Saturday, November 23, 2013

capsule life in tokyo

When in Tokyo, we wanted to get the full experience, so we started our time there by renting two nights in one of their famous Capsule Hotels where you sleep in what look eerily like morgue drawers. And not only did we get a capsule, we got a capsule for two.

Like we had hoped, it was in a room full of capsules. We even had a radio and TV in ours. The first thing Andrew did was lay down and watch Sumo wrestling to recover from a night of sleeping in the Food Court in the Taipei Airport. Soon after that, as we were lying in our capsule, watching Japanese TV in our hotel-provided pajamas and eating wasabi peas, there was an earthquake. It was like, every stereotype rolled into one.

We were on the bottom row

View from inside the capsule for two.

We didn't know what to expect from the hotel, but in the end, it wasn't too bad of an experience. The capsule was cozy and the hotel was quite nice. The only thing we didn't like was the fact that we had to keep our bags on the first floor, bathe on the 3rd floor and sleep on the 5th floor. It was a lot of elevator rides to get stuff done. But beyond that it was a really nice experience.

One thing we wanted to do in Tokyo that we really hadn't done yet on the trip, was just be tourists. We wanted to go out and really explore the city. We only had 9 days in Tokyo and wanted to really experience it.

Our first day out we headed to the Shibuya district which was known for crowded streets and lots of shopping (something we found the whole city full of). It was everything we expected it to be. Right out of the subway, we hit the busiest intersection in Tokyo and wow, it was busy.

The mobs waiting for the walk signal. They are serious about only walking when the walk signal is green in this city.

Every man and woman for herself.
Another reason we headed to Shibuya was because we heard there was a really nice park with the Meji Jungu Shinto Temple in it. We couldn't find the temple, but we really loved the park. There was a farmer's market, a half pipe, a snowboard jump with trucked-in snow, and tons of people practicing choreographed dances, playing sports, having picnics, and a million other things. We saw tons of small dogs and even a few cats being walked. All and all, it was great place to see Tokyo-ites enjoying their weekend. There was also some beautiful fall scenery to take in.

Farmer's Market

Just a couple of the hilarious little dogs, and one goat

After a good time spent in the park, we headed back into the hustle and bustle of Shibuya looking for a famous Ramen restaurant.

Shibuya at night is what you picture Tokyo to be like.
A very popular style of restaurant in Tokyo is one where you order and pay for your meal outside of the restaurant from a vending machine that spits out a ticket. You then go inside and hand the ticket to the chef who makes it and hands it to you. It's Tokyo-style fast food. The Ramen was good, not great, but good enough. It's Ramen, even the stupidest college student can make it but it's hard to make into some gourmet meal. (Though this was much better than your grocery store cup of noodles!)

The vending machine, which luckily had pictures for us foreigners. Not all of them do.

At this particular Ramen shop, there is a long counter divided into individual booths. So you don't have to see your neighbor while you eat, I guess? We figured out how to fold back one part of the divider so we could see each other--and share our noodles, as we always do. Now we can say we've had real Ramen!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

big days in taipei

Taipei was an unexpected, but welcome, stop on the journey. It was our first taste of China before we spend a month on the mainland after a stop in Tokyo. We thought it'd be nice to see China minus Communism, so we had something to compare it to.

The first thing that really hit us that we were in China - we know Taiwan isn't China, but everyone there considers themselves Chinese, they speak Chinese, so close enough - so the first thing that made us really feel like we were in China was the stuff written on the streets. We saw many signs and other things first, but there was something about the Chinese on the streets that just seemed strange.

Since we didn't have too long of a time to spend in Taipei, we decided to have some full on tourist days out (something we really hadn't done much of on the trip so far). So we hit the mean streets of Taipei. The first stop was the Xingtain Taoist Temple. It is supposedly one of the most used temples in Taipei and it lived up to that. Tons of people flowed in and out of it, making offerings and getting blessed. It was a fun experience to stand in the middle of it and just watch everything going on. The temple had some really cool architecture too; they love their dragons.

Entrance to the Xingtain Temple.

Next stop was the Confucius Temple, which is a copy of the temple in the town that Confucius grew up in. But before we got there, we made a stop for Maggie to have a photo op with one of the town's spokeswomen.

  The Confucius Temple was very detailed and intricate with things to look at everywhere.

After our tours of Temples, it was off to the Shilin Night Market, one of the largest in town. Taiwan is known as one of the best places in the world for street food so we had to give it a go. Like most night markets in Asia, there are many things available - some more appealing to a western palate than others.

We decided on three different meals throughout the night. The first was a seafood egg omelet covered in corn and other sauces. The next was mushrooms wrapped in bacon, and finally we got a baked potato smothered with cheese.

The hard thing with street food at a crowded market like this was finding a place to eat it. Luckily there was a Taoist temple that seemed to be the popular place to sit on the steps and enjoy the fare.

Our next big day out in Taipei involved going to a part of town called Taipei 101 because of the skyscraper of the same name. There are tons of high end clothing stores and malls around the area that you can peruse for hours. Malls in Taipei go down as many stores as they go up.

Taipei 101 at (cloudy, foggy) day and night.
For dinner we were felling like some good ol' American food so we headed to a restaurant owned by a Chicagoan for a fantastic meal that left us quite happy. (And some amazing BBQ sauce!)

Our final big day in Taipei started to a trip to the National Palace Museum. It has the largest collection of Chinese artifacts in the world. It's called the Palace Museum because most of its collection was taken from the Forbidden Palace and smuggled to Taiwan before the Communists could deal with it. So even though it currently is not kept in a Palace, they kept the name.

You can't take pictures inside of it, so all we can show is the outside. But inside there were many great ancient artifacts. We saw Bronze pots and pieces of jade from as far back as 6,000 BC. While the western world was making clay pots, China had already mastered the art of bronze and making some really beautiful stuff. They also had a whole exhibit on snuff bottles that we wished we could have taken pictures of for Andrew's mom who collects them... but alas, no pictures. There were very few western tourists there and mostly it was Chinese tour groups that moved around with a pack mentality we had not seen before. It was like watching schools of fish or flocks of birds, the sheer precision they used in moving quickly around the place.

The front of the National Palace Museum.

For dinner this night we went to a world famous chain of restaurants called Modern Toilet. The whole place is filled with bathroom humor (sadly there was no poo poo platter, though). You sit on toilet seats and eat off of tables made out of bathtubs.

Maggie uses the toilette much more cutely than Andrew.
The restaurant is famous for serving meals in bowls that look like a toilet bowl, but sadly ours came in a bathtub. Desert at least came in a squat toilet, though.

Out flight out of Taipei was very early in the morning and the Taipei airport is an hour outside of Taipei and there were not cheap hotels in the area, so what are we to do? Sleep in the airport, obviously. It was actually a lot nicer than we thought because we found some plush sofas in the food court that we never got kicked out of.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

a night with uncle jean

Just before we arrived in Kuala Lumpur, we found out something very exciting: Maggie's great uncle, who is a big traveler himself, was going to be in SE Asia, and would be arriving in KL from London the night before we left! What a funny--and very cool--coincidence.

We were catching an early flight out of Kuala Lumpur, and uncle Jean was going to be staying in a hotel right by the airport, as he was headed right back out as well, to Cambodia. It seemed that the stars were aligning for us to spend out last night by the airport, which is about an hour outside of KL, so we got a room in that same hotel, to maximize our hanging out time.

Uncle Jean was not only nice enough to meet up with us after just getting off along flight, he arrived with amazing presents: a bottle of wine, dark beer, a bottle of gin and a box of Godiva truffles. Does this guy know us or what?? We brought the tonic, so the night was set.

The "before" picture, after only a glass (or two) of incredibly yummy wine.

We caught up and drank... oh yea, and ate a little, I think. It was all a bit fuzzy by the end. (And most of the pictures from the evening reflect that.)

Needless to say, getting to the airport the next morning was interesting...but it was all very worth it. Who would have thought we'd see someone we knew and very much enjoyed hanging out with on the other side of the world?

The "after" picture. I'm surprised Andrew managed to point the camera in the right direction.

kuala lumpur... you crazy

From Laos we flew to Kuala Lumpur. At first we did this because KL (what everyone calls it) is the hub for Air Asia, which is a cheap airline to get to a lot of places. But once we were there, we were really glad we made it part of the adventure.

First of all, it was our first taste of a really first world city since leaving Stockholm. But besides that it was a very interesting city. It has a large Chinese and Indian population and you can be in certain parts of the city and swear you are in either China or India. We stayed on the busiest street in Chinatown, Petaling, and it was quite crazy.

The street our Guest House was on.

Lots of decorations around.

We also arrived right as the Indian holiday of Diwali was going on. Because of this the night we spent in Little India was quite hopping with people. We had some great Indian food and then drank Chai and watched the people go by.

The main drag of Little India.
Since we were in KL, we had to see the Petronas Towers, which, at one point, were the largest in the world. Since we heard the best thing to do in KL was go shopping, we made a day of walking around to four different malls, the last one being the mall at the foot of their twin towers.

We decide to have dinner in the mall at the feet of the twin towers. While walking around in it, we found a Diwali celebration was going on with Bollywood dancers. So we had to stop and watch to work up our appetite.

Our diner was at a place called Ben's and it was delicious. We had many glasses of wine, a salad with sun-dried tomatoes and lasagna for diner. We left with happy bellies. Outside, the twin towers were lit up, and we braved the pouring rain to get one more picture.

They didn't look as tall as the Sears Tower or Empire State building. Everything is bigger in the US.
Since we were back in a first world city, we decided to treat ourselves to first world luxury. We ordered a Papa John's pizza and watched the Bears beat the Packers on Monday night football streaming on our laptops. It was amazing.

vientiane, captial of laos. what else can i say.

We left Luang Prabang by bus for the capital of Laos, Vientiane. The ride was one of the curviest of our lives, but through some really scenic mountains. Lots of people take a night bus, but I can't imagine how they stay in their beds through all the twists and turns.

The city of Vientiane doesn't have as much character as Luang Prabang. I realized that I used the word amazing a lot in the previous posts about Laos, this marks the place where that stops. I don't have anything bad to say about the town, it just felt like your generic SE Asian semi-big city.

Vientiane is on the Mekong river and Thailand is literally right on the other side. Here though, the Mekong isn't cutting its way through mountains, so it's not as spectacular of a view. We stayed only two streets off of the river in the middle of the Farang area.

The main drag our Guest House was on in the city.

Four brother and sister kittens who we fed chicken to. Yes, these are four separate kittens.

A common sight in Laos, the cauldron trash can made from old car tires. Fitting we were there just before Halloween.
Our favorite thing to do was eat dinner down by the Mekong river. It made us feel slightly like we were back in Paris... but not really. Instead of baguettes and cheese, we had fried rice and instead of a nice bottle of red wine, we had Beer Lao and cheap Asian wine in a plastic bottle. But the sunsets were sometimes nicer than in Paris, at least.

It kind of looks like the Seine. Kind of.

A little wine, beer Lao gold and fried rice - ain't nothing finer

Sunset over the Mekong, looking into Thailand.