A Travellerspoint blog

J-A-P-A-N

The first few hours in the Land of the Rising Sun


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We've made it in 1 piece to Japan, and after a very long flight followed by several trains, we arrived in our small but perfectly formed apartment in the Kanagawa Prefecture in Greater Tokyo (just West of Tokyo itself). We haven't quite explored our area completely, but we found a sushi place, various authentic looking japanese restaurents and a 99 yen shop - amusingly enough we didn't realise it was a 99 yen shop until by the 2nd aisle it dawned on me that everything cost exactly 99 yen (plus tax). FYI 99 yen is about 41p and 60 eurocents. Other than that, yesterday we went to the city council to sort out alien registration cards etc. It also gave us a chance to meet some of the company's other instructors who live in the same area - most of them are around our age and seem like a nice bunch, certainly a very different group from most of the teachers we met in Thailand!!

We've only been here 2 days now but so far we love it - although we'll have to get used to not being able to read anything, people cycling on pavements and car parks that whisk cars away instead of people driving to a parking place (watch Tokyo Drift, you'll understand). The campus that we will be working in, along with another guy called Ricky, seems nice enogh. Fairly modern and green.. and it has a resident goat for some random reason. We'll tell you more once we actually start work there on Monday. Tomorrow and Saturday we've got training so we'll have to wait until Sunday to do some more exploring!

Posted by meli1984 01:45 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

An April in Europe

A whirlwind tour of London, Bristol, Bath, Edinburgh, Brussels and Amsterdam


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Matt and I just spent a lovely month back in Europe.. as the old adage (and the not so old song) says "you don't know what you've got til it's gone" and we certainly missed our friends and loved ones when in Thailand!

Our trip back home took us on a quick detour to Sri Lanka - just one night but Sri Lankan Airlines were kind enough to provide us with a room. We arrived late at night and were leaving the next morning at 10am so we just headed straight to bed. When we woke up the next morning we discovered the hotel was right next to a beautiful beach! Unfortunately we didn't have time to explore as we were had to get back to the airport - although the short time we spent there definitely made us want to go back one day (not least because we were charmed by the fake Tescos, Asdas and McDonalds we saw on the way back to the airport). The airport itself was an interesting experience: due to recent airstrikes by the Tamil Tiger there were machine gun emplacements outside, there were soldiers in urban camouflage (purple, grey and green - very cool) and, on a lighter note, the duty-free shops sold things like fridges and ovens!

We made it safely to London where we spent a lovely few days enjoying Damian's hospitality and meeting up with a few other friends too!

Next on the whirlwind tour was home for both of us - Brussels for me and Amsteram for Matt. We both got to spend time with our families as well as friends from back home. I then went to Amsterdam to see Matt and his family, and then we jetted off to Bristol to see my brother Stephen and his fiancee Hasna. We had a wander around Bristol, went for a picnic, played basketball and generally just enjoyed each other's company :)

From Bristol we headed to Bath just in time for the BUSA Karate Championships so that we could cheer for the Edinburgh Squad and catch up with them too. The squad lived up to our expectations and showed us some awesome performances.. as well as some awesome banter. We then hitched a ride on the "BUSA bus" back up the Edinburgh - you'd think a 9 hour bus ride after a long day of competition wouldn't be much fun, but we ended up having a great time - I guess there are worse things than being cooped up with good friends and a few drinks!

The next few days were spent catching up with more friends and sleeping on various people's spare rooms and floors (a big thank you to H, Ger and Nessa, Sinead and Sarah!).

I won't bore you with all the details of our shenanigans but it was absolutely lovely to spend time with friends in Edinburgh and elsewhere in the UK.. we look forward to seeing you all again as soon as we're back in your neck of the woods!

Matt spent some more time in Edinburgh than me (I headed back home), partly to go his Aunt's birthday party, and then he headed back to Amsterdam. After a few more days in our respective homes, Matt hopped on a train to come see me, and a couple of days later we both got the eurostar to London to catch a plane to continue our TEFL adventure...

Posted by meli1984 23:57 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

Chiang Mai & Pai

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Back in Thailand and after a mad dash to get our clothes washed and packed for the next leg of our journey, we got on a sleeper train bound for the northern city of Chiang Mai.

Travelling by sleeper is so much more civilised than by bus! The bunks are cosy and just about long enough to be completely comfortable to sleep in. Leaving in the evening and arriving in Chiang Mai the next morning we were rested and ready to tackle a new city! Compare this to sitting on a bus for 12 hours (or more) and arriving in the dead of night, and I know which method of transport I prefer.

After checking into our guesthouse, chosen on advice by a very nice American lady in an adjacent bunk, and having lunch, we rented a motorbike to explore the town with.

Chiang Mai is supposedly well known for its hundreds of temples and its walled and moated central area. Oh, and its Night Bazaar. After getting lost for quite a bit in the predominantly one-way traffic system, we made it to one of the alleged highlights of the Chiang Mai province: Wat U Mong. I'm afraid it really wasn't worth the drive out there. We then went to a temple where Melissa wanted to follow a meditation class, only to be disappointed by the fact that the next class wasn't for another week. After this we visited the alleged-most-visited wat in town. Again, it was disappointing!

After all this our spirits were a bit low, and we decided we would leave for somewhere else the next day, and in the evening we engaged in some therapeutic shopping at the famed Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. It's a large collection of shops and stalls selling mostly the same stuff (silk cloth, touristy clothing, various contraband) but with some really nice stuff mixed in if you look carefully. And all at "special prices".

So, the next day we got on a bus to Pai. Pai is a sleepy town in the north, not far from the Burma/Myanmar border. Accommodation there is much more basic (and cheap!) and the tourism industry is much less in your face. We stayed in a nice wooden bungalow, where we finally got to use our mosquito-net! After an unusually cold night (Pai is up in the mountains and gets cold at night!), we went on a two day trek. We drove for a couple hours up a mostly dirt track, bouncing and wobbling all over the place, after which we were to walk the rest of the way. The walk started up-hill in the blistering sun and wasn't the easiest walk I've been on! We stopped for lunch at the Pai river and swam in it's refreshingly cool waters, ignoring the fact a colourful snake had just swum past. We ate fried rice in bowls made on the spot from banana tree leaves (Melissa made one too!).

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The rainforest in Thailand is actually very very dry at this time of year. Most of the ground is sandy or covered in dry foliage, and the plant life is not very dense or green at all. Also, the rivers and waterfall we passed were at very low levels. Anyway, at the end of day 1 we traipsed into a Lahu hilltribe village. We were welcomed by curious children and barking dogs. The Lahu grow their own rice (each family providing for themselves) and other vegetables and they sell oxen to raise money for other purchases. They also still do a lot of foraging and hunting. We stayed in a house on stilts and slept on the floor on mats. We were served with some excellent food, and while we were eating, several dead squirrels were brought in and were plucked in front of our eyes! Supposedly dusk is a good time to go squirrel hunting. At this time the attention of the kids had turned away from the white foreigners to the solar powered satellite TV in the adjacent hut. It was quite strange to see satellite dishes in a village where they grow and hunt their own food and don't have telephone lines!

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I got up early in the morning (I was too cold to stay lying down any longer!) to sit by the fire and to go for a wander. I watched the Lahu grinding their home-grown rice in a man-powered mechanical pounder that works like a see-saw. They pound the rice to get rid of its shell and then dry it on large shelves above their fires. I went back to wake Melissa and after a breakfast of jam and toast we got to try some curried squirrel, and I thought it smelled like leftover Christmas turkey broth. One thing I will note is that they don't remove the bones, they just kind of mash up the whole thing, so that you are continually picking out bits of ribs from your teeth.

Back on the jungle trail we started the day hunting for food. Our guides were looking for the nests of a certain type of beetle. It digs holes and hibernates in them with its larvae. The larvae are the ones we wanted, as I hear they are good roasted. After a couple nests that had already been ransacked by snakes we found a good one! We were quite surprised by the number of hockeyball sized earth balls that came out of the hole, each with a quite large white larva inside. After this we passed another water-fall and some forest-fires! We walked particularly fast near the latter, while languishing in the cool mist generated by the former. We passed through another village at lunchtime and we all had a well-deserved snooze. We finally made it to our destination and were driven back to Pai.

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The next day we ticked off the our final to-do-in-Thailand: the elephant ride. We got to ride an elephant for an hour and a half and half-way through we waded into the river, where the elephant bucked us like a bucking bronco (but on command) and we went flying into the water. We then spent another half our climbing back on and being thrown off. This aquatic fun was slightly offset by the fact that the elephants would do their business in the water right next to us. I would also say that an hour and a half is long enough on an elephant's back! It's quite uncomfortable and it really is high up. While going down a particularly steep hill, our elephant decided to stop every few metres and swing from left-to-right picking out the more juicy greens, with Meli and I hanging on for dear life!

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That afternoon we got the bus back to Chiang Mai. In the evening we finished off some of our souvenir shopping at the Night Bazaar and found a really nice jewellery/crafts shop. The next day we mainly updated our blog, did some more shopping at the jewellery shop and walked around town. In the evening we got the sleeper back to Bangkok. A short, but fun time in the north! We would like to go back to Chiang Mai with more time and perhaps more money, because the thing about Chiang Mai is really that there is a lot to do, like cooking courses, meditation classes, massage schools, mountainbiking and other adventure sports. One thing that Melissa really wanted to do was a silver jewellery workshop. Maybe one day!

Posted by meli1984 22:42 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Cambodia: Siem Reap & Angkor


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After Phnom Penh was Angkor, the ancient capital of a huge prosperous empire dating back to before 1400 which included most of Thailand and Cambodia.

It is located at the town of Siem Reap (which means Siam (Thailand!) Defeated). A $10 luxury bus trip (with hostesses and all) got us there. We managed to find accommodation in this busy tourist town in a hotel that wasn't quite open yet for business. We had to come back 20 minutes later while they put together the beds! The main reason for the droves of tourists that come here is for the sights at Angkor, although Siem Reap isn't too bad itself. We ate some really good food there, but were also reminded by the countries past and its poverty by the many begging land-mine victims and children.

Our swiss hotel owner found us a driver for a whirl-wind 1 day tour of the sights at Angkor. All the guidebooks we consulted said a day was never going to be enough and that at least a week was needed to take it all in! I dunno, I had seen enough ruined temples after a long day in the heat, but some of the more remote jungle ruins are supposed to be amazing and then it is also more about the surroundings and the adventure. The main sites we visited were host to throngs of tourist groups bussed in from all over the world (mainly Japan it seemed at times) who were jostled from site to site after the mandatory photo opportunities. We were disciplined enough to leave our hotel at 5 am, in order to witness the sun rising at the most famous of angkorian attractions, Angkor Wat. I wasn't that impressed, and all my photographs were awful because there was hardly any light, or cluttered with large groups of tourists. The temple is ginormous and I didn't get a sense of size until we got closer and it was quite amazing.

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The buildings at Angkor are basically large (some huge!) man-made hills. Because of the lack of various architectural/physical techniques the buildings lacked true three-dimensions. There were no rooms-above rooms or large contained rooms. Here Meli disagrees with me! She says: the point of these structures isn't to have rooms, it's to be visually stunning and they act as giant sculptures themselves very intrictaely sculpted.. not man-made hills anyway!

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Ok so maybe I was a bit harsh, a lot of the work was very good and showed hard work, devotion and amazing skill and art. On top of the many large structures you also have to imagine in all the palaces and houses that made up the surrounding city. Building in stone was reserved almost entirely for temples, while everything else was made of wood, and has long since disappeared. Also, we did have a really nice day scrambling all over the buildings! We climbed with difficulty and trepidation up some of the steeper "stairs" leading to the summits, and wondered what on earth you were supposed to do during the rainy season when they would be extremely slippery.

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Lucky for us it didn't rain till the night, and boy did it rain! By the morning we were on our way back to Bangkok, but as it turned out, the roads weren't really suitable for wet weather either... The usual 3 hour trip to the border took about 10 hours, all the while slipping and sliding, getting stuck in the mud, waiting for other cars/vans/busses/trucks to come unstuck. We were travelling side-ways for quite a bit of the journey! And all this in an outsized minivan packed with 28 people (and all their luggage!). We were very glad to bet back onto the roads in Thailand.

Pictures up soon.

Posted by meli1984 22:36 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Cambodia: Phnom Penh II

Toul Seng and the Killing Fields


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As mentioned before, part of our stay in Cambodia involved visiting the genocide museum at Toul Seng, and the Killing Fields just outside of Phnom Penh. Both of these places are a painful but necessary reminder of the atrocities that occured under the Khmer Rouge's regime.

Even though it has been weeks since these visits (I'm writing this a little late) I am still unsure of how to write about them. I guess it's best to start with the facts.

The Khmer Rouge, a self-procalimed communist regime that took power in the late 60's after a bloody civil war not helped by blanket bombings by the Americans to flush out the Vietcong, used what had been a high school in Phnom Penh as "Security Prison 21" also called Toul Seng. The words Toul Seng roughly translate to "Poison Hill" or "Hill of the Poisoned/Guilty" and this detention centre was used to detain and torture any suspected subversive citizens. In all between 10,000 and 20,000 prisoners were detained and tortured here, only 7 survived. The average life-span of prisoners once they were detained was between 3 and 6 months, after this they were driven a few miles out of town and killed at what are now called the Killing Fields. The prisoners were usually told to kneel in groups in front of a pre-dug ditch used as a mass grave, and then they were either bludgeoned to death or had their throats slit. This avoided wasting bullets. Their bodies were then doused with DDT to kill those still alive and to avoid the stench of their corpses from alerting the locals. Despite this horrific death it must have been a relief to some extent as their lives at Toul Seng were pretty gruelling. Each prisoner was either locked in a tiny dark individual cell or, more commonly, shackled by their ankles to a metal rod/pole with 4 prisoners attached to each metre of the pole. Unless taken out for torture, or a wash once in a while, the prisoners had to lie there neither moving nor speaking without a guard's permission. I will spare you the details of the tortures, needless to say they were atrocious. The vast majority of the prisoners posed no threat to the Khmer Rouge but this intensively paranoid and controlling government chose to see signs of subterfuge in the simplest of acts such as chatting to one's friends or even writing letters. Many one-time guards of the prisons eventually became prisoners. Even children weren't spared the horrors of Toul Seng.

Given the past of Toul Seng and the Killing Fields you will no doubt understand how chilling and moving visiting them was. Toul Seng looks like your ordinary high school except for the barbed wired. Then you walk inside the classrooms to see hundreds of mug shots of its prisoner - men, women and children, or tiny cells, or instruments of torture. It is a quiet place these days - the signs that discourage visitors from laughing or smiling are not needed as most people seem numb from imagining what happened here. The Killing fields too are peaceful now: just a field of ditches where the mass graves were dug up, and a stupa built in the middle of them to commemorate those who died here. Upon entering the stupa you are confronted, literally centimetres in front of you, and not behind glass, with the 8000 skulls found here. Skulls of real men, women and children who were ruthlessly killed. The thought of these skulls still disgusts me and moves me in equal measures.

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When I try to think of one word that describes what happened at these places, all i can come up with is unimagineable. I can't imagine living in constant fear. I can't imagine the pain of being tortured. I can't imagine being so scared of the consequences of refusal that I would obey orders to torture and kill another human being. I can't imagine that anyone could be so twisted as to give those orders. I can't imagine what it is to kneel blindfolded in front of a mass grave, hearing people around me being beaten to death and waiting my turn.

But these things did happen, they happened within the last 30 odd years, and perhaps the saddest thing of all is that similar acts of violence still occur in places today.

Posted by meli1984 22:25 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

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