Travel Friends are Forever

Anyone who has read this website before knows how much I extoll the virtues of solo travel and how positive those journeys can be. Those values must not be forgotten but today I am going to focus on something even more important than the solo travel experience: the travel friend everyone needs to have.

Travel is the only expense that makes you richer. Sometimes you get even richer from travel if you can go with your good friends.

My best travel friend in the world also happens to be one of my best friends from my hometown. Our quest for adventure and sightseeing has taken us to many spectacular places where we have seen amazing things and participated in many unforgettable events.

It all started on a rainy Wednesday morning in central Pennsylvania when my friend Andrew and his brother, David, picked me up for what would end up being an eventful day in Lafayette Square at the inaugural Tax Day Tea Party in Washington, D.C. The whole experience set the wheels in motion for a friendship that has led us to more than 15 states, three Canadian provinces, and two (soon to be four) countries in North America (and Asia).

From that moment onward, we began to take weekend trips to see different places in our part of the country. Often times we traveled in his Mazda to the historic triangle between Harper’s Ferry, WV, Antietam, MD, and Washington, D.C., to celebrate Memorial Day. One time we made a wrong turn and decided to stop at a special place on a state road where West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia all converged into one point on the banks of the Potomac. DSC01461

The sights and sounds that day in the Mid Atlantic were amazing.

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As we continued to travel and make long hauls of weekends, we realized that we had something few friends have when it comes to travel: chemistry. Anyone who travels a lot knows how hard it is to find a friend who has the same travel interests and travel style. Pace, interests, and reasons are often irreconcilable differences when it comes to choosing the people with whom you want to travel.

We both love roadside attractions, a very fast pace, history, and taking a ridiculous amount of photos. As a result, we began to plan an unforgettable road trip during the summer of 2012 from Central Pennsylvania to Ft. Ticonderoga and then to St. John’s, New Brunswick, Canada, by way of Montreal and Quebec City. After that, this 2000-plus mile road trip would meander down the East Coast with stops at Acadia National Park and some other historical landmarks on our way home. With all these stops and all that distance, you would think that we would do it all in about a week or two, right?

Not us. We did it all in a span of only five days. We loaded up his Subaru and were on our way to Canada, for better or worse. DSC08147

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After many scenic stops, some ridiculous encounters with fellow travelers and locals, an interesting cab ride in Montreal, and an all-night drive between Montreal and Quebec City, we made it to New Brunswick where we met our match the following night. After taking in the beautiful cliffs at Fundy National Park, we were on our way back to the United States to hopefully camp for the night at Acadia National Park.

Andrew and I at Fundy National Park, New Brunswick, Canada, ca. 2013.
Andrew and I at Fundy National Park, New Brunswick, Canada, ca. 2013.

Horribly foggy conditions engulfed our vehicle in northern Maine and led us to drive at speeds of 15 miles an hour all night down back roads along the Maine coast to find the nearest hotel to stop for the night. We stopped at a bar to ask for directions and watched a Red Sox game with some locals who let us know that we were decidedly unwelcome. After that, we got back on the road and headed down the road with a brief stop until making it to Acadia National Park in the morning. Even though it was so stressful, we both knew more trips had to be done following an experience like that.

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We just never knew when it could happen.

As luck would have it, my vacation time from my job in Japan allowed us to meet up last summer (2014) for another high octane road trip across America, this time to St. Louis and back (via Chicago and Cincinnati).

Totaling over 1700 miles, this trip would be on more familiar territory (we both had extensive travel experience in the Midwest), but would not be short on energy or excitement. Posing with Touchdown Jesus in South Bend, Indiana, eating White Castle, seeing lightning strike the Sears Tower, meeting Swedes in Chicago, and seeing my aunt in Cincinnati all accented what was another amazing trip to one more of America’s great landmarks.

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The most remarkable thing about it is this: throughout all of our travels, we have never had a bitter dispute or bickered to the point where we were not speaking to each other, even for a few hours. Each time we have hit the road and traveled, it has been enjoyable and memorable no matter where we were in North America.

We were resided to the fact that that journey was probably our last one together as I returned to Japan and he returned to school in the United States.

As we all know, life often takes unexpected twists and Andrew and his brother are about to board a plane to come see me in Japan. During the three weeks they are in Japan, we will traverse Japanese cities and countryside and even take a jaunt to Seoul, South Korea, to get an authentic experience in the city with some of my Korean friends.

Who ever would have thought that two boys from small town USA would end up see so much of the world together in such a short period of time? Some things bring people together and help forge friendships for life.

For me, travel certainly is one of them.

I know as soon as I meet them at the arrivals gate at Kansai International Airport on Wednesday, the good times will roll again in Japan like we never missed a beat.

Travel friends and the memories you make with them will be a topic of conversation between you all until the day you pass. Get out there and travel and bring a seasoned friend with you from time to time.

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At Incheon Int’l Airport, Take a Stopover Tour!

Many travelers dread the thought of a layover or stopover on their impending trip. Nothing is worse than five or six hours in a place where you have visa-free entrance but don’t want to risk missing your connecting flight. If you have a long layover in Incheon, South Korea, fear not. Incheon International Airport offers fantastic– AND FREE– stopover tour options which I highly recommend for a layover as short as even three hours.

En route to China in April, my friend and I decided to take the two hour tour option and we had a great time. here is what you can expect on one of these tours.

As soon as we got off of our plane and neared the security checkpoint, a woman speaking perfect English asked us if we were planning on staying in Korea or if we had a transit. Once she heard the word “transit”, she pitched the Incheon Airport’s transit tour to us and we happily took the bait. Our tour would be leaving the airport at 1:00PM and returning around 3:00, so we had time to grab some lunch and meet the rest of the group at the front of the terminal.

As soon as we passed through security, it was obvious as to why Incheon Airport is constantly ranked as the best or one of the best airports in the world. Dazzling light displays, beautiful open terminal buildings, and FREE showers are just a few of the things you will see past security.

A girl plays in front of one of Incheon International Airport's interactive light displays.
A girl plays in front of one of Incheon International Airport’s interactive light displays.

We met our tour guide near one of the airport exits and headed off on our tour with a small group of Americans, Canadians, and Germans. If you have bags, fear not. The tour will store your bags in a secure location while you are in the city, free of charge.

After passing over the bridge connecting Incheon Airport to the rest of the city, we made our way to Heungryunsa Temple, located atop a hill in Incheon. We first noticed the great views of the city skyline and bridge from near where our bus stopped.

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The cherry blossoms near the temple entrance were also in full bloom.

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We walked up over 107 steps at this temple which featured some gold-clad Buddhas, nice elephants, and some small gardens. It was nice to get a feel for some of the local Korean Buddhist culture while only being here for such a short time.

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Next stop on the tour was the Memorial Hall for the Incheon Landing Operation. This place was a fantastic location to learn about the Korean War and the immensity of the Battle of Incheon, a daring tactical maneuver and amphibious landing spearheaded by General Douglas MacArthur. The surprise landing and attack was the beginning of the offensive which eventually pressed MacArthur’s troops far into North Korea.

The park features some great period artillery pieces, statues, monuments, and a nice display of flags from the countries which participated in the Korean War.

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After our brief stop here, we were back to the airport where we thought our tour would finish, but there was one last surprise in store for us.

After passing through immigration, we went towards our gate and passed by one of the Korean cultural exhibitions where staff help explain Korean culture and assist you in creating a piece of Korean artwork (again, for free) to take back with you as a way to remember Korea.

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The two young women working at the store spoke flawless English and we had some great conversations! For about an hour, we talked about travel, Korea, and shared interesting stories about life in Japan and being an expat in Asia. They helped make our experience in Incheon a memorable and unforgettable one. As a matter of fact, they will be my two of my tour guides in Seoul next month with my friends from the United States.

To make a long story short, make sure you go on one of Incheon International Airport’s free stopover tours next time you are in South Korea. Also make sure to stop by one of the cultural workshops before you depart. You never know who you will meet. Who knows? Maybe it will inspire you to go to Korea for longer than a few hours!

2015 Great Wall Marathon in Photos

As my friend and I climbed up the set of stairs leading to the Jinshaling stretch of the Great Wall of China, we encountered some interesting individuals both descending and ascending the steep and ragged stairs.

One would expect large groups of tourists, photographers, or even vendors on a warm (and clear) April afternoon, but these people were unique and special— they were runners.

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As a runner from Hong Kong told me, this was no average run. They were near the finish line for the 2015 Great Wall Marathon. You read that right- the Great Wall Marathon. I didn’t believe it at first, but there were hundreds of people running 26.2 miles on one of the world’s most famous landmarks. At this point we still had not seen the wall ourselves, but once we arrived the immensity of the challenge was soon very apparent.

The Jinshaling section of the wall is the most-photographed section of the Great Wall. As it serpentines the ridges and mountaintops, it creates a breathtaking scene. This scenery coupled with weathered barriers was interesting when juxtaposed against marathoners.

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Once we reached the Wall, we our exciting 4 hour walk alongside marathoners led to new friendships and some unforgettable scenery.

I have never run a marathon, but I can say with a great deal of certainty that it is one of the most challenging and physically demanding athletic pursuits out there even if it is on flat ground or a paved roadway. The Great Wall Marathon was neither on flat ground nor was it on a paved roadway. Runners were met with steep slopes, ragged staircases, and eroding pathways as they carried on towards the finish line.

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As my friend and I struggled down these staircases, we could only imagine the difficulty and cramping runners faced as they reached mile 20 running on this wall. There was a real possibility for serious injury but they all pressed onward towards the finish line.

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In the face of this daunting challenge, many runners were cheerful and could not wait say hello during the marathon. IMG_4414

Runners of all ages with walking sticks stopped to say hello or wave as they continued towards the finish. IMG_4416

Other runners wearing nothing more than a tank top and shorts pressed toward the finish. 

Crossing through the watch posts was another interesting part of navigating the Great Wall and finishing the marathon. There were often bottlenecks inside as groups of runners jockeyed for position to keep up their pace.

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Our fantastic guide, Jack, was all smiles as he explained the Wall’s history and its importance throughout the duration of our tour. Anyone interested in doing a tour of the wall should definitely stop by the Wild Great Wall Adventure Tours website and book with them (http://www.wildgreatwall.com). The experience was world class and Rick and his team did a great job making sure everything was arranged for us weeks in advance.

Once we passed through the first watch tower, a young couple was giggling at the bottom and eventually ended up talking with my friend and I. Since they were staff for the marathon, they joined us for part of the walk to make nice conversation and talk about some of the race’s details. While there were some communication gaps, they helped make the whole tour memorable. It’s another example of meeting interesting people along the way when you travel.

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As the day grew older, we split ways and continued towards the terminus of the tour but encountered even more runners as they braved the Great Wall. About midway through our tour, the Chinese flag provided a great opportunity to see runners hustling down one of the smoother portions of the Jinshaling Wall.

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Several hundred yards later, an ominous watch tower was a preview of some of the difficulties runners would face later on in the course.

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From this point onward, the climb became even more difficult. Steep inclines and declines made some joggers take pause but they kept going against all odds.

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As we continued towards our tour’s terminus, there were beautiful scenes around every corner. Looking back at the wall as the sun began to set, we thought about the runners and finally making it to one of the world’s most famous landmarks.

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The runners and the marathon were an interesting distraction during the day, but the moment for which we had waited all day finally arrived– sunset. Words cannot describe how beautiful this sight was.

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Sumida Park – Tokyo Sky Tree and Sakura

One of Japan’s most famous symbols around the world is the cherry blossom. Between the end of March and the beginning of April each year, many varieties of trees open up their blossoms and reach full bloom. These cherry blossom trees are popular all throughout Japan and Tokyo is no exception. With many famous gardens and parks boasting wide varieties of flowering plants, there is no better place to check out the yearly sakura blossoms.

Let’s take a walk together to see Sumida Park, a good site to see Tokyo’s cherry blossoms. Nestled up against the Sumida River, there are many scenic photographic opportunities.

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After waking up early on Saturday, I was off to Kuritsu Sumida Park in the heart of Tokyo, right across the river from the famed Sky Tree. At this park, some varieties of trees were in full bloom while others were just beginning to bloom. I was not alone as many tourists and Japanese alike came to the park to check out the blossoms on this warm late March morning.  Sky Tree and hoards of Japanese enjoying their annual hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties made for an interesting start to the day.

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Above the walkway, many lanterns hung from wires and the trees. These pink and yellow lanterns sponsored by Asahi Beer were an interesting site and similar to the lanterns I observed last year in Nakameguro during night time cherry blossom viewing.

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Other lamps also were on the site, this one from Asakusa Station. DSC02058

As I continued down the walkway, many people gathered around (and under) a tree which was nearing full bloom.

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Albeit cloudy, there were ample opportunities to frame Sky Tree with the season’s blossoms.

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After walking for a few more minutes, I reached the north side of the park where a weeping cherry tree was already in full bloom. Surrounded at its base by some yellow flowers, this tree stood out from the rest in the park.

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After backtracking to the train station, the next stop along the way was Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens (小石川後楽園), right across the street from Tokyo Dome. Many beautiful sites were waiting for me. As I write the article, it is still hard for me to believe how this garden exists in the middle of Tokyo right next to such a huge sports complex.

The weeping cherry trees were already in full bloom compared to the trees at Sumida Park.

Sumida Park is one of many good places to see Tokyo’s cherry trees come to full bloom each March/April. More info coming on other places I visited in Tokyo last weekend.

Tokyo’s Koishikawa Gardens – Blossoms in Full Bloom

Even though Tokyo is the world’s largest city, it is famous for immense green spaces and lush parks and gardens. Shinjuku Park, Ueno Park, and Yoyogi Park may be some of the most famous for viewing cherry blossoms, but my favorite spot in the city to see the cherry blossoms in Tokyo is a mere stone’s throw away from Tokyo Dome.

Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens (小石川後楽園) may be relatively small in size, but it packs a major punch both in two key aspects of the cherry blossoms: different types of landscapes for shooting and floral diversity. Inside these gardens not just cherry blossoms await. A wide array of other flowering bushes and plants line the pathways and trails to create a scene unlike any other green space in Tokyo.

After passing through the gates (there is a nominal entrance fee, so come prepared), one is quickly greeted by a weeping cherry in full bloom and a park sign. Unlike other parks and gardens in Tokyo last weekend, Koishikawa Gardens already had many trees in full bloom.

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Tokyo Dome is in the background of this shot so you can see how close these two places really are.

Famous for its ponds, I started off walking around one of the park’s smaller ponds and took some photos of trees quickly reaching full bloom.

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Juxtaposed against Tokyo’s modern skyline, traditional Japanese garden design and old footbridges create a nice contrast between perceived images of old and new Japan.

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As you can see below, people were not the only ones out taking in the cherry blossoms: a pair of turtles were also checking out the scenery.

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A few more paces and a few more ponds later, I encountered a different species of tree which boasted pink blossoms. Rock gardens and formations in the middle of this lake provided a nice change of scenery.

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Once I was finished walking around this pond, I turned to the right and walked directly under a path which was blanked in stunning white blossoms, all in full bloom. Their rich smell provided a nice accent to the incessant sound of camera shutters clicking and children playing with their siblings.

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On the other side of this walkway, more images of a stereotypical Japan waited.

On my left side was a perfectly straight walkway through another large pond.

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On the right side was a traditional orange footbridge behind a stone walkway which crossed through the same body of water. I feel as if both of these images are symbolic of Japan.

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After walking a bit further to the right and climbing some steep, rocky, stairs, Koishikawa Gardens’ most beautiful image became visible. Scrunched between a teeming footpath, a stagnant pond, and leaves in the foreground, a vibrantly blooming tree filled a magnificent scene. This was the image everyone at the park hoped to capture. In the midday sunlight, everything seemed perfect.

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Deeper into the garden, more kinds of trees were in full bloom, this time in pink.

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The final park of my stroll through Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens is what makes this garden my favorite place in all of Tokyo for blossom viewing: it is an ecologically diverse environment! While the cherry blossoms may be the most famous flowering plant in all of Japan, some marvelous other plants were in full bloom near the park’s exit.

Red and white bushes lined one walkway in the park.

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Another pathway even had a yellow flowering bush! Even though these flowers were not quite ready to bloom their color added even more to a beautiful scene inside the park.

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The final plant waiting at the garden’s exit was one of the most interesting plants of the day. Even though it boasted no flowers, this bush had some marvelous red leaves which were changing color for the season as well.

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While there are many more famous and more well known spots inside of Tokyo to see cherry blossoms and other flowering plants, Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens is my favorite. The diverse scenery and the diverse ecology make it a must-visit location whether you are checking out the flowers next year or the plants at any time of year. I will be sure to come back here during the fall to see how the park looks during the peak fall colors period.

Kimono in Tokyo: A Photographic Account

This weekend I trekked to Tokyo to see the gorgeous cherry blossoms open throughout the city. The opening of the blossoms and the changing of the seasons are very symbolic in Japan.

During this time of year, there are many special ceremonies and cultural events. One of them is called ohanami (お花見), where friends, family, or groups of people will lie out a tarp and enjoy food and drinks under the blossoming cherry trees. While most people will wear normal clothes, some Japanese wear traditional clothing for this traditional event.

It was interesting to see traditional Japanese clothing and traditional Japanese events happen in one of the world’s most modern cities this weekend. Here is a photographic essay documenting what I saw this weekend at various parks and shrines across the city.

Saturday started off at the famous Asakusa Shrine where hoards of Japanese and tourists alike assembled to take in one of Japan’s most famous sites. While incense burned, two women walked through the crowd on their way to pray at the shrine. Their brightly colored kimono stood out from the rest of the crowd.

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From here, I continued onward to another famous park in Tokyo, Kuritsu Sumida Park, directly across the river from Tokyo Sky Tree, Japan’s tallest building. Along the river, children played, families took a stroll in the warm morning and afternoon breeze, and many people enjoyed hanami. Amongst the mayhem there were many kimono and many beautiful cherry blossoms. Almost as soon as I arrived, this image of a woman and her daughter caught my eye. Their kimono were beautiful!

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As I continued down the walkway, more Kimono were visible. Friends and family alike were dressed up for this special occasion.

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Some younger girls in kimono were even interviewed for a television program.

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From here, I went to a few more parks and gardens, namely Shinjuku Gardens and Koishikawa Botanical Gardens, but there were no kimono, just countless beautiful flowers. After these stops I stopped at Kita no Maru Park and encountered a few more women wearing kimono.

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The day was waining but spirits were high. One more stop remained on my itinerary.  The last stop of the day proved to have the day’s best imagery.

One of Japan’s most famous and most controversial sites is Yusukuni Shrine, which is the shrine dedicated to Japan’s war dead. The shrine in the heart of the Chiyoda Ward offers some of Tokyo’s best cherry blossom viewing opportunities. After a long walk through a massive festival with live bands and street food, I arrived at the shrine to see some of the flowers. On the right, something special caught my eye.

Japanese men and women were dressed in traditional clothing performing a special dance inside the shrine grounds. I stood there and watched it for over 20 minutes. Here is what I saw.

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Three women were dressed in beautiful kimono and performed synchronized dances while a traditional Japanese band strummed shamisen and beat taiko drums. It was an interesting sight to behold and I will be uploading a video at a later point.

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As the performance closed and daylight wained, I had one more chance encounter with a kimono. Through the sunset and the cherry trees, this woman’s kimono stuck out from the rest of the crowd.

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Inside Shinjuku’s Secret, Silent, Alleys

Shinjuku is the place where many Japanese dreams are born: bustling city streets, crowded train stations, and exciting nightclubs make this a destination neighborhood for Tokyo tourists with a wide array of interests. The crowded intersections and busy streets offer a portal into the world of what many Westerners think Tokyo is when they arrive in Japan for the first time. While the glitz and glam of glittering storefronts and bright lights has an allure all its own, inside this lively neighborhood is one of my favorite places in all of Tokyo, called Omoideyokochou (思いで横丁).

Venturing down “memory lane” or “memory alley” (as the Japanese translates directly to English), these quiet alleys reveal a different, more traditional look into Japan, mere paces from JR Shinjuku Station. The average tourist walks right by these alleys and misses out on a chance to experience a different Japan. This is a place where neon lights are replaced by glowing lanterns and where loudspeakers are replaced by shopkeepers enticing passersby to sit down for a beer and some yakitori at their shop.

When I lived in Tokyo four years ago, even I never heard of this place. I was turned onto it two years ago when I read an article (in Japanese) about the hidden spots and destinations inside Tokyo. It boasted of the “retro feel” of the “Showa-era streets”. Once I read about Omoideyokocho, I knew I had to check it out.

That was two years ago and now I always make this place my first stop when I get off the airplane or the Shinkansen in Tokyo. It always sets the tone for my weekend in the city. Join me for a journey into Shinjuku’s secret alleys.

After exiting JR Shinjuku Station (Yamanote Line) and walking down the main road for a bit, be sure to look for the bright green signs and the yellow script which say 思いで横丁. They are very easy to miss in the confusion that is Shinjuku, but you should be looking to your left.

If you are taking another train, be sure to cross under the Yamanote tracks. After that, you will make a hard left turn and the west entrance (西口) will be in front of you. In the springtime, look for the cherry blossoms hanging underneath the sign. In the fall, there will be autumnal leaves draped from the same area.

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As soon as you start your journey down these alleys, you will realize how different it is compared to the rest of Shinjuku. First and foremost, it is relatively quiet. Aside from the occasional conversation, rumblings of a passing train, or shopkeepers calling would-be passengers, the other sounds of Tokyo are nonexistent.

One of my favorite parts of Omoideyokocho is the lack of neon lights. They are replaced with glowing, traditional Japanese lanterns which spell out what each shop offers: yakitori, kushikatsu, izakaya-style fare, etc. On the typical evening, these streets will be filled with Japanese salarymen and Tokyo residents heading to their favorite watering hall after a hard day’s work. This photo perfectly captures the atmosphere in Omoideyokocho on a typical evening.

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Incandescent bulbs and lanterns illuminate the narrow alleys where you will definitely bump shoulders with Japanese of all stripes as you look for your preferred dining location. Men standing and waiting for their favorite hot bowl of ramen, the smell of grilling meat, Japanese oden, and the city streets will trigger your appetite, so be ready. Somehow full stomachs become empty as you pass down these streets.

I recommend walking through the alleys a few times to get a glimpse at all the restaurants and bars here so you know where you want to start your evening. Most likely, you will hit a few different izakaya on this street before moving on to the lively Shinjuku streets. It seems like each place offers the same food, but they are different! Trust me!

Once you choose your favorite izakaya, it is time to sit down and start chatting up the locals as you wait for your order. Don’t be intimidated if you cannot speak Japanese or read the menu.

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Many of the Japanese people in these shops will help you order or offer their suggestions for what you should get. I speak Japanese so it isn’t a problem for me, but do not be afraid. Lots of times, Japanese patrons will try to speak with you and ask you what you think about Japan. Just step into the shop with a smile. Going to a place like this gives you a great opportunity to meet locals and maybe learn a Japanese phrase or two as you start your journey here.

On Friday night, I spoke with a man who studied for a semester at Penn State (Pennsylvania, USA) and another man who had been to the Grand Canyon two different times. You never know who you are going to meet. After the chatting and self-introductions finish, it is time to eat.

While you may be use to wide and spacious restaurants in your home country, do not expect that type of an environment on this street. Expect small places (often only room for ten to fifteen people) and expect to be seated shoulder-to-shoulder with other patrons, often bumping shoulders and exchanging pleasantries. The narrow counters offer an interesting atmosphere where the store owners make your food right in front of you.

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Be sure to order a few different items on the menu so you have a continuous stream of food coming your way. Couple that with an Asahi beer and you are set for at least thirty minutes of excitement and fun inside of Shinjuku’s secret and silent alleys.

Once you are finished, you can go out into the madness that is the nearby Kabuki-cho, or you can head off to another secluded part of Tokyo like Golden Gai, where hundreds of bars await both locals and tourists alike.

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While most people come to Tokyo to experience the world’s largest city and some of the world’s finest gardens and parks, it would behoove you to stop by Omoideyokocho and enjoy a glimpse into a quieter, more traditional Tokyo.

New Friends and Free Pizza in Vientiane, Laos

For many backpackers and travelers in Laos, Vientiane is nothing more than an afterthought or a thorn in their side. For them, the capital city is a one night stay in one of the numerous hostels before making their way to either party in Vang Vieng or see the Buddhist marvels that await in Luang Prabang. Not for me.

I came to the city to see the remnants of French Indochina architecture and to explore the cafe and dining scene which is unlike anywhere else in Asia. The European influence was still strong in the city which gave it a very special vibe. Patrons, locals and tourists alike, were relaxed and moved around lethargically throughout their daily procedures. It was a welcomed respite for me.

After two days of wandering the city and meeting some interesting folks on the streets, I descended on Via Via Restaurant right next to the Mekong River for dinner on my last full evening in Vientiane.

As with all restaurants in Laos, Via Via had the standard yellow and green sign out front with a photo of a large bottle of Lao Beer. That is where its similarities with other restaurants I visited in the capital city stopped. On my first night in the city, I was struck by the unique atmosphere at this pizza restaurant.

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Traditional Italian music bellowed out from the speakers while waitresses frantically took orders and delivered drinks to patrons.  The unique mix of European expats, tourists, and locals resonated, as I heard orders taken in Laotian, French, and English on my first pass by the restaurant. I was intrigued and knew I would make my last meal in Vientiane a memorable one at this fine establishment.

After seeing the sun set over the Mekong the following day and checking out the night market, I made my way back to Via Via and was fortunate enough to grab a seat right outside of the restaurant itself but also not quite on the sidewalk. With a seat like this I could monitor what was happening both inside and outside the restaurant.

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Usually I do not drink soda when I am either at home or on the road, but I had a very special chance to order a Laotian Pepsi, served up in a glass bottle without any English labeling. For someone accustomed to international travel throughout Asia, I  was surprised by a native language Peopsi bottle. I had to take a photo. More than likely, I will not have the chance to sample this kind of Pepsi again.

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As the night wore on, patrons were quick to grab a Beer Lao and then head off into the Vientiane haze, either back to their hotel or to another cafe or dining establishment. I decided to order a Beer Lao and a pizza and wait it out for an hour or so at Via Via. Even though Beer Lao is a state-sponsored beer, it tasted very good. Such a pleasant surprise on this balmy December evening.

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With my Beer Lao in hand, I ordered their version of a supreme pizza and started to write in my travel journal when a British couple sat down next to me. They were old but certainly not elderly. Jim had wiry grey hair and wore a nice blue polo to compliment his thick black framed glasses. His wife was wearing a white shirt and carried a nice handbag. I can still see the two of them as I write this article.

They were quiet at first, but as soon as my mouth-watering pizza arrived, they started talking. It was for good reason, too. They wanted to know what kind of pizza I had ordered because it looked so good. Take a look for yourself:

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It was hard to believe, but the best pizza I had had since I moved to Asia was in, of all places, Vientiane. The sharpness of the pepperoni was complimented by the tingle of fresh peppers and the smoothness of Beer Lao.

Then we got to talking. Jim and his wife wanted to know about my travels through Southeast Asia at 24 because they had done similar travels when they were young, only through Europe. He told me stories of going from West Germany into East Germany, riding various trains throughout Europe, and even going to some countries in Indochina and Southeast Asia in the late 1970s. Usually long stories can become boring stories, but Jim had a unique way with imagery and describing the people he met along the way. His verbosity was truly something to behold.

We shared tales of the trains in Burma, dirty and crowded Bangkok streets, and of our time in Singapore. It was so cool to meet a travel couple which had been so many places but continued to go wherever they saw fit.

Jim revealed to me that he and his wife had been out of the United Kingdom for the last three months in Southeast Asia and had no plans of returning home in the near future. As they had both been foreign service officers in their youth, they were bitten by the travel bug and had no desire to stop going places and trying new foods along the way.

Our conversation seemed like it took up only a few minutes, but in reality we spoke to each other for over ninety minutes. As they finished up their pizza, I still had a few pieces left to go. He and his wife both said they enjoyed our conversation very much and said that they had already paid for my pizza.

“We were hoping to meet a young man on our travels tonight,” he said. “Never stop traveling. You never know when you will not have the chance to do it again in your life.”

Those words of wisdom, coupled with a saying my friend Tom told me way back in 2010 still stick to me this day.

“Young people have all the time in the world to travel, but no money. Old people have all the money in the world to travel, but no time. You are living abroad. Get out there and explore.”

It was a pleasure to meet yet another interesting couple out and about in Southeast Asia. While the friendships may be fleeting, it is always nice to meet generous and talkative people out there on the road.

Sometimes traveling alone has its benefits. I know that I would never have met half of the interesting people I have encountered on my travels if I was traveling in a group or with another person. Embrace solo travel meet new people on the road. You will have stories to last a lifetime.

As theAs the night

A Special Singapore Sling

Simple travel moments often turn into extraordinary memories. Two years ago I went to Singapore as a part of my inaugural trip through Southeast Asia and I had a great time. Between the bustling city, the interesting nightlife in Clarke Quay, and the new friends I made along the way, it was a memorable and unique trip.

Over the past year, some of my travel memories have gone to the wayside only to be rediscovered at a later time. While I was reading about the passing of former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, my memory bank was tapped and I recalled one very special moment I had in Singapore. I made friends with complete strangers and would like to share this story with you.

As the typical budget traveler in Southeast Asia, many backpackers lambaste Singapore. They often say some things about Singapore that are meant to dissuade you from going.

“Oh, everything is so expensive,” they say.

“There really isn’t much culture there,” they say.

“Skip Singapore. It isn’t even worth it,” even more say.

As a big city lover who lives in one of the world’s most expensive countries, nothing could tarnish the allure which Singapore holds. For a history lover (tons of British colonial history) and an architecture lover (one of the world’s finest waterfront skylines), nothing would stop me from seeing Singapore and jotting down notes along the way.

As soon as I arrived, I was pleasantly surprised. Changi Airport was spectacular in every sense of the word. Transportation into the city was flawless. Aside from the strict rules and signs referring to the numerous prohibitions at every corner, Singapore was a nice place for me as a tourist. At least these signs made a great photo opportunity.

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Everyone spoke English and there were a lot of interesting things to do for someone there on a budget.

The highlight of wandering the streets was the chance to eat a real ice cream sandwich. Believe it or not, this version of the sandwich was more delicious than the typical version served up in every convenience store in the United States. Take a look for yourself!

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While Thailand was a budget traveler’s heaven, I did not like the lack of English and cleanliness.  After seeing the Merlion and taking in the skyline on my first night, one Singaporean staple catapulted to the top of my list. Glistening in the evening fog across the way was the Marina Bay Sands. After seeing it from the Merlion, I knew I needed to get to the  pool atop the ship-like casino.

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The pool is something about which you read in travel magazines, see on the Travel Channel, and about which you hear stories from your friends who had the money to stay there. The imagery from reading about it, seeing it on TV, and hearing stories turns the Marina Bay Sands infinity pool into a place that seems larger than life. Palm trees swaying in the subtropical wind while jazz music plays in the background make for an interesting atmosphere.

When I heard even more stories about the heated towels and the special drinks they serve at the top, getting there without paying the expensive price for the room became my number one Singaporean travel goal.

To make a long story short, I made it to the pool atop the Sands. Here is the the unconventional way in which it happened.

Before I left Japan, I developed a scheme to get to the pool. I would wear a nice set of clothes and just walk by the guards like I was staying there. Simple enough, I thought, as the typical tourist would not be wearing a button-down shirt. The average tourist would be wearing shorts and a t-shirt. They would have a camera draped around their neck and they would gawk at the skyline, right? Wrong.

Much to my chagrin, almost all of the tourists with whom I rode the elevator dressed nicely. They were all wearing button-down shirts and slacks. Even though we had tickets to the lowly “visitors space” atop the Marina Bay Sands, I came to the realization that  I would make it to the top and get some good photos of the harbor without making it to the pool.

I walked around and took in the atmosphere to plan my next move. I took photos of the boats docked outside the Sands.

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Then I took a photo of the golf course island and the ferris wheel which seemed so close to this mammoth structure.

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As I positioned my ¥100 tripod for my next shot of the harbor and the city, I felt a quick jolt and my camera was knocked to the ground.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, young man,” said the kind woman.

Her husband quickly apologized, as well. They had bumped into me while they were posing for a photo with the ferris wheel, mere inches away from my right arm. Fortunately my camera was still working and I was in a good mood because my luck that evening was about to take a change for the better.

The three of us got to talking about traveling in Asia, living and working abroad, and the exciting nature of being young. They were fascinated by my tales of living in Japan and traveling the world alone at such a young age. I was equally struck by their stories of working on Australian mining and oil operations while having also worked with the Australian equivalent of the Foreign Service. While slightly older than my parents, we were able to converse like old friends.

In passing they asked where I was staying and when I revealed that I was staying at a budget hostel, they presented the nicest offer to me:

“Why don’t you be our son for the night? We would like to talk to you more and share some drinks poolside with you,” said the gentleman.

With their kind invitation to join them poolside, our scheme was set in motion. I was to walk in with them like I knew them and there would be no questions asked, they said. They added that the guards would not stop anyone who looked like they belonged for fear of offending a wealthy or important guest.

Within a few minutes, they gave me their extra room key to prove I was staying with them. We quickly lined up to pass to the “hotel guests only” region on the roof. After a cursory checkpoint, I was through and at last!!

As my excitement swelled, they quickly ushered me over to a reserved table with their name on it! Drinks and food quickly came our way as they insisted to treat me for the evening. Their kind hospitality and welcoming nature is something I will never forget. As we peered off into the night, the lights came on in far off Indonesian islands and boats passed through narrow channels to their docks for the evening. Tiger Beer and intermittent appetizers made the evening pass effortlessly into the night.

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What was once a young evening had become old, and with the passing time, my gracious hosts had to return to their room for the evening, but not before they gave me one parting surprise.

“Behind us is the infinity pool. We have ordered a Singapore Sling for you and hope you enjoy the rest of your evening on the lounge chairs and in the heated pool. You made our night. Have a fine evening, young man,” the woman said as we embraced and parted ways.

As I settled into my lounge chair after a quick dip in the pool, I marveled at the palm trees and the poolside atmosphere.

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Looking past the lifeguards, frolicking children, and waiters, I saw a group of women at the edge of the infinity pool, overlooking the Singapore skyline.

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At that moment, I was tapped on the shoulder by an energetic waiter. In his right hand he held a heated towel. In his left, he carried the world-famous Singapore Sling. He also brought a message from my new friends.

“Share an experience like this with a young man someday,” they said.

All seemed right in the world at that moment. As the Rolling Stones played, I toasted to my new friends. I hope we meet again someday so I can share the impact this moment had on me and my subsequent travels.

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With Singapore in the background, I enjoyed this drink to the last drop. Sometimes the most human moments during our travels are the most memorable ones. This was a special Singapore Sling.