Saturday, 25 July 2009

Southern Thailand Phuket and Ko Tao

20090724_055962_DIG_THI_RTW_9999_A350_Coral View Resort Ko Tao

Our first dip into Thailand was literally that, after a short plane change in Bangkok (wonderful airport by the way) we entered south Thailand, the land of the beaches, Islands and diving. A few days in Phuket, was all it took to chill right out, and then we jumped on a bus and an overnight sleeper boat (the kind of thing fishing fleets use I think, not very comfortable, it resembled a youth hostel on the seas) and arrived in Ko Tao. Ko Tao is one of 3 main islands on the eastern side of Thailand. Ko Phanang – is the party capital, not really our scene. Ko Samui – is beaches and expensive resorts, and really Ko Tao is diving. Urvi found an amazing little resort on a very relaxed part of the island called coral view. It was on Sai Deng beach, and was/is (I am doing this blog from the beach with the sun beaten down, and the sea a balmy 26ish degrees c) the perfect place to relax and take all the pain out of travelling. There is nothing to do here, apart from enjoy the weather, enjoy the sea and dive. We took a hillside bungalow with great views of the ocean, and have literally just chilled.

Hopefully the pictures will say more on this one than my writing!

Second Scuba diver in the family!!

Ever since we have been talking about doing this world trip I have been wanting to dive the great barrier reef. One of the most amazing natural wonders on this earth, the reef is considered by some to be the biggest living organism in the world. Whichever way you take it the great barrier reef, is a sight to behold, and it is beat seen from under the water where all the action really is. My dream was for both Urvi and I to dive the great barrier reef, and when I completed my Scuba course in Barbados in 2007 we were a step closer.

20090724_056057_DIG_THI_RTW_9999_Z100_Urvi Scuba Diving Ko Tao

We are now a huge leap closer as from today we have a second qualified diver in the family!! Urvi completed her course and has joined the underwater world. On the last 2 dives I joined her and it was a wonderful feeling exploring this new world together.

Being underwater puts you on a very different level; the first thing is that you can’t talk! So I can’t be bossy !!!!!! secondly and most importantly is that there has to be complete and equal trust between you and your dive buddy, this is really important. Hopefully this will be good for us.

All this psychoanalysis apart, the beauty of the underwater world is just indescribable and even my very amateurish underwater photography does not do justice to the world that lies beneath the waves. I am personally really proud of Urvi (despite of her fears of swimming and being in water) and the fact that she has completed to course. Neither of us are likely to become world champion divers but I feel proud and privileged that we join a fairly small group of people who can explore the world of the oceans.

The great barrier reef is now on, and we will jump in together, another dream realised. Love it!!!

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Stage 1 complete, only 5 stages to go!!

Well we have come to the end of the first stage of our trip. Russia – Mongolia – China – Tibet – Japan – HK. It has been a wonderfully diverse experience. We planned much of this first stage from home. So it will be now interesting to see how we go as we step into totally unknown territory of south East Asia – Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos.

From there

Stage 3 – India/Nepal
Stage 4 - Australia/New Zealand
Stage 5 – South and Central America
Stage 6 – Middle East and Africa.

We might disappear into radio silence for a while as the net connections are iffy, and also the beaches beckon!!!

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Hong Kong – it’s not China at all!

After the wilds of china we didn’t really know what to expect from Kong Hong (HK). I remember sitting in my sisters’ apartment in New York City (another place we plan to get to on this trip) and watching the expansive handover ceremony of the island back from British rule to the Chinese. Over 10 years have passed now since then and i wondered, would HK have turned into another typical Chinese megopolis?? The answer to that was a blunt and resounding no!!

20090713_055527_DIG_HKG_RTW_9999_A350_Hong Kong by Night

Right from the moment you step onto HK soil you feel like you are in a different country. As we currently live in England there is a slight sense of coming home, all the road signs are familiar and the street names resemble London! But that’s where the UK influence kind of stops (oh and the fact they play cricket here!!)

The immigration check was long and frustrating. We had taken a train from Shanghai to Guangzhou, and then planned to take one of the buses that ply the road to HK. That’s fine but there are the china exits and HK entry points to content with. You have to repeatedly haul all your bags off the coach and go through the immigration. It is no fun.

Just by way of intro, HK Island is across the harbour (away from china) from Kowloon. Kowloon is off mainland China and the first bits of proper china are Guangzhou and Shenzhen. The famous views of HK are from 2 vantages points one is from Kowloon looking over to HK island, amazing view, and the second is from Victoria peak, that is on the HK island, and looks down to the mass of ex profitable word financial companies. From Victoria Peak you also see the harbour and Kowloon.

Anyway, on arriving to HK you are greeted with a different vista to that of china, people speak a different language, eat a variety of world foods, and the people reminded us more of Japan. There was limited loud raucous shouting on the metro, and people seemed far more professional. I have to say this was probably most true on the main HK Island. Kowloon (the bit with all the famous street markets, is very very down to earth, and you feel you are in a mix of NYC suburb, Mumbai street, and shanghai market – it is crazy!!!

Urvi had upgraded us from the usual backpacker hostels (which are decidedly unsafe by all accounts – Thanks Kieran!!!) to a plush hotel with a 32nd floor roof top swimming pool with amazing views of the harbour. We loved the hotel (Metro Park Causeway), it was right on the Metro and the dinky Trams that whizz along the island. So thanks to Urvi regular swim sessions were planned and I even got to the gym 4 times in our stay! (When you have a view of HK from the 32nd floor while jogging, anyone would go to the gym!!!)

It safe to say we absolutely loved HK. There is a great energy to all parts of the place, from the markets of Kowloon to the city chic of the main island. I felt it was still a very inspirational place, and if you like cities, the views that greet you here, are absolutely out of this world. We spent 5 days, simply taking the place in, spending time in the main areas and also a day on Lantau Island. Lantau is about 30 mins by boat from HK, and it is like going to a tiny Caribbean island. Its green, laid back, has nice beaches and is just a refreshing break from the nonstop pace of HK. We also spent some time in Kowloon, which is a different experience. I have now seen the most amazing Computer and video games market you can imagine, and also now know where all the stuff we buy from EBay comes from. 2 huge floors full of everything PC and games addicts could dream of and more! It was fun.

The food in HK is diverse and wonderful. The street stalls and small local eateries will rustle up anything you want, but in addition there are amazing international options to sample. There are many high quality malls and dotted within these there are some fantastic place to eat. We had a lunch one such place called dressed up salads (right near the city check in desk in the IFC building). You get a huge huge bowl full of the best salads you could want, and all for a reasonable price.

On a couple of evenings we met up with Urvi’s college friend - Mayura. She is working in HK and has been there for about 1 year. On the first night we went out to Lan Kwai Fong. This is the real happening area where there are lots of places to eat, just about any type of food you could wish for, there were Russian places, Spanish, brit pubs, American etc etc etc, we went to an amazing Italian restaurant, which served the best pasta and salads – it was great.

Generally speaking, HK is full of people who are young and ambitious. This kind of vibe does appeal to us, Kowloon is where the real hard work is done and there are still loads of small companies importing and exporting things around Asia and beyond. We liked both faces of the city. In 20 years, china may have changed the look and feel of this place entirely, who knows! But from speaking to people their focus is Shanghai, and they are almost happy to let Hong Kong slide. I don’t think this will happen, there is too much going on there, and the people are too resourceful.

This is a beautiful gem, that can’t be missed on any trip to china. Make it you exit route, and you will enjoy a dynamic yet relaxing end to your trip, and comparing it to china will give you a different perspective on both HK and china.

From HK we jump on the super speedy catamaran to Macau to get our flight to Phuket. Beaches and sun here we come!!!!

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

A boyhood dream to come true

Ever since I went plane spotting with my brother as a young kid I have shared his fascination with planes. I never wanted to be Top Gun and fly fighter jets, like he did, but I was so taken by these amazing examples of human ingenuity.

I was always particularly amazed by the big jumbo jets that would take off effortlessly and look so beautiful. Even now whenever we pass an airport I drive Urvi mad by slowing to look at the planes, and remember those days with by brother.

Seeing the jumbo jets, I always wondered what it would be like to fly on the top deck, in the fancy classes, with the plush seats and the exclusive staircase. This dream has remained with me to this day, and ever since the newest most advanced jet come out – the airbus A380, I have promised myself that one day we will fly on that exclusive top deck.

Well thanks to Urvi that day is gonna come much sooner than I ever thought. We are taking the super jumbo from Singapore to Sydney and we are doing it in posho class. This is a real dream come true, so I guess I should thank my brother for seeding the dream and Urvi for making it come true.

The funny thing is that we were one moment away from booking a first class ‘suite’ which were booked out. If we had booked the suite class, we would have been on the lower deck of the plane!!!! Still I think that would have been fun too.

However this is going to be 7hours of me realising a childhood dream, and acting like child with all the James bond gadgets you could think of!!!!!

Friday, 10 July 2009

All she wants is a pair of Levis and a job at the US embassy

China has a pretty young population, and in many ways they are very western, particularly in style and to some extent ambition. However I don’t think they are very western in thought or outlook. This is a very good thing most of the time. We should stop thinking that the western way of life or the western approach to life is the only way, it simply is not true. The east has huge amounts to teach and the MTV CNN culture we all seem to grow up with is simply 1 dimensional in my opinion.

Having said this I think that those of us who live in countries like the UK have a freedom of thought and crucially the ability to question both in our minds and out in the open that is soooo lacking in China. To then meet people who do show some ambition in their thinking and are colourful in their approach to life is a real pleasure. While in Shanghai we met such a person. Kate. She is from a smaller town in China but is now living in Shanghai, working as an intern at an advertising company. We met her and also Max (student from Lille, France, also doing an internship) just before we left for Japan, and we spent some time with them once we got back to Shanghai.

Kate was one of the high lights of Shanghai for us, she was sooo full of life and really gave us an interesting perspective on China and the youth of china. She had such great English (again not universally a great thing) and was really well read and willing to debate. We spent a few evenings just talking through our relative experiences, politics, cultures, etc etc. Despite being unlikely to travel and see the world, she knew about it, and she wanted to know much more. This kind of hunger is rare in people who have everything handed to them on a plate, and in the west this happens all too often. What impressed me most was that she had a plan, and she had ambition. This doesn’t have to be to become president or a CEO, and in china this kind of ambition is still the reserve of the privileged classes I feel. However she had a strong sense of what was achievement for her.

We spent a really nice day with Kate, Max and Richard (a friend of Kate’s from her home Uni) we visited some places which could be said to be off the beaten track for most and really just enjoyed Shanghai in a new way. While walking around we talking about this and that and past a Levis store. Kate was saying that one of her short term ambitions was to own a really pair of Levis. And her longer term ambition was to work at the US embassy. This fairly casual comment really struck me. Not for what her ambitions were, but for the fact that she had some.

I guess it strikes me that we can spend time allow the tide to take us from one thing to another or we can have some goals and swim towards them. I am not saying that they have to be far away, but it sure easier to get to where you wanna go when you know where it is!

It is unfortunate that Kate can’t read the blog in china, but I would hope that she will be working in the US embassy soon, and going to the bulldog pub after work (next door to the embassy) in her Levi jeans!

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Riding the best rails in the World

So you have boarded, found you seat and seen the ‘pilot’ make his final checks, the journey starts with a cool smooth easing away, before the acceleration hits you and you are flying. This is no jet plane, and we are not on the Airbus A380!! This is the Japanese Shinkansen. The Bullet train.

Actually there are many Shinkansen services, and basically they are the superfast super smooth intercity services that ping up and down the country. Running on dedicated lines they are really quick (over 275Km/h and NEVER late. You can set your watch by the departure times.

We took a few Shinkansen trains and basically travel the whole length of the country using these trains and they are a real joy to use.

Few words of note – always look to make a reservation, as the trains are popular. Always use you Japan rail, and never lose it (!) the journeys we took would have cost us around 70,000 yen – the pass was 29,000. Grab some food before your flight (sorry, train) you do get a trolley service but it is nice to eat a bento box on the train, makes it feel even more like a flight! Get to the station on time, people are all soooo punctual, that things kind move at a pace, and as the safety signs say, you should never rush for your train! (Try telling the brits that!

It is a great experience and really makes travelling and seeing Japan a joy. You don’t have to enjoy trains to enjoy the Shinkansen; just the slickness of the service and the sense of flying on the ground is enough!

New experiences in Japan - The Onsen and the Capsule Hotel


Whilst being in Japan we have tried a few new things and really enjoyed them. One of them was the Onsen. Basically the Tradition Japanese public baths, many would say that this is the last thing of traditional Japan to remain and is a much loved part of the culture. Simply put an Onsen will have one or a few hot baths with a range of mineral properties. You enter the ‘complex’ wash yourself and then soak in these baths for as long as you want (or as long as you body can take!). You use the provided towel to scrub your skin and cleanse yourself of all the toxins and gunk that collects during normal life. There are loads of these around Japan, and many have something special about them, for example the location, the views etc. Whilst in Hokkaido (northernmost region of Japan – basically in Russia!!!) we went to a really amazing hot spring town called Noboribetsu. Built on a natural hot spring the Onsen we went to was huge – many pools, some outside, and some so hot you can only stay in for 2 minutes!! It was a really amazing experience, and bizarrely relaxing but tiring at the same time!

The water was clearly very therapeutic as both Urvi and I can out pretty chilled out and very clean!! Urvi couldn’t stop admiring the renewed quality of her skin, and the ‘glow’ that emanated from it!!

It’s all good fun, but we warned, Swimming cosies are a no no – how guys and gals are separate and towels are provided to cover and to use as a flannel.

Capsule Hotel

Everyone knows that real estate in Japan cost the earth (!) therefore staying the night anywhere short of the local train station waiting room, is expensive. We are back packing so of course ‘hotels’ are generally banned from our plans, but in Japan the funky solution they have come up with is to stack people neatly and comfortably in capsules rather than give them individual rooms.

When you think about the budget airlines do exactly the same! Strip away anything that is not essential to you – so in the case of the capsule that’s EVERYTHING apart from the bed space and the walls for privacy, and you get the idea! Even the door is a basic screen, rather than something you hang the do not disturb sign on!

We are staying in a capsule for our very last night in Japan, before we head out to the airport. Tomorrow. First impressions are that it is a great, simple and relaxing way to get a night’s sleep. That’s all it is!! So – you check in, get a locker where you keep your bags, go up to the capsule floor, and find your cubby hole. As I say, there is a comfortable mattress, light, A/C and a tiny TV showing the basic Japanese TV channels. Guys and Gals are separate; in fact most capsules will not allow Gals at all. There are the traditional Japanese baths, and that’s it!! I would not suggest spending days on end in the capsule, it does get a bit confined I would think. Also having to go backwards and forwards to your luggage is no fun, but for a night or 2 it’s great, and darn cheap! Oh they even give you pyjamas!!!

Saturday, 4 July 2009

General throughts on Japan

Before we came to Japan our thoughts (I think this is common for most people) on the country was that it will be expensive, dripping with technology and people who are fashionable, rich and a bit arrogant. Food would be a problem, but getting around would be easy.

Our impression now (after a few weeks) is that this place is special. The people are amazing, and everything just works sooo well. I think it takes a lot for us to be amazed, or impressed with things, but I can definitely say we have been overwhelmed by Japan.

This place is special.

The biggest thing is that the people are so amazingly polite and ordered. Japan is the world headquarters of customer service and politeness. I thought the endless ‘hi! How are you today!’ that you hear in stores in the US, was enough but here, people take the ‘customer is king’ concept to a totally new level. We went to MacDonald’s to get a green tea ice cream; they had run out, and the girl was so so sorry that she could not serve us this, she was almost tearful! Another funny example, was I went to the food court in a big store, they had just opened, so I was in the first group of people entering, EVERY member of staff ‘greeted’ us as we entered, as if we were walking into the Ritz. Things are so polite, that even the road construction workers, say hello to you as you walk past their site, and when ticket attendants leave the carriage, they turn and bow to the passengers. I could go on, and on. The basic thing is that people are so nice, bother to new people and to each other. To me it seems that society is kind of set up where people will think of the person in front of them first before themselves. It makes for such a nice travelling experience.

Having said all of this, people are a little reserved. They will not easily open a conversation with you (or anyone for that matter). Japan is not a noisy place full of people gossiping and yelling at each other (which is China in a nutshell!).

The other major point we noted were that things all JUST WORK PERFECTLY. Trains run exactly to time, and are spotless; ticketing systems are all logical and perfect; and navigation is a breeze. You know what to expect from people and from systems here, and that is nice.

What we have found is that things are all pretty new, but you don’t feel that you have arrived on to some moon base; things are not futuristic and unrecognisable. Japan is very clean, but not sterile; however people all take pride in their spaces, and in public spaces. Of course Japan is known for technology and it is everywhere, but Japan is not full of technology just for the sake of it - although you could say the fully automatic toilets, with heated seats, built in spray and ‘intense deodorisers’ is taking things a bit far! They use technology here to make this easier, or speed things up. People are not lazy due to the technology but it is there to make life easier. The only exception to that would be the taxis where the doors open and close by themselves! That’s probably a bit lazy, but pretty cool.

A simple example of functional advancements is the phones. They are miles and miles ahead of what we have in the UK and light years ahead of the states. People have money on the phones and use them to make small payments, also coupons and vouchers are all stored on the phones so when you go to the supermarket you have all you discount with you. When not paying for things on the phone, you can watch live TV, and a host of other things from the handset. It is amazing. Of course what this means is that most Japanese are glued to their phones, and metro trains are full of people gawping into the screens!!

Japan is notably homogeneous. There seems to be very very few foreign communities here, this is clearly very different to Europe and the US. This was no problem for all the reasons given above, but there is a strong sense that Japan would be a difficult place to come and settle in. The Japanese want to keep their culture fairly pure, however with a population that is reducing year o year, this approach might be put under pressure as a skills shortfall opens.

For me Japan is totally a country of cities – Greater Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Nagoya make up the majority of the population and in total 80% of the population live in a city. This is not a bad thing for a traveller here, there are many amazing places outside of the cities also, and when you get out there, it feels so relaxing, due to the sparse population.

I guess in summary, we have come to love Japan, we will only be here for 3 weeks in total, but the place has an amazing feeling to it. All the hassles of life are made easier here, so you are left with time and space to enjoy and experience other more valuable parts of life. The people are all really nice, and again this makes the travelling experience really positive. I walk around always smiling, because people smile back! Sure they are reserved and maybe a little to clinical in their approach, but when things are as well thought through and efficiently run as they are here, why is this a problem!

I would warn you though, if you take a Shinkansen, never get to the station late – hoping that the train might be a bit late. In the last 20 years the average delay on a bullet train has been less than 1 minute. These things run to an atomic clock!! And you can never jump a queue to get your train!

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Tokyo - The City that never switches off the lights!

I have found that often when blogging there is so much one can say that you end up saying nothing! Tokyo is a case in point – we fell in love with Tokyo, but I can’t tell you exactly why! It wasn’t the technology paradise that I was expecting, but there is enough gadgetry to keep you busy, it wasn’t to mass throng of humanity - because once you spend any time in India other place simply feel underwhelming in terms of crowd and population, it definitely is not the history and ancient culture, because thanks to the second world war, most of Tokyo and indeed most of japans big cities were all flattened and had to start from square one – literally.

20090628_054726_DIG_JAP_RTW_9999_A350_Tokyo Shibuyu Area

I think the thing about Tokyo, is the relentless confidence that you see everywhere, and in everyone. People in Tokyo, have a swagger – not an American ‘in your face’ type of confidence, but a much more impressive stance, embedded in quality and style. Everyone and everything in Tokyo is stylish and therefore most of it is expensive. You just have to walk around to see that!

We spent 7 days in Tokyo, for many people that was the total length of their Japan trip! So we did have some time to let the city wash over us. The way we approached the place was by area. There were not a great number of places that one must tick off in Tokyo, so we decided to spend a day or evening in the main areas of the city, these were:

  • Shinjuku – Business and entertainment
  • Shibuya – young trendy and the location of the famous multiple crossing that you see in the pictures
  • Harajuku – young and trendier! Shopping mecca now
  • Ginza – where the mega rich still shop - $270 for a Mango anyone?
  • Akihabara – Electronics Town
  • Roppongi – Party capital, sleeps by day, never sleeps by night
  • Odaiba – reclaimed land, malls, and amazing views of the city
  • Asakusa – where we lived, sight of an amazing temple also

Each of the areas was different, but they all had a buzz to them. You get a pretty big dose of Neon while in Tokyo, there are lights everywhere! And they are on all the time. Also people seem to love shopping here. It is amazing how much they do, and how quickly you can get sucked into the materialistic fervour. I went mad in Akihabara! it is crammed full technology, TVs, Camera, laptops etc. The big things in Japan are the phones which seem many years ahead of Europe. We loved pottering around these shops.

I think that Tokyo is definitely a city where if you lived here, it would feel mighty different. There is a real vibe and buzz to the place, driven many by the young, this buzz would just grow and grow if you lived here. You would also get a feel for just how expensive it is to live here. Tokyo is officially the most expensive city in the world. Staying in a hostel for 30GBP per night, you don’t get the right impression. I am sure it is not easy to live here, and you can see why people are so driven and strive for success – it’s the only way to maintain this lifestyle in this Mecca for all Cities.

Visiting for days doesn’t do the place justice. We saw the above areas in isolation, and didn’t see how it was to live and breathe the city. Also despite being underwhelmed by the volume of people, one has to see the scale of the place in the context of the whole country. Taking the Tokyo metropolitan region there are 32m people living there, this means 1 in 5 Japanese live there. It also makes Tokyo the largest city in the world.

Basically if you are looking for old style culture, delicate leafy suburbia, cool conditions and somewhere that lets you recharge – avoid Tokyo. It will not do any of this. What it will do is give you a hard but friendly shake and blast you with bright lights, and amazing people.

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