Cambodia

One long week in spent in Cambodia – Phnom Penh – Sihanoukville – Siem Reap. Possibly the hottest country we’ve hit so far.

We arrived at Phnom Penh bus station and were instantly hounded by drivers wanting our business, we agreed a fare of $1 and demanded the driver take us to the Number 9 Guesthouse, located in the Boeng Kak area. This is a great little guesthouse, built on wooden stilts over the lakeside, it has around 50 rooms you can pick from ranging between $2-$3 per night, for this price you can get two double beds, fans, clean running water and a shower.

Staying in this area was a good decision, it’s one of the main backpacker areas and there are plenty of cheap eateries and bars around including the Lazy Gekko Cafe which offers a quiz night on a Thursday and on a Saturday involves an orphanage visit including dinner and a performance by the kids. It’s a worthy cause and the drinks are so cheap, $0.75 for a double and mixer. This place also has a very fat Pug who supposedly works as a security guard but mostly eats and sits.

Also check out the Flying Elephant for a gastronomical $2 breakfast.

The one and only thing you need to remember in Phnom Penh, wherever you need to go just jump on a Tuk Tuk. They’re amazing little devices consisting of a four person carriage stuck onto the back of a banged up motorbike and they’ll take you pretty much anywhere for around $1. Trust me, you won’t want to walk far here, the streets are dirty and the sun is hot, the breeze from a moto or Tuk Tuk is much welcomed.

We jumped on a Tuk Tuk to the main riverside in Phnom Penh which is also quite entertaining but be prepared to pay riverside prices, perhaps check this area out between 6-8pm when most bars offer happy hour on both food and drinks. We worked our way down here and found a gorgeous place called The Kiwi Bakery which offers cheap but tasty food and cakes from several different continents for roughly $0.60. We decided to splash out on a cake today, it was someone’s birthday after all.

Something we discovered – if you’re a novice with chopsticks, don’t worry, they’re really rather sparce in Cambodia for some reason, you will always be able to find a fork.

The Killing Fields and Genocide museum are a must see if you hit Phnom Penh. We rented our friendly little Tuk Tuk driver for the day (about $10) which is really usefull for seeing all of Phnom Penh, just wear sunglasses and/or a Krama (checked Cambodian scarf – useful for almost anything and you can pick one up for $1, I’m stocking up) as the roads are very dirty and when on a Tuk Tuk you get a delightful covering of dust.

We were dropped off at the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum first, $2 entry, all proceeds go to the charity/cause associated with the museum. It consists of an open courtyard surrounded by four buildings and was previously the Tuol Svay Prey High School which makes the experience very haunting. Instead of classrooms now there are empty cells which held prisoners before they were taken to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields to be executed. The rooms in building A house a steel bed frame and a picture of the victim on the wall. Building B depicts the victims of the massacre in endless photos along the walls, whilst Building C still has the barbed wire around the building intact, preventing prisoners from jumping out and committing suicide. The rooms in Buildings C and D are very disturbing, either tiny tiled cells still complete with shackles, or even smaller wooden cells with no sunlight and the doors still bolted.

We left the Genocide museum and travelled on to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, another $2 to get in. In the center of this giant land of mass graves stands a giant stupa housing thousands of skulls from the victims that were brought here and later discovered during excavations in 1980.

You can place incense in front of the building for free, or a bunch of flowers will set you back a mere 2,000 Reil, about $0.50.
From here you can head into the museum itself and check out the documentary video detailing the history of Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng before wandering round the graves where bits of bone and teeth can still be found, and you may stumble across The Killing Tree, where Khmer Rouge soldiers would swing babies by their legs and kill them by bashing their heads against said tree.

A rather depressing spot of tourism but definately worth encountering if only to really understand Cambodia’s difficult history. You may also notice a large amount of amputee’s wandering around the tourist areas – Cambodia has no Social Security scheme so the poorest of people have no help from the government, any money you give goes straight into their pockets. You’re not supposed to give money to children here as it rarely stays with them, perhaps offer them food or water instead. They may approach you with empty plastic bottles and beg for water, but be aware if you give water to one child, you’ll have to offer it to all 7 of her tiny friends, and they WILL hound you until you do. A firm NO will suffice, children in any Asian country know what this means.

Our next stop was the Russian market, very similar to the Ben Tham market in Saigon but less smelly and you’re not harrassed quite as much. This is a lovely vast market selling fruit, veg, meat, kramas, jewellery and clothing, get your haggling head on but don’t barter too low, it’s not a big thing in Cambodia and you don’t want to offend them, they’re a very welcoming people.

Finally we stopped at Wat Phnom, a temple on top of the highest point in Phnom Penh (a large hump covered in trees). It’ll cost you $1 to get in if you’re foreign – not really worth it, skip the dollar and wander the outskirts, you can see enough from here.

The next day we took a 4 hour bus journey down to Sihanoukville – a small coastal resort which most guide books will advise is a mix of clear blue water, castaway islands and small yet developing cities. For the most part this is true, but Sihanoukville is definately developing, alot of the beach is pretty dirty and some of the guesthouses in the guidebooks are now demolished making way for newer ones. We stayed on Serendipity Beach (The Serendipity Beach Bungalows and Serenity guesthouses are no longer here) in a small guesthouse called Coasters which set us back $10 a night for a room, one of the cheaper options but of course you are paying extra to stay right on the beach front. This place offers tidy little beach bungalows and an excellent internet cafe next door. If you fancy something cheaper the Monkey Republic guesthouse up the hill is a backpacker favourite and offers good quality rooms for around $5. The cheapest rooms in the guesthouses will get you a bed, running water and a fan, the more you pay the more luxurious the rooms are.

The tourist section of beach in Sihanoukville is Serendipity Beach, the locals advise against straying from this section of beach as alot of muggings go on around the Cambodian side, but there really is no reason to want to leave the tourist side – sunbeds and beach bars are aplenty, and you can be either entertained or exhasperated by local women and children offering manicures, pedicures, massages, bracelets, fruit and sunglasses.

You can haggle the kids down to $0.50 for 2 bracelets and if you’re luck, they might even make you one for free, and the beauty treatments are also given for free if business is slow.

We tried out a couple of bars on the beach front, basically you can’t go wrong with any of them. Try the Dolphin Shack for $3 beach BBQ and $0.50 beer, it gets quite lively here on a night too so it’s ideal to meet fellow backpackers.

After spending 3 nights in Sihanoukville, tired, sunburnt and covered in sand, we booked a bus to Siem Reap for out last stint in Cambodia, which was around $12 and gives you a comfortable air conditioned bus all the way up the country. Alot of travel agents will also arrange a Tuk Tuk to pick you up in Siem Reap for free, just make sure you specify which Guesthouse you want otherwise they’ll take you to their pick which isn’t always the cheapest.

The Psar Chaa area is a nice place to stay in Siem Reap, close to the central markets and Bar Street (you don’t need to go anywhere else to eat or drink – this is the hot spot). We had initially tried to stay in the Shadow of Angkor Guesthouse but they charge around $15 a night for an average room, so we stayed in the Popular Guesthouse which offers the same style twin rooms for only $6 a night including a fan and running water which is a steal considering it’s location. It also has a nice airy rooftop bar with good food.

The location of this guesthouse is also very close to Psar Chaar which is the central market in Siem Reap, selling all sorts of Cambodian goodies. It is also just a stop down the road to the Acodo orphanage which houses around 60 children from disadvantaged families, and every night they put on a performance of traditional Khmer dancing free of charge – you can make a donation if you wish, they’ll even give you a certificate to say so. There were a few volunteers from the UK here who we got chatting to, and the show was amazing. Definately worth checking out.

Siem Reap is the only place to stay if you’re looking to visit the temples of Angkor, the 8th wonder of the world. You can hire a Tuk Tuk to take you around for the day for $12 – setting off at 5am to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat before entering the ancient city walls of Angkor Thom. (A day pass for the temples is roughly $20). Remember to wear bug repellant – plenty of flies around first thing in the morning, and try to take breakfast with you, the food at the stalls within the temples is extortionate.

Angkor Wat is pretty impressive in itself, it’ll take you a good hour or two to walk around the whole thing, and if you enter the temple and find a monk sitting there with a bunch of bracelets, donate a few thousand Riel or whatever you feel like giving and he’ll slap a bracelet on your wrist and offer you a prayer. Be careful doing this in any other temples, some monks will offer you incense and tie a red piece of string around your wrist but then demand a dollar.

From Angkor Wat we moved onto Bayon, depicting 216 gargantuan faces – absolutely stunning. Next was the Terrace of Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King, two huge platforms boasting three headed elephants and evil looking figures, make sure you walk through the hidden trench behind the front retaining wall of the Terrace of the Leper King where you will find thousands of well preserved figures carved into the stone wall.

We also checked out Chau Say Tevoda, the Victory Gate, Thommanon and Ta Keo (climb this temple if you wish, but be careful coming down, best avoided by those suffering from vertigo). We finally worked our way to Ta Prohm – famous mostly for the filming of Tomb Raider – where dozens of trees have worked their way into the crumbling stone temple, sections of which are roped off as there are too dangerous to walk around. Very touristy, perhaps visit this first thing in the morning when less people are around otherwise photo opportunities are somewhat scarce. Prepare for the masses of children and adult vendors outside the exits of the temples, they will hound you as soon as you leave, but also remember they’re just trying to make a living.

We checked out the Night Market in Siem Reap after a long day at the temples, it’s basically a smaller version of Psar Chaar, so don’t make too much of an effort to get there, the guide books talk it up an awful lot. There was a bit more traditional Khmer dancing (Apsara) here, we watched a little of this before heading back onto Bar Street in the center of town. Here you can find endless bars with cheap cheap drinks, not so cheap food, but it’s worth checking out. You can also dip your feet in a small pool by the side of the road for a swift fishy foot massage – basically you pay about $6 to have fish nibble at your toes.

If you’re after cheap eats, try the strip of Cambodian food joints just off Bar Street opposite Molly Malones (Irish bar, see Lonely Planet), where they won’t charge you over $1.50 for dinner. There are also a few carts selling mystery meat and sandwiches, the sandwiches you can pick up for $1 or less, vegetarian options available – ask for chilli to be added, it’s delicious.

Just a note: be cautious getting Tuk Tuk’s around the center of town, they WILL try and scam you out of money. Agree a fair price before getting on and don’t budge from this. If they argue, just walk away, there’s literally nothing they can do.

A couple of great places to drink in Siem Reap are Angkor What? and the Temple bar & club, both on Bar Street, these fill up with backpackers around 11pm and stay packed ’til late, but try not to stay too late, the locals get pretty handsy, and the females begin to look… unfemale.

Another good tip: if you want to escape the sweltering city heat, is to try and find an upmarket hotel with a pool where you can chill out in the sun, this should only cost you $5 for the day. Try the Angkor Holiday Hotel, its a swanky four star establishment with a cool and quiet swimming pool, we got there and back by Tuk Tuk for $2.

That’s pretty much my low down on Siem Reap, amazing city, beautiful people and outstanding tourist spots. We have a 7am flight booked to Chiang Mai so my next update will be Thailand, super excited!

Vietnam

So Vietnam has been mind blowing, I’ll start from the beginning.  We arrived in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) airport after a long and confusing flight from Tokyo Haneda, we were not informed of a couple of changeovers in China but we got here, and we’re still physically intact so all is well.  The plane pulled into the airport at approximately 2:00am, and we weren’t due to be picked up by our hostel until 8:00am, this apparently is not a major problem for backpackers as us and about 12 other people curled up on the benches outside the aiport and slept for a good few hours in the sweltering heat, was quite nice to see the sunrise in the peace and quiet, and this was to be the only peace and quiet we would experience in Saigon.  Our little hotel, the Nhat Thao hotel, in the center of Saigon was adorable; clean rooms, free breakfast, comfy beds, air con, great location and very friendly staff.  We spent the first day in Saigon wandering around, taking in our surroundings, we took a trip on a cyclo (bycicle-pushed mode of transport) to the Ben Thanh market which stinks, and is jam packed with Vietnamese hounding you to buy anything and everything from raw meat to buddha beads, but is definately worth seeking out if just to absorb the chaos.  We also took a stroll into the shade of the park opposite and were hounded further by moto drivers attempting to sell us a day trip, Vietnamese students requesting that they practice their English on us (and then probably rob us), women wanting to give us mani-pedi’s right there in the park and generally just people trying to take our photo.  We hastily left the park and booked a boat trip for the next day down the Mekong Delta to My Tho which acts as the gateway to the Mekong and Ben Tre, an island heavily occupied in the war.  As exciting as Saigon is, I wouldn’t recommend staying there for more than a couple of days, the cities in Vietnam are hot, dirty, over crowded and you’ll fear for your life on more than one occasion crossing the roads there.  Cyclos and motos will take you anywhere you want to go if it’s too hot to walk; the motos can be a refreshing ride, but agree a price before getting on and any taxi’s you choose to take, make sure they’re charging by the meter. Also, another tip for Vietnam, only pay in Vietnamese Dong, if the locals charge you in dollars they’ll tinker with the exchange rate by a small percentage so it works out more expensive.

The boat trip down the Mekong to My Tho and Ben Tre is worth doing if spending time in Saigon, it’s a nice break away from the polluted city air, not that the water is swim-able, but the canoe ride with the locals is pretty exciting and you get one of those crazy Vietnamese hats to wear (as much as they pester, you DON’T have to leave the people paddling you a tip)

The rest of the experience includes stopping off on a couple of islands along the Mekong to sample Honey tea and coconut candy, both of which are very tasty, and then a boat ride all the way back to the center of Saigon where they drop you back off at your hotel.

The night life in Saigon is relatively quiet, but if you manage to pick up a copy of the Lonely Planet Southeast Asia On A Shoestring (my personal travel saviour) there’s a few decent bars in the Pham Ngu Lao backpacker area, such as the Santa Cafe, Go2 and the Allez Boo bar which are all pretty decent for meeting other travellers and offer cheap drinks and good food.

The next day we walked to the War Remnants museum (admission 15,000D) which is very eye-opening but not for the faint of heart.  The museum displays war relics and a vast collection of photographs of war victims.

Our next few days in Vietnam were spent in the northern city of Hanoi which we got to by a reasonably cheap internal flight, it’s approximately 2 hours by plane so if you want to go from the top of the country to the bottom quickly, it’s worth going to a few travel operators in either city center and obtaining quotes for methods of transport, TM brothers can be found in the Lonely Planet guide and have loads of trips/excursions and offer flights etc. We got chatting to a young Vietnamese kid on the plane who offered to be our tour guide around Hanoi, we took his number, and popped it in the trash as soon as we were out the airport. No offence to the poor boy but you have to have your guard up here.

After jumping in a taxi into the center of Hanoi (quite a distance from the airport, agree a fare as low as you can) we made our way to the Hanoi Backpackers hostel, another recommendation from Lonely Planet and an excellent one at that. If you’re looking for the life and soul of the backpacker world in Hanoi you must stay here, they offer comfortable and secure dorms for a good price and the amount of people you meet is unreal, helpful staff and breakfast included and a rooftop bar, win. Met some absolute nutters here.

Not too much to do in Hanoi, it’s less lively than Saigon, much warmer and dirtier, if you’re staying in the old quarter there’s a few good restaurants (check out La Place situated by the cathederal and ensure you sit on the top floor) but bar wise it’s pretty bleak. We slept overnight in Hanoi and hastily booked a tour to Ha Long Bay, you can use any tour operator such as TM brothers, the one directly through the Backpackers hostel is cheap; it’s a pure party boat and you can take your own alcohol without a charge. More expensive and comfortable boat tours are available at a higher price, but Ha Long Bay is definately a must-see. The weather was cloudy at first when we set off but the sun soon squeezed through which meant the journey out to the bay consisted of sunbathing, eating, drinking and taking in the amazing surroundings.

The tour will take you to the center of the bay on a refurbished Junk (as mentioned the higher the price the nicer your room will be) and will probably show you around the “amazing caves”, not so amazing but it gives you a good photo opportunity as it’s pretty high up. After the caves you get to paddle a kayak around the bay which is absolutely fantastic, I can’t stress this enough, it MUST be done. Paddling ourselves around the beautiful, desolate islands was the top experience in Hanoi.

After the kayaking you’ll get dinner, alcohol and the chance to jump off the junk and swim around the bay for a while, some of the boats play music into the early hours but some you can catch a good nights sleep after watch the sunset straight after dinner… amazing.

After Ha Long Bay we hastily left Hanoi and booked a sleeper bus down to the coastal resort of Nha Trang, approximately $30 and 42 hours long. The first sleeper bus we got on was a disaster, full of bizarre people and cockroaches and insanely uncomfortable beds. We slept (sort of… take ear plugs) clutching our belongings until we changed bus in Hue to a much more comfortable and airy bus, although still full of perverts from Isreal, just pop your earplugs in again and sleep the whole way there if you choose this method of transport.

We finally arrived in Nha Trang at 5am, dropped our gear off at the Ruby Hotel, an absolute gem of a hotel discovered through hostelworld.com, located in the backpacker area (two roads ajoined, Bien Thu and Hung Vuong, all the best places to eat, sleep and drink are here). We grabbed breakfast at Veranda, which is a very tidy cafe on the beach front down Tran Phu, and offers an amazing set breakfast menu for no more than $2.

The rest of the day was spent sauntering around, taking in our surroundings as per usual in a new place, and looking for exciting tours to book. If you happen to stumble across it, there’s a gorgeous little hippy shop featured in Lonely Planet called Andy’s which offers a book exchange and sells gorgeous clothes and materials and Vietnamese bracelets for 5,000D – less than 20p.

After locating a decent enough tour operator we arranged a day at the Thap Ba Hot Spring center where you pay around 60,000D to sit in a bath of mineral mud (you can choose between private and communal baths) followed by a hot mineral water bath, and then an afternoon by the mineral swimming pools with lunch. Great way to kick a hangover.

The afternoon was spent climbing 150 steps to see the Long Son Pagoda and the giant seated Buddha at the top, not to be done in the midday heat but pretty impressive when the sun is going down.

We had looked at another boat trip, more of a booze cruise, but we skipped this to do something far more exciting. When you spend time in Nha Trang you will find that you’ll end up as part of a huge group of people whether you intend to or not. All the bars mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide are on the same streets (except the Sailing Club – a fantastic way to finish off the night, drinking and dancing on the beach) and everyone crowds there from around 9pm onwards. The main hangout is the Why Not bar where we met an amazing group ranging from 18 year olds to 40 year olds who had literally met that day, but were all great fun and had some hilarious stories to tell. After getting to know them all (I’ve started naming people by the country they live in, we’re meeting too many people to remember names) we arranged a group day trip to the Vinpearl Land Resort & Amusement Park (a giant water park and theme park visable from the beach) on Hon Tre Island. This should cost you around 300,000D for the day but everything on the island is included once you land. Taxi’s will take you to the cable car for about 50,000D – don’t allow them to charge you any more and buy your ticket directly from the cable car station. The taxi will drop you off outside a tourist shop which will try to flog you tickets, but it’s much safer to buy them direct. You get the long cable car ride to the island, a great way of viewing Nha Trang, and then you can spend the day in either the water park, theme park or amusement arcade. The water park was definately the most fun we’ve had since we left home, everyone we went with was such a laugh and as extreme as it was (sunburn and bruises galore), everyone had an amazing day. On the way home we had a fun game of how many westerners can we fit into one tiny Vietnamese taxi – they’ll allow this if you’re small enough to sit on each others laps and it really reduces your fare.

We’ll REALLY miss Nha Trang and everyone we’ve met, and Vietnam itself has been an experience, but onto Cambodia now. We’ve managed to book another relatively cheap sleeper bus back down to Saigon (about $19) and this also includes a border crossing bus to Phnom Penh, we’re assuming visas can be picked up here for $20 but the crossings can be confusing so just ask your bus driver.

Updates on Cambodia to come!

Tokyo – Part 2

Our second week in Tokyo has been less hectic than the first, both have been just as enjoyable, we feel as if we have finally settled in a little and in less than 24 hours we`ll have to up and go!

The new area of Asakusa that we are living in is very touristy, traditional but with a few modern twists. Plenty of traditionjal Japanese gifts can be found here, and there are also some very cool temples to have a look around whilst you`re in the area. The Asahi brewery is pretty much next door to our hostel and is essentially a black box with a big gold poo on top but it means we`re never short of beer. A few minutes walk down the road they`re building what is called the Tokyo Sky Tree, it`s huge and although it`s not yet complete it`s still pretty impressive.

Saturday we went back to Ueno park for a relaxing day in the sun, had an absolutely scorcher of a weekend, another two days of sunshine. This time we rented a pedal boat and sailed around for the best part of an hour, an absolute steal for only 350 Yen each, definitely worth doing if the weather permits. We also took full advantage of the food stalls around Ueno park and chowed down on a giant corn on the cob and some Yakisoba, sans pork. Plenty of entertainment going on around Ueno park on a Saturday day time, we saw jugglers, musicians and plenty of bizarrely dressed animals. We took a 10 minute stroll up to Yanaka Cemetery, which is very attractive, quite a few famous Japanese figures are buried here and the abundance of cherry blossoms means that it is ideal for keen photographers. At the end of the day however it`s still a cemetery so we didn`t hang around too long.

On Sunday we travelled back to our beloved Harajuku, can`t get enough of that place and I seriously can`t stress enough how much you MUST go there if you ever visit Tokyo. We found a very cool Volcom store so I picked up a new tee to wear when we reach warmer climates, and then we went to Kiddy Land, which, as awful as it sounds, is THE most exciting place.
Kiddy Land offers a staggering 6 floors of toys, character goods, stickers, electronics and much more, plus an entire floor dedicated to Snoopy. They also sell my new favourite character, Kapibarasan (see below). Had lunch in Yoyogi park in the midday sun to finish the day off and watched all the entertainers do their things, i.e human statues, Elvis wannabe`s and EXTREME goths. Harjuku and Yoyogi park are THE places to be on Sundays.

Monday was a bit rubbish as the weather took a bit of a dive again, so we grabbed the opportunity for a lie in, did the touristy-type things around Asakusa again. Had lunch in a little Japanese fast food joint, which to our delight meant that we could order a bowl of rice and Tempura accompanied by a huge bowl of Miso Ramen for a mere 550 Yen. Generally with these places you pop your money into a little machine at the front of the restaurant, you`re then given a ticket and you collect your meal from the counter within a few minutes. The very lovely and very helpful lady in this joint allowed us to order at the counter and pointed out exactly what we had to do, so if you come across one of these places and are feeling unsure it`s definitely worth going straight to the counter and they`ll just ask you to point to a meal on the menu, then you pay them there and collect your food. These places are ideal for something fast, inexpensive and filling.
Monday evening we spent indoors with our new friend from Ohio, his name is Tyler, he`s about our age and he likes all the same things we do, in all aspects of life if you catch my drift. He`s great fun and bought us cookies so he`s now a friend forever. We`ve decided to take him for dinner on Thursday evening.

Tuesday was a great day, although very tiring. We went to Shibuya first thing to get some shopping under our belts, but found that it is very mainstream and basically looks like any high street in the UK. It`s a lovely place and has a huge HMV and a very cool Disney store, but other than that it`s nothing special. So we decided to go to Harajuku again.
Managed to scout a pair of vintage Levi`s shorts and a vintage Mickey Mouse jumper from We Go Harajuku (do NOT miss this shop) for less than 3000 Yen, and just about managed to talk ourselves out of buying Tamagotchi`s. These are now apparently in colour and will set you back almost 50 quid, avoid these and buy the cute character keyrings instead.
For dinner we took the metro along to Shinjuku which looks spectacular at night and, very similar to Akihabara, sells every electrical item you could ever need. We had dinner in a tapas-style Japanese restaurant and ordered cocktails, Yakisoba complete with poached egg, salmon sashimi, crab cakes and seared squid, finished off with fresh mango and icecream, deeeelicious. We did however notice Raw Horsemeat on the menu, sick.

We also found these in a department store in Shinjuku, amazing.

Finally, Wednesday. Our BEST day in Tokyo so far, for one reason only. TOKYO DISNEY!
Tokyo Disney is basically a compact version of Magic Kingdom from the major Disney World parks, but includes all the mountains (Thunder, Splash, Space), an amazing shopping center and some mind blowing parades.
We left for Disney at around 8am, it takes roughly 40 minutes to get to from any main station on the east side of Tokyo, and costs about 600 Yen to get to. It`s worth buying your tickets (5,800 Yen for an adult) from the Disney Store in Shibuya before you go, as the queues for tickets first thing on a morning are ridiculous, we just sauntered on past with our pre-bought tickets and ran like kids into the park. An absolute MUST when you arrive in Tokyo Disney is to buy a pair of novelty Mickey/Minnie ears, which of course we did, and then made our way to the great Thunder Mountain. You can buy fast-track tickets to the rides in the park but if you go during the week, as long as it`s not a public holiday, you won`t have to queue for more than half an hour for the major rides, smaller rides you`re looking at about 15 minutes tops. The day time parades are also a must-see, make sure you sit along the parade route at least 15 minutes before the parades are due to start for the best views (no one is allowed to stand up along the parade route so sitting down means that you get an excellent view), and also ensure that you have a box of Soy sauce and butter popcorn in hand (approx. 300 Yen, the yummiest popcorn you will ever eat). We saw the Easter parade which was amazing, I was particularly excited about the Toy Story and Monsters Inc. floats, and less impressed with the kinky Japanese dancers.
Managed to find a Kapibarasan toy in amidst the Disney madness which I was pretty pleased about but the pleasure soon dissipated when I realised that there was no way it would ever fit in my backpack. What can you do.
We picked up a few Disney trinkets and hammered most of the rides in the park before stopping for dinner at none other than the Queen of Hearts Banquet Hall, full of Alice in Wonderland crap and really overpriced but SO worth the experience. You can buy a very merry Unbirthday Cake for around 900 Yen.
Finally we caught the night time electrical parade (with more popcorn) which was just as glorious as the first parade, and watched the `Magic In The Sky` fireworks, not really worth sticking around for.
Best rides to look out for in Tokyo Disney are Thunder Mountain, Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, the haunted mansion, the Buzz Lightyear ride, the Snow White ride, the Roger Rabbit ride, It`s A Small World, and probably the Monsters Inc. ride but it was closed when we went, devastated.
Around 9pm we left the park and had a very sleepy ride home on the metro. Best day by miles, but be prepared to spend alot, mostly on novelty ears.

Today is our last full day in Tokyo, we`ve spent it doing laundry and searching frantically for currency exchange. I can strongly advise that only Yen and US dollars should be taken into Japan, anything else is worth dirt over here; they can`t change it, they won`t buy it and they certainly do NOT sell it. If you`re travelling to another country after Japan, either take dollars to change or organise the currency exchange before you leave home. We`ve swapped some Yen into dollars to take to Vietnam, and we now have a backpack full of clean clothes. Fiona, Ohio and myself are popping out for dinner and drinks tonight to toast our last night in Tokyo. Unsure what the internet situation in Vietnam will be, so until my next entry, sayonara.

P.S – It’s safe to drink tap water in Tokyo.

Tokyo – Part 1

So here we are in quite possibly one of the busiest places in the world. Upon arrival we managed a painless journey on the JR train from Narita Airport to Asakusabashi (pronounced ass-ak-sa-bash-ee by the locals) and followed the directions provided to our Hostel, Khaosan Tokyo Ninja. Trains here are very easy to use, similar to the underground in London, and we picked up some English maps so hopping across town is easy. Upon arrival, we checked in, all the staff spoke perfect English which made things very simple, and after checking in and dumping our gear we sauntered down the road in search of food. For those who do not speak or read Japanese, this is definitely a challenge as all the menu’s are in symbols and barely anyone speaks English. Eventually we managed, to this day we are still unsure how, to order a bowl of Udon accompanied with a large dish of Miso. That night we slept like logs, well, until about 3am when the time difference finally kicked in and we were wide awake for a few hours. Jet lag meant that the first few days were difficult, but the hostel was great and the cabin beds we had were small but comfy, and sharing a dorm with 12 other people meant that there was always something going on.

The beds we had were basically small wooden boxes with a duvet and pillow provided, pretty sound proof but they heated up like mini saunas most of the nights.

The kitchen and living area were great, fully equipped with everything you could need, including free internet access and a Wii!

We met a nice Slovenian family, a very quiet boy from Germany, a girl called Lucy from Newcastle and a few other kids from the UK who we swapped stories with on the evenings we spent in the hostel.
Breakfast consisted of a carton of Orange juice drank straight from the carton through a straw, and a banana for the week. Cheap and cheerful, brought to you by Tokyo’s 7-11.

(FYI the 7-11’s also have International ATM’s if you’re stuck for cash, Japan is a very cash based economy, there’s generally a charge to pay by card or you simply can’t do so. If you can’t find a 7-11, try a Post Office.)

Day one, the Sunday after arriving we took the JR line to Harajuku, a bright and lively part of Tokyo filled with bizarrely dressed kids. We wandered around the streets filled with endless tat shops – by tat shops I mean filled with bright, plastic cartoon nonsense, and lots of Hello Kitty. Amazing. There’s also a few decent vintage shops and loads of tiny stores filled with pictures and memorabilia of Japanese pop stars, apparently a big thing over here.

We grabbed a crepe (very Japanese, i know) for breakfast and carried on through the insanity that is Harajuku. After trailing the shops we went to Yoyogi Park – a pleasant bustling park filled with Cherry Blossom trees and Japanese hippies. We envied those sat on mats under the trees feasting on picnics so we’re going back this weekend to join them. Plenty of dogs, musicians and Yoga enthusiasts around here.

A warning – on Sunday’s Harajuku station is chaos. The security workers in the station stopped people boarding the trains for a while as it was too busy, I’ve never seen so many people in one place at one time.

Day two, we made our way to Akabanebashi (can’t pronounce this one) to see the Spiral building and the Tokyo Tower. The Spiral building was very artsy and very boring so we took the subway to Roppongi to see the Roppongi Hills – a giant shopping center complete with cinema and food mecca. The weather was pretty poor so naturally we decided to take a long walk through the Roppongi gardens and around the entire area, mistake. A couple of hours later we found our way back to the Roppongi Hills and, looking like drowned rats and feeling very sorry for ourselves we sought refuge in a cosy Chinese restaurant (we have eaten plenty of Japanese food, I swear). Finally we jumped on the subway to the Tokyo Tower which, compared to the rest of the day which was a bit of a write off, turned out to be pretty fun. It’s approximately 600 Yen to take a trip up the tower to the main observatory and if the weather had been nicer I bet we would have been able to see Mount Fuji, however all we could see was half of Tokyo and plenty of mist. Still a nice trip out nontheless, and we topped it off with strawberry and chocolate coated waffles.

Day three, much of an improvement on yesterday. We went to the Imperial Palace East Gardens, and the weather was superb, a tasty 16 degrees. The Imperial Palace is closed for most of the year, only opening on the Emperor’s birthday and other special occasions as far as I’m aware, but the gardens are worthy of a trip here regardless. There’s plenty of mini temples and greenery, Cherry blossoms and ponds full of Coi Carp. We even fashioned ourselves a picnic from a local convenience store and sat by the ponds for a good couple of hours soaking up the sun. After a very lazy day we spent the evening chatting to our little hostel friends, chowing down on pot noodle style goodness and watching Star Wars – A New Hope, in English! Win!

Wednesday was also a delight, we went to Akihabara – the electrical epicenter of Tokyo. Basically, you can buy anything here. There are department stores will 8 floors full of iPods, laptops, cameras and household appliances, then there are also thousands of market stalls selling cheap memory cards and Japanese phones. We also walked past few stalls selling spy cameras and CCTV… odd. Akihabara is also the main Anime area in Tokyo so the amount of comic book stores, stalls selling Pokemon cards and huge arcades is astounding. I picked up a few electrical bits and pieces here, the weather was pretty dire again so we ate lunch in a small cafe. We also attempted a Japanese coffee/cake house, these are basically tacky little venues full of small squeaky girls in maid’s outfits who drag you in and then inform you there is a minimum 500 Yen cover fee and all the drinks are at least 1000 Yen, we hastily left.

We had an early night on Wednesday as we planned on taking a trip to the Tsukiji Fish market on Thursday morning. We dragged ourselves out of bed at 5:30am and took the subway to Tsukiji. The fish market, once we finally found it (for anyone going there, come out the station and turn RIGHT, not left) was a sight. Literally, millions of stalls selling an abundance of every type of fish and shellfish you could imagine. There are men sawing human-sized pieces of frozen Tuna, there are fish heads rolling around in buckets everywhere, eels in vats of blood and tonnes and tonnes of octopus and shellfish to buy. It’s pretty chaotic as it is not only one of the busiest markets in Tokyo it’s also a huge tourist destination so prepare to be bumped, shoved and almost ran over by small vehicles everywhere you turn, but it’s definitely worth a visit, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. One day, I’ll take my dad and we’ll have a fishy feast.

Speaking of feasts, we did what was recommended to us by so many books and people and went for a traditional Sushi breakfast. Bar the Wasabi it was one of the tastiest meals I’ve had so far. At 7am we were tucking into huge chunks of raw Tuna, prawn and Mackerel spread over delicious blocks of sushi rice, accompanied by pickled ginger, sushi rolls and fishy Miso soup with a prawn head floating around. Yum!

Still buzzing from the fish market we decided not go back to the Hostel and waste our time here sleeping, so we took a train to Ueno, as recommended in the Tokyo Handy Guide which you can pick up from most stations/airports/tourist destinations, very handy indeed. I had though that I’d seen the prettiest parks Tokyo had to offer, but I was wrong. Ueno is a must-see. Its packed with food stalls selling everything from fresh BBQ’d fish and corn on the cob to noodles, seafood dumplings and much more. Definitely worth taking a picnic here, you can also rent boats so, obviously we’re heading back there on Saturday to do just that. There are also plenty of Japanese people sitting around painting the scenery, and they will paint your portrait if you ask nicely. We strolled through the masses of Cherry blossoms in the gorgeous sunshine and decided to take a trip to the Ueno Zoo which was very entertaining. We saw thousands of birds, small mammals, elephants, lions, tigers, gorillas, a couple of very playful Japanese bears, otters, crocodiles, a gigantic mother of a turtle and some very cute Monkeys. We stopped for a noodle fix at lunch, took a quick peek at the penguins and exited to explore the rest of Ueno, the shops around this area are similar to Akihabara, plenty of electricals and tac.
FYI – We also went to have a look at the Sony building, it’s very tall and doesn’t do very much.

This brings us to today, we checked out of the lovely Khaosan Tokyo Ninja at 11am straight after breakfast and took the subway two stops up to Asakusa (Ahh-sack-sah). We’ve checked into the twin hostel Khaosan Tokyo Samurai today which is a newer version of our previous hostel. The atmosphere isn’t as lively here but the surrounding area of Asakusa and the rooms themselves (we opted for a twin bedroom this time, huge bunk beds in a private room, phew!) are much of an improvement. We couldn’t check in until 3pm today so we wandered over into the heart of Asakusa, famous for it’s traditional Japanese souvenir vendors, there are Kimonos and waving cats EVERYWHERE. They also sell alot of cookies and crackers here. No need to look for eat-ins for lunch, as the food stalls in Asakusa are just as plentiful and mouth wateringly tempting as the ones in Ueno, so just take cash and pick up some munch while you’re wandering around. We bought some freshly baked cookies from a stall, they’re more cakey really, and we’re yet to figure out what’s in them. Plenty of temples and shrines nearby too but we’ll be visiting them on Monday so I’ll add more on Asakusa later. We’re going to head back into Asakusa for dinner in about an hour then get some well earned rest in our new comfy beds (memory foam matress, nice).

The next week should entail a re-visit to Ueno for a picnic and boat ride, a trip back to Yoyogi and Harakjuku to pick up some lunch and a few more bits and bobs, we’re planning on Visiting Shibuya and Shinjuku too which are apparently great shopping areas and Shinjuku sounds pretty exciting when it’s lit up at night so I think we’ll try that. Oh, and Tokyo Disney park on Wednesday!

Watch this space.

And so it begins…

This is where I start my blog, sat on my bed in my room which I won’t be seeing for 5 months, waiting for mum to come home so I can get the goodbye tears out the way.

I have no job, no car, and have sold half of my possessions to fund this trip so it had better be worth it!

We leave for Heathrow Airport in approximately 3 hours, we’ll stay overnight and fly around 9 am tomorrow morning, stopping off at Vienna for a few hours, then straight on to Tokyo!

Very nervous, not something I’ve ever done before and I’m going to miss my friends and family so much, so hopefully this will enable them to keep track of me, and save me sending out thousands of separate texts and e-mails.

I’ve topped up my iPod to 13GB of sweet sounding tunes, and my purse is full of Japanese Yen, Vietnamese Dong, Cambodian Riel and Thai Bhat.

So first stop will be Tokyo, and my next update is pending until I can reach another computer. Living without technology will kill me.

For now, keep reading, and I’ll see you all in September!