Thursday, May 24, 2012

Spring Break and Golden Week

I think it's pretty apparent by now that I love to travel. One of the best opportunities about the JET Program IS the opportunity to travel - and not only Japan, but all of Asia and the Pacific! (which is huge if you didn't know, hehe). However, because of school schedules and limited amounts of nenkyuu (PTO), you really have to do everything in your power to take advantage of those opportunities when they present themselves. Spring Break (the time between the end of the Japanese school year and the beginning of the next school year) is two weeks long and it is usually an expected time for JETs to request time off to travel. Golden Week comes a month or so later and although the schools don't have the whole week off, again, JETs are usually allowed to take necessary days off to make it a whole week without a problem. I carefully considered my options of places to go factoring in budget and nenkyuu months in advanced, but I also heard of people who managed to whip up a trip last minute. I could go into great detail about every facet of these trips, but I'm going to give more of an overview that would jog my memory for future references and yet still give my readers an idea of the place, as well as my experiences there.


Who: My good Aussie friend and fellow JET in Tamba.
What: Travel-mode! 
Where: Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand.
When: March 25th, 2012 - April 2nd, 2012.
Price: Around $1,300 USD each.

Knowing that I wanted to explore several places in a short amount of time, I was lucky enough to rope my friend into joining me on a whirlwind tour through Southeast Asia. We both agreed on our itinerary while keeping in mind safety and a loose budget. Discussing this beforehand really helped ensure our trip go smoothly especially considering the madness surrounding three countries, four cities, four hostels, and six plane rides in eight days. We stuck to the strictly tried-and-true tourist attractions for safety reasons, and understanding that we didn't allot enough time in each city for losing ourselves among the locales. We spent $1,300 each (including everything!) which is great in my opinion since we never once had a moment where we couldn't do/buy something because of money. In fact, we went shopping, took taxis, and went on tours as often as we pleased. The trick to this is booking early with LCC (low cost carrier) airlines like AirAsia and booking hostels (with good ratings and reviews) on sites like Hostelworld. We got some great deals on flight prices and booked the most 'expensive' private rooms in hostels (which were still only $25/night total). Something else we had to do beforehand was look into tourist visas needed (which we did need for Vietnam) and currency exchange information. If done properly and with enough time, these are not a big headache. 

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

We didn't originally plan to go to Malaysia, but it turned out this way when KL was the stop-over for all of our AirAsia flights anyway thus, we worked in a day to see what we could. After arriving at our hostel and showering, we headed out to lunch before seeing a popular nearby religious site, the Batu Caves. It was a straight shot from the main train line and less than a 5 minute walk from the station once we got there. The country is mostly Islamic but the caves are sacred to the Hindu faith. There is a great imposing, golden statue to greet you before you ascend over 150 steep steps to the cave. Along the way are wild monkeys who go from being cute one moment to screeching at you the next. I was nearly attacked for just glancing at one, but I screeched as loud as he did when he chased me so I maybe that stunned him long enough for me to escape. (Words of caution: don't look them in the eyes...) Once at the top, the wide open cavern is filled with Hindu artifacts in statue and painting forms. Ironically, in Japan I find all aspects of religious sites interesting to look at, but in this site I was less than impressed with the blue people in the paintings and instead was completely taken with the intricacies of the cave. It was a really cool place and fun time that set the tone for the rest of our trip. Later that night, we made our way to KL's famous Petronas Towers. There is a huge mall at the bottom of it that we wished we had more time to spend in, but at least we did see the main attraction: the twin towers. I'm a fan of popular city towers in general, but the twin towers of KL were the first to leave me in awe. In every sense of the word, they are spectacular and when those two are lit up at night, people stop and stare.  The people we met were incredibly nice, but some guys were a little too comfortable approaching strangers for chit chat. Whatever their intentions, some people need to realize how creeper it looks to approach two younger women when you're a 40-something-year-old man just wanting to 'practice your English.' Overall though, we really enjoyed our short stay in Malaysia and want to come back just to shop!

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi is known as the old city in Vietnam, especially when compared to Ho Chi Minh City, the ultra modern capital. Right out of the airport we were approached by a slew of taxi drivers asking us to ride with them. We arranged a pickup but they were no where to be found so we just picked a cabby and hoped for the best. Our hostel here was the best out of the four. It was more a hotel than a hostel since it had a complimentary buffet breakfast, wood floors, and a flat screen television in the room. At breakfast and other places, I was surprised to find that Vietnamese food turned out to be my favorite food during the trip (when I thought for sure it would be Thai food). We were staying in Hanoi's Old Quarters, a well-known touristy part of the city. Venders would run up to you balancing their goods in baskets and unless you just walked away, telling them "No thank you" was not enough to deter them. Here, we also had to re-learn how to cross the street. Besides not really having any driving lanes, pedestrians embrace the notion of 'right-of-way' since they walk out into traffic and people just have to avoid them. There are no crosswalk signals and few traffic signals that you can actually go by, so this walking in traffic (vid with the link!) technique was our only option. It goes against all instinctual feelings but it really works. For the next two days, we booked a tour through our hostel to the World Heritage Site, Ha Long Bay. Simply put, it was amazing. This place is made up of thousands of small islands that stick up out of the water like icebergs, all jagged and close together. They looked like green-carpeted icebergs to me, but the name actually means 'descending dragon bay' so I guess they're supposed to look like scales on a dragon's back. Anyways, we went out on a Junk Boat (a traditional Vietnamese boat) and stayed overnight with only a few other travelers. We ate all of our meals together, family dining style which allowed us to share our experiences and make friends. The tour included kayaking on the bay too. Stopping in the middle of the bay, just looking around and feeling the silence on your ears was one of those moments that made me step back and realize where I was and how awesome it was. The next day we went to one of the many caves found in the bay. This one was the biggest and most impressive hence it's name, 'The Amazing Cave.' The rock formations and size of it were most impressive and colored lights made the whole place very ethereal. The tour on Ha Long Bay was probably the best highlight of the trip for me.

Bangkok, Thailand

Before going to Bangkok, words that I heard used to describe it were crazy, hot, and dangerous. I can confirm all three are true, hehe. The security at the hostels were tightest in Thailand and we heard of a terrorist incident on the train lines after we left. Even being from Miami, the heat in Bangkok was no joke. There isn't a lingering sea breeze in the air for relief like in my hometown; instead hot air just blows in your face most of the time. On such a day, we set out to see the three most famous temples via water taxi on and both agree that The Grand Palace, The Temple of Dawn, and The Temple of the Reclining Buddha are just as beautiful and best remembered in our pictures. lol. Way more fun for two girls living in the countryside Japan were the amazing malls! They are the largest, most intricate, most diverse malls I have ever seen! One night, we went to the Siam Paragon mall who's slogan is accurately put as 'the shopping phenomenon.' It was nine floors of every store and brand you can imagine with the top floor being a movie theater that has an IMAX and 4-D theater. After deciding on a place to eat out of the hundred provided in the food court (not an exaggeration), we eagerly went to see The Hunger Games in 4D. Not only for the experience but also because Japan is incredibly slow at getting any movie I want to see. Yes, specifically whatever *I* want to see. (why, Japan, why?) The experience was like having the rumble pack for the N64 console combined with being the in the Stich's Great Escape ride at the Magic Kingdom in Orlando. My friend found it distracting, and maybe I would have too if I didn't already know the plot of the movie. The next night, we went to another huge mall called Terminal 21. This one had the bargains Thailand is famous for as well as winning the best themed mall award in my book. The mall is styled like an airport with escalators being the arrival and departure gateways. Each floor is a different global destination with the whole floor being decked out in the theme of that country. They went above and beyond capturing the feeling of each of the destinations as I can confirm 3 out of the 6 cities. On the last night, I got a Thai massage mostly because I wanted to be able to confirm if they were all they are talked up to be - they're not. Maybe if you're a guy you'd enjoy it, but I was less than impressed with the quality of the massage and quite.. in shock by the experience in general. I guess you could say I got what I was looking for but we'll just leave it at that, lol.

Phuket, Thailand

Although we were all about traveling and seeing the sights, we did want to have some typical spring break activities. In Phuket, we made it a point to do two things: ride an elephant and go the beach. What we didn't specify was how good of an elephant ride or how long at the beach we wanted to go. The elephant ride was not what we were expecting. 'Jungle Trek' in the tour pamphlet meant walking around someone's plantation and the other 'features' of the tour were campy as my friend put it. However, for the time that I was actually riding on the elephant's head, rubbing his ears, and being totally vulnerable to his power so it was worth it, but I'd do it again for a better overall experience with the elephant. That evening, I went to Patong Beach at sunset and just people watched. There again, while in paradise, I had another moment of profound reflection of where I was and how awesome it was to be there. The next day we did a tour out to Phi Phi Island. After the intimate feel of the Junk Boat tour in Vietnam, I found this tour boat to be overcrowded and full of snobs. One guy even took our seats (ours because our stuff was on them) and shamelessly smirked the whole time while talking to his friends like we weren't even there. It's ok, I'm comforted with the knowledge that karma is always on my side and had a great day. The tour itself gave us a good mix. We stopped at a bay made famous by its appearance in the movie, The Beach, snorkeled in some of Thailand's world famous snorkeling/scuba waters, and then got to stretch out on a gorgeous beach in the middle of nowhere for some much needed tanning. Getting a tan on spring break was a high priority for me, so I was quite happy about that (the little things, lol). Phuket, as naturally beautiful as it was, could also lower itself at times to be like any other tropical destination that I've been to - Cozumel, Bahamas, Grand Cayman. I tire of the ultra-touristy feeling spots in favor of some authentic local surroundings like what we saw in the Old Quarters of Hanoi. I can't begrudge the availability of smoothies in this tropical location though..since returning I have been craving them non-stop!

Arriving back in Japan was bittersweet. It meant I was no longer seeing new and exotic places but it also meant I wasn't worried about safety, sanitation, or speaking the native tongue. However, I can't wait to see more of Southeast Asia one day! Only this time, I'm going remember to make time for sleep!

Who: Lover boy.
What: Vacay-mode! 
Where: Okinawa, Japan.
When: April 30th, 2012 - May 4th, 2012.
How much: About 80,000 YEN each.

Okinawa for Golden Week, along with Sapporo for the Snow Festival and Climbing Mt. Fuji are the top three on my 'to-do list' for Japan this time around. If you're keeping track, I now have 2 out of 3 completed - woohoo! After the whirlwind that was Spring Break, I knew I wanted some real R&R for Golden Week. With that in mind, I planned to see the local sites but also left whole days open to wandering. Since Golden Week is a specific week it leaves little flexibility in terms of planning, so I just had to hope for good weather and decent prices. I was a little bummed when I found out most of the week would be cloudy and rainy, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Remembering how hot Bangkok was, I couldn't imagine the humidity coupled with bright sunny days. If that had been the case, we would have just wanted to be inside in the A/C instead of wandering around. And it worked out perfectly, because we were fortunate enough to have one perfect beach day while at gorgeous Ama Beach on Zamami Island. Okinawa is a different world from the rest of Japan. Their dialect is unintelligible to standard Japanese, their cities feel, again, like Caribbean port towns, and the American military influence is apparent as well. Their train system for getting tourists around the island is lacking (as in non existent), but at least in the capital of Naha, they had a great train line. Because of that, the trip Churaumi, a world-renowned aquarium, set us back 3 hours each way. However, Churaumi was amazing and is a must see! It has one of the largest aquarium tanks in the world that houses 3 huge whale sharks! The aquarium is part of the Ocean Expo Park so we also went next door to the Tropical Dream Center. It had the most beautiful orchids I've ever seen and a was a beautiful romantic stroll through the gardens. To see some Okinawan culture, we also went to Shuri Castle which, unlike other castles in Japan, is unique for being styled after Chinese architecture and one of the few remaining relics of the RyuKyu Kingdom (the inhabitants of Okinawa before Japan took over).
For two days, we took a ferry to nearby Zamami Island as I read on all the sites that it was not to be missed - they were right. The island has only 500 inhabitants and is (of course) centered around the tourism it receives. As a side note, there's actually a JET placed on that island - crazy!! It's a famous location for whale watching, but unfortunately whale watching season had ended back in March. No matter, we greatly enjoyed lounging on their famous beaches, Furuzamami and Ama, seeing some incredible views from the cliff side, and, in my case, scuba diving for the first time! I was surprisingly nervous for this even though I love thrill seeking experiences, but passed with flying colors as the instructor said I did perfectly as a diver. I also had fun walking the beach by myself collecting some of the most incredible shells I've ever seen (in a store or on a beach). We were out there so long on the nice sunny day that we got sunburned but it was totally worth it. Zamami was also a perfect example of a tropical destination that doesn't feel like all the rest. Its local culture shines through without any of the touristy gimmicks. It was a perfect holiday.

I know that when I look back on this time, I will be happier about the things I did than the things I didn't do. You have to take the good with the bad and these experiences have made every time I've been homesick or frustrated with work so worth being here. Until the next adventure! (hint: it's last one on the list!!)

1 comment:

  1. Gorgeous! I enjoyed your pictures on facebook too but I liked reading about your adventures :) The dragonscale islands are really something!

    I'm afraid that Okinawa will not be in the cards for me but I still must go to the beach this summer!!!