I suppose I could write five or six blog posts depicting my travels over the past few weeks with my family and Andrea, and trust me I’ve thought about it, but as this blog is primarily for the focus of my service as a Peace Corps volunteer, I’ll keep it to one. By the way, if you scroll down to the bottom, you’ll find a video I’ve compiled of the trip as well.
Our first stop was Ubud, Bali. In the past nine months, the majority of my trips out of site led me to either Jakarta or Surabaya. And while both certainly offer more western amenities than one might find in the village, buleh (or foreigners) still remain in low numbers when compared to somewhere like Bali. Waves of tourists swarmed the streets of Ubud, outfitted in sweaty Bintang tanks or Hawaiian-themed shirts, trying to decide which overpriced knick-knack to purchase. Fortunately, the crowds were quite easy to avoid as our villa was located a bit outside of town – although not far enough to escape the inflated restaurant prices. You know you’ve been in Peace Corps for awhile when you refuse to pay $2.00 for a meal that should cost a $1.00.
The next stop required an island hop over to Gili Trawangan. The largest of the three Gili islands, it measures about 5 miles (or 8km) around. While Gili Meno and Gili Air hold reputations for their serene and peaceful small island experiences, Gili T carries a bit more rambunctious character. While the only forms of transportation available on the island remain to be horse-drawn carriages and bicycles (no motor vehicles of any kind are allowed), and much of the food must be imported from the nearby island of Lombok; beaches, bars, and buleh are a few entities of Gili T that are not in short supply – making it a pretty happening spot to bring in the New Year.
Back in the states, I really try to make an effort to get out of the country every 6 months or so, and while I haven’t been stateside for quite awhile, I’d been living in Indonesia for about 9 months – which made me a bit overdue for some further international travel. Kuala Lumpur stands as one of Asia’s chief international transit hubs, making connections to nearly any country in the East not only available but available for a low price. We stayed a couple nights here before jumping off to the next country on the list, soaking in their efficient internal rail system, looming skyscrapers, and even got a little culture in at the Batu Caves and Thean Hou Buddhist Temple.
After KL, the time had come to finally head out of the heat and make our way up to Hanoi, Vietnam. Unfortunately, I did not keep this in mind during transit and soon learned that shorts, sandals, and a t-shirts were not the correct attire for winters in northern Vietnam. Really Vietnam’s cold weather was quite refreshing, reminding me what time of the year it actually was. It’s easy for one to get lost in Indonesia’s steady tropical climate where the change of season is marked by centimeters of precipitation rather than degrees of temperature. Kept warm in a bundle of jackets and scarves, we explored the city, munching down delicious Vietnamese cuisine and visiting some of the historical sites – including the Hanoi Hilton and Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. Our overnight cruise of Ha Long Bay was especially enjoyable. Although I’m sure it’s more appealing to the eye when touched by hot summer blue skies, I didn’t mind watching the limestone jetties pass by from the warmth of a cozy cabin.
Following Vietnam, we took flight for the final country on our list, Japan. We arrived in Tokyo that evening with enough time to go out for a quick bowl of Udon before heading to bed to get up early the next day. Despite our attempt to get an early start on the day, we spent the first few hours struggling to buy tickets for the Ghibli Museum at an automated ticket vending machine located in a Lawsons (one of Japans convenient store chains). After navigating through several screens displayed entirely in Japanese and somehow acquiring a Lawsons membership along the way, we managed to purchase the tickets for the following afternoon. The rest of our day was spent at the Edo-Tokyo Museum – an illustration of Tokyo during the era of the shogun; and wandering the streets of Harijuku – one of the hip districts of Tokyo’s youth. The following day we set out for the Ghibli Museum across town. Met by a giant Totoro at the gate, one feels like they are literally living a Miyazaki animation. Unfortunately, photographs are not permitted inside the museum, but I assure you that you would not be disappointed whether you are a Ghibli fan or not. Furthermore, we were able to enjoy a private screening of a Miyazaki film never released outside the premises, and even indulged in a delicious specially brewed beer themed after Miyazaki’s “Nausica of the Valley of the Wind”.
After Tokyo, we took a two hour train out to Hakone, a town known for its relaxing hot springs, serene lakes, and views of Mt. Fuji. Unlike our high rise hotel in Tokyo, here we stayed in a traditional Japanese Ryokan, complete with private outdoor hot-spring baths overlooking the rushing river that surrounded the establishment.
After our overnight in Hakone we hopped onto one of Japan’s infamous bullet trains (and trust me they live up to their name), moving south towards Kyoto. With only two nights in Kyoto, it easily stands as one of my top destinations requiring a revisit. Walking the streets, we observed the many temples surrounding our Ryokan – so stunning their beauty in winter, I can only imagine their character in Spring – and snuck photos of those passersby dressed in beautiful kimonos. Escaping the cold for a moment, we ducked into a tall narrow building now and then to enjoy fresh sushi delivered to our booth via conveyor belt, before returning to our warm Ryokan to wonder when we might return.
Well that about covers it! Feel free to check out the video below if you’de like to see more 🙂