Have You Fed The Fish?

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“Flowers… are a proud assertion that a ray of beauty outvalues all the utilities of the world.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Last day in Tokyo 😦 I headed out in the early morning to the Tsukiji fish market, following a recommendation from my lonely planet guide book. It was incredibly easy to find, all I needed to do was follow the locals with their large empty baskets, bikes and lorries! It is absolutely gargantuan, undoubtedly the largest fish market I’ve ever seen (and by quite a considerable amount). There were the most bizarre sea creatures for sale in the dingy light including sea cucumbers, urchins and many things that I couldn’t recognise. Men were carving up enormous tuna steaks with what looked like swords and live fish and shell fish scuttled about in every direction. Many stalls had sashimi for sale at quite a price: could only be fresher if the fish was actually eaten whilst alive. Not really my cup of tea!

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Striking buckets full of huge tuna heads, can’t quite get the full scale here.

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After stopping at a bakery, to munch on a rather more appealing steamed chocolate bun made into a bear face, we headed out to Shinjuku in an attempt to find a novelty goods store (mainly thinking of Karl Pilkington’s ‘crisp picker’). We tried out ‘Tokyu Hands’ which, similar to ‘the Loft’ which I tried out in Shibuya, is like a department store which starts to hint at the crazy novelties that we were after. Llama mascara, anyone?

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Looking for bedside table decorations? Jellyfish in a jar should hit the spot. This one's upside down and looking incredibly sorry for itself.

Looking for bedside table decorations? Jellyfish in a jar should hit the spot. This one’s upside down and looking incredibly sorry for itself.

Mount Fuji fancy dress...

Mount Fuji fancy dress…

Final stop of the trip was the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. It didn’t disappoint. Stacked full of the later blooming kind of blossom, it was simply breathtaking. The highlight has to be the traditional Japanese style part of the garden, with a couple of tea houses:

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Trimming the shaped trees

Trimming the shaped trees

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Man staring in disbelief at a cat...quite amusing.

Man staring in disbelief at a cat…quite amusing.

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After a fantastic last day I’m now sat wasting time in Beijing airport…home soon!

 

Last supper (actually breakfast) in Tokyo Haneda airport - finally found some edamame beans.

Last supper (actually breakfast) in Tokyo Haneda airport – finally found some edamame beans.

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Bring it on Down

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“I’m on a diet, so I had only five extra helpings.”

– Gagamaru, Sumo Champion 2010.

It seems bizarre to invent a sport that requires its competitors to become clinically obese to stand a chance against their opponents. One of the professionals in this stable was a whopping 192kg.  It was, however, fascinating to watch. Our guide was a lady called Noriko, who takes tourists to watch Sumos in their early morning practices in Ryogoku. There are fairly strict rules that you have to follow in order to watch the practice including complete silence and not moving off the cushion on the floor for the full three hours: Fair bit of pins and needles engendered, as you can imagine. It was incredible how elaborate and ritualistic the practices are, starting with training of the lowest ranking members of the ‘stable’ then working up to the professionals, in white Mawashi (pants).

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Cleaning up the sand ring in between sessions

Cleaning up the sand ring in between sessions

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Surprisingly flexible!

Surprisingly flexible!

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Being back in the Ryogoku area, where we stayed the first time we were in Tokyo, we couldn’t resist visiting our favourite bakery down the road. Was just as fresh and delicious as I remembered. Here’s a bean cake and raisin bun.IMG_7128

With only a couple of days left we then decided to whiz off to Asakusa, one of the top tourist areas of the city with the ‘sky tree’ tower attraction and Sensoki temple. It was however absolutely rammed full of people and not nearly as spectacular as the Kyoto temples, in my opinion.

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Here you can see the sky tower and some bizarre piece of architecture which sort of resembles a gold-plated dog turd...

Here you can see the sky tower and some bizarre piece of architecture which sort of resembles a gold-plated dog turd…

 To cap off our busy day we headed to the Roppongi district of the city, where we had a long awaited reservation at Sukiyabashi Jiro. If you haven’t heard of Jiro before, he is an 88 year old sushi master, who’s spent his life perfecting the art of sushi, now running a three Michelin star restaurant underground in Ginza. Unfortunately, after many failed attempts, it became apparent that booking reservations for Jiro Ono’s own restaurant is next to impossible unless you’re local. (Much Thanks to Sheena for all her help with the attempted booking!). We instead made a reservation for his son, Takashi’s two Michelin star branch of the restaurant in Roppongi. Here’s a link to an advert for the film made about Jiro’s life’s work: ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi‘.

We arrived a little early for our reservation time and were the only people in the restaurant. Takashi then proceeded to cut, shape, paint with soy sauce and present to us 19 courses of individual pieces of sushi. These ranged from ‘needle fish’ to sea urchin. My favourites were the medium fatty tuna and, much to my surprise, the giant clam which I was fully expecting to hate. It was bizarre how things which I would normally not even dream about eating were made perfectly palatable, such as roe and sea eel. With only two (and eventually another two) people joining us in the restaurant it felt like a private interview with Takashi who prepared the course, watched us eat it then prepared the next pieces. The sushi is served at the perfect temperature for each individual fish and you’re not supposed to add any soy or ginger. I made the heinous mistake of trying to add a little ginger to the octopus, being pretty squeamish about eating it, and Takashi actually said no and picked off the ginger himself. Overall, yes, It was incredibly good, and it did make me try things that I would otherwise never have tasted but in all honesty I really don’t think it’s worth the absolutely ridiculous price tag. On this occasion I was extraordinarily lucky enough to be treated to the meal, though, so obviously can’t complain! Would definitely NOT recommend this for a budget trip I’m afraid. Certainly a fascinating experience though. Only at the very end did Takashi break his rather stony, serious exterior and come out for a photo with us and to shake our hands.

A rather inconspicuous exterior in the middle of the otherwise highly ostentatious Roppongi hills shopping mall.

A rather inconspicuous exterior in the middle of the otherwise highly ostentatious Roppongi hills shopping mall.

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Sea Urchin

Sea Urchin

Whole shrimp

Whole shrimp

5 (6)

Salmon Roe

Salmon Roe

Medium fatty tuna

Medium fatty tuna

Song To A Seagull

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“The human tongue is like wasabi: it’s very powerful, and should be used sparingly.”

― John Green, Paper Towns

It is absolutely freezing here in Matsushima: Really arctic winds making you constantly wish that someone would invent some sort of nose warmer. We headed out to wander about the area, noticing the complete lack of tourists and, therefore, English. Menus yet again became some sort of guessing game. Last night I had the weirdest array of different types of seafood including some sort of fringed grey thing and a yellow mollusc, I presume, which looked (and tasted) disturbingly like an ear.

We took a trip around the bay in a boat, the highlight of which was the hilarious translation on the hand out we were given:

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It says “It becomes troubled of other customers, and never never put out the customer of a pet taking from the cage, please while embarking.” … Right. That’s clear then. No taking the pet from the cage.

Another amusing moment was over lunch where we eventually managed to order some tuna rolls (following much pointing and miming) then literally were brought to tears by the amount of wasabi jammed into the little pieces. Hot doesn’t seem quite the right word. It feels more like some sort of acid explosion right the way up through your head to your nose and eyes. I have actually acclimatised a little to the Japanese way of sushi: I couldn’t stand wasabi or ginger before, now I’m partial to a little wasabi and there’s never enough ginger. This was far too much however. I left feeling as if my sinuses had just had some sort of toxic probing.

Here's the inconspicuous culprit. Little did we know that little atomic bombs were hidden in each little gem.

Here’s the inconspicuous culprit. Little did we know that atomic bombs were hidden in each little gem.

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We later took the bright red bridges out onto a couple of the islands were elaborate caves and Buddhist shrines have been carved into the sandstone. We also popped into the Masamune museum, Masamune is widely recognised as Japan’s greatest swordsmith, reaching legendary status. I’d never actually heard of him before.

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Finally, the seagulls are worth a mention. There are the most ridiculously large number of them packed into such a small area. And they’re all incredibly vocal.

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Long Way Down

Lake Kawaguchi Mount Fuji
“Aspire to be like Mt. Fuji, with such a broad and solid foundation that the strongest earthquake cannot move you, and so tall that the greatest enterprises of common men seem insignificant from your lofty perspective. With your mind as high as Mt Fuji you can see all things clearly. And you can see all the forces that shape events; not just the things happening near to you.”
– Miyamoto Musashi (Japanese Martial Arts master, one of the world’s greatest swordsmen, 1584-1645)

I had my last dip in the Osaka Onsen yesterday morning before we headed out on a long and complicated train journey, with 6 stages, to Lake Kawaguchi in the shadow of the majestic, snow-capped Mount-fuji.

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Tried my second bento box en route – a bit of a mixed bucket as some compartments have delicious little rice dishes or Japanese sweets or omlette. Others had some less appealing surprises, for example a whole tiny little octopus…

Fuji-san, Japan’s national emblem, suddenly appeared as if out of nowhere out of the train windows, much larger than I’d anticipated. We’re staying in a traditional inn or ‘Ryokan’ next to Lake Kawaguchi. It is a fairly rural tourist-based town which, to my frustration, hasn’t been hit by the wave of blossom yet.

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Onsenji Ryokan

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Breakfast was served in our room by a lovely traditionally dressed Japanese woman. It was a spread of various, fish, rice miso soup, lots of bizarre things that I just couldn't place, these 'fish cake' omlette things and of course copious amounts of green tea.

Breakfast was served in our room by a lovely traditionally dressed Japanese woman. It was a spread of various fish, rice, miso soup, lots of bizarre things that I just couldn’t place, these ‘fish cake’ omlette things and of course copious amounts of green tea.

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We were very fortunate to arrive to a fantastically clear sky for the sunset. Today we haven’t had such luck. We decided to head out to Fuji-Q Highland, famous for it’s spectacular views of the mountain. Fuji-Q is home to some fairly jaw-dropping roller coasters: Fujiyama, once the tallest in the world – still in the top 10 tallest and longest roller coasters; Dodonpa – once the world’s fastest, now the 4th fastest but still will the highest acceleration at launch time – from 0-172Km/h in 1.8 seconds after starting (just incredible!); Eejanaika 4D with 14 inversions; and Takabisha, officially the steepest roller coaster in the world with a 121 degrees vertical freefall. I fairly fairly dizzy after all that, to say the least, but it was just mind-blowing!

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Came So Far For Beauty

Deer Mirayama

“I like this place and could willingly waste my time in it.”
― William Shakespeare

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Hiroshima is incredibly stunning at its peak of the cherry blossom season. I started the day off with a sakuri (cherry blossom) icecream before hopping on a ferry for a 50 minute journey to Miyajima on an Island called Itsukushima where you can find the iconic shrine first erected in the 6th Century. It’s been destroyed numerous times though so the current shrine dates back to the mid-16th Century.

Miyajima

It was designed to appear to be floating on the water near the sacred island were holy men could pay their homage to the gods. The island was therefore dotted with shrines and temples including a five tier high pagoda. As a tourist destination the shores were also well supplied with food stalls where I tried out a Japanese green rice cake kebab! Very odd texture but otherwise perfectly edible! Later on this was followed by my first matcha green tea ice cream. Delicious.

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The area around Miyajima and the island itself was just breathtaking. It’s covered in wild deer which have grown to be incredibly tame as they head towards the inhabited areas to eat the cherry blossoms in spring. The clouds of fluffy pink blossom had just reached their peak so had begun to shed their pink snow drops over the people picnicking beneath them. Towards dusk, notably in the Hiroshima peace park, the sparrows start to nestle in amongst the blossom knocking off petals to add to the beautiful scene.

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Our final trip of the day was to Hiroshima castle, surrounded by a moat and yet more intricate pink-dotted gardens.  On the way back we stopped for another sushi-go-round dinner which was yet again faultless.

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I’m still blown away by how kind and polite the people are here it’s truly incredible and makes such a difference.

 

Organised Chaos

“In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.” – Carl Jung Apologies in advance for the incredibly extensive post today – everything’s just so novel that limiting it to include just a couple of highlights … Continue reading

Gone in the Morning/ Tokyo Midnight

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“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.”

– Cesare Pavese

So I’m off again! The use of the student loan is now getting increasingly ridiculous  as I’ve actually started at UCL now…anyway, practicalities aside, I headed out from London Gatwick yesterday at around midday and after a couple of flights and brief stopover, a luxury I’m not really accustomed to, arrived in Tokyo, losing 8 hours in the process. The Air China flights were pretty interesting- first time I’ve encountered air hostesses who can’t speak any English. Ended up with some very bizarre food – classic example would be the ‘marinated egg’ I was treated to for breakfast: Imagine a dark brown coloured egg that’s incredibly chewy and you can’t really place what exactly it has been marinated in…maybe something sweet? If that’s not to your fancy then maybe the ‘pickled mustard tubers’ might hit the spot. Don’t even ask – I have no idea.

The elderly Japanese lady sitting next to me on the second of my flights immediately affirmed all that I’d heard about the Japanese being incredibly friendly. Without speaking a word of English she gave me half the brioche that she was eating then after I thanked her she gave me what I thought was a stringy cheese stick, only to find it was some form of processed meat on biting into it. Disgusting. But sweet of her all the same. The bowing/head bowing thing everyone does here is really charming, it’s nice to be able to communicate so much through a gesture without having to worry if I’m pronouncing the little Japanese that I know correctly. People were so keen to help, though, that it was almost comical. One lady noticed me looking at my map and swerved over to the other side of the road and jumped off her bike to help me. She didn’t even speak English – just very eager to help! When I then got lost following her hand drawn map another lady walked me half the way to my hotel – outstanding!

The jet lag resulted, rather inevitably, in me crashing pretty soon after navigating the metro to my hotel. First though I took a moment to explore the area. Found a very sweet little Japanese bakery and enjoyed the blossoms which just seem to be omnipresent. Can’t wait to get out to the parks tomorrow.

Japan Ryogoku Blossom

Ryogoku

Ryogoku, by the station

Blossom Ryogoku

Japanese Bakery Ryogoku

No English in the bakery so had to just pick something that looked vaguely vegetarian – luckily managed to get this delicious cheese loaf thing…

Ryogoku blossom

 

 

 

Outro

Lotus Flowers

“Summer ends, and Autumn comes, and he who would have it otherwise would have high tide always and a full moon every night.”
 – Hal Borland

The time has finally come for my summer to draw to a close. Bangkok has whizzed past in a blur of alcohol and cheap massages.

I’m not viewing my homecoming as the end, per say, more like a new start in a different place. To be perfectly honest I’d been looking forward to escaping the omnipotent smell of fish sauce.

Khao San Road - great spot for a big of haggling over typical backpacker goodies: baggy clothes, jewellery, pirated dvds etc etc

Khao San Road – great spot for a big of haggling over typical backpacker goodies: baggy clothes, jewellery, pirated dvds etc etc

Don't be alarmed - it's not me. Sandra, my mexican room mate, decided on a slightly clichéed visit to one of the multiple Bangkok tattoo parlours.

Don’t be alarmed – it’s not me. Sandra, my Mexican room mate, decided on a, slightly clichéd, visit to one of the multiple Bangkok tattoo parlours.

 

As has come to be a habit when visiting new cities, I took a trip to the National Art Gallery. It was in pretty bad condition; It appeared of going through some sort of construction work, with most of the building empty. However there was an inspiring little exhibition in an odd set-up outside of the main building. I was rather taken with a duo of intricate and lively collages by a man called Sittichoke Wichian entitled ‘Living Ways, Bonds and Happiness’. Here’s one of the two:
Bangkok National art gallery

Below is another piece which caught my eye as it reflected the craftsmanship that’s typical throughout South East Asia – silk weaving. It depicts a series of poses of a shrouded nun, through gaps in the indigo silk work.

Bangkok national art gallery

I’ve also tried to make the most of the fantastic street food in the last few days. My staple diet of curry, pad thai, Mango sticky rice and tofu stir fry extended into breakfast. Here’s my eight a.m tofu green curry!

I have to admit though, birds eye chillies in a green curry first thing in the morning are not so easy on the stomach.

I have to admit though, birds eye chillies in a green curry first thing in the morning are not so easy on the stomach.

I’m still not entirely won over by Bangkok, being a little put off by the overly aggressive approach of some of the vendors and the slight sketchy feeling you get from certain places at night time. However, I can’t deny that it’s a fun place to visit. It’s particularly great at the end of a trip as you can stock up on souvenir’s and $10 full body massages before heading back to reality. In my case, the return was a lavish three day journey, the highlight being the night spent on the stone floor of Mumbai airport.

Needless to say, it’s good to be home. It was a bit of a shock to the system to descend into the freezing grey ‘mizzle’ but as Steinbeck wisely puts it in his ‘Travels with Charley‘ “What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.” I’m heading out on a whole new adventure in a few short days as I move up to London to finally re-start university. This is by no means the end – more like a respite from excessing moving about the place  – with any luck there will be many more summers to come so WATCH THIS SPACE!

I really want to thank-you all for being such a huge support to me throughout this adventure – I really do appreciate it more than I can say. I’ll leave you with a quote from the brilliant Albert Camus as I attempt to descend once again into the charted waters of the bitter cold. Let’s hope the unpleasant days of the 2011 winter, the last one that I was around to experience, are behind me.

“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

~Albert Camus

Khao San Road by day

White Shadows

White Hibiscus

“I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”
― Robert Louis Stevenson, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes

My ability to sympathise with this attitude is currently limited. The actual act of travelling from one place to the next is the evil you have to suffer in order to arrive at your destinations. Well that’s how I’m feeling at this current moment in time, anyway: The last three days have been occupied entirely by such ‘movement’. In fact, I think it’s been the longest total amount of time I’ve ever spent in assorted methods of transport over such a short space of time.

The first two days were occupied entirely by 10+ hours a day on an aptly named slow-boat up the Mekong river from the fantastic Luang Prabang. A lack of A/C and comfortable seats was not entirely welcome. The conditions were exacerbated by the motor breaking down and a conversion to a rickety tuk-tuk. This was an experience not unlike sitting on a bucking bronco whilst simultaneously showering in the reverse setting of a hoover. The sweaty, wooden snail-boat suddenly seemed like five star luxury.  A brief night was spent in the unimposing border town of Xuang Hai, followed by a further day’s journey into Thailand in a, far preferable, minibus.

Yes, the views were pretty stunning, but there's a limit to how much you can appreciate them after 20 hours of the same scene.

Yes, the views were pretty stunning, but there’s a limit to how much you can appreciate them after 20 hours of the same scene.

Sunset from the back of a Laotian tuk-tuk.

Sunset from the back of a Laotian tuk-tuk.

Today’s journey was a substantial improvement as we were able to stop off at sights en route to our final destination of Chiang Mai.

The 'Golden Triangle'. From this point in Thailand you can see the border into Myanmar on the left of the river and into Laos on the right. Historically infamous for use in the opium trade.

The ‘Golden Triangle’. From this point in Thailand you can see the border into Myanmar on the left of the river and into Laos on the right. Historically infamous for use in the opium trade.

The Golden Buddha, shining out as a welcoming beacon to the two other immediately adjacent countries.

The Golden Buddha, shining out as a welcoming beacon to the two other immediately adjacent countries.

The second and most impressive of our slight detours was ‘Wat Rong Khun’ in Chiang Rai, more commonly known to foreigners as the ‘White Temple’. Designed by Chalermchai Kositpipat, the temple is unique in that it’s entirely (you guessed it) white, with mirrored glass mosaics over the structure emphasising this brilliance, which alludes to the purity of the Lord Buddha. It’s very contemporary, being built only in 1997. I’m surprised that it’s not received with more controversy due to the quite shocking nature of some of the sculpture: skulls and skeleton forms woven into the mesh of walls and an area, near the entrance, of arms reaching from the ground – perhaps representing tormented souls in purgatory.

Inside the temple is a wax-work monk that took me a good half hour to dismiss as not being a real person. There’s also a bizarre collection of modern day heroes and film characters painted onto the walls. Very strange indeed.

White temple Chiang Rai

White temple Chiang Rai

White temple Chiang Rai

White temple Chiang Rai

Surrounding the 'White temple' are, as usual, other smaller Wats and shrines. Here's a the rather beautiful base of a wishing well. Don't be fooled by the clarity, this is actually underwater.

Surrounding the ‘White temple’ are, as usual, other smaller Wats and shrines. Here’s a the rather beautiful base of a wishing well. Don’t be fooled by the clarity, this is actually underwater.

White temple Chang Rai

White temple Chang Rai

White temple Chang Rai

As ever, it’s impossible to recount the entirety of the past few days (my posts are already increasing in length by the day) So I’ll skip over the cashew nut factory and my miserable new head-cold and will leave Chiang Mai for next time.

Having said that, who knew that cashew nuts grew on trees underneath cashew ‘apples’?!

Cashew nuts

 

Below My Feet

Elephant Ride - Luang Prabang

“I think the thing to do is to enjoy the ride while you’re on it.”

 – Johnny Depp

Today has served to consolidate the idea previously budding in my mind: Laos is my favourite destination from my selection that I’ve passed through on this trip through South East Asia. The beauty of the countryside is simply outstanding and the people here, in my opinion and from my experiences, are incredibly accommodating and generous.

A few of us were up before the sun this morning. We headed into the beautiful UNESCO sight of Luang Prabang town to watch the ‘giving of the alms’. This daily procession consists of the saffron-clad Buddhist monks of the local monasteries walking in their groups around the town to collect food offerings from the town’s people: the only meal they will eat all day.  It was a charming and humbling experience. Particularly touching was noticing the monks reverse the process in giving some of the food they’d received to the elderly beggars.

Giving of the alms Luang Prabang

Giving of the alms Luang Prabang

The next excursion I had my doubts about: an elephant trek with the ‘Mahout Eco Camp’.  My expectation of poorly treated animals and masses of tourists, however, was completely turned on its head. The elephants seemed at the height of health and very well loved. They’re left to roam free through the jungle throughout the day – only being called into the camp in the early morning for the rides. I asked if I could sit on the Elephants neck as opposed to a seat and was rewarded with having an elephant (called Tong Kun) all to myself! It was just me and four friends, on two other elephants – not the vast crowds I’d been dreading. I was taught by the trainer of Tong Kun how to instruct her, with ‘pai’ meaning ‘go’, for example, and then left to it! She was surprisingly obedient and, of course, utterly adorable.

Elephant Ride - Luang Prabang

Elephant Ride - Luang Prabang

Elephant Ride - Luang Prabang

 

 

 

Elephant Ride - Luang Prabang

Elephant Ride - Luang Prabang

 

 

With only one day in this beautiful town, we had no time to lose. Next stop: Kuang Si waterfalls. Despite the slight increase in the crowds, these ascending tiers of soft, milky turquoise water are not to be missed. There are also numerous areas where you can head in for a swim – lots of jumping off the waterfall opportunities to be had! The site also is home to a ‘sanctuary’ for Asiatic black bears and sun bears, rescued from highly inhumane conditions such as minuscule cages or forced ‘bear dancing’.  They’re now set up in the equivalent to a zoo-like habitation which, although still not ideal, is unarguably far preferable to their previous situations.

Kuang Si Waterfall

Kuang Si Waterfall

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Kuang Si Waterfall

We stopped at a little village on the way back into town. Naturally, we were bombarded by the local salemen...in this case, children.

We stopped at a little village on the way back into town. Naturally, we were bombarded by the local salesmen…in this case, children.

 

The final exertion for the day was climbing up the steps to the tallest peak in the town: Phu Si temple. Undoubtedly the best place to view the sunset over the Mekong River. Other delights not to be missed in this enchanting little town include the friendly and vibrant night market, full of irresistible locally crafted goods. Down a side branch of the market you can find the equivalent of a food quart, where a vegetarian all-you-can-eat Laotian buffet costs as little as a dollar. The smoothies/shakes available at stalls throughout the streets are also to die for. The perfect way to end a fantastic day.

Sunset Luang Prabang

Food at Luang Prabang night market

N.B. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LnKUD_OztRE

(This would have been my preferred song for the post but it just seemed a little too obvious!)