The Amazing Angkor Archaeological Park

Carvings in Angkor Thom

Our life has changed a bit, but before I can move on with our new adventures, I just had to wrap up our trip from last winter.  This particular place was just too important not be included in our travel memoirs.

Angkor Archaeological Park is simply a place that must be seen in person. Pictures and blogs will never do it justice.  It’s one of the largest archaeological sites in the world containing over 1,000 temples in some 350 square miles (at one time it was the largest preindustrial city in the world).  Today most of the area is covered in jungle.  It is an incredibly interesting place, and I could write a book about it but instead I will just focus on the highlights from our time there.  If you ever go, three days is the minimum time needed to see the main sights.

We stayed in Siem Reap which is the closest city to the park.  It is only 15 minutes away from this amazing UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We were there during Christmas break and the weather was perfect.  I was surprised to see the sheer number of families with small children that were there.  I erroneously imagined it would be mostly post-college singles and older couples.  I had read Cambodia was still relatively ‘unsafe’ with malaria, dengue fever, poverty, 3rd world sanitary conditions, and questionable food sources.  While I’m sure all those do exist somewhere in the country that did not seem to be the case around Siem Reap and Angkor Park.  I was also surprised to find it functioned almost completely in US dollars and most people spoke English, thus making it easier to visit than some of the other Asian countries we visited.

Entrance into Angkor Park

We had a guide come with us the first day we were there just to help us get our bearings and make sure we didn’t miss anything.  Unless you really aren’t interested in the history behind this place (or if you already know the history), a guide is a good idea for at least one day.  The park opened at 8am and we bought our 3 day pass – which took about 5 minutes.  Our guide recommended seeing the Angkor Wat Temple first since he knew it would only get more crowded as the day went on (and he was right). We arrived and parked outside the temple’s West Entrance.  The sun was low in the sky and we could see the famous silhouette in the distance. It was much larger than I expected.  The morning’s haze only added to it’s magic and mystic.  It is surrounded by a moat (which is nearly as wide as the Mississippi River).  A long, wide, sandstone walkway leads all the way to the temple.  Walking up that stone causeway and approaching the temple for the first time was definitely a highlight.  I had to keep pinching myself.  I’m still in disbelief that we were actually there.

Bayon’s Faces

Most of the temples in the area are built in tiers, rising like pyramids.  The local landscape is completely flat so the temples really stand out.  Some of these ‘temples’ were actually cities, covering large areas of land and containing many different buildings.  Angkor Wat’s first level had two libraries, a monestary, and two seasonal ‘pools’ (which beautifully reflect the temple).  There use to be many homes (which have long since deteriorated since they were made of wood).  Today this level is mostly jungle and the only remaining ‘residents’ are a lot of monkeys.  Angkor Thom was much larger in total area than Angkor Wat.  It took a couple days to see all the buildings located within it’s perimeter.

Besides the sheer number and size of these structures, what is really amazing is the detail carved into every block.  In the case of Angkor Wat, every side of the walled entrance was adorned from floor to ceiling with remarkably detailed bas-reliefs….each one telling a different story.  This was the case at other temples as well.  Bayon had huge faces carved all over its facade.  Entry gates and bridges were adorned with large statues and various carvings of immense detail.  It was almost impossible to take it all in.  Once you get inside the buildings there are cloisters, buddhas, old pools, and soaring towers.   Climbing up the very steep stairways lead to the very tops of the temples where we were rewarded with some magnificent views looking out over the jungle.

Ta Prohm – Roots Swallowing Temple

We probably saw close to 100 different buildings and it was hard deciding which was our favorite.  Some people get ‘templed out’, but we never did.  They are all uniquely different because of their history, their layout, the carvings, the colors, their remoteness or their current natural state.  One of our favorites was Ta Prohm (which was used as the location for the movie Tomb Raider).  This temple is literally being swallowed by the jungle.  Massive trees have wrapped their roots around the structures and are crushing, covering, and mangling them into irrecognizable forms.  Though this temple was not anywhere near the scale of some of the other temples we visited, it was totally mesmerizing.  The trees around it were of mythical proportions.  The detail and colors in the stonework here were incredible.  The whole place was eye candy for us photo enthusiasts.  It is in pretty bad shape but fortunately (and unfortunately) they have started restoration work.

In fact, throughout the park, restoration work is taking place (which is very badly needed).  Our guide mentioned all the countries taking part in the restoration efforts at Angkor Park.  The causeway we walked up to Angkor Wat was being done by Japan.  He showed us a section that had been repaired versus an area that had not.  Other temples we visited had huge blocks laid out with numbers on them, others had scaffolding covering parts of the structure.  As the jungle takes over, these massive sites are slowly falling into disrepair and rubble.  While a lot of progress has been made, there is SO much work still to be done that it may take centuries to recreate what was once there.

Besides temples, there is plenty of things to see and do in the area.  In addition to the city of Siem Reap, there is Tonle Sap lake and plenty of shops, crafts, museums and small villages to visit.  We didn’t have nearly enough time to do it all.  If you’re a foodie, I have to say Cambodian food is good but simple and their desserts were interesting…overall probably my least favorite food in Asia.  We loved the Cambodian people though, who were always very friendly and always willing to help.

If we ever have the opportunity to visit again, I’m sure we will.  It’s one of those places that will stick with us forever and it will keep calling us back.

If you want to see lots more photos click on the photos below:

Angkor Wat Temple

Making Palm Sugar

Downtown Siem Reap






Bangkok Mishaps And Onward To Siem Reap

Lizards in the City Park

We had an extra day in Bangkok and we decided to check out more of the city.  What we should have done was just leave a day earlier for Cambodia.  As it turned out, the rest of our time in Bangkok ended up being mostly a series of calamities.  Right from the start we should have known what kind of day it was going to be when we had to wait forever at Starbucks.  After that we walked to Limphini Park where we discovered it was being completely washed down and the lawns were being watered (making it virtually unusable).  Hardly any one was there (which was actually really nice), but all the park benches were wet.  It’s a very nice park with some great views of city, but we couldn’t sit down and enjoy it.  The highlight was when a 4 foot long lizard came out of the pond and stood just a couple feet from Robert.  Robert had no idea it was there since he was totally focused on taking photos.  When he finally did notice the lizard, he jumped 3 feet high and probably almost had a heart attack.  I got a good laugh and he managed to get some good pictures of him.

Siam Shopping District

In the park we were also warned by an off duty officer that we should be careful walking around the city since they had recently released a lot of prisoners (due to the recent flooding).  He mentioned that they were targeting tourists.  That was a comforting thought so off we went to the Siam Shopping District.  This area was as modern and cosmopolitan as it gets.  It ranks right up there with Hong Kong and Singapore in terms of the number of “name dropping” stores.  There were xray machines and security guards at every entrance and exit.  The Christmas decorations outside and inside were very typical of western commercialism (and only briefly interesting to look at).  We tried to “shop” at Central World and the MKB (where they charged us to use the restroom), but we couldn’t think of anything we wanted or needed.  I did walk away with a chocolate croissant that was pretty darn good though. 🙂 Overall, I guess we were lucky we didn’t get thrown in jail that day.  Fortunately we spotted the “no photographs” sign before a police officer spotted us taking indoor photos.

Bored with the shops, we took the BTS back to the river and boarded the ferry to see about getting some lunch in Chinatown.  That turned out to be an incredibly bad idea.  That place was loaded up with people – packed in there like sardines – and we could only move in the direction of the crowd.  We got out of there as fast as we could (which wasn’t very fast), yet it still took us forever to cross the streets and get back to the ferry terminal.  We were hot, frustrated, and hungry so we went back to our nice cool apartment (which we should have never left) and ate some fruit and watched a movie.  The day ended good though, as we went to the very good Italian restaurant we found the night we arrived.  They had awesome pizza and pasta (and of course, wine). 🙂

Arriving in Siem Reap

Arriving in Siem Reap

The next day in Bangkok wasn’t much better.  We checked out at 10am and took a taxi back to the airport. The traffic getting to the airport was horrendous and we had to wait in notoriously long lines at check-in, immigration, and security.  Our flight then ended up being delayed several hours ruining our afternoon plans in Siem Reap.  At least we did eventually take off.  We were thankful to finally be out of Bangkok.  Bangkok was better than we anticipated but not somewhere we’d likely return to.

The flight was very short and our approach into Siem Reap was very interesting.  The last 15 out of 20 minutes, all we could see below us was water everywhere – including under all the trees.  I started wondering if there was flooding here or if this place was like a swamp.  It turns out, we were flying over  Tonle Sap lake (which is huge this time of year).  We landed right before sunset – which was beautiful.  I didn’t know this, but Cambodia is incredibly flat – as far as you can see, a hill there is very rare.  And whereas sunsets are beautiful lots of places, I noticed right away there is something mysterious about this place that makes them magical here.

Cambodian Treats

After deplaning, it took us awhile to get through immigration (even with an e-visa), but it ended up being perfect timing since we had to wait for luggage anyway.  A driver from our hotel was there to pick us up and in 15 minutes we were at our hotel.  I’m not exactly sure what they gave us as our welcome snack and drink…there was a green jello/gummy bear thing and a green drink.  Both were very unique tasting (actually indescribable).  Let’s just say they are not destined to be on a top 10 list anytime soon.  When we checked-in they also set up a guide and driver for us for the next day.  Our hotel had a distinct Cambodian style – lots of wood paneling and statues resembling pieces from Angkor Wat.  After a few drinks in the bar and a wonderful buffet dinner we went up to our room to get some much needed rest anticipating the full day ahead of us.

Click the picture below to see some more interesting photos:

Exploring the Streets of Bangkok

Christmas in Bangkok – The Grand Palace, Wat Pho & Kukrit’s House

Visit to the Grand Palace

Christmas morning we walked to the Chao Phraya River and boarded the express ferry north bound for the Grand Palace and Wat Pho.  The Chao Phraya river was still way above normal, and at high tide we noticed the ferry boat barely fit under the bridges.  However, there were only a few sections along the river that still had sandbags up, and only one place that we saw evidence it happened.  While it may not be the prettiest or cleanest river (especially when we were there), it flows right through the heart of Bangkok and it is a great way to see the city.  The ferries were easy to use, very inexpensive, and stopped at many of the major attractions.  During our 20 minute river journey, we recognized a lot of the buildings we saw on our bike ride yesterday, and we ended up docking just north of where we were.

The Palace grounds opened at 8:00am and we were there by 8:10.  We were hoping to beat the crowds.  No such luck… 🙁 …it was already very crowded and hard to get pictures that didn’t have a bunch of other people in them.  The whole Grand Palace complex is actually quite large and consists of many different buildings, courtyards, lawns and gardens.  Only about a third of the property is even open to the public, since much of it is still used for official business.  It’s rather expensive to get in but we both really enjoyed it.  It would be much better though if they limited the number of people in there at any one time.

Temple of the Emerald Buddha

We started in the Outer Court (a huge lawn area) where we could see the spires and rooftops peaking over the wall of the temple.  Most people come to the Grand Palace just to see this temple – Wat Phra Kaeo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha).  It is considered the most sacred wat in Thailand, and it was the private chapel of many past Kings.  The 26 inch high green statue (which you can’t take pictures of and you can barely see since he is so high up) is believed to be the protector of Thailand.  Only the King is allowed to touch him (when he changes his garment every 4 months).  The buddha is actually made out of one big piece of jade (not an emerald), and this little fella has quite an interesting history (much to long to write about here).  Over the last 2000 years he has resided in India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, and now Thailand.

The temple’s layout was similar to all the other wats we visited except that it did not have monk quarters. The grounds were completely walled off from the rest of the Palace grounds, and the inside of these walls were covered with beautiful brightly detailed murals.  By far the most memorable thing about this wat was how exuberantly ornate and over-the-top all the buildings were. There was so much detail and color going on, I felt dizzy – talk about sensory overload.  There were itty bitty tiny pieces of glass, tile, gems, and porcelain on just about everything.  The ordination hall (which houses the buddha) was huge and shimmered of gold and blue.

The Grand Palace

The elevated terrace had a huge gold chedi, a large scale model of Angor Wat, a library and royal pantheon (which were not open to the public), and all sorts of mythical characters throughout.  Anytime we glanced up we saw a sea full of spires.  Interesting statues were scattered throughout the premises as well, including the hermit statue (at the entry), the colorful guarding giants (which were rather comical looking), and various creatures positioned at entrances or in gardens.  After spending nearly three hours at the temple, we finally (but reluctantly) moved on to the Grand Palace area.  Wow – talk about a stark difference in architecture.  All of a sudden we felt like we were transported to Europe.  Buckingham Palace was the first thing that came to mind.  The only part of the buildings that looked remotely Thai were the roofs. It was Sunday and the ceremonial halls were closed. Neither of us were that interested in this bit, so we just walked around the grounds and checked out the museum before leaving the Palace premises completely.

Reclining Buddha

Wat Pho was not far down the road.  Considered the largest and oldest wat in Bangkok, it was also the site of Thailand’s first university and the birth place of Thai massage. 🙂  It houses over 1,000 buddhas including the largest reclining buddha in Thailand (which happens to be almost the same exact size as the one we saw in Japan – so we really wanted to see it).  When we arrived, the hall housing the reclining buddha was annoyingly over crowded, but with some patience, we did  get a few good views of him.  His feet were the most interesting part with all the inlaid mother-of-pearl scenes.  It’s supposedly taller and longer than the one in Japan but it didn’t seem that way (maybe because it is confined to the inside a building).   Even more than the reclining buddha, we both really enjoyed the rest of this wat since it was refreshingly uncrowded.  We were able to relax and move at a much slower pace to see the buddhas and the almost 200 chedi located on the property.  Given it’s proximity to the Grand Palace, many of the chedi here contain the ashes of past kings and their family members (another royal burial ground).  I  actually thought about getting a thai massage here, but we were too hungry and thirsty so we moved on to find a bite to eat instead.

Wholesale Vegetable Market

After a nice relaxing lunch and cold drinks at the Black Canyon Coffee Cafe we were now refreshed and ready to revisit the wholesale market which we zoomed through on our bikes yesterday morning.  The market was literally right down the street and we found it pretty quickly.  However, the markets were no where near as busy this time of day.  Much of the merchandise had already been moved out or bought.  We managed to snap a few good pictures while enroute to the ferry dock, but it just wasn’t the same.  We cruised back down the river and when we arrived at the central dock, we decided to take the BTS (Bangkok’s above ground train) back to our apartment instead of walking.  We were pleasantly surprised.  The BTS was extremely clean, efficient and cheap.  It was by far the best way to get around the inner parts of the city.  I hope they continue expanding the routes – and we really hope they eventually link it up to the airport.

M.R. Kukrit's Heritage Home

We got off one stop early since we still had a couple hours before we had to get ready for dinner.  For something really different we decided to stop at M.R. Kukrit’s Heritage House.  M.R Kukrit was an interesting man (a member of the royal family, an Oxford graduate, a writer, actor, poet and a former Prime Minister of Thailand).  When he died in 1995, he left his home to the public.  His home is the result of 20 years of work on two acres of land in a residential area of downtown.  All the buildings on the property are authentic traditional Thai houses (some are over 100 years old).   He brought them for various places in central Thailand and slowly reassembled them here (Thai houses are built to be moved).  It’s a very unique place – as this was his actual home (which still had all his stuff in it) and not some decorated exhibition that was thrown together.  I bet it is very rare to find this kind of property anywhere in Bangkok now.  One building was an open pavillion with a stage and housed a huge collection of antique masks.  The living quarters were made up of a group of small one room teak houses on elevated poles, creating a covered living space below that was open all the way around and surrounded by lovely gardens, pounds, and shrines.  He also had an impressive collection of antique books, art, and furniture as well.  I can only venture to guess what this piece of property is actually worth today.  The oddest thing we found on the grounds was his pet cemetery which had a gravestone marked “unknown mice” (he obviously also had a sense of humor).

Back at our apartment we had plenty of time to relax and have a cocktail before going to dinner.  It was a 5-10 minute walk to a French restaurant (inside a lovely old home) at which we had our Christmas dinner.  We didn’t have extremely high expectations but both of our dinners were actually quite delicious.  As we sat there and ate, we realized just how unusual a Christmas this was.  Can’t help but think that Santa must have thought we were awfully good this past year.  Check out these amazing places yourself, by clicking on the photo below.

Day 9 – Grand Palace, Wat Pho, & Kukrit’s House

Biking around Bangkok

Wat Suwan Plu

We arrived in Bangkok Friday evening, and settled into our apartment.  It was so nice to have a home-like space for the three days we were in Bangkok.  We loaded up the fridge with some essential snacks and drinks and felt immediately relaxed.  Our apartment building was located on a quiet street walking distance from some great restaurants yet conveniently located to all the major tourist sights.  It was a very nice place and we would definitely stay here again if we ever found ourselves in Bangkok.

On Saturday we did a bike tour of the Siam historic district of Bangkok with Follow Me Bike Tours.  I know it sounds crazy, but it was a lot of fun!  Since it was Saturday morning the traffic probably wasn’t as bad as a weekday.  We also lucked out and got a private tour again (probably because of the decreased number of tourists in the area due to the recent flooding).  We arrived at the clubhouse at 7:45am and met our two guides, Tob and Kathy.  Equipped with 24 gears, heavy duty shocks and ultra cushy seats we set off to tackle the jungle of Bangkok.  We did have to cross or ride on major streets a few times (thus experiencing cars and motorcycles whizzing by and large buses brushing up right beside us), but most of the trip we were on backstreets, narrow alleys, pathways and sidewalks which was actually a lot of fun.  Only someone who was intimately familiar with the area could do this route without any help.  We covered 25 km in 4 hours and got to see many historic sites in Bangkok that most tourists never see (or even know about).  The only bad thing about a bike tour is that it’s hard to take pictures unless you stop.  If you stop too much, you’re not going to get very far.  So some things we only got to see the outside of as we passed by.

In front of the Old Customs House

Our route followed north along the east bank of the Chao Phraya River.  We passed the Shangra-la Hotel and soon stopped at Wat Suwan Plu.  This temple had it’s own elementary school and we watched as the kids assembled early that morning.   Unlike the other wats we’d see everywhere else, the monk’s quarters were very simple.  They were made of wood boards and had pretty carved wood panels.  The bot (prayer hall) was white with beautiful carvings, statues, and some light blue tiles highlighted by touches of gold.  We continued on our way entering the farang (foreigner’s) quarter of Bangkok.  We passed the Assumption Cathedral, the East Asiatic Company, and the French Embassy before stopping at to the Old Customs House.  Built in the 1880’s, it was obvious that this was once an incredibly beautiful European style building, but now it’s in a very sad state (it’s great to photograph however).  The fire department uses the lot now, and there was still some water in the lot from the recent floods (sandbags were still piled four feet high along the river bank).  We were told there were plans to eventually restore the building to it’s original glory.  We then biked thru was a small Muslim community and past the Portuguese Chancellery (the Portuguese were the first foreigners to have formal ties with Siam), before stopping at the Holy Rosary Church (built by the Portuguese in 1786).  Outside the church was a garden with a little shrine, a Christmas tree, a tree with hanging presents, and a snowman made out of recently used sandbags.  The inside was a beautiful old fashioned church with ceiling fans, stained glass windows, and a gorgeous ceiling.

The Resident Crocodile

Then we biked through Chinatown.  Thank goodness we were there before the crowds arrived.  Even this early the place was like a beehive and almost impossible to get through at times.  We stopped once to get some pictures of the main walking street.  We followed Tob down all sorts of narrow corridors, past an old Chinese shrine, and we watched everyone frantically preparing for the busy weekend ahead. We stopped at Wat Chakrawat, which is a small temple with a black and gold facade.  Our guides were anxious to show us the most popular residents here – the crocodiles.  We peaked over the wall and sure enough there was one in the pond.  Right around the corner was another caged within a fence sleeping.  They turned on a hose to wake him up and cool him off with some cold water.  In a glass case near the pond, was the skeletal remains (with skin) of the first crocodile they pulled from the river some 50+ years ago.  Plenty of dogs and cats hung out in this area too.  We learned about the guards in front of the wats.  One is male and one female.  The male usually has a ball, and the female has a baby.

Wat Arun

We then made our way back to the river bank and stopped right before we entered Pak Khlong Market – Bangkok’s largest wholesale market.  Most restaurants and local markets come to here to get their goods.  It’s open 24 hours a day and it’s busiest in the morning.  Without stopping, we went through the market which was loaded up with everything you could possibly think of.  The array of smells we passed ranged from amazingly divine to very pungent.  The volumes of food moving through here made Costco look like child’s play.  Trucks were piled high with bananas, cabbage, peppers, onions, garlic, crates of fruit, etc.  There were bins and baskets filled with large industrial size bags of produce as well.  Carts, trolleys, and dollies were moving goods around.  This went on for several city blocks…all sorts of vegetables, fruits, fish, chicken, spices, flowers, and who knows what else.  I knew we’d have to come back here at some point to get some photos.  We stopped at a ferry dock right across from Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn).  Wat Arun is a stunning structure – even from far away and especially on a cloudy day.  We boarded the ferry and headed to the other side.

Wat Prayoon Chedi Courtyard

After we docked, we explored the temple grounds. We didn’t go into the Wat since we could easily admire it’s porcelain covered exterior from where we were.  We walked to the river bank and saw the official name of Bangkok.  Kathy read it out loud to us.  It’s in the world record book for the longest name of a place…translating to something like: “the city of angels, the great city, home of the emerald Buddha, built by…etc”. We biked south along a boardwalk paralleling the west bank of the river and stopped at the very old Chinese shrine, Kuan Yin, dedicated to the god of mercy.  Looking like it’s been standing there untouched for 200 years, this place could use some mercy (or restoration work).  Our next stop was Santa Cruz Catholic Church (built by the Portuguese).  Finally we stopped at Wat Prayoon which had it’s own museum.  The 180 year old all white chedi was recently restored and all sorts of amulets and buddhas were found inside it’s chambers.  This is the only chedi we were able to actually go inside.  The courtyard was beautiful lined with old pieces of timber taken from the chedi’s interior during it’s restoration.  We went into the very center of the chedi admiring the secret room and then climbed up to the top for a great view.

The Fish Spa

We went a little further south and eventually took another ferry back across the river and continued back to the clubhouse. Tob stopped and ordered all of us some street food which we brought back to the house and ate for lunch.  The owners had a spa fish bath on their property which Robert decided to try.  As soon as he put his feet in, the fish went after him – nibbling all over.  He started laughing saying how much it tickled.  I didn’t try it…for some reason I had images of piranhas in my head.  We talked for awhile, wrote comments on their wall and then headed back to our hotel to relax.

We loved getting to see the city this way and we’d for sure do another bike tour if we return to Bangkok.  In addition to the pictures we took, Tob also took some pictures during the tour and sent them to us.  Looking back, it’s amazing how much we saw that day…


Day 7 & 8 – Bangkok Bike Tour

A Day Among Elephants

Patera Elephant Farm

During this vacation, we realized there were lots of things we did in both Thailand and Cambodia that we would never be able to do in the USA (mainly because of “safety” laws/regulations).  Riding elephants bareback in the mountains is one of them.  Of all the fun activities we did on this trip, our experience at the Patera Elephant Farm had to be the most thrilling.  Spending the whole day “owning” one  these amazing creatures is almost beyond words.

To be in the mountains and see elephants roaming around freely is in itself pretty incredible.  We had the added bonus of being there only a couple days after the newest member of the herd was born.  We got to spend time with the  3 day old baby elephant and her mother.  The baby was already walking – her legs a little wobbly and skin a little baggy.  She was still small enough to walk under her mother.  I’m not sure what she thought of all of us, but we all thought she was adorable.  Her eyes were so big, her trunk so tiny and her little hair was spiked up.  She stayed close to her mother who was obviously being protective, but she still let us feed both of them bananas.  It wasn’t very long before a 10 week old baby elephant showed up – jealously wanting all the attention (and the bananas).  There was another 10 week year old roaming around nearby, but he stayed closer to his mom.  We were told 5 elephants were born on the “farm” this year and that another one was on the way.

Washing MayBooDee

We headed across the river to a covered pavilion where the head mahout (trainer) spent about 30 minutes talking about the Thai Asian Elephants and the Patera Elephant farm.  He went over their history, their dwindling numbers, and the different parks and programs around Thailand trying to protect and increase their numbers.  He also gave us a brief run down of the day’s activities.  Meanwhile the 10 week old elephant was wondering around getting into everything, knocking things over, and bothering the chickens and roosters (which he was actually afraid of). 🙂  While he looked “small”, he was so strong that it took two full grown men to move him when he went somewhere he shouldn’t.  It was delightful entertainment.

Eventually we all put on our mahout outfits and were assigned an elephant (and their corresponding mahout).  We learned how to approach them, feed them, check their health, and to clean and bath them.  Maybodee was our elephant’s name and she was 28.  She was very calm, trusting, healthy and BIG.  She was one of the largest elephants there.  I wasn’t nearly as intimidated by her as I thought I would be though.  However, I was very much aware of her size and strength and knew she could easily crush me into a pancake if she wanted.  Like a human, she seemed to be very aware of their surroundings and looked like she was constantly watching and thinking.  Like a dog, I think she knew who she could trust.  Over time, we slowly got use to her size and I think she really liked us.  She ate two huge baskets full of food (bananas, sugar cane, and straw), we brushed the dirt off her and then took her into the river for a bath.  Bathing her in the river was hard work.  She was so big it was hard to get all of her completely clean.  After we gave her a bath… she gave us a bath. 🙂

Riding to the Waterfall

We all met back at the pavilion, where we were given instructions on the commands we needed to know in order to ride our elephant.  There were quite a few, so we wrote them on our forearm for reference.  We were then shown three different ways to mount an elephant, and where to sit.  Robert & I shared an elephant so we both had to get up.  I got to ride up front while he rode on her back. It was actually pretty comfortable and not nearly as high or scary as I imagined.  Of course they are so big, it’s more like sitting in a boat than on a horse.  After we were all on, we went for about a 30 ride through the forest until we came to a spot in the river near a waterfall.  It was easy to dismount because there were some large rocks that Maybodee just went right up next too so we could get off easily.  The elephants were led away while we had a nice lunch outside on a big rock near the waterfall.  We were starving and there was all kinds of food for us to try…fried chicken, fruits, rice balls mixed with various beans/vegetables, pumpkin bread, and other goodies.

It was a much needed break, and the weather was perfect for relaxing and enjoying the outdoors.  Surprisingly, there weren’t even any bugs.  We were all sitting around chatting when the 10 week old baby decided to join our little party and finish our leftovers!  The other elephants started showing up and some got in the river.  A couple of people decided to get in the water with them, as did both of the 10 week old baby elephants.  It was so cute watching them play with each other in the water.  I’m not sure how long we were watching them, but I could have stayed all day.  Eventually, we had to leave and we all got back on our elephants – this time Robert was up front and I was in back.  The ride getting here was easy, so I took my camera out to take a few pictures.  Then I saw the hill we were about to climb and immediately put it away.  Seriously, the next 30 minutes I was in disbelief that these animals could climb and descend hills that steep…so steep that even I wouldn’t have hiked them.  We both trusted Maybodee completely, and she was amazing.  I knew she would have no problem, but the incline from where I was sitting was nearly vertical at times and I felt like I was going to slide right into Robert causing us both to fall off.  My whole body was sore for the next couple days from holding on so tightly.

Baby Elephants Playing in the Water

Fortunately we made it back to the camp intact.  We dismounted, had some water (and Advil), and paid our dues.  We thanked our mahouts, played some more with the babies, said goodbye to our wonderful new friend, and took some final pictures before heading back to the big city.  We were exhausted but so glad we had the opportunity to do this – we wish everyone could.  They say that an elephant never forgets, well neither will we.  They truly are amazing animals and we certainly hope the world doesn’t ever lose them.

One of the staff at Patera Elephant Farms took pictures of all of us there that day and provided us with a CD.  So, in addition to our pictures you can see lots of thiers too:

Day 5 – Spending A Day with Elephants

Cycling the Hills of Chiang Dao

Banana Pancakes with Mango Gelato

Most people start their vacations by sleeping in…not us.  It was Saturday morning, and we were up at 6am.  Of course it felt more like 8am given the time difference from Japan, so it really wasn’t a big deal.  The sunrise was soooo beautiful, and we had a delicious full buffet breakfast waiting for us.

There was more food in that buffet than was humanly possible to consume: a large selection of fresh fruit & juices, pastries, yogurts, muesli, smoked salmon, cheeses, salads, noodles, soups, breads & jams.  We could also order anything off the hot menu.  We not only tried a bit of everything on the buffet, but we ordered hot meals as well.  Heck, why not, we had an active 9 hours ahead of us.  And I’ve got to say….my banana pancakes with mango gelato were particularly scrumptious.

Biking in the Hills of Chiang Dao

As promised, our bike guide and driver picked us up at 8:15am.  We found out we were the only ones scheduled for today’s trip – which was an added bonus.  We got into the truck and started our 1 1/2 hour drive north.  It took a good 45 minutes to get out of the city, but it was worth the wait to see the beautiful countryside.  The roads became curvy and less crowded and the mountains and hills became more visible.   Eventually we entered a wide river valley and began traveling on small rural roads.  I’m pretty sure I couldn’t find this place on my own.  The last stretch was on a dirt track (with no signs).  We eventually drove thru two large open wooden gates.  Within the walled compound was a beautiful little complex.  I felt like I was in some scene from Romancing the Stone.  There was another group of people (from REI) that had spent several days biking in the area and they were getting ready to leave.  After our quick 15 minute rest stop, we were fitted for our mountain bikes and helmets, grabbed some bottled water, and headed on our way up the dirt road.

Hill Tribe Crafts

Kiki (our guide) lead the way.  She was great.  She’d stop along the way and point out the different types of trees, fruits, nuts, rice, coffee, and plants they grew (which is just about anything you can think of).  We stopped and watched the locals picking, packaging and hunting.  Sometimes we’d stop just to take pictures of the countryside.  In the course of about 2 hours (and 12 km) we also got to ride through and visit 5 different hill tribe villages (Karen, Akkha, Lahu, Lisu and Palong).  These villagers migrated from either Myanmar (Burma), China or Tibet  over 100 years ago and each have their own distinct culture and language.  The women stayed home and watched the kids, while the men went to work in the fields or to hunt.  They shared one vehicle in the village.  The women worked on crafts made of cotton (hats, coin holders, purses, wall hangings), stones/gems (for jewelry) or bamboo (for baskets).  They were always excited to see foreigners and would lay out blankets and display their creations in hopes of making a sale.  Chickens, dogs and pigs roamed freely.  Their houses and possessions were minimal, yet they all seemed content, and it was very clean.  Some of the old women had a very bad habit of chewing on betel nut (a stimulant), and their teeth had become chipped and black.  Actually learning about these people while you meet them was very interesting.

Cutting Bamboo for Baskets

Before we knew it, we were back at the lodge.  It was good timing, because riding on dirt roads without biking shorts and cycling up some good sized hills had started to take it’s toll.  The lodge offered us some soft drinks and a huge spread of food.  While it was all very good and healthy, we were a little disappointed it wasn’t that spicy.  Looking back, however, it was probably not only a good thing, but also intentional – especially since we still had 30 kilometers to go.

We rested for 20 minutes and then restocked our water.  Off we went, this time down the hills and across the valley.  The single dirt track we took was fun.  It had a good bit of sand on it (probably from the recent floods), and we would occasionally get stuck.  We rode through forest, and then past fields and orchards.  Finally we ended up on the rural road from which we could see Doi Chiang Dao mountain in the distance (the third highest mountain in Thailand).  The cave at the base of this mountain was our final destination.

Herbal & Root Medicines

It was pretty warm that afternoon and the sun was pretty intense.  We stopped at a rice “factory” and at a newly planted teak tree plantation for water breaks.  The driver followed us in case we needed a break from riding.  Fortunately, the closer we got to our mountain, the more shade there was.  We made it, but we were both glad to get off the bikes.  Walking around felt good.  There was a large market here which specialized in natural and herbal medicine.  If you had an ailment, they had a fix.  I forgot to ask if they had something for my numb bum.   We ended up not purchasing anything though, since it probably wouldn’t have gotten through customs in Japan.

Buddha in the Cave

We walked around the place to stretch our legs, take pictures of all the cool stuff, and cool off before we went inside the cave.  It was similar to other caves – except for the religious statues, articles and decorations scattered throughout.  There are supposedly 5 interconnected caves (at various levels) believed to stretch some 12 km under the mountain, but tourists usually only see the first 1km – which, quite frankly, is enough.  It’s humid and damp and some areas are pitch black.  We went as far as we could without lanterns and a cave guide.  At the end of the lighted area, there is an imprint on the wall of the royal emblem – the King and Queen paid a visit here in the ’60’s and someone left their mark.

It was now time to head back to Chiang Mai.  We were back at our hotel by 5:30.  A nice long shower and a short walk to dinner was the only thing on our mind.  What a great first day.  We packed a ton of stuff in and we knew we’d sleep great.  We were also looking forward to a leisurely day exploring the Old City tomorrow – if we could still move in the morning. 🙂

We took over 150 pictures that day.  Check them out on our picassa website:

Day 1 – Biking in Chiang Dao

We’re Off to Chiang Mai, Thailand

The Thais' Love Their Monarchs

I’m finally getting around to documenting our Christmas vacation trip.  It was great!  I highly recommend both Thailand and Cambodia to everyone – they are amazing countries with wonderful people.  We spent a week in Chiang Mai.  There is SO much to see and do there (hiking, biking, rafting, elephants, cooking classes, scenery, markets, food, city sights, etc.), we could have easily spent our whole vacation just there.

We had an 11am direct flight from Fukuoka to Bangkok on Thai Airlines (which, of course, left on time – I do love Japan for that).  The plane was nearly empty.  I cannot recall the last time I was on an airplane this big with so few people.  Of course the cost of flights out of Japan are ridiculously expensive so I really shouldn’t have been too surprised.  However,  it was a Friday nearing the holidays, and I really expected at least a few more people.  The same thing was true on our flight back on New Years Day.  I’m not sure how much control Thai Airlines has in the matter, but they really might want to consider lowering their prices.

Sunrise from Our Hotel Room

Anyway, after a pleasant and uneventful 5 1/2 hour flight, we landed in Bangkok and had well over an hour to make our connection to Chiang Mai.  I must say I was quite surprised to see we had a Boeing 747 for our short 1 hour flight to Chiang Mai.  I never imagined a 747 being used for such a short domestic flight.  There are plenty of daily flights into Chiang Mai and it’s only a city with about 1 million people…could they really fill this up?  The answer is yes – and there was not one empty seat on the plane.

We arrived in Chiang Mai at 7:30pm Friday night – an hour and a half later than anticipated.  The Queen had landed right before us which pretty much shut down the airport for an hour and left us circling above the city.  The King & Queen spend their winters in Chiang Mai at their palace near Doi Suthep.  The Thai people love their King & Queen – there are huge billboards all over the city with their faces, stickers on the cars, and they all speak with such pride about them.  I was surprised to learn that King Bhumibol Adulyadej (King Rama IX) just celebrated his 85th birthday, and he is the longest reigning monarch alive – 65 years (that beats Queen Elizabeth II by 6 years).

Chess Board in the Lobby

We went through immigration in Bangkok, so all we had to do when we landed, was wait for our bag, clear customs and find a taxi – which all went smoothly.  The taxi thing was a little weird because you pay them upfront at the counter, they give you a cab number and tell you to wait outside for it (which took about 5 minutes).  Mr. Dang, our taxi driver, spoke pretty good English, and he was equipped with his own business cards and plenty of information on different tours around the area.  He kindly tried to set something up with us while we made our way through the bustling city.  If I hadn’t already made so many other arrangements I probably would have, but we only had a few ‘discretionary’ days left, and I wasn’t sure what we were going to do with them.  We had his card and we told him we’d call if we decided to take him up on his offer.

Lobby Entertainment

It only took 15 minutes to get to our hotel.  We knew we were going to like it right away – they sat us down with a cool drink and cold hand towel.   We filled out our information sheet while they made copies of our passports.  The architecture of the hotel (which was previously the British Embassy) was stunning – begging to be photographed.  Very Zen like and peaceful.  We couldn’t hear any noise from the city while on the premises. I’m not sure where the British Embassy is now, but I can’t believe they gave up these beautiful buildings on such a beautiful piece of property.

While we were waiting, one of the hotel staff briefed us on the resort and showed us where breakfast would be served.  We were then escorted to our room on the 3rd floor which had a great view of the river & pool below.  Our bags arrived shortly afterward and we quickly high tailed it out of there to get some dinner since we were both starving.

Our photogenic hotel

We walked across the street and found a cute restaurant called Pom’s (it’s a cooking school during the day), so we decided to give it a try.  Beers for $2, dinners for $2 and all of it was quite tasty.  Had we not had a bike outing set up for the next day, we would have stayed out much later, but we decided to forgo the night walk knowing we had plenty of nights left to see the neighborhoods.  We headed back to our hotel and fell fast asleep.

On a separate note….it seems WordPress’ latest update, doesn’t allow me to insert photos from our fotobook at the moment, so if you want to see more pictures of our incredible hotel, check out our web album on our Picassa page by clicking the image below:

Chedi Hotel, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Our Japanese Tour Experience on Iriomote Island

Urachi River Cruise on Iriomote Island

Urachi River Cruise

We’ve always been DIY travelers, but since it was the off-season in Okinawa and Iriomote Island is mostly uninhabited and operating on skeleton schedules, I really did not want to mess something up and get us stuck on this island.  There was also a lot we wanted to see and do.  We thought it might be nice to actually have someone else do all the planning – so we asked the Concierge to book us on a Japanese Tour.  We knew we wouldn’t be able to understand any of the narration – but that didn’t bother us, we live with that every day.  We were just looking forward to relaxing and being like little ducklings for a day.  They were even going to pick us up and return us to the hotel.

Our nearly full tour bus left the hotel at 8:00am.  I had a vague idea what the overall itinerary was, but I never received a detailed schedule.  The bus dropped all of us off at the ferry terminal and we were told to stand in line (along with dozens of other people) and wait for our turn at the counter.  When we got there, the guy said a bunch of stuff in Japanese and handed us some tickets.  The only two things we understood was Gate 6, Boat 1 and return to the counter at the end of tour.  We were hoping for a bit more information than that.  We boarded the completely full ferry, a little nervous.  I think we looked, acted, and sounded as confused as we were.  When we arrived at the island, we headed for another line (that everyone else was in) hoping to get some direction (we didn’t know what else to do).  Fortunately, a gentlemen in a hawaiian shirt approached us directly and said “B Course?  Bus, this way”.  He led us to a bus (we noticed the sign in the bus window had four letters, one of which was B).  Now we were starting to feel a bit more comfortable.   The crowd we were with had finally been narrowed down.  When the bus was ready to go, the hawaiian shirt guy came onboard asking everyone (in Japanese) if anyone knew English (other than us), but no one did OR at least no one admitted they did – in fear they would have to babysit us all day.  That made us start worrying all over again.

River tour in Iriomote

River tour in Iriomote

He said something to the bus driver, and we were off.  The coach ride was actually very nice.  With lots of big windows and seats much higher up than a car – we had a great view of everything.  Right away it became evident that the island is almost completely covered with a thick subtropical primeval forest.  If you are not on a river, a road or some well trod path you won’t be able to go anywhere.  The island’s only main road follows the coast to the other side of the island – and that is where we were headed.  In route, our bus driver did a lot of talking and the passengers did a lot of laughing.  We were able to pick out a few things he talked about (or pointed out): the Iriomote cat (no, we didn’t see one), the kanmuri-washi bird (a crested serpent eagle), the waterfalls, some islands, something about pineapples and mangos, and the hot springs.

The bus did stop once about 1/2 way to our destination and some people got off (happily we knew this was not our stop – unlike one of the other couples).  We arrived at the Urauchi River by 10:00am.  As we exited the bus, we noticed the bus driver had scribbled down on a sheet of paper (just for us):  Bus go 1:00.  Ahhh, I think we can do that!  Maybe this trip wasn’t going to be as difficult as we thought.  We soon boarded a little cruise boat.  Someone handed us a sheet of paper saying 12:40. We figured this must be the time the boat would return.  The boat only had 12-15 people on it, so we had lots of room to move around and get a good view of everything the captain was pointing out.  Aside from the sound of the boat engines when moving, it was ultra quiet going up river.  The further we went, the more tropical and lush the vegetation became.  We passed mangroves, saw some big white birds, a couple kayakers, more waterfalls, inlets, fish, and another kanmuri-washi bird (this one actually dove in and caught a fish).  I was really expecting to see a lot more birds. The other rain forests we’ve been to were full of birds and creature sounds, but here it was so quiet.

River tour in Iriomote

Water Fall seen on River Tour

We docked at the trail head around 11:00.  We confirmed with the captain that the boat would leave at 12:40.  I knew we were suppose to hike to some waterfall 30 minutes away, so we followed the others along the trail.  Off we went, but at a fairly slow pace – Robert’s knee was all of a sudden really bothering him (probably from his swim the night before).  He almost turned around twice, but he stuck with it.  Luckily we didn’t encounter any wild boar or snakes to run away from. 🙂  We made it to the observation tower of Mariyudo Falls and even a bit further, but the path down to the falls had been closed (looked like it was washed away), so we headed back.  We returned to the dock with a few minutes to spare (there was no way WE were going to be late).  The captain almost left a couple of young girls there who were a couple minutes late arriving.  He probably would have left, if it was us instead of them.  The boat trip back was much faster but so relaxing.  It was a beautiful sunny day and we were just soaking up the rays and the scenery.

We boarded the bus at 1:00 and were quickly dropped off for lunch.  The drivers notepad now said: Bus go 1:50.  A yummy Bento box lunch was waiting for us at a lovely little restaurant (which we would have never found ourselves).  One waitress knew enough English to explain to us everything we were eating.  There was a lot of food, but we ate everything – I guess we were hungrier than we thought.

Yubu Island

Yubu Island Warning Sign

Our first stop after lunch was the other star sand beach.  This time, I decided to look for it.  I figured it would be easier to spot them if I put the sand on the black coral – and sure enough there it was!  I showed it to Robert, and he we was able to find some – pretty cool.

The bus slowly made it’s way back to ferry terminal along the same road.  The bus driver didn’t talk much this time, he just played some Okinawan music playing.  Robert took a nap.  Our last stop was Yubu Island.  I really wasn’t interested in visiting this very small island, but it was included in the price, so we went.  It actually ended up being quite fun and funny.  We even got to see the water buffalo family tree.  Our water buffalo cart driver played us some music on his sanshin and we watched all the carts being pulled back and forth across the shallow sand bar.  The water buffalo are really strong, though not very cute.  The island was full of sandy paths going every which direction.  We walked all of them, entertained by all the silly creatures and features along the way.

Before we knew it, we were headed back across the sandbar and boarding our bus for the last time.  We eventually boarded the ferry back and then returned to our hotel.  That was it.  We did it!   We managed to make it through the day without any problems or mistakes.  It made for a very memorable experience and we would consider doing it again.  I wonder if this now makes us professional Japanese Tourists? 🙂

Taketomi Island and the Traditional Ryukyu Village

A shiza in front of every building...

A shiza in front of every building…

Our first island trip from Ishigaki was Taketomi island.  It is a small, circular, flat island that most people either walk or bike around when they visit.  It also happens to be the most popular day trip from Ishigaki.  The ferry only takes 10-15 minutes to get there, and they come and go every 30-40 minutes, so odds are we weren’t gonna miss the last one and be stuck on the island overnight (unless, of course, it was cancelled due to weather).

It was a good day to test my tolerance for ferry travel. Iriomote would be 35-40 minutes on a ferry, so if I couldn’t handle this one, I knew I’d be in trouble.  It was a fairly windy day, and the captain warned us it would be a bumpy ride (we could tell by the use of his hands, not by what he said), and he was right.  However, the ferry went pretty fast so even though it was bumpy,  it wasn’t a tossy-turvy make-you-sick motion.

We arrived safely at the ferry terminal (which has a great view of Ishigaki Island and the city), and we started walking toward the village.  It only takes about 10 minutes to get to the center of town.  Taketomi is well known as as a well preserved, traditional Ryukyu style village.  There are less than 400 people that live here.  The weathered-wood houses are all one story, with red tile roofs, rock walls, sandy streets and lion-like statues (shiza) at either their entrance or on their rooftop (which they believe will ward off evil spirits).  Preservation efforts are in place to keep this village exactly like this, which is great, because it is so unique and interesting.  By going here first, it helped me notice the traditional houses on the other islands (which were very few and far between).  I really loved this island – especially all of the different shizas, the flowers, and butterflies.

Single Story, Red Tile Roof, Sandy Streets

Taketomi Tradition Ryukyu House

Some of the houses in the village are actually minshuku in which you can stay overnight at (if you know Japanese well enough to make a reservation).  I would have loved to do that.  Other houses in the village contain shops or restaurants, but it’s hard to tell the difference between them, since all the houses look alike.  We wondered around leisurely, admiring the quaintness of the place.  It wasn’t very crowded, and at times, it almost felt like we had the whole place to ourselves.  We saw the school and post office, the Nagaminoto  tower (which we didn’t climb), and the water buffalo cart man who was trying to strum up some business (and he did!).  We also saw lots of cats, including one that got caught drinking out of someone’s noodle bowl – the waiter was not very happy with him.  We had lunch at a pretty big place with a beautiful wood interior (it had lots of customers which is always a good sign). I ordered the Ishigaki Beef burger which was delicious and Robert got the pork cutlet which was also very tasty.  It came with salad, macaroni, and some yummy pickled vegetables.

With a happy tummy, we went off in search of the beaches.  We arrived at the West Pier in about 10 minutes – which had a great view of the other islands.  We walked along the dried black coral shoreline until we got to Kondoi Beach.  The beaches here are white, but they have lots of little dead coral pieces mixed in, so I’m not sure I’d want to walk barefoot on them.  The water is crystal clear and the colors range from light blue to turquoise.  If we had more time, I could have easily spent a couple hours here.  Our next stop was Kaiji Beach which is one of only two beaches that have star-shaped sand.  Several small tour buses were stopped here.  Robert tried to find some star sand but he gave up pretty quickly.  At the little make-shift stall on the beach, we looked through a magnify glass and sure enough it’s true – there is such a thing as star-shaped sand.  They were selling some in a bottle there, so I just had to get me one.

Star Shaped Sand as soon through Magnify Glass

Star Shaped Sand

We had successfully done everything we wanted to do on this island, but looking at our map, I realized we were now on the opposite side of the island and at the furthest point away from the ferry.  We still had plenty of time, so we took the back roads to the ferry terminal.  Fortunately, the weather continued to cooperate and we made our way safely back to Ishigaki.

That night we had dinner in town at a local place called Hitoshi.  They actually have two locations in town.  I had read about it on the internet and it was # 1 on Tripadvisor.  The menu was entirely in Japanese, but fortunately a wonderful woman working there, spoke some English and helped us order their best dishes.  They specialize in tuna and it was by far the best tuna I’ve had since being in Japan.  They also make this homemade tofu with a sticky peanut sauce that is out of this world.  I think Robert would fly all the way back there just for that.  It ended up being a perfect ending to a perfect day.

Ishigaki: Visiting Some Okinawa Islands

View of Kabira Bay

Kabira Bay

We decided to go to the southern most part of Japan (Okinawa) for our Thanksgiving Break.  We heard it was very different from the rest of Japan and indeed it is.  The islands definitely have their own distinct culture and a very different history than the main islands of Japan.

There are actually more than 100 islands stretching some 600 miles from the southern part of Kyushu down to Taiwan and all of these islands use to be part of the independent Ryukyu Kingdom.  Some island groups have their own language – 6 different languages in total (which are slowly being phased out due to the national education system).  Japan started invading and occupying the islands in the early 1600’s, – they weren’t officially annexed by Japan until 1879.  Until then, the Ryuku kings paid tribute to both the Japanese Shogun and the Chinese Emperor.  The islands were deeply effected by WWII and were also influenced by the Americans (due to US military control of the area until 1972).

The subtropical location of the islands make them look like a cross between Florida and Hawaii.  They are completely surrounded by beautiful coral reefs which make them a very popular diving and snorkeling destination.  Driving around the towns and looking at the buildings, it is obvious that this is the poorest prefecture in Japan (I’m sure the weather doesn’t help the appearance of things either).  The locals look different than the Northern Japanese and they have a much more casual and relaxed demeanor.   The local folk music sounds more Hawaiian and their instrument, the sanshin looks a lot like a ukelele.  They also eat more beef and like their food spicier.


Sashimi & Peanut Tofu

We stayed at the ANA Intercontinental Hotel (highly recommended) which is about 6 km outside the city of Ishigaki.  We loved their pool and spa, and especially liked the little contraption that would dry our swimsuits out for us.  Their concierge desk was extremely helpful with making dinner reservations and planning our big excursion to Iriomote.  The city of Ishigaki isn’t beautiful, but it has lots of character and wonderful restaurants.   There are even enough shops to easily occupy a full day.  All the meals we ate in Ishigaki were fantastic including their famous soba noodles (which we had downtown at the little Okinawan hut which was full of business men and a big group of local woman planning some event).  The taco rice, seafood salad, ishigaki beef, and sushi/sashimi (especially the tuna) were fantastic too.  Two of our favorite dishes, which we never had before, were peanut tofu and sea grapes.  We also had some of the best Chinese food we ever had one night at our hotel (we had to book it two days in advance to even eat there).  The town really comes alive at night and you MUST make reservations at the restaurants (even in the off-season) or you’ll be turned away.  We really enjoyed their local beer (Orion) and even tried a couple different Amawori (the local distilled liquor made from rice).  We also liked all their speciality desserts we tried (too many to list).


An Ishigaki City Shop

One day of our trip was devoted to just exploring Ishigaki island rather than visiting one of the other islands.  As it turns out, there were lots of little hidden gems here too.  We traveled along the west coast of the island to visit both Sukuji beach and Kabira Bay.  Kabira Bay is known for cultivating black pearls.  It was by far the prettiest beach we saw on the island, but unfortunately you can’t swim there. The associated town is not very big.  In fact, the whole area once you leave the city is very sparsely populated, full of lush vegetation, mountains and streams.  It would be very easy to get away from it all if you stayed at one of the hotels out this way.  It really has a lot to do if you are an outdoors/beach person.  In route that day around the island, we also saw Tourinji Temple, Gongendo Shrine, the Toujin Grave, and the Wetland Wild Life Refuge.  If we had more time, we would have liked to see more of the island and it’s beaches, do some snorkeling, and hike up Mt Omoto.

The Okinawan islands are actually very easy to get to from Fukuoka and makes for a nice getaway.  Each island we visited (Ishigaki, Taketomi, and Iriomote) was rewarding and different in it’s own way.  It makes me want to visit all the islands….but that would take quite a long time. 🙂