Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort near Krabi, Thailand

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I don’t usually do straight-up lodging reviews on Wanderwiles unless something really stands out. Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort is one of those:

I’d always wanted to visit the beaches of Thailand, but I originally didn’t think it would be possible on this trip because we’d be there during rainy season. I’d originally thought to go directly from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok, then travel through Thailand, ending up in Cambodia, from where we’d fly home. When Luang Prabang, Laos, found its way onto my radar screen, I discovered flights that allowed me to reverse my original circuit. Flying home from Bangkok rather than little Siem Reap had the added benefit of bigger and better Korean Air airplanes for our much-anticipated First Class flight home. (We would have had to forego First Class entirely and settle for Business Class on the Siem Reap to Seoul leg of our journey home.) So, after Kuala Lumpur, we flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia, and from there to Luang Prabang where we caught the Mekong boat to northern Thailand. This allowed us to push the south of Thailand to the end of our trip, and that meant we could add a detour to the far south beaches in November when the area would just be moving from the rainy to the dry season. Cheap direct flights were available from Chiang Mai. We had a shot a good weather and we decided to take it.

I considered Phuket or one of the islands, but opted for Krabi instead because I wanted somewhere less touristy, less nightlife-geared, and quieter. I also didn’t want the hassle and extra travel steps of getting to and from an island. Krabi (pronounced “kra BEE” rather than “crabby”) is the name of both the city and the region. The city itself is inland with gorgeous beaches not far away on the coast. The nearest beach town is Ao Nang where I found some pretty resorts, but descriptions of street noise, young crowds and bars led me to look farther afield. I researched lots of options up and down the coast before settling on Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort 45 minutes from the Krabi Airport. (Tup Kaek rhymes with “cupcake.”) It turned out to be the perfect choice for us.

Once we got past the AirAsia chaos at the Chiang Mai airport, the flight went smoothly. We arranged a transfer via the resort and our driver was waiting with a sign, as promised, when we exited the baggage claim area. The sky was overcast and there was a slight drizzle that ended during the drive. David and I were the only passengers in the brand new silver van and we marveled at the dramatic landscape of steep rocky cliffs that jutted straight up from the jungle as we left Krabi proper and sped through Ao Nang. The shops and restaurants gave way to a rural landscape as we neared our destination. I worried when we spotted a tanker at a long pier, but our van turned inland, skipping that small commercial stretch to arrive on the far side and our hotel.

A smiling Thai lady greeted us in the open-air lobby, offering pottery cups of chilled tropical fruit juice to enjoy while she made quick work of check-in. A waiting golf cart then whisked us to our thatch-roofed beachfront bungalow. I relished the pleasure of expectations fulfilled when we stepped inside: The room was spacious with sliding glass doors facing the incredibly gorgeous beach, gleaming teak floors and furniture, a vaulted ceiling made of woven bamboo.

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The bathroom was sleek and modern in a back-to-nature sort of way with a big tub and a pebble-floored rain shower open to the sky above and a cut-out window facing the beach.

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Looking out our shower window

Beyond the sliding glass doors, two cushioned lounge chairs on a large roofed teak porch faced the beach where the still waters of the Andaman Sea lapped against white sand only 20 meters away. Rocky little islands and outcroppings dotted the blue water, improbably beautiful. There was no mistaking this beach for more-familiar beaches back home or in the Caribbean or Mediterranean. My parents had given us a generous 5th anniversary gift in July and we’d decided to use their present on this portion of our Asia odyssey, so we were considering this a late anniversary celebration. It was perfect!

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Beachfront bungalows at Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort: all facing west, perfect for watching the sunset over the water

We were on the beach in no time, marveling at the bathtub warm water. Only a few small resorts shared this gorgeous beach and there were not many other guests in sight. At our resort, lots of cushioned lounge chairs and hammocks were free for the taking. Choosing lounge chairs near our bungalow, we ordered two mai tais to sip while we watched the sunset. The mai tais turned out to be the best of the trip: made with real juice, good rum, a little nutmeg and topped with a slice of fresh pineapple.

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First mai tais at Tup Kaek…but not the last!

We spent four nights at Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort, enjoying mai tais every day save a day we dove the Phi Phi Islands, a world-class dive site a 2-hour boat ride from Ao Nang. Breakfast was included with our room and was a generous spread of Thai and western food served in the open-air tented waterfront dining area. After trying a neighboring hotel, Tup Kaek Boutique Hotel, for lunch, we ended up eating the rest of our meals at Tup Kaek Sunset Beach. The food was good and the service excellent.

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Lunch at Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort
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The tented open-air dining area; the only dining space while the main dining room is being renovated

The prices were much higher at Sunset (and at the other hotels on the beach) than we’d found elsewhere in Thailand as we were a captive audience and this was a higher-end hotel. There’s no walking distance town with food stalls and the usual little dive-y restaurants. Still, by American standards, the prices were very reasonable and much better than you’d find at a comparable resort back home. We could have hired a taxi or tuk tuk to try a little place in the closest town–or one of the six restaurants in the nearby Ritz-Carlton, but we simply weren’t motivated to leave.

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The weather turned out to be great. It was raining the first morning, but stopped by the time we got out of bed. There were a couple of other intermittent, brief showers and one impressive but not overly long deluge. We’d duck under our porch roof during those periods, then be back out enjoying partly cloudy skies and delightful temperatures for most of the day. Occasionally we heard a little thunder and saw sheet lightning on the horizon, but it only made for a pretty show. The water was warm with barely any waves. The bottom is soft sand, sloping very gradually so that you can wade far out before the water is chest-high.

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Cool water flowing into the sea from the mountains behind the resorts

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Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort has other non-beachfront rooms, including some very neat ones whose porches open directly onto a new blue-tiled swimming pool of Olympic proportions. There’s a pretty older pool as well and rooms that open onto small man-made “canals.”

Construction/remodeling is ongoing on a large, enclosed restaurant that is not currently open. It sits to one side of the resort complex, so did not really effect our stay. Construction noise wasn’t an issue, and the open-air beachfront dining suited us perfectly. Housekeeping kept the room spotless and were quick to respond to requests for things like extra towels. Two bottles of water were provided each day. We had a small minibar fridge with a few other food and drink items for purchase which we didn’t use. The hotel also provided a large safe, big umbrella, flashlight, robes and sandals. Local “long tail” boats pull up just down the beach and can be hired to visit the islands visible from the beach.

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View from our porch. Oh, the tough decisions: lounger on the porch or hammock?!

David and I have struggled to find negatives to this stay. The internet was sometimes–but not always–very weak in the room, but was always very strong and fast on our porch and in the dining area and other parts of the hotel. We did get some maybe-mosquito bites, mostly on our sandaled feet, although we only saw one while we were there. It’s a quiet, low-key location, especially during this shoulder-season, which we consider to be a huge plus, but it wouldn’t be for those looking for a party scene. (i.e., There were no backpackers and loud music.) We spotted a lizard or two in the room a couple of times, but they didn’t bother us and we just ignored them. There are several cats on the resort grounds and they’re happy to beg if you feed them, which we got a kick out of, but I guess if you don’t like or are allergic to cats, it might be an issue. That’s pretty much all we can come up with in the way of negatives. We loved the Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort!

We paid 28,420 baht ($812) total for our beachfront bungalow for 4 nights, including breakfast and taxes. Meals, mai tais and private transfer from and to the Krabi Airport cost another 8,270 baht ($236.29) total, including taxes and gratuities. (The airport transfer cost 800 baht/$22.86 each way for a 45-minute ride.) I consider the cost to be good value for what we got. Value is my goal whenever I purchase anything, often more important to me than the bottom line. You can find out more about the resort at: http://www.tupkaeksunset.com/en I had some trouble contacting them, pre-trip (re questions about diving companies that would pick up at the hotel), but was finally able to get a response by messaging them on their Facebook page. Also, I booked via booking.com this time, probably because they were offering the best final price and a rebate via Topcashback, one of my favorite sites. If you haven’t joined and are interested, please use my referral link: https://www.topcashback.com/ref/tcut It’s free to join and easy money for things you buy anyway. I always check it when I’m booking travel (or buying almost anything) to get rebates on hotels, rent cars, products and more.

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Two days on a Mekong river boat: Laos to Thailand

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At a Mekong village stop

It was time to leave Luang Prabang and time for the biggest question mark of this long trip. Months ago, I’d booked us on a 2-day Mekong river cruise to Thailand in a big, open-air traditional wooden river boat. At $130 each, this was big money in Laos, but substantially cheaper and way more interesting than some sleep-aboard river boats I’d seen. These same type boats do a much, much cheaper “slow boat” between Luang Prabang and Huay Xai, Laos, but with frequent crowds, unreserved seats (so if the boat is full, you may have to wait a day) and a bus-like atmosphere, they sounded way less comfortable than I was willing to do. The company I chose, Mekong Smile Cruises, got good reviews and sounded like just the level of adventure I was up for. Lunch onboard was included, we stopped at a cave filled with Buddha statues and a local village en route. The overnight happened in Pakbeng, Laos, a village or small town that Google Images led me to believe was no great shakes…but online posts indicated that guest rooms were easy to come by and ridiculously cheap. I scanned Tripadvisor, seeing a few guesthouses listed and one “upscale” hotel at around $100. After his initial impulse that I should “throw money at it” and get the hotel, David came around to my way of thinking that we should try one of the guest houses. I made note of a few recommended names and posts saying that prices doubled if you book in advance, so why bother. Alright, we’d wing it. God, I hope I’m not getting us into a mess! I say this in present tense because I’m onboard the boat as I write this.

“Mr. Joy” from Mekong Smile Cruises met us at My Dream last night to fill us in on details and tell us he’d be back this morning at 6:30am to pick us up. He put my mind at ease about leaving our luggage onboard overnight since the captain and his wife sleep aboard. So, we only need to take a small over night bag. One worry checked off. He also told us we’d be the only guests for the cruise. On a 40-seat boat. Wow.

True to his word, Mr. Joy was waiting when we got to the lobby. It turns out that his name is more like “Choy” (pronounced with a sound somewhere between a “j” and a “ch”), a nickname meaning “skinny.” Since “Mr. Joy” sounds kind of creepy, it’ll be “Choy” from here on out.

Our lovely hosts at My Dream had packed us breakfast to go and the friendly young man who’d helped us with alms-giving and the tuk tuk to the waterfall walked us to the minivan. As the morning parade of monks filed by, he stood and waved until we pulled away. Did I mention I really, really like My Dream?

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A friendly send-off and the morning monk procession

A ten minute ride deposited us at a fair-sized navigation office building where we descended a long flight of stairs down the riverbank to where a small fleet of river boats were parked. Our captain came out to meet us and help with the luggage before ushering us aboard.

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The captain helps with the luggage

The boat is pretty, low-slung with a gently scooped roof, ornate carvings above and below its many open-air “windows,” curtains and 2 carved daybeds and 2 pillowed benches in the front section of the guest area. David and I immediately stretched out on the daybeds, and I felt like Cleopatra cruising down the Nile as we pulled away in the early light to glide past mountains thick with greenery, villages, beaches with wading water buffalo, low rapids and more. When the writing mood hit me, I left my daybed to set up a little office space and one of the many tables fronting pairs of chairs that looks as if they might have been lifted from a retired bus.

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This does not suck!
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Not a bad place to blog either!
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Water buffalo

We reached the cave shrine an hour out of Luang Prabang. Our boat docked at a woven bamboo pier below the steps to the cave. The cave is filled with Buddha statues of all sizes dating back to the 1600’s. I made a 20,000 kip donation to get a flower cone offering with candles and incense. Choy instructed me in the details of presenting my offering as my Korean Buddhist teaching didn’t apply to Laotian customs. We’ve had lots of time to chat as our boat makes its 10-hour journey today. Choy tells me that while Laos is 68% Buddhist, it’s 28% animist and that most people worship and observe important events like weddings and births in a fashion that’s a blend of the two.

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Approaching the Buddha cave
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Arriving at the Buddha cave dock
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Lighting the candles and incense for my offering
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Inside the Buddha cave
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The main cave shrine overlooking the river

Lunch, cooked by the captain’s wife, was served buffet-style and we dined at 4-seater tables way to the back of our floating domain. We had thick-crusted fried chicken legs, stir-fried chicken and onions, stir-fried vegetables, vegetable soup in a thin broth, steamed rice and fresh pineapple. She went light on the spices, but served the meal with a sauce of chopped red chilies that could set your mouth afire.

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Lunch aboard
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Buffet and bar space on the boat; 2 toilets are in the hall in the rear left, behind which is the engine room, then the captain’s living quarters in the very back. (There’s no electricity for the fan or anything else when not docked.)

So now, I’m actually caught up with this blog and the daybed is beckoning for an after-lunch nap. There are other past things I’ve been meaning to blog about, but the world can live without I’m sure and David shouldn’t have to nap alone. 🙂

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* * *

We’re back on our Mekong river boat after our night in Pakbeng so I can report on our overnight stay:

Choy walked with us to help negotiate a guest room for the night and to show us the local market. I really appreciated his helpfulness as this night had been a nagging worry. We got off to a poor start when the first few guesthouses we talked to were fully booked by Thai group tours that had yet to arrive. I started to wonder about all that online advice about lots of rooms being available. Also, music was blaring from one guesthouse and an outdoor party tent set up in the middle of the road. I’d heard noise could be a problem and had brought earplugs, but this wasn’t looking good…and it was hot despite the setting sun.

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Pakbeng “port”
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Pakbeng, Laos: not much
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Pakbeng, Laos: Main Street

As we wandered uphill on the main street, a lady asked us to look at her small guesthouse, Vassana, just across from Phonesony (one of the guesthouses I’d read about, but that was booked). At first asking 150,000 kip, she dropped her price to 120,000 when I said I’d read the cost was usually 100,000 kip in the area. Clearly, things were busy, so we were happy with the price. (I actually felt a little sheepish when I focused later on how little money we were haggling over: Our room came out to $14.81, give or take a fraction of a cent.) The rooms turned out to be simple, but very clean. There was no ornamentation or artwork save pretty new gold brocade patterned curtains, clean and crisply pleated. One heavy wooden chair served as a bedside table, while a wall mirror with small wooden shelf and a row of knobs served as the hanging space. The proprietress showed us two similar ground-floor rooms and we opted for the one farthest from the road. The room was hot and stuffy, but had an a/c. We started the a/c and I wasn’t sure that it was cooling much, but we crossed our fingers and left it running and headed out to dinner at an Indian restaurant, Hasan, that got great reviews.

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Guest room at Vassana: simple, but clean and comfortable (and less than $15)

The food at Hasan was good save for the naan and roti which, as David put it, were the “saltine crackers of the naan world.” We had a corner table of their outdoor balcony with a pretty view overlooking the Mekong. Chicken tikka masala, aloo gobi and palak “paneer” (made with tofu rather than the usual paneer cheese) were all well-seasoned and spicy. A Beer Lao rounded out the meal.

Tired, with an early morning in our future and with David feeling a little under the weather, we called it an early night and headed back to our room, hoping the a/c had done its job, but feeling doubtful. I can’t describe the thrill of opening that door to a delightfully cool room.

We showered quickly in the tiny bathroom, with a handheld shower mounted on the wall and open to the room. Drains in the floor drained not only the shower water, but also water from the sink which ran directly onto the floor from an open pipe. Basic, but again, very clean and plenty of hot water (although I was happy with cool water). The bed was big and comfortable with good pillows (an uncertain thing in Asia). The room was dark, the music had stopped outside and the “turbo” feature of the wall-mounted a/c drowned out any remaining noise. Despite my earlier misgivings, I slept like a stone for nearly 9 hours. Awesome!

Up at 6am, we packed our meager belongs and bought a huge chocolate chip “croissant” to share and coffee at Monsovanh Bakery on the road to the boat. We chatted with several other travelers who’d arrived on other “slow boats” from both directions. I’d looked at these boats before I chose our boat with Mekong Smile Cruises. Veritable river buses, they run on a first come, first served basis and are often crowded. People’s description of the heat and crowds convinced me I’d been right to go with the booked cruise, although the price was just over 3x that of the regular slow boat. For our extra money, we got lots of space and the ability to move around as our whims and incoming sunshine dictated, personalized service, lunch and no hassles. Well worth the extra $80 apiece, in our opinion, to turn 2 days of misery into 2 extraordinary days on the Mekong. [There could have been more people on our boat (up to a max of 30, which would have been too many), but everyone I’ve read about or talked to who’s done it this way reports much smaller groups.]

As we pulled away from the dock this morning, we watched handlers bringing two elephants down to the riverbank opposite Pakbeng. Beautiful in the morning mist.

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Five hours flew by as we lounged on our daybeds, watching the passing scenery (and drifting off to sleep from time to time). Clouds blocked the direct sun and a breeze kept us cool and comfortable. Our boat pulled in to a sandy beach around 12:30pm where a boy and girl were digging with long poles. Choy led us up the bank pointing out holes in the sandy earth where the children had been digging for crickets, a local delicacy.

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Children digging for crickets
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Holes in a dirt bank made by much cricket hunting

Choy led us a bit further up the hill to their village which consisted mostly of woven bamboo homes interspersed with 1 or 2 wooden and cement block buildings. Piglets, ducks and chickens roamed freely while women washed clothes in a village well.

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Making a gun
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A “taxi” dropping off in the village

Electricity had recently been supplied to the village, which itself was only established there in 2009 when the government moved these ethnic Khmu people (one of the largest minority groups in Laos and related to the Khmer of Cambodia) down from the mountains to try to curb slash-and-burn practices. Unfortunately, along with electricity came techno music blaring from one house. About 300 people live in the village and we felt pretty sure there must be some complaints to the village chief about the noise. We might have thought the Khmu village abysmally poor and dirty if we hadn’t been to the floating village in Kompong Khleang which, while larger, won hands down in the lack-of-sanitation department. (And, according to Choy, this was a “5-star” village, displaying signs attesting to its superiority in development, access to health care, youth programs, gender equality and such.)

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Children were friendly, waving and smiling. Three small boys clustered around David, laughing when he started a high-five routine with them. There was no village temple as these people are animist (like nearly 30% of Laotians), looking to a village shaman for spiritual matters and healing. While Mekong Smile Cruise boats stop here as part of the journey, there wasn’t anything to buy and no one asking for handouts.

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The little guy in the back wasn’t sure what he thought about David’s high-five…
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…but then he gave it a try…
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…and was mighty tickled by the whole business, as were his friends. 😀

Lunch was ready when we got back on the boat: fried fish; chicken curry soup; shredded bamboo, noodle and chicken salad; steamed rice; red chili salsa and fresh fruit.

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Having just finished that moveable feast, I’m off to the daybed for my afternoon viewing and relaxation. Have I mentioned that I’m really enjoying this boat ride?

* * *

After lunch, it was time for more reclining and river-watching as we listened to audiobooks or dozed in the fresh breeze. We came to a provincial border line and our boat had to stop to get a stamp. Another boat was also stopped and we got a glimpse, close-up of one of the crowded bus-like slow boats. This boat was heading downstream towards Luang Prabang, and we heard later that the boats going that faster route were often the most crowded. As we tried to pull away, the swift current caught the stern of our boat and pushed it into a small shoal. When our captain had trouble getting us off, two boatmen from yet another boat ran over to help, joining the captain on the roof to push off with long bamboo poles stored on every river boat while Choy and the captain’s wife tended to the bow. There seemed to be a real camraderie among the boatmen of the Mekong River, and we saw them calling greetings as they passed and springing to help each other and each other’s passengers when needed.

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Crowded slow boat stopped at the province line
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Three poles in the water to push us off a small shoal

The landscape changed as we neared Thailand, with the mountains and hills flattening. On the Thai side of the river, stones had been hauled in to fight erosion.

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Approaching Thailand
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Passing under the Friendship Bridge between Laos (on the right) and Thailand (on the left) near our debarkation point in Huay Xai, Laos

Docking at our destination, Huay Xai (“hway sigh”) was a final adventure: We arrived to a mass of sister boats crammed together like…well, like sardines. There was nowhere in sight for our boat. After a few calls from our captain to his fellows, one of the boats fired up its engine and we assumed it was pulling out and we’d take its place, although it seemed thinner than our boat. Our captain did not back up, though, and we wondered why he wasn’t giving the other boat room. Then, a small wedge began to appear between the sterns of that boat and the one to its right. We were going to try to fit between the two!

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We docked BETWEEN the two green boats to the left of the blue one. The engine is running on the green boat 2 from the blue boat as it begins to move to its left to make room for us. Unbelievable!

There was literally no room whatsoever. Nevertheless, out came the long bamboo poles and the other boatmen began trying to make space as we kept creeping forward. Choy and the captain’s wife pushed with both hands and soon the captain abandoned his wheel and David joined in. We scraped against our neighbors, knocking two thick wooden poles loose. Boats creaked and groaned as we were squeezed on both sides. Boatmen called or yelled to each other as they scampered about, pushing and trying to restore the wooden poles to their original place. Eventually, by some miracle, we wedged ourselves in. Surprisingly, no one seemed upset about the potential damage to their vessels and there was laughter all around.

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Near the end of our docking maneuver

Now, we were faced with a nearly vertical wall of grass. How were we supposed to get up that with our luggage? No problem: walk across the bow of our neighbor, hop out onto some grass and let our captain and his friends shoulder our suitcases and climb up to a waiting minivan.

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The captain’s wife on our bow just after docking…now for the steep grass embankment…

The 3-year old Friendship Bridge immigration point is lovely and modern, but a 15 to 20 minute van ride (included with our cruise) back from the dock. Choy rode with us, directing us through emigration (There’s an extra $1 charge for exiting Laos on weekends and after hours.) and buying our bus ticket to the other, Thai, side of the bridge. We bid him a very grateful farewell as he head off to an overnight bus back to Luang Prabang. There was a man who earned his tip!

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At the Friendship Bridge border crossing
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On the Lao side of the Friendship Bridge at Huay Xai
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Bus for the last bit of our trip–across the bridge into Thailand

We entered an almost empty Thai immigration building on the other side of the bridge at dusk. A super friendly immigration officer (a rarity on the trip) asked where we were staying, then left his post to take us to the tuk tuk taxi stand and make sure we were off to our hotel in Chiang Khong with no hassles. It was a nice end to our river cruise and an auspicious start to the Thai portion of our trip.

We paid $130 each for our Mekong Smile Cruise. Upstream cruises like our take about 10 hours each day. Find out more at http://www.mekongsmilecruise.com/

Luang Prabang, Laos

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Temple at the Royal Palace

It’s always kind of fun to wake up in a place you’ve only seen in the dark. A Christmas morning kind of surprise-gift (I-hope-its-not-a-dud) feeling. Waking up in My Dream Boutique Resort in Luang Prabang Laos was definitely exciting. Our welcome the night before boded well: very friendly and efficient, check-in accompanied by chilled ginger water and honeyed mango. The room itself was charmingly styled with woven Lao mats, mosquito net-draped bed, stained-stone shower, generous balcony (albeit sans view–We didn’t figure we’d spend much time in the room.) and mahogany furnishings.

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My Dream “lobby” and restaurant

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I’d chosen My Dream based on its price, glowing Tripadvisor reviews, and location across the river from–but easily accessible to–the more touristy and loud downtown area. I also liked that it had a swimming pool (something banned in the Unesco-certified downtown) and riverfront grounds. Exploring the flower-filled gardens of My Dream in the daylight, stretching out on a grass-roofed palapa overlooking the Khan River, we soon decided we were super-happy with the choice. See more at: http://www.mydreamresort.com

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My Dream is like some fantasy of a jungle resort. It’s casual and laid back, but beautiful, too, with huge bougainvillea draped across bamboo supports framing balconies and the open-air lobby and restaurant. The pool was small, but picturesque, immaculate and delightfully cool. An included breakfast buffet offered western and Asian options, fresh coffee and cooked-to-order eggs. Bikes are provided at no charge, so we had to take them up on that for our first day explore of the town.

Bikes were definitely the way to go, but My Dream could really use an update on their bikes. Oh well, despite a left pedal that missed about 50% of it’s push and flopped weirdly, biking beat walking any day of the week. A nearby scooter/bike/pedestrian-only bridge had us across the Khan River and in Luang Prabang town in no time. (My Dream also offers free shuttles to town, but shuttles have to take the farther “new bridge” and run at fairly long intervals. We didn’t want to be left walking in the heat downtown.) Often bumper-to-bumper with scooters and bikes, the old bridge is an experience. Made of crossbeams of wood, it has two lane of planks set long-ways for bikes and scooters, a great idea save for the occasional tire-grabbing gap near a rotted end. Paying attention was in order.

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The old bridge in very light traffic

Luang Prabang is tucked into the acute angle formed where the Khan River flows into the Mekong. The old town forms a finger pointing northeast into this angle. We biked along the Khan, stopping at a park and a small Wat, then looped back to our left across the “fingertip” to ride along the Mekong toward the main part of town.

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Rebuilding a bamboo footbridge

We quickly came to Xieng Thong, a gorgeous temple complex with graceful-roofed buildings and gilded Buddhas. The decor was noticeably different from Buddhist temples we’d seen in other countries: beautiful mosaics decorated the outside walls and stenciling covered the inner walls. In the main temple, three young Buddhist monks dressed in varying shades of orange robes, walked in and began to pray. [There’s a video of this on Wanderwiles’ FB page.] I’ve really come to love the atmosphere in Buddhist temples: the low light, incense, candles, and peace.

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Xieng Thong
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Beautiful mosaics adorning Xieng Thong

20161026_120524Leaving Xieng Thong and following the map provided by My Dream, we biked on the in the sweltering heat, thinking to visit the Royal Palace Museum. It turned out to be closed for lunch and we took the hint, choosing a outdoor riverside café. Despite lots of cute shops and restaurants, air-conditioning didn’t seem to be an option anywhere nearby and we were a sweaty mess anyway. The proprietress welcomed us warmly and brought an electric fan. Lunch was delicious, cheap and relatively cool and we left refreshed.

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Lunch on the Mekong: A muggy day gets better with a cold Beer Lao!
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Sweaty cycling along the Mekong
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Luang Prabang street

I did a little research on the Royal Palace Museum on my phone over lunch and found that most reviewers praised the grounds, but weren’t so impressed with the paid-admission portion that allowed entry to the palace itself. I got a good laugh at a Spanish-language review stating that the decor in her house was better and that photos weren’t allowed inside so people wouldn’t know how horrible it was. Hmm. We opted to take the advice given and biked through the grounds, peeked at the threadbare collection of cars once belonging to the royal family (a Jeep, some Lincoln Continentals, an Edsel and a Citroën that looked as if it had been hauled from a junk yard), admired the temple from the outside (the only option, paid or unpaid), and were on our way. A spin past the market and we were headed back to My Dream, dreaming of the swimming pool and a break in the heat that Weatherbug now pegged at 90F (feeling like 96F).

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The Royal Palace Museum

Dipping into the just-right cool pool, we almost decided we were done for the day, but couldn’t resist a sunset hike to the top of Mt. Phousi, a highly-touted attraction. Back on bikes (but with a replacement for me), we headed back across the old bridge and along the Khan River to one of the two stairways to the hilltop. It’s possible to hike up one stairs and down the other side, but with bikes, we had to pick one. I chose the longer route given that it was closer to our hotel, less steep and reported to have more to see along the way. Minivans lined the road by the stairs and flocks of people were heading up when we got there. We climbed past a purported footprint of Buddha where a monk prayed out loud in a small, open-air pavillion overlooking the Khan and the buildings and mountains beyond; a stupa; a monastery with working young monks; scattered Buddha statues; and two large golden statues of Buddha, one seated, one reclining.

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20161026_172752A small temple at the summit housed a few worshippers and a cat, the biggest crowd being outside taking in the nearly 360° view and the setting sun. It was worth the hike, but we headed down just ahead of the crowd, not wanting to be trapped on steep stairs in the dark with a group of sometimes-unsteady-on-their-feet tourists.

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After yet another shower, we opted to eat at the hotel’s pretty open-air restaurant and couldn’t have been happier. Convenient, friendly, lovely atmosphere, delicious Lao dishes; we couldn’t go wrong. We started with two mai tais, then moved onto appetizers: Mekong “river weeds” a ubiquitous offering I’d been dying to try, and fresh rolls. The river weeds turned out to be covered in sesame seeds and thin slices of eggplant, then fried super-crispy into squares about 2×2″. I was hooked! The fresh rolls were good, but getting to be an everyday thing for us, and not as full of herbs as we prefer. Our main courses were a coconut milk fish mousseline cooked in a banana leaf bowl (delicate and tasty) and a classic Lao dish called Oor Lam. Oor Lam is a Northern Lao dish particularly associated with Luang Prabang. It’s made with either pork or chicken, flavored with cilantro, dill, lemongrass and basil and thickened with puréed eggplant. I thought it delicious. When I asked our waitress whether pork or chicken was more commonly eaten by Laotians, it took her a minute to understand my question. When she answered, “Chicken,” and I said then that was what I would have. She giggled and thanked me profusely, clearly pleased that I wanted something authentic. She waited on us two nights and was always inordinately pleased when we ordered and liked the local food. Since the food was uniformly good, it was easy and fun to make her happy.

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Mekong river weeds with sesame seed and tomato: crispy and delicious!
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Oor Lam
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Delicate coconut milk fish mousseline

After dinner, we asked the young man behind the small front desk to help us participate in the next morning’s alms-giving to the local monks. This is an every day tradition in Luang Prabang and something we really wanted to do. He told us that monks came by just outside My Dream and that he would get the offerings ready for us (sticky rice, crackers and rice cakes), charge them ($6) to our room, and have them ready at 6am the next morning when he’d also explain how things work. This sounded perfect as reviews and signs around town indicated that tourists in the main town would too often mob the monks and block their path while trying to get photos. One sign even found it necessary to advise large tour buses not to follow the monks! We definitely wanted no part of all that.

An AirBnB Cautionary Tale

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View of Seoul Station and beyond from our well-located, but unauthorized AirBnB apartment

We had our first unpleasant AirBnB experience in Seoul and it had very little to do with the apartment itself. Two days before we were to arrive in Seoul (and just as we were about to begin our much-anticipated, Internet-free stay at Beomeosa Monastery, ie., with no time to make other plans), I received an email from the owner of the apartment we’d booked in Seoul, “Mr. S.” Mr. S wrote to touch base regarding handing off the keys, etc…and to tell me that “if any persons (police man) ask you regarding the you come to here through the airbnb, then pls DON’T SPEAK for airbnb will be appreciated…so you can say that this room is your friend’s room for you.”

Hmm. This was a first. I was, in essence, being asked to lie to foreign police to cover for an unauthorized rental apartment. No way was I comfortable with this and I would not have booked the apartment if I’d known. I really resented being put in this position, especially when I didn’t really have time to look for an alternative.

I researched AirBnB en route to Seoul via the KTX train’s wi-fi and discovered that a 2015 lawsuit had ruled that AirBnB rentals must be registered with the government. I now suspected that Mr. S might have avoided that registration.

When we arrived in Seoul, Mr. S met us as promised in the underground subway walkway which connects Seoul (train) Station to the building where the apartment is located. He handed off the keys, but when I expressed concern about his email regarding police and asked him to accompany us the short distance on to the building, he refused, leaving us to deal with any problems on our own. He apparently thought our odds of getting past “tourist police” better without him, but we had nothing to do with the situation and I thought it was pretty chicken of him to leave us to our own devices. Mr. S told us the riskiest part of this whole venture was when we went through the building with luggage (so he didn’t want any part of that). He dropped by the apartment 10 minutes after we were in to deliver the wi-fi hotspot he’d promised and extra blankets, so it wasn’t as if he had some pressing appointment that prohibited him from walking in with us.

On our 2nd night there, we went to explore the top floor gym and discovered a sign saying that all AirBnB rentals were banned in the building (apparently a building-specific internal rule) and could be subject to being reported to the police. “Great.” Even if Mr. S had registered his apartment with the government, it looked pretty clear that he was in violation of the building’s own rules. The next morning, we saw a similar sign on the front door. Unfortunately, we were past AirBnB’s 24-hour after check-in deadline for reporting problems that might void the whole deal and stop payment to Mr. S. From what I read, I believe it was he who was potentially in violation of laws and/or building rules, not us, but it was very awkward and uncomfortable nonetheless.

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In the end, we decided to live with the situation and hope for the best, since we were already moved in and only had 2 nights to go after seeing the posted signs. Happily, we were not confronted by police or building staff. I did report the situation to AirBnB and explain the facts on the ground in my review of the apartment and Mr. S so that others would be advised. (I was surprised that no one else had mentioned the authorization problems in the many positive reviews for this apartment. Either people ignored the situation, or the signs–and Mr. S’s proposed dealing with police–were a new development.) There are other AirBnB hosts offering apartments in this same building, though, so I hope AirBnB takes some initiative here.

I intend to keep using AirBnB as apartments are often better suited to my travel needs than hotels, but I will more closely scrutinize local laws. I’d like to see AirBnB alert its users when there are potential legal problems in a city or country so that users can ask the right questions of owners. AirBnB must be aware of the legal challenges its faces in different cities and countries (as covered in numerous newspaper articles), and I’d appreciate a heads-up for those of us who use the service. A simple alert from AirBnB when I search a potentially-problematic location would be greatly appreciated.

The apartment itself was pretty much as shown in the AirBnB photos. I had some quibbles with supplies, but the location was excellent. (It shares a brand new high-rise building with a Sheraton Hotel, and is connected to covered shopping, subway and the huge, modern Seoul Station.) Had it been an authorized rental, I’d have given it and Mr. S fine marks.

Experience of a lifetime: Korean Buddhist Temple Stay at Beomeosa Temple

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From the first time I read about temple stay programs in Japan and South Korea, I was hooked on the idea of spending the night at a Buddhist temple. I wanted to learn more about Buddhism and what, exactly, Buddhist monks did on a daily basis. The stays I saw in Japan (“shukubo”) sounded more like simple lodging in a monastery; interesting, but not as much as I was looking for. When I found South Korea’s Templestay program, it seemed I’d found what I was looking for: a real cultural experience aimed at sharing and preserving an ancient way of life.

Beomeosa Temple just outside of Busan, South Korea, offered a temple stay and I wanted to visit the temple anyway; I had my destination! Beomeosa (pronounced “boh MOH sah”) offers temple stays most weeks, Sat. – Sun. You must reserve in advance and should do so as soon as possible. The temple asks for bank transfers, but kindly agrees to accept cash payment upon arrival for foreign guests. Their temple stays alternate between a “resting” and a hiking program. The day that worked with our travel schedule was the “resting” program which focuses on spiritual renewal and offered a 1-hour, as opposed to a 3-hour, mountain hike. We would have been happy with either, but decided we’d probably been lucky to get the shorter hike since the weather was just clearing from the previous day’s rain and still drizzly.

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The “base temple” where we spent much of our time (& which served as the women’s “dorm”)

One of the reasons I’d chosen a hotel near Busan Station (rather than the elegant Park Hyatt for which we had free nights available) was that it made getting to our temple stay so easy. We stored our large luggage with our hotel, walked the short distance to Line 1 of the subway just in front of Busan Station. Line 1 runs directly to Nopo dong Station where we got off to catch the 90 Bus straight to the entrance to Beomeosa Station. [Note: The stop before Nopo dong is called “Beomeosa,” but do not get off there.] The subway ride costs 1000 won/pp, one-way = $.91. The whole process takes about 1 hour 15 minutes: 21 stops/40 minutes on the subway, 1 minute walk out the door of Nopo dong station to the 90 Bus, 6 stops/15 minutes on the bus, and about a 5 minute walk up the hill to the temple. When you exit the subway, turn left, away from the Central Bus Station (for long-haul, inter-city buses) and walk right, outside the station, where the local buses park. The sign for Bus 90 is the first one you come to. Pay on the bus (1300 won/pp, one-way = $1.18pp). There’s parking if you want to drive.

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View of the 90 Bus stop on leaving Nopo dong train station
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View upon exiting Bus 90 at Beomeosa Temple. The entrance steps are just ahead to the right.

Check-in for Templestay was between 1:30-2pm and we arrived right on time. When we explained why we were there, a friendly man at the ticket/info booth at the base of the hill gave us a map and directions and sent us on our way. We joined groups of visitors and hikers climbing the hill to the temple complex. (Beomeosa Mountain boasts several popular hiking trails through its forests where streams fan out through the trees, flowing between enormous boulders.) As we passed through colorful painted gates and large statues of fierce-faced guardians, we wondered what this experience would be like. We’d visited lots of Buddhist temples and shrines in Japan, read what we could, but still so much of it was a mystery to us.

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The 2nd entrance gate to the temple complex

We passed through the last and largest gate into a wide courtyard dominated by a main temple just ahead and several surrounding temple and shrine buildings, all painted in bright shades of red, green, blue, yellow and white. (Although I’ll refer to “Beomeosa Temple,” it’s not one building. There are many temples and shrines of various sizes, as well as living quarters, a drum tower and more which make up the temple complex.) Mounting a last flight of stairs, we turned left as we’d been instructed passing temples on our right and living quarters on our left with signs forbidding entry and stating that meditation was in progress. Later, we’d learn this was where the monks lived. At the far end of a row of temples, we arrived at a gate marked Templestay and climbed one last small hill to a temple much like those we’d already passed.

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One of the many temples at Beomeosa

A young Korean woman met us, quickly found our names on a list and handed us our clothes for the weekend, indicating where we could change. Although, the instructions I’d received upon booking said we could wear “light clothes” under our temple clothes, both David and I found it made no sense to wear anything other than underwear beneath the soft washed cotton of our new clothes. We were given identical outfits, different only in size: a purple front-buttoning tunic with 3/4 sleeves and loose-fitting gray pants with stretchy waist and ankles. Both top and bottom had pockets which came in handy since we stored away our other belongings and gave our valuables to be locked in an office. Once dressed, the same Korean lady gave us a brochure with a map of the temple and surrounding mountain and general instructions about temple etiquette and mindset.

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Our “base” temple is #15 on the map
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Tips for temple life and mindset

Our fellow templestayers began to arrive and also don the uniform; they included a Russian, an Argentinian living in Busan, an Australian woman whose sick husband left before things began, two women friends from Seoul, two Chinese sister-in-laws, and ten Korean foster/orphanage kids–8 boys and 2 girls–ranging from middle school through high school and the sweet lady who chaperoned them. An exhausted German couple fresh from an overseas flight and a missed train from Seoul arrived just as we began dinner.

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With the younger members of our group, just before things kicked off

Our first activity began with an instruction to grab a cushion from a stack in the corner and form a circle. A monk had joined us and took the lead at the point of the circle nearest a golden bas-relief altarpiece featuring a Buddha among a host of other companions. The young woman who checked us in stationed herself nearby with a clipboard where she jotted notes before translating things to English. A Korean, she’d lived many years in Vancouver and spoke excellent English. The monk introduced himself and the translator began by explaining that while in Catholicism or Protestant Christianity you might call a priest “father” or a minister “reverend,” in Korean Buddhism they referred to the monks as “sunim.” Sunim asked us to introduce ourselves and tell where we were from and why we’d come. He looked to me to start so I gave my name and home and said that I wanted to learn more about Buddhism and the culture around it as part of my trip to Korea. The translator translated my words for sunim and the Korean visitors and so it went around the circle. The younger members gave their grades in school and a few of the less shy ones added their goals and ambitions in life.

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Introduction time

After introductions, we took a short break then formed our cushions into rows to listen to a younger sunim explain etiquette of the temple and what was expected of us. As we’d read in the brochure, he explained the proper way to greet monks we might encounter while around the temple, with palms pressed together at chest level and bowing at the waist, a “half-bow” or “hapsang.” We were told to walk with our hands clasped in front, right hand over left, left thumb resting over the right thumb in the “chasu” body posture. We shouldn’t swing our hands vigorously, etc. This was to encourage slower walking and contemplation. Silence was encouraged as a way of having a conversation with yourself. Also, we should not walk or stand with our hands behind our back as that was considered impolite. When in a temple, we should take a cushion from the ever-present stacks in the corner, then sit cross-legged with our hands resting clasped in front of us or with our fists closed, fingers down, resting on our knees. When finished, we should return cushions to where we’d found them. We were taught how to do a full bow; first dropping to the knees, then the elbows, then placing our foreheads on the floor, palms resting beside our head. Then, turning the palms upward, then back down, before rising. A half bow upon entering a temple, facing a Buddha or pagoda, was then followed by three full bows and a final half bow. We practiced the various bows, to the loud cracking noise of a split bamboo rod that sunim slapped against his palm to signal the time and pacing of bows and half-bows. All of this instruction was given in a friendly and welcoming manner and we were repeatedly assured that anything we couldn’t do or weren’t comfortable doing was fine. Our hosts were especially considerate and concerned that people with knee or back problems or stiffness from sitting cross-legged should feel free to extend a leg or two and move about as needed. We all knew that we were supposed to do 108 full bows during an evening ceremony following dinner and there was some apprehension; sunim and the translator both took pains to assure everyone that nothing was mandatory, only encouraged if physically doable.

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A prayer for everything: This one in the ladies’ toilet area cracked me up!

Next up was a tour of the beautiful temple complex. We walked, hands clasped, when we remembered, and bowed our hapsang and received return hapsang from monks we passed, but our group was not great at keeping silent. There were too many comments to share, too much to ooh and aah over.

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Sunim explaining the gates
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Sunim showing us around the main courtyard

After the tour, it was time for our vegan dinner served in the traditional and formal communal style known as “balu-gongyang.” A carefully prepared set of four nesting bowls, placemat/napkin, small towel, chopsticks and wooden spoon was set out for us in a private room off the temple cafeteria. Sitting in a large circle, sunim explained the strict guidelines for each step of the meal. First, we unpacked our set, placing each bowl in a specific spot on our placemat. Hot water was poured into the largest bowl, swirled, poured into the next smallest bowl, poured again, until the water remained in the smallest bowl where we’d also placed the eating ends of our chopsticks and spoon.

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Pouring hot water for the dinner ritual

Next, food was served on a low rolling tray. Each dish was to be put in a particular bowl: rice in the largest, soup in the next largest, and side dishes (kimchi, cold greens, pickled vegetables, etc.) in the third largest bowl.

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Our balu-gongyang dinner

We ate in silence, a sign posted at one end of the room proclaiming our prayer for the meal which proclaimed, “…I am ashamed to eat this food…” the idea being that eating was only to sustain life so that one could strive for enlightenment. Happily, the food was actually quite tasty and I really wasn’t at all ashamed to eat it.

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After we finished, sunim taught us a ritual cleaning method whereby we cleaned our bowls in sequence as before with fresh hot water and using one slice of pickled yellow radish which we’d been instructed to hold back to “scrub,” adding the water at last to the water remaining in smallest bowl. Finally, we were encouraged to drink the final water and eat the radish as a way of humbly avoiding waste (and finally getting a drink). Our translator and sunim laughed at this and told us the final step, like everything in the program, was optional, but encouraged as an authentic experience. As she pointed out, there was nothing in the water we hadn’t already been eating in separate bowls. Fresh water was available just outside the dining area. And, we did a final cleaning in the cafeteria kitchen before returning the bowls to numbered cubby holes in the private dining room.

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Final dinner clean up in the cafeteria

The highlight of the evening came just after dinner when we were led to watch the evening drum ceremony. David and I expected some ritual banging on the huge drum that hung from the second story of the drum house (which also housed dragon and cloud-shaped gongs and a huge bell for awakening the spirits). Instead, we witnessed an unbelievable display of talent that went on for quite some time as three monks tag-teamed each other to play pounding rhythms on the drum. They stood facing the drum skin, which was much taller than a man, and proceeded to beat a driving call using both the skin and the sides of the drum, arms extended over their heads, to the side, below, above, over and over. A video of this beautiful ceremony is posted on Wanderwiles’ Facebook page.

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The evening drum ceremony (Video on Wanderwiles’ Facebook page)

As the monks finished their drumming, a line of other monks passed below to begin their evening prayer in an adjacent temple. We were led to a facing temple for our own evening prayers joined by locals. The temple was thick with incense and the chanting of the monks and the worshippers (including some of our young companions) was moving. We did our full- and half-bows to the cracking sound of the bamboo rod.

Back at our “base” temple, the time for our 108 full bows had come. A bag of wooden beads and a long cord awaited us before our prayer cushions. The young sumim who’d instructed us earlier explained that the 108 bows symbolized 108 impurities that we were to think on and try to free from ourselves. At the end of each bow, we were to string a wooden bead on the cord, rise, then begin the next bow at the sound of the bamboo rod. As always, anyone who couldn’t or didn’t want to do the full 108 bows was reassured that it was no problem, but we were encouraged to try “using the energy of the group.” David and I both managed our full complement of bows, but it was a different experience than I’d expected. The stringing of the beads was tricky and the whole thing got to be a little more frantic than meditative and I found myself laughing at myself and others as we scrambled to thread the elusive little beads, then get back up in time to throw ourselves back into the full bow at the crack of sunim’s bamboo rod. Still, it was fun and there was definitely a sense of accomplishment when we were done. We finished off our string of beads with a “4-cord braid” capped with a “mother” bead and 4 “baby” beads, scorching the final knots to make things permanent. Korean Buddhists use the beads somewhat like a rosary, running them through their fingers as they pray, or wrapping them around their hands in a figure-eight/google symbol of infinity.

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Preparing for the 108 bows and the bead-stringing
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108 beads waiting to be strung
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Finished beads

Finally, it was time for bed. David went off to sleep in a separate building with the male members of our group while the women and girls prepared palettes on the floor of the temple where we’d just strung our beads. Toilets and communal showers were in a separate building just in front of the temple. Lights out was at 9:30pm; early, but no one had any complaints about that! Nearly everyone simply slept in their temple clothes. I found myself quickly lulled to sleep by the sound of stream water cascading down the mountainside and the light breeze drifting through the sliding door near where I’d made my bed.

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Bedtime in the temple

A 5am wake-up had us scrambling to put away our palettes and clean up for the day. Then, it was morning prayers and meditation followed by a vegan breakfast served cafeteria-style in the main dining hall. Once again, the food was simple but tasty.

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Sunim leading the breakfast line
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Vegan breakfast

The drizzle of the day before had given way to a beautiful morning. The air smelled of greenery, wood and water. After breakfast, the young sunim led us on an easy hike up Mt. Beomeosa to a hermitage.

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Leading us on our hike to the hermitage

In Korea, a hermitage is more like a remote temple than a place where a hermit might live. Inside the hermitage, Sunim led us in meditation, facing the windows over the valley rather than the altar. The mountain afforded a great view of the temple complex and an absolutely magical view of Busan in the distance, rising like a fairytale city above the clearing mists.

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View of the Beomeosa temple complex from the mountain
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View of Busan from Mt. Beomeosa

Back at our base temple, we had an hour break before our final activity: “conversation with a monk over tea.”

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Break time at the temple

We formed a circle on our prayer cushions while the senior sunim prepared tea for us. We were each give an bar of unsweetened glutinous rice topped with dried berries, raisins and nuts. It was filling and just-right after our hike, but I noticed that sunim only drank tea. He then took questions from anyone who had them, expounding on such diverse topics as how one becomes a monk (monk “college”), are there women monks (yes, they shave their hair and wear the same robes so you might not recognize them), his/Buddhism’s views on war, how to treat illness, etc.

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Tea with a monk: time for questions

After changing back into our street clothes and saying our final good-byes, David and I made a last visit through the main temple courtyard before heading down the hill through the three gates. We passed people just arriving, knowing that the temple would soon be crowded with visitors. What a privilege it had been to enjoy the peace and beauty of the temple in quieter hours while experiencing a bit of daily life there.

Korea’s Templestay program now has a dozen or so temples across Korea that offer stays with English translation, and many more that are Korean-only. (Beomeosa Temple has English and Chinese translators available; verify in advance. No other languages are currently offered at Beomeosa.) Day visits without an overnight are also available at some temples. You can find out more at http://eng.templestay.com/. Our temple stay cost 70,000 Korean won (approximately $63) per person which includes everything I described. Although photos are usually prohibited in temples, Beomeosa Templestay allowed us to photograph most everything we wanted. (Although, we of course tried not to be rude or intrusive so did not take photos during prayers.) They also took photos themselves and posted them online for us to view and download afterwards.

 

 

 

Staying at a traditional ryokan on Miyajima island

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Ladies’ onsen bath at Ryokan Jukeiso

For many years, I’d wanted to stay at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. I hadn’t had the chance on my one previous visit to Japan, so a ryokan was high on my list for this trip. A typical ryokan offers a classic Japanese room: straw tatami mats on the floor, sliding paper doors, futons laid out at sleeping time, multi-course kaiseki meals, onsen communal (and sometimes private) baths, kimonos to be worn by the guests, often a lovely courtyard or garden. My parents spent a month in Japan for my father’s business when I was very young, leaving my brother and me with my grandmother and great-grandmother. Mom and Dad returned with foreign toys and books, and a full kimono and obi for Mom. Stories of Japan, strange meals, their hostess Keiko-san, tatami mats and futons seemed magical and exotic to my child-self and the idea of a traditional Japanese inn stuck in my mind.

When I started researching ryokan options, I was stunned at the prices: Top ryokans can break $1000/night–not something I was willing to do for the chance to sleep on the floor! (Besides, this wasn’t a short splurge trip, this was a 2 ½ month wander.) Kyoto is famed for its ryokans, but they tended to be very much on the high end and, besides, I’d already found an apartment I wanted. Our remaining cities in Japan were Hiroshima (because I really wanted to see the Peace Park and Museum) and Fukuoka, where we had to catch a ferry to South Korea. Neither of these cities offered much in the way of the ryokans I’d imagined. Also, I discovered that the term “ryokan” seemed to be applied on occasion to something more like a cheap hotel than the traditional lodging I had in mind. Caution was in order.

When I read about the island of Miyajima near Hiroshima, I thought I might be on to something. Miyajima is famed as the site of the sprawling Itsukushima shrine, raised on stilts to allow the tides to flow under it and its famous Great Torii Gate standing in the sea between the island and the nearby mainland. Miyajima is only about an hour from Hiroshima and is a popular day trip. Several online commentators recommended staying a night, though, to enjoy the island once the day crowds thinned. Researching affordable ryokans on Miyajima, I came across Ryokan Jukeiso. At 33,480 yen (around $330) for 2 persons, including dinner and breakfast and access to both the communal and private onsen, Jukeiso looked like a deal and just what I had in mind.

We arrived on Miyajima via the World Heritage Route boat, the more expensive of our alternatives, but a fun and direct trip from the Peace Park in Hiroshima down the river and across the bay, past picturesque islands. Although Jukeiso offers complimentary shuttle service, it doesn’t begin until 3pm and we arrived before that. Taxis were available, but since the day was sunny, we decided to do the 20-minute walk along the waterside and past the Itsukushima shrine instead. The boat dropped us off a short ways from the ferry port.

Other than one flight of stairs, the walk wasn’t difficult, even with our rolling luggage…except for the fact that the day turned surprisingly warm. We opted to stop for lunch en route just to get out of the sun. Continuing our journey, we arrived at Jukeiso perched on a hillside overlooking the Itsukishima shrine and the Great Torii Gate.

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Ryokan Jukeiso

Unfortunately, our first impression was the darkened steaming-hot lobby, apparently devoid of any air conditioning. When and older man appeared from the back, he checked us in without hassle and informed us we could leave our luggage since check-in wasn’t for another hour (3pm). Leaving our suitcases, we escaped the sweltering room as fast as possible. I quickly scanned my phone to confirm our room was air conditioned. Please, oh, please let this just be some problem with the lobby! Sleeping on the floor in an un-air-conditioned room was not my idea of fun!

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Fortunately, when we returned after exploring the island the lobby air condition was on and beginning to drive back the heat and humidity. Maybe they just turned it off during “off” times to save electricity?

Our kindly hostess led us up an elevator and down a hall decorated with bamboo to our room. We left our shoes in an entry vestibule before stepping onto the cool tatami mats of an antechamber with doors to sink and shower room and a separated toilet. A small refrigerator offered for-pay snacks. Sliding paper doors opened onto our main room, happily cool and devoid of furniture save for a low table flanked by two legless chairs and a smaller table with two “regular” chairs. A low ledge held a small flat-screen tv which we never turned on and a musical instrument of some sort. The opposite wall offered a large window. Our hostess showed us a closet with summer kimonos, holding them up to be sure we had proper sizes. She then gestured us to sit at the low table while she served us cold tea and cookies–a delightful break after our ramble in the hot outdoors–before leaving us on our own.

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Tea and cookies to welcome us to our room

A laminated page on the ledge described in words and pictures the procedure for using the onsen baths in the basement floor of the hotel. I’d already watched a helpful video on youtube.com, and this instruction page confirmed that. Having reserved the private bath for that evening, we hadn’t planned to use the communal baths, but now that we were here (and hot and sticky from the day’s activities), we changed our minds. So, grabbing our kimonos, we headed for the baths.

As it turned out, I had the ladies’ bath to myself, but David did share his bath with a Japanese man and his 20-ish son. The procedure was the same for both of us, but I’ll just recount my own: I undressed in the dressing room outside the bath and left my clothes in a space provided. Neither clothes nor bathing suits are allowed in onsen baths.

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Dressing area of the ladies’ onsen

Taking a small towel from a stack provided, I entered the main bath area, took a stool from a stack and a plastic bowl and seated myself at one of 6 flexible shower handles to thoroughly wash my hair and body before entering the hot onsen bath. Then, it was time to just luxuriate in the hot water. Fish swam in a nearby aquarium and windows overlooked the hillside. I stepped out awhile to cool off in the shower head before reentering to steep some more. Thoroughly relaxed, I went back to the dressing room dried off with more of the tiny towels and put on my kimono to meet a similarly-dressed David back outside. Delightful!

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Interior of the ladies’ onsen

Although dinner is customarily served in the guests’ room in a ryokan, this ryokan no longer did that, but rather served dinner in a dining room. Not being a big fan of food and food smell where I’m going to sleep, I didn’t mind this modification at all. The dining room had a view over the Itsukushima shrine, the Great Torii Gate and the 5-story pagoda. Dinner was a set kaiseki-style menu of many courses. While we enjoyed it, we didn’t feel it rose to the level of the kaiseki we’d had in Kyoto. Still, dinner was enjoyable, interesting and filling.

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Back in our room, we found our low table had been moved to just below the window and two futons laid out in the middle of the room. The bedding looked thick and reasonably comfortable, but time would soon tell. First, though, we had our appointment with the private onsen. Donning our kimonos, we headed out again.

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The private onsen turned out to be a lovely L-shaped bath with a big open view overlooking the shrine, gate, pagoda and bay. We had a wonderful time soaking in the moonlit bath. What a great end to the day!

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Jukeiso’s private onsen

When we finally nestled into our futons, I found myself happily tired, but relaxed. The futon and fluffy duvet, both wrapped in cool, soft cotton, made a snug cocoon. The room smelled sweetly of the straw tatami mats on the floor and the barley husks that filled our small pillows. We drifted off to sleep in no time, sleeping soundly until morning.

Breakfast was a final, pleasant surprise. Wanting to have as authentic an experience as possible, we’d chosen the Japanese rather than the Western breakfast option. What we got was a veritable feast of many dishes that left us feeling like culinary explorers. More like dinner than breakfast to Western eyes, the meal was delicious and filling. The gentleman owner of the ryokan came by at breakfast to sign us up for the free shuttle to the ferry. [I’ll write about transportation options for getting between Miyojima and Hiroshima in a separate post.]

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Japanese breakfast at Jukeiso
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Jukeiso dining room

All-in-all, we really enjoyed Ryokan Jukeiso and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for an affordable ryokan. Various room types are available, including western-style beds. Learn more at: http://miyajima-jukeiso.com/english.html

Beware the dread “semi-double” bed!

Space is notoriously compact in Japan so we resigned ourselves to the idea of a double bed in at least some of our lodging, but in searching hotels and apartments online, I discovered a nasty little trick called the “semi-double” bed. The first time I came across this term, I’d clicked on a listing for a “double bed” room that seemed like a surprisingly good rate. Getting right down to the booking stage, I saw the phrase “semi-double.” This was new. The listing had only said “double.” Having no idea what the term meant–but feeling suspicious–I did a little research. Sure enough, a “semi-double” is basically somewhere between a single and a double or full bed in width (110-120 cm), i.e., a somewhat bigger single bed. A double bed is usually around 140 cm and a twin around 90 cm.

I came across this term over and over in Japan: Selling a beefed-up twin bed room to two people. And, often the semi-ness of the semi-double is not clearly specified until a later screen (and sometimes not at all–I call if in doubt). You’ve got to be kidding! I love my husband, but he’s a big guy and neither one of us would get much sleep with the two of us crammed into a bed that size. And, I can only imagine the size of the room that goes with these beds, too. It’s hard to picture where luggage for two people would go either. Anyway, be advised.

Tokyo to Kyoto in a typhoon

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View from the Park Hyatt of the worsening weather

The sunny weather gave way to occasional mists and light rain in the days following our arrival in Tokyo as the first advance wisps of Typhoon Malakas reached the city. It wasn’t enough to interfere with our plans–other than nixing trips up Tokyo Tower, the Skytree or the Government building. The sweeping views with Mt. Fuji in the background that my boys and I had enjoyed on a previous visit just weren’t happening this time.

We got a light mist at the Meiji Jingu Temple, but the thick trees of the park surrounding it did much to shelter us. At least three weddings proceeded in quick succession while we were there; a veritable production line of brides. Clearly, it was an auspicious day with or without the rain.The clouds did drop the temperature pleasantly, so all and all, things worked out for the newlyweds and for us…if you don’t count my head of increasingly frizzy hair!

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Wedding party at the Meiji Jingu Shrine
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Wedding procession at Meiji Jingu Shrine

Our first week on Honshu, the main island of Japan, encompassed two Japanese holidays: Respect for the Aged Day and Autumnal Equinox. The first holiday fell while we were in Tokyo and treated us to wandering groups of costumed people toting shrines through the streets of Shinjuku and chanting. A festive air reigned through the neighborhood with stalls of food being hawked by groups of smiling people dressed in costumes to match the shrine-bearers. An open stage blared live Japanese rock music, trucks trundled by broadcasting music sounding more military than anything else to our bemused ears. Inquiries resulted in answers that lost something in translation: “There’s a ghost in the box.” when we asked about the shrine bearers. Oh well, it was big fun anyway.

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Despite the variable weather, we visited the soon-to-be-moved Tsukiji fish market which was top on David’s list. Unfortunately, the big commercial market was closed for the Respect for the Aged holiday, but the food stalls overflowed with people.

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This guy was giving out free samples. David tried it, but couldn’t identify.

We wandered popular Shinjuku Park and explored its greenhouse, braved the rain to try an izakaya (Japanese gastropub) on the 40th floor of a Shinjuku building where we dined among the clouds. Wanting to see the relatively-new Park Hyatt, we got a birdseye view of the worsening weather which we were soon to discover was no minor storm.

In Tokyo, we stayed in the Hyatt Regency, using 1 free night apiece David and I had from our Hyatt Visa credit cards. At $95/ year, we find these cards to be no-brainers: With our travels, we’re bound to be somewhere–like Tokyo–where we can get a much more expensive hotel for the yearly fee on the card, plus the perks of the status the card gives us. In Tokyo, this saved us about $200/night. When we discovered that a typhoon was bearing down on Japan, threatening high winds and devastating flooding in the south on the day we were scheduled to depart on a bullet train to Kyoto, it was nice to have the super-helpful concierge staff at the Hyatt checking on the status of trains and providing detailed transfer information from the hotel to Tokyo Station.

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The massive chandeliers at the Hyatt Regency were only a week back from cleaning and more magnificent than ever

We’d planned to catch a taxi from our hotel near Shinjuku Station to Tokyo Station where the bullet trains depart, but it turned out to be faster to simply catch the Oedo Line from Shinjuku to Tokyo. The price was also included in our bullet train ticket. [We did not purchase a JR Pass because the math just didn’t work out given the length of our trip and our proposed train travel. Also, David wanted to ride the fastest bullet train between Tokyo and Kyoto and that train, the Nozomi, is not included in the JR Pass. The time difference is minimal between bullet trains, but it was something he wanted and, as I said, it made financial sense anyway.]

The ride itself was uneventful–and fast. I don’t think the weather caused any slow-down, although we were told that was a possibility in typhoons. We enjoyed our bento box lunches and the trip flew by.

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Inside the Nozomi Shinkansen to Kyoto (2nd class, reserved seats)
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Bento box lunch bought at the station; beer bought on the train

We arrived in a rainy Kyoto. No surprise there, but not exactly the beautiful fall weather I’d envisioned. Oh well, such are the whims of the travel gods. After a short ride with a truly nasty-tempered cabbie (the only unfriendly person we encountered in Kyoto), we arrived at our AirBnB apartment. As billed, it sits just across the road from Nijo Castle and our balcony looks out on one of the watch towers. Beautiful, even in a typhoon!

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Nijo Castle in a typhoon; view from our balcony

One of the joys of lengthy travel is being able to slow down and try to get at least a little taste of living in a place. It’s a big reason why I like renting apartments rather than hotels, along with the extras like a washing machine and kitchen. Usually, apartments provide more space as well, but a typical apartment in Japan also means compact. I’d chose Kyoto for our longer apartment stay and, as always, ran it by David before booking. David’s 6’3″ and I knew some of the features of the apartment I’d chosen might be a little tricky for him. As usual, he was game.–It’s one of the things I love about him.

The apartment is exactly as described: immaculate, small, but well-equipped and well-thought-out. We have a double bed*, a tiny kitchen, a washing machine/dryer combo (that doesn’t do much in the way of drying), air conditioning, free bikes at our disposal, wifi and a portable wifi hotspot. I love the odd, but practical, touches–like the toilet where you can wash your hands in the water that’s refilling the tank. (‘Makes sense: It’s clean water, you’re recycling…there’s just something about the idea that’s a little unsettling to the Western mind.) We’re in a good location and the building is very nice. It’s a big change from living at home, but it’s fun…and funny to listen to David banging around in the bathroom while he tries to bathe in the meter-long bathtub. He really is a great sport!

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We’ve got a large grocery store just a couple of blocks down the street and we’ve had fun shopping the often-mystifying items. Once again, Google Translate has been invaluable as we scan labels of products we’ve never heard of.

*A double bed may sound small to my American friends, but I’m going to do a separate short post on why it’s actually a very awesome thing. Hint: Beware the “semi-double!”