Friday, May 31, 2013

Spring Breakin' all the rules (Part 2)

Here is Spring Breakin' all the rules part 2! Click here for part 1~

I last left us off with me leaving the wondrous and ancient kingdom of Angkor in Cambodia bound for the 'Island of the Gods' as lauded by some, Bali.

I went via Malaysian Airlines where my dashing, but very tall companion had enough leg room to completely stretch out. He was quite excited about it for an 8 hour flight. We arrived at the airport at night and like in many Southeast Asian countries, the hotel pickup service was late and needed to be reminded to come get us as they had offered online. We arrived at the hostel and got the grand tour.

It. Was. Gorgeous!

Very lush, giant pool, open air bar and patio for morning breakfast and cathedral ceilings in our huge room that had a view of the pool from the balcony. It was also just down the road from the main road in Kuta. The only downside to this place was the spotty wifi, but not the worst thing when you're suppose to be disconnecting for a while, right?

Unlike Cambodia, we had whole of Bali to see and just 3 days to do it in. My friend had his must-sees and I had mine. Luckily, we had discussed beforehand what kind of travelers we are to see how compatible we'd be, so a lot of the same things were on both our lists.

Day 1: Tourists in the extreme!

I was told that Bali is the Australians what the Bahamas is to Miamians - a paradise next-door. Aussies go Bali for weekend trips and want nothing but the beach, pool, trendy shops, and restaurants. So that's what we did and it was glorious. That part of Bali felt very much like places we were used to back in our own respective countries, especially me as I thought of Miami Beach. Also keep in mind that back in Japan it was still cold even in March so a day at the beach was just what we needed. I took it up a notch and wanted a surf lesson. I'd never had one before and am always up for new experiences so I was really excited when I read about easy it was to book one. Different guys would have their surf boards set up on the beach and would kind of follow you for 10 feet while you passed them trying to convince you to have a lesson with them. The usual advertising was for a two-hour lesson for the equivalent of 30-50 USD. They know many people are tourists, so are willing and even expecting to pay this price no questions asked. I'd read online though how to handle the ones that we being too pushy or bargain them down if a two of you wanted a lesson for example. In principle, I hate being swindled, but when traveling in poorer countries, I try to consider that this is these peoples livelihood and if I'm blessed enough to be on vacation in their country, I'll pay their prices. BUT I refuse to be harassed or forced into any purchase so the winner of my surfing affection was this cool dude who, from a distance, called out and asked if I wanted a lesson and when said, 'maybe in a little bit,' he just gave me a thumbs up.

I walked up and said, 'how much for two hours?' He asked if my friend wanted one as well (probably already savvy to the split cost technique), but my friend wasn't interested. I ended up only paying the equivalent of 30 USD for 2 1/2 hours. I put on a skin guard and we practiced how it is you swim, stand, and steer all on the sand before heading out into the waves. The waves were rolling in gentle that day, but still high. My first problem was not standing up fast enough. If you don't do it in time, the momentum of the wave will prevent you from ever getting your balance once you're up. My second problem was overcompensating my balance to one end and virtually launching myself from the board. The last problem I had was trying to master this new technique while taking selfies with my underwater camera - haha! My friend was taking photos for me from the beach, but nothing like that first person point-of-view, right?  Once I started paying attention more, I picked it up quickly and was riding the waves all the way to shore. No fancy tricks or anything, but I was able to switch directions and do a cool pose for the beach paparazzi. I knew that dragging the surfboard from shore back out to open water over and over again was going to leave me aching so afterwards I decided to take advantage of one of the many spas~~~

My hubby walked with me till I found one that I liked and then he went off to do some tourist shopping while I had a two hour package deal. Massage, rose-petal milk bath, and hydration wrap, aaaahhhhhh. It's a little known fact about me that I love a spa day. You could gift me a spa day for any occasion and I'd love you forever. But this, this was the mother of spa days! Of course a spa day in Bali, paradise on earth, was going to include lush garden as your surroundings, the actual ocean sounds not far, and the sky changing colors like a kaleidoscope overhead. Surreal.

After the spa experience, we met back up and had a romantic dinner on the beach complete with a Balinese troupe of people playing traditional music as they walked up and down the beach as the sun was finally setting in to the sea. It's the most striking sunset on the ocean you'll ever see.

Day 2: Temples, temples, temples

Remember how I said Bali is the Island of the Gods? Well then naturally, there would temples everywhere to celebrate them. Like the Japanese, the Balinese didn't separate their religion from their lives; They blend seamlessly in everyday practices, architecture, and speech, so already we had been exposed to some of the religious paraphernalia. There are many famous temples, so with our limited time we chose they most famous and most varied of the options. We rented a taxi through our hostel (about 45 USD for 8 hours) which was the best thing we could have done. It was perfect to have a personal chauffeur, GPS, and tour guide all in one. This seems like an obvious perk to renting a taxi but I've actually known people who rented their own cars or mopeds because it's cheaper. Bali can have scattered showers and winding, dirt roads can be dangerous to navigate so I don't recommend doing so. Moving on, although the hostel told us how much it cost, it was important to also confirm this with the taxi driver at the onset. If you don't, they might say there were surplus fuel charges or some other bogus charge that surprises you at the end. Just like with the temples of Angkor, I'll list which ones we saw and my brief impressions:

Pura Taman Ayun

The most typical Balineses temple. It was interesting because we could see what the typical layout of these temples are with this one, but overall not too interesting. I think more interesting was how a group of ladies were falling over themselves to take a picture with me and boyfriend - two light haired, light-eyed foreigners. Oh, dear.

Pura Ulun Danu

This is the temple that you see whenever you google Bali. Picturesque, packed, and full of interesting facets to look at. Unfortunately, some of the infamous scattered showers was happening while we were there, so people were packing in all the crevices, limiting our leisurely strolling. There was a great market outside of it for souvenirs as well.

Tanah Lot

The must-see out of any temple on Bali, and at sunset for sure!! You can walk out the famous rocks, sit and watch the waves, wander around the typical pagodas, see the gates up close, get a snack nearby or visit the little shops on the grounds. I bought my favorite necklace there for 2USD and will forever regret not buying about 18 more.

These temples weren't close to each other, and of course we spent time at each one, so unlike at Angkor, we only saw these three. Also, we squeezed in time to go to a coffe plantation where I bought THE BEST dark vanilla chocolate I've ever had in my life, a short hike up to Git Git Waterfall which was definitely worth it, saw the famous stacked rice paddies, and went all the way up to the north to go to best Black Sand Beach in Lovina. 8 hours was all most not enough time, but we managed it!

Day 3: Just being a local

Due to different school schedules, I was leaving my boyfriend to go back to Japan while he continued on to one of the most famous diving spots in Indonesia, but on our last day together in Bali we walked around and saw some smaller local temples, found a mall in the touristy area where I did some shopping (and found some of my favorite shirts till this day) and enjoyed a last lunch eating traditional Balinese food we found in a hole in a wall. It was basically a no-fuss, let things play out kind of day taking in Bali as a local instead of a tourist. I then made my way to the airport via taxi and left this island in the sun.

Ever since that trip, when I tell people about my travel around Asia, the mention of Bali always seems to make their eyes widen just a little bit more. It's one of those places everyone says they'd love to go or imagine they would, but scarce few do. And I do consider myself extremely fortunate to have made it down there. It's not an easily accessible place of the world and I still pinch myself that I was able to go. I say 'able', but I know I moved heaven and earth to make to heaven on earth. Best decision ever.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Spring Breakin' All the Rules! (Part 1)

Last post, I explained how I managed to have a proper Spring Break despite my lack of PTO and now, here's the result! I had a fantastic 8 day journey yet again through parts of Southeast Asia that I never imagined myself going to. This time, it was with my best guy friend and together we set out to make this a trip of lifetime.

Early in January 2013 we were causally talking about what we'd both like to do before leaving Japan. After what was at first just a talk about what we longed to do, quickly became a plan! Not being overly ambitious with our limited break time in between semesters, we agreed on two countries and made clear goals for each. The first, travel to Siem Reap, Cambodia to see the infamous Angkor Wat. The second, some chill time on the well known beach paradise, Bali.

I won't bore you with the details with how we figured out the ever exhausting puzzle of finding flights and accommodations, but after a crazy week of constant research and tactical planning, we managed to get very good deals on our flights and hostels. We get paid well enough on JET to not have to worry about price so much, but it becomes part of the challenge for the avid traveler.

After that was settled, the next hurdle was my 'spring breakin' out of work' plan (even though no work was to be had, since it was break for the kids, but you can read all about that here.) Last came my favorite part - planning the activities! Spontaneity always makes for better memories when traveling, but I would hate to have gone to a place and missed out on its most famous {fill in the blank} attraction out of pure ignorance. My policy is to be in-the-know about what to expect from a place and then let the days fill themselves with that knowledge or whatever else comes our way. What follows is an account of the activities we managed to do, which is impressively, about 98% of everything we wanted to do.

Overall Itinerary:
March 23        Flight from Osaka, Japan to Siem Reap, Cambodia
March 24~25  Trekking the Angkor Kingdom Ruins and Temples
March 26        Flight from Phnom Penh to Bali, Indonesia
March 27~29  Exploring beautiful Bali at our leisure
March 30        Flight from Bali, Indonesia to Osaka, Japan


The Kingdom of Cambodia is a fascinating place with a tragic history and the most kind people. If I had more time, I would have gone to see the sobering 'killing fields' and gotten to know more of the culture of Cambodia. However, my time only allowed me opportunity to go the World Heritage Site, Angkor Archeological Park. I've heard of visitors spending up to a week in this place, but most have a 3 day excursion (my companion and I saw the highlights in 2 days).

We arrived in Siem Reap after a layover in Shanghai where we met the nicest Korean gentlemen who inadvertently chatted us up so much we nearly missed our flight. How ridiculous would it have been to miss a flight during a 4 hour layover? Anyway, once we arrived we paid the 25 USD entry visa (paying for visas on arrival is not always an option so check that about any country you visit ahead of time!) and in line met a woman from San Francisco who was the chaperone of a group of high school kids on a volunteer trip. My boyfriend (he's going to get various names from now on) and I could pass as high school kids ourselves with our baby faces, so she must have felt the need to take us under her wing and next thing we knew, we were being escorted to our hotel on a free ride via their tour bus.

Arriving at our hostel, we immediately inquired about how we'd go about seeing the best of Angkor. As is usually the case with hostels, they are extremely helpful with these matters. We devised our plan for the following day, showered off the trip and got to bed. But not before learning our hilarious wifi password, you know, since we're unabashedly addicted to our smart phones. The rest of the trip consisted of us using that pass code as code for something or other (sorry! I'm gonna keep it our little inside joke, haha!)

Another thing I love about hostels is that they will typically have a restaurant attached to them that serves some of the local food for ridiculously cheap and without the hassle of searching for a place on your own. Cambodia used to be a French colony until as recently as 1963 and so baguettes were on the menu. Baguettes, fruits, eggs, beans on toast, juices..simple but delicious. After our $3 breakfast, our tour guide arrived. His name was Bo and is a friend of our hostel owner. This is obviously a partnership they have going on so we had full confidence that he'd be a good guide in the interest of keeping this partnership going. He would be taking us around the expansive park in his Tuk Tuk. A normal Tuk Tuk ride can cost between $2 - $4, so for the whole day we were asked to pay $15. That's it. He was going to be our personal driver and tour guide for $7.50 each (it wasn't required but we tipped him enough to make it an even $10 each). And after going to the park I believe transport via Tuk Tuk, as opposed to tour bus or bikes, is the best option. These temples are part of a huge complex and are not close together. Being in bus loses some of the adventure aspect of it, but being on a bike means you're exhausted by the time you arrive at each temple and have the sun beating down on you most of the day.

Bo recommended doing what is known as the outer (also 'big') circuit one day and then the most famous temples the following day. We trusted him and off we went. The hostel had also lent us a Lonely Planet book, so on our way to each temple we'd read up on what we were about to see. From the first temple to the last, each was unique in its own way and absolutely fascinating. Trees woven in between crumbling structures. Intricate carvings, weathered and yet vibrant with their history. The structures themselves stood tall and I for one found myself staring in awe.

The only unfortunate part of the experience is that in front of each temple are various peddlers grabbing for your attention, including small children. Even inside some of the temples, usually men crouched in a corner, are Cambodians offering to give you personal tours of the temple for a fee. What they do is they start walking with you, pointing things out and their significance. Once you're intrigued and listening, they ask for a tip. They also know some creative poses for pictures within the walls. Outside, food vender stalls set up which is convenient for a quick lunch break without leaving the grounds. I say unfortunate about these things because it does distract you from walking up to these ruins with only wonder in your eyes since instead you're saying 'I'm sorry, no thank you' to the 20th kid to ask if you want a postcard. However, more unfortunate is that for many this is their only livelihood. Cambodia is poor and Angkor is the biggest pull they have as far as local economy.

Now a quick summary of the temples I saw and my impressions (the history is for the guide boks):

A quick note before I start, some temples are dress-code enforced and others are more spectacular at certain times of the day. Take heed when I point these out. Also, make sure to discuss where your ride will be waiting for you outside of each temple if you choose the Tuk Tuk option.

Pre Rup: Gorgeous one to start the day off. Lots of steps and different carvings on the wall to see. The morning sun worked really well to shed light on the intricate carvings. 

East Meabon: Elephant corners temple! There were Elephant statues at each corner and that was basically the only differentiating feature about it.

Ta Som: One of the more popular temples that is the first on the Big Circuit you'll see with the trees weaving themselves in between the crumbling ruins. Be ready to wait to take a picture in front of the courtyard entrance where one tree has elegantly draped itself. *must go*

Neak Poam: A long walk for a big lake with some still-standing ruins around it. I'd skip it.

Prea Khan: The bridge leading up and the back courtyard are the best bits of this temple. The bridge is the best example of the Naga bridge style in my opinion. The back courtyard is virtually empty but has one of the tallest, if not the tallest, tree sticking out of one of these temples and was really impressive. *must go*

Phnom Bakeng: Notably, the sunset temple. Lots of steps to climb, but at the top there is really only one not so very impressive structure. It does afford you a view of the park but not a great view, just a lot of foliage. It's very crowded with people waiting for sunset and not worth it in my opinion. Also, dress code enforced (ladies, no bare shoulders or above the knee; gents, just no cut off shirts if I remember correctly)

The Bayon: The temple with the faces. There are lots of steps to go up and down so you can see the faces up close and from the ground. This is also one to do when the sun is high in the sky so that the faces are illuminated and thus letting you see all their intricacies. I kept expecting one to talk to me about the legend of the hidden temple, haha! *must go, my favorite temple overall*

Ta Prohm: The Tomb Raider temple. Just wow. You've never seen trees like this. They're big, tall, wide, long, twining, never-ending, and just imposing! They spill over the temple like melted candle wax. Because it is so well-known, this temple is very crowded and many places for photo ops have a wait (but only 5 minutes or so). This alone is a reason to come to Angkor. *must go, one of my favorites*

Angkor Wat: People mistakenly call the whole park 'Angkor Wat' when it is in fact referring to this one temple - but with reason. This is the most important temple and rightfully should take up at least half a day. This temple has both a dress code enforcement and a time day to see it; that time being sunrise. Bo and other tour guides know this and so they have no problem accommodating this as part of their tour. Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat is something I'll never forget. The colors burning into the sky, feeling the moisture in the air turn humid, seeing the shadows of the temple burn away to reveal new layers - it is simply stunning. You'll be able to see it anywhere from the walkway leading up to it, but most people like to be the perfect distance away to be able to get the rising sun and the temple by in a tight shot. My buddy and I went the extra mile and some perspective fun using the sun (as seen below!). The temple is also beautiful at sunset, so in this case we left Angkor Wat after sunrise, went to Ta Prohm and The Bayon, and then came back to see the rest of Wat around early evening before closing time. This worked out well for us as the sun was not necessary to see many of the inner courtyards. *must go, my favorite lasting impression of the whole experience*


After the archaeological park, we had found that the cheapest way to Bali was through Phnom Penh and not through Siem Reap where we were. To clarify, we knew this when we booked our flight while still in Japan, but left finding a way to Phnom Penh until we arrived and talked to someone. We found a bus (again, through our hostel), that would take us there over night in time for our flight in the morning. It was $20 for a 6 hour overnight bus, but we saved over a $100 on the flight as a result. This was ultimately worth it, but there was a short period while making the arrangements where it seemed like we wouldn't be able to get a shower in before getting on the overnight bus. Picture it, we got up at sunrise, spent the whole day visiting temples, were about get on a 6 hour overnight bus that would take us to the airport where we'd immediately take an 8 hour flight to Bali. Just after a day is dusty, humid Angkor, we were gross. And thus I had my first ever panic attack. I'm a very clean person and don't mind getting sweaty and dirty as long as there is the promise of a shower at the end of the day, so without warning and faced with this prospect, I started pacing, shaking, and hyperventilating. Thankfully, my boyfriend saw something was wrong, took the lead, and found us showers. I don't think it was a full blown panic attack, so forgive me if it seems like I'm making light of it or if my reason for having one seems trite, but it's just the truth of what happened. I mention it because now I know for future travel to avoid that situation because it is a trigger for something that, apparently, makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Before boarding the bus, we had some time to browse at a local night market and a quick dinner and then we were making our way to Bali! This post has gotten quite long so I'll save that half for next time!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Spring Breakin' all the rules! (the heist!)

I have a hard time following rules that I don't see as making any sort of logical sense. For example - I'm required to be at work when I have zero work to do while the kids are on break. And I don't mean they give me busy work to do. They actually ignore me the whole day while I do what I want (as long as I'm at work). I know this from plenty of break experiences by now. If I wanted to take the day off I'd have to use PTO (nenkyuu), but I don't have any of those days left. Thus with spring break coming up for the kiddies, I hatched a plan and set it in motion spurred by the Mark Twain quote,

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do [...] Explore. Dream. Discover."

And no, I wouldn't use that as justification for whatever I please or to blanket past regrets. But for taking advantage of opportunities I might not ever get again at no cost to those around me? It wasn't even a question.!

The plan: eight day vacation exploring ancient ruins and relaxing in paradise.
The cover: bad case of food poisoning that normally incapacitates someone for at least a week.

Simple enough I thought. The key to all of this was one simple piece of paper; a doctor's note to excuse my absence from work in the official records (quite a big deal in Japan).

Phase 1: The day before I left on my trip I planned to go to the doctor's office to plant the seed. Between my Japanese and the doctor's English, we established my 'symptoms' (basically every food poisoning symptom I could find online), but then he wanted to check my stomach for sensitivity. My boyfriend was in the room at the time and as the doctor gently pressed down on my abdomen for signs of agitation or discomfort, I inconsistently gave him grimaces of pain. At that I could feel my boyfriend face-palming behind me, but what can I say! I'm a terrible actress! Unfazed, the doctor just prescribed some powdery medicines and sent me on my way. Sort of success.

Phase 2: While away on my trip, I needed to call my school every weekday morning to let them know I wouldn't be coming in. In the past, for reasons out of my control, I knew that if I didn't call, they would show up at my apartment and would go as far to enter my apartment without my permission just to check on me (another story altogether). This meant that I had to buy Skype credit to make calls internationally, make note of the difference in time zones to know when to call, and have crystal clear wifi. I could handle the first two, but the last bit had me worried since that was out of my control and lo and behold, I had reason to worry. At our last hotel, the wifi was shiiiite. I can't really blame the hotel though.. wifi and paradise should really be incongruous things anyway. So the best reception for the wifi was out by the courtyard where we were having breakfast every morning. I have one picture of my face while making these calls, but a recording would have been much more entertaining. Between kids crying, roosters crowing, plates clinking and other sounds that have no place in my apartment where I'm supposedly on my death bed, my JTE must have been rolling his eyes as hard as I was scowling at the source of the noises. By the third day in a row that I called he was definitely on to me, but blessedly too Japanese to call me out on it. Success enough in my book.

But to add insult to injury (from me to them), I had been given the news just the week before that some remodeling would be done to my kitchen. This was most certainly welcome news (since I think my apartment should technically be labeled as dilapidated), but what terrible timing! They were expecting me to be there to open my apartment and let the workmen in every day as well as to answer any questions they might have. Fortunately, my boyfriend wasn't going on the trip and so he was there to at least open the door, but of course the builders would be asking for me. I had to avert this dilemma (quite brilliantly I thought) by saying that a lack of kitchen and sink in my (food poisoned) state required me to stay with a friend so I could have full amenities available to help me get better. They understood and left the matter alone. Further complicating things, even my boyfriend couldn't be there as he suddenly had to be in Osaka for two days! Not able to do much, this delayed the kitchen remodeling process until even I had to deal with it when I got back from my trip. Oh well.

Phase 3: Once back, I had to return to the doctor to let him know that I had missed work and required a doctor's note. One problem - I got back on a Saturday. In Japan, -no- form of medical clinic, hospital, or outpatient center is open. It's often joked about here that you should only plan on getting sick or having some other severe injury on a weekday or else suck it up until Monday morning. It sounds ludicrous but it isn't far from the truth. You can call an ambulance on the weekends to receive first aid treatment and certain tiny emergency centers are open to receive such patients, but you better be on your death bed to expect treatment. Me? I just wanted a note. A note that if I didn't get could incur serious repercussions, but they would not be amused for me to show up wanting a note. If need be, the repercussions route it was then. I would deal with them without complaint of course since, after all, it had been my choice to choose adventure over a desk sentence. But despite accepting my potential fate beforehand, it was still an uneasy thing to go into work Monday morning to face my boss empty handed.

To my utter surprise, my boss cheekily said (while actually pointing to his cheek), "nice color" (referring to my tan), and asked for the note. I gaped for half a second at his knowing remark and then confidently said, "I'll have it tomorrow." He smiled, nodded, and kept on walking back to his desk. What in the what just happened?? After all the phone calls and excuses I made, I was expecting a full interrogation! (and was prepared for one too). Instead, I simply went back to the doctor's after work to get the note. On my way I felt a little bad because I thought that telling the doctor that he had sent me away for my condition to only worsen over the week might feel like a failure on his part. But a second cheeky surprise of the day came when he heard of my continued illness and told me I had misdiagnosed myself as having food poisoning instead of what obviously must have been a virus (this in spite the symptoms I listed and the medicine he prescribed?) So for the second time that day I gaped at someone, but recovered my composure and said that he must be right, silly me. NOW GIVE ME THAT DOCTOR'S NOTE.

Success!! Doctor's note in hand I handed it over to my boss the next day and without further incident, I had managed to have a trip of a lifetime instead of keeping my seat warm at my desk without jeopardizing my standing at work.

I've never thought my school to be the cruel aggressors who make the rules for prefectural JETs, only the ones that enforce them. Remember when I said my JTE was on to me? I like to think that the cheeky admission that was made to me afterwards was an acknowledgement of sorts that said as long as I work within the rules of system (getting a doctor's note to excuse my absence), they didn't mind that I took the break into my own hands. Besides, it fits with the known paradigm of Japanese people to turn their faces away from things that are unpleasant to deal with or discuss. An ambiguous policy of theirs, but in my case it read, no harm, no foul!

The moral of the story I want to highlight is that this is your life and it shouldn't be dictated by anyone's set of rules. You might miss out on something that can change your life. As long as you don't affect other lives negatively, go after the things you want and don't take no for answer. Where there is a will there really is a way.