ASIA

From Taipei to Keelung

Taiwan isn’t the usual destination that you’d go for while planning to visit Asia. Most people would choose Thailand, Japan or Vietnam over Taiwan in a heartbeat. However choosing the perfect summer holidays during the months of July & August isn’t the easiest part, because most asian countries are hit by the summer monsoons.

Thailand and Bali are well known for their rain-season during the european summer months.

While circling around the asian continent on a world-map with my finger, the tip of my index, landed on Taiwan. Two of my friends used to live in Taiwan, that’s why I only heard good things about the country. But I aslo gotta admit that I barely didn’t know anything about Taiwan, except for the city-name of Taipei and its skyscraper the “Taipei 101” building.

After finding out that there are several national parks spread all over the country and that there’s a pretty coast called Kenting which is also know for its surfing spots, Taiwan sounded very inviting.

And chances of getting wet was less probably compared to other popular asian countries.


Taipei.

When I heard Taipei, I thought Hong-Kong. From several photos and videos that I’ve seen form the capital of Taiwan, it pretty much reminded me of the fascinating city of Hong-Kong. Hell, I was wrong.

In my opinion both cities are totally different.

Hong-Kong is such a photogenic city, that you will get endless opportunities to take beautiful shots with your camera or phone. You can hop from cabs to subways and land on a boat and just cross the river within a couple of minutes. Hong-Kong has a bustling nightlife. Get on a funicular and make it to Lantau Island. Temples, skyscrapers… HK got it all.

After my first two days in Taipei I still couldn’t feel the vibe of the capital. There were a couple of dull temples spread all over the different areas of the city. Blocks that were packed with shopping malls, the 101-Skyscraper that you could stare at from further distances. The shopping streets were very busy from the early after-noon until the late evening. Streetfood-markets are very popular, you’ll find quite a few and get all kind of dishes that costs about a dollar or a euro.

At the food markets we only bumped into locals. The pannels were written in chinese and it was pretty hard to figure out what we were eating, as many of the taiwanese people don’t speak a word of english.

Even though the streetfood wasn’t the best one, the foodstalls weren’t the cleanest, I still enjoyed watching people strolling over the market and observing the “chefs” preparing their food.

To be honest, there wasn’t one single tourist attractioni in the city that I really enjoyed. Good nightlife spots were very hard to find, as the popular bars are spread widely appart. So you always gotta use a taxi or public transportation to make it to a busy bar or club. We spent two nights at the gay-district as it was easy to spot and you could buy an “all-you-can-drink” ticket for 15 bucks.

While staying in Taipei we drove to several parcs and suburbs with a rental-scooter. The rides were fun, but the trips weren’t really worth it. Especially after having visited amazing cities likes Osaka, Tokyo, Hanoi, HK, Bangkok…

We were often asked by taiwanese people “why are you vistigin our country?”. I seemed like the locals weren’t used to see a lot of tourists in their city. On our last day in Taipei we crossed a very laid back, but huge american guy, he stared at us, raised his hand, put a smile on his face and yelled at us “hello white people!”. That was pretty funny, because we realized that he was actually right. During our 10 days in Taiwan we met less than a handful caucasians.

Keelung.

Keelung is a city closer to the northern coast of Taiwan. It took us a little more than an hour to reach Keelung by train from Taipei Mainstation. After getting off at the final stop, Keelung instantly felt different than the capital. There weren’t any skyscrapers, no fancing shopping malls, it all looked more laid back.

Obviously the city center looked more “taiwanese” than the capital. Right in the heart of Keelung, there was a harbor, a canal with many bridges and the famous Keelung street market. At first sight I was more attracted and impressed by Keelung than Taipei.

As we planned to spend 5-6 nights in Keelung, quickly it turned out as a bad idea. There was even less going on at night than in Taipei. Keelung definitely beats Taipei with its beautiful coast, and its scenic road that surrounds the northern tip of the island.

You easily could do a couple of daytrips from Keelung. We rented an electric scooter and visited Shifen and Jiufen.

Shifen is a tiny village, located south-east of Keelung. It takes about 40 minutes to reach it by scooter. The special spot that makes Shifen pretty popular among tourists is its “Shifen Old Street”. A tiny alley, reserved for pedestrians, on which a railway-road passes straight through it. As soon as the train passes, tourists jump on the rails, trying to release their sky lantern.

Visitors can buy a blank lantern for 5-10 euro/usd. They will write or paint their wish onto the 4 blank sides of the lantern. The vendor will put a gasoline-soaked cloth on the inside of the lantern, lit it on, and with a light handpush, the landern will fly towards the sky. It actually was a lovely place watching all the lantern flying high.

You could see it as a cheap way to make good money. However, as for myself, it was the first time that I had the opportunity to release a lantern. Not far away from “Old Street” there was a hanging-bridge and cute little train-station.

While being in Shifen, get back on the scooter and visit the Shifen waterfalls. Nothing impressive, however as there’s not that much to do in the area, it’s worth the trip.

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Jiufen is another village, located in the mountains, not too far away from Keelung. You might have seen beautiful nightshots on Instagram with uncountable red lanterns, that photo was high-probably taken in Jiufen. Depending on the weather you can get a jaw-dropping scenic view of the northern coast from the outskirt of the village. We visited Juifen twice, once at night, and once during the rain. It was hard to get descent photos of the views that the vista-point had to offer.

The most famous part of Jiufen definitely is the covered streetmarket, seperated on different levels. Upstairs, downstairs, all the alleys lead to food, drinks, tea- & souvenirshops. The place is crammed with visitors. Hard to guess if it’s a tourist-trap or an authentic market, as we were the only white folks among the crowds.

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Considering the food, both of us got tired of the street food. After a couple of days we got bored and slightly disgusted by the smell of greasy food, seeing living frogs in a glass-jar waiting to get thrown onto the grill, the scents of stinky tofu. It was fun on the first day, after having bought some fresh fruits, followed by local fruit-juices and a big bowl of fatty noodle soup. You will find a couple of indoor food-courts that will serve all kind of asian foods, from thai to japanese dishes, and that was where we mostly had lunch. Foodwise, in my opinion, it was the least pleaseant food I had in all Asia, even though I can’t argue that we had good foos as well, like an amazing shrimp ramen at night, or my favorite nut-pastry in the morning.

Another cool thing that we discovered in Taiwai, was the electric rental-scooter from the company “Gogo Ro”. In Keelung barely nobody would offer the usual scooters for rental. The easiest way to move around the Island, was the Gogoro electro-scooter. The bike was packed with 2 removable batteries, that lasted around 60-80 km. As soon as you reached 40% of battery-power, it was about time to open google-maps and look for the closes battery-charging-station. Some of the gas-stations were equipped with those power-stations, where you’d stop by, remove both batteries from the scooter, and put them into a big white wall. The station would “spit out” two batteries that were fully loaded. The good thing about that, you wouldn’t have to pay for gas, as the batterie-exchange came without further costs. The electro-bike was way faster than a gasoline scooter. However the unpleasant part was, that you could drive up to 90minutes - 100 minutes, and then you’d have to ride your bike towards the closest gas station.



Bali ~ Ubud, Uluwatu, Canggu

So after having spent 10 fabulous nights in Thailand, I had to choose my next destination for my pre-summer trip in june. I was pretty sure that it had to be Asia, as I just came back from a very satisfying visit in Bangkok & Chiangmai.

It was about time to break my solo-traveling routine, because a good friend was about to join me. So after a few seconds of brain-storming we came up with Japan, Bali or Thailand.

Since my plan was learning how to surf in 2018, we shared the same thought that taking a first surfing class as a 35 and a 39 year old young man, would be a pretty cool experience. Surfboards, cafe racers, beaches and jungles... we opted for Bali. And besides all that I would celebrate my 36th birthday on the island. It all sounded like a lot of fun.

Sadly two weeks prior my departure my good friend had a motorbike accident and got badly injured with a broken foot. This meant that I had to travel on my own. Back then I couldn't tell why, but I really wasn't in the mood for visiting Bali all by myself. Maybe because we know Bali from dreamy photos on Instagram, where you get to see endless photos of couples, engagements, weddings, ... It all sounded like "noooooope. this is a lovers' destination".

Ubud.

I started my trip in Ubud. I was told that Ubud would be super touristic and packed with Yoga people. Actually I do love yoga, but I can imagine, being surrounded by gurus and spiritual nerds, that this could become pretty annoying. I booked a bed at the "Pillow Hostel", because their rooms looked pretty descent, and they offered free yoga classes in the early morning. Sounded pretty ok! However because of the daily rain showers the yoga classes didn't take place on the open-air rooftop.

I knew about the rain-season before traveling to Bali. So I wasn't disappointed about the rainfall, mostly during the night, and couple of hours during daytime. Luckily there were some days without rain as well.

What to do in Ubud? Well I won't list any super fancy touristic spots, that I would highly recommend, or any must-try restaurants. All I can tell, go rent a scooter! You will definitely not enjoy Ubud without a scooter, if you're not doing any yoga-esque activities. There's a daily market in the very center of Ubud. The streets are packed with shops, the restaurants are filled with tourists. You hardly won't meet any local people on a night out.

I really wasn't keen about renting a scooter, in a country, where people drive on the left side of the road. I haven't been riding a motorbike for too many years. Then came the slippery roads because of the rain... So many reasons why I wouldn't rent a scooter. I overcame my doubts and went for it... I rented a scooter for a day. From that point I knew I would rent a scooter any time again.

I discovered so many cool spots around Ubud and I met local people. Locals let me join a very religious ceremony in a hindu temple. They first denied when I asked if they would let me in. As I told them that would carry a long-sleeve shirt and a sarong (a traditional skirt for men) in my bag. They were so surprised about that, that they let me check out the temple.

I met several groups of kids, who were trying to bring up their giant homemade-kite in the sky. They told me that this would be a balinese tradition, and later on my trip I noticed several spots where the sky was packed with colorful gigantic kites. Beautiful!

I visited the holy bathing temple called "Tirta Empul". Everybody knows the temple from the photos. Before going to Bali, I knew that I would find this bathing temple on the island. However I didn't know that all the people I had seen on the photos, taking a shower under the several fountains, were tourists. If Balinese people jump into the bathing pool to get under the fountain, they do it in the early morning around 5 am (05:00). So expect to bump into a lot of tourists while visiting the temple.

The "Pelingghi Meru", a pagoda-like structured temple, is another eye-catcher you will find on many photos. It took me almost 2 hours to reach the temple by scooter from Ubud. But I really wanted to visit that place. As I arrived in front of the pagoda I was surprised how small it was. It looked very tiny. And again packed with too many tourists.

I always enjoyed the scooter-rides through the suburbs of Ubud. Lots of nature: rice-fields, palmtrees, lakes, beautiful sunsets. So many spots to take a lot of beautiful photos.

Have a couple of stops at the coffee-shops on the side of the road and you will be surprised how many lovely conversations you will get with balinese locals.

The "Tegallalang Rice Terrace" is definitely a must-see. You can easily spend 1-2 hours on the rice fields, take many beautiful photos, enjoy a coffee, and get an instragram-cliche-shot one of the many giant-swings located around the ricefields.

Even though I didn't like the center of Ubud, because of the tourists, I gotta admit that Ubud was my favorite city among Uluwatu and Canggu.

With a scooter you can visit endless waterfalls which are located pretty close around Ubud. There's so much to do, even though you won't get that impression of Ubud at first sight.

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Uluwatu.

Well I decided to have a stop at Uluwatu for 2 nights because it's supposed to have the cleanest surf beaches of Bali. Uluwatu is well known for its huge waves on the shores, which brings fabulous surf spots with it. All this sounded like a cool place to hang out. Every monday night there's a huge party at "Single Fin's". It's pretty packed and a great time is almost guaranteed.

However no one tells you, that Single Fin is located on a private ground, where you gotta pay a fee to drive in with a car or on a scooter. Expect, once again, only tourists among the crowd, as balinese people can hardly afford a beer in that kind of restaurant/bar.

I wasn't in a party mood on that monday night, so I didn't make it to the party. I visited the restaurant on the following day, and all I found out, was that I didn't like the place. The cheapeast gin&tonic was actually pretty expensive for a longdrink in Bali. However you can enjoy a pretty descent view towards the sea and watch people surfing. If this is what's you looking for, nice view, fast food and watery drinks, go for it!

I stayed in the very center of Uluwatu where there was barely nothing that would a attract a 36 year old guy on a scooter. Laid back restaurants, street food stalls, hundreds of supermarkets and clothing stores, and some surfboard-rentals.

To get to the closest beach it took me about 10-15 minutes on a scooter. It was called "DREAMBEACH", and it was actually a pretty nice beach compared to the rest of the beaches that I had explored in Bali. However you had to pass two security check-points, and at the end of the ride, you had to pay parking fee to park your scooter.

Uluwatu was the first place, where I booked my first surfing classes ever. In my opinion the waves seemed to be huge, and as a newbie, they seemed very scary. I only surfed for about 90 minutes instead of two hours, because my arms couldn't manage the paddling anymore against those monster waves. And I wasn't too keen about the surf trainer either. But I was glad that I took the classes, as it took some courage from my side, to get into the water for the first time with a board.

In Uluwato you get the chance the visit the "Garuda Wisnu Kencana Cultural Park". It's actually very touristic but I had the possibility to witness one of the biggest statues I'd ever seen. Would I call it a must-see, definitely not, however if you gotta kill some time in Uluwato, the park is definitely worth it to spend an hour or two at.

Before I forget about it... there's a popular Hindu Temple in Uluwato, everybody knows about it, everybody wants to visit it. Go for it!

Canggu.

Canggu is supposed to be the hipster hang-out spot of the whole Island, and it definitely was the case. "Pretty Poison" offers you crowded nights on tuesdays and thursdays, big crowds hanging around the skate-bowl and cheering up the skaters. Their menu offer 4 different descent cocktails and a couple of beer brands. Hip people, trashy rock music, skaters everywhere, pretty girls... you get the vibe, it feels like Venice Beach! The first night I went to Pretty Poison, there was a concert inside the venue. Actually it was a very sweet rock band, which I'd rather watch play, than watching topless skater dudes in the bowl.

I loved the quote above the bar "Someone told me there's a girl out there with love in her eyes and flowers in her hair".

Cafe-Racer fans definitely know the brand "DEUS EX". It's a pretty chill hang-out spot (bar & restaurant) where you can witness the coolest bikes and the coolest custom-made surf boards on the island. They have a "DeusEx" shop where you can spend some money on clothes and other stuff. I went there on daily basis to have lunch. The food was flawless, for a reasonable price. I loved their polenta fries and falafel salad. The music at the restaurant and the indoor design was a plus!

I took another 2 surf classes in Canggu, and I had the pleasure to meet a much nicer surf trainer. The beach wasn't as nice in Canggu, as it was in Uluwatu, however I enjoy the surfing sessions a lot more, because the waves weren't as huge as in the south.

Besides the hip rock bars and hip surf shops, there were so many things that bothered me in canggu. The main reason was the huge amount of tourists, australian tourists. Every bar, restaurant, club, beach spot was packed with tourists. There wasn't a place where I would bump into local people in the center of Canggu. The only locals that I met was at the local tattoo shop "Bold & Bright Tattoo", where I got tattooed. I loved the tattoo artists, they were very welcoming. And I turned back home, truely satisfied about my traditional old-school dagger tattoo. The price was totally a bargain compared to the money you gotta in Europe or the USA for a descent tattoo.

To be honest, I didn't like Canggu at all ! On Instagram everything looks so hip, fancy, and photogenic, but it real life it definitely wasn't. And all those thousands of tourists killed the vibe of the city. I was actually happy to get back home, after my iphone got stole a scooter drive-by while I was walking back home on my birthday night. Happy Birthday Frank!

 

If I ever should get back to Bali, I'd definitely spend more time in the north of the island, where you won't bump into as many tourists as in Kuta, Seminyak and Canggu.

Be cautious about your belongings at night. The guys from my hostels told me that I was the 3rd victim within a month, who got robbed by dimwits on a scooter.

Bold & Bright Tattoo.

As I just mentioned, my iphone got stole on my birthday night, as I was walking home in a very lonsome way... drunk & texting through a shortcut that all the scooters use to get quicker around the city center. While I was busy texting with my friend, as there was no one to celebrate with, a scooter approached me and grabbed my phone out of my hand. The driver just blasted away at full speed, impossible to run after him.

I felt devastated... aallll my photos from Bali were gone, my videos, my contacts, my text messages. And of course I had to spend a shitload of money to buy a new phone. Besides the stole phone, I had planned to get two tattoos at "Bold & Bright". Their prices were pretty much affordable compared to european or US tattoo rates. However knowing that I had to spend the money on a new phone once I'd be back home, I decided to cancel my appointments. 

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Ocen, the tattoo artist, was the nicest person I crossed path with in Canggu. There was no problem with canceling the appointment, even though he told me he could lower the price if I still wanted to get tattooed. 

The next day after waking up I decided to call Ocen, and get one tattoo done. Despite low expectation, or maybe high expectation in some points, Bali had a kind of "wow-effect". It was the first time I ever felt the island vibe on a trip, because I was used to experience the big city life while traveling. It was the first time as well, where I jumped on a surf board, and for a long time I knew somebody would be waiting for me when I get back home. So I decided to bring a lasting souvenir back to Luxembourg. Ocen was very welcoming on the day I had my appointment. He showed a lot a patience and he asked funny questions when I told him he should add a special letter to the tattoo. We talked about tattooing & music (his favorite band was Alkaline Trio), while Matt Skiba's solo record was playing in the background. 

I turned back home totally satisfied with my fresh tattoo, that cost me around 200$. 

I loved their wifi-code "bolderthanyours". 

 

 

4 Nights in Bangkok.

It took me too many years to visit beautiful Thailand. Years ago Thailand used to be one of the most popular tourist destinations. This kept me from visiting Thailand. Nowadays it's gotta be Bali... everybody wants to visit Bali. So I thought: this gotta be it! Now is the right time to give that asian country a try. All I can tell after these few lines, Thailand hit me unlike any other travel-destination. I'm already planning to get back this year, for a second time.

Way too many people told me to skip or avoid the capital Bangkok. After all the photos i've checked out on google, the reviews and stories I read about Bangkok, I was so convinced that I would enjoy the busiest city of Thailand. 

One of the main reasons why my few days in Bangkok were worthwhile, had probably to do with the lovely human encounters I experienced. It all started with a simple thank you at the airport. This might sound pretty goofy, but I think the way thai-people are thanking you, with folding both hands together and rising them upfront to the face, is just the most sincere way for showing your gratitude.  After visiting quite a few asian countries, this was the first thing that I noticed at the airport: "Khob Khun Krup" (thank you for men). My first thought "ok, cool, that's a thai-thing".

Of course the taxi ride, struck my mind as well. It took me almost an hour to get to my hostel, because traffic is usually very busy in Bangkok. With a pretty good tip, the cab-ride cost me less than 10$/€. 

After checking in at the hostel, I noticed that all the guests had to take off their shoes, before entering the main areas of the hostels (bathroom, kitchen, garden, dorms...). It definitely felt like far away from home. 

I stayed 4 nights in Bangkok, and all I've seen was the main area, the pretty much touristic center surrounded by temples. Of course you do have many small alleys, where all the local people live or hang out. However I didn't manage to make it to the skyscraper area on the east side, or to the north the more rural area. 

Temples, temples ... and even more temples. It was obvious, like in Korea, Japan, Hong-Kong... I would do many temples, and after a while I would be bored by temples. The high & colorful "prangs" which are the most eye-catching parts of the temple, were pretty much fascinating. "WAT ARUN" and "WAT PHO" were the ones I enjoyed the most. While riding a tuc-tuc across the city, you will notice those diverse temples along the road. There are just too many temples in the city. 

Just a quick reminder! Taxis are way cheaper than tuc-tucs, because they're using the taxi meter. I wouldn't bargain or set a fix price, because the cabs in Bangkok are dirty cheap! Tuc-tuc driver don't even bother for the low-price rides, they'll just send you to the next driver.

The Grand Palace was definitely a very beautiful tourist attraction! The colors, the architecture, too much gold glitter, walls filled with precious stones, ... it's worth the visit! However the place was so crowded that I just left my camera in my bag, you couldn't get a descent shot of the place. And it was the only temple/building where I wouldn't get in with shorts. They're renting pants or you just can a buy cute elephant pants as a souvenir.

The "Golden Mountain" temple is worth checking out as well ! As you will have to climb up too many stairs, however at the end you will be rewarded with a beautiful view all over Bangkok.

Is there anything to do besides temple-hopping?

I was really looking forward for the floating market. The old ladies on their boats, the scents, the colors, the water... all that would have made a lovely photo shooting. However I was told that the floating market take place on weekends. The best ones would be outside of the city, approximately one hour driving. 

Chatuchak is the biggest weekend market in the city. I was visiting Chatuchak in the very early evening on a sunday, when some of the stalls were already closing. It's mostly about food & fashion. Sounds boring huh? Trust me it's very hip! I bought around 7 shirts & t-shirts. Most of them were around 2-7$ a piece. I really loved the design, you could sell them easily in Europe for triple the price. They had all kind of street food you could expect. I spent an hour at the market, and I enjoyed it a lot. I'd definitely go back on my next trip to Bangkok.

Very nearby was the "Camp - Vintage Market". That one was the cherry on top! Such a cool and hip place right in the center of Bangkok. I'd never expected to discover London's "Camden Town" in Thailand. Old trailers as coffee-bars, vintage cars with surfboards on it, cafe-racer shops, super trendy clothing stores. There was a live band playing soul-music. It was very beautiful place, less crowded and definitely more classy then London's twin-market.

Khao San Road.

Hate it or love... ? Ok, nope, you won't love the place, but you will definitely enjoy the place. "Khao San Road", also know as the "backpacker street", is the main party road in Bangkok. Why "backpacker street"? Well I have no clue, but I guess, because all the people look like surfers or backpackers. No fancy clothes... flip-flops, shorts, tanktops, that's all you see on Khao-San. 

I visited Khao San Road on my first night. And I did expected the worst! While walking through the party-mile totally sober, my first thought was to leave that place.  I reached the end of the road and fled towards the "Soi Ram Buttri", which is located only a couple of footsteps away. "Soi Ram Buttri" is the total opposite of Khao-San. It still feels backpacker-like, but it's a very quite street. The same alley will lead you to the main-road where you will find quite a few music bars. I went to "JAZZ HAPPENS". It was tiny charming jazz bar. The perfect spot to start the evening. I was the only caucasian at the bar, and I found it very welcoming that the band was switching from thai to english just because of me. Gotta love thai-people!

 After some greasy finger-food, and a couple of gin&tonics, I felt ready to get back to Khao-San road. I stepped inside a bar that had a japanese name. And that was the place where the madness instantly kicked in. The topless male bartender greeted me, asked my name, and gave me a free shot. The thai people next to me at the bar, didn't take long to start a conversation with me. I paid a shot, they paid a shot, the bartender gave another shot for free... After way too many drinks, I left the bar with a thai dude, and we headed to the nearest streetfood-grill. That's where I made new friends again... short after that I woke up in my hostel bed the day after. I had a hard time remembering how I got home.

The next evening I walked back to Khao San Road, because it was the closest place to my hostel, where life was happening at full speed. I passed by a group of thais who started smiling at me, a couple of girls and one guy. As I felt kind of not-ready, no drinks yet, I smiled back and moved on towards the end of the street. One of the girls started running after me, and said "Hey Frank!". I  asked her how she would know my name, and then she started laughing "You don't remember us ???". I gently replied with a "nooooope". I joined the group of people and got to know my thai friends for the second time within 24 hours. 

So if I gotta summarize my last paragraphs, give Khao San a chance. Even though you might bump into tons of rubbish people, i'm pretty sure everybody can have a blast, or at least a fun  night, in that street.

 3 guys & 2 girls.

3 guys & 2 girls.

Canal Boat Ride.

If you wanna get away from the bustling city center, you can jump on a boat and get ride through the canals and along the river. It's not gonna be a beautiful boattrip! The water is pretty dirty, you will see a lot of wooden cabins, worn down houses of the locals, too many tourist boats crossing yours, and of course the floating market rip-off. One single person on a boat, approaching you to buy a souvenir or a beer for the boat-driver, is considered a "floating market". 

It's definitely not a must-do attraction. However I was glad I bought a ticket for the boat tour. I had a whole boat for myself. I managed to get a couple of descent shots on my camera, and you discover Bangkok from a different angle. After all, that wasn't how I expected Bangkok. Never thought I would ride a boat through several canals for almost an hour.

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Obviously I was checking out Bangkok at a slower pace this time. There's still so much left to discover. All I can tell, I wasn't disappointed at all !

I got to know quite a few lovely people in Bangkok. They told me that Thai people don't eat with chopstick except for the pad-thai dish, they introduced me to sticky-rice and to laughing gas.. so many unimportant things, that I still found it very interesting. And the thai people just loved my most stupid questions about Thailand, which seemed so obvious to them.

I will write a seperate post about the second city I visited in Thailand, Chiangmai! 

Chiangmai, was different, maybe better, but Bangkok was afterall a joy-ride.

 

 

 

Shalom Tel Aviv.

In the daily news you hear a lot about Israel, mostly about the not-so-enjoyable things that happen in their country or on the borderline with their neighbor territories. However despite the headline-stories about war scenes, rocket alerts from Gaza or the recent knife attacks from Jerusalem, I was always intrigued by Israel, even though I absolutely didn't know anything about the country. 

An israeli friend from Germany told me about the "Purim" holiday that takes place between the months of February and March every year. You can compare it to the carnival from Germany, where people get dressed up in costumes and go out partying in the streets. Even the religious citizen are allowed to get totally drunk during Purim. It's supposed to be the most funny and exciting holiday of the year. 

To me, this sounded like the perfect time to visit Israel. I do love the nightlife when traveling, and I love meeting new people who can update my knowledge about their country's culture. 

Just for your information, most European citizen don't need to apply for a visa. And you don't get to fill out any papers on board. Just pass the passport-control, where you will be asked a couple of questions and that's it "Welcome to Israel". 

I remember that the people inside the airport and at the train-station were very very welcoming, and helpful to get me on the right train. When I was about to get out at the  "HaHagana" train station. I noticed the luggage scanner &metal detector at the entrance of pretty small train-station. Outside one single person was guarding the entrance, while holding an automatic rifle. I figured out that the Israelis take their daily safety-precautions seriously.

Tel Aviv.

Prior my trip to Israel, I decided to book 5 nights in Tel Aviv, and then moving on to Jerusalem for 2 more nights. Knowing that "Purim" was taking place, having been informed about "Shabbat" (the 7th holy day, where public transportation isn't available), I decided not to rush. However in my upcoming post about Jerusalem I will tell you, why it was a rather bad decision to spend more time in Tel Aviv than any other israeli cities. 

Tel Aviv is supposed to be very famous for its liberal vibe, fantastic nightlife and apparently it has a worldwide positive reputation in the gay-scene. 

I don't want to consider Tel Aviv straight up as an unattractive city. However in my own personal oppinion, there's not much to do in the city. As a travel-photographer I do love to take photos that shows the very unique culture of a country. I wanna take portaits of local people, of food, of  eye-opening architecture. So that I can bring up the special vibe & flair of the place i'm visiting. The vibe of Tel Aviv was definitely not easy to capture on photos or videos. 

The shore of the city was definitely one of the attractive spots of Tel Aviv. Just along the beach-walk you would bump into all kind of people: tourists, sporty locals, fishermen, surfers & the older generation chit-chatting on a bench. Walking the beach-walk up north will lead you to a boring lighthouse. Walking south-wards will lead you to Jaffa, the muslim Oldtown of Tel Aviv. 

I really liked spending time in Jaffa, it's a rather small neighborhood. The Old Town definitely differs from the rest of Tel Aviv's architecture. You can notice its muslim influence. Walking away from the coast will bring you the flea-market. It's rather a mix of flea-shops and flea-stalls. 

Vegetarian foodporn in Israel.

Just next to it, you will have an endless selection of restaurants and bars. Both really look very inviting with lots of colors. However during "Purim" only a very few ones were very busy in the evening. I can't complain about the food, every single food I had in Israel was super delicious. By the way, just in case you wouldn't know (I didn't): Israel is supposed to be the "mecca of veganism". Israel's people (the jews & muslims) do cook a lot of vegan dishes.

SAROMA MARKET was one of the few fancy places I discovered in the city. The indoor-foodcourt offered every kind of food, from morrocan pitas, to sushi, to italian pasta. I loved the colors and the touch of industrial-vintage-modern design of the market. Right outside of the foodcourt is an outdoor shopping area, it's a mix of parks, playground and fashion shops. SAROMA was a pretty area compared to the worn down houses of the Florentin neighborhood that I passed through every day. 

 

BEST RAMEN OUTSIDE OF JAPAN. I love ramen, I tried so many ramen soups, when traveling I love discovering new ramen places, it's all about ramen. All I can tell is that I had a WONDERFUL ramen at the ramen-shop right next to my hotel "Hiro Ramen Bar by Aharoni". Yisrael Aharoni is an israeli celebrity chef. There are two of Aharoni's ramen restaurants in Tel Aviv. Don't miss the opportunity to get some mouth-watering japanese dishes. I tried'em all, from salads, to gyozas, to japanese-oriented cocktails. I spent 5 nights in Tel-Aviv, which means I had 5 ramen in total at Aharoni's place! 

Nightlife.

What really surprised me, was the fact that everything is pretty expensive in Israel. Restaurants aren't cheap, booze ain't cheap at all, which means the israeli nightlife experience can have a heavy  toll on your wallet. I spent my holidays in the well-known hostel "Abraham Hostel" in Tel Aviv. Even at the hostel's bar you would easily pay 7-8 €/$ for a glass of wine, Gin&Tonic were about 10 €/$ for the cheap-brand-cocktail. 

Despite the expensive little-pleasures-of-life the city offers a great nightlife all over the week. I can't tell if it might have been because of Purim, but any day of the week, most of the bars we visited were totally packed. I will list you a few to check-out, some that are pretty popular in Tel Aviv:

  • KULI ALMA.

Kuli alma is a very arty cafe/club, colorful walls, stickers and posters all over the place. The crowd is pretty hip, and they still offer fair prices on drinks. The music varies from electronic to hiphop. Definitely a place to stop by for a drink while doing a pub crawl with friends across the city.

 

  • BUXA.

Buxa a small bar/club in a  basement, which got a special vibe. We had a hell of a night during Purim. The tiny size of the club makes it pretty easy to bump into people and start a chit-chat. It's right on Rothschild avenue.

 

  • RADIO EPGB

Radio is another basement bar. We were there for a hiphop night, great music & lovely outgoing people. I really loved the place. The dimmed lights in the club and people dancing all over the bar gave this place a really welcoming vibe. Loved it! 

 

  • JIMMY WHO

Many israelis told me that JIMMY WHO wouldn't be a cool place at all. I was visiting JIMMY WHO on a wednesday, it was my last night in Israel. I LOVED it. Around 22:00 (10pm) they had a funky live band playing pop & soul music. After the show the DJ played some dance music... the whole bar packed with people and too many pretty women. I was doing a pub crawl with the hostel, and was disappointed that we left too early for the next bar. The only negative part were the prices, we paid almost 20$/€ for 2 shots of Vodka. Definitely not the place where you wanna get wasted.

 

Summertime in Winter.

Even though I didn't enjoy the city that much. I would give it another try though and turn back during the winter season. The weather was lovely every single day, t-shirt weather in the afternoon, sweater temperatures in the evening. 

The food discoveries were definitely my highlight in Tel Aviv. Go for Falafels, Tahini, Shakshuka, ... you will never get tired of the mediterranean/arabic food culture. I loved "SABICH" pitas, it's a grilled pita bread filled with eggplant, tahini, hummus, 2 hardboiled eggs and a diversity of prickles. Yum! Their pastries, a fest! 

I stayed at the Abraham Hostel in Tel Aviv, and the one located in Jerusalem. Abraham-hostel offers their own tour-service called "Abraham Tours", where you can book pretty interesting and affordable day trips or city-activities. One of the cool features, was the shuttle from Tel Aviv's hostel to the Jerusalem hostel. No need to get your luggage to the next bus-stop or train station. 

I will post a more in-depth review about the hostel and my booked Abraham-tour in a couple of days.

Jerusalem was definitely on the winning side of my trip. Keep your eyes open for my next post about the capital of Israel. 

 

Osaka never disappoints

In May 2017 I visited Osaka for a third time, and it definitely wasn't the last time. After visiting Tokyo twice, and Osaka twice as well (prior the recent trip), it was obvious that I was rather the Osaka-kind-of-person. This time I wasn't walking around all day with a camera in my hand. I enjoyed my little moments in the city, observing people, having coffee, eating street-food, and meeting up with old and new friends at night.

My recent trip to Osaka wasn't meant to bring back home the best photos or videos, to convince my friends and blog followers how awesome the city is. People who have been following my posts on this blog or on Instagram, should know by now that I'm a big fan of Japan. 

After being around most corners of Osaka, there wasn't much left to discover, however I never felt bored while walking through the streets of Namba. Let's start with the coffee places.

This was the first time, where I was hunting for good and hip coffee places.

The best coffee bars I visited were located in Amerika-mura (american-village). As you can figure out by the name, the neighborhood is heavily influenced by the western world. It's packed with western clothing brands, american bars, but the hippest coffee spots as well. My favorite bar was "LiLo Coffee Roasters" because of it's interior design; the staff was very fluent in english, and they had too many coffee-accessories for sale. Right next to Lilo's place, was another awesome coffee bar called "Streamer Coffee Company". At first sight from the outside I thought it would be a skateshop pimped up with a coffee-corner. I gotta admit that Streamer actually had the best coffee I tried in Osaka. It's not as cozy as Lilo's corner, but it's definitely worth a try.

Arashiyama

What would a trip to Osaka be without witnessing the beauty of Arashiyama? Arashiyama is well known for its spectacular bamboo forest. The bamboo forest actually doesn't take that much time to visit, think about 15-25 minutes. It's always hard to get a descent photoshot of the path leading through the forest, because there are just way too many visitors, any time of the day. However Arashiyama is always on my list, when visiting the Kansei region. I just love the whole vibe of the village: mountains, rivers, cute little shops, food stalls, japanese people dressed up in kimonos.

For the first time, I decided to visit the monkey forest. You gotta walk up a very steep hill for about 25 minutes, til you reach the top of the monkey place. You'll get a beautiful view all over Arashiyama and Kyoto. You'll get the chance to feed the monkeys, who'll be eating out of your hands. The coolest thing was that the visitors will walk into a cabin, that feels more like a cage, and you'll be feeding the monkey from the inside through the fences of the cabin. So it doesn't feel like a zoo, where animals are captivated for the visitor's pleasure. The monkeys are jumping and climbing freely around the cabin. Those monkey hands felt like baby hands grabbing for food, it definitely was worth the way up to the mountain.

If you're looking for the "kawaii" (which means cute in japanese) side of Japan, you should stop by at the Katsuoji Temple. I heard stories about it many times, but never made it to the very north of Osaka, because it takes about 90 minutes to get there. You gotta use two different trains which will lead you to the Senri-Chuo station. Outside of Senri-Chuo station you will have to catch a 40 minute bus-ride that will drop you at the entrance of Katsuoji-Temple. However the last bus will leave the train station around 3pm or 4pm. As lucky as I usually am, I had to use a taxi (single fare was 35 euro / us$). I left the temple about 5pm, and bad luck stroke again. No buses after 5pm, no taxis around the temple. Me and a 14 year-old chinese boy walked down all the way to the city. The walk took us almost an hour. I couldn't speak chinese or japanese, and the chinese teenager couldn't communicate in english or japanese. But at the end we somehow managed to jump on a bus, that brought us back to a train station after almost 2 hours. 

After visiting a couple of japanese cities, you easily get fed up with temples. Katsuoji however was different, in a funny way. The whole place is packed with daruma dolls, which creates a unique atmosphere. 

The daruma dolls at Katsuo-ji Temple are called "Kachi-daruma" (winning daruma). The darumas are eye-less goodluck charms. People are supposed to draw an eye on the doll's face when they make a wish, and draw in the other when their wish comes true. When one's daruma-doll gets both eyes drawn in, it should be brought back to the temple. 

Last but not least, the Taiko Bridge of the "Sumiyoshi Taisha" shrine. Again, after having witnessed numerous temples in Japan, it gets harder with each trip to be impressed about wooden temples. I have just seen to many temples in Japan. However I haven't ever seen a round bridge like the Taiko Bridge in Osaka. The first one I have ever discovered was outside of Asia, at the Japanese Garden in San Francisco. That's why I decided to jump on a train towards the Sumiyoshi shrine. In my opinion, the shrine didn't blow me away. However the bridge sourrounded by trees and a pond was worth the shot.

 

Nightlife in Osaka.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, that one fact that I really enjoy about Osaka is its nightlife. I mean it's not always that easy, to get in touch with japanese people. Some of them are too busy for a conversation, some are too shy or insecure to communicate in english and some don't understand any english at all. Most of the japanese people, that I had the chance to get to know, were having a drink in a bar or they worked as bartenders. It's just the perfect place to get into a chitchat. In Osaka it's even possible to bump into the same person on the same trip, which hardly ever happen in any other big city.

I wouldn't brag about Namba for being the best place to go out, because there are just too many streets or bars left to discover. Some bars or clubs will always remain undiscovered for many tourists, because they aren't barely visible from the outside. I remember a club called "Bambi", where a french expat took me to. We took an elevator to the 7th floor, and as soon as the doors of the elevator opened, we stepped out right into a club. It's very common in Japan to get on top floors for having dinner or a drink. That's why locals know the best places to check out.

As far as my experience goes, I'd recommend these places while going out in Osaka. They're all reachable by foot and only a couple of minutes separated from each other.

Bar Zerro {Namba}

The Zerro Bar is a bar packed with locals, tourists, and expats. It's usually very busy. Most of the bar tenders are pretty fluent in english. Every time I went for a drink I met people from all over the world. It's not the coolest place, but if every other bar is empty, you'll definitely find some people at Zerro.

Cinque-Cento (500) {Namba}

Cinque-Cento means 500 in italian. That's where the bar got its name from, because every drink or meal on their menu costs 500 yen  (4 € $). The drinks are served in average size glasses, and they don't look as fancy as in a cocktail bar. But you can get a Moscow Mule or a Maitai for a very fair price. All of the bar tenders were very friendly and easy to talk to. While drinking and talking to them, they could tell you some fascinating facts about Japan. "500" easily became my favorite bar in Osaka on my last trip. And yes, you also get some finger- & fast-food for 500 yen.

 Mustang-Bar {Amerika-Mura}

On my recent trip I didn't make it to Mustang, because I couldn't leave "500" and because Mustang is located in Amerika-Mura, the neighbor-area of Namba. But on my two first trips I had a blast at Mustang. The main reason was most definitely because of the bar-owner Neil (or Neal), an expat from Israel. Neal is high probably the craziest dude in Osaka. He used to be very entertaining and made every customer laugh with this harsh jokes. "Mustang" is a very small bar, recognizable by its ceiling, which is covered by hundreds of hanging bras. Apparently drunk women started to undo their bras, and hang them on the ceiling. I guess it's just another prove how crazy it can get at Neil's bar. 

Kamasutra Karaoke Bar

The last episode of my nightly adventures took place at Richard's Karaoke Bar called "Kamasutra". Richard is an expat as well. And it was damn funny coincidence that I made it to Kamazutra. Six or seven years ago work colleagues told me about their crazy night at a karaoke bar where they were introduced to the bar owner called "Richard". After a drunken night at 500, some japanese people took me to a karaoke bar. It was my first time ever at a Karaoke bar. After ordering another round or trinks and starting a chit-chat with the man behind the bar, I figured out his name was "Richard". I took out my phone, to check out if the photo of my friends at "that" Richard's place was the same one where I was sitting. Richard burst out laughing, because he was still remembering the night where my colleagues were visiting him. "Those crazy guys from Luxembourg... that was a hell of a  night!". Sometimes the world just seems so small, when coincidences like this one happen. I went back to Kamasutra one more time before leaving Japan. I had a blast every night!

- GANPATI GUESTHOUSE - {Varanasi}

As you might have read in my blog-posts about my India trip, I sounded pretty fascinated about this little gem of a guesthouse. I tried 'em all during my journey in India, cheap hotels, one fancy hotel, a hostel and this guest house. Maybe it was the perfect match with the city, the calm laidback athmosphere at this guesthouse & the spiritual vibe all across Varanasi. All I can tell is that, Ganpati fulfilled my expectations, and that this guesthouse made me feel, like I initially expected it to be.

I remember when my friend José showed me his photos of Varanasi and a couple of images of this guesthouse. Both just matched perfectly together. When I was trying to book a room at the website "booking.com", I was told that the guesthouse was sold-out during my stay in the city.  But luckily a week later, I got to manage to book the last room available. 

GANPATI was the second "hotel" I checked-in at in India, and without any doubt it was the place where I instantly felt at home. I got a warm welcome by the guesthouse-staff and you could really feel, that the clerk at the front-desk, made some efforts to explain me how the boat-trips work, how to get to the roof-top restaurants, how much I should pay for the different services along the ganges river. I didn't feel like a living dollar-sign at this hotel. 

I read some unpleasant reviews about the guesthouse, so I really didn't know what to expect. Once I figured out that I would get room number 7, right in the middle of the courtyard, I felt really happy. There are lots rooms which are facing towards the river, however the ones in the center of the building, seem more peaceful and colorful. 

All room-doors were locked with a golden-shiva-lock. Everything was very charming about this guesthouse, the colors, the vintage locks, the scent of the rooms... The rooms weren't fancy at all, but you aren't asking for any kind of luxury when checking-in at a guesthouse. The rooms were very clean, the bathroom as well. The bathroom lacked some space, but it didn't bother me at all. 

I loved staying on my bed during the day, with the yellow room-door wide open. You could hear the calming noise of the water-fountain.

On the roof-top there was a restaurant, that was serving food til midnight. Their menu consisted of only vegetarian dishes. The dishes were very simple, but I couldn't complain. The waiters were extremely friendly, and the food was very cheap. During my 4 days in Varanasi, I only had food at their restaurant, because everything just seemed perfect. The food tasted fresh, and of course I didn't get sick of it.

 

There's a main-exit that leads straight down to the ghats, right to the river's edge. On the rooftop you can enjoy your breakfast or lunch with a beautiful view all over Varanasi. What can I say? There's nothing to complain about.

 

When I was checking out, I told the staff, that I took the room's hand printed laundry tote bag, because I wanted to keep it as a souvenir. I offered them to pay for it, but the lovely man at the desk told me I could keep it for free.

As soon as I left the guesthouse, I got one last "namaste" from the door-man. Everytime I left or entered the guesthouse, a "guard" opened the door, put his both hands together close to his chest and greeted me with a "namaste". I loved GANPATI GUESTHOUSE, it was one of the few lovely experiences I brought back home from India. 

Varanasi: Oldest city of India

Varanasi is supposed to be the oldest city of India. Not only the oldest, but also the holiest. Among the 5 cities I initially planned on visiting, Varanasi was the one I was really looking forward to discover. 

On the airplane to India, I started reading a book about the Sadhus of India. "Sadhus" are holy men, considered as renunciants who have chosen to live their life apart from society to focus on their own spiritual practices. Some sadhus used to be wealthy and successful people, but they chose a path in their life where they would cut all familial, societal and earthly attachments. This way they could achieve their purest and highest spiritual level. Sadhus don't lead a normal life like others, they choose to live poorly and only find richness in spirit and humanity. I was told by a local in Varanasi, that they use the ashes of cremated bodies to cover their skin, because the ashes of the deceased is the last remaining of a human body on earth just before it reaches heaven & god. 

I found the lifestyle of the Sadhus very fascinating. Sadly while discovering my first Sadhus in Varanasi, I was told that the holy men I'd meet along the ganges river, would be fake sadhus. Those were the beggars, who'd ask you for money if you'd take a photo of them. Which was actually true, some were even begging for a photo, because all they were looking for was getting a tip. Some of the boatmen considered those "fake sadhus" as lazy people, who were getting high all day, and they were making it through life just because of their fascinating look. I even noticed myself, that those sadhus were accepting money from the very poor people. The poor people were still convinced that the beggar sadhus, could bless them, for having a better life. That's how my interest in finishing the book about the Sadhus stopped! Nevertheless I was told, that there were real sadhus out there in Varanasi, but the real holy men, wouldn't hang out along the river. They would stay away from the crowds, and they would never dare to ask for a tip, if you would shoot any photos. The topic of the Sadhus still remains fascinating. 

Varanasi, wasn't only about the Sadhus. On my first day, upon my arrival at the beautiful guesthouse "Ganpati", I was told that there were 3 main ghats "burning ghat", "assi ghat", and guess the next one, "main ghat". The stairs that lead down to a river are called "ghat", which are usually very big stairs, big enough to do any kind of activity like meditation, yoga, washing clothes, ...

The burning ghat is a public holy place where only Hindus cremate their departed in a sacred ritual. People are allowed to watch the whole ceremony, but taking photos isn't allowed, out of respect for their family. The locals still allow tourists to take photos from a boat, considering that you won't notice an morbid or personal details on a photo shot from a further distance. There are 2 cremation spots along the ganges river. At the "burning ghat" only hindus are allowed to get cremated. The cremations take place 24 hours a day, and 7 days a week. There's no time off. At the entrance to the ghat, people can weigh the wood, which is required to cremate the body. The cremation takes about 3 hours for one single body. The family gives the dead body a last massage at home, with natural oils, to make the deceased "feel good" for one last time, before they reach heaven. At the burning ghat, they wash the body right in the ganges river. Following the cleaning, they put the wrapped up body on the cremation spot. The relatives cover the body with the woods, and spread pieces of sandalwood over the body to accelerate the ignition of the deceased. The family members aren't supposed to cry in front of the body, the mourning takes place at home. After the cremation-process, the remaining ashes are shed into the river. The relatives aren't supposed to keep the ashes, otherwise the soul of the burnt body, would find its way back home. Pregnant women, children, holy men aren't allowed to get cremated, they get all wrapped up, and the whole body is thrown into the river. So there's a chance that you could witness a dead body floating on the water. Right next to the burning ghat there were lost buildings, where people used to spend their last days or weeks. Older people would come to Varanasi, just to die in Varanasi. They believe if they get cremated in the holy city, that they will make it to heaven, and won't get reborn in another life. 

Burning Ghat

Another interesting fact was the "eternal flame of Shiva". Right next to the cremation ceremony you could notice a fire, which they used to ignite the bodies. That's the spot where one of Shiva's girlfriends set herself on fire. For more than a couple of hundreds years, people are responsible to keep that fire burning all day. All the dead bodies are lit up by the "eternal flame". It's not allowed to use any matches or lighters. The second cremation spot down the river, would allow non-hindu people to be cremated.

There were daily ceremonies, to praise the gods, at the main ghat (twice a day, at 06:30 in the morning and in the evening), and another early one at 06:00 in the morning at the assi ghat. The main ceremony at the main ghat, was interesting to watch for the first time. There were thousands of visitors every evening. I personally preferred the one in the early morning. Every morning I left my guest-house at 5:30, and walked towards the assi ghat. The walk took about 20-25 minutes. Sadly it wasn't a peaceful walk, because some boatmen were awake by then, and kept asking the early birds for boat rides. 

The ceremony at 06:00 am at the assi ghat, started with a fire ceremony, were they burnt cow dung, to worship god. While they were doing their thing, you could observe the most beautiful sunrise arise. It was such a serene moment. And with a little luck, if you would find a spot close enough to the ceremony, the boatmen didn't dare to bother you. After the fire ceremony, followed a concert with indian meditation music, and a free yoga session. It was interesting to see the older generation sitting down on the floor and participating at the yoga class, which mainly consisted of pranayamas (breathing exercices). I wish I had participated as well, but all the instructions were in hindi, so i didn't feel comfortable sitting down among the locals, and too many tourists around me. It was also fascinating, to see how yoga is "normal thing" for the indians. People were dressed up in their daily clothes. Some used a towel, others just a plastic bag. There weren't any yoga mats, no fancy yoga clothes, ... it didn't look like trendy thing, as we know it from the western world. Some tourist girls tried to be even more indian than the locals, and they tried really hard to be the most convincing yogi among the locals. It looked so pathetic. 

After the whole ceremony which lasted around 90 minutes, you could watch how the locals of Varanasi, made it the shore, to take a bath, wash their clothes. Another thing I hadn't seen before. Some of the locals were meditating towards the sunrise, others completed their yoga postures. Kids started running around. It felt very uncommon for me to see so much life in the streets at seven o'clock in the morning. Varanasi totally fulfilled my expectations, how I had imagined India. 

However I gotta admit, after 3 nights in Varanasi, the endless "GOD" topics and stories, got a little to much. The locals would mention Shiva, Parvati, Ganesha, in every second sentence, it was all about the holy river of ganges, shiva power (weed), shiva-city (Varanasi), holy cows, pujas (prayer ritual)... The indians would even drink the water of the ganges river, the dirtiest of the dirtiest rivers. 

The walks along the river and the different ghats never got boring. I totally appreciated the mix of street art, hand-painted letterings, and the very old architecture of the city. There wasn't much going on in the busy main streets of Varanasi. It just looked like any other indian city. The narrow alleys, that felt like a walk through a maze, were another charming part of the city. However the streets were most likely very dirty. Cow shit and urine all the way. Too many police officers on every corner, due to a recent threat by the pakistanis, who mentioned they would blow up the "golden temple" of Varanasi. That's why there were  too many heavily armed police men, as well the military, securing the streets. 

Even though the boatmen could get very annoying, the boat rides were the only quiet moment you would find along the river. I took about 3 boat rides during my stay in Varanasi. I got to know a lovely man, called "Diamond" (which is the translation of his hindi name). Even though, I was just another customer, Diamond seemed to be very legit, and I had the most interesting discussion with that man on his boat. The boatman explained me that there were too many boatmen on the river, more boats than tourists, which would make it pretty hard to earn any money. Diamond allowed me to switch places, and I had a chance to get a grip on the paddles. I gotta admit that it was a pretty hard job rowing for 30-60 minutes. Diamond was half my size, and he would keep on rowing for an hour. I could feel my shoulders getting tired after 5 minutes. Despite the amounts of physical power they had to put into the rowing, the boatmen only made 5 to 10 euros/dollars an hour. 

Diamond proudly showed me his shiva tattoo, which he got in Goa (south of India). It was the last time Diamond had ever traveled. Because I was curious about his life, and his stories, I promised Diamond one last boat ride before I'd leave Varanasi. The next day, I took a last ride on his boat. As a gift, Diamond offered me one of his shiva-beeds necklaces. That was a lovely gift! Since the old man told me, that he couldn't afford any new clothes, I gave him two of my shirts I was carrying in my backpack. Diamond gladly accepted the shirts and thanked me with his shining eyes. 

Varanasi was quite an experience. Now being back home for almost a week, and writing about the city on this post, I actually realize how unique the city was. While being in a city, we're so busy soaking up all the informations around us, the noises, the smells, the views, the people... and once we get back home, our mind gets the time to process all the informations we collected, especially when we start writing about it. That's what I like about my travel blog, it doesn't just keep me busy, sharing photos, videos, and stories with people all around the world, but it helps me processing the memories I collected on my trips, and bring them to "digital paper". 

 

 

Update (02.04.2017).

Like I mentioned above, it really does take a while til you realize what you've been through on your journey across the world. I wish I could thank the "yogi" in my video on the top of this page, for being such an inspirational person. While I was observing the early morning yoga session, this gentleman just caught my eyes, and I kept observing him for a while. It just seemed very authentic to my eyes, and I was just blown away to see how much devotion this man put in his daily practice. I guess that's why I also chose to take a couple of shots & film-footage of him. High probably I just looked like any other tourist, taking photos of the locals. I really didn't want to offend anyone, and sometimes I just wish, I could show them what the end-product looks like. Of course it's not a professional documentary and it never will, but it's going to be a souvenir for the rest of my life. My memories in motion, which I will be able to share with my family & friends, and other travelers across the world. 

Last friday during my first yoga class, following my trip to India, I was happy to witness that I hadn't lost any of my flexibility after a one-month-break. But the most beautiful part, was that everytime I closed my eyes during the asanas practice, Varanasi popped up in my mind. I had all these colors, the sunset, the children's choir chants, the morning yoga rituals, right in front of me. After the class I came to the conclusion that Varanasi had a bigger impact on myself, despite the numerous negative moments I went through on my India trip. 

Sometimes we just aren't aware of what we experienced on our holidays, til the right moment kicks in, in the near future. I'm so glad that I had the chance to visit Varanasi, and that I was able to absorb and capture the sounds, the colors, the scents of the city. 

India: Love & Hate.

India's been on my travel-list since I started with yoga practice half a year ago. To be honest, I never imagined visiting India someday, til a work-colleague amazed me with photos of his trip to India and Nepal. The city of Varanasi looked so surreal on his pictures. That's exactly how I got really curious about the huge country of India: the origins of Yoga & the holi city of Varanasi.

Now after I made it back home "safely", I really can't choose if I should start with my "love" or "hate" part of my journey abroad. This is going to be quite a long blog post, because there's so much to write about. I will get into more detailed stories with upcoming blog-posts about Varanasi and the "Ganpati Guesthouse" in Varanasi. For now, I'm going to summarize my good- and not so pleasant experiences.

It all started with my trip to Delhi, the capital of India. My expectations of the capital were pretty low, after I've read too many travel reviews about it, and most travelers were advising to just skip Delhi at all cost. Just for your information, ... Delhi isn't the worst.

I had a typical indian welcome as soon, as I left the airplane on indian soil. The E-Visa appliers were split up into different queues. I had to wait almost 50 minutes to make it to the counter, where my fingerprints were taken, a snapshot, and I was good to leave the airport. I went to the "official" taxi booth and asked for a cab. The ride from Delhi international airport to the city center takes about 40-60 minutes. I didn't bargain on my first cab-ride, and was kindly asked to pay 800 IR (10 euros/dollars). On the way to the hotel the driver told me in a veeeerry broken english, that he didn't know where my hotel was located. So he tried to call the lobby at the hotel, but no one was taking the call (it was already 2:00 am). After several attempts of contacting the hotel, I asked the taxi driver about his plan, and he replied "you choose different hotel!". Well man, I had it all booked in advance, and I wanted to get dropped in front of THAT hotel. So after a couple of seconds of total silence, I asked him for his GPS and I entered the address. So I'm pretty sure that the good man was an illiterate. The hotel was only 3 minutes away. After I got dropped, I had to notice that, the lobby was busy with 2 hotel employees but still no one dared to pick-up the phone. 

"Lodi Garden in Delhi"

I told the receptionist that I booked a room for 3 nights at their hotel "GRAND GODWIN". They seemed to be very welcoming at first and offered me a chai (tea) or a coffee, which I gently refused. They picked up my luggage, and told me to follow them to the building next-door. I could feel the taste of "rip-off" in the air. I told them that I certainly booked a hotel at the "GRAND GODWIN"  and not at the "GODWIN DELUXE". But they were insisting that I was wrong, and that my room would be ready inside the neighbor building. I was just too tired to argue about it... But I wanted to check the room first. The whole staff, were debating in indian and I could feel that there was something wrong. After they brought me up on the 2nd floor, showed me the room, I agreed to accept it. Of course I tipped the bellboy who carried my backpack. Pretty soon I wanted to get online, but noticed that the wifi password wasn't working. I took the room-key ... Damn! They didn't gave me room key, but a paper business-card. Of course being pretty naive, I still tried it, but obviously it wouldn't open my room. I went downstairs and asked them for a proper room-key, and was told "paper card works, but we can give you plastic card instead (broken english)". By the way, later for my check-out at the hotel "Godwin Deluxe", they tried to rip me off again. On the check-out bill, they added every single payable tax twice, and charged me for a airport pick-up which I never asked for. They charged me double the price, than the one which was set during my booking at the website booking(dot)com. 

I hadn't visited anything in Delhi yet, but still I had to manage several issues of incompetence of the indian world. 

Delhi.

I got up pretty early, because I couldn't wait anymore to discover India. I left the hotel around 8:00am, and walked towards the main road, which lead to a bridge. I bumped into a local, who recommended to take a rickshaw (tuc-tuc) because walking to the different tourist spots would be way to exausting. "Don't pay more than 20 IR (30 cents)", and of course the first tuc-tuc driver accepted to bring me to a tourist office for only 20 IR. I went to the first tourist office, just to get a free map of Delhi. As soon as I sat down, they were trying to sell me a bus-tour to other indian cities. I told them that I already pre-booked my trip, and that I just needed a map. I left their office as quickly as I could. On the next corner I bumped into another local, and we got into a little chit-chat. After walking a hundred meters, he told me "Hey, it's your first day in the city, I can bring you to my friend's office. If you have any questions about Delhi, they will help you."

I really don't know why I even followed the stranger. It was just another tourist trap. One office, 4 guys sitting on a couch, and 1 dude sitting behind the desk. They tried to rip me off for sure... but in the end I bought a city tour by taxi for 4 hours, for only 10 euros/dollars. It actually was a bargain, because I saw most sights within those 4 hours. A cab picked me up in front of the office. While I was waiting I got introduced to every single "clerk" who was sitting on the couch. Of course they all looked like the "world's most stupid criminals". I just could tell, that this wasn't a proper tourist office. 

"Humayun-Mausoleum in Delhi"

However I was glad that I met Prem, my taxi driver, through that office. Prem seemed to be a genuine guy, and like after half an hour, he told me that he would be working for that office, but recommended me not to trust those guys. They were just after the money, and of course with his broken english, he tried to explaine that they had no good "karma" :). 

After the 4 hours, I was supposed to get back to the office. Prem explained me that this was the condition of this sightseeing trip. I told Prem, that I was definitely not going back to their office, and if he wouldn't accept that, I would jump out of the car on the next crossing. Prem called the office, and explained them that I wasn't coming back. They asked for me on the phone. I told them that I wanted to get back at my hotel... but, almost like a threat, they forced me to come back with Prem. I told them to f*** o**, and hung up the call. Prem unterstood my decision and drove me to Connaught Place, a huge shopping lane, in the center of Delhi. I paid Prem another 1000 IR, because I wasn't sure if he would get this share of the "deal", since he didn't drop me at the tourist office. I was glad to be out the cab, and asked Prem for his phone number. He seemed to be a trustworthy driver, so I told him I'd be glad if he could drive me back to the airport for my trip to Varanasi. 

After that day, I tried to avoid any contact with locals, because I knew that a short introduction, or just any small-talk would lead me into trouble.

On my second day in Delhi, I just got ripped off by some tuc-tuc drivers. Nothing too bad though, instead of paying 2 euros/dollars, I had to pay 5. 

 Gurudwara Bangla Sahib - Sikh temple in Delhi

Gurudwara Bangla Sahib - Sikh temple in Delhi

I had a memorable experience on my second day though. Somehow I never accepted a rickshaw ride, if the divers were hunting for customers. I always picked the drivers I had a certain sympathy for. I opted for Jagdish, a punjabi tuc-tuc driver with a well groomed moustache, who was wearing a yellow turban (see the photo above). On my way back to the hotel, I asked him if he was a hindu or a muslim. He explained me that most religious people wearing that specific turban would be worshiping the religion of Sikhism (sikh). To be honest, I've never heard of the sikh relgion prior that tuc-tuc ride. Jagdish suggest, he could bring me to the biggest Sikh temple in Delhi. I gladly accepted the invitation. The visit was for free, and I was shown all of it. I had to wear a head-cover as well, as all the men did inside the temple. Drinking "holy water", tasting a sweet almond dough, and a private tour through the kitchen where they were preparing the free food for the poor people, were the more entertaining moments of this visit. I have to admit that it was a lovely temple, all white and golden. And all the "sikh" people seemed to be very welcoming, they didn't care to see me in short pants, all covered up with tattoos.  After the visit Jagdish insisted for a selfie in his rickshaw, and asked me forward the photo to his son's mobile phone, that would make him happy. Well ... that's what I did! :)

Varanasi.

Just before taking off for Varanasi, i had to suffer another major panic attack. The ATM at the airport didn't allow me to withdraw any cash, with the reason "CARD BLOCKED". Being stuck in India for 11 more days without any money wouldn't be fun. I tried calling my bank, but their hotline wasn't reachable because of the timezone difference. After my dad helped me out, the bank told him that they blocked my card, because their security service noticed money movements inside of India, and they decided to block my card. SO! Just prior your India trip, contact your bank, and tell them that you're traveling abroad, to avoid this sort of unpleasant surprises.

Varanasi struck me like a lightning. The oldest and holiest city of India was my indian destination with a "wow" effect. Once again I had a typical indian welcome. After my suicidal airport ride stopped at a big crossing (1 hour driving, for 800 IR - 10 euros/dollars), there was already a young local guy who opened the side-door, and helped me getting to the guesthouse. For once, I gotta admit, that I would have never found the guesthouse on my own. The streets were crazy busy with thousands of pedestrians and rickshaws. I followed the guide through very narrow lanes among the old colurful buildings, and after 10 minutes we finally reached my guest house, ... well after I had to tip the young man. 

The Ganpati Guesthouse was the loveliest place I stayed at in India. The staff was amazingly welcoming, and the whole place just felt very cosy. I was lucky to get a room without a balcony, but instead my room-door lead straight to a colorful courtyard. There was a noticeable scent of flowers, inside my  room and outside, around a mandala-shaped fountain. It was my first moment of pure happiness in India. I couldn't wait to get out and have a look at the ganges river. 

I left the guest house, and asked the first locals I met for the right direction to reach the river. And again, the chitchat started, they advise me to visit the "Burning Ghat". The burning ghat is a public holy place where only Hindus cremate their departed in a sacred ritual. People are allowed to watch the whole ceremony, but taking photos isn't allowed, out of respect for their family. My teenage-guide showed me the three main ghats along the river. It was about time to pay a tip, and to spend even more money at his uncle's shop, where I got ripped off. I paid more like the triple for a silk scarf... but yeah, you only live once. I remember how I couldn't stop repeating "this is unbelievable. I saw all those photos of Varanasi, and now i'm standing right in the middle of it". I was so blown away by the very old temple-shaped buildings, all worn off. Many walls were covered with hand-painted letterings and signs. The whole place just looked so photogenic. 

Sadly after my first hours in Varanasi, with disappointment I had to notice, that all the boatmen, the locals, the fake sadhus (wanna-be-saints), wouldn't stop asking for a boatride, for prayers, for a massage... You were invited to spend money on bracelets, on floating flower pots, on colored powder. Tourists just couldn't be on their own, and enjoy the scenic views for 10 minutes. Even in the very morning, when tourists were leaving their hotels at 5:30 am to walk towards the "Assi Ghat", for an early morning ceremony, the boatmen started following you, and kept asking for a boatride. The boatrides were pretty cheap, they charged you 4 euro/dollars for a 30-40 minute boat-ride.  But it was a real pain in the ass, explaining them that you weren't interested. 

It went on like this, for the 4 days I spent in Varanasi. I will write another more detailed blog post about Varanasi, so stay tuned for more informations. 

Agra.

I will keep my summary very short about Agra. It's not even worth mentioning. Well ... once again... I reached Agra, leaving from Delhi, in a very typical indian way. I booked a bus-ticket the evening just prior my departure to Agra. It was a crazy cheap ticket, and the tourist-office guy told me to show up at their office around 06:00 am. That's what I did. While I was trying to wake him up after I reached his place, he instantly stood up, and pretended like he hadn't even slept. He took out his mobile and made a phone-call.  When the bus-driver showed up 10 minutes later, he was kinda in a hurry, and told me to follow him. On the way to his bus he asked me in a pissed-off way "Why did you book your tickets 5 minutes ago?". I told him, that I did the booking the previous evening, and that I paid my bus-ticket in advance. "Really? Your tourist-guide contacted me 5 minutes ago, and you gotta be very lucky today, because there was only 1 seat left on the bus"!!

From 06:00 to 08:00 am, the bus was picking up people all across Delhi, fueled up the bus at a gas station, and finally took off after 8 o'clock. It took us 4 hours to reach Agra (my worst bus-ride ever). After the bus had dropped us at the "Old Fort" in Agra, I had to explain them, that I wasn't interested in a tour, and that I just needed a ride to Agra. I got my back-pack and took a rickshaw to get to my hotel "Grand Imperial Hotel". This one surely was my fanciest stay for one night. The hotel had a colonial architecture flair, and it was pretty posh for India. Sadly the neighborhood outside of the hotel, was a pile of dirt. Extreme poverty, and too much filth covering the streets of Agra.  After I checked in, and already had paid in advance, the receptionist brought me to my awesome room and started asking me "Excuse me sir. Due to the heavy rain yesterday, a couple of hotel rooms were flooded, and we can't host all the guests who booked a room at this hotel." I got pretty mad, because they put another colorful dot on my forehead upon my arrival, they garnished me with a flower-necklace, I got a free orange juice, I paid the room... and after all that, I was kindly asked if I would agree to spend my night at another 5-star-hotel, which wouldn't cost me a dime. I disagreed, because I was so looking forward to spend one night at their beautiful hotel. 

Agra... the Taj Mahal... that's it. That's all I did. There was absolutely nothing else to do, except for the Old Fort. The streets of Agra were extremly dirty, hundreds of tuctuc-drivers handing out their phone numbers. It wasn't a peaceful place, and I was happy to leave. 

Vrindavan.

In Agra, I left in the early morning to get to the train station. I went to their ticket office, and got a train ticket to Mathura, the city just next to Vrindavan. The train ticket was 80 IR, not even 1 euro/dollar. The train station was quite an adventure. I felt completely lost, and had to asked several indians which train would leave towards Mathura. Once I stepped inside the train, I could notice the scent of poo and urine. A passenger invited me to sit right next to him. Jimmy, a university student, was one of the few indians  I met, who wasn't after my money. The friendly young man, had to spend 28 hours on that train, to get back home. Honestly, I was glad, I could get out of it, after 2 hours. 

Outside of the train stations, the tuc-tuc drivers were flying around me like vultures. I was asked by ten men, if I needed a ride. I gently denied and picked out a driver who seemed cool. The one I chose wasn't cool though. He couldn't speak english, and didn't know the location of my hotel. On the way to Vrindavan, I gave him my phone so he could contact the hotel for precise directions. 

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Vrindavan was just crazy. It was supposed to be the most traditional, but also the craziest, city for the "Holi Fest" in India. I gotta admit, it was just too much for my taste. On my way to the hotel, I got covered with too many colors. My black backpack was all messed up, my new shirt was all covered up with colorful sand/dust.  It went on like this for the next 2 days. Myself, I barely could stay outside of the hotel for 2-3 hours. Every local felt so lucky to color my face, kids were amazed to pour endless buckets of colored water over me. They used big water guns as well, with artifical colors. Those colors wouldn't even vanish after 4 showers. After my first 3 hours among the crowds, my hotel room looked like a mess. I was glad that the room service didn't clean up my room on the next morning, because on the 13th of march, the official holi-day, got just insane. The Hindus were rushing towards the several temples in the cities, throwing all kinds of colors in the air, pushing women, and kids aside. It was a real battle making it inside the temple. I got heavily pushed back by a police officer, because I wasn't barefoot, so I decided not to follow the crowd inside the holy building. Every body aperture was filled up with colors, I had to throw away my clothes, it took an hour to clean my camera, and my go-pro. This was a next-level holi experience. The locals really didn't care, they smashed the colored powder right into the your eyes. I'd definitely recommend wearing goggles!

The hotel I stayed at was total crap. They had no mini-bar, and no shop, where I could buy water or food. Outside of the hotel weren't any shops or restaurants. It almost felt like a survival training, getting plastic bottles of clean water, and killing my hunger with street food. After my lucky catch with the street-food samosas, I suffered a severe diarrhea for the next 3 days. I couldn't wait to leave Vrindavan again.

Because of my bad experience in Agra, and Vrindavan, I decided to not move on towards Jaipur, the last indian city I was supposed to visit on my trip. But instead I turned back to Delhi, and booked a room for my last 4 nights at a hostel. I was looking forward to some chit-chat with travelers. I really haven't had a real discussion with people during those first 9 nights in India. I really missed the contact with people around me. So I thought that a hostel-stay would feel great. 

 

HA LONG BAY - 2 days 1 night

After having taken place in a shuttle-bus, that brings you from the center of Hanoi to Halong-Bay, you will be explained the different schedules of the guests who booked "2 days 1 night" or "3 days 2 nights". 

Prior my departure to Vietnam, I opted for the package "2 days 1 night", which means you will spend 1 night on a cruiser boat, and the crew will do their best to keep you entertained for the the 2 half days on the boat, the "Halong Silversea Cruise".

The  journey starts right in the center of the old town of Hanoi. Most companies offer a free shuttle from any hotel in the center of Hanoi, to the docks where you get on the boat. The ride usually takes about 3 to 4 hours. 

After 90 minutes, all the shuttles have a break at the same tourist-trap, where you can buy local products, food, snacks, drinks for the rest of your trip, and of course there are a couple of toilets, which looked pretty clean for vietnmese restrooms.

As soon as you leave the bus, the Ha Long Bay experience starts. We jumped on a smaller boat, had to put on swimming-vests, and 45seconds later, we docked on the main cruiser. Totally worth it, to put on the safety vests.

On the boat, we got introduced to the boat-crew. The manager, main contact during the cruise, was the only person who was fluent in english. But it really didn't bother, most of the crew would understand all the basic words in english. After a short introduction it was time for the check-in, where all the guests got their room keys. I never expected such a nice room on a boat! Beautifully furnitured bedroom, with an even nicer looking bathroom. 

We barely had time for a shower, and lunch was already served. 4 to 5 differents meals were served, and all of them were crazy delicious. I really never expected that sort of quality food on a cruising ship. Can't complain about the lunch part of the first day. But after having had breakfast, a coffee break at the rest-area, most of the guests weren't really hungry around 1 pm. 

No time for boredom! From lunch, into the bathing suits, into the kayak. The kayaking part was my favorite part of the whole Ha Long Bay experience. I never kayaked before. So having the chance to get introduced to kayaking in the middle of nowhere, among the huge rocks, the blue-greenish water, that was absolutely surreal. And I had the chance to have met a great lady on the boat, who was my partner. So I shared the kayak together with Kieu. 

After 45 minutes of kayaking, some people could swim around the boat, or go on the rooftop, to enjoy the views and a couple of cocktails. 

One hour later, we visited a "pearl farm". Apparently, according to the guide, there are only two pearl farms in all of Vietnam, and the one we visited, was a colaboration amongs the viets and the japanese. Of course, after the tour on the pearl farm, you get invited to buy pearl earrings, collars, bracelets. But for a really affordable price, so that I felt obliged to buy earrings for my mom.

After the farm, it was time for dinner. I gotta admit, there was barely no time left to enjoy your
air-conditioned room on the boat, or enjoy the roof top for a couple more hours. The dinner was by far not as classy as lunch. It was all kind of different vietnamese dishes, that you had to share with the table. During and after dinner, the manager, was trying to get the guests into the mood for karaoke. Nobody was drunk on the boat, because they didn't gave us the time to enjoy a couple of glasses. So it was disappointing, that there wasn't any partying on the cruise.

The three girls on our table, and I, we spent some time on the roof top, where it was so dark, that you hardly couldn't recognize the rocks around the boat. After an hour of chatting, we all went to bed.

The next morning, we all had breakfast, went to visit a cave, and after the cave, some guests were brought to a different cruiser, because they opted for the "3 days 2 nights" package. Later my kayak partner, Kieu from Austin, told me that she spent her 2nd day on a little island, where they could play beach-ball, do kayaking, or go swimming. The cabins with their bedrooms, weren't air conditioned during these very hot weeks, and of course didn't look as fancy as the rooms on our boat.

So if you're asking me, which package would be the best to book. I really can't tell. I would have loved to spend more time on the boat, chilling or kayaking. But if you gotta pay double the price for another night, for sitting in the sand, and sleeping in wooden cabins with no A.C., i'm really not sure if it's worth the money. My package "2d1n" cost 150 € (170 us$). 

I gotta admit that the river is pretty dirty, there's a massive load of dirt floating around the rocks and the different boats. I'm glad I did the tour, but I wouldn't do it again.

Maybe someday as a couple I would turn back to Ha Long Bay. In my opinion it just got that touristic vibe, with a lot of entertainment around you, but I guess that's sadly the only way to discover the bay area, on the easiest way.

 

 

 

 

Sapa - When it rains ...

When I arrived in Sapa, after having spent the whole night on a sleeper train, I had to take out my mobile phone. I was shocked and disappointed, and couldn't get my phone out fast enough. I opened the google website and entered „What to do in Sapa during rainfall?“.

 

 

What to do in Sapa when it rains ? 

I took an 8-hour-train-ride from Hanoi to the Lao Cai train station, which is the station where you get out, and hop on a mini-bus for a ride to Sapa. I had beautiful weather in Hanoi, it felt so much like summer in may. On my busride to Sapa, I could barely recognize the rice fields in the valleys, because there was so much fog.

I really didn't know what to think about at that point. I was so looking forward to take amazing photos of the scenic nature, the hmong tribes, the greenish rice fields. Suddenly I asked myself how i'd spend my next 2-3 days at the hotel!

So ... what to do in Sapa, when it rains ?

Well, if you traveled all the way to Sapa, don't be disappointed about the weather situation ! Believe me! I had one of my most memorable traveling moments in Sapa, despite the heavy rainfall and the fog.

Some people I talked to in Sapa on my first day, told me that the weather can change within minutes, within hours, which I first didn't really believe. But I witnessed it myself, the very first moment, when I was about to take my first photoshot. I saw a very pretty ricefield scene, surrounded by a mysterious mist. The time it took, to open my bag, take out my camera, put the right lens on it, the ricefield had vanished among the fog. I couldn't see it anymore! It was a matter of seconds and minutes.

I can't say it often enough, don't get disappointed or scared by the weather! It can change so rapidly. As you can witness, I was able to take some lovely shots, despite the horrible weather I got in Sapa.

Hiking in Sapa

You have endless hiking possibilities, if you're only staying a couple of days in the city. I spent 2 nights in Sapa. Sapa at first sight seems really touristic. It's packed with restaurants (very touristic ones, there are a couple of italian restaurants downtown), hiking shops which sell tons of North Face bargains, hotels, and a couple of bars. On the streets you'll mostly bump into tourists, or the hmong tourist hunters, who are trying so hard to sell you a hiking-tour or handmade objects.

On my first day in Sapa I visited the „Catcat Village“. It only takes about 20 minutes walking to reach the entrance of the village, where you have to buy a ticket (50.000 dongs). It's all downhill to reach the village. As soon as you get out of the main roads of Sapa, you already can have a glance at the first rice field valleys. „Catcat Village“ is very easy to reach, you could even wear flipflops to do the whole walking tour. If the ticket-officer hands you out a map of the village, take it, and follow its directions. I really missed the prettiest corners of Catcat on my first day, so I went back on my last day, after I saw some beautiful shots of Catcat on google. „Catcat Village“ is considered as being very touristic, and not really worth visiting. I can't agree with that. It might not be the dreamroute for a born hiker, but it's definitely a beautiful place to start you first exploring in Sapa, after a long train ride. Because I didn't follow the local-map on my first day it took me around two to three hours to get back to the hotel. It would only take 90 minutes to 2 hours to do the whole tour.

On my second day, I got out pretty early of the hotel, around 08:30 or 09:00 in the morning, and started a longer hike. I walked from Sapa, towards the Lao chai village (not Lao Cai!), and headed towards Ta Van village, because I wanted to take a photo of the hanging rope bridge, also know as the cloud bridge. The one-way hike is about 7-9 kilometers long, and isn't that tiring, because it goes downhill for most parts of the hike. Now guess what! Walking back to Sapa, will be more exhausting, all the way up to the mountain! My trip started with rainfall, as soon as I left the hotel, lots of fog as well, and then it got better and better til 13:00h (1:00pm). After lunch time, I had to take of my jacket, because the sun came out, it got really hot. Two hours later it started raining again. By the way, don't forget the cash, you also need to buy an entrance ticket before making it to the first village. 

On my way back home, to the hotel, around 2 or 3pm I noticed that most of the tourists who arrived by a mini-bus, to walk through the villages, were the unlucky ones. Sleeping all morning, and taking the easy way to visit the villages, won't give you the weather conditions you deserve ;). So I was glad that I walked all morning, and got my moments of luck with the weather conditions. It allowed me to take some descent photoshots, and meet a lot of hmong people on the streets, especially the adorable hmong kids.

What really touched me on this trip to Sapa, was the mix of nature's beauty and the lifestyle of the hmong tribes. Those poor people living in cabins, houses without windows. Wearing multiple colorful layers to protect themself from the rainy weather and protecting their skin from the sunrays. While walking through the several villages, I realized that the locals don't have any material possessions, except for their lands, animals, and their four-walls with a roof. Still those villagers looked happier, than a lot of people in my country, or maybe even happier than myself. This day, hiking from Sapa to Ta Van, belongs to one of the most memorables moments of all my travels. I felt instants of pure happiness.

After I returned at the hotel, I was checking out tripadvisor, what else I could do on my last day in Sapa. I read about the highest peak in Indochina, called Fansipan Mountain. The route to the peak of the mountain started right outside of my hotel. However it takes about 6 to 7 hours, only uphill, to reach the top of Fansipan. One of the main reasons I didn't do the hike, was that I was only wearing running shoes and summer clothes. Another issue was the fog. Wouldn't it be disappointing to reach the peak of Fansipan, and all i would/could see, was the fog; no valleys, no mountains, only fog. Because of the heavy rainfall, lots of roads were slippery wet and very muddy. So I decided to do some shopping instead, visit the Sapa Lake in the city center, and go back to „Catcat Village“ to check out the places that I missed on my first day. Once again... there was so much fog on my last day, that I couldn't see the village from the top of the hill. I walked down to the village, through the fog, and on the lowest point of the village, the fog had vanished, which allowed me to take out my camera.

Since the beginning of the year 2016, you can catch a cable car to reach the Fansipan peak. Apparently the two-way ticket costs around 40 US$.

Dry season takes place during the summer months in Sapa. I really can't tell if it would be better to climb the Fansipan Mountain during the warmest months or in spring during rainfall. However you could enjoy the ricefields and its green colors. I'm pretty sure that someday I will turn back to Sapa, and do more hiking, as a couple.

Useful informations

  • The mini-bus or shuttle ride from Lao Cai station to Sapa costs 65.000 100.000 (2-5 euro or US$). The ride takes between 40-50 minutes. I was told by the hotel manager that a taxi would cost around 500.000 dongs (20-24$). You can't miss the shuttles, they're right in front of you, once you get out of the Lao Cai station.
     
  • Because of the rain in Sapa, ask your hotel manager if they could dry your clothes or shoes. Most of the hotels only have a/c in their rooms. So it's kind of impossible to dry your clothes within 24 hours, if you don't have a balcony, and if the sun isn't out. I had to use a hair-dryer, which wasn't the easiest way to dry your clothes.
     
  • During my 2 first days in Hanoi, I booked my train ticket to Sapa, through the hotel manager. I paid 1.500.000 dongs (60 euro, 65-69 US$) for a two-way ticket. Each train-cabin on the sleeper train, has 4 beds, 2 lower beds, and the 2 upper beds. The lower beds are a little bit more expensive, but it's definitely worth booking these! There's no ladder to get on the upper bed, only a foot rest. I still can't imagine how older people would get on top. On the lower ones, you get an electric outlet to charge your phone, a reading lamp, and a shared table. On my two train rides, I only shared the cabin with one person. There was no small-talk at all. People get in, fall asleep instantly, and get out of the train again. The train rides takes about 8 hours, and it's a very confortable ride! It feels safe, and isn't too noisy. Bring a jacket, the a/c can get pretty cold. 

 

 

 

HANOI - Capital of Vietnam.

The few things I learned within the first couple of hours in Hanoi, were that the center of the capital of Vietnam literally is a jungle of traffic, especially motor bikes and scooters. And so much more blooms out of that issue. Crossing the street, seems at first sight impossible or suicidal, because absolutely no one stops his vehicule to let you cross the street.

 

Walking on the side walk ? The scooter-drivers park their bikes on the sidewalk, so there's barely, or absolutely, no space for pedestrians. During my first hours in Hanoi, i checked out the neighbourhood by walking on the street lane with the locals, and paying so much attention to avoid getting hit by a vehicle.

As my plane landed in the early morning at Hanoi's international airport, most of the passangers had to kill time, before checking-in. Luckily the hotel managers, figured out that a lot of planes hit Vietnam on early hours, so most of the hotels I stayed at, allowed early check-ins, around 10 a.m. or 11 a.m.

Nevertheless, me and other passengers, were walking around the most popular and central lake called „Hoan Kiem“. It attracts a lot of locals in the early morning, who are down for yoga, dancing classes or just jogging around Hoan Kiem.

At the lake, I quickly got in touch with different vietnamese people, in a good and a bad way. I will come back to that later. I was told a couple of facts about the city, obviously about its traffic, and why there were so many motor bikes all across of Vietnam. There are around 90 millions of people living in Vietnam. Most of them can't afford cars and opt for a scooter instead. There are lots of narrow alleys in Hanoi, which aren't accessible by car, therefor the scooter wins again. And of course the gas. Scooters consume less gas, and is budget-wise more attractive for the vietnamese folks. Car-parking in Hanoi... forget about it. It's pretty obvious, that you ride a scooter when you're living in Hanoi.

I didn't feel like being in a country's capital, after I checked out the area nearby my hotel. Most of the touristic sights are within walking distances. As soon as you get out of the city's limits, it feels like being on the country side. However in Hanoi you will be introduced to the vietnamese culture without any doubt; food, clothes, pride, politics, Ho Chi Minh, work, history. You will turn back home wiser and with a total different approach towards Vietnam. I figured out, that I absolutely knew nothing about the country, prior my arrival. 

In the very center of Hanoi, nothing looks luxurious. The streets are packed with streetfood-stalls, the sidewalks are blocked by thousands of motorbikes, and a lot of locals are just waiting to hunt some tourists to offer them a service. I got really annoyed a couple of days, when just everybody seemed to get into small-talk with me and later it tourned out, that they were trying to get to the money. 

Once you get the vibe of the city, it feels so satisfying, being able to walk everywhere in the city. No need for public transportation. The locals on the scooters give you a ride for 1 to 3 us$ (30.000 – 60.000 viet. dongs). Most of them are good drivers, so no need to worry.

Actually I got asked by a traveler „Hey don't you think that the vietnamese are really good drivers“. At first, I totally disagreed, and then I realized that she was so right. Ok, they don't stop and let you cross the street. They honk ALL the time. Some ride their bikes without a helmet, some ride them bare-foot. But considering the fact that there are so many bikers on the street, thousands of them, surrounded by still a lot of cars and cabs, no one ever stops, and still there are barely no accidents. During my 2 weeks in Vietnam I witnessed only 1 single accident. Two bikes, 5 people, were involved in the crash. The police, and the military, witnessed the accident, but no one helped, and the involved drivers, just drove off, with bloody scratches on their faces. Crazy!

 

How to cross the street in Hanoi

Well enough said about the traffic, but I gotta add a couple of lines, about „how to“ cross the street, if it's your first time in Vietnam. Be respectful towards cars and taxis, let them go first. When crossing the street, always keep eye-contact with the closest biker or driver, and they'll do the same. They will try to pass around you, and you can tell that by having eye contact. Constantly walk, until you feel that it's wiser to stop in the middle of the street. Actually it's so easy, once you get used to it. Do as the locals, just walk!

 

The endless streetfood stalls

The first few days, I really didn't know what to think of the local street food. I have had vietnamese food before, but mostly at restaurants. The scent of cooking, the smell of seafood, invading the street corners, initially made me avoid those places. It's obvious that the locals aren't used to the hygiene standards of the western world. Maybe they don't have to, because their food seems to be a lot fresher than ours. You get the food straight from the plantations or from the locals farmers. The differents foods are chopped on the sidewalk, and cooked on the sidewalk. The locals enjoy their dishes on tiny, yes TINY, plastic stools. Nothing fancy at all. After a while you start enjoying those little tables that look like kiddie's toys.

Everything in Hanoi, seemed to be totally different, from what I've experienced on my previous asian tavels in Japan or Hong Kong. Everything is simpler, and no one really gives a shit what it looks or smells like. The locals just want to enjoy delicious food, and the exquisite coffee. Quickly I figured out that „pho“ soup isn't pronounced „fo“ but „fa“, and that pho soup is rather a breakfast dish, than lunch food. The vietnamese spring-rolls wrapped in rice-paper are healthier than the chinese spring rolls, and got a lot more of flavour. „Bun Cha“ and „Banh Mi“ are very popular among the locals. „Bun Cha“ are pork meat-balls served in a broth, with rice-noodels aside. The „Banh Mi“ is the local sandwich, stuffed with different kind of meats and pickled veggies. 4 vietnamese spring rolls cost around 1$, the banh-mi was around 1$ as well, and the dinner I had for two people, 2 dishes for each of us, plus a bottle of water, cost around 5$ (for the whole kiddie table). Food is cheap in Vietnam, for as long as you don't go to the fancy places.

Oh yes, their coffee is so good. I couldn't stop mentioning that to my friends, that the vietnamese have such great coffee. On my bus ride to Halong Bay I was told that 90% of Vietnam's coffee are mostly „robusta“ beans, and not the popular arabica coffee, that is sold all over Europe. Robusta coffee is know for being stronger, containing more caffeine, but lacking the wide-range flavours of arabica coffee. As for myself, I love the strong taste of their coffee, and I don't agree that it lacks of flavours. I brought back home so many bags of different vietnamese coffee, and I am already trying to figure out, how I can import coffee from Vietnam. Another fact, that was unknown to me, that Vietnam is the second biggest coffee producer in the world.

 

Must-sees in Hanoi

What are my recommendations of Hanoi? I wouldn't say that Hanoi is THE city for touristic attractions. Surely there are lots of different spots and corners to check out in the capital, however it didn't feel like a capital trip to me. My favorite place to hang out for sunset, was the Hoan Kiem lake, close to most hotels, and right in the heart of the city.

During my stay in Hanoi I walked twice to the Long Bien bridge, known for its eye-catching architecture. From the middle of the bridge you get a beautiful view over a river, plantations, green fields, and you get a peep of what the country side of vietnamese suburbs look like. Only motorbikes, bicycles and pedestriants are allowed on the side-lanes of the bridge. No cars or trucks! The main middle lane of the bridge is used for train traffic. Walking from the lake towards the Long Bien bridge, you'll witness the traffic chaos on the main roads, and you'll walk across small typical Hanoi alleys where you will bump into the locals.

Below the Long Bien bridge is a daily food market, that mainly attracts vietnamese people, and barely no tourists. It's a lovely place for taking photographs, such a colorful place.

From that food market, walk westbound, and you'll get onto the West Lake, which is the biggest lake in the capital of Vietnam. Is it a pretty lake? Not really ... South of the West Lake lies the Ba Đình Square, where Ho Chi Minh declared the independance of Vietnam. Just next to the HCM Mausoleum, is the Ho Chi Minh Museum and the One Pillar Pagoda.

You get plenties of museums in Hanoi: the War-Museum, Hoa Lo Prison Museum, Hanoi Police Museum, Women's Museum, B52 Victory Museum, Hanoi Citadel Gate. I'm really not attracted by museums, however when i'm really in a tourist-mood, I try to check out one or two in the city. I was positively surprised by the police museum; reading the history of Hanoi's police force, they rather reminded me of a militia fighting the different secret services of France and the United States.

On the westside of the city, you can visit the Huu Tiep lake (B52 lake), which is a small pond, in which a B25 bomber crashed, after being shot down by vietnamese soldiers. It's actually not that impressive either.

Not far away from the popular Old Quarter, is the only remaining city gate. All others were destroyed during the war times.

You can do all the main city attractions withins 2 full days. Tons of tourist offices offer you day trips outside of the city, by motorbike or shuttle. 

What I liked most about Hanoi, was its atmosphere. Like i already mentioned above, it's not about the tourist-attractions or historic buildings. To me it was more about the vibe, moving with the locals, going through the traffic, savouring a delicious cup of coffee, sitting on a plastic chair and enjoying my spring-rolls or pho soup. Hearing stories of the bad times and good times of the country, getting in touch with the vietnamese culture ... being part of the vietnamese daily life. The locals showed me how to brew coffee in the vietnamese way, and how to prepare the dips for my spring rolls. That's what I loved about the city, and what i brought back home with me. It was a wonderful experience!

 

How to get a Visa

Prior your departure for Vietnam, check if your citizenship requires a travel visa. A couple of european countries, don't need to apply for a visa. As for myself, I needed to fill out a couple of documents, before starting my journey. So I used the website „Vietnam-Evisa.org“. Before landing in Hanoi, I had to get a „letter of approval“ before applying for VOA (Visa On Arrival).

Through the mentioned website, you'll get a letter of approval, through e-mail. It costs 19 US$, and it took about 2 to 3 days to get the email. The online company will send you a handwritten letter, with your name on it (including the names of other travelers). Print that letter out. At the airport, you'll have to hand out that letter of approval, 2 passport-photographs, and 25 US$ per person.

On the Vietnam-Evisa.org website, you can choose full package option, which apparently gives you the priority, and you won't have to wait in line. Of course you gotta pay extra for that! My plane landed around 6:30 a.m. and I only had to wait for about 10 minutes on a bench, til the officer handed me out my travel visa, which allowed me to travel through Vietnam for a whole month. In my case, I'm glad I didn't pay for the express option. As soon as you're passport is ready, they'll show your photograph on a screen. So pay attention to that screen, the officers won't call out your name.  

 

Useful informations

  • At the airport most of the ATMs only allow you to withdraw 2.000.000 dongs (80 euro, about 70-80 US$). They'll refuse your credit card, if you're trying to get more cash out of the ATM.
  • The taxi-ride costs 350.000 – 400.000 dongs, and it will take about 40 minutes to get to the Old Quarter in Hanoi, all depending on the traffic. I advise you, like in any other country, to avoid the cab drivers, who get in touch with you inside the airport building. It's been the first time, for a long time, that I fell right into the tourist trap again, and followed an unofficial cab-driver. He told me it would only cost 15 US$ to get to Hanoi. A couple of minutes later, the Hanoi police showed up, and they locked his car. Already in trouble after being half an hour in Hanoi. On my last day, my hotel called a private driver to bring me back to the airport, and it only cost around 250.000, cheaper than a taxi. Trust the hotels, but don't trust the fake cab drivers at the airport. 
  • While in Vietnam, the company „WAY2GO“, offers you a vietnamese sim-card for your mobile phone, which allows you to use a 3G connection, for unlimited mobile internet, during 15 days, all across the country. The sim-card costs 350.000 dongs (15 euro, 12-14 US$). Definitely worth it! The connection works pretty well in most areas, so that you get fluent skype calls and facetime chats. No need to look for a free-wifi spot anymore!
  • If you plan on booking train tickets, for the night-sleeper train, do that through your hotel. You'll get better rates and you surely won't get any surprises. Most of the vietnamese people aren't that fluent in english, and therefor it's always better, if a local can help you out, to avoid any misunderstandings.
  • In most parts of Vietnam, you can pay in U.S. Dollars or Vietnamese Dongs. If you're asking for the price, the vietnamese will mostly tell you the price in US$.

Best Kōhī

The japanese expression for "Coffee" is Kōhī ( コーヒー). Coffee is almost becoming as popular as the green tea. I guess you'll find more coffee bars in and around Tokyo, than tea-shops. Which actually comes in handy for myself. 

Before traveling back to Japan, more precisely to Tokyo, I informed myself in advance, which coffee places i'd would check out on my daily walks through the city. 

There was the place called "Mighty Step's Coffee Stop".  I first found out about it, through a video on the video-platform Vimeo. Click on the following link, to watch the beautifully produced video "DRIP FOR U". I was really looking forward to visit this store in Tokyo. It took us around 40 minutes to get from our hotel front porch to the the mighty step's bar. On my first visit, the shop was closed. What a bummer! Two days later, I tried to convince my friend to get back, because I really wanted to bring back home a cup with the shop's branding on it. I still didn't own a coffee cup from Japan in my mug collection.

After we walked in, we were warmly welcomed by the two baristas working at the shop. I was astonished how beautiful the tiny store was set up. The owner had put so much love and soul into that coffee bar, that was located in the entrance of a barber shop. 

"Mighty Step's Coffee Stop" offers different type of coffees, depending on its origins, and different flavours of ice-cream. The whole  package is beautifully served on a wooden tray as you can witness on my photo above. 

I walked by a lot of different bars, but this one got my whole attention within a heartbeat. The coffee-bar is located in Nihonbashi and only walking distance away from the Mitsukoshi-Mae metro station. 

On our daytrip to Kamakura, which is only an hour-train-ride away from the busy city of Tokyo, I randomly discovered a coffee spot called "Farm for you". The organic place was divided into a restaurant, coffee roastery, and a bakery. We just grabbed a cup of coffee from the outside, to enjoy the summer weather from the porch of the shop.

Once again, I could witness with how much love the barista, surrounded by different chemexes, a coffee roaster, and all sort of accessories, made the coffee for the customers. A cup of coffee was about 500 yen, and it was worth every single copper coin. Of course the coffee tasted best, with a piece of carrot cake! What a lovely place! Delicious columbian coffee!


MIGHTY STEP'S COFFEE STOP

4-3-14 Nihonbashi-Honcho, Chuo-ku, Tokyo


FARM TO YOU

由比ガ浜2-4-43
KAMAKURA, 神奈川県 〒248-0014

TOKYO 東京都

Ohhh Japan I can't get enough of you. Yesterday I turned back home from my third trip to Japan. Finally I feel confident enough to write a new post about this gigantic city of Tokyo. This was the second time I had visited Tokyo within a year.

I can't tell that it is one of my favorite cities, but I appreciated Tokyo everytime, because it has so much to offer. Nevertheless it never comes easy! The capital of Japan, formerly known as Edo, is sooo H.UG.E. The public transportation system is almost flawless, the japanese train network is the best one i've ever experienced. However it can easily take up to 45 minutes, to reach your destination.

So in my case, I really wanted to have a pit-stop at different coffee-shops or jazz-bars, while wandering through the city. However sometimes it took me 40 minutes of a subway ride to get my special treat, and if you keep fullfilling your little wishes on a daily basis, it's gonna cost you a lot of time and energy.

On my first trip, I stayed 6 nights in Tokyo, and this time I stayed another 6 nights. I guess I've visited the most famous spots in the city, and still I haven't witnessed all the magic of that vivid metropolis.

I could list the most interesting parts of Tokyo on this post, but other bloggers, and travel-websites have already done this before me. Check google, and you will get endless lists of the "must-sees" of Tokyo.

I will write you, what made Tokyo special in my opinion.

After my first experiences in Tokyo, and after having read several books of the famous japanese writer Haruki Murakami, I got my own vision of the capital. I put my main focus on music, food, bars, coffee, and the "traditional" sights.

After New York City, comes Tokyo, which shows a lot of interest for Jazz, Soul, and Blues Music. There are endless jazz venues, soul bars, and the tiny cosy pubs which only host a handful of customers. Those places will give you the nostalgic feel of these old, but never fading, music genres. There are some famous places like "The Blue Note", "New York" (remember the bar from Lost in Translation?), "The Cotton Club". In almost every part of Tokyo you will find a cosy jazz bar, with dimmed lights, and the smell of whiskey and cigarettes crawling out underneath those wooden doors. In Shinjuku, at the popular nightlife district called "Golden Gai", you get the choice of a 100 to 200 bars. Even Quentin Tarantino loves to spend some time at the bar "La jetée" in Golden Gai, while he's in town. Most of them can only host 4 to 10 people. It's all about the intimate athmosphere, where strangers meet the locals. I was told that foreigners wouldn't be welcomed at "Golden Gai", but i can't agree with that. In almost every bar I've been to, I got in touch with japanese locals, and I felt very welcome. Ok, it might have been because of the booze! :) Besides the bars & clubs, you can spend hours at record stores. Vinyls still seem to be very popular in Japan. There are plenties of record stores! And last but not least, expect to find a good concert every evening. Check out the website "Songkick", enter the actual city, and you get a list of what's going on, concert wise, at night.

Food, Food, Food... everywhere. But where should we start? I really can't recommend you any restaurants. I never had a bad lunch in Japan. And there are millions of different food places in Tokyo. Ramen-Shops, udon & soba restaurants, izakayas, streetfood- stalls, food-courts... You get the idea! After breakfast, I was already thinking about what I could or should get for lunch. Japanese food is so delicious, and they have a lot of different dishes to check out. Feel free to check out my previous blog-post about the diversity in japanese cuisine: Itadakimasu. Before I forget, don't think that the sushi at the Tsukiji Fish Market is the best you're going to find in Tokyo. There are a couple of sushi shops at Tsukiji. For some restaurants you will need to wait in line for half an hour, until they let you squeeze yourself along the customers to get a seat. And all that early in the morning at 7:00am, when you're looking forward to get the freshest sushi for breakfast. We opted for a different one. Hey it's just sushi! And you're not getting a reservation at Jiro's restaurant! It's still a fish market. The sushi we got, was certainly fresh, it gets delivered directly from the market. But it was the only place, where the waiter was rather unpolite, and it was a lot more expensive than at different places in the center of Tokyo. During this trip I got my best sushi at a small local not-fancy place. So don't expect too much from Tsukiji Market. If you're traveling with kids, avoid the market as well, it doesn't take much to get hit by those tiny delivery trucks racing all over the place.

Green tea, matcha, we've all tasted it in Japan, and we all loved it. We tried matcha-motchis, matcha-kitkat, matcha-cake, matcha-baumkuchen.... Everything is matcha in Japan!  But don't forget about the coffee! There is no lack of coffee culture in Tokyo. Expect to find the same fancy places where hipsters hang out, the snobby neo-modern coffee corners, or the classic coffee bars, which have been in Tokyo for ages. There's a coffee-bar for everyone's taste! I checked out a couple of coffee spots in Tokyo, and will write a blog-post about it later.  

Ok, breakfast, coffee, lunch, tea or coffee, dinner. How are we supposed to put anything else between those free spots in our travel-schedule?

My three favorite spots to hang out in Tokyo, til today, would be Asakusa, Shinjuku and Shibuya. Asakusa is surrounded by the Senso-Ji temple, the Kaminarimon gate, lots of tourist stores which sell kimonos, wooden sandals, tenugui towels, and endless izakayas and restaurants. If you get over the tourists in that area, you can enjoy the "tradional" vibe in that area. It's one of the few places that reminded me of Kyoto or Osaka, two japanese cities, who have of lot more of japanese culture to offer. Especially at night it can be very charming. Call it a tourist trap, but I enjoyed Asakusa everytime I spent some time over there.

Shinjuku and Shibuya are almost alike. Shinjuku is on the adult side, and Shibuya attracts more of the younger crowds. Both parts offer the right mix of shops, restaurants, bars, and clubs. If i'd have to spend the nigth in Tokyo, I would go to one of either places. But again, there are too many bars and food places. Just walk through the streets, and hop in. Lots of famous places are located on a higher floors, or just in the basement of a bigger building.

Another concern would be the night trains, there are none! So if you plan on going out in Tokyo, you gotta jump on the last train home, around midnight or 00:30am, or you go through the night, and catch the first train in the morning around 05:30. Taxis get VERY expensive in Tokyo, we did it once, and learned from it. On weekends a lot of people stay out til the early morning. It's always safe to get home later, you won't be alone, and with a little luck, you'll have a last goodnight party on the train.

If you're traveling alone, and dont' feel confortable going out alone, i'd recommend you to join the official pubcrawl : Tokyo Pub Crawl. It costs 2500 - 3000 yen. You get a free welcome shot, free shots while hopping from bar to bar, and after 2 or 3 bars, you get free entrance at a club, and of course you get a special discount with every drink order. So it's worth the money. The night we joined the crawl, there were easily around 50 people at the party, and it was a lot of fun. The crawl made it really easy to get in touch with people. Most of them were travelers, some were expats living in Tokyo, or japanese people who wanted to improve their language skills.

Let's get back to Shinjuku! Another important part of Shinjuku is its beautiful and colorful park. It's the nicest I visited in Tokyo. You have to pay a tiny entrance fee of 200 or 300 yen. But it's super clean, no weirdos hanging around, no bums. Enjoy the park ! You will love it! It's a must-see while you're in Shinjuku.

I visited Tokyo in march this year, and last year it was rather the end of spring. So after I experienced the colder temperatures in Japan, I definitely recommend you to visit Japan in spring! It makes such a big difference. The flowers and trees will be blooming, more colors everywhere. Hardly any rain in spring or summer. Especially the parks will be busier and offer a nicer color-palette than during the colder months.

Usefull Informations:

  •  If you plan on entering Tokyo, or leaving for the airport by train, take the Skyliner-Express train! It costs around 2300 yen for a oneway-ticket, which is still cheaper than the regular JR LINE EXPRESS. But the Skyliner takes only 45 minutes, JR train around 80 minutes. When you get back to Narita Airport, you can catch the Skyliner-Express at the UENO station, to avoid the human traffic on bigger train stations. Look for the blue KEISEI-Line, and follow the signs. 
     
  • At the airport, or a the main train stations, you can rent a mobile wifi. This time I had the chance to rent a mobile device at our ryokan for 500 yen a day. It was so worth it! Reading street signs, and comparing them on a street map, can be so confusing, while "Google Maps" makes it way much easier to walk around the city. The mobile wifi device offers you a wifi spot, all over the city. Just put it on your bag or pocket, and you can get online anywhere, even on the subway. It saves you a lot of time and patience.
  • While having free wifi in your pocket, make your journey even more easier with the smartphone app "Tokyo Subway Navigation". Check out the place  you're aiming to visit on google-maps, and look for the nearest subway station. Enter the name of the station into the mobile application "Tokyo Subway Navigation", and it will tell you, which train line you need to take, how long it's gonna take, and it reveals you the exact price of the ride. You don't need to follow the colored subway line with your index finger anymore, to find out which is the fastest and easiest transfer line. The app does it all for you! 
 



Itadakimasu ! {ただきます}

Itadakimasu, is what japanese people say before having a meal.

Actually this article won't be a review, or a post about a random city. It will be a little tip, about what to eat in Japan. I remember when I got back from my first Japan trip, I noticed way too late, that I didn't focus enough on the local dishes.

The Japanese people put so much effort and passion in their cooking, even on the streetfoods that you get around every corner. At first sight, and as japan-newbie, you hardly don't see the soul behind their cooking. Most dishes are very simple to prepare, if you got the right ingredients, and that's maybe the main raison, that you can only achieve a high quality cooking through experience, and precise details on how to prepare the food.

On my second trip, I wanted to taste as much japanese food, and as many different dishes, as possible. There were moments, where I had 3 ramen soups a day. I went from cheap sushi to the top-notch chef's "Omakase". The term "Omakase" {お任せ} means that you get a sushi-menu based on a selection from the chef. The food you will be served, will have the chef's signature, which means you get the best sushi of the restaurant. And usually you will be able to watch the chef preparing the sushi, piece by piece. You will eat 1 sushi at a time.

While being in Japan, I also noticed that, it's hard for a traveler to discover japanese dishes. Great local dishes, actually don't look that fancy on the menu that they will hand you out, when having a seat at a restaurant. The names of the dishes will be in japanese, so you usually choose something that you know, or recognize on the photos.

But I was glad, that I made some friends in Japan, and they introduced me to the most famous and traditional food experiences you can discover in Japan. 

 

Ramen {ラーメン}

Ramen is a very popular noodle soup in Japan. There are millions of Ramen restaurants all across Japan, from fancy restaurants to street carts. Some are even open til late at night. After long partying nights, I always had a recovering ramen just before going to bed! People don’t mind lining up for hours to get in, as long as it’s good.  I can't imagine one single person who wouldn't like Ramen. There are many different kinds of soups, but there's three basic types of Ramen: Shyoyu (soy sauce), Miso, and Shio (salt).  Usually pork, chicken or seafood broth is used for the base of the soup, and that is then seasoned with soy sauce, miso, or salt. It's a fest! Try it, and love it! And another good point, it's a budget meal! The usual price you have to pay for a quality ramen is around 600 ¥ {4 euro, 5 US$).

 

Takoyaki {たこ焼き}

Takoyaki is a popular Japanese street food, made from grilled balls of seasoned batter with small pieces of octopus inside. On top of that you usually get some Katsuobushi, or Bonito flakes, spices and a twist of the local japanese mayonnaise. 
Originating from Osaka, Takoyaki is one of the most common foods you will see there, as well as at festivals and special events all over the Japan. In Osaka you will notice much more Takoyaki food shops than in Tokyo. In my opinion, it's not my first choice when it comes to the local dishes, however once in a while I will have some Takoyaki, just because all the Osakans or the japanese tourists are fighting to get a sample of those octopus balls. And again, another budget snack !

 

Okonomiyaki
{お好み焼き}

Okonomiyaki is a traditional Japanese food that is sometimes called "The Japanese Pancake". It's a savory dish that reminds you of an omelette and it's made with okonomiyaki flour, eggs, cabbage, pork, shrimp or other seafood, and topped with a variety of condiments. On top of that you get the sweet Okonomi sauce (which reminded me of our barbecue sauce), mayonnaise, dried seaweed and dried fish flakes. I know it doesn't sound THAT appetizing, but you can trust me, it's a just a food bomb with hundreds of different flavors. 
Florence, a girl I met in Hiroshima, introduced me to the Okonomiyaki, apparently you get the best one in Hiroshima. So she took me to a foggy, and rundown fastfood restaurant. It was hidden on the 3rd floor of an old building, impossible to find! The first thing I noticed was the huge cooking hotplate. The owner of the shop prepared the amazing Okonomiyaki in front of us, and we got it served on that same hotplate. No plates. All we got was a spatula to cut the pancake in even pieces, and some chopsticks. To me it first looked like another fast-food snack, but I was so wrong. Okonomiyaki was one of the eye-opening dishes I discovered in Japan. As an amateur cook, I love trying out japanese dishes at home. Okonomiyaki was one of the only dishes I totally failed at preparing. Don't get blinded by its simplicity!

 

Soba Noodles {そば }

Soba Noodles, might look like plain spaghettis without sauce. On my first trip I never ordered Soba at a restaurant, I just didn't see the point of ordering noodles without a sauce. And on my second trip, Maya took me out for lunch in Osaka. I ordered some Tempura, fried vegetables, and the Soba as a side dish. While waiting for our lunch, I noticed that all the people around me, were having Soba noodles as well. After reading an article about the Soba culture in Japan, I learned that Soba noodles, made out of buckwheat flour,  are healthier than the western spaghettis. They contain more essential amino acids, and antioxidants. Soba noodle can be served hot or cold. The cold ones are very refreshing on hot summer days. They're topped with scallions, wasabi, and a Tsuyu dipping sauce {made out of soy sauce, mirin, dashi}. The mixed flavours of the noodles, sauce and scallions, makes it all worth it. Soba is a traditional Tokyo dish from the Edo era. Budget again!

Kyoto & Osaka & Nara

In my last two years I visited 8 cities in Japan. If you plan on spending only a couple of days in Japan, I totally advise you to visit these 3 cities: Kyoto, Osaka, Nara. 

 

Osaka would be the best city for your hotel. It's located inbetween Nara and Kyoto. Both cities are reachable with a 40 minutes train ride. Osaka is the most laid back city of all three, and it offers the most entertaining nightlife. Beautiful nights are spent just next to the Dotonbori river, which is surrounded by a universe of neon-lights and the longest shopping gallery I know. Both sides of the river are packed with restaurants and bars, and several bridges that connect both parts of Dotonbori. Not to forget about the famous Glico-Man neon sign, which attracts too many people for some photos & selfies. Another famous area for nightlife or day-time shopping would be Ameri-mura, a fusion of an americanized japanese neighbourhood.

Osaka hasn't as many sights to offer as Kyoto or Nara, but still Osaka is a very charming city. Visiting the Osaka Castle, will easily take half of a day. The castle is surrounded by a huge beautiful park,  a very lively area. Familydays are spent in the park, group activities, mediation groups, or just sit back and enjoy the different fountains across the park.

There's another area I'd recommend after sunset in Osaka, the Tsutenkaku Tower. The neighbourhood of the Osaka tower, is prettiest at night, because of the street-lights, infinite lanterns, and the crazy neon signs. The alleys are packed with restaurants, bars, and souvenir shops. Some locals told me that it would be the run-down area of Osaka. Frankly I didn't have that impression. 

For cultural daytrips and unforgettable sceneries Kyoto is the right place! Kyoto is often refered to as the cultural heart of Japan. Not less than 2000 shinto and buddhist shrines & temples are spread all over the city. Ok, I gotta admit, after I've visited the 10th temples, I had enough.  

For my self the most memoral sights in Kyoto were the following places:

  • Fushimi Inari Shrine: The world famous path of orange torii gates, leading you to the top of mount Inari which is 233 meters above the sea level. 

 

  • Arashiyama Bamboo Groove: The bamboo forest of Ashiyama is one of the most beautiful forests I've ever experienced. It isn't the largest forest, it only takes you 15 minutes to follow the path across the bamboo forest. But it's all worth it. Expect lots of tourists on the path, and it isn't easy to get a decent photo of the bamboos without any visitors on it. Enjoy the village of Arashiyama, and the lovely alleys packed with shops, and delicious restaurants. Everytime i'm in the area, I plan on spending half a day at Arashiyama, such a divine place.
     
  • Kinkaku-ji Temple: It's not the biggest temple, but one of the few I highly recommend to visit. It's not the size of the temple, but rather the golden coating of the temple, surrounded by a beautiful natural environment. The mix of nature's green, and the temple's golden shine, is just the perfect spot for your photo camera.
  • Gion & Kiyomizu Temple: I'd recommend visiting the Gion neighbourhood, better known as the Geisha district, and from Gion walk towards the Kiyomizu temple. Very likely you will run into a couple of geishas or maikos [apprentices], or probably just japanese tourists dressed like one of them. Some shops offer a kimono-rental-service, which gives you the possibility to look like a geisha for a day. In Kyoto a geisha is also called a "Geiko", a geisha from the western part of Japan. The Kiyomizu is a big impressive buddhist temple on top of a hill, it's worth the visit. But as I mentioned before, after 10 different temples, I had enough.

 

Last, but not least! Nara.

Nara is a mix of Kyoto and Osaka. A very laid back and quiet city, which feels different than the city-life of the two previous mentioned cites. Lots of natures, temples, lakes, and too many deers. One of the main reasons I wanted to visit Nara, were the deers. I wanted to get a selfie with a deer so bad!

The parks of Nara are filled with over 100 deers. You're allowed to pet and feed them. The deers are so tame, that even little kids aren't scared to touch them. The funniest part would be the bowing [a sign of showing gratitude], if you start bowing in front of the deer, they will bow as well... well, mostly if they get a deer-cookie in exchange. You gotta witness Nara in real or just through images, words can't describe how beautiful that place is. I had the chance to visit Nara during the sakura season [cherry blossoms], it was an unforgettable daytrip. When I got back to the hotel, I noticed that I still had missed so many spots in the beautiful city. I need to get back one more time!

Why JAPAN ?

I will dedicate my first travel blog-post to the beautiful country of the rising sun called JAPAN.

I first visited Japan in May 2014, and after a very short 5-day-journey across the Kansei region, I instantly fell in love with that beautiful country.

 

5 days only? Isn't that too short?

Well, I felt a little bit insecure visiting a country, where it wouldn't be easy to communicate with the people around me. I wouldn't be able to talk to most people, and couldn't read their letters and signs. I was on a budget as well. The 5 nights in Japan [2 in Kyoto, and 3 in Osaka] and the flight cost me around 750 euro [830 US$], bargain!, wasn't it? 

I had the maximum of a japanese experience i could have expected on that short trip, from delicious japanese food, to the geishas at the Gion area in Kyoto, to a traveler meet-up with locals and gaijins [foreigners] all dressed up in traditional Kimonos. 

 photo by Frank Desiront

 

KANSEI AREA!

As soon as i left Japan, I knew i'd turn back very soon, for a long trip and of course visiting its capital Tokyo. I turned back in April 2015 for the sakura season [cherry blossoms], and started my trip in Tokyo. From Tokyo I moved on towards Kansei, and visited my friends in Osaka again. From Osaka you're pretty close to Kyoto, Nara, Kobe, and plenty of other smaller cities. It's just right in the middle of the country, and it only takes you 3 hours to reach Tokyo by Shinkansen [super-fast bullettrain], and 3 hours to reach Fukuoka on the west-side of the island. A 200 euro [230 US$] Japan-Rail Pass will give you access to infinite train-rides for a whole week. It is expensive for a one-week ticket. But as soon as you figure out that a one-way ticket from Tokyo to Osaka costs half the price [around 100 euro] of the JR Pass, you will notice that it's worth every cent. 

After having experienced the 2 most famous cities of Japan, Tokyo and Osaka. I'd definitely recommend the Kansei area for those who are planing their first adventure in Japan. Why? Well, it's just a totally different vibe than Tokyo. Less crowded, less busyer, more smiling people, and a lot more of cultural and traditional  sights. By the way Kyoto is considered the most cultural city of whole Japan. The city of Kyoto owns the most temples per city in Japan. 

If you plan on doing both cities on the same trip. I'd recommend visiting Tokyo on the first days of your journey. In case you'd start your trip in Kansei, you might get disappointed with Tokyo. Don't get me wrong! Tokyo is an a-m-a-z-i-n-g city! But it's just too busy, and it takes you forever to move around with public transportation.

All the clichees you've seen and heard about Japan, you will experience all of them in Osaka and Kyoto... except for the concrete jungle that Tokyo is best known for.

After my second trip to Japan, I'm already planning to turn back for a second time this year. But only visiting Tokyo for 5-6 days. It's such a huge city, that i've only discovered a tiny part of it on my first 5-days in Tokyo. 

I could go on, and write about Japan for a couple of hours, and fill pages with tons of words and photos. In the next weeks I will try to add single reviews to this blog, and more precise recommendations of the different areas I discovered in Japan.

 

Is it easy to get along without understanding a word ?

To be honest, japanese people [well most of them] are very bad in english! Once you start learning japanese, you will understand why they're so bad. It's just a total different grammar, the order of the subjects, verbs, objects are totally different, than most of the languages we are used to. They got 3 different alphabets [hiragana, katakana, and an endless huge symbol-alphabet called kanji]. Let's get to the point! It's very easy to move around Japan. Most menus have photos next to their common meals. A lot of restaurants have english menus, and all you need to do, is to point with your finger on what you want to eat. Your finger will be the most important tool in Japan.

The subway and railway stations have the english station-names on their rail-map. Most employees at the maininformation-desk speak english. The check-in staff at the hotels mostly communicate in broken-english, but they will understand anything you'll ask them.

Once you start going  out in japan around midnight, after a couple of drinks, lots of japanese people will overcome their shyness, and will try to communicate in english with you.

Everyone i've met in japan was super-friendly und very helpful. You will never feel lost in Japan... maybe just for a couple of minutes ;), til someone reaches out to help you.