A peek into the highlights of visiting Copenhagen, Denmark with my sister.
I had intentionally avoided all things election on Tuesday because I didn't want the stress. So when I awoke Wednesday morning, instead of feeling like I got TKO'd after a long, bloody boxing match, I felt like I got sucker-punched at a bar. I literally couldn't focus or function properly as I sat stunned first on the beach - surprisingly the sun did actually still rise - and then in my hotel room in South Beach that morning.
I had to check out that morning so I watched Hillary's concession speech as I packed, a few tears materialized my thoughts into emotions from time to time. Then I sat stunned in the lobby for a while, scrolling through my Facebook news feed and reading trending articles. I wasn't hungry but I ate a small lunch anyways before finally leaving the hotel.
I had planned to go distract myself and admire the street art in Wynwood when it dawned on me in the car that Trump duped us all. His entire campaign was clickbait and whether you opposed or supported him, you were talking about him. He changed the rules and we all made him an unstoppable clickbait juggernaut. This insight was HUGE.
I parked, walked into Panther Coffee, ordered an iced chai latte with macadamia milk (which I didn't know was a thing until now) and frantically tried to get all my thoughts and insights into my laptop before they evaporated out of my brain.
I may have gone overboard but I really wanted this to get published. I submitted it to the general query on Thought Catalog and to 9 different staff writers directly. I'm so happy I got the attention of at least one of them who slightly edited and posted my piece here:
Four hours later I returned to my rental car, which had a $23 parking ticket tucked under the wiper blade and I didn't get paid to write this but I don't even care. It was totally worth it to have my voice heard and my thoughts read, if only by a few people.
So the silver lining of this election is that it inspired me to put 110% of my effort into writing and finally publishing something. Personally I've been writing for a long time but have been hesitant to share it publicly, except on Yelp. I want to keep this momentum going and keep writing. It is very cathartic and nice to know others feel the same way. And inevitably I know there will eventually be trolls and haters but I'll cross that bridge - er wall - when I come to it.
Copenhagen (København) is the capital of Denmark.
Currency: Danish Kroner (DKK)
Fun fact: Danish Monarchy is the oldest in Europe.
Like Amsterdam, you'll see as many if not more bikes than people.
Get to know the city on a Free Walking Tour: Grand Tour of Copenhagen
Hi = Hello
Hi hi = Goodbye
Tak = Thanks
Skol = Cheers
Hygge = cozy
Canal tours are crowded and touristy, around 80 DKK.
Nyhavn = New Harbor: Just walk through and take a picture; everything is touristy and overpriced.
Smørrebrød = traditional open-faced Danish sandwich. (A bit tough to find vegetarian options but they exist).
Louisiana Museum of Modern Art
About an hour outside city by train; take DSB (Danish State Train) from Central Station to Humlebœk station, then a 10 minute walk (follow signs.)
115 kr / $17
So worth it. You can literally spend a whole day here. Much more than a museum. Art inside and out. Beautiful sculpture park and nature paths. You can see Sweden across the water.
Kastellet = castle, free star-shaped park right next to Østerport train station. Great for sunrise and sunset.
Little Mermaid statue (Den Lille Havfrue) located on the harbor near the eastern point of the star. See this early morning or late afternoon to avoid peak tourist time. (Widely considered the most famous/disappointing monument in Denmark. )
FREE entry, FREE lockers, FREE wifi
First floor pre-history, history of Denmark & Vikings
Second floor Stories from Denmark 1700s-2000s
Also try the Free walking Tour: Christianshaven
Includes Christiania: Alternative, experimental micro country with a green light district, skate park, street art
Copenhagen Street Food (Paper Island)
Enjoy a variety of food, music and events while mingling with locals!
Open every day 12:00 - 21:00
Electric bicycle rentals, high-tech but heavy
25 kr per hour
Copenhagen has very friendly people and so much unexpected history. It makes me want to see more of Denmark!
Hamburg will always be a special place for me since I lived/studied here in 2008. I visited a friend here again recently and some things have changed over the past 8 years but mostly it's the same old city I remember.
Hamburg is a big, busy port city in Northern Germany.
S-bahn/U-bahn local trains included in Eurail or buy daily pass €6.
FREE Walking Tour | Robin & the Tour Guides (yellow umbrellas) 7 days/week.
I enjoyed Rhonda's Historic City Center tour (11:00 - 2:30) so much that I joined the Harbor/Reeperbahn tour (14:00-16:00) as well!
Big body of water between the city and the suburbs. Lots of parks/greenspace on the suburb side; shopping and architecture on the city side.
Take a walk through the underwater Elb tunnel under the harbor.
HVV Ferry (Fähre) cheap ride around the harbor, €2.
Discounted touristic rides on Sundays.
Small St. Pauli park overlooking the Harbor is a great place to watch the sunset.
ST. PAULI / REEPERBAHN
Abundance of street art concentrated in St. Pauli/Reeperbahn area.
FREE Alternative Hamburg Tour Wednesday - Saturday; see lots of street art!
See the Beatles tribute: sculptures + round record-shaped discography on the ground.
Eat at least one Franzbröchen, Hamburg's famous cinnamon pastry.
Have a drink (€4-€14) at Clouds/Heaven's Nest downtown for a beautiful panoramic view of the city.
Reeperbahn at night: Red light district
Lots of clubs/bars around Hans Albers Platz offer live music with no cover.
Contemporary, Avant Garde Art & Photography
€14 both halls
Tuesdays after 16:00 = €5
Just make sure you check out the current exhibitions online first so you don't get stuck paying to see a bunch of port-a-toilets like I did. -_-
I'm pretty late to the Paris party. Many friends have traveled here before me and most can't stop gushing about the place. In the words of Audrey Hepburn "Paris is always a good idea."
Except when it was my idea. My timing turned out to be te-rri-ble.
It all started when I went to reserve my seat on a train from Rotterdam to Paris. The ticket agent refused to book the seat since they couldn't guarantee the train would arrive due to a railway workers strike in France. So I just had to show up at the platform later that day and hope that the train did too.
Thankfully I boarded said train and eventually met my sister and a friend at Paris Nord. We had a decent dinner. Not the Fall-Out-Of-Your-Chair flavor that everyone raves about but palatable. I like rose wine and cider so I ordered a rosé cidré hybrid but it tasted awful like partially composted flowers and apples.
Despite it being the beginning of June and supposedly summer, the weather was cold and slightly wet with temperatures hovering around 14°C.
The three of us did a free walking tour of Paris the next morning. We assumed the media-hyped strike would paralyze all the metros until our guide told us that "No, of course the metros are working. The city cannot just shut down."
Except the city did partially shut down later that evening. My friend and I arrived at the Musé d'Orsay to find a note taped to the ticket office window announcing an early closure.
So we headed back to Marais to do some thrift shopping, for all of 30 minutes, because all the shops apparently close at 19:30.
The next day we were scheduled to visit the Louvre at 13:00 with our pre-purchased tickets. However the top story on my BBC news app announced that the worlds most famous museum would be closed all day while employees moved art & artifacts above ground since the river Seine was on the rise after heavy, unseasonal rains.
We decided instead to take the metro/train west to the Palais of Versailles. When we went to change trains at Invalides, the entrance to the C-line was blocked with a notice that the line was closed; another precaution due to flood fears since the main line to Versailles ran along the river.
We figured out a detour and took at least an extra hour but eventually we arrived at our royal destination. After about four hours wandering the palace and gardens, we walked back to the station to discover there was only one train per hour heading back to Paris due to some combination of striking and floods.
Again it took extra time and effort but we finally got back to the city and climbed the steps of the Eiffel Tower. It was like the final challenge in an obstacle course and we reached the pinnacle of it victoriously despite so many struggles along the way.
It all seemed a bit surreal because if you went by the media coverage alone, you'd think the streets of Paris were filled with soggy, angry chaos but not once did I see a protest or floods or even moderate rain.
The transport strikes have been a pain for many people but I know the taxi and uber drivers at least are benefitting from it because I had to pay €81 to get from the city to Charles de Gaulle airport early on my last morning.
Guess I'm just gonna have to go back to Paris at some point. ;)
Second largest city in France, located on southern coast.
Ancient; first Greek settlement in France = Massalia.
Very diverse, at least 50% immigrants.
Relatively walkable but also a metro, tram and busses.
City is old, dirty and kinda stinky in some parts but still many diamonds in the rough.
St. Charles = Main Train Station
Vertigo Centre Hostel is super close. Clean and comfy enough. Breakfast (extra 5 Euro) is good if you like bread.
Vieux Port: Packed with boats and people
Ferry to Chateau d'If around 11 euro
Inspiration for Count of Monte Cristo. I ran out of time before I could do this. :(
Le Fort Saint-Jean
muCEM 9.50 Euro but so worth it
Incredible, inspirational collection of Pablo Picasso
Well executed, educational displays on Mediterranean history
Historic architecture and cathedrals
Basilisque Notre Dame de la Garde
NOT the famous/Hunchback one (it's in Paris)
Hike up a hill and lots of stairs, nice architecture and interior decor
The bo-bo (bourgeois-bohemian) community
I serendipitously stumbled into the street art capital of France.
I spent hours meandering around the streets & admiring many murals.
Musee de Beaux Arts / Musee d' Histoire Naturelle / Palais De Longchamp
The building is more interesting than anything inside. Save yourself 11 euros and just admire the architecture and Longchamp park behind it.
Parc Nationale des Calanques
Beautiful national park less than an hour from the city center.
It's huge and there are no signs so I highly recommend a map.
No entry fee and can be reached by public transport (1.60 Euro each way)
Metro red line towards Santa Marguerite
Change to Bus 21 at Rond Point du Prado (walk left out of station, cross street, bus in front of big stadium)
Ride until the last stop at Luminy (University) and walk past the traffic circle towards the giant rocks and you'll eventually run into the trails.
Bern roughly translates to Bears. And you will see them all over the city.
Established 12th Century.
Capital of Switzerland since 1848.
UNESCO World Heritage Area: Altstadt = Old Town.
Situated on the Aare River.
Arrive Bern Banhoff (train station) center of town. FREE map at the tourist info shop at the station.
City is very walkable:
Follow the flags & fountains downhill.
FREE water! Fill your water bottle/drink out of the fountains!
Pause to admire Einstein's house.
Continue, cross small bridge.
Walk up steep hill to the Rose Garden (FREE):
Flowers blooming, birds chirping, panoramic view of the city; serene, botanical bliss!
Walk downhill toward big bridge.
Bärengraben = Bear Pits (FREE)
5,000 square meter waterfront enclosure. (I usually don't support animal captivity but the bears seem healthy & happy.)
Kunst Art Museum near train station; 7 CHF entry for permanent collection including Matisse, Dali, Picasso, Anker, Degas, Monet & more.
NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH Kunsthalle Art Gallery across Kirchenfeldbrücke bridge which is a disappointing ripoff. -_-
Tibits Vegetarian Restaurant: $$$ Expensive buffet, pay by weight, beverages particularly pricey (learned the hard way.)
Cheapest to eat at Migros or similar supermarkets/kiosks.
Gurten mountain day-trip 25 minutes by tram
Switzerland is really expensive so I try to save money wherever I can.
Bagan is located in Mid Myanmar, Mandalay region
Arrive by bus or flight (NYU Airport)
Must purchase mandatory 25,000 kyat (about $22 USD) ticket to enter the city. (Therefore, no entry cost at individual temples/pagodas/stupas.)
See ancient structures at sunrise, sunset. (Temp was 41ºC-43ºC or 105ºF-110ºF in April.)
(You will likely be approached by a local who will take you to a 'secret spot' to watch the sun but will also try to sell you paintings & stuff.)
Accomodation: Ostello Bello Hostel
Great wifi, free breakfast, air con, $15 8-bed dorm, great vibe
Rent bikes, buy bus tickets, free laundry available across the street
Rent an e-bike (electric scooter) to get around.
• 3,000 kyat/day small (more risk of breaking down)
• 6,000 kyat/day large (faster, longer battery)
I also saw some people on bicycles.
Over 2,200 stupas and pagodas in the area today. (Used to be over 10,000 built between the 11th and 13th centuries.)
Two parts: Old Bagan and New Bagan.
Popular: Sunrise Hot Air Balloons August-March (expensive $300+)
Must-See Ananda temple in Old Bagan
The region is known for lacquerware and sand paintings.
I made many wrong decisions during my first visit to Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar. I walked over 4 km from my hotel and arrived during the peak heat of the day while the temp was well over 100°F/38°C.
I had considered wearing my Longyi that morning but opted instead for shorts. This means I had to rent a communal Longyi at the Pagoda entrance to cover my knees. As is typical for temples, no one is allowed to wear shoes so I was walking - or rather running - around with bare feet.
The sun was scorching throughout the cloudless sky which caused the floor tiles to heat up like hot coals. Everyone was running from one patch of shade to the next, trying to relieve their suffering soles.
As I was navigating a maze of smaller stupas, I came upon an old monk who waved me over. He offered me a drink of water even though I had my own supply. He made some small talk and told me his name is Tegyi and he is 83 years old and he takes the bus to Shwedagon every day. I had a feeling he was going to ask for money, but technically monks have to. By definition they beg for everything, even food during daily alms rounds.
I respect the Sangha so I gave him a 5,000 kyat note. It was obviously much more than he was expecting. In return he offered me all three sets of his mala beads and his water and even his English-Burmese dictionary. I accepted the small, black wooden beads which I could tell were worn and had been used often; not just bought at a market that morning.
This seemed like a small win after my series of sweaty mistakes.
I thought I was pretty special until I saw a photo of the same monk with a German guy from my hostel on Facebook. (Although I'm certain he did not receive the same gift.)
I'm curious, do you think this monk was legit or was he just trying to profit off of tourists? If you've been to Shwedagon, have you met him as well?
Thingyan is a Theravada Buddhist water festival celebrated in Myanmar around mid-April right before their traditional new year. In modern times, it's a playful water war that is waged on both the city and village streets across the country which happened to last five days this year.
Many people ride around in the back of trucks to get doused by hose-weilding people on temporary roadside spraying stages called pandals. They are literally like human car washes. No where and no one is dry. Which is ok, because April is the hottest, driest month of the year here. This week the temp was over 100ºF/38ºC every day. (A similar festival called Songkran is celebrated in Laos and Thailand around the same time.)
I met a couple guys in my hostel at breakfast and we later set off in search of festivities. It took all of three seconds after leaving the hostel to start getting doused; locals especially love to get foreigners wet so we were moving targets. You'll start getting splashed early around 8:00 or 9:00. Then there's kind of a break during the peak heat, maybe noon til 15:00 but the water wars resume. A dry truce is supposed to happen around 18:00.
There was a stage and a huge crowd in front of the Town Hall near Sule Pagoda and it didn't take us long to get picked up by a truckload of locals. The truck was packed with people, water reserves and beer. We drove past a few splash stations and got soaked with firehoses. The force of the water knocked my hat off of my head and when I was finally able to look up, I saw that it had landed on the road and someone on a truck behind us had seen and retrieved it.
Well, I wasn't about to lose my favorite hat that has traveled the world with me since I bought it from a surf shop in Bali so I jumped off the back of our truck and ran to the truck behind us. (Best decision ever to wear my vibrams that day instead of flip flops.) I saw a dude on the truck wearing my hat and pointed to it emphatically because the music and crowds were so loud that he wouldn't be able to hear anything I said. He pointed at the hat then at me. I nodded and he took it off and tossed it down to me. Victoriously, I raced back to my own truck. No thing left behind!
A few kilometers out of the city center, we promptly got a flat tire. No worries, though, we just joined a splashing station on the side of the road and doused trucks and busses as they drove by. Yep, even the public busses are fair game during Thingyan.
The main event seemed to take place on the road near Inya Lake. There were at so many pandals set up with entertainment and/or water hoses that the streets were flooded. The guys and I followed Htet and Jesse - our gracious hosts for the day - through crowds of people dancing and moshing through a perpetual, manmade monsoon. Steve and I were armed with buckets and Walker ended up with a pretty sweet dolphin gun with accompanying backpack.
In the city, people gather on the streets and in any public water source, including fountains and pools. There is no shortage of street food and I enjoyed my fair share of fried things, fruits, grilled corn, fresh-pressed sugar cane juice and - wait, stop everything - ice cream.
After leaving the city, I'm glad I also got to experience some rural Thingyan celebrating after arriving at Thabarwa in Thanlyin. People, especially kids, are just as ready to soak you with water. Instead of trucks and stages, substitute motorbikes, village houses, small shops and buckets on the side of the road.
I have to admit at first, I thought this was an incredible waste of natural resources, but eventually realized it all evaporates and will come back during the rainy season. Did I mention how refreshing it is to be soaked with water when its ridiculously hot outside?
This actually happened a few weeks ago when I was still in Nepal. Better late than never, I guess!
Pashupatinath is the oldest and most well known Hindu temple in Kathmandu, Nepal, situated on the banks of the Bagmati River. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which means you will get charged 1,000 rupees ($9.50 USD) to visit. Only Hindus are allowed to enter the actual main temple but you can walk around and enjoy the sights and take pictures. You can get a really good panoramic view of Kathmandu here as well.
Myself and three others from my home stay visited here and were immediately approached by a youngish Nepal tour guide. We saw temples devoted to Shiva, Hanuman the Monkey God and several cremations happening along the river.
The Hindus have a much more pragmatic view of death; it's just another part of life. There are specific rituals start differently depending on the age, gender and caste of the person who died but everyone ends up as ash in the river. Our guide said it can take two or three hours for a body to burn completely.
We met a group of Sadus hanging out around the temple who speak English and will ask for money in exchange for blessings or photos. I'm not sure if they were legit or not but our guide assured us that they use the money to buy food for themselves and the poorer communities in the area so I obliged. On the other hand, I was really annoyed by the vendors that kept approaching me and trying to sell me crap that I didn't want or need.
Our guide also took us to a nearby elderly complex where Mother Teresa used to work. The old ladies and gents were lined up for their lunch and had colorful laundry drying all around courtyard. In the center of the courtyard was a temple with a bell that one old woman rang incessantly for several minutes.
At the conclusion of our tour, we tipped our guide and headed in the direction of our next destination. A black temple dog with white paws that we called Puppy escorted us as far as he could but had to leave us and turn back when we got to main road because that turf apparently belonged to other dogs.
We walked a long time before arriving at Boudhanath. I didn't realize I had already been there during my first day long tour of a color-coated Kathmandu but didn't mind visiting again. The stupa was still covered in scaffolding so I didn't even bother trying to get a good picture of it, but there are plenty to be found of the beautiful Boudhanath online.
We did enjoy exploring the Tibetan Buddhist temple situated next to it as well as our vegetarian, rooftop lunch. Then we walked. We walked a lot. It was a long way back to Thamil and I ended up taking a cab the rest of the way back to the home stay from there due to both mental and physical exhaustion.
Lesson 1: Time and money are always inverse. In other words, to save money, it costs you time and to save time, it costs you money. It took me five flights and almost two days to get from home to Jaipur but it was my cheapest option at $400. I could have spent more and probably flown directly from New York to New Delhi but it would have at least doubled the cost. And this applies to pretty much everything in this world, not just travel.
Lesson 2: Teaching is hard. I already respected teachers and still think they are highly undervalued in the West. But this experience showed me first hand how hard it is to teach, especially with additional cultural and language barriers. I felt like I was finally getting into my own personal, educational groove of course when my teaching time was up. I'm definitely going to be better prepared the next time I attempt to teach.
Lesson 3: India is not as scary as many In the West think it is. Not only did I stay with a wonderful, welcoming Indian family, but all the children and staff at the school were amazing as well. Kat, a new friend from Australia, and I even walked from the house to and around the city unaccompanied. And we felt safe and confident the entire time. In fact, I even felt like a celebrity because lots of people wanted to take pictures with me. It's a shame we only ever hear about appalling crimes like rape and theft on the news. For every one of those, I bet there are a thousand more stories of sharing and kindness.
Lesson 4: Staying at a home beats staying in hotels any day. I had the most genuinely enjoyable experience staying with a lovely family in rural Jaipur. Their house was modest with only two bedrooms yet they gave up one for me - later to be shared with fellow volunteer Kat - and they all four slept in one big bed in the larger bedroom. I had to use a squat toilet and take cold showers and the power went out a few times but I also got to eat incredible homemade Indian meals and wear a sparkly, pink saree. We celebrated two birthdays and I did yoga on the roof while the sun rose and we shared countless stories and laughs. I'm also pretty sure I drank my weight in Chai.
Lesson 5: Pink city is so pretty. I got a personal, private tour of Jaipur and its famous pink architecture. India is full of vibrant colors and culture and this place was nonstop rainbow madness. In a good way. But I still don't think I could ever drive on these chaotic streets.
Lesson 6: How to talk trash. I've travelled to many Asian countries where rubbish is just a constant part of the landscape. At first it made me angry thinking how people can be so apathetic and just toss their trash on the ground and into waterways without a care. But then Kat helped change my perspective. We Westerners consume just as much if not more garbage than they do in places like India, Sri Lanka and Cambodia. We just have the luxury of waste management that comes around to whisk away our rubbish to designated, well-hidden areas. Out of sight, out of mind, right? These countries have neither the education not the infrastructure to discreetly dispose of garbage even if it was stored properly in bins. I'm not justifying it, just realizing how it happens. But we need to treat the disease, not just treat the symptoms. In other words, more effort should go into reducing the amount of trash - especially plastic - that is consumed in the first place; instead of just improving waste management.
This was not part of my original itinerary. Initially, I just had a layover scheduled here during the course of my final flight home in December, but I extended my stay for a few days, because: Tokyo. I've heard so much about this city, I just had to see and experience it for myself since the opportunity had presented itself.
I had an exhausting flight from Hanoi to Tokyo that departed just after midnight and arrived around 7 AM in the morning. I suck at sleeping on planes so I was dragging my feet in a daze through the Tokyo airport. The only upside was that a new friend happened to be on the same flight, but we parted ways in the airport because she was flying all the way back to the States.
I was too tired to function so I ended up in a capsule hotel called 9 Hours that was attached to the airport. The capsules were just as cool and compact as I had expected, but turned out to be far more expensive. It was like $20 bucks for just three hours. After some semi-lucid sleep, I collected my bags, bought some subway tickets, got some yen from an ATM, ate an overpriced lunch and then headed from the airport to my hostel.
Tokyo is huge and overwhelming and has a ton of different neighborhoods. I had booked only one night in a cheap hostel near the Akobonobashi station in Shinjuku. I was the only girl in a fully booked room full of 10 beds and nine other dudes. There were stains (possibly blood or some other bodily fluid) on the floor and my bed was in the middle of the room, nowhere near an outlet. The room smelled like stinky boys and the bathroom was even worse. This is why I usually book female dorms when traveling: the smell(s).
The silver lining of this place, though, was that they had great internet. So I was able to plan out the rest of my days here, as well as book another hostel in the Asakusa area on the recommendation of a friend form college. That night I went to bed relatively early and got up super early around 5:30 AM, excited for my first full day in this crazy city.
I took a couple different lines on the metro subway to get to Hiro-o station and tried to find a temple that supposedly hosted foreigner-friendly morning zen meditation sessions. The directions on their website were not great and I wandered for a while and found a traditional-looking temple-ish place and lingered outside. An elderly Japanese lady noticed me lingering outside and invited me inside, but neither she, nor the other handful of people there, spoke any English and I knew I wasn't in the right place. She fumbled through a pile of brochures in just about every other language but English, so I still don't know where I was. I bowed graciously and said "Arrigato" and left as politely as I could.
I remembered seeing a tree that obscured part of the temple in the picture online so I started searching for trees, thinking it would lead me to the temple, but instead I ended up at Arisugawa-No-Miya Memorial Park. It was a big and beautifully landscaped area complete with a pond, bridges, trails, trees and tons of sitting areas. I decided to just sit here and meditate instead since I gave up on finding the temple after at least an hour of wandering around. The chill in the air was refreshing and definitely felt like December, but the fiery foliage made it feel like the beginning of fall. After about an hour of mediation, I walked around the park watching other people walking their dogs, feeding pigeons, chatting in pairs or getting in a quick morning workout.
I was impressed with and enjoyed the Tokyo Metro subway system. Despite being the world's busiest railway, it's one of the most organized and easiest to navigate in my experience. I even survived Shinkjuku station, the world's busiest rail station. But once I got above ground, it was a different story. Tokyo addresses are super confusing with like 3 different numbers and I really had trouble making sense of it. I only had my little samsung with limited battery life and no sim card so I couldn't completely rely on GPS so I had to supplement my navigation with old fashioned paper maps and directions.
One of the things I wanted to do most was to find a traditional zazen temple and learn about zen buddhism and meditation. It first piqued my curiosity after I heard all about how much Steve Jobs was into it when I read his biography last year. Let me tell you how many times I tried and failed to make this happen.
1. Before I arrived in Tokyo, I tried to book a temple stay in advance. I got responses from temple in Kyoto, but apparently they are pretty popular this time of year and I couldn't book two consecutive nights. And, as awesome as it would have been to take a bullet train to Kyoto, it would have been a lot of extra strain in terms of time and money so I abandoned that plan. 2. I found a few spots supposedly in Tokyo but received no response from the ones I was able to email. 3. I attempted to find Kourin-in temple for morning meditation near Hiro-o to no avail. Found the park instead. 4. Found a recommendation for the Buddhist English Academy online. . I went to Nishi Shinjuku anyways and walked around for at least an hour looking for this place, only to discover that the address was for an apartment in a residential building and that the phone number provided was not in service. 5.Took the metro all the way out to Myogadani Station for a Wednesday night Zen meditation intro class, only to find the temple non-existent. It was literally razed to the ground with the empty lot surrounded by a white tarp. Supposedly a new temple is going to be built in its place. 6. I found another local Zazen meditation experience through Voyagin.com but it turned out to be "currently unavailable" when I inquired about it.
So after wasting so much time and effort in my quest for zen, I decided it would have to wait until a later date when I could not only plan a proper trip in advance, but confirm it in advance as well.
But back to the more successful stuff that I did. I was glad I moved to Asakusa because it was a livelier and more artistic area. I booked a few successful activities via Voyagin. The first was a customized art and design tour of Tokyo with a local designer named Kota. He met me at my hostel and showed me around the city. It was such a relief to be with someone who knew where he was going and spoke Japanese! Plus he was good company as well. We started at the famous Senso-ji temple, which is the oldest in the Tokyo area. It was free to enter and explore, but teeming with vendors and tourists. Next we went to Jimbocho Street which is know for it's abundance of book stores. We spent a surprising amount of time perusing old books and scrolls in the stores, and I ended up buying a book of poetry from the 1950s for a friend back home.
Our tummies were starting to grumble, so Kota took me to a little place that had VEGAN RAMEN! It was delicious and apparently hard to find according to other friends who have visited the city, so I'm eternally grateful. The last stop was the Advertising museum, built in the basement of a mall in the shadow of Dentsu, Japan's biggest advertising agency. I couldn't stay long because I had to head to my next appointment with a local lady to learn Japanese calligraphy. I made it to the subway station with no issues, but then I got lost several times between there and her house, with people on the street giving me terrible directions. One girl even walked me to the police station, when I thought she was walking me to the house. Anyways, I showed up 30 minutes late but still managed to get some good practice in and paint a satisfactory character for the word "wisdom." Definitely better than any souvenir I could have bought on the street.
My last day in Tokyo was a bit of a blur. After so many days surrounded by sky-high concrete I was craving some nature so I headed to Mount Takao, located less than an hour outside the city by Express train from Shinjuku. It was colder and more precipitous than I anticipated so I ended up buying a hat and gloves at the base. A sporadic mix of rain and snow fell from the clouds above. My left foot (the one injured in Bali) had been hurting for a few days so I opted to take the cable car part way up the mountain, then walk the rest of the way. There were tons of other locals around, but hardly any other obvious foreigners. There were several shrines and one large temple complex along the way.
If you reach the top on a good, clear day, you can see Mount Fuji in the distance, but my view was thoroughly obscured by the weather. I was pretty hungry so I ordered Honshimeji Kake (soba noodles with mushrooms) and Amazake (warm fermented rice drink) for lunch at a small shop. There, I met a fellow American that was in Japan for a few days en route to visit family in Vietnam. We chatted and walked back down the mountain together and shared an affinity for steamed red bean paste buns. Drool. I really enjoyed some delicious food in Japan!
Once I got back to the city, I headed straight for one of their famous Cat Cafes. I arrived, ready to be showered with love and affection from exotic kitties, but was kind of underwhelmed. There were way more people there than I expected and the cats were only interested in you if you had food. I tried several different toys, but none of them were interested in playing. Just food. You pay by the hour at these places (there are also owl cafes and bunny cafes) and I was about to leave when I met a group of Americans. One or two were marines stationed elsewhere in Japan and the others were just visiting. They invited me to karaoke and the infamous Robot Cafe show, so I figured WTH since it was my last night.
We rented a traditional private booth at a karaoke bar to kill time before the robot show. Apparently unlimited drinks came with the rental, no doubt to supply liquid courage to shy singers. One dude was confident in his skills without an alcoholic crutch and sang a pretty legit Sinatra. The rest of us, were your typical tone-deaf karaoke-ers. This was my first time ever singing Karaoke but I've known the song I would sing for years now: Before He Cheats by Carrie Underwood. If you know me, you know this is an odd song choice because I am no fan of country music; in fact I think this is the only Carrie Underwood song I know. It's just fun to mock-sing with a raspy drawl. So, check that off the bucket list. The other musical selections spanned several genres and decades including Britney Spears, TLC, Missy Elliot, Shaggy and some other more recent songs that I didn't know because I rarely listen to the radio these days.
So last but not least was the robot show, which I will attempt to describe but honestly you just have to see it to fully understand and appreciate it. It's not cheap but one of the guys offered to pay for my ticket so that was awesome. We were front row for all the crazy, loud, neon, random action. It was like a mashup of Japanese pop culture; like a live action anime featuring a variety of costumes, robots, epic battles followed by energetic dancing and singing. And some weird skit about a couple of Santa's reindeer beating the crap out of him. (Not sure which two but my money would be on Dancer and Prancer.)
It was a late night to say the least and I didn't get much sleep so my final challenge was getting myself and my luggage back to the airport for my 11ish flight back to the states. I grot a seat on a shuttle bus and everything went smoothly until I arrived in Dallas. It's so stupid that you have to recheck your bags and go through security again when you literally just came from an international flight. I narrowly arrived at my connected and then a few hours later I landed in Charlotte. My bag didn't make it onto the same flight as me, but the airport promised to fly the bag to GSP and then have it delivered to my parents house the next day. Annoying, but really not a big deal in the gran scheme of things. Traveling solo for so long has really helped me put things into perspective.
First off, my flight here from Bangkok was pretty terrible and I do not recommend Bangkok Airlines or the Siem Reap airport, but you don't really have a choice with the latter. My plane was sitting on the tarmac with no explanation for at least 30 minutes (the flight is only an hour) and the air con vents in my row weren't working so I spent the flight fanning myself in vain with a safety instruction card but I still got pretty sweaty. The airline is also incredibly wasteful; it's completely unnecessary to give people a moist towelette before takeoff and a crappy in-flight meal (with no vegetarian option I might add) for barely a one hour flight. I was also slightly disappointed to receive American dollars when I withdrew money from the ATM. I quickly learned that it's the standard currency here (at least for tourists and travelers) but you can get some 100 and 1000 Cambodian riel notes here and there as change (instead of US coins).
Admittedly I had very limited knowledge of Siem Reap and Cambodia for that matter when I first included it in my itinerary months ago. I thought Siem Reap was just a temple or two but it turns out there are 100 square kilometers of temples and other ancient ruins scattered around this area, which is unlike anything else I've ever seen. It's a UNESCO World Heritage site, brings in tourists by the busload and it's even part of their national flag. So the flag also kinda functions like a perpetual advertisement, reminding you of how awesome their ancient architecture is, and that you are missing out if you don't come see it! Brilliant.
Seriously, Rome and Athens ain't got nothin' on Siem Reap.
Angkor Wat: The Main One
The main attraction of the Siem Reap temples is Angkor Wat itself, which translates to Capital Temple and is according to Wikipedia is the largest religious monument in the world. It was originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu during the reign of King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century but it soon transitioned to a Buddhist temple before the turn of the 13th century.
It's surrounded by a large moat and is west-facing so the sunrises are supposed to be spectacular, but also super crowded with tourists, so I don't think it's worth getting up that early. As I walked up the first few steps toward the bridge, I was talked into renting a tour guide for $15 since I didn't do a ton of research in advance. He spoke decent English and gave me lots of great insight, but also walked me right through the mini market to the left of the temple where I was mobbed by merchants yelling at me to buy their stuff.
Here are some of my humble pictures but there are way better ones online.
Bayon: The One With The Faces
I really liked the rather serene faces, or maybe it was several variations of the same face at this temple. It was built by the Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII in the late 12th or early 13th century. The faces are thought to symbolize either the king himself or the bodhisattva of compassion.
Ta Prohm: The One With The Trees/Featured in Tomb Raider
This one is your Hollywood-induced picture perfect image of what all ancient temples in forests in movies look like - except it's real life. It was built by the same King Jayavarman VII from Bayon and was meant to be a forest monastery and university for Mahayana Buddhist monks. I love how much nature has started reclaiming the temple ruins. It really inspires your imagination and makes you feel like Indiana Jones or Laura Croft, maybe because parts of the 2001 Tomb Raider movie starring Angeline Jolie were filmed here and no doubt inspired her to adopt her now 14-year-old Cambodian son Maddox in 2002.
Tickets are pretty expensive and there's really no way to get around it because guards check your pass at every temple. A one day pass is $20, the three day, which I opted for, is $40 and a 7 day pass is $60 and you can only get them at this giant booth a few km south of Angkor Wat. Then there's the cost of transportation, either a bicycle, motorbike, tuk-tuk, car, mini-van or bus, except my bike was free to use from my hotel.
There's the small loop which is relatively close together and includes the most famous sites of Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm and a few other sites that are stoptional. No matter what time you go, these spots are always covered with tourists like ants swarming a lollipop. This is the area that I spent two days and over 100 km bicycling. I probably could have done it in a day if I didn't get lost a few times and if I didn't have to bike 10 km each way to and from my hotel.
The big loop includes a bunch of other miscellaneous sites that are more spread out so I hired a tuk tuk driver for $20 for this. Not only do you see a few more temples, but you also see more authentic Cambodian culture and landscape. I loved buzzing by all the little villages and rice paddies. There are also a lot less tourists.
The forecast is always hot with 100% chance of sweating so I am glad I wore my lightweight, quick dry synthetic trekking top and pants from REI. You should cover up shoulders, torsos and knees both to protect yourself from the sun and to be respectful of the people and places you are visiting.
You will have local merchants and kids begging you to buy things at every single temple. Magnets, postcards, elephant pants, scarves, paintings, guidebooks, etc. The kids are the hardest to say no to, as they will always tell you that the money is for school, but they're most likely being exploited because they should actually be in school - not selling trinkets to tourists.
More Advice on Trip Advisor.
I spent two Mondays off in Mysore city and they were both fantastic. Compared to what I've seen on TV and other peoples' own tales of India Travel, it seems like Diet India - cleaner, less crowded and slightly less chaotic, than your typical tourist city like Mumbai or Delhi.
I enjoyed some relaxing massages at a spa called Windflower and visited some local sites like the temples, the cow and the palace. We also had an interesting experience traipsing through a traditional Indian market, complete with seller-stalkers that followed us all the way to our cab, trying to sell us trinkets.
Mysore is a famous spot for all the Ashtanga yogis, so there were tons of cute yoga-themed shops and other ahsrams/teacher training facilities. We stocked up on snacks, essential oils and supplements at Dhatu, a mini, Mysore version of Whole Foods Market.
I could go on, but I think the pictures can say more than I can type.
During our second trip, we drove to the Namdroling [Tibetan Buddhist] Monastery aka the Golden Temple in Bylakuppe. The sights and sounds here were incredible - one of the most inspiring places I've ever been. We arrived during one of their prayer times, so we heard the chanting of hundreds of monks ranging from like 8 - 80 years old. The deep voices were accompanies by deep gongs and the sound traveled through your ears and straight to your soul. It was almost mesmerizing. Not to mention the temples were ornately decorated with ginormous, golden Buddha statues, a rainbow of colors & murals and intricate carvings. I am officially adding Tibet to my travel list!