Friday, July 27, 2012

Japan, Mt Fuji Here We Come


NRT 002We leave Atlanta Hartsfield and thirteen hours later we are touching down in “The Land Of The Rising Sun”.





It is about 4pm in the afternoon as we board a train from Narita Airport headed to the outskirts of Tokyo. An hour and a half later we exit at Jimbocho Station. After circling the block, only one time, we end up at Sakura Hotel Jimbocho.


NRT 038For about US$50 per night per person including breakfast, we check into a dorm-style room with shared bath.

An inexpensive way to stay in the heart of Tokyo.




Back at Jimbocho Station, we are off to visit the world busiest railroad station, with 3.6 million passengers a day, Shinjuku. Outside the station reminds us of New York City with bustling sidewalks surrounded by tall buildings and flashing neon lights.



NRT 025



After descending about thirty feet below ground, we are brought a set of damp towels and take in what is for us a unique atmosphere. With only a Japanese menu, it's point and smile as we order.



NRT 033At least there is a picture of beer and gyoza. Dinner is served.








Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Laos, Morning Market, Vang Vieng


It's our last day in Vang Vieng and we are up early to visit the “must see” Morning Market. Our first thought is to take a tuk tuk there but even this early in the morning the prices are ridiculous. Although not much in dollars, 30,000 kip is too much for this journey and it motivates us to get hoofing.



080Pass temples and street vendors selling fresh raw rice we cover the distance to the market relatively quick and feel good about holding onto our kip.







081Rice For Sale On The Street


The Morning Market sort of turns out the way I expected it to be except for the fresh fish heads and meats sprawled out on long tables. The meats seemed like they belonged at a butcher's shop instead of a morning market.


085A one stop, I am interested in various kinds of meats, ones that are being or have already been grilled.

Strips on a bamboo ring have peaked my interest and after an almost comical inquiry, I decide to give it a try.



I am still not sure what I ate but it had a “jerky” texture, tasted good and was sprinkled with sesame seeds.

With a five hour or so bus ride ahead of us, some fresh fruits and breads for the road does not seem like such a bad idea. I pick out a childhood favorite, tamarind then make some more exotic choices.


089For less than US$2, I have fruit to last me a day or two including a new taste to my palate, manho.







Sunday, July 22, 2012

Laos, Dining With A Family Guy



022With all of it's uniqueness and surrounding beauty there is still one thing that is a little interesting about Vang Vieng.

I set out to get to the bottom of it but it's hypnotic effect captures me and I am hooked like a fish.




191After another delicious bowl of noodle soup and a few glasses of Beer Lao, I am so relaxed that I practically have to be waken up to leave the restaurant.




Not such a bad thing for having to dine with a “Family Guy”, all a part of the experience of being in Vang Vieng.



Saturday, July 21, 2012

Laos, The Music of The Cave


One of the advantages of having local tour guides is the benefit of their knowledge of things you would not think about.


155This knowledge does not have to be of a serious nature like knowing the location of a beehive or preventing me from falling down a thirty foot deep hole.

Sometimes this knowledge can just be about having fun.


Although I have visited a few other caves around the world, I never knew or experienced the joy of playing a stalagmite.

It’s almost like being in a “Light Metal” Rock Band.

Stalagmite On, Dude!



Laos, Cave Loup (Tham Loup)



122Leaving Elephant Cave we cross a man made log bridge then we are walking through muddy fields and pastures to our next destination.




With fresh air and clear skies, I don't mind occasionally slipping in a cool mud hole.

Fortunate for us, we have a local guide with us because our carefree hiking may have stumbled us into a “sting operation”.

Thanks to his advance warning, we avoid a possible temporary change in identity as he navigates us around a massive active beehive.





A huge money transaction ($20,000) and we are equipped to venture into one of the dark sides of being in Laos.

After climbing a set of stairs, we are given fair warning of what lies ahead. Wearing just sandals that limits my ability to run, I am both nervous and excited as we descend into the abyss of Cave Loup.



Laos, To Elephant Cave (Tham Xang)



113Leaving Kaeng Nyui Waterfalls, we pass a farmer we had seen earlier and he is still out working in his rice field.





Clouds that in the early morning seem to hang low over the surrounding mountains are now lifted and the scenery is still as splendid as the first time we traveled this way.

Back on the highway, on the outskirts of town we share the road with pedestrians and more cattle most of which are not willing to move out of our way.

Over one bump on the road my “Flip” does a flip and goes flying. I recover it but “Flip” now has a busted eye and won't be quite seeing things the same way.


115At small road bridges we pause at the excitement and laughter of Lao children swimming and playing in the streams below us.

Again, more beautiful Lao scenery. This time not only in it’s landscape but also in it’s people.



Off the main highway, we are bouncing down another gravel road headed for the Nam Song river. Here we board a boat for a quick ride across the rapidly flowing river to visit another important Buddhist temple.

Tham Xang (Elephant Cave) is  known for it's remarkable limestone formation and has prominent Buddha statues displayed around it. 



118Tham Xang (Elephant Cave)



This is only one of many caves in the area. The next two we visit are Cave Loup and Cave Nam both of which turn out to be even more spectacular.




Friday, July 20, 2012

Laos, An Interesting Lunch Menu


Returning from our hike to Kaeng Nyui waterfall, it's time to relax and have some lunch before moving on to our next adventure.



099Along another rapidly flowing stream booths are set up with Asian style seating for us to enjoy a meal in the tranquility of the forest.

We select one and then head over to see what's cooking.



There are no menus to make selections from so what you see is what you get.

We are offered chicken but I opt for a papaya salad that will be freshly made. Along with a couple cans of Beer Lao we should be happy but then I smell rat. Not figuratively but literally I smell and see a group of them being grilled next to the earlier offered chicken. I wonder if they both taste the same.



109Grilled Chicken And ?????



A group of men working in the forest gather around the grill to make their selections and encourage me to try one. Although I am told the field rats taste better than the city ones, like eating a bug in Bangkok, I think I will save that challenge for the next time I visit Laos.


088My papaya salad is delivered and boy does it come with a kick. Made from green papaya, with peanuts and I am told some interesting fish parts, the chili seasoning used on this one sets my hair on fire.



This leaves me wishing I had a colder Beer Lao.



Laos, Small Creatures Unique And Beautiful


In a huge world it is interesting how sometimes we can miss the little things that can be special in their own way. At Kaeng Nyui waterfall, I have a gentle remind of this.


061While taking in the scenery, my attention is captured by the little life that goes on almost unnoticed here.

A few what looks like long spiked fuzz balls hangs out on a log while another one scurries along the ground.








What I think is a leaf on another nearby log turns out to be alive. All creatures unique and beautiful.



092Amazing still is when I share my lunch with my aunts and they decide to take some of it to go.







Laos, Kaeng Nyui Waterfall


110After a beautiful ride along a sometimes mountainous gravel road, our hog comes to rest at the entrance of Kaeng Nyui waterfall.

After paying a small entrance fee, we begin a hike that I am convinced will not be a disappointment.



099At the beginning of the trail we pause for a few moments in an area with different food vendors and decide that on the way back we will stop here for lunch.




Above the level of human noise, the relaxing sounds of nearby rushing water reminds me why we are here and we press on.

I am not sure if it rained here earlier in the morning but moisture is lingering in the air and some portions of the path are slippery. In some areas, the vegetation forms a natural canopy and is so dense the morning light struggles to break through. The trees are alive with vivid jungle colors and often a bird or two can be heard chirping in the distance, no doubt hidden among the tree leaves.


050The path to Kaeng is filled with many tranquil distractions as there are numerous streams and smaller waterfalls in every direction.









There is even a small suspension bridge that adds nicely to the picturesque scenery.  


068After numerous stops, the sounds and sight of Kaeng Nyui touch my senses.

One last set of steps through an area of banana plants and we will be there.



The hike has been a little more challenging than expected. However, soon we are standing on a small hill looking down at the base of the waterfall as the descending water crashes into it.






The magnificence of the thundering sound and the splashing spray of the water pulls us in. We cautiously go down a slippery path to get a close up and more splendid view.


104From the base of the waterfall, I stare up into the heavens.

A few hundred feet above me I can see where the water begins it's crashing descent.








108I imagine that in the height of the rainy season, this is even more spectacular.

There is an amazing thing about standing here that everyone should at least have an opportunity in life to experience.




078Nature can sometimes be such an awe-inspiring and wonderful thing.







Thursday, July 19, 2012

Laos, Riding A Hog In Vang Vieng


Although we had made a loose commitment the night before to rent bicycles, I wake up thinking we would cover more ground faster on a hog. Some quick checking and we discover that this can done for about the same price as renting two bicycles.

For about US$4, we hand over our passports and with a crude map set off to explore the countryside around Vang Vieng with a mandatory first stop at a gas station. The sites we would like to visit are spread out in different directions so we make what we think is a logical plan.


113Our first stop is to visit a waterfall about 10km out of town. From there we will then continue on to Elephant Cave then double back to the Blue Lagoon.

A busy day by any stretch of the imagination.


Going down a gravel dirt road, pass cool villages seeing farmers working rice fields with an awesome landscape in the background, I quickly realize that we have embarked on an impossible mission.


111The views and scenery here are too splendid to not take as much time as possible to enjoy.






097Furthermore, we have not even reached our first destination, Yui Waterfall.






Laos, Delicious Street Food In Vang Vieng


While eating street food during travel is often frown upon by many, it is not something that I particularly shy away from. Remembering the day when what are now called “Gourmet Trucks” use to be called “Roach Coaches”, I know that there can be some culinary gems found in eating street food. I discover one such gem in Vang Vieng.


095Popular around town are pancake, crepe stands.

However, like snowflakes they are not all the same.




I am fortunate that I come across one right in front of a huge hotel being constructed in the town. Unfortunately, these stands are not named, so in Vang Vieng you may have to do some some venturing to find this one or a good one like it.

Here the crepes are freshly made and you can have your choice of various combinations including chocolate, peanut butter, banana or even coconut.

My choice, a fat free, no calorie, lemon, honey and sugar. Angelic and delightful.



Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Laos, Afternoon In Vang Vieng


After what seemed like a short bus ride across a beautiful lush green and sometimes mountainous landscape, we arrive at a bus station just outside of Vang Vieng.

Although it is a short walk into town, most of us are transported by a free tuk tuk to a drop point at Malany Villa.  


094With no accommodations arranged for the next two nights, we inquire about rooms available at Malany.

We decide to go for broke and get a room with air-conditioning, a large bathroom, a queen and a double bed along with a TV for US$10.


I find it a very cool custom that shoes are not allowed to be worn inside the hotel. A rack is provided at the main entrance for them or you can carry them to your room.

From the open lobby of Malany you can easily see some of the picturesque scenery that makes Vang Vieng a popular stop for those traveling to or from Luang Prabang.


018 - CopyA cold beer in hand and we are walking the streets to a river that flows through the town.

From here tubing and kayaking trips can be easily arranged.




As usual the streets are lined with shops and restaurants but there is something strange and unique about many of the restaurants. It seems many of the locals and tourists here are into having friends and old fashioned values while dining.

Jennifer Aniston and Peter Griffin are pretty popular here and you can see them over and over and over again while you are dining.


095More of a street food kind of person when traveling, I stop at a popular venue around town.

A Pancake/Crepe making stand.




With all types of combinations available, I choose a fat free, lemon, honey and sugar one. Angelic and delicious, you can bet the farm I'll be back to try a few other tasty combinations.



016Vang Vieng Riverfront


After our slight and worthwhile delay, we arrive at the riverfront to take in the gorgeous scenery surrounding Vang Vieng. While others enjoy the river for recreation, others use it as a way of life.


026I relax and watch as a fishing boat with a crew of four including a young child troll and work the sometimes fast flowing river.








For me, it is beautiful and majestic to witness this simple way of fishing as a huge white net is repeatedly cast overboard. I am not sure what is being caught but I never see “the big one that got away”.


035The sun is slowly setting behind cloudy skies but its light still gives the flowers, river and colorful stilt houses a sparkle.

All of this makes for a splendid and tranquil end to the day along the riverfront.






As promised, I stop for another fat free sinful delight and get an unexpected surprise. I am offered to share in the dinner of the lady that had earlier made us pancakes.

I am handed a leaf filled with meat, noodles and vegetables along with seasonings that's dripping with an oily dressing. A lettuce leaf type wrap that is not politically or “omg, I'm going to get fat” correct.


041On the way back to Malany Villa it is time again for what has become sort of self-funded scientific project.





After another awesome Lao massage, I wonder how long I can lay here like a marshmallow melting over a campfire before they force me to leave?



Laos, Tuk Tuk To The Golden Temple


The night passes too quickly as the morning sun sneaks it way through the curtain cracks of our first floor hotel room. It will be a short morning as we will leave Vientiane on a bus at 10am for Vang Vieng.

I rise but not necessarily shine for a quick tour of what is considered the most important temple in Laos.


006Just outside of Dragon Guesthouse we find a tuk tuk driver lounging around that will take us to The Golden Temple for about US$5 round trip.




Although I am sure you can still bargain for tuk tuk fares, it is interesting that this tuk tuk has posted fares sanctioned by the government to popular destinations around the city.


005From a stop at a local gas station, if my calculations are right, the cost of gasoline is pretty high here. About US$5 per gallon.

Luckily, I think a tuk tuk gets about 500-600 miles to the gallon.





002The Golden Temple


It is still early enough in the morning that when we arrive at The Golden Temple the area is still relatively vacant and quiet. A walk across a huge open area where pilgrims gather during religious festivals and I can soon see close up some of the other beautiful temples here.


008 - CopyFrom a sign posted outside of The Golden Temple I learn that some of Buddha's bones are buried here.









With a limited amount of time I only get to enjoy this temple from the outside. There is a small admission fee if you want to tour inside the temple.


009 - CopyAgain, I am in awe of the skill and craftsmanship on display as I look at these splendid buildings.

More time should be allowed to enjoy the scene and serenity here on a morning like this.




018Roasted corn is not the first food that comes to mind when I think about breakfast, however, it is hard to pass up when you can get two of them fresh for about a buck.




Enjoying one of them on the back of a tuk tuk and I think can life get any better than this.