Would Have

So, I thought there’d be no more “would have” about my summer holiday, but now there is. Originally I would have gone to Europe this summer, but that was cancelled quite a while ago. Then I booked two weeks in my beloved Okinawa… I would have flown to Naha today, but… on the 31st of July the governor of Okinawa declared a prefecture wide state of emergency, asking people to stay at home as much as possible. And that for at least the period of August 1st to August 15. My plan was to go to Okinawa (main island this time) from August 2nd to August 15th. Aaaaahhhhh!!!! Okinawa has currently 300 active cases (adding 200 in the last four days…) with 1.4 Mio inhabitants, while the prefecture where I live, Kanagawa, has 400 active cases with 9 Mio inhabitants, and that despite being right next to Tokyo with its now 3200 active cases.
It’s not forbidden to fly to Okinawa, but I’d just feel so awkward to be frolicking about during a state of emergency and the request to stay home. So yesterday I spent the morning with cancelling everything and luckily my hotel was super nice and let me cancel for free and it also looks like I’ll get most of the money back for the flight.
So what to do with my precious two weeks off in this very volatile atmosphere? I’ve booked an apartment now for 4 days in Kanazawa on the Japanese sea side where I’ve never been to before and will probably, hopefully go there tomorrow. Let’s see what happens! Stay safe everyone! And wear masks please!

Temple Mania

The number of tourists to Japan reached a new record in 2019. I found on some website that it’s been 32 million visitors. By comparison, in 2020 only 8.6 million came to Japan and in 2003 it was only 5.2 million. Not all of those millions are tourists of course, there are plenty of business trip people who have no time for sightseeing, but every single one of the millions of tourists goes to Kamakura!
There is a whole historic period named after the area, from 1185 to 1333 – the time of the Kamakura Shogunate. You can read all about it on Wikipedia etc. Fact is the place breathes history and has myriads of temples and shrines of offer, of which some 25 make it onto tourist maps. I have been to Kamakura (of course) during my very first visit to Japan in (OMG) 1993, when there were probably only 2 million or so visitors coming into the country and then again some time around 2005 with my sister (on a rainy day and we saw nothing much more than the great buddha statue). Ever since I have not been to Kamakura again, scared off by the horrendous number of tourists walking through the small town.
Now it happens that my current apartment is only 50 train minutes from Kamakura and I thought, hey! It’s the chance of a lifetime to explore Kamakura in detail, while there is an entry ban to Japan for 129 countries during the corona crisis.
So far I have been to Kamakura four times and I intend to go another two times or so, since on one trip I manage only 5 to 6 temples and shrines due to heat and rain 😉
There is also a reason for why the place is so full of tourists, because, yes, it is bloody great 🙂 If you like history, temples and shrines, Kamakura is the place to go.
It’s all quite stretched out and you are walking a lot, but you can also take some buses which run frequently through the town.

On my first visit I did the “main” route with a side kick to the great buddha statue, which is at Kohtoku-in temple. Then on to the grand Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine, on to Kencho-ji temple, Meigetsu-in temple and Engkaku-ji temple.
On my second trip I walked through the so called Kanazawa Kaido area with the Eragaten shrine, the Kamakura shrine, the fantastic Zuisen-ji temple, the Sugimoto temple, the Jomyo-ji temple and the other gem of the Hokoku-ji temple.

Trip three brought me to two temples of the Kita-Kamakura area that I missed on the first trip, the Tokei-ji and the Jochi-ji, then down towards the coast to the famous Hasedera and the much less visited Kosoku-ji. The fourth trip brought me to the Jufuk-ji and the Eisho-ji and another highlight, the Kaizo-ji, then to the two big shrines of Zeniarai Benzaiten and my favorite shrine, the Sasuke Inari.

What’s left to explore will be the shrines and temples of the Zaimokuza area, which I will target in August or September.
During the four trips in June and July some temples were virtually deserted, some had a few Japanese visitors and also the occasional foreigner who lives here, but no comparison to the busloads of tourists that usually flock the place. While it is hard for the local businesses to do without those busloads, I can firmly say that I’m greatly enjoying the place without them 😉

Discover Your Neighborhood

I’m a bit at a loss at the moment as to what to write for the blog. World events are crazy… Japan, at the moment, seems like a happy island of calm with only some 18,000 coronavirus infections and a thousand deaths. Even if there is a gray zone and there actually might be more cases, this is nothing in comparison to many other countries.
What’s happening in Trumpfuckistan is beyond any words, that country is so sick on so many levels and yes, black lives do matter and the biggest virus of the country, agent orange, or as I like to call the creature: the orange fart face, just please please please has to go at the end of the year. Crazy many cases in Brazil, despite a hefty lockdown so many cases in India, the UK the worst affected country in Europe… but alas, their idiot government made them leave Europe…
And then the arctic is on fire and climate change rambles on. We are expecting a record summer in Japan too with “temperatures above normal” for the three months of July, August, September.
I had wanted to fly to Europe in August as usual and me idiot booked and payed for a flight in February, now I’m trying to cancel and maybe get some money back… all events (festivals) are cancelled and oh, yes, crazy Japan would not let me permanent resident back in anymore at the moment if I left the country, because I don’t have a Japanese passport… thanks for taking my taxes and all but granting no re-entry.
Money… there are salary cuts and we have shut down days at the company, usually Fridays. We are all doing the work of five days in four and get less money for it, but hey, at least I still have a paying job for now.
Which brings me to the good part and the title of this blog entry. I now have three day weekends and ever since our lockdown ended, I’ve been making use of those and done day trips around the Kanto region, so far mostly Kanagawa, where I live. It’s awesome. I’ve come to love my three day weekends and those day trips to places close by that I haven’t visited in years or not at all.
I’m posting pics on twitter and Facebook with a two week delay to make sure I didn’t catch anything at place x or y and that it has been safe to go there. But this is probably just over-caution, since our virus cases are pretty damn low and everyone is taking care. Everyone wears masks, always and there is hand sanitizer at every shop or museum or restaurant or whatever it is.
I’ve been to Enoshima = at the beach the first weekend after the state of emergency ended. Then for the first time ever I went to Mt. Takao and I loved it there, why the heck have I never gone there before?? 😉 I’ll definitely go there again in autumn/winter, when there is less humidity in the air and the view will be better. I’ve been to Hakkeijima Sea Paradise for the first time in some 15 years or so. It’s great to discover the beauty close by. I hope I can travel far away too again in the future, but for the moment, I am enjoying the little gems next door and there will be more to write about soon 😉
Take care everyone, stay safe, wear masks and let’s try to make the best out of it!

Golden Week at Home

Japan has a collection of national holidays end of April/beginning of May, which are known by the name of Golden Week (GW). It also happens that the company I work for closes off for the entire week around those holidays (using other national holidays on which we have to work).
Golden Week is thus the perfect time for a little travel and it’s easy to extend the GW a bit by adding one or the other day of paid leave.
I have made use of GW extensively and the last time I spent GW at home was 2010……… Alas… 2020 will be spent at home as well! I had booked a trip to my beloved Okinawa, but now cancelled it all, following the #stayhome directive.
I am of the kind who of course remembers having been on a trip to country X or island Y, but I do forget which year I went where. As a remedy I am in the habit of writing a journal and now it came in handy. I checked my journals and made a list of where I went every year during GW since the last time I spent it at home in 2010. The list is lovely and I shall bicycle around the neighborhood lost in memories of happy travels and island visits!

2011 – that was right after the big earthquake in Japan and I ventured out on my pre-booked travels to the Netherlands and the UK for sightseeing and heavy metal concerts in Amsterdam and London.
2012 – one of my most adventurous remote island trips so far. I went to the Ogasawara islands, 1000 km straight south of Tokyo in the middle of the Pacific. These islands have no airport and can only be reached by ship. One way takes 25 hours. The islands are insanely beautiful and I saw whales and dolphins during boat tours and in the harbor of Hahajima I saw sharks and mantas frolicking about.
2013 – I went to the island of Izu Oshima, not so far away from Tokyo and hiked around its central volcano, Mt. Mihara, which was great, but alas, my hotel was super crappy and infested with cockroaches, giant spiders and centipedes and I fled it one night earlier than planned.
2014 – No tiny Japanese island this time but a bigger one – I went to Taiwan finally after postponing a trip there for many times. I had a great time in Taipei and Kaohsiung walking around temples, skyscrapers and having good food.
2015 – Miyakojima. I rode around there with a rental car, sweating my guts out because of my fear of driving. But it is a wonderful island and I grew especially fond of the neighboring islands of Irabu and Shimoji where there is a fantastic beach studded with black rocks. Every day after the driving session was done, I went to an ice cream shop and rewarded myself after the driving stress.
2016 – Ishigaki. That time I tried with a scooter instead of a car, but found that to be equally scary and ended up not seeing much of Ishigaki island at all but hopping on boats every day to go to the surrounding islands which I explored on foot, with busses or rental bicycles. There was Kuroshima with 2000 cows and 200 people, Hateruma with a dream beach, and my favorite, Iriomote island with mangrove boat tours and hiking to waterfalls through the jungle.

2017 – something completely different! I flew to Moscow and St. Petersburg for sightseeing and heavy metal 😉 It had always been a dream of mine to stand on the Red Square in Moscow and visit the Basilica and the Kremlin. I enjoyed every minute of the trip to Russia. So much history and great people, even if they don’t speak English 😉

2018 – island time again, but not a Japanese one. I made another long held dream come true and flew to New Caledonia. Before coming to Japan, I didn’t even know about this place. I stumbled upon a flight coming from Noumea, had to google where that is and ever since I wanted to go there. Noumea is a wonderful city. I flew with a small plane to the Isle of Pines where is one of the most fantastic places ever called Piscine Naturelle, a closed off beach, where tropical fish swim around your feet in shallow waters.

2019 – Kumejima. Another lonely Okinawa island to explore. I had given up on car driving meanwhile and went around the island by bicycle up and down steep hills. The island has great beaches and stunning cliffs, but unfortunately the weather was not so good and lots of rain hampered the enjoyment, but that’s of course not the fault of the island.

So… what a nice list. I made great use of my Golden Weeks the past decade. I hope I can make equally good use of GW in the coming decade after spending the GW of 2020 in bicycle radius around my apartment! #stayhome #staysafe #stayhealthy

Cambodia Visit – Claimed Back by Nature

On the last main day of travels I hired a car with driver since I had no desire to ride the 57 km to the target temple with a tuktuk. A wise choice, since the drive went quite smoothly with the car. The target was the Beng Mealea temple, which is famous for its moss overgrowth during the rainy season. When I visited there were some remnants of moss left, but most of it had already been burned away by the sun. Nevertheless, the site is breathtaking. The temple is more or less entirely destroyed but how plants rank around it, claiming it back, make for a unique atmosphere which is mystic, bizarre and beautiful. It is well worth the ride from Siem Reap.

On the way back were another three temples to visit, all of them from the 9th century with Bakong temple being the most beautiful as well as best preserved one. The other two, Lolei and Preah Ko resemble the East Mebon and Pre Rup temples of the big circle tour, but Bakong is a gem of its own with its central lone tower. A very impressive site well worth the visit as well.

While all the temple glory makes you wonder who the Khmer were and how they lived and how they built all these sites, the Cambodian people of today have a hard life. Well, the people who actually toiled to built those temples on behest of their kings of course too. I chatted with the lady who brought me my dinner in the Siem Reap hotel every day. She has two sons, six and one year old. She works every single day. People in big companies have one day off per week, but people in small businesses usually work every day, because no work = no money. She has two jobs. She works at the hotel restaurant from 14:00 to 23:00 every day, then, twice a week, she also makes religious flower arrangements for people who go to the temple to pray. On those two days she has to get up at four in the morning.
I asked her about new year. Oh the Cambodian people don’t care. The fireworks and stuff on 31.12. are for the tourists. Khmer New Year is in June. That’s when people go to meet with their extended families to celebrate. The biggest deal is a festival in September though, which lasts two weeks. I understood it’s the Cambodian version of the all saints or Obon in Japan, when you think of your ancestors and honor the dead. There is a lot of fine clothes, fine food and dancing during those times and temple visits.
If you speak English, you can get jobs in the tourist industry, which is the best source of income around Siem Reap of course. Children go to school from 7:00 to 11:00 and then from 13:00 to 17:00. I suppose that’s why she starts to work at 14:00 to cook lunch for her kids. She comes from a small village further north and has never been anywhere else apart from her home town and Siem Reap, she has never been on a plane. Her mother and younger brother came to Siem Reap too. She didn’t speak of a father, maybe he passed away or left for whatever reason and then the family moved to Siem Reap. Her mother is the head chef in a nightclub and she works from 17:00 in the evening to 4:00 in the morning every day. Her mother wanted the son to “get a government job = official” because those are the best jobs, apparently, but he “was too lazy” and does internet commerce to the grievance of his mother. It’s a hard life under the tropical sun. In April it gets over 40 degrees… my hands were covered with heat rash, I got bitten by (only) three mosquitoes and luckily they didn’t carry any diseases. I sprayed an entire 200 ml bottle of insect repellent onto my skin and clothes and got bitten 3 times despite that.
But even though I am usually not in the habit of going to the same place twice, I might return to Siem Reap one day because there are still a lot of temples and sights that I couldn’t see and Angkor Wat and Bayon etc. are so beautiful it’s worthwhile to see them again 😉 let’s see!

Cambodia Visit – Sunrise at Angkor Wat

I am NOT a morning person, never have been, never will be, I suppose, but the first of January of a new decade was approaching and I decided to do the sunrise at Angkor Wat thing after all. Arrangements with the hotel resulted in a departure time of 5:00 in the morning. That meant getting up at 4:30. I tried to go to bed at 22:00 on New Year’s Eve, ignoring the countdown. But… across from my hotel was that already mentioned roof top bar. They blasted (louder than the other nights) live soft pop whining until midnight. I put earplugs in, didn’t help, I put my headphones over the earplugged ears, didn’t help. I played heavy metal. Finally the rest was blended out. At midnight there was a short official fireworks, which I watched a bit from my window. Then techno disco music thumping louder than heavy metal in Wacken let the house vibrate. I dozed on and off until three in the morning when the disco thumping finally stopped. I got maybe an hour of shut-eye until the alarm clock rang. Well it had been New Year’s Eve…
So, there I was at five in the morning riding with the tuktuk. It was pleasantly cool, almost cold, it’s dry season in Cambodia this time of year and that results in a whiff of continental climate with coolish nights of around 22 degrees and hot days with 34. I soon saw the next tuktuk with tourists and the next, all flocking towards Angkor Wat. There was a bit of a traffic jam even at the ticket control site. The stars were still out when I arrived and I headed straight for the lotus pond across from the temple. I was not the first one to arrive there, but not the last either and managed to get into the second row with someone short in front of me. There was already a hue of pink and blue to the east. The people in the first row in front of me were some people talking about finances and stock market exchange…. ahhhhhhh…. excuse me you capitalist fuxxs, don’t you have something else to talk about or can’t you just shut up? Luckily, they did shut up when it became lighter, but nevertheless they were tainting the enjoyment.
Angkor Wat faces west. On the spring equinox the sun rises exactly above the main tower in the middle, now it rose to the right of the complex. Strewn over the whole area surely several thousand people watched the first sunrise of the decade together with me. When the sun was up I ventured into the temple though not the uppermost gallery due to too many people and caught some sights in mild morning sunshine. It was very beautiful, all of it.

The rest of the plan involved the so called “big circle”, but I had requested another stop in Angkor Thom due to the confusion of the day before. I had not seen the terrace of the elephants and the Baphuon temple. At Baphuon I was suddenly more or less alone and enjoyed exploring that temple thoroughly.

On went the journey to the Preah Khan temple, which is huge and also has trees growing out of it. Since it was still before nine in the morning, there were very few people there and I enjoyed that temple immensely, also thanks to jungle birds singing for the new day which made the whole site even more amazing.

Next we went to a temple called Neak Poan or Pean, I found two spellings, which is in the middle of an artificial lake and in itself partially submerged, it’s very beautiful and mysterious site.

Next up was the Ta Som temple, which is small but very beautiful as well and it came along with two temple cats 😉

The East Mebon and Pre Rup sites are similar in style but completely different from e.g. Angkor Wat or the other temples in the area. They are more rectangular in nature and are dating earlier than the other sites, from around 950, while Angkor Wat is from the 12th century.

It was only noon when I returned to the hotel, but after seven hours on the road and not much sleep the night before I held a noon nap after a shower.
It’s been a magnificent first of January 2020!

Cambodia Visit – Angor Wat in Reverse

The ride to Siem Reap with an airline you’ve never heard of went smoothly. Lanmei airlines, apparently a Cambodian carrier, had the smallest distance between seat rows I have ever encountered on any airline anywhere. Interestingly the flight came in from Bangkok and unloaded passengers bound for Phnom Penh, but those bound for Siem Reap stayed on board, then they added those who boarded in Phnom Penh. Luckily, with those super uncomfortable seats, the airbus barely lifted off when it already landed again. At Siem Reap airport are no gangways, you walk over the concrete and some ground personnel tried to separate those who flew domestic from those who flew international to get the latter through customs and border control. Interesting system.
I had to wait a bit for my promised driver and was expecting a car, but then a tuktuk drove me and my suitcase to the hotel. I only walked down the road for a bit and it was the same traffic chaos as in Phnom Penh only with more westerner tourists dodging the traffic. At the hotel I sorted things out for the first day, the so called “small circle” with the three main sites of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm temple.

The goal of the journey was in reach! I boarded a tuktuk and off I went to the Angkor ticket center. The temple complex is about six kilometers north of Siem Reap. On the jungle road just behind ticket control my driver suddenly stopped and said Ta Prohm. Originally the first stop was supposed to be Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm was supposed to be the last, going clockwise. My driver’s English wasn’t the best and it was even harder to communicate with him than with my trusted driver in Phnom Penh. Ta Prohm, um… hm… well, I’m kinda at his mercy. I think he did the reverse tour because on the way to Ta Prohm he stopped at a road shop and had someone put more air into the rear tires. Well, okay, necessary I guess. At Ta Prohm the reverse was no problem, there is only one stop where many people unload from their whatever vehicles. Ta Prohm is amazing, those trees that rank around the temple are very impressive. It looks bizarre. Unfortunately the temple is quite narrow and the loads of people were worst at Ta Prohm.
The trees and their snake-like roots make for an atmosphere I have not yet seen. It’s spooky, beautiful and reminds of the fragility of human endeavor.

Then we went on to Angkor Thom, which is the old Khmer city. The outer wall is left, then jungle has basically taken over and in that jungle are whatever ruins, with the Bayon temple, the temple with the mysterious faces in the center. If we had gone the correct way we would have arrived at Bayon and done the rest later.

But now we arrived from the other side and the driver dumped me and pointed wildly into the jungle and said he will wait at Bayon. All right. I stumbled along and got pretty much lost in the jungle. It was insanely hot, just the peak of the noon heat. I had to ask other tourists for directions. I found Bayon, but of course approached it also from the wrong direction.
The central temple mount is so withered away it looks like a hill at times. The mysterious faces in the many turrets around the main mount are all a bit different and one is more beautiful and mystic than the other. Also Bayon is a rather small site and you are not alone. Looking at my pictures afterwards I am amazed how well I managed to blend out the people.

It was after 13:00 now and even hotter than at noon. I got out of the temple somewhere, having no clue where I was and there was no sign of my tuktuk. I waited in the shade, unwilling to go on walking in the heat and called my hotel, asking them to call him and go looking for me. That worked out in the end and at least I had a bit of a rest in the shade. Then we of course approached Angkor Wat also from the wrong direction. We should have been there at ten in the morning when it’s not so super hot yet, instead we were now at Angkor Wat at 14:00 or so when it was super hot.

Angkor Wat is fantastic. It’s in extremely good shape considering it’s age of over 800 years in the brutal tropical climate. I think everyone knows about the Pyramids in Egypt or Taj Mahal in India. Angkor Wat stands right next to them in size, grandeur and cultural significance, but is somehow still less famous (I think). I guess that’s because of the Vietnam war and the Khmer Rogue regime, which threw the country back into the Stone Age and tourism was only established during the past 20 years.
You can get into the upper half of the temple right under the five towers if you climb up rickety, steep wooden stairs, it’s every bit worth the climb though. It started as a Hindu temple but was partially transformed into a Buddhist temple and has several sites of active worship inside it now too. If Angkor Wat is not yet on your travel bucket list, add it. It’s worth the pain to get there.
The three sites of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom or rather the Bayon temple and Ta Prohm are so different and yet right next to each other. It makes you truly wonder what kind of people built those magnificent temples and in what kind of world they lived.
I’ve been to 36 countries by now but have never seen anything quite like the Angkor area. It’s just “wow”.

Cambodia Visit – Oudong and Zoo

On my third day in Phnom Penh, I escaped the reception desk and waited outside for my trusted tuktuk driver and it worked out. He was there at nine in the morning and I paid him directly and not the hotel. He was happy and promptly drove me north. The goal was the Oudong temple on top of the first hill far and wide outside of Phnom Penh. Later checking revealed it is around 34 km north of Phnom Penh. The road was a rather good highway for most of the way, which meant my driver pushed the tuktuk to its speed limit and dashed down that road with what felt like a 100 km per hour at times. It might have been 80 km, but in an open vehicle without seatbelts it felt horribly fast and I clung on for dear life. But as evidenced by me being able to write this, I survived the journey 😉
The goal of the journey was well worth the ride. Up some stairs were three stupas, one new, two old and you got a fantastic 360 degree view of the area. The wild monkeys on the stairs including a baby monkey were super cute but of course you are not supposed to touch them. They are far less cute if they bite you!

Of the two old stupas one was studded with ceramic ornaments and very beautiful. There were a few foreigners, meaning westerners, at the temple, but most of the people were locals or from neighboring countries.

On the way back my driver made a detour to the Phnom Penh “safari”, a zoo as I had come to understand the day before. All the more astonished I was as to where he brought me. We crossed the Mekong at some point and landed in a huge wasteland. It seems to be a new development zone as evidenced by two three buildings already around and a giant stadium under construction.

The stadium looked huge, surely holding 80,000 people or more. I seriously wonder though how those 80,000 are supposed to get there without public transport?? Next to the zoo was one lone hotel (perhaps) and an amusement park that looked also under construction. And then the zoo. It was finished, but pretty much devoid of visitors. It’s empty parking lot was laid out for hundreds of cars and looked spooky so empty.

The zoo was well constructed and organized and also designed interactively with the possibility to buy feeding material for e.g. birds, fish, deer and giraffes. I fed deer crunchy green leaves and bananas to the giraffes which they happily chomped down skin and all. There were so few visitors it seemed like some of the animals were even reacting to me, bears were getting up on their hind legs taking a look, deer were turning their heads when I walked past, and the highlight was an orangutan who came closer, sat down, looked at me and then seemed to smile at me.

I just hope they take good care of the animals there. And I also hope that the rest of the wasteland will be developed quickly so that more visitors will come to the zoo.
After the initial scare of asking myself how to get around I had a great tuktuk driver for three days, who brought me back safely every day despite the hair raising traffic of the city of Phnom Penh!

Cambodia Visit – Silk Farm

On my second day in Phnom Penh I got the same trusted tuktuk driver but he seemed a bit angry at me! Only when we arrived back in the hotel did I find out why. His English is not that good so it took a while to understand. I had said ten o’clock for today and he went “okay okay”. He seems to have been under the impression that I don’t ask at the hotel desk for the tour but him directly. I didn’t pick up on that the day before. So the second morning I asked the hotel reception again and paid them instead of him. No clue how much margin the hotel takes for giving him the job. But thus I got it that I was supposed to pay him directly and not the hotel.

As for the contents, the tuktuk ride led me to the shores of the mighty Mekong river. The plan was to get onto the Silk Island, its real name is Koh Dach, which is an island inside the Mekong river. The Mekong is a stunning 4350 km long and parts a little for this island, so what you see on the pics is only roughly half of the river.

There are no bridges to Koh Dach and you have to go by ferry, a very old and rickety affair. LOL. The pictures don’t express the age of these vessels or the noise of their sputtering Diesel engines.

Once on the island my driver brought me to a silk farm where a nice guy explained to me (and a group of Italians) about how silk is made. Of course I knew about the worms but not about the entirety of the process. The worms, or rather caterpillars are eating only mulberry leaves for about 30 days, then they turn from white to yellow and cocoon, once they become moths they mate, lay eggs and die. They live for around 45 days in total.

Now, if you want to get silk you have to balance your stock of worms to let some become moths to continue the process and the rest you throw into boiling water and cook them. The traditional process is then to take an eggplant leave and dip it into the hot water picking up threads. About twenty of them you twirl and then spin them into a thread. One cocoon yields up to 500 meters of thread. The outer layer of the cocoon is a bit rougher and used for e.g. rugs. The inner part of the cocoon is softer and spun into a thread for clothes. Then you dye the yellow threads into the desired colors and start weaving. A four meter sarong with a two colored pattern such as this peacock design takes a month to finish, two meter scarves with less of a pattern or none take ten days, they said.

Despite that they sold the scarves for 20 USD and I didn’t even haggle (I don’t like haggling). I’m pretty sure I’d pay double or triple or even more for that in Japan. The guy explaining things to us said he was a “volunteer” and was supporting his university studies with explaining things to tourists and was also improving his (already pretty good) English. The weaving ladies were all widows, he said, who are working at this place as a part of a support program for them. True or not, they make beautiful stuff and it was very interesting to see the process of silk being made the “old” way. I just wonder how the hell our ancestors came upon the idea to boil those cocoons and make threads out of them for cloth. That was quite some invention / discovery.
On the way back to town, I asked my driver to drop me off once more at the national museum, I really like that building and it’s garden and the day before stayed only thirty minutes during the busy day.

That day I stayed for an hour and also borrowed an audio guide and listened to some of the explanations for the artifacts on display. During that audio description, they also said that the museum, which came into existence around 1920 was closed during the four years of the Khmer Rouge rule, I’m surprised they just closed it and didn’t burn it to the ground. Luckily they refrained from doing stuff like that…

Cambodia Visit – Phnom Penh

Cambodia, or rather Angkor Wat has been on my travel bucket list for a while already and I finally decided to go. The Southeast Asian country I’ve been to most often is Thailand (3 times so far). Phnom Penh, my first destination, reminded me a lot of Bangkok in 1999 when I visited there for the first time. There is no public transport system in Phnom Penh except for busses and downtown there are always traffic jams. Last time I was in Bangkok was 2012 and they had an elevated train and had much evolved. In Ho Chi Minh city they were building a subway when I was there in 2016, which should be finished by now? Not sure. In Phnom Penh though it’s all busses, cars, mostly fat pickups, tuktuks and scooters, although less scooters than in Saigon. There is endless chaos in Phnom Penh, though the worst chaos I’ve seen remains the traffic in India.
On my arrival day I took a walk around the block of my hotel and was a bit spooked. There was no real space for walking and no people on bicycles either. So how do I get around town without being able to walk? To hire a tuktuk seemed like a scary prospect, not so much concerning traffic safety but concerning personal safety, what happens if the tuktuk driver takes me somewhere strange and demands more money to take me back and so on and so forth. The possibilities are plenty. I wrecked my brain about those during the night.
The next morning I asked at the reception of the hotel how to get around and the lady immediately suggested, oh we have a tour for 30 USD and you can visit all the major places in one day. Okay, fine, nice, let’s do that. I paid and was then brought to a guess what, a tuktuk. Lol. It turned out to be no problem though, my driver brought me to all the places, nicely waited and brought me back to the hotel 😉

Money… there is Cambodian money, called the Riel, but the preferred, harder currency is simply USD. If you look like you are not from Cambodia, they kinda expect you to be paying in USD.
Money… Cambodia is pretty poor, the hunt for money = better living conditions is present everywhere. As a foreigner you are seen as a source of money and they expect you to not be sitting on it. But that’s okay, since from a European, Japanese perspective stuff is cheap.
So, there I sat in my tuktuk with a driver who spoke only rudimentary English and the first thing he does is taking me to the Killing Fields.

Cambodia’s recent history is a tough cookie. Politically unstable it was drawn into the Vietnam war and extensively bombed, then the Khmer Rouge came along and “liberated” the country in 1975 proclaiming a communist utopia. They drove people out of the cities into the countryside forcing them to be farmers. They started treating everyone with “soft hands”, or glasses, as a traitor and within the four years of their rule, they killed a fourth of their own countrymen. Out of eight million people, around three million have died. There is not one family that was left unscathed I suppose. There are many killing fields all over the country, the closest to Phnom Penh is only a thirty minute ride by tuktuk away. Some 20,000 people were killed at this place. They built a stupa for remembrance and filled it with some of the skulls that were exhumed at the site. There is a tree where the guards smashed babies against whose parents had been executed. It is hard to comprehend how people can do such things.
The harsh part of the day-tour continued with the prison camp in downtown Phnom Penh, a former high-school, where prisoners were interrogated under torture confessing to “crimes” they didn’t commit and accusing others falsely in the hope it would ease their suffering only to be then transported to the Killing Fields and hacked to death anyway. Bullets were too expensive, most people were killed with axes, hammers and so forth.
After three hours of such harshness the rest of the day and tour felt like balm. The first thing after the prison in town to visit was befittingly a beautiful Buddhist temple and it was great to see something nice and peaceful.

Next up were the national museum and the royal palace. Both of them magnificent buildings of intricate beauty in their designs. What a day of the human spectrum. From the blackest possible depths to highest achievements in beauty.

Average 97 Decibels – Part 2

Some words about the bands for those not so familiar with this world. Stam1na is a melodic death metal band from Finland, singing in Finnish. Mentioned Black Dahlia Murder is an extreme metal band from Detroit, USA. Insomnium is an English singing melodic death metal band from Finland as well. Silver Dust is a gothic, steampunk metal band from Switzerland, singing in English, Rotting Christ is black/dark metal from Greece, singing in many languages, mostly Greek and English, but also French or Farsi for example. Moonspell is a dark, gothic metal band from Portugal, singing in English and Portuguese. While most of the six bands are t-Shirt bands, Moonspell does a little bit with props and costumes, and Silver Dust does a lot. It was actually refreshing to see some effort put into clothing and makeup and putting on a „show“ with a video screen also, showing clips and bits fitting to the songs.

The audiences were all the same tribe, no matter in which country: metalheads! Moshing wise the French were most active and squeezed the first two, three rows pretty well, on all other gigs, I was safe in my beloved first row. The first row is just the best place to be. Despite creating a meter or two of space between the bands and the audience, I actually prefer a railing, since you can put your coat there, lean on it and use it as head banging support, lol. The unobstructed view to the stage is of course the best part of things. The sound in the first row is actually not the best, but that can’t be helped. Only after the Rotting Christ gig in Budapest, I gave up on the first row, because of the low stage, no place to hold onto and back pain and retreated to the back of the hall for Moonspell to have a wall for support. I didn’t see a thing anymore, but the sound was excellent.

Some people may shake their heads at crazy trips for heavy metal, but I’m proud of my passions, lol. It’s the adventures you make, the people you meet and the things you experience that define you. I met French metalhead friends in Lyon, I made a new metalhead friend from Brazil, I chatted with Austrian fans in Vienna, I talked to a lady from the Netherlands in a bus somewhere, a super friendly Hungarian grandpa helped me in broken English to find the airport bus, I met my sister in Dresden, where neither of us had ever been before. I managed to explore Lyon, Dresden and Vienna for a bit, I’ve been to Budapest again after nine years. I saw excellent concerts of bands whose music touches my heart and soul. All that would not happen without the passion. I hope it never dies and that the next trip will be around the corner soon! Cheers!

Average 97 Decibels – Part 1

Ahhhh, a sweet week is over, three bands four times (Stam1na, The Black Dahlia Murder, Insomnium) and another three bands two times (Silver Dust, Rotting Christ, Moonspell). It was a blast! Any time again please!
In the very good venue of the Pratteln Konzertfabrik Z7 (in Switzerland) was something I have never seen before in the plenty of concert venues big and small that I so far had the privilege to visit: a decibels counter. Insomnium and the other bands averaged out at 97 decibels. There was one spike cracking the 100 decibels mark, but most of the stuff was between 95 and 99 decibels. So that’s the magic number: 97 decibels 😉 In some venues things might be louder, but judging from the comfort level of my (earplugged) ears, the around 100 decibels seems to be the norm 😉

There is no debating about taste, but frankly I didn’t care for The Black Dahlia Murder at all. As stated by the vocalist, they are an extreme metal band and in my humble opinion did not fit to Stam1na and Insomnium, which work very well together. I have nothing against extreme metal, Meshuggha is an awesome band for example, but the Dahlia guys just didn’t do it for me, which made the hour of their set quite a drag.

I thought the three other bands of Silver Dust, Rotting Christ and Moonspell made a much better combination. Steampunk, ghost themed Silver Dust, then the black, dark metal of Rotting Christ and the dark, gothic metal of Moonspell, now that went down smoothly. I enjoyed those two evenings immensely.
The traveling within Europe went flawlessly, even the most challenging part of getting from Budapest to Dresden went well thanks to on time airplanes and trains. But, to a limited extend, I have come to understand the challenge of touring. These bands hop around from city to city in their tour busses, apparently also sleeping in them, taking showers at the venues. While I traveled about for fun, they have to give their best every night for new audiences. Well new audiences??? Lol there were people I saw three times, traveling around with the bands like myself, lol. But the majority of the audience is of course not doing the city hopping.

The best Insomnium gig was in Pratteln, Switzerland I suppose, thanks to an excellent venue and great sound. The best Rotting Christ gig was in Budapest, due to first row, no barrier, my hand on the monitor of the guitarist. The stage was very low, since the venue was on a fixed boat on the Danube river that resulted in a low ceiling. That gig was very close up and personal and earned me the pic that Sakis Tolis, the front man of Rotting Christ, played with 😉

Norway Fjord Cruise – Part 3

The morning after the storm everything was fine, the seas flat again and I felt okay, even if I didn’t have any appetite yet. The Okinawa trip where the bad weather lasted for about 16 hours and when I couldn’t walk straight anymore for a while upon arrival, remains the peak of seasickness so far, but now I have a clear number two: that night on the MS Lofoten 😉
The last full day at sea was the least interesting with plenty of fjords, yes, but not really amazing sceneries, apart from the town of Molde, which has quite a view at mountains across the shore.

The day also provided another stretch of open sea before Molde, which was quite shaky again and I lay down for a while on a sofa in the salon. I found that lying down does help a little with the seasickness feeling. I didn’t get sick this time, but was happy when it stopped swaying.
On the last day towards Bergen seas were quiet, luckily.

The average age of the cruise passengers on board was maybe 60. There were a few younger people though, notably an Australian lady in her 30ties who I talked to a lot and a British girl in her twenties. There was also a weird young guy not yet 30 who walked around in a suit for the entire journey. Lol. One notable passenger was a 87 year old lady from Norway who spent much of her life in Canada though. She didn’t even get sea sick, she was only complaining that she cannot walk through the ship when it shakes so badly! She was everyone’s grandma and so funny and alert. I wanna be like that and still go on cruises and be interested in the people around me if I get to become 87!
The tour guide announced everything in Norwegian, then English, finally German. Half of the cruise guests were Germans and they did make me cringe. The kind of Germans who want to take Germany with them wherever they go and complain about anything they find un-German and not up to their “standards”. There were no younger Germans on board, I might have been the youngest. I felt kinda embarrassed and wanted to apologize to the crew for those arrogant German retired couples. There was an astonishing amount of Australians on board and equally interesting there were no Chinese or Japanese around, some signs along the route were in Chinese, indicating Chinese passengers, but not on my trip.
All in all the journey was living up to my expectations and that one glorious day with the Trollfjord and sea eagles and the view of the Lofoten at sunset will remain a highlight among the travel experiences I have made so far.

I’m not in the habit of doing the same thing twice apart from Wacken and other heavy metal related things, so I won’t do a Norway cruise again 😉 Let’s see what will happen after Wacken next year. The Wacken ticket just arrived! 🙂

Norway Fjord Cruise – Part 2

Day three of the Norway cruise was the most glorious and perfect day. Sunshine, quiet seas in the fjords, astonishingly warm for 70 degrees north. The best and most spectacular fjord was the Trollfjord, followed by the main town of the Lofoten islands, Svolvaer. Wow, those were picture book fjords in fantastic weather. It also offered the only excursion I had booked, a sea eagle photo safari. It involved spectacular action like the small boat for the sea eagle safari matching speed with the MS Lofoten and the people who booked the excursion “jumping ship”.

Seagulls entertained us with the tour boat people throwing bread and fish at them and before and after entering Trollfjord looking out for eagles and luring them to the boat with free fish. We had six or seven eagles in total, two of them catching fish from the air close to the boat and the others catching the fish that the crew threw into the water, noteably after injecting the fish corpses with air to make them float to make it easier for the eagles to catch them out of the water. The nosy seagulls kept their distance from the eagles when they approached by the way.

I would have loved to go ashore at Trollfjord and spend some more minutes there, but it was just in and out of the fjord and it’s for the cruise ship the only detour without calling to a port and only weather permitting. One of the cruise staff said we were hella lucky that the weather was so fantastic, many times you don’t see the tops of the mountains due to clouds, fog, whatever.

From Svolvaer to the next port we had to cross a stretch of open sea, but the day was fine, the sea was quiet and the view of the receding Lofoten islands in the sunset was completely stunning.

On day four we crossed the arctic circle in the morning and were entertained by cool looking, low hanging cloud and fog banks.

After passing a row of mountains called the seven sisters in the afternoon we entered an area of bad weather with rain and not seeing further than fifty meters. Then came the nightmare. We had to cross another section of open sea and the rain developed into a little storm and sent the ship swaying up and down and from side to side and by 23:00 I felt like I’d die!

I’ve only been really seasick once before, as far back as 1995 when I once went from Fukuoka to Okinawa by ship during my scholarship student times at the University of Kyushu. On the way to Okinawa everything was fine, on the way back we got into the outskirts of a typhoon and I thought the ship would sink and I got violently sick. Now for the second time on board the MS Lofoten. It’s amazing how miserable seasickness makes you feel, you really feel deathly sick and as if it’s the end of you, lol. I threw up two times, then fell into bed in my clothes. Luckily we left the stormy waters after around three hours and at two in the morning I was able to get up and get ready for bed in a proper fashion.

Norway Fjord Cruise – Day 1

Hurtigruten has a wide range of ships of all ages and luxury classes and due to my travel times and dates I traveled with the MS Lofoten, currently the oldest vessel in service, I believe. The boat is from 1964, wow, quite an old lady for a boat 😉 You could of course feel and see that in the simplicity of the design and the often painted over old steel, but the ship did have a rustic charm. I had chosen my cabin a bit unwisely though, since I was very close to the old sputtering, noisy engine of the ship, however, the constant sound and vibration also lulled me to sleep at times.

From Kirkenes we sailed further north with not much fjords yet but the open Barents Sea to our right and the coastline to our left. The ship calls to port every two, three hours on average. Climbing up north along the coast was quite unpleasant. Due to the constant sideways swell of the Barents Sea, the ship, which had of course no stabilizers being old and rather small, the ship rolled quite heftily from side to side. I didn’t get seasick, but I didn’t feel like eating more than half of my dinner that first night. From the second day onwards we entered the jungle of fjords big and small and the sea was much calmer. The north is rough but beautiful and at times I wanted to take pictures of every single mountain we passed.

There was also a sense of desolation and isolation though and I could not shake the thought of just how bleak and cold and miserable it has to be there in winter. One place particularly threw me and I checked about it in the Internet. An island called Loppa. It was halfway between the maybe five hundred inhabitants towns of Oksfjord and Skjervoy, which are served by Hurtigruten. It looked like there are ten or twenty houses on Loppa, even a church. Internet says there are “few” permanent residents left, but there ARE permanent residents left. Holy crap.

You need one and a half hours to Oksfjord with a whip going 14 knots like the MS Lofoten, longer of course with a slower ship. Main industry is presumably fishing, it didn’t look like there is anything else. What must it be like to live there? Why would anyone choose to live there? In summer, okay, I might still get it, it’s lonely, remote and beautiful, but in winter??? Where it never gets really bright at 70 degrees north and where it’s minus thirty or whatever degrees Celsius? I can relate to living in a place like this if it were subtropical but not if it’s subarctic. Wow.