Three degrees of Asia
I love Asia, I always have - travelling it how I am now is giving me a whole new appreciation for the diversity of the region. We are into our third month in Asia and each country has been so different to the other it’s hard to believe its the same part of the world.
Fair warning this post is pretty photo heavy. :)
I like to think I handle the heat reasonably well but Vietnam was too hot for me. It was difficult to walk more than a kilometre without being drenched in sweat, this in turn made it very difficult to explore the city. The only respite I managed to get during the month was out on the water in Ha Long bay and trekking in the mountains in Sapa (which had its own comfort challenges).
Chiang Mai on the other hand was the perfect temperature, still tropical but a manageable heat - it didn’t hurt that our accommodation had a pool to cool down when needed. As if it needed to get any better, my week long escape to Koh Samui was just perfect (if not a little rainy, but can’t win everything).
Japan on the other hand was wet and cold, a nice change from the tropics but after a few weeks of rain and throw in one typhoon - everyone was getting a little ‘over it’. We were rained out a lot in a rampage weekend in Toyko but still managed to have an amazing time.
I have come to appreciate the differences. Japan is pretty much the polar opposite of Vietnam. Ordered and orderly, quiet and considered, clean and safe. Vietnam is none of these things - I am still not sure which one I like better. Again I think Chiang Mai sits somewhere in the middle, order but not strict, clean but don’t look too closely, safe but don’t test it. Chaing Mai was a great place to get work done, and I found myself saying the catch phrase of digital nomads the world over “Yeah, I could live here”.
I think Chiang Mai had the friendliest people but I feel we were always viewed as tourists (rightly so I guess), whereas in Japan I felt like we integrated comfortably into daily life and were suitably ignored. This came as a welcomed respite after sticking out wherever we went for the last seven months. However going out in a group larger than five people in Japan becomes quite the ordeal.
When it comes to getting around, nowhere I have been even comes close to Japan - sorry Melbourne. I am not even going to talk about transport in Hanoi and the only redeeming features of getting around Chiang Mai was the Songthaew (red buses) when drinking and riding scooters when sober. But let’s talk about Japan, after months of stumbling down broken footpaths into death defying traffic it was such a surprise to see the Japanese stop and wait for the green crossing man for even the quietest roads - even when no traffic can be seen in either direction (I broke with formalities here a few times). Kyoto is not just a walkable city, it is bike-able too, in the central city area all the small streets are one way except for bicycles which can use them as two-way thoroughfares. The cyclists are not like the Melbourne based lycra bullets, Kyoto cyclists are slow, considerate and happy to wait for pedestrians.
Uber hasn’t managed to establish itself in Kyoto yet, I believe this to be because around the world the taxi industry is one primed for disruption - dirty, unsafe, rude and unreliable. Kyoto’s taxi service is none of these, each ride makes you feel like you have booked a chaffered limousine. The drivers are very formal, with white driving gloves, suits and drivers hats - passengers are discouraged (sometimes forcefully) from touching the doors, despite all the vehicles being pristinely preserved 1980’s Toyota’s they have all been fitted with pneumatic rear door openers.
When it comes to going intercity in Japan there are very few flights and even fewer airports, it is all about the trains, the Shinkansen specifically - the bullet train that services the length of the country. The punctuality and scale of this system is mind blowing. I had a seven day JR pass which entitles the holder to unlimited train travel for a week (including the bullet trains), I caught maybe ten of these services, never looking at the timetable and the longest I had to wait for one was around fifteen minutes. I managed to visit Tokyo, Osaka, Hiroshima, Kobe (then accidentally Osaka again) all by rail.
When it comes to differences between the countries, nothing can be as varied in my opinion than the food. Where Vietnam was a blend of Chinese and French influence, resulting in two signature dishes Pho and Banh Mi respectively. Thailand is a literal melting pot of cultures, heavily influenced from the greater south-east asian region, but distinctly Thai.
For Japan fish sauce gives way to soy sauce as the primary condiment. The Japanese cuisine surprised me, Sushi is the first thing that one thinks when having Japanese back home however it was rarer than one would think. Whilst it is available, it seems to be more about the Katsu, Ramen, Soba & Izakaya food.
I am not done with Asia yet, I have one more month in Southeast Asia before leaving for South America. From here I have decided to opt-out of Kuala Lumpur, partly because I wasn’t such a big fan of the place when I visited last, but also because I had already planned to spend a lot of the month in Krabbi and Bali and opting out made financial sense. Also having lived in Bali before I just know how it works and can easily establish a routine.
Whilst I will miss my fellow Kaizens, they will be visiting Bali in various groups and I think a little break from the group will make South America all that much better.