealand and saw again in Australia. The world is so small sometimes.
I left not feeling like I’d missed a lot in Luang Prabang. There are some waterfalls and things around town that I could have gone to but I wasn’t bothered to have skipped them. But I did leave feeling like I could spend more time just being there. This was also my last stop in Laos – that night I boarded the dreaded minibus for Chiang Mai – so I was a little sad about moving on. I honestly didn’t know what to expect with Laos before I went and I can say that I was pleasantly surprised by it. I had no idea it was such an active, beautiful place. Just like its neighbors, Laos is on the must-return-to-one-day list.
I may not have seen all that Bangkok has to offer tourists but the two things I did see I can definitely recommend.
First, the weekend market.
If you’re ever lucky enough to be in town on a weekend, go check out this massive market. We went on a Sunday expecting the usual market packed with touristy trinkets and knock-off electronics. We were stunned to see small stalls selling awesome clothes, shoes, accessories, and jewelry that were not only nice but reasonably priced. These cool items would’ve been a lot more expensive in the states. I wanted to buy so many things, especially a sick wolf ring that I am still kicking myself for not getting. Ben and Alex gave in to temptation by purchasing a few hilariously fantastic animal shirts. We did eventually wander our way into the more expected, less hipster side of the market and the cheap Thai food area. Pad Thai and a Thai iced tea please and thank you.
The only warning I would give about the weekend market (other than the fact that you’ll want to spend all your money) is that it is a serious trek to get out there. We managed to haggle down a tuktuk to 150 baht (50 pp) to go from Khao San Road, but getting back had to settle for 200. I’m not surprised they wanted more. We must have driven half an hour to get there, to the point where it felt like we weren’t even in Bangkok proper anymore and were worried the driver would take us down an alleyway and rob us. It didn’t help we had the shoddiest tuktuk and a burly driver. We made it safe and sound though.
Second, Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace.
This is the number 1 recommended thing to do in Bangkok, and rightfully so. The complex is culturally and architecturally stunning. It is also not cheap at 500 baht, and one of those moments I had to tell myself “in the States US$15 for something like this is a bargain.”
Wat Phra Kaew, aka the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, is an Asian art history student’s dream. The Three Spires are ornate pieces of architecture done in different styles: a seven-tiered Thai roof, a Khmer-style stepped roof, and a gilded stupa. These are accompanied by a huge model of Angkor Wat. Then there’s the boht, or Ordination Hall, that holds the Emerald Buddha, who is actually made out of jade. The hall again is incredibly decorated, including the most impressive interior I’ve ever seen in a temple, from the wall murals to the collection of statues topped by the tiny green Buddha in his seasonal gold dress. Pictures were not allowed inside, but if you look closely at my shot of the entrance you can see him glowing. I sat there for a long time trying to memorize what it looked like. I was impressed. There are many other important pieces around the Wat that grabbed my attention, such as the yakshis (mythical giants standing guard by the entry), the buildings decorated with porcelain, and the mural of the Ramayana on the wall that surrounds the compound. The whole thing is beautiful and deserves a slow wander.
The second part of this attraction is the Grand Palace. The main building here, the Chakri Mahaprasat (Grand Palace Hall), is an interesting mixture of architecture: Western on the bottom, Eastern on the top. That’s about as interesting as it gets though; tourists can’t go inside, with the exception of a small ground floor weapons museum that was missable.
I took my time walking around the complex, completing my exploration in about 2 hours. This was partly because I had time to kill before my bus later that afternoon and partly because it was so damn hot and I was hungover. So the only warning I would give about the Grand Palace is to not go hungover. It’s sweltering in there and filled with tour groups. People constantly stopped in front of the large fans just to feel some moving air. If you have a big night out (or few), do yourself a favor and save it for the next day. But still make sure you go at some point. It’s a gorgeous complex.
Battambang is the second largest city in Cambodia but somehow it doesn’t feel like it. The main part of town was manageable to walk around and the rest is easily accessible as long as you don’t mind a bumpy motorbike ride on uneven dirt roads.
When the boat was pulling up to Battambang I was shocked to see two dozen men on the sloped shore holding up signs for accommodation and tuktuks. “You need tuktuk? Anywhere in the city 50 cents!” “Need accommodation? So-and-so-hotel, best rooms, cheap!” I couldn’t help but laugh at the site and then walk straight past it. I had no accommodation but the map looked like I could walk to the few options in my Lonely Planet, which was right. It was no more than 10 minutes from the boat to the guesthouses. First one, full. Second, full. Shit. Do you have a recommendation? Try 333 around the corner. Dorms are full, but there’s a private available. How much? $4. Good enough.
My private room in 333 was not as luxurious as it sounds, nor as private. I had a roommate: a gecko. The bathroom had a shower head on the wall with just two options – on or off, no hot water here – and the toilet flushed by pouring water into it from the bucket sitting under a tap on the floor. It smelled awful. The hard bed had an old fleece blanket with an unfamiliar cartoon on it for warmth, which was pretty unnecessary given the constant heat in Battambang. I opted to sleep in my sleep-sack with the fan pointed directly at me. I did have a TV! A generous 10-inch TV from the 80’s. I managed to find some English channels so I got all caught up on The Voice and Pirates of the Caribbean 3 (they really went downhill after 1).
I had two days in Battambang between the social days of Siem Reap and seeing my sister in Thailand so I wanted to spend these alone. Meeting people traveling is great, but I sometimes miss the alone time that I expected to have so much of when I decided to travel alone for so long. This was one of those times I made sure to get in some me time. Except for the 8 hours I spent with a 60-year-old Cambodian man. That kind of break in alone time though is exactly what I like when I take days in towns by myself like this.
My first morning in Battambang I was on my way to find food when a man on a motorbike pulled up asking if I wanted a driver for the day. $10. I said I was going to rent my own bike, I did actually want to get out and see the temples around the city that day, but he had some good points about gas and potential for the bike to break and he was also a guide. When I said I needed food first he said he would take me somewhere to eat, then we’d go. Alright sir I was convinced.
Great decision. I had a fantastic day with Sokoma. He was more of a guide than I ever would have expected. As we drove around he pointed out typical Cambodian architecture – house on stilts for the floods, many windows around the one floor above, the underneath serving as a living space in the dry season – and showed me things that were not just the main highlights. He took me to Cambodia’s only vineyard for some wine, brandy, grape juice, and ginger juice tasting (it wasn’t even 11 am yet; the wine was like fruit juice but the brandy was pretty strong); we stopped at a rice factory so I could see how rice kernels get separated from the plant; he told me all the crops that were growing from rice to peanuts and showed me how two kinds of plants close their leaves when you touch them; he pointed out chili’s growing on the side of the road; he stopped so I could try a fried cricket from a street-side stand (really really crunchy, not much flavor).
Along the way we talked about Cambodia: religion of the area and his own beliefs; how people lived and farmed outside of the city, with so little water around; the fact that they eat dog and apparently it is quite tasty, although I still couldn’t bring myself to try it; and most interestingly what it was like to live during the Khmer Rouge. He has seen decades of life in Cambodia and asked me if I wanted to know more. I did. It was a fascinating conversation that was unfortunately cut short by the spectacle of the bats, but I feel so lucky to have had it.
And of course he took me to the main sites: the Wat Banan temple, where I climbed up over 300 stairs to see what temples really look like when they’re not preserved like they are at Angkor Wat; the supposedly oldest temple in the area (whose name I completely forget); the Killing Caves, the site where thousands of Cambodians were murdered by being dropped into a cave; and above it the Phnom Sampeau temple complex, where I helped a monk practice his English. This is also where the bats made a mass exodus at dusk in search of food. We watched for 15 minutes then chased them down the road on the bike so I could see the groups of bats weaving their search patterns. Truly majestic, if a bit creepy. We also made a bonus stop because we had some extra time (apparently I move faster than most people he takes around) – a Buddhist shrine deep inside a cave, which I descended into alone. It was silent, dark, eerie, and only by the light of a flashlight could I see the giant reclining Buddha against the wall. I was proud of myself for making it there but the images of the robbery attempt just a day and a half before made me paranoid so I got out pretty quick. Not many people see this place though so again I felt lucky have had Sokoma as my guide.
We got back after dark and I felt like I had seen everything and way more than I set out to see. I thanked Sokoma. He was truly fantastic. Also don’t worry, I filmed pretty much the entire day on my GoPro. Watch out for the video in the next few months (tons of footage to edit).
The rest of my time in Battambang was pretty relaxed. I did a self-guided walking tour of the architectural history of the city based on a map by Khmer Architecture Tours. I sat at a cafe in the air conditioning blogging and backing up pictures. I had a final Cambodian meal at White Rose, the place Sokoma had taken me for breakfast, on a balcony overlooking the night activity on the street below. The next day I would leave at 8 am for a lengthy land trip down to the coast of Thailand.
I reflected on my time in Cambodia. I loved it. I felt sad to leave, there was so much more to see there. I knew I had to get to Thailand to meet up with friends but wished I had more time. It felt very different from leaving Vietnam, a place I knew I had missed things but felt okay with departing. I still haven’t ripped the Cambodia pages out of my guidebook just in case I end up back there. One day Cambodia, I’ll see you again.
I found what I was missing in Siem Reap. The magical mixture of history, culture, nightlife, and people made me fall in love with Cambodia, even if it was only my second location in that country. The days I spent in Siem Reap have made it to my “highlights of the trip” list.
Angkor Wat was one of the pillars of my trip and it deserved to be. The entire Angkor complex is one of the best places I’ve been. It’s a massive collection of temples that expands well beyond just Angkor Wat, the largest and most well-known. There are different opinions on how best to visit the temples, depending on order and time of day, but really any way you do it will you will be impressed. I was happy with how things worked out for my three days there (entry tickets are 1 day, 3 days or 1 week; I opted for the 3-day US$40 pass, which seemed to be the most popular one).
I started big: Angkor Wat at sunrise. I’d read to work my way up, save the best for last, but I decided instead to go big or go home. Plus I had met Ben the night before and we decided to share a tuktuk for the day, seriously helping reduce the cost of getting around. We were joined by hundreds of our closest friends (read: obnoxious tourists) to witness the spectacle of the sun rising behind the temple. Instead we got total cloud cover. It was still impressive to see the temple slowly reveal itself to us as the morning went from dark to light, but I was more distracted by all the people around us trying to get the perfect image on their iPads and selfie-stick-secured camera phones. We broke away from the crowd when we were sure the sun was up, even if we couldn’t see it, and and went into the temple.
This was the best part about getting to Angkor Wat for sunrise: the temple was nearly empty. We had two hours to wander around with just a handful of other people, leisurely exploring the different levels, taking tons of pictures, and ooing and awwing at the incredible level of detail of the carvings. The entirety of Angkor Wat is carved relief. There are walls of stories with thousands of figures at first intertwined and later perfectly organized. Ceilings, columns, platforms, walls – everything is decorated. It was extraordinary. The huge size of Angkor Wat also contributed to the sense of awe. After our initial 2 hours of exploring we took a much-needed breakfast break (surprisingly delicious pancakes, fruit and coffee right next to the temple) before going back in for another hour or so to finish the top level. At that point the tour groups had arrived and our peaceful time was over, but with just the one level left we weren’t too bothered. I was thrilled with my experience at Angkor Wat and the decision to start with this temple. The morning timing was perfect and something about getting the big one over-with let me relax about the rest of my time there.
As impressive as Angkor Wat was, I don’t think I could say it was my favorite. Academically I feel obliged to say that it was, but experientially Bayon and Ta Prohm were tied for favorite, perhaps with Bayon slightly in the lead.
Bayon is hard to describe. The reason it had such an impact was the experience of walking around. It is a towering temple with oversized stone faces all around. You circumambulate the temple on a narrow pathway that almost feels claustrophobic in between the stone walls. It is this dwarfed feeling that leads to the impressive nature of the experience of Bayon.
Ta Prohm was a totally difference experience that was impressive in its own right. This is known as the temple that nature has taken over. Massive trees claw over the edges of walls and grow out of piles of rubble. We wandered through parts where no one else was, feeling like we were discovering the temple for the first time. I could’ve wandered around in the quiet parts all day. I heard it was magical at sunrise when no one else was there; I believe it. It is eerie, it is man versus nature, it is fantastical.
There are tons of smaller temples in various states of preservation around Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat. The second day was mainly filled with these and I was happily surprised that I was still amazed by them even after seeing the big three on day 1. It’s hard to not feel wonder when walking down a narrow wooden path hovering over an expansive lake with barren trees and at the end finding a solo temple structure in a circular pond.
My highlight of day 2 has to be Banteay Srei. It was a long tuktuk ride to get there but totally worth it. The carvings were the most delicate, detailed, gorgeous reliefs I saw. Angkor Wat had impressive art but Banteay Srei was a different level of ornate. The small temple didn’t take long to walk around, so we walked the nature path back out, stopping at all the Points of View overlooking the landscape of Cambodia. It was beautiful.
It is hard to keep the energy up when seeing so many temples in a day, but I’m so glad I packed in as much as possible on the first two days. Day three was a highlight in a totally different way. Ben, Alex and I (more on them in the next post) had done two days of intense temple exploring but knew we had one more day left on our ticket, so we decided to experience Angkor Thom in an alternative way. We picked a corner of Angkor Thom that wasn’t one of the highlighted temples on the tourist map and took a tuktuk straight there. We were the only three people at this temple. We climbed to the top and each took an alcove. For the next hour and a half it was like I was the only person in this ancient site. I stared out at the scenery around me, I meditated, I reflected on my week. It was perfect. When the temple was closing it was time to go, and we all left relaxed and happy to have had some quiet time in such a remarkable place.
I can’t say enough how incredible the temples at Angkor are, and I even if I never stopped this blog post it would not do them justice. You just have to go. These temples are monumental feats of architecture, important in art, history, and culture. But apart from that, I couldn’t help but be amazed at one thing: we were allowed to climb all over them. At one point a policeman even took us climbing over rubble and up onto a wall so we could get the best view (for a small tip of course). There are no rails next to huge drops, uneven stone steps, some places are still under construction, and no place is made tourist-friendly. I appreciated it, but also wondered at it. At one place Ben and I wandered into a hallway that was being held up by wooden posts. I felt like we shouldn’t be there so we turned around. Sure enough after leaving we saw a sign on the other side: dangerous area. Oops. But oh well, it’s Cambodia, so Safety Third.