A Travellerspoint blog

My Christmas and New Year travels - Bangkok

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I spent three weeks in Thailand and Cambodia over the break and I had the most scary, intense, wonderful, relaxing, interesting and overall incredible experiences! We went to so many different kinds of places and met so many interesting people - that's why I had to use such a variety of words to try to describe all of this.

We flew into Bangkok from Osaka on December 15th. We didn't arrive in Thailand until around midnight, so we just went straight to our hotel. I remembered reading in a great book Jack that got me for Christmas to NEVER hire an airport limousine, but, we thought at the time $9 to get to our hotel, which was about an hour away from the airport, was a great price so we took it.

Our first Bangkok hotel was alright, except for the cockroach that had been swimming laps in our water boiler (it makes hot water for tea)... But, we paid about $9 each per night so I figured I could put up with one more "guest" for such a cheap price. I actually had so much fun at our nice hotels for small, strange little reasons. For example, you know in the States or most other countries I would never ever use anything from the minibar, you know, usually they charge $4 for a small bottle of water and $13 for nuts or something else like that. But, in Thailand, a Pepsi is about 50 cents and Pringles are about 80 cents from the minibar, so I just got such a cheap thrill from eating or drinking things from the room! It really doesn't take much to impress and/or amuse me...

So anyway, the next day was so exciting! Me and my friend Barbara got up a little late and headed out for the day. We hadn't been out for more than ten minutes when two very friendly Thai girls came up to us and and asked us where we were from and what we were looking for. Being the naive tourist I was on the first day, I asked her what all we should do and where we should go. She explained quite a bit to us and then hailed down a tuk tuk driver. Tuk tuks are like motorcycle taxis and they zoom in and out of traffic. She talked to him for a bit, and of course we had no idea what they were saying at the time, and then he agreed to take us around Bangkok the whole day for 60 Baht, which is around $1.50. We just couldn't believe it!

Riding in a tuk tuk for the first time is soooo scary! The girls told us that he said he would take it easy because it was our first day in Bangkok and we would be really scared if he drove too fast. It was still really scary though. He first took us to a really neat wat, or Thai shrine and there was a huge Buddha there. It was really nice. Then, we asked him to take us to get some lunch, but he said, "First you must shopping!" We thought that sounded like a good idea so we agreed. Little did we know that this was the begining of the exploitation we would experience for the rest of the trip.

He took us to a tailor shop where the owners were so polite and spok excellent English. He gave us a drink and handed us several books to look through. He said he could custom make us anything, a Thai-style dress, a suit, a coat, anything. They gave us quite a show displaying all of their delicate fabrics and holding them up to us and telling me how beautiful my eyes and hair were with this color, etc. I really felt like a princes! I decided on a dress and a suit and Barbara decided on a dress. Then, the owner of course said he could give us a great discount. Hahahaha, sorry, just thinking about this makes me laugh histerically. He said, "We can make your dress and suit for $998." I almost fainted. We told them that we didn't have that kind of money. He then said, "okay, how about $800?" I just felt sick so I just politely said, "I'm very sorry, but we had no idea the prices were so high here or we wouldn't have come, our driver just took us here." Both of the men then had pretty angry expressions on their faces and we just basically ran out of there. I wondered why our driver took us to such an expensive place. The wheels started to turn... we were prey.

Then, we said we want to go somewhere for lunch now, but he said, oh, now you should look at jewelry now. We were a little suspicious at that point, so I asked why he wasn't taking us directly where we wanted to go. He finally confessed that he gets free gasoline if he takes us to jewelry stores and tailor shops. He begged us and said to plase let him take us to one more place and he would take us wherever we wanted to go. So, we went to one more shop and he did take us to get some lunch from a street vendor. He had promised to show us around all day, but after we got our food he said he had to go. It was only around 3pm. So, we just paid him without arguing because we really just wanted him to go away. After our first go with the tuk tuk driver, we knew to be careful from now on.

After lunch, which was a very very very good shrimp stirfry and only $1, we went to the Golden Mountain. The view was amazing from the top. After that, we just walked around looking at the old part of the city. I just wasn't impressed with it at all. It was very dirty and really smelly, the people were pushy and there were stray animals everywhere. It was really sad. We just felt like we were being preyed upon because we just couldn't walk a few feet without someone yelling at us to come into their store or a tuk tuk driver yelling, "Lady, lady, hey lady, tuk tuk lady, tuk tuk lady..." It was really annoying.

After walking around for a while we had to go back to the hotel and rest from all the drama. We then got diva'd up and went to famous Koh San Road where backpackers and travelers from all over the world go to meet. We did a little shopping there and went to a really nice pub for dinner. It was GREAT! Barbara was going nuts over the fish and chips and I was going nuts over ranch dressing. You just don't understand how badly I had been wanting ranch dressing for such a long time in Japan! We meet so many interesting people there from all over the worl and mainly hung out with two girls from Scotland and their two Thai friends. The Thai girls weren't from Bangkok, but they knew the city very well so we went with them to another place that had an incredible live band. It was so great because they were performing all the new songs from home that I've been missing out on!

The next day we took it easy, just doing a little sightseeing and eating very very very delicious Thai food. We took a boat trip around Bangkok and went to a few markets. That night we just went to bed early because we had a very early flight to Cambodia the next morning.

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Throughout the vacation we went through Bangkok several times in transit to somewhere else, so we really got to know the airport quite well, and the Burger King staff got to know us quite well!!! It's just amazing the things I miss about home that I never imagined I would. It's crazy. We must have had Burger King about 5 times during the whole vacation. Sad.

Anyway, the second round to Bangkok was a million times better. We stayed about four days before we went back to Japan and our hotel was in the new part of town this time. It was incredible!!! The shopping centers were massive and one that we visited had every designer name I've ever heard of like Versace, Fendi, Dolce, etc. In the Paragon Center, a gigantic mall, the bottom floor was an Ocean World, YES AN ENTIRE OCEAN WORLD, and the top floor was a state-of-the-art Imax theater.

One day, we spent all day getting completely pampered. I had never in my life ever gotten a massage, well, a professional one that I paid for, hee hee, so I made up for lost time. I got a heavenly hour and a half full body scrub and hot oil massage, manicure and pedicure, facial and a haircut at one of the trendiest places in Bangkok. And you just won't beleive how cheap it all was. Okay, here it is exactly:

Full body scrub and massage $30, Facial $7, manicure and pedicure $12, haircut $8. I had also gotten other massages and facials in the southern islands and Cambodia, too. I just knew there's no way I could afford to do any of these in Japan or the US, so I completely indulged in them whenever I wanted throughout my whole trip.

We also ate at pretty much every western restaurant we passed. I just really feel like I should justify myself again too because surely you're thinking, "Why in the world would this crazy girl travel in Thailand and Cambodia and eat at Pizza Hut, Subway, Burger King, Outback and A&W (which I was the most shocked to see by the way). You just have to understand that for about ten months now, I've been limited to seaweed, squid, octopus, ridiculous amounts of tofu, noodles and rice and a McDonald's here and there. Ten months. Ten months and I'm American!

The last day in Bangkok was by far the best. We went to the Grand Palace, the most impressive architecture I've ever seen. Absolutely phenomenal - the shapes and colors are just unlike anything I've ever seen. I really can't describe it so I'll just have to put up pictures. It was funny when we walked into the palace because a guard stands in front of the entrance and catches anyone wearing tank tops, shorts, skirts or anything revealing above elbows or ankles and makes you go into a building to rent shirts and pants. I was wearing a t-shirt and pants, but Barbara was wearing a tank top so she had to wear the most hilarious blue shirt!

My first impression of Bangkok was not good at all, but the second time around really changed my opinion. It all just depends on where you go and who you meet. It's sad, but in Bangkok, you've just really got to have the attitude that no one is helping you or being nice to you for nothing. Not everyone is out to screw you over, but, well, most are. No one ever tried to steal my money, just always tried to con me out of it. You've got to watch it in the markets because they hike the prices up way high and tuk tuk drivers and taxis are the same. All you have to do is bargain and be agressive about what you want and what you expect, which was a hard lesson for me because I really don't like to be aggressive and I always want to be agreeable. But, I'm glad I learned it. So overall, I guess Bangkok was the main excitement and lesson-learning part of the trip.

Posted by jbennett 00:00 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Beautiful Japanese Snow

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Here are a few photos of the beautiful snow we had recently. I would have appreciated it more if I hadn't JUST gotten back from 3 WEEKS IN THE HOT SUN ON TROPICAL ISLANDS IN THAILAND!!!!! But really, seriously, am I complaining???

It really was strange though. One morning, I'm walking around Bangkok in a skirt and sandals, burning up from the heat and humidity - the next morning, I'm on a bus from Osaka to Matsue looking out the window at about six inches of snow!

Posted by jbennett 00:00 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Tea Ceremony

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My favorite student, Yuko, is a F A B U L O U S Japanese diva who is sort of my adopted Japanese grandmother now. She invited me to her house just before I left for Thailand for a tea ceremony with her two daughters. She also taught me a traditional drum dance that was started in this area hundreds of years ago!

Yuko has a very traditional Japanese home with sliding doors, a full-on tea room and phenomenal Japanese garden. Before we had tea, I of course, had already taken my shoes off at the door, but I then had to put on special white socks for the tea room and wash my hands and mouth in the spring in her garden. When you enter the tea room, you must sit Japanese style (sitting on your ankles), and do a series of bows to your hostess and various things in the room like a small shrine. The one in her room was in honor of her late husband I believe. She also has a gorgeous calligraphy painting of a Hyaku poem she wrote.

After bowing, her daughter Michiyo gave me a small Japanese sweet made of rice called mochi. I don't know all the details of the ceremony because it's just so complex, but you must eat the sweet before drinking the tea and say "itadakimasu," which literally means, "I receive." I'm not really sure about why you say that, I just know it's extremely rude if you don't say that before you eat or drink something any host or hostess gives you at their home.

The tea is heated from charcoal that is inside the floor, as you can see in one of the photos. The tea they use is a special powdered green tea called "matcha" and they stir the tea in a certain motion, a certain number of times using a small wooden whisk. It's so incredible because every single action, whether it's stiring, placing, mixing, presenting or serving, is planned and perfected. When the hostess gives you your tea, she presents it with the pattern on the cup facing you, then, you must turn the cup clockwise two or sometimes three times to turn the pattern back to the front. It's all about presentation. Then, you must drink the tea in three sips. It's soooo ritualistic and I only know the basics from what they told me.

Tea ceremonies are really such a classic example of Japanese culture and people. They strive for perfection, care so very much about detail and always show a high respect for any generosity. I am just so fascinated with Japan because they keep the past so alive, but are also so open to new ideas, people and especially technology. Only here can you see a woman text messaging in a kimono, or take a picture of boiling water from charcoal with a digital camera!

Posted by jbennett 00:00 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Sumo!

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Okay, so I am FINALLY trying to update since October, and SOOOOOO much has happened since then! I went to an amazing Sumo tournament in late October and after that, stayed very busy at work and prepared for my trip to Thailand and Cambodia. So now, here are some pics of the Sumo tournament.

Going to the sumo tournament was definitely one of the highlights of my experience here. I saw THE BEST sumo wrestlers in Japan right now. My friend Akie knew the manager of the event, so we were so lucky to get some of the best seats in the house for half the price! We were very close to the front, and of course, everyone near the front was sitting on the floor. It was really cool because I didn't see any other foreigners and the crowd mainly consisted of groups of old, goofy-acting Japanese men laughing and drinking loads of sake!

This tournament wasn't a technical match, but actually sort of an exhibition, so I not only got to see wrestling but they were also joking around a little bit and having fun. One of my favorite things was a little comedy skit where two wrestlers were pretending to really get mad and they were throwing water and salt on eachother, giving eachother wedgies and talkin' trash. Akie was translating for me as quickly as she could, but of course I couldn't catch everything. One of them was calling the other a "lightweight sissy-boy" as we might say. Akie literally said, "that one say other one wrestle like woman," but I kept imagining one of the wrestlers saying in an Ahhnald voice, "you Guuhhhhlly mahhhn!" One of the wrestlers then went out into the crowd and started grabbing everyone's beers and colas, drinking them, and handing the empty can back to them. While he was drinking, the other started getting peoples' lunches. He first ate a plate of sushi, and once, he got a bag of chips and dumped the whole thing right into his mouth!

Akie and I got lunch their and we split a "Sumo Bento" which is a traditional, very typical lunch for a sumo wrestler. I guess I just imagined that they ate stuff like cheeseburgers and pizza all day, but they actually eat extremely healthy! In the bento was two different kinds of fish and rice, Japanese veggies and sushi. So it was all really healthy stuff, they just eat a truckload of it.

Sumo is just so ritualistic. Maybe you've seen it on tv, but, before they wrestle, they do a series of bows and throw salt on the ground as to purify/clean the ring. They also take a drink of some special kind of water and spit it back out to clean their mouths. This is apparently a very Japanese thing to do because when I visited Yuko's house for a tea ceremony, I had to clean my mouth and hands in a small spring in her garden before entering her tearoom. Anyway, I just think it's funny because, well, naturally, you'd think that a human that large that wrestles gets very hot and sweaty and probably doesn't smell all that nice, but, the wrestlers actually smell so good! I walked by several of them throughout the day and all of them literally smelled like flowers! I learned that before a match, they scrub their entire bodies and use a type of chamomile flower oil mixture to set their hair up to make a "mage" (pronounced like mah-gay), which is what they call the very fancy, tucked-in ponytail they all must wear. As part of the exhibition, they demonstrated how to make a mage in between matches. You wouldn't believe just how long, healthy and absolutely beautiful their hair is.

Another thing that surprised me was the fact that the wrestlers are just walking around the dome like they are part of the crowd. The big wrestlers like Asa Shoryu and Koto Oshu actually have a rock-star kind of status in Japan, yet they are just walking around freely. But, I guess it's not like they need bodyguards, eh? I just walked up to some of them and asked if I could have a picture and they were so kind and friendly! They are just soooo massive! But standing next to them, I didn't feel scared or intimidated like I thought I would. They really seem to be gentil giants because they have such a humble, respectful attitude. They are truly amazing!

Posted by jbennett 00:00 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Back to Hiroshima and Miyajima

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I had to go back to Hiroshima for more training last week. I got to see the A-Bomb Dome at night, but other than that, I didn't really do anything exiting that night except for hunt down international stores. But, the next day in Miyajima was wonderful. I visited the aquarium there and saw a seal show and played with some penguins. If you would have told me at the beginning of the day that I would have done that, I would have thought you were absolutely crazy. Just so ya know.

Posted by jbennett 00:00 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

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