Kobe

July 15, 2009 (afternoon)

On the same day that we visited the castle in Himeji, we continued back east and visited Kobe.

Kobe Steak

We came to Kobe for one reason – to try the famous Kobe Steak, which is widely regarded as the best beef in the world.

You can get “Kobe-style” beef in America, but it’s expensive and it’s not the real thing, so I was looking forward to having an authentic Kobe steak in the city of Kobe.  Pnina didn’t care about it all that much (she generally prefers vegetables to beef), but she came along anyhow.

From what we read, Kobe beef is expensive even if you go to the source, but you can get by a little cheaper if you stop by for lunch instead of dinner.  We were cutting it a little close because we had to wait nearly an hour for the train in Himeji (which is, like, unheard-of with Japan’s excellent train system).  Also, it took us a while to figure out which restaurant to try.  We got a few suggestions from the tourist information office by the Kobe train station, but when we arrived at these restaurants we found that they had just stopped serving lunch ten minutes ago (nuts!!).  So we quickly looked around and rushed into the first restaurant we found that was still open for lunch: a place on Ikuta Street called Royal Mopя.  It sounds like a bad name (“mopper”??) but this is actually a Russian-owned place (as you may have guessed by the Cyrillic R) so the actual pronunciation is “Royal Mouriya”, kind of like the mines of Moria in Lord of the Rings.  If the fact that we ate Kobe steak at a Russian restaurant makes you wonder whether we actually tasted the real thing….yeah, it makes us wonder that too.  But, whatever, it was an excellent meal.

Ikuta Road, where we stepped into Royal Mopя for our Kobe steak lunch:

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Before arriving in Kobe, I’d heard a lot of stories about Kobe beef, like that that the cows are fed beer and given massages in order to make their meat as tender as possible.  According to our guide book, and to the folks at Royal Mouriya, these are myths.  The cows are fed various grains which are also used in beer-making, so perhaps that’s the source of the myth.  But the beef is definitely high-quality and it has to meet a lot of strict criteria in order to use the brand name “Kobe Beef”: the cows must be from a particular blood line (Tajima cows), must be raised in Hyogo prefecture for many generations, and the beef must have a BMS (fat hybridization) value of 6 or more.

Our menu basically offered two choices:

  1. Actual Kobe Beef – the real thing, for about 10,000 yen ($100).
  2. Mouriya’s Special Selection – cows that come from a “cousin” bloodline to the real Kobe Tajima cows, and are raised in exactly the same way in a ranch in Yabu city.  These go for 5,000 yen ($50).

We decided we take one of each.  Was the actual Kobe beef any better?  Could we even tell the difference?  In my opinion they were too similar to tell much of a difference.  Pnina’s palette is more subtle, so she could tell the difference and she says that, yes, the real Kobe beef is better.  But she doesn’t think it’s worth paying this much for either of them 🙂

I’d heard that Kobe Beef steak is surprisingly small, that when you get it you think “I’m paying all that money for this little thing??”  But I also heard that after you take a bite and understand how rich the steak is, you realize that even the tiny cut you got is more than you can handle.  Well, the steak we got wasn’t very large (about 130 grams) but the surprising thing about it was that it was very flat; it was only a quarter of an inch thick, but it had huge surface area.

The steaks that Pnina and I ate – one was actual Kobe Beef and the other was Mouriya’s Kobe-like beef (I forgot which was which):

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We sat at a bar and had our own personal chef cooking our food on a hibachi plate, right in front of us.  The chef began by doing some fancy knife work to extract all fat out of the steaks.  He then used these fatty chunks as “cooking oil”, first to grill the vegetables that were served on the side, and then to cook the beef itself.  He cut the steak into bite-size pieces and cooked each piece individually, making sure to grill it on all sides, before serving it and moving onto the next piece.  That was probably the best part about our Kobe steak experience – the meat couldn’t have been served any fresher.  We ate some of these steak pieces as they are, some with salt-and-pepper, and some dipped in a really wonderful sauce made of soy and lemon.

Soup for appetizer:

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And salad and bread.  So far everything is tasty and served on immaculate china:

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Our chef goes to work cooking the fatty pieces in preparation for grilling other things on them:

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No photos of the cooked steak here – we were too busy enjoying them 🙂

A nice cup of coffee and some sorbet to finish the meal:

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So was the meal worth the money?  Yes, in the sense that it filled my curiosity to see what Kobe beef is really all about.  Also, it was clearly a good steak, and it was easily the best service I’ve seen at a steak restaurant.  But in my opinion the fillet mignon at Ruth’s Chris is just as good (partly because it’s also served very fresh on a hot plate), and it doesn’t cost nearly as much (especially once you factor the whole flight-to-Japan part into it).

Himeji

July 15, 2009 (morning)

After a day in Nara we headed further west to the city of Himeji.

We headed out early in the morning on a week day, so for the first time we got to see masses of people on the train system.  But we didn’t see those people you hear about who are paid to push people into the train compartments.

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Pnina looking at one of the many statues on the main street, not far from the Himeji train station:

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The Castle

The reason we chose to visit Himeji is that it has one of the best preserved castles in Japan: Himeji-Jo.  This castle was first built around 1300, then expanded around 1600 to roughly today’s size.  The city of Himeji was bombed in WWII, but somehow this castle survived nearly unscathed.  One bomb was dropped on the top floor of the building but it didn’t explode.  So today Himeji castle is one of the best preserved castles in Japan, and it’s the most visited (though it didn’t have that many tourists on the day we arrived).

The castle is located on top of a hill:

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Me walking up one of the twisty paths leading up to the main castle building.  This maze of paths was one of the castle’s defense mechanisms, in that the soldiers inside the castle could see and fire on the approaching troops as they made their way up.  But this defense mechanism was never tested:

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The roof tiles are decorated with the logo of the ruler.  We saw a panel with the logos of all the dynasties that controlled the castle, but this was our favorite:

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Getting close to the actual castle building:

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Inside:

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Looking out onto the rooftops from above:

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There were “dolphin”-like statues at the ends of each roof, similar to the famous golden ones we saw in Nagoya:

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Another hallway in a nearby compound:

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Koko-en Garden

Next door to Himeji castle there’s a garden, Koko-en.  When you pay your admission to Himeji there’s an option to pay just a little bit more to get access to the garden as well.  We decided to go for it, and we’re glad we did – it’s one of the nicest gardens we saw in Japan.  The garden is relatively new (built in 1992), but it’s located in the old site of the Lord’s residence, so it has some historical significance.  Anyhow, the garden is split up into 9 areas with walls, and each area has its own unique look.

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Nara

July 14, 2009

After watching the sumo tournament in Nagoya, we headed further west to spend a day in Nara.

History

For a long time Japan had no permanent capital.  Cultural taboos dictated that the capital must be moved with the passing of each emperor.  This philosophy eroded in the 7th century under the influence of Buddhism.  Eventually the rulers decided to build the first permanent capital in Nara in the year 710.  Only it wasn’t really that “permanent” because 75 years later the capital moved, once again, to nearby Kyoto, where it actually remained for a long time — until 1868.  But even though Nara’s stint as capital was short-lived, it still produced a large number of impressive monuments.  Today Nara has 8 Unesco World Heritage sites, which makes it second only to Kyoto in terms of cultural significance.

You shouldn’t be riding a bicycle

Nara is a fairly compact city, so it’s easy enough to explore without a car.  Pnina and I opted to get around using bicycles that we rented from the Nara Youth Hostel (which, BTW, was an OK place to stay, nothing special).  This was a good idea except for one thing: I suddenly developed a nasty eye infection.  It actually started back in Nagoya, but by the time we reached Nara it was full blown.  My eyes were really sore, so I decided to give them a break by wearing glasses instead of contacts (for the first time in the trip).  The trouble was that my eyes were also very sensitive to bright light, as if my pupils were dilated, and this was a very sunny day.  I had to choose between wearing sunglasses (in which case I could deal with the sun but I couldn’t see much) and wearing my regular glasses (in which case I saw perfectly but it was too painful to lift my head up).  I ended up riding around Nara half-blind all day, frequently shutting my eyes and hoping for the best.  It’s a miracle that I didn’t hit a pedestrian or get hit myself.

Tenrikyo

We didn’t get very far before we encountered this group of school kids who asked to be photographed with us.  We said “sure”.

Getting our photo taken with the local kids.  I have no idea why we’re all posing with our fingers up to our mouths like we’re saying “shhh”.  That was their idea, those wacky Japanese 🙂

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Anyhow, we started chatting and we discovered that these kids follow a religion called Tenrikyo.  We’d never heard of this religion so we asked them a bunch of questions, and they replied with a bunch of answers plus a pamphlet (which isn’t very surprising – they kind of look like Mormon missionaries, don’t they?).  Well, the cool thing about Tenrikyo is that it was founded by a woman!  The woman, Miki Nakayama (aka “Oyasama”), was chosen by God to save all humankind way back in 1838.  The basic philosophy of the religion is the same good stuff you would expect from most religions these days: God created us in order to enjoy seeing us live; we are all God’s children and therefore we are all brothers and sisters; and so on.  It all sounds good, but then the religion shoots itself in the foot by claiming that humans originate from the town of Tenri in Japan (which is why the religion is called Tenrikyo).  Why, oh why, do religions insist on claiming things that eventually get disproven by science??

Deer Everywhere

One of the best things about Nara is that there are a whole bunch of deer that roam around the city, mostly in the parks surrounding the various temples.  Our guide book says that altogether there are about 1200 deer in Nara.  In pre-Buddhist times they were considered messengers from the gods, and today they enjoy the status of “National Treasures”.  The deer spend most of their time approaching tourists for handouts.  They are completely unafraid of humans, so you can walk right up to them and pet them.

Nara’s Mascot, created in 2008 to celebrate the city’s 1300 year anniversary:

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Pnina approaching some deer hanging out in the shade:

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When you pet a deer between his antlers, it’s hard not to imagine what would happen to your forearm if the deer decided to shake his head side to side:

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Todai-Ji

The biggest attraction in Nara is the temple complex called Todai-Ji.  More specifically, people come to see one of the buildings — Daibutsu-den (“the Hall of the Great Buddha”).  This is the largest wooden building in the world, which is even more impressive when you learn that this building is just 2/3 the size of the original building that stood in this place.  Inside this building sits a huge Buddha statue – 16 meters high, made of 437 tons of bronze and 130 kg of gold.

The Hall of the Great Buddha:

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A spot to wash your hands before entering the temple:

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Inside the building, Pnina standing in front of the giant Buddha statue:

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A wooden guardian statue beside the giant Buddha:

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In the back of the Buddha hall there’s a column with a rectangular hole through it.  The hole is exactly the size of the Buddha’s nostrils, and popular belief goes that if you manage to squeeze through this hole then you are guaranteed enlightenment.  Pnina is safe!  (and it really wasn’t much of a challenge for her)

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Pnina riding out of the Todai-ji complex:

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Other Temples and Gardens

Here are some random shots from the rest of our afternoon wandering through a few of the temples in Nara.

A local guy sketching one of the temples  we saw (we think this was Tamukeyama Hachimangu Shrine):

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One of the alleys we wandered through had homes on both sides with really beautiful gardens:

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A rainbow colored lizard we saw along the way.  He was pretty skittish so it was hard to get a non-blurry shot:

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Same lizard next to Pnina’s foot – shows you how tiny he really is:

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We wandered through a primeval forest and entered a temple called Kasuga Taisha.  Here I am in one of the very orange hallways:

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Pnina by the entrance doors:

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Pnina in one of the prayer halls:

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Hanging lanterns:

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Still in Kasuga Taisha:

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The taller of the two pagodas in Kofuku-Ji:

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Naramachi Neighborhood

In the evening most of the temples closed, so we headed to a neighborhood called Naramachi (which literally means “Nara town”).  This was the old merchant neighborhood.  It has narrow lanes and buildings designed to have a shop in the front and residences in the back.  These days it’s not much of a commercial zone, but it still has some coffee shops and galleries, and it’s a good area for a walk.

Wandering through Naramachi:

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Many of the homes have these red dolls hanging outside the front door.  They are called Migawari-Zaru, which literally means “substitution monkey”.  The idea was to offer these monkey-shaped (?) dolls as sacrifices to the gods, so they’ll protect the home:

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One of the shops in Naramachi:

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We saw a lot of these foldable bicycles everywhere:

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We also saw this group of students in a parking lot, practicing for an upcoming dance show:

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Bonus Shots

We can’t read Japanese but we can only guess that this poster asks locals to pick up after their dogs.  This is sooo Japanese – where else would you see a smiling pile of poo?  And where else would it be this cute??  By the way, it would be great if someone could tell us what the dog and the poo are saying to each other:

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You can get pretty much anything from vending machines on the street in Japan, even beer:

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Nagoya

July 12-13, 2009

We left Tokyo and started heading west towards Kyoto.  Our first stop was the town of Nagoya.

Why Nagoya??

Nagoya is definitely not a typical tourist stop, so how did we end up there?  Well, before we reached Japan we made a list of places we wanted to go and things we wanted to do.  I really wanted to attend some kind of Japanese sporting event.  My first choice was to watch a taping of the TV show Ninja Warrior (which is called Sasuke in Japan), at Mount Midoriyama, a bit south of Tokyo.  Unfortunately they weren’t shooting new episodes while Pnina and I were in Japan (and even if they did it would probably be very difficult to get tickets).  My #2 choice was to attend a sumo tournament.  We went online to look up the info and we found that the sumo tournaments rotate from one city to another, and that during our stay in Japan there was a tournament taking place in Nagoya.  So, there we went.

Sumo

We wanted to buy tickets ahead of time, but we were unable to do so.  In order to book tickets online, the sumo tournament’s website required a local Japanese address to which the tickets would be sent.  We didn’t have such an address, so we had to take our chances and simply show up at the box office of the Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium.  We arrived on Sunday, July 12th, which happened to be the opening day of the sumo tournament (plus a weekend), so the tickets were sold out for the day.  Bummer.  Reluctantly, we bought tickets for Monday, the next day.  Accommodation in Nagoya was particularly expensive (the cheapest dorm bed we found was $46/person!), so we actually ended up taking a train to Nara, sleeping there, and coming back the next day.  It was a bit of a hassle, but at least the trains were free (with our rail pass) and relatively quick.

Anyhow, the sumo match was a very interesting experience (even Pnina says so!).

As we exited the subway station near the stadium, we already saw a few of the sumo wrestlers walking around.  This guy was nice enough to be photographed with me.  Notice that I’m wearing two big backpacks and one small one, and this guy is still clearly so much bigger 🙂

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We bought the cheapest seats available.  The price was about $30 each and we sat way in the back.  The only benefit of sitting back here is that we actually had chairs to sit on.  The people who shelled out money for the expensive tickets didn’t actually get seats – they sat cross-legged on a thin mat (ouch):

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The whole sumo tournament lasts about two weeks.  Each day’s matches start early in the morning and end around 6 PM.  Early in the day you see the rookies compete, and as the day progresses you see more of the famous wrestlers, which also means that the gymnasium doesn’t really fill up until the afternoon.  We arrived around 3 PM and the stadium was still filling up.

Before each round of bouts, the two wrestling teams (“stables”) marched onto the platform and stood in a circle:

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The majority of the wrestlers were Japanese, but there were also a few other Asians (e.g. Mongolians – apparently they are quite good), and we even saw a couple of white guys:

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Each bout took about 5 minutes, but nearly all that time was spent in a slow ritual.  The two wrestlers stood on the platform, smacked a thigh, lifted a leg way up, stomped it down, repeated with the other leg, and back and forth a few times:

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The pre-bout ritual also included tossing salt onto the ring:

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Then the referee gives the signal and the wrestlers launch themselves forward trying to knock the other guy down to the mat or out of the ring.  Most of the time the bout is over in less than 10 seconds:

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After the match there’s another quick ceremony where the referee announces the winner in song.  The bouts at the end of the day included prizes, so this ceremony was also where the winner collects his prize.

Some of the wrestlers we saw that day were clearly famous, though of course we didn’t recognize any of them.  The two ladies sitting next to us explained that one of these wrestlers appeared in a Japanese TV commercial with Brad Pitt.  There was also a semi-famous superfan sitting just a few rows from us.  He wore a gold hat and he was definitely the loudest guy in the auditorium 🙂

All in all it was great fun.

Nagoya Castle

Nagoya Castle is located next door to the Aichi Prefecture Gymnasium, where the sumo tournament took place.  Since we were right there, we decided to check it out.  The original castle was built in the 1600’s, but it was destroyed by US bombers in WWII (along with about 25% of Nagoya – it’s an industrial city so it was a natural target).  The castle was rebuilt in 1959 using modern materials (metal  and concrete), but despite the materials it still looks just like the original.  Inside the castle there’s a small museum, and the focal point of the museum is a pair of 3-meter statues of a dolphin-like creature, fully covered in gold, that at one point were placed at the two ends of the roof.  But it turns out that the ones on display today are also replicas.

The castle and the gymnasium share an entrance.  Here you see a castle wall and flags for the sumo tournament:

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One of the buildings of Nagoya castle:

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There were some enormous stones in the castle wall:

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Really Good Food

We didn’t expect it, but we had some of the best Japanese food in Nagoya.

This is possibly our favorite Japanese dish: hitsumabushi.  You get a few pieces of unagi (eel) on rice with a teriyaki-style sauce, and a couple of side-dishes:

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This one was asparagus wrapped in pork, then breaded and fried.  The traditional dish is called miso-katsu, but we’re pretty sure the chef took some artistic liberties with this one.  We got this in a famous restaurant called Yabaton:

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This was a special kind of noodle called Nagoya Miso Nikomi Udon, which is basically udon noodles cooked in miso broth.  Before serving the noodles our waitress gave us a laminated sheet with a big “don’t burn yourself” warning translated to English 🙂

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International Design Center

We had a little extra time on our first day in Nagoya, so we spent an hour wandering through the International Design Center.  It’s a small museum located on the 4th floor of a modernistic mall.  It wasn’t very big but it was reasonably cheap for Japan (300 Yen), and they had a couple of interesting displays.

Posters of Japanese designs from the last few decades:

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Tokyo

July 9-11, 2009

On July 9 Pnina and I left Bangkok and flew to Tokyo to start our three weeks in Japan.

Why Japan?

When we started our round-the-world trip we didn’t have any plans to visit Japan at all.  When you go on a big trip like this, you try to save money where possible, and Japan is just not the kind of place where you get to save money 🙂

But, several months into the trip we heard from our friend Emmy, who lives in Tokyo, that she’s planning to get married in July.  We weren’t sure exactly where we would be in July, but we knew it would be somewhere “in the neighborhood”, so we decided to see what we could do.  In the end we found a relatively cheap flight from Bangkok to Tokyo and back, so we altered our itinerary to make it happen.

And then we found another good reason.  We heard that on July 22nd there would be a huge solar eclipse; in fact, the biggest in the last 100 years.  My uncle Ron (actually dad’s cousin, but I call him uncle) is a big eclipse chaser, so he proposed the idea of meeting up somewhere to watch the eclipse together.  At first we talked about Shanghai, but that got nixed when the Chinese authorities refused to give Pnina and I more than a 1-month visa.  After more debate, we decided on southern Japan.  Then my parents heard about our scheme and decided to join the party.  So, before we landed in Tokyo we had plans to meet all this family (my parents Adi & Suzy, plus his cousin Ron & Marlene) in a week’s time down in Kyoto.

By the way, this was actually my second time visiting Japan, and Pnina’s second time as well.  Pnina was here with her family back in 1989.  Her aunt, Trudy, was living in Tokyo at the time with her husband, Robert, and three children.  Pnina’s visit was half about seeing family and half about seeing sights, so she didn’t get to see that much, especially outside Tokyo.  Plus, she doesn’t remember all that much because she was only nine years old.  She does remember, for example, that she was too short to go on most of the rides in Tokyo’s Disneyland :-(.  As for me, my last visit to Japan was back in 2001.  I took 10 weeks off between finishing college and starting work to travel in east/southeast Asia.  But Japan was just a short part of that trip (about 1 week) and I spent nearly all my time in Tokyo.  So the short of it is that Pnina and I were happy to be back in Japan and looking forward to exploring more of the country.

Pnina at the immigration hall in Tokyo airport.  At the desk with all the entry forms we found corrective eye-glasses (tethered to the table) that you can use to fill out your paperwork; those Japanese – they think of everything!  🙂  A moment after I took this picture one of the immigration officials came over to tell us that photography is not allowed.  Oops!  For this reason I didn’t take a picture of the digital fingerprint scanner they had at each station – very cool.

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Japan Rail Pass

Japan is very expensive.  We knew it before coming here, but still it was one shock after another.  Maybe part of the issue is that we’d spent the last few months traveling in very cheap places (India, Nepal, China, Laos), so the contrast was just too jarring.

Anyhow, before reaching Tokyo we did a lot of research to try to save money where possible, and one of the things we heard from many sources is that it’s too expensive to rent a car in Japan; it’s not just the rental and the gas, it’s also the tolls you have to pay on most roads.  Lots of people recommended getting around by train using the Japan Rail Pass, and that’s what we ended up doing.  After we reached Japan we met other backpackers who got around by bus (including overnight busses) and from what we heard it sounds like that might be an even cheaper way to go.  But anyhow the rail pass worked pretty well for us.

Here are the basic facts…

First off, you must purchase the rail pass before arriving in Japan.  I don’t know why they have this silly policy, but that’s how it is.  When you make the purchase outside Japan you get a kind of voucher.  Then when you reach Japan you need to visit one of the rail pass offices to trade this voucher for the actual Rail Pass.  We purchased the vouchers from a travel agent in Bangkok; there was no processing time, they did it on the spot.

Our Japan Rail Pass

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The price for us was 57,700 yen each ($646) for the 3-week pass.  Crazy right??  We thought so too.  But after we got over the sticker shock and did some research, we realized that in our case it really does pay off.  For example, to simply ride from Tokyo to Kyoto (one-way) costs about 13,000 yen ($140).  After our three weeks in Japan I did a little exercise to find out how much it would have cost if we paid for all our train rides individually, and the total price was about 92,000 yen (just over $1000).  So, yeah, the rail pass definitely worked out for us.  But it helped that we went all the way from Tokyo to the southern tip of Japan (Kagoshima) and back — it was a pretty large distance.

And the trains themselves are just amazing.  You’ve probably already heard of Japan’s Shinkansen (“bullet train”).  I used to think that this was one particular train on one particular line, and that it hovers using magnetic repulsion.  Well, none of that is true.  Shinkansen refers to a few different kinds of trains on several lines.  All of them are damn fast but none of them float on magnets or anything like that – they use plain old wheels.  The fastest of the trains is called Nozomi and they reach 300 km/hr.  But those trains, for whatever reason, are not included in the Japan Rail Pass.  That’s OK, though, because next up are the Hikari trains which are included in the rail pass and they are plenty fast.  At one point we used a GPS to measure the speed of one of our trains, and it reached nearly 250 km/hr.  With this kind of speed, distances between many cities in Japan effectively shrink.  It’s possible to sleep in Kyoto and to visit Himeji on a day-trip; it’s about 130 km away but it only takes 55 minutes to get there (including stops along the way), so it’s not such a big deal.  This kind of thing was just not possible anywhere else on our trip.  As far as I know, it’s not even possible in America (Obama keeps talking about building high-speed rail, and I don’t know if it makes sense financially but it would be damn cool).

Also, the trains are very comfortable.  The ride is smooth so you can read a book or work on your laptop.  The seats are cushy so you can also take a nap easily.

With the rail pass you can reserve tickets in advance if you’re worried that the train will fill up.  It doesn’t cost anything extra, and you can even cancel at any time with no penalty.  But in our case we found it convenient enough to just go to the station and hop on the next available train.  All the trains have some compartments that are for reserved seats and some that are strictly for non-reserved seats, and in our experience they were never full.

If you want more info, the best website we found for info on trains in Japan (and elsewhere) is www.seat61.com.

Accommodation

As with transportation, accommodation is expensive in Japan (I know I sound like a broken record; sorry, we just couldn’t get over this).  Luckily there are hostels in most cities, but even they are pricy in comparison to the rest of our trip.  Generally you pay 2000 to 3000 yen (roughly $20-$30) per dorm bed.  In other words, Pnina and I found ourselves paying $50 just to sleep in a dorm, whereas in other countries we would pay $8 for our own room and $50 would easily cover all our expenses for a whole day!  🙂

In Tokyo and some other cities you can find capsule hotels.  Each capsule is like a high-tech coffin, and outside the capsule room you have shared showers and other facilities.  I was actually kind of interested in sleeping in one of these, just for the experience, but in the end we decided to pass.  One issue is that it costs a little more to sleep in a capsule hotel than to sleep in a hostel (e.g. 3000-4000 yen per capsule).  But the main issue is that most of them don’t allow women.  These capsule hotels are generally geared towards Japanese businessmen who missed the last train home and need a simple place to crash for the night.  From what we heard, some of them are kind of seedy (e.g. the businessmen missed the train because they were busy getting sloshed with friends at a bar), which explains why they often don’t allow women.

Another alternative we considered was www.couchsurfing.com, which would have been even cheaper.  We were surprised to learn that in Tokyo alone there are over 700 couch surfers!!  But the catch is that most people living in Tokyo have very small apartments, and as a result very few of these couch surfers are able to host even one person, let alone two.

And besides that you have hotels, which generally start around $100 per room and go way way up from there.

So, long story short, our suggestion is to go with hostels and to make your reservation well ahead of time because they tend to fill up fast.

While in Tokyo, Pnina and I ended up staying in a hostel called Khaosan Annex.  It was relatively close to the subway, and it had a slick lounge with a big TV and free wi-fi.  But the rooms upstairs were pretty cramped and very hot (the tiny A/C units were powerless against the summer heat).  So it was an alright place to stay, but we ended up finding much cooler hostels later in our trip in Japan (especially K’s House hostels – they seem to be awesome everywhere).

Asakusa

Our hostel was located in a neighborhood called Asakusa, which sits on both sides of the Sumida River.  Most of the attractions are on the west side of the river, but our hostel was on the other side.  We could always find our way to the hostel by first spotting the bizarre building of the Asahi Beer Headquarters.  It’s supposed to look like a black glass with the foam of a beer, but to us it looks like a golden carrot on a black pedestal.

The weird Asahi Headquarters building

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Asakusa is sometimes called “temple town” because on the other side of the river you have several temples including a famous one called Senso-ji.  On the weekend we arrived there happened to be a festival at this temple, so we went to check it out.  We quickly entered a mass of people, many of them in traditional clothes, all of us heading towards the main temple building.  Along the way where were shops on either side selling a kind of plant with flowers that resembles red lanterns – those were a bit hit.  At the temple people said prayers or donated money.  The other big activity was fortunes: for a small fee you can pull a random stick out of a box, and then find the corresponding paper fortune for that stick.  If you end up with a bad fortune, you can avoid the bad luck by leaving it somewhere in the temple, e.g. tied to a rail.

Pnina in front of the big red lantern at the entrance to Senso-Ji

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Pnina with a couple of local girls dressed in summer kimonos for the festival

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The mass of people making their way to the temple

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Some of the lantern-looking plants that were a huge hit with festival goers

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Notes with bad fortunes left behind at the temple

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Another part of the Senso-Ji complex

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Mmm, Japanese Food…

One other major activity at the festival was eating 🙂  There were booths selling a bunch of different Japanese snacks, but there was one in particular that I was curious to try – takoyaki (octopus balls).  They look like egg-sized balls of deep-fried dough with a piece of octopus inside (or sometime shrimp), topped with a kind of teriyaki sauce, seaweed flakes, fish flakes, and mayonnaise.  I first tasted this dish when I visited Japan the first time and I couldn’t get enough of it.  It wasn’t just the food; it was also hypnotizing to watch the cooks prepare these balls with cooking utensils that resemble knitting needles (example from YouTube).  Anyhow, we tried them at the festival and Pnina was actually kind of disappointed with the dish (maybe I talked it up too much?); she just found it too fishy-tasting.  I still thought it was still pretty good.

Takoyaki (octopus balls) at the festival

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And there were other booths with various snacks, way too many for us to try…

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Our first dinner in Japan was Okonomiyaki – a kind of savory pancake.  We sat at a table whose surface was mostly hot-plate with just a little space for plates at the edge.  The waiter could tell that we had no idea what we’re doing so he offered to cook the dish for us at the table, which we gladly accepted.  The pancake consists largely of cabbage and egg, and again it’s topped with the same teriyaki-style sauce, seaweed, and fish flakes.  Once the pancake was ready, we each got toy-size spatulas to grab small chunks of the pancake straight off the grill and into our mouths.

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The okonomiyaki meal cost about $20 a person.  It’s OK to do once or twice, but for day-to-day meals we needed to find something cheaper.  In many cases we opted for basic noodle shops.  The noodle shops often have an interesting payment system where you use a kind of vending machine to choose your item and pay for it.  You get a voucher that you bring inside the shop and give to the cook to get the actual meal.  Makes a lot of sense – no need to keep a cashier on staff.  A bowl of noodles at a place like this might cost about 450 yen ($5), which is about as cheap as it gets.

A vending machine at a noodle shop; you use it to select your meal and pay

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Pnina sitting at the diner-style noodle shop getting ready to eat

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And finally there are standard vending machines.  In my last visit to Japan, I remember having warm corn soup from vending machines.  I was looking forward to having this soup again, but this time it was nearly impossible to find.  I should have realized the reason – my last visit was in December/January (when it’s cold and people want hot soup) whereas this visit was in July.  OK, no soup.  But instead the machines had a large selection of tasty cold coffee drinks (frappuccino-like).

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Fish Market

One of the big attractions in Tokyo is the Tsukiji fish market – the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world.  Back in Seattle we have our own fish market (Pike’s Place) and we like to think that it’s hot shit.  Well, Seattle’s fish market is still picturesque and fun, but it’s nowhere near the size of this place.

We heard the thing to do is to get to the market very early in the morning (like 5 am) to watch the live auctions.  We also heard that this is specifically not the thing to do because the auction is in Japanese so you won’t understand anything, and you’ll be groggy for the rest of the day, and anyhow you can get fantastic sushi anytime of day around the market.  So we compromised – we tried to get there early enough for the auction, but we ran late and got there shortly after the auction ended 🙂  So unfortunately we can’t say whether the auction is worth the effort.  But we can say that the market itself is an enormous labyrinth, and that you have to be careful or you’ll get run over by all the electric cargo carts going by.

Just outside the fish market – electric carts and people going in all directions (watch your feet!)

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Pnina pretending to drive one of the fish carts

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One of several hundred narrow aisles where you can peruse fish on display

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Red fish with glassy eyes

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Sea urchin?

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Octopus

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Some kind of oyster maybe?

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When we were done getting lost in the fish market, we took a tip from our friend Emmy and went to a restaurant called Sushi Zanmai.  Emmy says it’s the best sushi place in Tokyo.  We’ve only tried 2-3 sushi places in Tokyo now so we’re in no place to confirm or deny this, but the food at Zanmai was definitely good.  In fact, it’s clearly the best sushi we’ve ever had.  We ordered a combination platter with different kinds of tuna in varying degrees of fattiness.  There was also one that was slightly flame-broiled (using the kind of torch that a dessert chef would use to make crème brulee), and topped with salt and lemon.  It was probably the least traditional item on the platter, but it was our favorite (we ordered seconds).  Oh, and here’s just one indication of how incredibly honest people in Japan are.  The sushi chef noticed that in our case it’s actually cheaper to order the sushi a la carte instead of as a combination platter because they were running a special on tuna, so he pointed it out and saved us at least $10 each.  Japan rocks!  Right, so the total was about $30 each, which is not a cheap meal as far as our trip is concerned, but it was money very well spent.

Shahaf and Pnina in front of Sushi Zanmai

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Shahaf at the sushi bar

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Our platter of fatty tuna; the pair on the right is the flame-broiled variety that we loved

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Hamarikyu Garden

Tokyo is a huge city.  There are gardens and parks everywhere – you could never see them all.  We chose this place, Hamarikyu garden, entirely because it’s located right next to the fish market.  In retrospect we probably would have skipped it.  While many of Tokyo’s parks are free to enter, this one charges a fee, and it’s not as nice as some of the gardens we saw later (especially in Kyoto).  But the garden has a neat central-park feel, in that you can see city buildings beyond the edge of the park (though it’s tiny  in comparison).  It also has a place in the center where you can do a traditional tea ceremony, but we skipped that.

Looking at Tokyo buildings at the edge of Hamarikyu Garden

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The tea ceremony place in the center of the garden

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A strange insect I saw in the grass

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Ginza

Ginza is an upscale shopping district; we took a walk through Ginza after the garden, again because it was pretty close.  As we understand it, Ginza used to be the place to find the most stylish western-influenced shops, but recently the district has lost some of that luster to other neighborhoods (e.g. Shinjuku, Shibuya, Harajuki, and perhaps now Roppongi).

The very impressive Swarovski store-front:

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We paused at the Leica shop, which was part-store, part-gallery.  We’re mixed about the gallery – Pnina liked it, I was kind of bored.  But it was interesting to peruse their cameras on display.  Leica’s cameras continue to look and feel old-school, but that most of their popular cameras these days are digital.

The Leica M8 camera

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We also stopped at the famous Sony store.  This store must have been pretty impressive ten years ago, but these days I feel like Sony has lost most of its cool factor to other brands (e.g. Apple).  Plus this store didn’t have any special Sony items, nothing you can’t find at a local Best Buy.

Laptops at the Sony store – kind of underwhelming:

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While wandering around we also paused for a minute at a random Pachinko place.  Pachinko is a kind of gambling game that involves feeding silver marbles through a series of pegs (kind of like Plinko in The Price is Right).  A lot of Japanese are pretty addicted to Pachinko in the same way some people in the states get addicted to slot machines.

Pnina staring at people playing Pachinko; what this photo doesn’t convey is the incredible noise that filled the room:

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Emmy & Alex’s Wedding!

But of course the main event in Tokyo was Emmy and Alex’s wedding!  🙂

Some context is in order.  Emmy and I met at the University of Michigan where we sang together in an a cappella group called Gimble. After school our lives went in different directions but we somehow always stayed in touch.  Emmy and her parents hosted me when I traveled in Japan the first time.  Emmy joined me when I took a cross-country drive from Michigan to Seattle before starting my job at Microsoft.  And more recently Pnina and I met Emmy when she traveled from Tokyo (where she now lives) to Seattle for business (Emmy works in advertising and she’s done some work for the xbox 360.  So Pnina had already met Emmy, but neither of us met the groom, Alex.

The wedding itself was held on July 11 at St Paul International Lutheran Church.  It was a beautiful little hall and a great ceremony, not too long and very musical.  There was pipe-organ from above, Alex sang a song, and there were a couple of poems and other readings.

Pnina and I sat next to Emmy’s college friend, Caricia, and her husband Anthony.  I’d met Caricia a couple of times before but I never really knew her.  Caricia just finished a PhD in Public Health, focusing on how multimedia can be used to improve health.  Anthony has appeared in some TV shows (e.g. Sex in the City), and has created a kind of rap-improv group called Freestyle Love Supreme.  Now Caricia and Anthony have a not-for-profit organization called Video Voice (http://video-voice.org) that aims to improve health around the world by giving people the equipment (cameras, computers) and instruction to create their own documentaries.  They spent the two months prior to the wedding traveling throughout Indonesia, partly to learn about Caricia’s roots and partly to bring some Video Voice equipment and training to a community in one rural island.

Anyhow, here are some photos from the wedding…

One of Emmy’s young relatives watches for the bride to enter:

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Photographed after the ceremony – Pnina, Shahaf, Alex, Emmy, Anthony, and Caricia

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Tossing flower petals at the newlywed couple as they descend outside the church:

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After the ceremony, Alex and Emmy went off with the photographer to get some shots in the city.  The rest of us went to the reception venue, a restaurant called Beacon, to start snacking, drinking, and chatting.

Emmy and Alex photographed on a bridge; Emmy said the photographer went to extremes to catch them at different angles and they started to worry that she would fall off:

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Pnina at the entrance to Beacon:

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Shahaf, Robert (Emmy’s dad), Teruko (Emmy’s mom), and Pnina:

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Well, the reception was also a lot of fun.  The food was fantastic.  The waiters would clear the buffet table and you’d think “damn, I wish I got more scallops”, but then they’d re-fill the table with a whole new set of awesome dishes, then another.  Emmy and Alex performed a duet (Lucky by Jason Mraz), accompanied on guitar by their friend Joseph.  Emmy’s dad, Robert, made a nice, simple toast.  Alex’s dad, who is far more outgoing and, dare I say, eccentric, made a wild toast that somehow managed to reference Al Capone.

Pnina and I sat with Caricia and Anthony and a few others.  At one point conversation at our table turned to mama jokes, and we wondered whether there’s a Japanese equivalent.  Joseph, who has been living in Japan for a long time, said that the closest thing he can think of is the following kindergarten ditty: baka kaba, chin don ya, omea no, kasan debeso.  Which roughly translates as: stupid hippo, sandwich board guy, your mother, has an outtie!

After the ceremony, Pnina and I went off with Caricia and Anthony to their pad to relax for a while.  Caricia flipped on the TV just to show us the ridiculous porn they get – naked women kissing and copious saliva (“who finds that sexy?”).  Then we wandered off to grab a bite before meeting Emmy and Alex and a bunch of the younger crowd for an after-party.

Pnina walking with Caricia and Anthony

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An interesting artwork outside one of the buildings we passed:

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Bonus Picture

At the Tokyo airport we ran into a couple of Japanese guys who had just returned from a trip in Thailand and Vietnam.  One of them was wearing a t-shirt advertising Pink Elephant Car Wash, which is a minor Seattle institution.  I asked him about the shirt and he said that he got it in a random shop in Tokyo and he had no idea that the place really existed, let alone where.  Funny how a place like that would end up on t-shirts in Japan!

Shahaf standing with a Japanese guy wearing a Pink Elephant Car Wash t-shirt

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Bangkok

July 6-8, 2009

Pnina and I needed to hustle out of Laos and reach Bangkok in time for our July 9 flight to Japan.  We decided to get to Bangkok a few days earlier because we had a few errands to take care of: getting the Japan rail pass, arranging our flight and visa for Myanmar (which we planned to visit after Japan), getting tailor-made clothes, and so on.  Pnina and I had both visited Thailand before, so this time we had no plans to do any touristy things.  We just used Bangkok as a convenient hub from which to visit other places.

The taxi cabs in Bangkok come in various bright colors:

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Khaosan Road

There’s a neighborhood in Bangkok called Khaosan (named after Khaosan Rd), which is like Mecca for backpackers.  The street is full of backpackers from all over the world, and local vendors trying to make a buck selling food, clothes, pirated travel books, pirated music, and other useful traveler gear.  Last time we were here we remember getting fantastic Pad Thai (noodles) from street vendors for $0.25.  The food stalls are still there, but the price is higher and the food is not as good as we remembered.  Memories, both good ones and bad ones, tend to get exaggerated with time, don’t they?

A full moon over a crowded Khaosan Road:

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It’s pretty simple to get fake ID’s on the street.  I was surprised to see these goods advertised so openly.  The vendors who ran this business did get annoyed when I took this photo:

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MBK

Is it lame for us to spend our time in Bangkok going to a mall?  Yeah, we think so.

There’s a shopping mall in Bangkok called MBK.  From the outside it looks like a fancy upscale mall.  Inside, it’s a totally different story – a maze of booths selling the same fake brand-name clothes, cellphones, and so on.  I didn’t know about MBK on my first visit to Thailand, but apparently this is where everyone goes to stock up on gifts before heading back home.  Pnina and I didn’t want to buy too much because we still had a few months of backpacking ahead of us, but it was still fun to rummage through the mall.

The MBK mall looks clean and upscale from the outside:

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Across the street there’s some pretty cool modernistic art (note how huge this statue is compared to the people walking by):

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Inside it’s a different scene altogether.  Here’s an awesome shirt I picked up in one of the stands:

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Is it funny?  Or terrible?  Or both?

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All these Mr. Men references gave me the inspiration to create a t-shirt for my friend Eric, who has a cat named Mr. Man.  I got some help from my friend Tyler (who has a graphic design business: http://www.generaltheoryofcreativity.com/).  Here’s what we came up with:

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(…and after I had the shirt printed I learned that Eric spells his cat’s name with two n’s…crap!)

Anyhow, back to MBK…

Some cute salt-and-pepper shakers:

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You don’t find a lot of Engrish in Thailand, but this is priceless 🙂

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Add another strange mannequin to the collection:

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Departures

I was starting to get antsy for some of the creature comforts of life in America, like, for example, going to see an independent film.  We found a movie theatre by MBK that was playing a movie called Departures.  This was the movie that picked up the Oscar for best foreign film.  We thought it would be an appropriate film to see because a couple of months earlier we saw the movie Waltz with Bashir, which was also nominated for the best foreign film prize, and also because we were planning to reach Japan in a couple of days.  Well this movie was also awesome.  It’s hard to say which one was better because they are such different films.  This one was a drama about a cellist who loses his job and ends up, accidentally, getting a new job in a mortuary, which is considered an “untouchable” sort of job in Japanese culture.  The movie was both sad and funny, and just really well made.  We’re not surprised it won the Oscar.  Oh, and seeing a movie in Thailand is always an interesting experience.  Before the film started everyone in the theatre stood to sing the national anthem while images of the monarch flashed on the screen.  People in Thailand seem to like their king (although many of them don’t like the government – only a few months earlier the Bangkok airport was shut down by protesters demanding the prime minister to resign).

Poster for the Japanese movie “Departures”, that we saw while in Bangkok:

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Random Food

Pnina still enjoying the wide variety of inexpensive tropical fruit — mangosteen, rambutan, and others:

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Dried fish arranged in concentric circles in platters on the sidewalk:

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Tailor-Made Clothes

Getting tailor-made clothes is one of the “things to do” while in Bangkok.  There are tons of tailor shops all around the city, and they use various annoying marketing tactics to get people in the door.  Most tuk-tuks in the city will offer to give you a free or discounted ride if you’re willing to make a pit stop in their friend’s tailor shop (in exchange for bringing customers in, the drivers get gas or meal coupons).  Some tuk-tuk drivers don’t even bother asking; they just pull up to the tailor shop and argue if you refuse to go in.  It can get frustrating.

Anyhow, being as tall and skinny as I am, I have a hard time finding dressy clothes that fit well.  When I buy a suit off the rack in America, the jacket gives me the “shoulder look”.  So I figured while we’re in Bangkok I may as well use the opportunity and get a suit.  In fact, why stop there?  I decided to basically get a new wardrobe – one suite, 3 pants, 3 jeans, 6 long-sleeve shirts, 6 short-sleeve shirts, and a wool winter coat.  Naturally I wanted to shop around and get the best price, so I didn’t mind when tuk-tuk drivers offered to make a quick stop here or there.  I figured the store owners would be thrilled to receive me; normally they have to use pushy sales tactics to convince the customer to purchase just one suit, and here I come saying I want to buy so much more.  But that wasn’t the case – a lot of them ignored me or basically told me to piss off.  They probably figured I was totally bullshitting – nobody buys that much.  🙂  Well, after investigating a few places we settled on a shop on Khaosan Road called Khaosarn Collection.

Shahaf getting fitted for a suit at Khaosarn Collection:

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The store owners were friendly and they had the best price: 18,000 bhat ($546).  It was a hefty price to pay, another one of the splurges of our trip, but certainly much cheaper than all these clothes would cost at at home even if I bought them off the rack, let alone the fact that every item was custom made to my measurements.

All these clothes together weighed about 11 kg, nearly as much as either one of our big backpacks.  Luckily Pnina and I were planning to meet my parents in Japan and the plan was for them to carry these clothes back home for us.  So we only had to lug around these clothes for the next couple of weeks (which itself was a bit of a pain).  We did have an option to just ship these clothes back home, but that would have cost at least $200.

So was it worth it?  Yes and no.  The dress shirts and the winter coat are just awesome.  Now that Pnina and I are back in Seattle I wear them every day to work, and I’ve gotten some compliments about them, especially the coat.  The jeans didn’t work out at all.  After one wash they shrank so much that I had to give them up.  I think these Thai tailor shops don’t work with denim very often so they don’t know about the importance of using pre-washed fabric.  The dress pants are also unwearable now, not because they shrank but because I fattened up 🙂  Also, the dress pants have a slim-fitting design.  They look great and they feel OK if you’re standing up, but if you sit at a desk for several hours a day, it’s just not comfortable.

So in my case I had something like a 50% success rate, which still makes it a pretty good deal, but not quite as good as I was hoping.

What about Pnina?  She couldn’t be bothered with these tailor shops.  She doesn’t have the patience for bargaining with Bangkok store owners.  She still has her suit from her last visit to Thailand, and in her case it still fits.  She was mildly interested in getting a dress or two, but most of the shops only had fairly stiff fabrics, nothing flowy, very little that she liked.  So she decided to skip it altogether.

Champasak

July 5, 2009

On the way back north from 4000 Islands, we stopped in a site of ancient ruins called Wat Phu Champasak.

As our Lonely Planet book says, the ruins here date from the 5th century, but most of what we see today was built in the Angkorian period.  For this reason a few backpackers we met along the way said “if you don’t have time to enter Cambodia and visit Angkor Wat, this is the next best thing.”

Well, Pnina and I didn’t have time for Cambodia in this trip.  When we decided to add Japan to our itinerary we had to cut something, and out went Cambodia and Vietnam (though we will definitely visit them some day).  I did visit Angkor Wat in a previous trip, about ten years ago, and I basically agree with the statement.  Champasak is way smaller than the ruins at Angkor Wat.  But Champasak is also a little different – it’s situated close to a river and the vegetation here is quite lush by comparison.

The long walkway at the entrance to the Champasak ruins:

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Pnina standing in front of one of the few large structures (still far smaller than the temples at Angkor Wat):

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The broken-down steps leading up the hill (are picturesque because they’re broken-down):

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Heading up the steep portion of the hill:

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A woman selling candles and flowers near the temple at the top:

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Beautifully preserved carvings outside the temple:

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One of the temple structures:

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The view of the valley from above:

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Frangipani – the temple flower.  You see these everywhere, from India to Laos:

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4000 Islands

July 2-3, 2009

In the southern tip of Laos there’s a place where the Mekong River fans out to cover a 14 km wide area dotted with islands.  This region is called Si Phan Don (“4000 Islands”).  After returning from our motorbike tour in the Bolaven Plateau, Pnina and I headed there.

To get there from Pakse required a tuk-tuk to the south station (10,000 kip), a pick-up truck ride to the ferry landing (30,000 kip, 2 hours), and a boat ride.

There are multiple island destinations to choose from.  The big famous one is called Don Khong.  We decided to try something slightly further off the beaten path, so we opted for a pair of smaller islands connected by a bridge.  One is called Don Det and the other, confusingly, is called Don Khon (note: no ‘g’).  But it’s not clear if we succeeded in our mission of getting off the beaten path because this pair of islands is clearly a backpacker destination.

Pnina on the long-canoe style ferry:

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Before leaving Pakse we met this guy, Chad, who comes (most recently) from Portland, Oregon.  Chad does real estate for a living.  He co-owns a small business to buy apartment buildings (with loans) and rent out units.  The business is doing well enough for him to take off on a trip like this while his business partners take care of things at home – nice!  He had a lot of interesting ideas about where the economy is going, and kept raving about a book called The Great Depression Ahead (add that one to our reading list…).  Anyhow, he was a pretty relaxed traveling companion.  He ended up taking a room in the same guesthouse where we stayed, and we spent most of 2 days on the island with him.

Pnina and Chad hanging out in one of the restaurants on Don Khon:

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This restaurant had a pretty loose policy about marijuana.  Their menu had this hillarious section called “Happy Holidays” that included various “happy” items – cakes, pizza, mashed potatoes.  We saw a group of people at another table “celebrating a birthday” with cake, so we asked them about it.  They said that the happy hits you less quickly than from a joint, but it also lasts longer.

“Happy” items in the restaurant’s menu:

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The same restaurant also had a pet monkey hanging around.  The poor guy had no choice about it since he was tethered by a leash, so he only had the freedom to go from the edge of the balcony to the nearby tree, but no further.  He looked pretty young and it’s possible he was still looking for maternal attention.  At one point he fell asleep in Pnina’s lap.

Pnina with the restaurant’s monkey asleep in her lap:

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We saw some beautiful sunsets from the restaurant’s balcony, and from another spot just down the road:

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River Dolphins and The Big Waterfall

The next day we joined a group tour to see a couple of sites – river dolphins and the big nearby waterfall.  Our group was pretty small.  Besides Pnina and I and our friend Chad, we had a Dutch couple, Marlouse and Daniel.

Shahaf, Marouse, and Daniel on the boat:

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The Irrawaddy dolphins move around from season to season.  In this time of year (July) they hang out in the southern part of the river, along the Cambodian shore.  Normally you would need to get a Cambodia visa or stamp to set foot inside Cambodia (one would think), but the people operating our tour had some kind of arrangement with the Cambodian border people.  They allowed us to pull ashore in the dolphin-viewing spot without the hassle of dealing with passports.  So when people ask us how many countries we visited in our trip, the question is now a little harder to answer – does Cambodia count??

Hanging out on the Cambodian shore trying to spot dolphins in the river:

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Anyhow, we sat on this shore looking out at the river, trying to find the dolphins.  Eventually we did spot a few, and we even took our boat out to try to get a closer view.  But we never got a really good view.  The dolphins were just way out there.  In our opinion it’s probably best to skip the dolphin part of the tour and save a little money.

This is probably the best dolphin photo we got (using Pnina’s 200mm zoom lens):

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There are a number of unusually wide waterfalls interspersed between the various islands in the region.  As part of our tour we went to see Khone Phapheng, which is the biggest of the falls.  In fact, it’s the biggest waterfall in southeast Asia by volumn, though certainly not by height.  The waterfall was very “sprawly”, and it was very hard to actually see the whole thing from any location.  It looked much more like a white-water rapid, though I’m guessing it’s far too intense to actually negotiate in a raft.

A view of just a portion of the Khone Phepheng waterfall:

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On the right edge of the falls the locals built a strange contraption – a kind of bamboo ramp stretching down into the current.  We think it’s used to trap fish, but we’re not sure.  We didn’t see any fish get caught on the ramp while we were there.

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After wandering around the falls for about 45 minutes, we all headed back to the minivan, all of us except Pnina, that is.  We waited in the car for about 10 minutes, and then the driver became impatient and wandered off to look for her.  Suddenly he rushed back to the car, waving his arms frantically, and telling me to follow him.  When we reached the river I found Pnina suspended above the water by a pair of ropes.  This was a really stupid stunt to pull.  If Pnina happened to fall into the water she would have certainly drowned.  On top of that she would probably get quietly swept at least a kilometer downstream without anyone noticing, so she would basically be gone.  And the ropes that suspended her were not attached particularly well (on one side they were tied to a tree, but on the other side they were tied to a shaky stick in the ground).  Anyhow, by the time I reached the scene Pnina was actually most of the way back to the safety of land, so I only had a chance to take one quick picture.  Pnina – please don’t do that again!!  🙂

Pnina suspended above the torrent below by a couple of loose ropes:

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Bike Ride to the Small Waterfall

After we returned from the boat trip, we rented bicycles and took a ride around our pair of islands – from Don Khon over the bridge to Don Det.

A random backpacker on a rented bicycle with a local boy clinging on the back.  I love this picture:

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Pnina riding on the edge of Don Khon towards Don Det (which is on the other side of the river):

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A couple of kids hanging out on the grounds of a temple on the island:

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Eventually we reached the “small falls” called Tat Somphamit.  They looked pretty much the same as the big falls we saw earlier.  Yeah, they’re smaller, but they’re still plenty big and they are much cheaper to reach.  So, our recommendation would be to skip the boat tour altogether and just hang out on the island.

The “Small Falls” of Tat somphamit:

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Bonus Picture

A common snack in Laos – eating the seeds of a Lotus plant.  They have a nice texture – crispy and juicy.  But they don’t have much flavor.  It’s like eating Edamame, minus the salt.

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Pakse and The Bolaven Plateau

June 29 – July 1, 2009

From Kong Lor Cave we headed back to the regular backpacker route.  We continued south to Pakse.

Just as we started heading south we ran into a minor traffic jam.  A double-length fuel truck was half flipped over on the side of the road.  To get it back on its wheels the service workers brought out a crane.

Attempting to hoist the back end of a fuel truck to put it back on its wheels:

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Pakse seemed like a decent town but we didn’t end up spending much time there.  We just used it as a hub as we explored southern Laos, and in that respect it was very convenient — there were hostels were we could leave our extra bags and arrange transportation, plus a few restaurants for good cheap food.

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East of Pakse there’s a region called the Bolaven Plateau.  It rises about 1000 meters above the Mekong lowlands, and it’s home to lots of waterfalls, some tribal groups, and the best Lao coffee.  There are a few ways to explore this area.  Pnina and I decided to go by motorcycle.  We rented our motorcycle at the Sabaidy 2 Guesthouse, which is the standard guesthouse recommended by Lonely Planet.  The price was 60,000 kip (about $30) per day, which is probably a little high compared to the other shops in town, but in this case we opted to pay a little more and save our time.  Technically, this was my first time riding a motorcycle (as opposed to a scooter), but it was actually easier than the scooter we rote in Zanzibar because this motorcycle was an automatic (there was no clutch to manage).

Me on the motorcycle as we head out of Pakse into the Bolaven Plateau:

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There were lots of stands on the side of the road selling fruit, mostly Durian.  We’d never actually tried Durian before, so we picked one up along the way and we tried it a couple days later when we got back to Pakse.  The interesting thing is that for such a big fruit, there’s not much to actually eat.  Deep inside the spiky exterior there are three large’ish seeds covered by a thin layer of flesh – you eat that flesh and nothing else.  Yes, it really does stink, and I don’t understand how people can like it (but I don’t like many fruit anyhow).  Pnina found that if she held her nose while eating it then it “isn’t that bad.”  But that sounds dumb to me.  If you have to hold your nose while eating something, you shouldn’t eat it.

Durians for sale on the side of the road:

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Our first stop, about 33 km east of Pakse, was at the Paxuam Cliff Waterfall.  This was one of the more developed tourist stops along the way.  It wasn’t just the waterfall itself.  They also had some nature walks, a restaurant, a hotel with “jungle guestrooms”, and a small village where you can see a bit of the culture of the Mon-Khmer tribal group that lives here.  It sounds a little over-developed, but we didn’t think it was so bad.  In particular, the restaurant and hotel seemed very eco-centric.

Crossing a natural suspension bridge:

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Pnina on the bridge:

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The waterfall:

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Pnina scaring the shit out of me by walking a little too close to the edge of the waterfall:

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One of the jungle guestrooms operated by the hotel in this park:

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Butterflies mating?

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Just a tropical plant:

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Pnina with a local tribesman playing music on traditional instruments:

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After a couple of hours at the falls, we continued along the open road.

We’re not sure what this was all about – a large group of people (mostly monks) were pulling this truck by rope along the road, and the truck had some kind of shrine on board.  We tried to ask them but they spoke no English:

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Pnina taking a break along the way to have a bowl of noodle soup (very similar to Vietnamese pho):

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Our next destination was the village called Tad Lo, which has a few waterfalls of its own.  We got there as the sun was setting, so this was our stop for the night.  The next day we woke up and took a short ride to the waterfall.  This one was not very tall, but it was pretty wide.  The best thing about it was that, when we arrived, there were a few kids playing in the waterfall, using a net to fish.  One of them climbed right up the falls, against some pretty strong current, walking on stones that must have been slippery.  It was impressive.

The Tad Lo waterfall:

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One of the kids watching his friend climbing up the falls:

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The other kid walking up against a strong current:

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And then it was back to the road…

Following the ice cream man:

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Our next stop was the village called Ban Kok Phung Tai (the “animist” village).  The tribe here used to have a custom of preparing wooden caskets for each village member well in advance of their death.  But they don’t do this anymore – these days they have mortuary people come and take the dead away.  It’s a very poor village and it’s obviously very desperate for tourist money.  Their new shtick is highlighting the fact that village kids smoke cigarettes using a large bong from a very young age.  As soon as Pnina and I rolled into town a few of the kids came around and started smoking in front of us.  It was a very sad thing to see.  They were probably hoping that we would take photos right away and give them money for that privilege, but we didn’t want to play that game.  Instead, we walked over to a village lady who was selling pineapples at the side of the road, and we bought a couple – that seemed like a better business to encourage.  And then we took a photo of the fruit lady with a couple of the kids standing next to her (and cropped her out 🙂

Young kids smoking from a large bong at the Ban Kok Phung Tai village:

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We didn’t spend much time in this village.  We got a bad vibe from the way tourism has upturned their culture.

Several kilometers later we found this road-side temple.  This was actually the only temple we stopped at along the way.  We thought it was interesting how the stairs lead up to the temple straight from the road (which was a pretty fast road, pretty much the local highway).  Even more interesting was the fact that this was a new temple, still under construction.  This isn’t fair or logical to say, but I generally expect temples to be very old, and it was slightly jarring to see such an old-style structure under construction.

Pnina heading up to the temple from the road:

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Look at that – it’s a new temple under construction!

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Our next stop was another waterfall: Tad Gniang.  The nice thing here is that there’s a hill facing the waterfall, and the falls generate a thick mist that make the hill very lush (and slippery).  It’s a really beautiful place, but it’s impossible to take a photo head-on – it’s just too wet.

Tad Gniang waterfalls as seen from the side – this was the best angle we could get without exposing our cameras to too much mist:

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Pnina’s hair covered in droplets:

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Me descending from the lush green hill facing the falls:

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Tad Gniang is also the site of a small coffee plantation.  You can walk around among the small coffee trees, and you can order a totally fresh cup of coffee to enjoy at a table near the river.  Fantastic!

Coffee beans growing on a branch:

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Enjoying a fresh cup of coffee by the river:

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And our final stop was (you guessed it)…a waterfall!  🙂

This one was called Tad Fane and, as you can see, it’s actually a pair of waterfalls.  They are significantly taller than any of the other falls we’d seen up to this point.  But, unlike the other falls, it’s challenging to get a decent view of these falls.  We found some trails that descended into the canyon in front of the falls, but after heading down for 30 minutes we decided to abandon and head back.  The trail was pretty steep and muddy, and my sandals gave me no grip at all.

The pair of waterfalls called Tad Fane – this was as close as we got:

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From there we finished the loop and headed back to Pakse.

Kong Lor Cave

June 28-29, 2009

From Vang Vieng we continued south to a place called Kong Lor Cave.

Our first bus took us to Vientiane, the capital, but we decided to immediately continue onward.  We made this decision partly because we had limited time until our next flight from Bangkok, but also because we heard Vientiane is kind of like Luang Prabang but bigger and less charming.

The second bus dropped us off at a random intersection along Route 13, and from there we caught a pick-up ride to Ban Khoun Kham which is the small town closest to the cave.

Pnina standing next to rice fields and mountains not far from Kong Lor Cave:

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A woman tending the rice field:

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So what’s the big attraction with Kong Lor?  It’s this: Kong Lor is a 7-kilometer-long cave running through a limestone mountain.  The cave was carved by a river that runs the full length, and you can now hire a motorized canoe to take you upstream through the cave from one end to the other and back again.

Inside the cave it’s pitch black.  Pnina and I brought our little LED headlamps but they were pretty useless in there.  The boat people brought a much more powerful flashlight, but even with that light we only had a dim view as we went through cavernous rooms and narrow passages, all the while trying to avoid trickles of rain coming down from the cave’s ceiling.  It’s an awesome feeling, something like being in an action sequence from a Lucas movie.

Part of the trip involves pausing by a “shore” half-way into the cave, and taking a short, slippery walk to view stalagmite formations.  As with other caves we saw in Laos, the formations here are OK but not amazing.  The real adventure here is in the feeling of riding in a boat inside a dark cave.

To reach the cave we caught a 30-minute pick up ride to the park entrance.  From there we walked a short distance to the river:

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At the riverbank, we could see the cave’s entrance:

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First we took one non-motorized canoe across the river and upstream towards the cave.  It wasn’t clear how we would actually get inside because there was a minor waterfall just outside the cave.  The solution was to pull this canoe ashore, walk a short distance into the cave, and then hop into a different motorized canoe that was waiting inside:

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Standing at the cave’s entrance:

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One of our two guides prepping the canoe’s motor:

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It’s hard to take a good picture in complete darkness!  🙂  This shot was taken as we neared the far end of the cave, seven kilometers later:

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And here’s a video showing us exiting from the other end of the cave:

The mountains on the other side were gorgeous and we would have loved to hang around longer, but we just couldn’t communicate with the guides.  So, unfortunately, we spent about 5 minutes here before turning around and heading back downstream through the cave.  If you go to Kong Lor, we highly recommend marking arrangements ahead of time to go further upstream on the far end of the cave:

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Bonus Shot

When you order coffee in Laos, you generally get it with a thick layer of very sweet condensed milk at the bottom, so it’s important to stir it well before drinking.  Otherwise you end up with bitter coffee followed by “dessert” 🙂

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