Japan Part 4 – Hiroshima and Osaka

We picked another AirBnB apartment for our two nights in Hiroshima, and it was right in the center of town and near the tourist attractions! Our apartment was on the top (ninth) floor and has a balcony with a view of the river. The apartment also included two bikes, so we got to explore at our own pace instead of having to catch a subway or bus. After we settled in, we rode our bikes to one of the most famous historic castles in the area. Like many cities in Japan, basically all the “historical” buildings we saw were reproductions, rebuilt after the war.

The atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima just over seventy years ago, so the city has certainly had time to rebuild. Just walking around and viewing the city, it’s hard to believe that this is where so much death and destruction took place. The only remnant of the horrible atrocities that occurred is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. Originally an exhibition hall, this building was the only structure that remained somewhat intact within 1000 meters of the hypocenter (nerdy aside: the difference between hypocenter and epicenter is the vertical axis. The atomic bomb actually exploded 600 meters above the surface of the ground, so this point in the air is the hypocenter. The epicenter would be the point on the ground directly below the hypocenter). It was left standing during the rebuilding process to serve as a memorial of the bombing and a symbol for peace.

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The bomb detonated almost directly overhead this building. Everything else nearby was obliterated.

Hiroshima Castle looks like a five story pagoda from the outside with the upturned roofs on each story. It was built back in the 1590s by a conquering feudal lord, only to be lost 19 years later to another shogun who held it for 250 years, until all shoguns were “retired” in 1867 by the emperor. The castle had the usual museum stuff such as area history, along with cool samurai weapons, armor, and even a replication of a samurai’s rooms, complete with furniture! We also got to try on kimono and armor, and the top floor had some good views of the city.

We stopped by the nearby Pokémon Center (because that’s the first building you look for whenever you travel to a new town, duh!) and then went to a beer festival that happened to be going on while we were there. The festival was quite small compared to some we’ve been to, but it was fun to walk around and look at the different beer offerings from so many different countries!

Afterward, we got some breakfast and dinner (meat and salad) from the grocery store on the ground floor of our apartment. Back in Thailand, it was cheaper and faster to go out for meals, but in Japan we decided to make our own dinners every once in a while. We couldn’t pass up making the avocado salads that we had gone without having for so long! We slept well on an American style mattress, although it felt authentic because it was on the floor without a frame.

The next day, we decided to explore the museums and peace memorials. We mostly read testimonials and heard eye witness accounts, saw personal items like clothing, and heard some heart breaking poems. There were pieces of buildings embedded with exploded glass, and a wall imprinted with the shadow of a person who was instantly incinerated. The museum did a very good job at making the losses of the atomic bomb seem very personal – the museum was entirely about a short history of Hiroshima leading up to the bombing, the bombing itself, and the immediate aftermath. No politics whatsoever except to explain that the U.S. and Japan were on opposite sides during World War II.

The museum did a terribly good job at conveying how victims were affected. Obviously, thousands of lives were lost instantly as the air close to the hypocenter rose to thousands of degrees Fahrenheit. But many people suffered horribly burns – radiation or otherwise – and died after days or even weeks. Even those that survived with no apparent injuries contracted cancer as much as twelve years later. Every single unborn child that survived the bombing was born with severe mental deficiencies. Perhaps worst of all was that on the day of the bombing, there happened to be a large scale building demolitions project underway. Buildings were being intentionally destroyed to create firelines in case of conventional bombing; these building demolitions were to be done almost exclusively by children between the ages of twelve and thirteen.

Outside the museum, there were some uplifting monuments to look at. The Children’s Peace Monument was created in memory of children who died during the bombing. Paper cranes are sent to this monument from all over the world – the traditional belief is that if you fold one thousand paper cranes, your wish will come true. There was also a cenotaph, which contained the names of everyone who died that day. The Peace Flame was lit in 1965 and will not be extinguished until there are no longer any nuclear bombs on the planet.

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The cenotaph, with the Peace Memorial in the background. In between lies the Peace Flame.

We left the park to head to a garden – the Shukkei-en Garden. We just can’t get enough of the beautiful Japanese gardens! We got some snacks and drinks and sat on the edge of the pond, just watching the turtles, fish, and people!

Julia had read about a really good conveyor belt sushi restaurant in Hiroshima, so we biked over there for dinner. It was quite a long ride – over an hour – but the long ride would definitely be worth it. There was a long wait and nothing at all was in English, but as usual our Japanese hosts were happy to assist us! The nice thing about a long wait at a conveyor belt sushi restaurant is that you can just grab and eat the second you sit down! The sushi was really good here, and each plate was only 100 yen – that’s about $0.92!

The next morning, we packed up and left our apartment to make the journey to what would be our last port-of-call of our trip: Osaka! At this point we were both sad that our trip was coming to an end, but grateful that we wouldn’t have to carry our large suitcases and bags of souvenirs everywhere with us for much longer.

When we had our condo in Thailand, we had the luxury of leaving all of our possessions at the condo whenever we took short trips to the surrounding areas, bringing only a backpack each. But in Japan, we *each* carried a large rolling suitcase along with backpacks. We also had a large trash bag that was completely full with shoes and other items that could afford to bounce around a bit. To top it off, we had a large painting and wood carving that we had purchased in Thailand (around 40″ by 18″) wrapped in bubble wrap. Dragging all of this stuff around, jumping on and off of trains and subway cars, and rolling them to and from various apartments was beginning to take its toll on us!

Anyway, we got into Osaka and checked into yet another Airbnb apartment. We decided to go on a long walk heading north, towards the downtown area and cultural center of the city. After a while, and resisting the urge to check out one of the many seedy karaoke bars that we passed, we stumbled upon an area that we could only describe as “anime heaven”. We walked into a store and it was filled wall to wall of all types of merchandise relating to Japanese media – be it manga (comic books) or anime (cartoons). Just when we were thinking that we had never seen a store so large that was dedicated to anime and manga, we realized that there was an escalator. And it went up for four more floors.

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We honestly couldn’t believe just how much merchandise there was

There were tons of stores like this, but not all of them specialized in anime. There were at least five or six stores that specialized in trading card games (Magic, Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokemon, etc.), but my personal favorite was the video game store. This store wasn’t quite as large as the other stores in the area but it was completely full of retro video games and video game merchandise! We spent at least an hour in there just looking at things – Broc didn’t want to miss anything cool! The fact that Broc was able to escape without spending any money is a testament to his psychological will.

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Not pictured: Broc’s jaw, which was on the floor at the time

The next day, our first of three full days that we’d be in Osaka, we rented some bikes and set off to explore the city. Our first stop was at a restaurant that specialized in a make-your-own Takoyaki, a ball shaped snack invented in Osaka. We had seen similar snacks all over Japan and Southeast Asia at food trucks, but having them at this restaurant was another experience entirely!

We started by ordering what fillings we wanted in our Takoyaki – we settled on cheese, potatoes, shrimp, and onions – and then they brought what we needed to get started! We oiled up a device that was basically a cupcake tray suspended over a flame, and then poured the batter and whatever fillings we wanted into each crevice. As the batter cooked, we had to slowly rotate each ball so that it would get nice and round. The cooks at the food trucks made it look so easy, but it’s pretty difficult to rotate a soft ball of wheat with only some chopsticks! After they finished cooking, we enjoyed them with some dipping sauces…delicious!

After lunch, we wandered to a nearby area called Tennoji Park. There was an outdoor concert going on, so we sat down and watched for a little bit. It was pretty entertaining, though the band we were watching chose to sing Christmas songs (in May) for some reason. They sounded pretty good, though! After getting some ice cream and walking around yet another beautiful Japanese garden for a bit, we got back on the bikes and set off for Shitennō-ji Temple.

This temple was founded in 593 and was the first Buddhist temple ever built in Japan! Unfortunately, the main part of the temple was under construction when we went, so we couldn’t see any of it. However, some of the surrounding buildings were quite impressive to see!

It was starting to rain, so we decided to head back to the apartment…but not before stopping at yet another Pokémon center!

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Not even the largest Pikachu we saw in Japan

The next day, we decided to check out Expo City, a shopping plaza located at the site of the 1970 World’s Fair! We took a few local trains before getting on a monorail that took us right to the entrance. As we stepped out of the monorail, we were greeted with the sight of thousands and thousands of people – it was PACKED! It was a beautiful sunny day; everyone was glad to be outside after a few days of gloomy skies.

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There were tons of attractions, but of course we were immediately drawn to the Pokémon Expo Gym, which had just opened five months prior to our visit! We had trouble figuring out exactly what you were supposed to *do* at this place – the only pamphlets were in Japanese and the first few employees we talked to didn’t speak English well enough to explain it. Through all of the broken English and hand gestures, we eventually found that the main activities were watching short Pokémon movies (Japanese audio, no subtitles) and playing motion capture arcade games. The place was pretty clearly marketed towards young kids, but we weren’t gonna let that stop us! We bought enough credits to try out a few games and played around!

We played three games in all – a boxing game, a bowling game, and a “Subway Surfer” type of game where you try to avoid obstacles. They were pretty simplistic and didn’t have a lot of depth, but the motion capture actually worked pretty well and it was a lot of fun!

Having had our Pokémon fix for the day, we headed outside to see what the rest of Expo City had to offer. There was a building called “English Village” that had all sorts of classes and information about the English language. The receptionist for that building (who spoke fluent English) told us that Japan is trying to make a collective effort to speak better English. We wanted to walk around and explore in there but there was a charge just to walk in; we felt that we had a pretty good grasp of English already so we decided against it.

There were a few of other attractions – an IMAX theater, a museum focusing on “the beauty of creatures”, and a large shopping center – but they all had really long lines, and we really wanted to walk around the nearby Expo Commemoration Park. We grabbed some lunch and people watched for a while (always entertaining in Japan) and then walked towards the park. The first thing we saw was the Tower of the Sun, a 230 foot tower that was dedicated for the World’s Fair.

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One of the more unique buildings we’d ever seen

This park was also crowded with people, but the park was so large that it wasn’t hard to find a little breathing room! We had a great time just walking around and exploring the various trails.

On the far corner of the park, there was a Japanese garden with a traditional Japanese tea house. We had the tea house all to ourselves – it was a nice little break from all of the walking around we’d be doing that day!

We started making the long journey back towards our apartment, but decided to splurge on dinner and get some world famous Kobe steak. Luckily, the restaurant we found had seating for us at the bar immediately – we had read that you normally have to make reservations days in advance!

We had pretty high expectations for this meal. Everything we had ever read about Kobe steak was that it was the best meat you could ever eat. When I took my first bite, my initial feeling was sadness…because I knew that shortly, the meal would be over, and I would no longer be eating it. It really is that good. There are a few restaurants on the West coast that serve authentic Kobe steak – if you ever have an opportunity, I really can’t recommend it enough. It’s something that everyone should experience at least once. Luckily for us, this meal wasn’t too expensive for the quality we got – including drinks, we spent around seventy dollars!

On our last full day in Japan, we rented bikes again with our sights set on Osaka Castle. Overall in Japan, we had great experience riding bikes. Every city was set up very well, with bike lanes on every street including busy downtown areas. Bike rentals were very cheap – usually between five and ten bucks a day – and the bikes were very high quality! Between bikes, the train/subway system, buses, and taxis, it is very easy to get around any Japanese city without having to own your own vehicle! It’s also amazing how you can go from any subway stop in Japan to any other subway stop in the entire country without having to leave the rail system. I know it’s not even close to practical in the US…but wouldn’t that be nice?

Osaka Castle is surrounded by a moat (two moats, actually – an outer moat protecting the larger area and an inner moat protecting the castle itself), which is surrounded by a nice wide walkway along with some grassy areas. It was another beautiful day, so there were tons of people out enjoying the weather! There may have been some sort of event or gathering, because there were a lot of people camped out with picnic tables, barbecues, games – it actually seemed very American!

After wandering around for a while, we parked our bikes and walked up to the castle proper. The castle serves as a museum now, and nearby outside were tons of food trucks, and even some carnival games! We got some lunch and tried our hand at a game where you throw shuriken (ninja stars – with actual sharp metal tips) at targets to win some cheap plastic prizes.

The museum inside (no pics allowed 😦 )had some great exhibits detailing various battles and acts of succession that took place in and around Osaka Castle over the past centuries. There were also many actual samurai swords used at that time, including one inside a clear box that you could grab by the handle…cool! Heading up to the roof gave us some great views of the city, and then we were on our way.

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The golden fish in the foreground is meant to protect the castle from fire; Osaka Castle has burned down twice since it was originally built in the 16th century

The next place we wanted to see was the Umeda Sky Building, a 568 foot tall building with a “sky walkway” – an escalator with nothing below it but the ground hundreds of feet below. Julia was cool as a cucumber the whole time (of course), but I was pretty nervous going up the glass elevator and then going across the walkway. But, I survived the day and it turned out to be a great time! There were surprisingly few people at the observatory, so we had free reign to get any view we wanted.

We biked back towards our apartment and decided to go to Kura Sushi (the same chain that we went to in Hiroshima) to get some more delicious and cheap sushi. After dropping off our bikes, it was back to our apartment to get packed and ready to get on a plane back home!

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Reflections

Hello there! It’s been quite a while since we’ve updated our blog. We know most of our readers probably are already up-to-date with what we’ve been doing since we got back from our trip, but as this blog is as much for ourselves as it is for all of you, I’m going to post a quick update for posterity’s sake.

Julia had a job lined up before we even traveled back! We got back home on the evening of Friday May 6th, and Julia was off to work at Pierce College the very next Monday! I didn’t start my job search until after we got back, but on July 5th I started at ESI in Lacey.

It was surprisingly easy to fall back into the swing of things. We took Luna back home from my parents (thanks, guys!!!) and she was comfortably sleeping on our bed within an hour. It only took us a few days to get rid of our jet lag, and before we knew it we were back to “normal”!

As of this writing, it has been exactly 100 days since Julia and I landed back in America from our trip to Southeast Asia and Japan. We left America another 117 days before that. Having a regular routine has really made my perception of time pass much quicker than it did when we were traveling and experiencing so many new things every single day. It feels like it’s only been a month since we got back, and that we were in Thailand for an entire year.

I think about our trip almost every day, and the memories give me great joy, but also fill me with a sense of longing; I wish I could take a sabbatical from the real world every year, but it just isn’t feasible. As much fun as we had on our trip, and as much as we grew to cherish our friends that we did make, and as much as Chiang Mai felt like home…it isn’t truly home without our friends and family. If there was a way that we could bring everyone we love with us as we travel around the world, I would live that life in a heartbeat. But of course, that’s as much a fantasy as winning the lottery.

If I’m coming across as sad or depressed…well, I am, a little bit. But this trip was an amazing experience that I will never forget, and I’m happier and feel more fulfilled for having lived it. I know that we’ll go back someday – I just hope that day is sooner rather than later.

We still have a couple of blog posts that we started but never got around to finishing, so look for those in the next couple of weeks. There’s a post all about the Chiang Mai Zoo, the last post about our road trip, a post about our last two stops in Japan (Hiroshima and Osaka), and then I’ll probably write another post looking back on some of the best moments from the trip.

Until next time…

Mae Hong Son Loop – Mae Hong Son

 

Note: This is part two of our road trip through the Mae Hong Son Loop. We did the loop a couple months ago but are just now getting around to writing about it!

Our first stop on the way through the mountains to Mae Hong Son was a small, well lit cave with neat formations. The drive from the museum lobby up the steep mountain road to the actual cave entrance was short but fascinating. We drove on dirt roads past traditional style houses on stilts. Banana trees grew where there was space between aluminum roofs and laundry hung limp from ropes and balconies in the hot air. A few people waved happily, but the village seemed to be empty; most people must have been out in one of the many local fields, at school, or maybe in town. In fact we seemed to be the only tourists at this awesome but out of the way attraction. We saw many cool formations in the cave.  Here are some specimens, in their scientific Latin names*: white crystal broccoli, lava waves, sea anemones, Muppets, popcorn, etc. They didn’t allow actual cameras inside the cave, but our phones were able to take some pics without a flash. And of course on the way out we stopped to pet some friendly kitties!

*I can ‘t actually speak Latin or know any scientific rock formation names

 

Next, we stopped at Thai/Japanese friendship center in the town of Khun Yuam. The Japanese were stationed at this border town in WWII during the (failed) Burmese invasion. Because they were in no position to oppose Japan, Thailand managed to stay neutral in the war by conceding key resources such as railways and communication systems for Japanese use. According to the museum, the Japanese developed a great relationship with the locals here. There were some cool war artifacts and some insight into what life was like prewar and during the war, but I’ve heard conflicting stories about how friendly the two countries may have been at that time. In a neighboring town, for example, one sign near a bridge monument stated that the Japanese conscripted underpaid/unpaid local railway workers, of whom nearly one-third died! A little internet research revealed that at first, the Japanese were indeed able to pay the Thais for their help, but near the end many locals were forced to work-often to death. Now many call the route “The Skeleton Road”. Also, mass graves have been found with thousands of Japanese soldiers. Apparently, the Thai Karen hill tribe people formed a resistance or were unhappy with their work conditions**! Even though the Japanese were suppose to be our enemies, and provoked our involvement in a war my grandfather fought in, I got goosebumps reading about what the Japanese suffered in this town during their retreat.

**The Karen people who live in the mountains between Thailand and Myanmar have been fighting for autonomy since WWII, and we passed turnoffs to several refugee camps during our trip.

This account directly contradicts the museum sign, which stated the townsfolk were happy to accept well-paid work, and gladly sold or gave food to the soldiers stationed in their town. Hmmm… No matter the actual degree of friendliness at the time, the museum presented this horrible time in human history in a way that showed compassion and forgiveness.

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Broc and I arrived in Mae Hong Son just in time to find a bungalow and drive up to the village temple on the hill before it got dark. This was by far the most active town we’d seen: There were so many people running up the steep hill, and even a dance workout group in the park! Doi (Mountain) Kongmu was a great place to watch the sun set over the city. Two older women attempted to chat with us and we took some pics with them. For how many tourists visit Thailand, the locals never seem to tire of being friendly or taking pics with tourists! The smog slightly distorted our view of the mountains in the background, but the temples, or chedis, were nice to look at.

The family-run bungalow hotel was outside the tourist drinking area, (aka quiet at night), and had a nice garden. It’s a good thing we had a choice in rooms, because the bed in the first room had lizard or mice dirt on it! Although the “mattress” in the second room was closer to a plastic sheet covering some short springs, $14 was fair for no mice, a private bathroom, some quiet, and a garden in a nice neighborhood.

After dropping off our bags and catching the first half of the sunset on the hill, Broc and I found the small lake we first saw from above at Doi Kongmu, and snagged a bench in a pagoda at the end of a pier. As the sun set over the trees, large coy rippled the surface, catching bugs and popped rice thrown by a small boy on the shore. Swarms of swallows darted so close it was hard to concentrate on typing blog notes on my (windows) phone while holding a beer! The slightly improvised notes of “Fields of Gold” floated behind us as the lights of the nearby temple came on, illuminating the gold chedi roof. It was so nice we ended up leaving quite late to get dinner!

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We walked to a highly rated restaurant called Salween River, and it did not disappoint. The roof was made in the traditional style of folded leaves over bamboo, and the meals were actually reasonably priced for a place rated highly on a tourist website. We ordered an appetizer of popped rice (similar to what the fish were eating, but more flat like a tortilla chip), called Pappadom, with homemade salsa. I ordered the beef and pineapple curry, and Broc ordered the seasonal vegetable curry. Thai beef is sometimes risky on taste, but it happened to be flavorful and falling-apart-soft in the sauce.
The following morning, Broc ran to the top of Doi Kongmu! It was one mile of pure windy cliff to the top. He got some pictures of the sunrise while I jogged around the dog infested but less steep pastoral neighborhood. We are used to seeing houses jammed together in the city, or overgrown with jungle in the outskirts, but here the houses all had small flower gardens! When we were ready to check out, the husband and wife were gone, but we were able to pay the maid/gardener after she ran around the neighborhood getting change for our large bill! After our first choice for breakfast turned out to be abnormally expensive, we decided to eat at the same place as the night before-Salween!
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Our next destination was Pai, a small farm town that had recently become popular with tourists, yet still had a lot of charm. On the way, we stopped at Sutongpe Bridge, the longest bamboo bridge in Thailand! Even in the early morning it was already quite hot, but it was worth it to walk the whole bridge for the view and the wat at the end.
The bamboo bridge normally covers wet rice paddies and soy bean plants, but we were there in dry season, so we didn’t have to fear a wet swim if the bridge broke. (Earlier this year that’s exactly what some tourists got when the bamboo gave way! We also stopped at a human ferris wheel, one of the most dangerous inventions in Thailand, and the coolest cave we’ve ever been in, but those adventures will have to wait for the next episode!

Japan Part 3 – Kyoto and Onomichi

Our first day in Kyoto was a blast! This historic city is much smaller than Tokyo; 1.5 million compared to 13.4 million! While space is still a premium, the skyscrapers don’t block the light in the same way and you don’t feel as cramped on the sidewalk and inside buildings. We rented an Airbnb apartment, which has its own (very small) kitchen, bathtub with TV, and living room! Even if all the hotels hadn’t been booked already because of peak tourist/cherry blossom season, Airbnb is usually cheaper, and you get to experience the culture by living in somebody’s house or apartment! (Although the owner doesn’t live in this particular apartment-just rents it out.)

The perfect day: We slept well despite the thin foam “mattress”, made some eggs on toast, talked to our parents, then found the bike rental place on the first try! The 80 degree weather made for some perfect pictures of ancient temples juxtaposed behind beautiful new blossoms. On our way to our first destination, we just happened to stumble upon a place very dear to Broc’s heart…Nintendo’s world headquarters! Unfortunately, they don’t allow visitors of any kind, but it was still cool to think that all of Broc’s favorite childhood games were developed in this building!

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Attempts to call Shigeru Miyamoto down for an interview were unsuccessful

The bike shop gave us a great map, and we headed for the shrine featured in “Memoirs of a Geisha”, famous for its orange gateways. This tourist attraction was the first time we were in Japan where we felt overwhelmed by the amount of tourists. How inconsiderate of everyone coming at once to ruin our time! Once we passed the initial horde, we were able to get some decent pictures that weren’t completely packed with other people.

Our next stop was Rokuonji Temple, the “Golden Temple” of Kyoto. It was originally an aristocrat’s country home, built in the late 12th century and improved into an elegant estate with water gardens in 1397. It was converted into a Zen Buddhist temple in 1442.

Ryoanji Temple is most famous for its Zen rock garden, which is simply 15 polished rocks in a garden of raked smaller rocks. It is considered one of the finest surviving examples of “dry landscape”. There is also a small lake with bridges, which is so colorful this time of year. Around the lake were blossoming  wisteria, azalea, and plum trees. In the water, purple irises were at their peak and water lilies were just starting to come up. In the 11th century, the site was originally a country estate. It was converted to a Zen training temple in 1450, which is when the original rock garden was probably built. There was a war in 1499, and a large fire in 1779, so most of the temple buildings we see today were rebuilt several times. The tea house painted screens are from the 17th century, for example, and the current rock garden was built on top of the rubble from the fire. The unusual pattern on the garden walls results from the method of boiling the clay in oil, plus a few centuries of age and weather.

Our second day in Kyoto had a forecast for rain and wind, but we had the bikes for another day and we resolved to use them! We planned to cycle to the bamboo forest of Kyoto, which was about ten miles away. Half that distance was riding through the city, but the rest was a lovely cycling path that ran alongside a river. Because of the poor weather, we had the trail basically to ourselves! We had some great sights to see on the way to the forest.

The bamboo forest was very peaceful to walk through. Just being in this place felt so majestic and unique – it was well worth the long and wet bike ride.

We headed back into town, returned our bikes, and made a simple dinner in our apartment kitchen. Our next day was another travel day, this time to the island town of Onomichi! After three months of having most of our possessions in our condo in Chiang Mai, we’ve really gotten used to being nomadic in Japan! It’s exciting waking up in one city, traveling for a few hours, finding our new place, and exploring what we can of another town before falling asleep in a different city!

We got into Onomichi in the early afternoon, and it was just starting to rain lightly. Our guesthouse was just a bit too far to walk, and since we didn’t know exactly how to get there we opted for a taxi. We talked to a taxi driver and showed him the address and a screenshot of where it is on a map, but he seemed to not know where it was. After talking to another taxi driver, he beckoned for us to put our bags in his trunk and head over. After only a few minutes of driving, he pulled over on the side of the road. Confused, we got out of the car and he pointed straight up a hill saying “up there”. Carrying all of our heavy bags up all those steps, and not knowing exactly where the guesthouse was, seemed pretty daunting – but we didn’t have much of a choice! We hauled our heavy bags up the hundred or so steps and surveyed the scene.

With only an address and a vague sense of which direction to go, we came to a path that went three different directions. There was a map nearby, but only in Japanese. Some local women came up to us; they didn’t speak English but clearly wanted to help us. We showed them the address of the guesthouse and they pointed a direction, but couldn’t seem to decide which path to take. The rain was starting to come down a little harder, so Julia guarded our bags while I searched for the guesthouse. After a bit of trial and error, I was able to find the place – but nobody was there! I came back down to Julia, and we decided to try to find a phone to call our host, Aloe. There was a cafe right next to us, and they were gracious enough to let us use their phone. It turns out that Aloe was actually waiting for us at the train station! She never communicated this to us, but we were just glad that we wouldn’t have to wait too much longer. She met us at the cafe and actually bought us a cup of tea! We sat and chatted with her for a little while in simple English before heading up to the guesthouse.

The guesthouse was very simple, basically just one large room with an attached bathroom. We had the room to ourselves that night, but the next day was the first day of Golden week, and there would be nine total people sleeping there that night! After dropping off our bags, we asked Aloe for a recommendation of what to do that afternoon, and she told us that we could hike the rest of the way up the hill and see all of the surrounding temples, plus a great view of the city. With no other plans, it sounded like a great idea!

Onomichi is a very interesting city. There is one main boulevard that runs parallel to the train tracks, near the water, and there are plenty of houses and shops along that boulevard. However, the charm of the city lies on the hillside of Mount Senkoji. There are no roads that go up this hill, only footpaths – either steps or a simple slope – though we did see some mopeds parked outside houses. After being in big cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, it’s hard to imagine living such a simple life in Japan. Walking up and down an entire mountain just to go to the grocery store? Crazy!

After eventually making it up to the top of the mountain, there was a lot to see. The view of the beautiful port town was amazing, even though the weather was a little poor. Even if we didn’t always know exactly what it is we were looking at (90% of the signs were only in Japanese), we had a lot of fun!

We hiked back down the mountain and walked to the main shopping street, only to find that almost all of the shops were closed! It was too late for lunch, too early for dinner, and the non-food shops seemed to be taking a break before Golden Week started. We wandered around a bit to kill time before eating dinner at a delicious Italian pizza place, then headed back to the guesthouse to rest for our early morning.

The thing that attracted us to Onomichi in the first place was the Shimanami Kaido, a bicycle path that stretches seventy-five kilomters between Onomichi and the town of Imabari. The path goes over six different bridges connecting seven different islands! The main bike rental agency along the bike path has many different terminals, so you can rent from one location and return it at another. Our goal was to go the entire way in one day (almost fifty miles!) and take a bus back. The rental terminal at Onomichi opened at 7am, so we planned to get there early to make sure we got good bikes. We got there a full fifteen minutes before opening and found ourselves in a line behind fifty people already! Luckily, we were both able to get great bikes, and we were soon on our way! The very first part of our journey was to get on a ferry that took us across the waterway to the official start of Shimanami Kaido, and then we were off!

Armed with just our camera, water bottles, and some snacks, we followed the blue line that marks every meter of the path. Most of the path actually goes on the road alongside cars, but there were plenty of opportunities to ride on sidewalks or trails that run alongside the road, as well. The weather was a bit cloudy and windy, and I found myself regretting not bringing a coat – though cycling kept me warm enough! Our first several kilometers had us at a easy but steady pace of around six minutes per mile (I wore a GPS watch for the ride), which meant that riding the entire length at that pace would take about five hours (not including breaks, of course).

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View of the first bridge of the path, from Mukaishima to Innoshima

As we approached our first bridge, we also approached our first real test on the path: a long, steady hill. A sign at the base of the hill told us that it was an average five percent grade for about one and a half kilometers, so we downshifted and started pedaling up the hill! We got to the top without too much difficulty (it was still early in the day, after all), and found that the bike path was actually a level below where the cars drive across!

Please excuse the shakiness of this video – I was pedaling uphill with one hand at the time!

We biked back down to sea level (quite a nice reward after climbing the steep hill up to the bridge!), and headed back on the path. It was never hard to figure out where to go – even if the blue line wasn’t there, we were rarely far from other bikers making the same journey as us. There were plenty of bathrooms and convenience stores along the way, even though the full path from Onomichi to Imabari was not possible until the last bridge was completed in 1999! Our first extended stop was on the third of seven islands, at a restaurant that served gelato. But it was only 10:30 and we were still a little cold, so we got steamed dumplings instead!

The sun started coming out, Julia’s layers starting coming off, and our breaks started to get a little more frequent. We love to bike recreationally, but neither of us have ever biked close to this distance in a single day! Thankfully, there were still plenty of beautiful things to see to keep our minds occupied. We started seeing lots of large vegetable gardens, and lots of citrus plants! Many different kinds of lemon trees dotted the rest of our journey, and they created a heavenly smell in the air as we rode past them!

We finally approached the last bridge, which meant the end of our journey was near. But not as near as we thought – the last bridge was a whopping 6.4 kilometers long! This bridge was certainly the most magnificent of the six we crossed, though, with bicycle ramps leading up to it reminiscent of a Hot Wheels track.

We pedaled downhill into Imabari and the path ended somewhat anticlimactically, but we were done! Besides the feeling of accomplishment for conquering the trail, we loved all of the beautiful sights and riding along with fellow travelers! Even without considering the beautiful and unique city of Onomichi, the Shimanami Kaido is well worth a visit.

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Our final stats (and proof that we did it!)

Our bus back to Onomichi was completely full with other bikers, and it was nice and quiet since nearly everyone was asleep for most of the journey! We got back to town and went to dinner at a local place that served a dish called Okonomiyaki, which is basically stir fried cabbage, pork, and noodles served on top of a thin pancake and covered in sauce. It sounds weird, but it is amazing. The chef cooked it on a giant griddle in front of us (not unlike a Japanese Steakhouse in the States) and served it on a plate – the lucky couple to our left actually ate their meal with spatulas, straight off the griddle!

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Sounds so weird but tastes so good!

Our short time in Onomichi came to an end the next morning, and it was time for our next adventure. Next stop, Hiroshima!

Japan Part 2 – Tokyo and Mt. Fuji

One thing we really like to do to explore a new city is to rent bikes and cycle around, just looking at stuff. We asked Kenji where we could rent bikes, and he didn’t know of a place but he googled and found a place in a district called Asakusa, so we went there the next morning to try to find it. We walked all around where it was located on Google Maps and didn’t find it, but we decided to just walk around and explore instead. Asakusa is by a river so we walked along the riverfront, and came to an interesting sculpture. It’s shaped like a giant bowl, but on stilts so it’s above the ground, with holes large enough for you to stick your head through but nothing else. We got some pretty interesting pictures here!

From there we wandered around until we found ourselves quite suddenly in the middle of a large crowd of people. We happened to walk near a very large Buddhist temple, Senso-ji. It was quite the scene there! A group of six junior high school students came up to us and asked if they could practice their English. It’s funny how similar this experience was to something that happened in Thailand – right down to the questions they asked us! Judging by the conversations we’ve had with Japanese people on this subject, Japanese people feel that their grasp of English, as a country, is very poor. We definitely expected people to have better English skills, but in reality they are no better than anywhere in Southeast Asia!

Later, we went to the Shibuya district to check out the shopping district. Well, the main reason we went there is because we heard that the best MTG shop in Tokyo is here! “Mint Shibuya” seems like a great place to play – unfortunately, we wouldn’t be in Tokyo the next time they had an event! The coolest part about their store was that it was also a bar (serving MTG themed drinks), and the tables are two-layered glass tables. Put your food and drink on the top layer, and play with your cards on the bottom layer – no danger of spilling on your cards! We got dinner at a place called Mos Burger, which seems to be the Japanese equivalent of Five Guys. Delicious!

 

Later that night, Julia went to an onsen, a traditional Japanese hot spring bathing facility. I wasn’t really feeling up to that, so instead I went to a sake bar down the block. I was the only customer there, so the old couple that owned the place gave me the works! They filled my glass full to the brim of a delicious white rice wine and gave me appetizer after appetizer. Neither of them spoke very good English, but I was able to communicate to them that I am from Seattle (“Ichiro!” – many Japanese people know Seattle solely because Ichiro left Japanese baseball to play for the Mariners).

The next morning, we went to Ueno Park, and walked by a poster advertising an art exhibit at the nearby museum that happened to be starting that day – Ito Jakuchu, a Japanese artist from the 18th century. This exhibit, featuring his life’s work “Colorful Realm of Living Beings”, was really interesting and quite the contrast from all of the art from the Western world that we are used to seeing at museums! Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take pictures here, but below is one of my favorites from the exhibit.

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Just a taste of some of the artwork on display that we saw

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the park and people watching, then heading to a cat café (don’t judge us), before heading to a restaurant that was recommended to us by some Canadian tourists that we crossed paths with on a songtaew in Chiang Mai. We didn’t know much of what to expect other than that there was traditional Japanese folk music and tourists were rare here.

We walked in and sat down (on pillows on the floor – our table was just a foot off the ground) and ordered some drinks. The show didn’t start for another hour, so two of the performers came over to chat with us! They were incredibly friendly and spoke English fairly well – like everywhere in Japan, we felt right at home! Everyone that worked at this restaurant (“Oiwake”, for anyone who wants to visit, and we highly recommend it) worked both in the kitchen and on stage! Not only that, but most of the performers played multiple roles – singing, dancing, shamisen (the traditional Japanese guitar), and drums. The show was legitimately entertaining – not just in an “appreciating the arts” kind of way – but really good music! They had so much grace in the singing and dancing, but also played the shamisen with a fiery intensity, plucking the strings so hard that they would have to retune several times during the course of the song!

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Posing on stage with some of the performers after the show!

For our last full day in Tokyo, we decided to explore the area surrounding Kenji’s house. We really enjoy the street from the house to the metro but hadn’t really seen much besides that! Fortunately, a tourist book that Kenji owned had a list of the best walks in Tokyo, and our area was one of the featured walks! The first stop on this walk was the Yanaka cemetery, a magnificent graveyard that stretches for over twenty-five acres. This cemetery is known for it’s beautiful cherry blossoms, but we appear to have just missed the blooming season here!

 

The guidebook mentioned a lunch place where the owner just makes one dish a day (different every day), and serves it until it’s gone. It sounded really cool so we set out to find it – and had a lot of difficulty! The map wasn’t to scale and we looked everywhere near the little dot for the restaurant, with no luck. The address was listed, and with that we deduced the complex address system in Japan, finally finding the restaurant at the back end of the alley. This is the type of place that doesn’t get any foot traffic, and doesn’t even look like a restaurant from the outside! Who knows how places like this remain in business. Anyway, the food was delicious – the homemade bread in particular!

We got a little bit lost after lunch – the map not being to scale and construction being in the way both contributing to this – so we just wandered around for a while looking at the neighborhood. We stumbled upon a festival with lots of tents selling food, offering free samples, and even some carnival games! It turns out there was an azalea festival going on that week, and there were a LOT of people there – way too many for it to be an enjoyable experience! The garden looked beautiful, but people stopped so often to take pictures on the narrow path that it was basically a standstill trying to walk through everything! We took some pictures from afar and then headed back to the house to recharge.

All week, Kenji had expressed interest in going out to dinner with us, and of course we wanted to get to know him a little better! He was so busy with his day job that his first free day was our last night in Tokyo, on Saturday. He recommended a restaurant that had all sorts of food that we ate family style – our favorite was a plate of sliced avocado topped with tuna – we had gone so long without having avocado that we couldn’t resist one of our favorite foods!

We walked the short walk back home and stayed up for a couple hours talking about random topics – mostly learning about each other’s cultures. Kenji told us that he originally didn’t know too much about traditional Japanese culture until he started being an Airbnb host, but so many of his guests asked about it that he decided to become more knowledgeable about the subject! We asked Kenji what he likes to do when he isn’t working, and he said that he just really enjoys hosting! He only has one house with three rooms at the moment, but he attends conferences and meets with other hosts to learn more! It’s clear that hosting tourists is a real passion for Kenji, and we’re very lucky that we happened to stay with him in Tokyo!

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With Kenji at Yanaka House

We left early the next morning to get on a train to Mount Fuji. When I say “a train”, I really mean “several transfers, a bullet train, and then two more transfers”. Don’t get me wrong – it’s amazing that we’re able to take public transportation from Tokyo all the way to Mount Fuji, and I would love to be able to do that in America – but Julia and I each had a rolling suitcase, a backpack, and an additional bag (souvenirs and shoes, mostly) to carry! Thankfully, every metro station in Tokyo has plenty of escalators and elevators – we only encountered one subway station in our entire time in Japan that required us to use the stairs – so it was a lot less painful than it could have been. Other than carrying our bags with us, the journey was great! Riding on the bullet train was amazing – it goes so fast and rides so smooth!

We only had one night at Mount Fuji before we’d continue our journey to Kyoto, the western part of Japan. Unfortunately, when we arrived at Fujiyoshido (the town where we stayed that night), it was so cloudy that we couldn’t even see the mountain! Mount Fuji is nearly as tall as Mount Rainier, so this was quite the unlucky weather to have. We checked in to our Airbnb there, a traditional Japanese style house (complete with sliding thin wooden doors), and asked what we could do that afternoon. Our host told us of the Sengen-Jinja Shrine, that doesn’t have a view of Mount Fuji anyway, so we weren’t missing anything with the bad weather. Without anything else to do, we set off for the shrine!

Walking around the shrine felt almost like being back in the Pacific Northwest! We had gone so long without wearing jackets or long pants that walking around in the cold, damp fog actually felt pretty good! The less-than-ideal weather also meant that there were fewer tourists to interfere with our excursion.

We headed back to our place and chatted with some of the other tourists there. One of the nice things about the thin walls is that you can hear everyone talking during the day, so you can’t help but go and socialize. We didn’t pass up many opportunities to speak with native English speakers on this trip! Also, our host provided free tea, coffee, and snacks in the common area so there were always plenty of people to talk to. A very pleasant experience, even though we essentially slept on blankets on the floor!

After a homemade traditional breakfast from our host, we took an early train to a lake near the base of Mount Fuji to attend the Shibazakura festival, taking place for three weeks in late April / early May that celebrates the blooming of “Moss Phlox”, or pink moss. The weather was much more cooperative today, with nary a cloud in the sky to distort our view of beautiful Mount Fuji!

The festival area was great, but there wasn’t much to see after walking around for about forty-five minutes, so we found ourselves with some extra time in the town of Fujiyoshida. Luckily, there was another great shrine to visit. We walked all the way to the south edge of town and then (after getting lost a few times – we really took for granted having access to the internet in SEA) up a mountain (397 steps), and finally to the top of Chureito Pagoda!

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A beautiful way to end our trip to Fujiyoshida!

 

And with that, our journey in Northern Japan was over…up next, a three night stay in Kyoto!

Japan Part 1 – Tokyo

All along, our plan for our trip has been to visit Japan on our way back home…and now we’re here! We packed up our things, checked out of our condo in Chiang Mai that we called home for three months, flew to Bangkok, and got on a plane to Japan! Altogether, we’ll have spent seventeen days in Japan, with the first six of those days in Tokyo (everything else will be decided as we go along). Tokyo is a large city – over thirteen million people – and the last ten days of our seventeen day trip overlap with Japan’s “Golden Week”, where almost the entire country is on vacation for a series of national holidays. Because of this, we decided to use Airbnb to find places to stay instead of more expensive hotels. So far, it’s worked out very well, giving us very memorable experiences and allowing us to really connect with the Japanese way of living more than we might have otherwise!

Our first taste of Japanese hospitality came when Kenji, our host in Japan, accepted our reservation request on Airbnb. He sent us a detailed document with step-by-step directions – with pictures of every turn – on how to get to his house from the nearest train station! Getting to Nippori station was very easy, even as first-time users of the Tokyo Metro. There was only one time where we were momentarily confused – trying to figure out which track to wait for our last train – and two locals came up to us and asked if we needed help! After three months of relying on taxis and rented mopeds for all of our transportation, the Tokyo Metro has been a godsend. There are metro stations all over town, so you rarely have to walk for more than ten minutes from any station to get to where you want to go. The trains always arrive and depart on time, to the minute, and there are maps clearly showing you how to get to your destination. If you are ever confused, there are many employees (that speak great English) that always go above and beyond to help you figure out where you are going.

Kenji was waiting for us at his house when we arrived that evening, and he was quick to show us around. There are three bedrooms in the house (besides the one that Kenji sleeps in), and they are all quite “cozy”! We had grown accustomed to having lots of space at our Chiang Mai condo and any hotels we stayed in, but that sort of space would cost a fortune in Tokyo! We shared a bathroom with another room, though there was a second bathroom with a very nice shower/bath by the shared kitchen. This property (and many places in Japan, really) involved lots of ducking of heads and awkward shuffling around corners due to the lack of space. Not to sound like I’m complaining – we loved our time with Kenji, and we were happy to be living for so cheap in Tokyo!

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The neighborhood near our place in Tokyo

The next day, the sun was shining (and only seventy degrees instead of over a hundred!) so we decided to go to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. The main street that leads from our house to the metro seems to be a popular tourist attraction, and it’s chock-full of shops selling anything and everything related to cats! In Japan, feeding cats is considered good luck (you’ve probably seen the good luck cat statues before; they are ubiquitous here), and judging by the size of most of the cats we saw in Tokyo, the locals really take that belief to heart! On our way to the metro, we saw a traditional Japanese temple next to a graveyard and couldn’t help but walk that direction to explore a bit and take some pictures.

We got off the metro at Shinjuku Station and started walking towards the garden, and got our first real taste of the Japanese metropolis. We saw what we thought was a Japanese arcade (cool! we love video games!) but we walked in and quickly figured out that it was a slot machine and arcade gambling hall of some sort – we would later read that Pachinko is a popular “illegal but the cops look the other way” form of gambling in Tokyo, and Pachinko halls are everywhere.

In general, I’m a bit surprised how quickly I was able to acclimate back to a big city, as opposed to suffering a bit of “reverse culture shock”. I think that’s because even though Chiang Mai doesn’t have every modern luxury I might desire, we were still never far from cars, the internet, and other such comforts that we’ve grown accustomed to over our lives. In hindsight, Japan and Thailand are a lot more similar than I ever would have imagined. There are some major differences, like how much things cost (goodbye one dollar meals) and how to get around, but the similarities are more apparent. Everyone is incredibly helpful and nice (and most don’t speak English), there are beautiful religious monuments everywhere, and both countries are very connected to the internet. Whether in the middle of nowhere in Thailand or on a busy metro in Tokyo, if someone is idle, they are on their phone – surfing the web or watching a video.

Shinjuku Garden was created in 1772, with the current configuration finished in 1906. Like the rest of Tokyo, it was rebuilt after WWII. We got to the entrance of the garden and paid the modest entry fee (300 Japanese Yen, a little less than three dollars), and walked in to explore. I don’t want to mislead you with the word “garden” – this place is basically the Tokyo equivalent of New York City’s Central Park. It’s not quite as big, but it’s not exactly a quick stroll, either. Even though it was a Monday morning, the garden was busy with tourists and locals alike. The peak cherry blossom season was a few weeks prior, but we were still able to take some great photos.

Feeling hungry, we headed back to the city to get some food and saw a sign with a picture of some food that looked positively delicious. After heading downstairs and ordering from a machine, we confirmed that yes, cheese does in fact taste delicious – we had almost forgotten, it’s been so long!

Our next stop that day was to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Center, which we’d read had an observatory on the 45th floor that was free to visitors! Finding free entertainment is a rarity in a city like this, and after getting accustomed to spending so little in Southeast Asia, we enjoyed finding free entertainment that wasn’t simple walking around the city.

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On a clear day, it’s possible to see Mount Fuji from this point (spoiler alert, we got a better view of it several days later!)

We were starting to feel a bit tired from our day of walking around and just a little bit jet lagged (it’s a two hour time difference between Thailand and Japan), but we resolved to do one more thing on our first day in Japan – visit a Pokémon Center! Pokémon is one of our favorite games, and it was invented in Japan, so of course we had to visit a shop dedicated to it! There was one issue that hadn’t really affected us until that moment – we didn’t actually have sim cards in our phones. We imagined that we would have no issues getting wi-fi in Japan (I mean come on, they are really technologically advanced, right?), but Japan’s wi-fi access is actually worse than everywhere else we’ve been on this trip – including Myanmar and Cambodia, which are certified third world countries. We wandered around for quite a while, staring at our phones looking for an open wi-fi connection. We later learned that the best way to get free internet is to look for a corner store – 7-Eleven, Lawson, Family Mart – they all have free internet access. Anyway, we finally got internet access, made it to the Pokémon center, and nerded out for the better part of an hour!

The next day, we headed to Meiji Shrine, a relatively new shrine (only ninety years old) dedicated to Emperor Meiji, who oversaw Japan during the Japanese Industrial Revolution. Emperor Meiji ended the feudal shogun system and opened up Japan to the rest of the world. With so many rapid changes, it’s impressive how Japan was able to hold on to traditions and their unique culture. The Meiji shrine is really a smaller part of a large forest area that, similar to the Shinjuku Garden of the previous day, is very nice to walk through.

After lunch, we headed to the Imperial Palace of Tokyo, the primary residence for the Emperor of Japan. The Emperor of Japan is a bit like the Queen of England – no actual sovereign power; mostly a figurehead. But he is the only person on earth that has the actual title of “Emperor”, so that’s pretty cool! We found out later that to actually access the palace, you have to book a tour in advance, so we weren’t able to enter the palace. However, the palace grounds were very nice to walk around, and we were extremely lucky to get a glimpse of the emperor himself (though we didn’t know it at the time)!

Japan has been a lot of fun, and it’s so easy to explore, especially with how nice and helpful everyone is!

Patara Elephant Farm

Way back before we took our trip, one of the things that we told everyone we wanted to do was go to an elephant farm to take care of an elephant for a day. We wanted to ride elephants! We had read reviews and found that the elephant farms near Chiang Mai are very reputable – they don’t hurt their elephants or anything like that, which unfortunately does happen at elephant farms at other places around the world. Once we actually got here and did some more research into exactly what farm to visit, we ran into a little trouble. Most of the farms specifically said that they would not allow anyone to ride elephants, as it harms them! However, after digging a little more, we found that it only harms the elephants when someone rides on them with a wooden platform – these platforms are capable of carrying multiple people at once, and put a lot of stress on the poor elephants’ backs. So, we found a rescue farm that allows bareback riding, read all of the reviews very carefully, and booked our trip! Even though we booked at the end of February, we weren’t able to secure a spot until the week before we left Chiang Mai! These places are seriously busy!

The big day finally arrived, and we were picked up early in the morning by a driver who took us to the west side of Doi Suthep, about an hour from our condo. We got out and immediately saw some elephants waiting for us – including some babies! We had seen many elephants up close during our time in SEA up to that point, from feeding them at Chiang Mai Zoo, to watching people ride them in Cambodia, but watching them wander around with no chains was something different. They just looked so happy – the babies in particular! Between the wrinkles around their eyes, the slight upturn of their mouths, and the way they trotted around and rolled on the ground, they behaved more like puppies than any elephants we had ever seen! It was seeing them up close in this context that gave me the greatest appreciation for just how wondrous these creatures are. It’s actually surreal being so close to so many animals that are this big. And the way they move is so purposeful, calm, serene…it’s easy to see why so many cultures worship these magnificent beasts!

More and more other tourists started to arrive, but we all were given plenty of time to play with the elephants without direction. Once we all had our chance, they rounded us up and gave us a short introduction on the farm, and what we’d be doing that day. Wild elephants in Thailand are becoming incredibly rare, so farms like Patara help to increase the elephant population by rescuing elephants that are no longer needed for the teak logging industry, and by breeding those that are in captivity. They also rescue elephants from unhealthy living conditions such as circuses and begging. (Until recently, many elephants and their mahouts (life long handler) no longer needed for logging or farming were used on the street for begging!) Patara’s elephants can have between two and three babies every year – an impressive feat given that the birth cycle for elephants is about once every five years! Hopefully one day, wild elephants will be able to thrive again in SEA – and with the way the government seems to be cracking down on the ivory trade, that seems like a possibility!

We split up into three groups of eight and went to different parts of the farm. After a short hike up a hill, we were introduced to our elephants! My elephant was a young adult male named Champu (which means “pink”). Julia was lucky enough to get a mother and baby – Saiton (which means “sunshine”) and Jumbo! We were given a basket of food – sugar cane and bananas – and fed them. They would teach us many words that day; the first ones we learned were “Boan”, which we said when we wanted the elephants to lift their head and open their mouth, and “Dee dee” which is the equivalent of “Good boy/girl!”. It was important to bond with these creatures before attempting to ride. The elephants had quite the appetite – eating the bananas three or four at a time, peels and all!

After they ate, the elephants took turns drinking. There was only one hose at this part of the camp, so the elephants had to wait their turn – which they didn’t like doing! The elephants took a long time to drink. Each elephant seemed to have its own method for drinking. Some put the hose in their mouth, others filled up their trunks (while holding the hose with another part of their trunk – it’s very impressive how agile they are with those things) and then shot that water in their mouth. Still others used their trunks like a straw, and swallowed the water directly through their trunks.  If one elephant took more than four or five gulps in a row, the next elephant would just take the hose away and start drinking!

After everyone had fed their elephants, we sat back down and talked about the ways to make sure that your elephant is healthy. The first thing is to check their poop! This was actually not nearly as gross as we expected – elephants don’t digest their food for very long, so their poop doesn’t smell at all (believe me, we checked). If the poop does smell bad, or has anything other than green/yellow grass in it, it’s the sign of a problem. Besides the poop, there are three basic things to check to ensure a happy, healthy elephant. First, the elephant should be flapping its ears and wagging its tail. That means that the elephant is happy – if the ears and tail aren’t moving, the elephant could be lethargic or hostile for some reason. Second, the elephant should be dirty on both sides of its body. Elephants sleep by laying on one side, and switching sides every forty-five minutes – and they only sleep for four hours! If the elephant’s sides aren’t dirty, it means that they didn’t sleep or are having issues sleeping. Third, the elephant should have wet cheeks and toes. The wet cheeks are from tears – the elephant secretes lots of tears as long as it’s hydrated (like a dog’s nose). The wet toes are from sweat – the only sweat glands on an elephant are on its cuticles!

After we checked the health of our elephants, it was time to give them baths! (As a double check, all of the elephants had already been inspected, and one was taken off duty last minute because she was almost due! Elephants’ backs become very dirty, because the elephants will constantly throw dirt and grass on themselves to protect themselves from bloodsucking flies that lay eggs on their skin! In the wild, elephants will wash themselves, but Patara is a short ride away from the closest water source, so we get the fun task of washing them instead! Before we could ride them, we cleaned them off a little bit so that we wouldn’t slide down their muddy backs (or get dirty ourselves). The trainers gave the elephants a command to sit down on their hind legs, so that we could reach their backs. Grabbing large bunches of straw, we whacked our elephants to get the dirt and straw off. I was a bit worried at first at hitting Champu, even with something as light as straw, but I could tell he really enjoyed it – it’s like getting his back scratched!

With our elephants clean, we finally got to ride! There are a few ways to get on an elephant from ground level, and it seems to come down to personal preference for the elephant. Some bent their front leg like a ladder which lifted once the rider placed their right foot on it. Champu prefers to curl his trunk for his rider to step on, to climb up over his head! Saiton kneels her head way down on the ground, so Julia was able to slightly jump, then climb on her head directly! It was a bit tricky (and scary) to turn ourselves around once we were on the top of our elephants – the only thing we had to grasp was a single rope that went around the elephants’ bodies, and the elephants are tall enough that a fall would be quite painful!

We rode the elephants by sitting just behind their head, on the back of their necks. Our legs were bent, knees up around their neck, heels pressed into their shoulders. Pressing our feet forward would tell the elephant to move forward; pressing just the left foot would tell the elephant to turn right, and vice versa. Pressing both of our heels back would tell the elephant to stop or turn around. Each physical command was accompanied by a verbal command. The elephants were very responsive to all of these commands, but they seldom needed them – the elephants knew where to go. Even though they liked to poke their heads off the beaten path for a few meters, there was no chance that they would veer off in a completely different direction.

The path to the water source was steep and narrow – I never would thought an elephant capable of walking on this path, much less a whole pack of mounted elephants! But the elephants are very methodical and sure-footed, never faltering or slipping a single time. The walk to the water source took almost an hour, and actually became quite tiring towards the end. With our legs constantly flexed, my quads started shaking with fatigue. Walking up a steep hill meant gripping tighter and leaning forward on the elephant’s head, and walking downhill meant leaning way back and holding on to the rope behind us. But even with how tiring it was, riding Champu was simply magical. Walking through the forest path with little sound but the footsteps of our elephants (and the occasional trumpet blast from another elephant), just taking in the sights and sounds, and I couldn’t help but think every thirty seconds how cool is it that I’m riding a freakin’ elephant right now?

After the long ride, we were greeted with lunch! Listing out everything in the meal would rival a feast description from one of the Game of Thrones books, so I’ll just show a picture instead. It was way too much food, and we gave all of the leftovers (sans meat) to the elephants!

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We got to try a little bit of everything!

After lunch, we got to bathe our elephants! It’s hard to pick out the single best part of our day, but washing and playing with our elephants has to be a contender. Although the elephants are truly massive, they are so in control of their movements that we never felt worried, even when surrounded by elephants on all sides. The younger elephants would roll around in the water, and even the adults liked to play by shooting water at themselves and each other.

After their baths, it was time for one last short ride to the road where our shuttle awaited. We said goodbye to our elephants and felt sad that we had to leave after just having met them! This experience was truly once-in-a-lifetime – another guest said that even if they came to Thailand to only do this before flying back home (twenty+ hour travel time and all), it would be worth it. Thankfully, we did so much more on our trip to Southeast Asia! This excursion in particular is one that we will remember for the rest of our lives.

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I couldn’t *not* take a selfie from on top of an elephant, now could I?

Songkran Water Festival

When we initially planned our trip, we kept telling our friends and family that we would be back around late April or early May. The main reason for that is that we wanted to be in Chiang Mai for Songkran, the Thai New Year’s festival that occurs on April 13-15 (coinciding with the Buddhist astrological calendar). We didn’t know too much about it until the festival started, except that it is the world’s largest water fight, originating from a Buddhist water blessing, and that the entire city of Chiang Mai celebrates. In fact it’s the most important holiday in Thailand, and the celebration is best in Chiang Mai – people even travel here from Bangkok! Well, the three days of Songkran 2016 just ended and it was even wilder than we expected it to be.

Our celebration of Songkran actually started out very tame. We went to the Chiang Mai Zoo for the second time; we enjoyed our first trip so much and wanted to see some of the exhibits again, and they had some traditional Songkran celebrations going on. After walking around and seeing all of the exhibits we wanted to see (full blog post on the zoo coming soon, by the way), we sat down and had lunch while people played traditional Lanna folk music. It was a very calm and relaxing way to start the day…but that calm feeling wouldn’t last long!

We drove on our moped from our condo towards the Old City, the main part of town where the biggest celebrations are during the day. We had heard that parking (and driving in general) is quite difficult in the city during Songkran, but the owner of a spa that Julia became friends with allowed us to use her store as a home base! Our plan was to park there, then wander around the city for a while. But we didn’t realize how tough it would be just to get there!

We took the highway for part of the way to the Old City, but soon got off to take back roads the rest of the way with the intent of avoiding traffic. We soon got our first taste of Songkran in Chiang Mai – just as I noticed that one particular spot on the road was wet while everything else was dry, some locals came out with buckets full of water and emptied them on us while we were driving! It was over 105 degrees already, so although the impact of the water was shocking, it felt very nice! All along the route to the old city, locals were set up by their shop or home, ready to ambush people with buckets of water and squirt guns. Most people drive very slowly during Songkran – getting hit with a bucket of water while driving 30+ mph is quite dangerous. Thank goodness our helmets had visors that protected our eyes! The locals are always careful to not shoot people on mopeds that are driving too fast, and will even motion to them to slow down so that they can soak them. Many drivers are glad to oblige, even coming to a complete stop while they get a bucket of water poured directly down the back of their shirt!

Once we got closer to the Old City, traffic came to a basic standstill. Even with our moped having the ability to drive in between stopped cars, it took a long time to go even a small distance! It was at this point that we began to see how crazy Songkran is. Many of the cars in traffic were pickup trucks – the back full of people (usually at least 7 or 8) armed to the teeth with squirt guns and giant buckets full of water. And they don’t just have any regular old water – they have a giant barrel or trashcan full of water, complete with a huge block of ice to cool it down. Getting hit with warm water on a hot day feels nice. Getting hit with ice-cold water, no matter how hot it is, is quite the shock!

By the time we got to the spa and parked, we were completely soaked – we couldn’t have gotten more wet if we had jumped in a lake. Luckily, we had planned for this and bought some waterproof cases for our phones and money. The largest part of the celebration was by the canal that surrounds the Old City on all four sides. The obvious reason for this is that the canal is a constant supply of water for refilling buckets and squirt guns! We tried not to think of the bacteria in the canal water, but rather just concentrated on not swallowing any water that made it on our face. Thankfully though, there was a thunderstorm (!) just a few days prior, so the water wasn’t too bad at all, and we had heard a rumor that the city had chlorinated the canal because people get sick when it gets in their eyes and mouths. Arming ourselves with squirt guns that we had purchased at a market the previous day, we set out to explore the festival!

It’s impossible not to get completely wet while walking around the Old City during Songkran, so the game is to either splash/shoot people that aren’t expecting it so that you get a little shock value, or to instigate someone into attacking you (every time we started drying off and getting hot again, we’d shoot someone with ice water to cool us off). The holy grail is to find someone that isn’t wet yet and get them as wet as possible – bonus points if they are tourists foolish enough to think that they can avoid getting soaked! The unspoken rule about who *not* to shoot seems to include: monks, the very young and very old, merchants selling wares/food, people eating, and people visibly holding electronics that are not water-protected. But if any of the above people break the contract by shooting or even holding a gun, then they are fair game to shoot!

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These locals wore cupid costumes, complete with a squirt gun resembling a bow and arrow!

We made our way to Wat Phra Singh, the largest and most famous Buddhist temple of Chiang Mai. Today Songkran is mostly a cultural celebration – a way to cool off during the hottest part of the year and to call forth the rainy season of May – but it does seem to have religious aspects, as well. Inside the temple area, everyone was still very respectful – the squirt guns were holstered, and reverence reigned. We bought a small bottle of “rose water” – water mixed with rose petals, and followed the locals’ example by pouring it on the Buddha statue in the middle of the concourse. It was quite the change from the chaotic nature of the rest of the festival!

Walking around and getting buckets of water thrown on us for several hours was surprisingly tiring, so we escaped the Old City to the relative safety of the rest of Chiang Mai – though we definitely got splashed many times on our way back home!

The next day, we met up with Patrick, one of our friends we met playing Magic. He organized a driver with a pickup truck for us to drive around the city in! The three of us and four other friends drove to the city, and Julia and I were ready for a view of Songkran from a different perspective. The truck was loaded with eight different water guns, lots of buckets, and two giant plastic tubs for holding our water.

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Our mobile water artillery unit

One of the first differences we discovered is that although the truck gives us a great vantage point to find targets, and an easier way to carry our weapons, it also draws attention to us. A *lot* of attention! When we’re stuck in traffic and not moving, we have to be a little careful of who we shoot at – if our target is well armed, we’ll get soaked and unable to make a hasty getaway!

After a couple hours of driving around the city, refilling our water barrels quite often (with both water and giant blocks of ice), we drove outside the city for a small break from the hectic inner city festival. We stopped at a park with a waterfall, swings and lawn games that served beer – a great combination! We chatted for a bit, including about Thai politics, which was very interesting to us since Thai people usually do not like to talk about politics – or rather, they are unable to because it can be dangerous or illegal!

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Taking a break for beers during Songkran

After that, we headed up a mountain to see a view that Patrick said was very good. The way up was slow and windy, and even way out here there were lots of people just waiting to douse us with buckets of icy water! Sometimes our driver would slow way down so that they could really soak us, and sometimes the driver wouldn’t slow down and we’d get hit with a bucket of water while driving forty miles an hour. Ouch! At one point, I got hit in the face so hard that my sunglasses got knocked off and fell in the road! Luckily, the car right behind us didn’t run over them, and the guy that had thrown the water on me stopped the other cars from going any further so he could retrieve my glasses. Nice guy!

Before we got to the top of the mountain, we saw a place on the side of the road that had ziplines and a small roller coaster. The guys were in the back and the girls inside the cab at this point; the guys assumed we would keep going since we were almost at the top, but the girls had asked the driver to pull over! As we stop, the girls were jumping up and down saying “we wanna go on the roller coaster!”. It was nice to take a break from riding in the back of the truck, and it turned out to be a lot of fun! I was a little wary of getting on a roller coaster in the middle of the jungle in Thailand, but there were German instructions all over the equipment, which immediately made me feel a lot better! The cars were actually all separate from each other; we rode down one at a time. The cars even had their own handbrakes so that you could slow down if you got too scared! They wouldn’t let me record a video while I was on the coaster, but I found promotional video on Youtube that has some great unintentional comedy (and is also pretty cool at the same time).

We continued up the mountain and finally arrived at the top. We took just a few minutes to check out the view and take some pictures. We took some really corny pictures with another couple that went with us, they actually turned out not bad!

It took us a while to get back into the city, so it was almost dark by the time we got back! We played at water war for a bit longer, then stopped to get some street food. After that, we headed to a shopping plaza north of the city called Central Festival (which Julia and I had actually never been to before), to a place advertising a “foam party” with live music. Sounds great! Well, we got there, and the foam party was not quite what we expected…

But the rest of the party was crazy, though! There was a concert with a big stage and TONS of people in the crowd. There were platforms of people shooting water on the concertgoers, and giant sprinklers getting everyone wet around them. Even though we had just started to dry off from our long ride down from the mountain, Julia and I got completely soaked after being in there a few minutes. The songs were all in Thai, but everyone knew all the words and it was hard not to get excited!

Exhausted from our day of soaking and getting soaked, we headed back to our condo to rest. Songkran had another day of celebration, but we felt like we got our fill on the first two days already! We spent the last day of Songkran relaxing, starting to pack our bags, and going out to dinner with our Thai friends to celebrate Man’s birthday! Songkran was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that we planned our trip around, and we’re so glad we did!

Making Friends in Thailand

Anyone that knows Julia and me knows that we love to play Magic: the Gathering, a collectible card game where you try to reduce your opponent’s life total from twenty to zero by summoning fantastical creatures and powerful sorceries to do your bidding. It’s easily our favorite game to play, and I would be surprised if we ever find a game – board game, card game, video game, or otherwise – that we enjoy more. So of course we wouldn’t let a little thing like traveling halfway across the world stop us from playing!

When we first arrived in Chiang Mai, one of the very first things we did was try to locate a local store where we can play Magic. To our pleasant surprise, there were actually two stores in town! The timing of our trip was such that there was a new set of cards coming out that first weekend, which means that every store has a tournament where players can play with the new cards for the first time (this event only happens four times a year, so it’s a relatively big deal among Magic players). One of the stores had a tournament on both Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday, we were committed to looking for a real estate agent  (wow, this feels like a lot longer than three months ago), but on Sunday we were free, so we planned to go to the tournament and play!

We first discovered the shop by searching on Magic’s website, but without Google street view to confirm the location, we might never have actually found the place! The front of the store is actually a coffee shop, and unless you knew what you were looking for, you never would have noticed the tiny “Liberty Shop MTG” sign on the glass door behind the shop. We walked in, paid our tournament fee, collected our cards, and started playing!

Julia and I have mentioned several times on this blog at how limited most Thai people’s grasp of the English language is. However, Magic is not printed in the Thai language (though it is printed in eleven languages), and luckily for us, the cards that people play with in Thailand are in English. But this means that if you want to play Magic in Thailand, you have to have more than just a basic understanding of English – which not only made it much easier for us to play with our opponents, but it meant that we could chat with them a little bit as well! I will note, though, that you could play a game of Magic without being able to understand a single word of what your opponent is saying – though it would certainly be less fun!

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Julia playing her first game of Magic on another continent

After the tournament, we asked the store owner what his weekly schedule is. For most small stores, they’ll have one night of magic per week (on Fridays), and the owner told us that he was planning on hosting an event at 6pm. Well of course, we showed up that Friday just before 6…and nobody was there! The owner told us that he usually doesn’t get enough people to play on Fridays, but that there was a group of locals that get together and play among themselves. He called the organizer of that group and then told us that they would play an event the next day in the afternoon, which worked out well for us. We were told to meet them at a place called Star Avenue.

The next day, we drove our moped out to what Google told me was Star Avenue to look for them. Star Avenue is an outdoor strip mall of sorts, which isn’t where I would expect a group of friends to meet to play Magic- I was expecting we would meet at someone’s apartment or something! I called Man, the organizer of that group, and told him we were in the parking lot. They came and found us, then we walked upstairs into a coffee shop where everyone was ready to play! Julia and I again paid for our cards and started playing. Little did we know that that was just the beginning of many games of Magic we would play with them.

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Julia concentrating on what card to pick for her deck during the “draft” portion of Magic

I asked Man if they would be playing again, and he told me that they have a Facebook group where they post the schedule. We joined the group, and just like that we had a group of friends in Thailand!

I set the Facebook group to always give me notifications whenever something was posted (so that we wouldn’t miss any events, obviously), and I’m very glad that I did. Even though the Magic community in Chiang Mai is small, these guys really like Magic. Every time a new card is announced, or somebody gets a really cool card, or someone builds a new deck, they post about it on the group. And that post is instantly bombarded with dozens of comments. Not only that, but these guys even follow the professional scene – they definitely know more about everything surrounding the game than almost everyone I know back home. And of course, they are very skilled players – though Julia and I have years of experience under our belts, so we have won our fair share of events as well.

After a month or so of playing with this group, Man told us that he was planning on opening a new shop! He told us that the grand opening of his shop would be on March 17th – but unfortunately, Julia and I were not going to be in Chiang Mai on that day. He could tell that we were disappointed about not being able to attend his big opening, so he invited us to the first-ever event at his store before the grand opening. No more playing at coffee shops – we had a real store to play in!

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Julia and I participating in the first event at “Fizzy MTG” (Man is standing on the left)

One thing I love about this group of people is how positive and excited they are to be playing Magic. Win or lose, every one of them will smile and say “Thank you” after a game. When most of the games are done but there’s still one pair left playing, everyone will gather around and watch – and when someone makes a big play, screams  of “OOOHHHHH” are often heard. But the absolute best part is when someone opens a very good card from a booster pack…

We don’t just play Magic with this group, either! Somewhere along the line of playing games every week (often multiple times per week) with this group, we became friends. We went out and played badminton at an indoor gym, we celebrated the Songkran water festival (blog post on that coming soon), we went out for drinks, and we celebrated Man’s birthday!

It seems unfair that just when we are getting to know everyone in our new group of friends, it’s going to be time to leave. At the time of this writing, we only have two more days in Chiang Mai! But of course, we are very thankful for the friends that we met in Thailand. I hope we cross paths again someday!

Adventures in Phuket

Way back in November, while we were still in Tacoma, our good friend Dan told us that he had two weeks of vacation scheduled in March, and that he wanted to come to Thailand while we were there! Excited to have a friend come visit us, Julia and I made sure to leave our schedule open to go wherever Dan wanted – and Dan wanted to go to the island of Phuket! We all bought our respective plane tickets, and reserved an apartment through Airbnb in the small town of Kamala. I flew in from Myanmar, Julia flew in from Vietnam, and Dan flew in from the states connecting through Seoul. Julia and I got to the apartment by midnight, and Dan showed up a few hours later. We could barely believe that he was actually here with us – and neither could he!

We woke up the next morning and walked down the street, both exploring the area and looking for a place to eat. Just in the first few minutes of walking around, I could tell that Phuket was much different from Chiang Mai. For one thing, it was very humid – even though the thermometer said it was only 92-94 degrees (as opposed to 100-104 in Chiang Mai), it actually felt hotter because of how humid it was. However, the humid air and sea breezes also meant that there was virtually no smoke in the air, a very welcome change from the smog that persists in Chiang Mai! One big cultural difference is that Phuket has a large population (35%) of Muslims – in northern Thailand, we haven’t seen any sign of the world’s second most popular religion. In Kamala in particular, mosques are as common as wats, and many women can be seen wearing the traditional hijab (just the hood-like garment that covers the top of the head and neck, not the entire face or body). Much like Chiang Mai and everywhere else in Thailand though, we found that the people are incredibly friendly, pleasant, and helpful in Phuket!

Our first few days in Phuket were relatively uneventful – just the way we wanted! We really enjoyed the local market, and some of the more unusual items, above! We also enjoyed relaxing at the beach and at the pool by our condo, getting delicious (and cheap) food from the street carts, playing billiards and darts at one of the many bars nearby, and even just relaxing in our condo watching Netflix or playing Magic. Dan has worked very hard for a long time without getting much time off, so he was perfectly happy doing nothing for a while. We also set up our activities for our time there. Dan’s checklist was short and simple – visit the Big Buddha temple, visit James Bond Island, visit the Phi Phi Islands, and see a Muay Thai fight (Dan is a big MMA fan but has never seen a fight live). With the help of our very friendly receptionist, we made bookings for the islands and the fight. But rather than pay a taxi to take us to the Big Buddha temple (transportation is actually much more expensive in Phuket than in Chiang Mai), we decided to hike!

The Big Buddha of Phuket is on the highest point of the island, about 1200 feet elevation. We found out later that the temple is actually still being built, so this is definitely the newest Buddhist monument we have seen on our trip! Kamala is on the west side of Phuket, and taking a cab to the top would take us down around the southern tip and back up the east side of the island. Since we were hiking, we took a short cab ride to the town of Karon, and planned to hike straight up the mountain! We had read reviews online of people that hiked it before and they said it was a “moderate to easy” hike that would take about two and a half hours (one way). After stopping at a 7-Eleven to load up with water and trail snacks, we were on our way!

 

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Ready for our adventure of the day!

The first part of our hike was on the streets of Karon that led up the mountain. Only five minutes into our hike we were presented with a very long and steep hill. Dan seemed to have no problem with hills, with years of experience as a (walking) letter carrier, but Julia and I were struggling right off the bat! Fortunately we started somewhat early in the day, and there were lots of trees on the side of the road providing shade, but we were still drenched with sweat once we got up this first hill. We went up and down several large hills like this before finding a path that took us off of the asphalt roads and onto the dirt.

 

The dirt path was more of the same – lots of steep hills – only now there was more dirt getting on us, and less shade. It’s a good thing we brought so much water, because we really needed all of it! Just as we were cursing the people on the internet that called this a “moderate to easy” hike, we rounded a corner and saw the Big Buddha!

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The Big Buddha of Phuket

It was still a ways off, but now we could see the light at the end of the tunnel, and that light wasn’t too far above us in elevation. The rest of the hike was more of an easy walk up a slight hill, the last kilometer on the road with taxis, ATVs, and songtaews wizzing by us. We also passed several cliffside restaurants, but resolved to wait to go until after we made it to the top, as a reward. Finally, we made it to the top! The views were great and the Big Buddha was quite impressive. Even though it was a lot more challenging than we were expecting, we’re glad that we hiked up, because it gave us a great sense of accomplishment and made the views that much sweeter!

Our next excursion was two days later, a boat trip through Ananda tours that took us to “James Bond Island” and some other surrounding sites. (On a side note, we’d seen the island’s name misspelled at least five different ways on printed tourist fliers-one of our favorites was James Bong!) Early that morning, we got picked up by a shuttle to take us around to the east side of the island. After a brief introduction and safety lesson, we walked to the end of the pier and got on a barge! The barge was of course chock-full of tourists – not unexpected, but definitely different from what Julia and I are used to! The barge was large enough that the ride wasn’t choppy at all – and there was plenty of juice, water, and snacks to keep us energized for the day. There was also beer for sale, but it was a bit too early in the morning for us (I guess we’re getting older).

Our first destination was Panak Island. We didn’t actually go on the island as much as we went in the island – canoeing through a bat cave! We anchored about 100 meters “offshore” – this particular island didn’t really have a beach, but more of a cliffside that continued straight down to the water. Everyone on the barge got on guided canoes and we made our way to the cave. The cave ceiling was actually quite low, in fact it’s so low that most of the cave is underwater at high tide – and low enough that we could see the hundreds of bats on the ceiling quite easily! Besides the bats, there were of course beautiful and intricate rock formations to see.

After our short venture in the bat cave, we had a little more time before the boat left for the next stop, so we jumped in the water for a quick swim! With how hot it was, we didn’t even need our towels to dry off!

Our next stop was Hong Island, known for it’s beautiful limestone cliff formations. The sea level was between five and ten feet higher for much of the cliffs’ existences, only relatively recently coming back down to present levels. This means that the limestone of the rock that is now five to ten feet above sea level was battered by waves for thousands of years, making the very base of the cliffs recede inwards. We anchored off Hong Island and again got on canoes to take a look around…

Our next stop was James Bond Island – originally known as Khao Phing Kao Island, but even the locals rarely call it that anymore – made famous by the 1974 movie The Man with the Golden Gun. This island actually had a beach to approach, though the beach was very small and already crammed with other boats. We actually had to get on a smaller long-tail boat just to find a spot on the beach! But even though there were tons of tourists, it was totally worth it.

 

Our last stop of this day was Naka Island. This beach was a lot more private, as there was just our barge and one other barge there – but there were lots of monkeys to make up for the lack of tourists! We had about 45 minutes to relax, but we couldn’t help but watch the monkeys play around and mess with tourists. Pretty soon, it was time to get back on the barge and head to our apartment in Kamala and rest up for the next adventure!

Our next activity was a night of watching Muay Thai. We bought tickets to see what turned out to be a series of fights at a small arena in Patong, a short ride away from our apartment. Our tickets again included transfer to and from the arena. We got there early, so we walked around Patong for a bit, which is much larger than Kamala. It made us glad that we stayed in Kamala, which is small enough that it doesn’t feel too touristy – there was always a spot on the beach and never too many tourists walking around. Patong felt like a constant party, which is great for some but not really what we were looking for. We didn’t stray too far from the entrance to the arena, choosing to walk through the night market going on across the street. The street vendors have a lot more seafood (including sushi which sells for between one and two dollars per roll!) than in Chiang Mai!

We headed back to the arena to get in as soon as the doors opened to ensure good seats. We walked up the stairs as the PA system repeatedly advertised the “SUPAH REAL FIGHT” we were about to see. We walked in, picked some seats, and got ready for the show!

There were five fights advertised on the flier when we signed up for this event, but we got an updated flier when we sat down showing us that there would be eight total fights! Each fight was five rounds of three minutes, unless the fight was stopped prematurely by knockout – so we really got our money’s worth!

Muay Thai is very similar to boxing (it actually translates to “Thai Boxing”), with the notable exception of kicks being allowed. There is still no grappling or submission attempts like in MMA, however. The first three fights were all “domestic” fights – fights between two residents of Phuket. The first fight we watched ended very quickly, as it appears that one of the fighters had second thoughts about his choice of hobby after getting hit a few times. Most of the fights were very entertaining – the best fights of the night featured a fight between a British girl and a Swedish girl that went the distance, and an American shaking off some rough early hits to knock out a fighter from Thailand. Then there was a total slugfest between an Australian and a Frenchman that featured several hits that I thought for sure would be an immediate knockout. Overall, the night was very entertaining and actually a lot less violent than I thought it would be – I’d highly recommend seeing Muay Thai to everyone but those that have exceptionally queasy stomachs for hard hits.

Our last scheduled excursion was to go to the Phi Phi Islands. Far off the Eastern coast of Phuket, these islands actually required a speedboat to get to! Similar to our other island excursion, we got picked up at our apartment by a shuttle, then met the rest of our group at a pier and headed out. The choppy conditions and smaller boat meant that our boat was a lot less of a party atmosphere than the barge from a few days prior, but our destinations would more than make up for that.

Our first stop was Maya Beach, which is prominently featured in the movie The Beach, a Leonardo DiCaprio movie from 2000 (we watched it the night before, and I was actually surprised by how much I enjoyed it – definitely worth checking out). Since it was our first stop, there weren’t too many other tourists there, especially compared to how many were at James Bond Island. Our first impression when stepping off the boat was how incredibly soft the sand was. Check this out!

In the movie, this beach was described as paradise unlike any other. I could only imagine what it would be like to be there with no other people – the bay is well guarded to keep the waves down, sitting on the sand feels like laying down on a pile of feathers, the limestone cliffs are gorgeous to look at, and the surrounding plants and trees complete the picture. We were only here for about an hour, and I think we spent most of that time just standing and taking it all in! Maya Beach is a must-visit for anyone coming to Phuket!

We stopped at a few other places that day, though none of them could compare to Maya Beach. We stopped on the largest of the Phi Phi Islands for lunch, stopped at a spot in the water for some snorkeling, sailed past some cliffs that were populated with monkeys, and ended the day relaxing on the beach of a very small island. The last island actually had some great snorkeling, and some cute kittens to watch when we were tired of swimming. A perfect mix of gorgeous sites, activities, and relaxation!

Our last night in Phuket (and Dan’s last night in Thailand) was a lot of fun. In the late afternoon, we went to a lawn bowling place that Julia discovered and played a game of lawn bowling. Beer was for sale, of course. It was a lot of fun – we were all pretty evenly matched so there was a lot of luck involved and some chaotic shots, and Julia was able to come out on top! That night we went to a bar and played some darts, one of Julia’s favorite bar activities. We started chatting with some other (non-American) tourists, and the topic of the election came up, as it always seems to do. We came to Thailand to try to get away from all of that crap! But at least we don’t have to hear/watch the attack ads.

Anyway, we played a few different types of games, and we each won one game. Before we started the last game, one of the guys we were talking to (American born but now lives in Australia) said “I’ll put 1000 Baht (about $28) on the lass”. The three of us kind of laughed but didn’t agree to a bet or anything like that. Well, Dan won the last game and the guy walks up to him and hands him 1000 Baht! Dan was happy to buy a couple rounds for us to keep the night lasting longer. We ended up going to the beach well after dark and swimming in the water for a bit. We could see sky lanterns (those mini balloons that you light on fire so they float away and then burn up) going up from many different places in Kamala. We sat back down on the beach watching the lanterns and waves, and just talked about random (read: drunk) topics for a few hours, before heading back to the condo. An absolutely perfect way to end our two week trip in Phuket with one of our closest friends. Thanks for coming out, Dan!