31 Jan

Back In The Land Of Smiles

Has it really been three years since we were here last? Memories of finishing our trip, returning home, and settling back into ‘normal’ stumble over one another and get lost as I am gently woken again by a bird whistling outside my window and the hum of the air conditioner.

Wait, where am I again? Birds whistling? Air conditioning? And I’m warm.

We’re here. Back in Thailand, the Land Of Smiles; the place my mind would most often wander back to when left unaccompanied by thoughts of work or other everyday mundane distractions. Life really is much simpler here, although this time it is not a vacation, not a time to completely relax and wile away the time.

We’re here to enact our plan and, with that, comes a certain amount of apprehension, anxiety, and a general sense of being overwhelmed. Did we pull the trigger too soon? Are we crazy even thinking this is a good idea?

It’s been an up and down week; excited to be on our way and back in a place that we love so much, sure that it’s just a matter of time before it all falls into place, and fearful that it won’t work out and that we’ll have to slink back with our tails between our legs.

I’ve said that there can be no failure in this. I have long dreamed of living outside of Canada and know that I would regret it if I never even tried. Even attempting is success in my mind. And so we push forward through the fear, work on resumes and connections, and keep our eye on the prize remembering that Giant Steps are really made of many, many, small ones in the right direction.

We’re also enjoying all that Thailand has to offer.

Temples.

Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Great food.

Thai Curry, Bangkok, Thailand

And beach. Although the weather has yet to cooperate on this one!

Hua Hin, Thailand

We’ll head up to Chiang Mai this next week and get looking for an apartment. Wish us luck!

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28 Jan

Monday Moment: Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo

Tsukiji Market, Tokyo

Although we arrived at the Tsukiji Fish Market at 7am we were still far too late to see any of the real hustle and bustle that goes on in the morning. The large tuna auction was over and most of the big fish had already been sectioned and sold off.

It was clean up time and the mood felt relaxed and jovial as everyone got to finishing their morning tasks laughing and gossiping amongst themselves.

We simply wandered up and down the endless aisle ways staring wide mouthed at the endless array of seafood on display. Tuna flesh as red and rich as any beef I have ever seen, fish roe as large as marbles and as orange as the Tang juice we drank as kids, and an indescribable array of creatures, and parts of creatures, that I had never seen before.

17 Jan

The Grand Sumo Wrestler Tournament

Japan Sumo WrestlersWe enter the Kokugikan Sumo Stadium early, long before the crowds descend. The lowest ranking rikishi, or sumo wrestlers, are just getting started as we make our way to our seats.

We’ve been in Japan for almost a month now; wrangling a language built with characters rather than letters, bumbling our way through culture and traditions hoping we aren’t offending anyone too badly, and savouring cuisine that has no equal in my eyes, and yet entering into the stadium was like entering into a whole other world again.

Japanese Sumo WrestlersSteeped in history, riddled with culture, and defined by strong traditions, sumo wrestling is a quintessential Japanese sport. Everything means something. Every flick of the wrist, every lifting of a leg, and every turn in the ring has a reason.

I am instantly fascinated.

In the causeway of the stadium, as we sit and eat our bento box lunches, the Yokozuna, or highest ranked rikishi, begin to enter. Fans, young and old, rush to the doorway; craning and peering to catch a glimpse of their sumo wrestler hero. There is a common-ness about it all though. These are the best of the best and yet they walk among the fans easily pausing for pictures, answering questions, and encouraging young boys with stories of winning and success. They are held to a high regard and they clearly stand up to it.

Japanese Sumo WrestlersThe crowd swells as the day progresses and the more important bouts grow closer. We are fortunate to make a new friend; Atsushi has come all the way from Sapporo to watch the tournament and takes the time to explain the ritual and practicalities to us. We are grateful.

A hush comes over the stadium as the gyoji, or referee, enters the ring. His kimono is ornate and his actions deliberate as he begins to call out in a sing song voice gesturing first to one side of the ring, and then to the other. I imagine he must be recounting some ancient story, calling on the ancestors, or blessing the proceedings but Atsushi confides that he is simply announcing the next round of wrestlers.

The sheer size of the wrestlers is daunting and yet they climb the steps to the ring with a grace and dignity that belies their heft. The cleansing ceremony is at once ritualistic and ferocious as the wrestlers attempt to intimidate each other while, at the same time, they appease their ancestors and gods. Faces are grimaced, feet are stomped, salt is strewn, and then it is time to get down to business.

Crouching down, facing each other, they stay perfectly still until some unseen influence sets them off.  It is over almost before it has begun; the winner only having to force the other to touch the ground with any part of his body (even the tip of a thumb!) or place as much as a toe outside the straw ring boundary.

Japanese Sumo Wrestlers

Japanese Sumo WrestlersThe loser bows reverently and slinks away; the winner is exalted and, in the later matches, showered with gifts.

I am pulled from the action only by the smell of fish. Looking over I see my seat mate snacking on the remnants of his bag of dried fish as casually as we might enjoy a bag of popcorn at a hockey game. This might be an ancient sport, attended in the past by emperors and kings, but today it is the every-man filling the seats and enjoying the sportsmanship and camaraderie of cheering for a favorite.

In the end it’s the ritual, the showmanship, the progression that makes the day interesting. I understood next to nothing but was transfixed for the entire day by all that was happening around me.

Japanese Sumo Wrestlers

Japanese Sumo Wrestlers

Japanese Sumo Wrestlers

Japanese Sumo Wrestlers

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Interested in seeing a sumo tournament yourself? If you stay in Osaka, Tokyo, Nagoya or Fukuoka you will be able to participate in one of the tournaments. Here’s some info that will help make it happen:

  • There are six tournaments a year. Three in Tokyo (Jan, May and Sept), one in Osaka (Mar), one in Nagoya (July) and one in Fukuoka (Nov)
  • Getting tickets was easy. The Sumo-Ticket.jp website has tons of information on the stadiums and the tournaments and allows you to book tickets also. Tickets are only available starting about 6 weeks before the tournament so set yourself a reminder to book them. I entered all my information and was sent a confirmation within a couple of days. CHOOSE YOUR SEATS CAREFULLY! Box seats are delineated by a brass bar all around the area you are purchasing; you must sit on the floor (Japanese style) for the entire time. Arena seats are western in nature; a fold down seat that I could sit on like I do at home.
  • Picking up tickets was even easier. There was a booth outside the stadium that held the pick up tickets. I just showed my ID and we were in. WARNING: The tournament was sold out the day we went so be sure to get your tickets ahead of time. I overheard one whiny Canadian (!?) complaining that they had travelled SO far and couldn’t they just, please, be let in. Don’t let this be you!
  • It’s not that hard to figure out what’s going on. There is plenty of information on the internet but we also received a fabulous packet of information (in English) at the gate. The beautiful pamphlets explained about the practicalities of the stadium and about the history and ritual of the sport. There is also a live, English, radio broadcast available (we didn’t use this). As I said above, people are super friendly and helpful and it won’t be hard to find a fan who can help you understand what’s happening.
  • Spend some time. The best part of the day was watching the progression of all that was happening. The early, junior, matches are a great time to learn about the sport so you can enjoy the later, more senior, matches with some knowledge behind you. People come early and bring snacks to make an afternoon of it. Do the same; either bring something with you or there are lots of concession stands selling bento boxes, yakitori, popcorn and dried fish snacks or you can head to one of the basement restaurants offering chankonabe stew (the official meal of sumo wrestlers). We spent 8 hours in the stadium (11am to 7pm) and never once felt bored or like time was dragging; it was one of the best days we had in Japan

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I’m working on a new project! The Global Bookshelf will be a place for you to find books and stories that will connect you to the trip you’re already planning, or the one you are dreaming of. I would love it if you would sign up for updates; you can use the form right there in the sidebar. And thanks!

The Global Bookshelf. Connecting travellers to a world of stories.

14 Jan

Monday Moment: Plain Of Jars, Laos

Plain of Jars, Laos

We are officially in the middle of nowhere. Central Laos is not overly populated and we are and hour and half outside of the nearest town of Phonsavon. Lumbering along the dirt roads, through pine forests and small villages, the only regular sound is the drone of the scooter under us.

It is hot. Really hot. My butt is burning from a combination of the heat of the engine under it and the incessant vibration caused by the uneven road surface. We break often to make it bearable.

But I love it. I love being way off the beaten track; love not knowing what we’ll find while using a faded, oft-photocopied, hand drawn, map to navigate. I trust we won’t get really lost. We pass by people often enough and I know that even without a shared language the local people would easily be able to point us in the direction of civilization.

We’re here to seek out one of the many Plain Of Jars sites in the area. Coming up on them is surreal; massive jars carved from stone dot the landscape. There is nothing else here. No other ruins indicating a long lost civilization or any hints as to what they might have been used for. They just lay, scattered in no discernable pattern, in the middle of nowhere.

Oddly beautiful.

10 Jan

How We Quickly And Easily Obtained A Double Entry 120 Day Thailand Visa

Thailand Visa

We know we’re heading to Thailand but, as you know, we don’t know anything after that. This makes it a little difficult to manage our time in a country that limits how long you can stay without a visa.

For most holidayers it’s quite easy;  most nationalities can arrive by air and enter the country for 30 days without a visa. Argentineans, Chileans, and Brazilians are able to stay 90 days without a visa. Some, though, can only stay 15 days and must apply for a visa when they arrive. The Thai Visa Wikipedia page outlines which countries fall into which category.

For us this means we could arrive and stay for 30 days before having to do a border run in order to stay longer.

But 30 days likely isn’t long enough and a border crossing entry only nets 14 more days. This would mean we’d have to head out of the country every two weeks in order to stay any length of time. Seeing as my plan is to settle in a bit and work on my new project (The Global Bookshelf) we were going to need to work on our plan.

A little research showed that we could get a double entry Thailand visa that would let us stay in the country for two 60 day periods.

I found all the rules and the application form for Thai Visas on the Canadian Thai Embassy website (American version here) and found that the closest consulate is in Vancouver. We could either attend the consulate in person with our applications or, alternately, mail them in to obtain a visa. As much as I would love to spend time in Vancouver the budget was the deciding factor so mailing it in was the solution.

As the instructions on the websites indicate, all we did is send in the completed application, a passport photo, flight information, a money order for the application fee ($80 each for us), and a postage paid return addressed envelope. Easy-peasy.

We sent the applications in right before Christmas and they were returned to us by New Years. Showing up at the consulate would have been even quicker. Can’t argue with that!

Remember, this was my experience. I recommend you read all the visa information on the websites to determine what type of visa you’ll need and how to apply. Thailand visa information has changed often with little notice in the last 5 years and continues to evolve. Always check with consulates and embassies rather than assume that other sources (including me!) are correct.

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I’m working on a new project! The Global Bookshelf will be a place for you to find books and stories that will connect you to the trip you’re already planning, or the one you are dreaming of. I would love it if you would sign up for updates; you can use the form right there in the sidebar. And thanks!

The Global Bookshelf. Connecting travellers to a world of stories.

 

07 Jan

Monday Moment: Violence Near Cusco, Peru

Plaza de Armes, Cusco, Peru

I heard this story  of violence near Cusco, Peru this weekend and I have struggled as to whether I should share it or not.

I worry that stories of scams, petty robberies, and violence will be the nail in the coffin to those who are already nervous about travelling. That perhaps people will decide not to travel instead of understanding that crime against travellers is most often traveller to traveller crime and that it is very easy to stay safe on the road.

But this is a difficult story to ignore and reminds me of the only time in my entire travels that I was truly fearful for my safety.

There was to be a transit strike in Cusco on the day our bus to the Inca Trail was scheduled to leave so the trekking company decided to bus us out of town late the night before to avoid it. Leaving the lights of Cusco behind us, we entered the inky blackness of the altiplano. Peering out the window I could suddenly make out shadowy figures along the side of the roadway. Thinking them to be protestors making their way to the city for the next days activities, we didn’t think anything of it; until a hail of rocks began pummelling the windows of our bus.

Hunching down, I raised my head just enough to peek out the window. Large rocks, shrubs, and tires littered the roadway; various men roamed the sidelines chanting and yelling as they hurled more rocks our way. I crouched lower, shaking uncontrollably as I willed away the stories I had been reading about the Shining Path and their methods of gaining attention and control. I made myself keep my eyes open to avoid visions of the bus being stopped and boarded by such obviously upset, and violent, men. I could only hope that the bus would continue on and that it would soon be over.

Our convoy of buses did not stop. I don’t think they would have stopped for anything. They muscled through and soon we were past the danger, although no one on that bus relaxed until we reached our final destination.

The story coming out of Peru this week is much more serious; the people involved lucky to have escaped with minimal physical injuries although I can’t imagine the emotional turmoil they must be facing.

I share their story, Nightmare In Peru,  not to sensationalize the events, or to scare travellers away from Peru or from travelling, but to be responsible. I don’t want to only report the good side of travel and ignore that things can, and do, go wrong. To be clear; there have been plenty of travellers who have passed through this way in cars and campers, on bikes and motorbikes, without any trouble what-so-ever. Those who have reported Peruvians to be friendly, kind, and generous. These three were obviously terribly unlucky but we cannot ignore that it happened.

I believe that we will never understand the motivation behind such an act but as I read more about Peru, and of the Shining Path era, after my own incident I did gain some perspective around the history and culture of Peru. I think it’s part of travelling; not just seeing the sights and enjoying the food, but also learning about a place, about the history of a place, about what makes it tick and sculpts it into the place that we visit.

I encourage you to not only read the stories from this past few weeks but to also look deeper and research a little more about the area. It won’t change what has happened or what may happen in the future but a little understanding cannot be a bad thing.

 

02 Jan

Should We Have Skipped The JR Rail Pass?

JR Rail Pass

Train travel in Japan is a treat. Not only do they leave exactly on time but they are quiet, super clean, and comfortable. The extensive network of train tracks links in nicely with an even more extensive network of subway, bus and ferry routes that make it really easy to get pretty much anywhere in the country.

It’s not cheap though.

Luckily the largest rail consortium in the country, JR Rail, offers a pass that can make it significantly more budget friendly.

Getting, and using, a JR Rail Pass is easy. The JR Rail Pass website has everything that you need to know; who is eligible for a pass, how and where to get a pass voucher, pass types and prices, how and where to exchange your voucher for a pass, and how to use the rail system. We found using the pass, and getting around, to be fairly easy. A quick note about the type of pass; don’t bother paying the premium for the Green Pass. We found the Ordinary cars to be more than comfortable and, from looking through the windows, couldn’t actually see how the Green cars were any different!

Is a JR Rail Pass worth it? Well, I’m not entirely convinced that it saved us money.

As we were in Japan for 27 days, and planned to travel around the country for about two and half weeks in between our stays in Tokyo, we opted for the 21 day pass. This cost us $749 CDN each; a good chunk of change out of our budget! (All numbers here are for one person.)

I, of course, tracked every train trip we took as I wanted to see if the pass would pay for itself.

And here’s where I start to doubt whether the pass was worth it.

A ticket on a JR Rail train is a ticket to get on the train; it doesn’t guarantee you a seat. On any train there are ‘Reserved Seat’ cars and ‘Unreserved Seat’ cars. I tracked what it would have cost us just for the train ticket and what the seat reservation cost us.

For the trips we took, the total for ticket cost plus seat reservation was $810.65. The JR Rail Pass cost us $749 so it appears that we saved  $61.55.

However I don’t think we needed to reserve seats for every trip we took. We always reserved seats (where possible) because it was a service included in the JR Rail Pass but, most often the ‘Unreserved Seat’ cars we more than half empty and we could have easily found a seat without ‘paying’ the seat reservation fee.

So, if I look at just the ticket price ($496.10) versus the cost of the pass ($749), it appears we lost $252.90!! Each!

To be fair; there were a couple of trips where it might have been difficult and anxiety inducing to find a seat. We travelled on one long weekend that had increased train traveller traffic and on another day something must have gone wrong as a number of trains coming from one direction were significantly late which set most of the travelling public into a tizzy but that we didn’t have to worry about because we had a guaranteed seat.

Why did we not see significant value in the pass and what can you do to ensure it’s worth your money?

We traveled quite slowly; activating our passes in Tokyo to travel to Kyoto and then stayed there for a week. We stayed 3, 4, or 5 days in all of the other destinations we traveled to. The JR Rail Pass is best for those who will be traveling significantly during the time the pass is activated.

If you are considering getting a pass, take a close look at your itinerary – if you will be moving often during the duration of your pass, then it will likely be worth it.

In the end I can’t say we shouldn’t have gotten a pass. Having the pass made it fast and easy to access and use the train system. We never quibbled over whether we would go somewhere based on the cost of the train to get there and we always knew that we would have a seat. Peace of mind and ease of use trump the few dollars we may or may not have saved in the long run.