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A Layover in Tokyo

Macrae’s last visit to Japan included a layover in Tokyo (Narita Airport) on his way back to Canada. The same day he was leaving, he found out his best friend had passed away. Across the country, with a long flight back and hours before he boarded, he ventured out into Narita to clear his head. While walking he stumbled upon the nearby temple and to his surprise, the grounds were extensive and beautiful and he found peace while sitting in a secluded spot near a waterfall. Since then, it has been a special place to him and it was this experience that encouraged us both to visit Narita as a day trip.

Narita. Not Just A Usual Layover In Tokyo…

narita temple entrance - a nice temple to visit when having a layover in Tokyo

Narita is popular for its international airport commonly used by incoming passengers to Tokyo and is a busy layover destination. It is approximately 1 1/2 hours outside of Tokyo proper however, making a visit to Tokyo inconvenient during shorter layovers. Fortunately, Narita is only a train stop away from Narita Airport (terminal 2) and has some great things to do and see while you wait for your next flight.

As we found out, it’s not just a place to go during a layover – it also makes for a great day trip even if you’re already in the city. We decided to take the train from Tokyo to Narita to explore the area and had a great day visiting one of the most beautiful temple grounds we’ve seen and enjoying the charm of the surrounding town while immersing ourselves in a unique tourist setting that still has a traditional Japanese feel.

Whether you have a short amount of time, or a full day to sightsee, there are a few key things to see and do.

Sights in Narita

 

Narita-san Shinshoji Temple

great pagoda of peace- temple Narita, close enough to visit when having a layover in Tokyo

From the street, this 1000 year-old temple doesn’t look much different from other temples, but once you climb the stairs and pass through the main gate, you enter a gorgeous oasis of cultural significance and natural beauty. There are several temple buildings on the expensive grounds, some built in different eras and each retain the architectural style of their period.

You’ll want to designate some time to explore. The main entrance gives way to a vast property and much of the area is gardens, walkways, forests and parks and walking through can take hours depending on how much you want to see, and how fast you want to walk.

temple in Narita, close to visit and convenient when you have a layover in tokyo

We took our time once we reached the forested area, walking the paths, crossing bridges over streams and sitting in a quiet lushly-vegetated area near the waterfall. It was incredibly peaceful and serene and it was easy to forget we had just come from the hectic streets and transit system of Tokyo.

narita temple statue - a layover in Tokyo

The nature around the buildings add to the reverent feel and pretty much transported us to another time and place. It was obvious how a place like this could have such a calming effect as it had on Macrae several years ago and is undoubtedly a memorable place to visit.

Narita temple forest is a good stop when you have a layover in Tokyo

Unfortunately, we didn’t make it to see any of the Buddhist ceremonial prayers and rituals but there a several, performed daily, and are open to the public.

If you have a chance, whether you are already visiting the country or can only catch a quick glimpse while passing through, Narita-san Shinshoji temple is definitely worth visiting and is admission-free!

 

Omotesando street

narita streets and shops - a place to visit when having a layover in Tokyo

Simply taking a walk down the main street, Omotesando, is an experience in itself. The winding, hilly road leads from Narita station to the temple and is filled, on both sides of the street, with unique stores and shops and various restaurants and bars. You can take your time strolling, stepping into the souvenir shops and pastry stores or taking a break at a coffee shop or restaurant and enjoy classic Japan for whatever length of time you have available. If you have time, wander off the main road and you’ll find some interesting hidden gems away from the more popular tourist area.

 

Sega World & The Batting Cages

While not necessarily a way to take in Japanese culture, if you’re looking to kill some time, or have some younger ones with you, Sega World may be a great place to enjoy some arcade games and try and win some prices. open from 10am to midnight, you’ll have a chance to visit no matter what time you make your way to Narita. Not too far from the train station, or the temple, you’ll find both Sega World and some batting cages.

The Azura Batting Cages are located beside Sega World and, as baseball is Japan’s favourite sport, a popular place to spend some time. It’s a great place for all ages and is open from 9am to 9:45pm making it another place that’s readily available no matter what time your layover takes you to Narita.

 

Festivals

There are several festivals that are held throughout the year, including a monthly market, so be sure to see if there are any going on during your visit!

Food in Narita

the streets of narita, layover in tokyo

Unagi is apparently the specialty but you can find many sushi shops, ramen, and other traditional Japanese cuisine. There are also a few international restaurants, including a couple burger joints we passed along the way. We opted for a ramen shop as we were there later in the day and wanted to grab something quick on our way out but the number of restaurant options available is sure to satisfy any food craving and offer a taste of Japanese cuisine if a layover is all the time you have.

We stopped by a café that Macrae had stopped at during his previous visit and enjoyed some of their homemade gingerale and a gingerale/vodka cocktail. We also decided on a homemade tiramisu and both the drinks and the dessert were delicious and memorable.

tiramisu at 524 cafe is a great place to eat when having a layover in tokyo

 

5.2.4. Garage Cafe is a quaint little shop that is warm and inviting and a comfortable place to relax before (and after) a flight. They also offer free WiFi and outlets to charge your phone or computer batteries.

524 cafe is a place to go when having a long layover in Tokyo

If you are in the area before they close at 8, we’d recommend stopping by for a drink and dessert and if you make it there before 5pm, you can also grab some food (they serve hot dogs, sandwiches and the like).

Sleep Off Some of That Jetlag

 

Depending on how much time you have, you may have the need to rent a room for the night. There are several options right around the airport, including a pay-by-the-hour capsule hotel right in terminal 2. Nine Hours Narita Airport offers you the option of taking a nap, in the event you only want to sleep a few hours before your next flight.

There are pay-by-the-night hotels nearby as well but if the timing is right, and you are able, there are also some decent hotels off Omotesando street which will offer you the ability to really explore the Narita area, either the afternoon/evening before, or the morning/day after.

Whether you have a full day at your leisure or only several hours to kill during a layover in Tokyo, Narita is a great place to go to tap into Japanese culture and enjoy a day amongst the sights, smells and sounds of traditional Japan.

 

You Can Do It Too!

Getting to Narita depends completely on where you are. If you are coming from the airport, hop on the train and take it to the first stop after Terminal 2 (Narita Station), it should only cost about 260 Yen, or $2.60 USD.

If you are coming from Tokyo however, it gets a bit more tricky. It will depend on what line you are closest to, whether you are riding JR or main lines and whether you have a train pass. Ultimately, you’ll want to make your way to the Kesei Main Line and ride it to Keiseinarita Station (from Shibuya to Narita, it costs approximately 1300 Yen and about 1 hour, 30 min to 1 hour, 45 min).

If you’ve used the Tokyo transit system before, you know that there are different trains (limited express, express) that will take you to different stops and get you there faster than a local train that stops at every stop. This will also impact your time and route.

 

 

Have you been able to explore during a layover? Where was your favourite layover destination and how did you get around? Comment below and let us know!

 

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The One Thing We Don’t Like About Japan

Sitting in the small restaurant, listening to American oldies and waiting for our order we had no idea of the impending attack. Slowly, the haze permeated the room and drifted closer to us, burning our eyes and clogging our throats.

Looking around however, we saw no signs that anyone else was being affected. The laughter of a child rang out from the other end of the restaurant and conversation flowed uninterrupted.

We scanned the room again and noticed the culprit of our uneasy breathing. Every adult held a taco in one hand and in the other hand there rested a lit cigarette.

We made eye contact, both of us in obvious discomfort, and read the watery-eyed look on each other’s faces. Turning to the waitress we asked, ‘can you make our order take-out?’

The Only Thing We Don’t Like About Japan… Smoking!

cigarettes-83571_1280

Walking around, we are continually amazed by the number of smokers we see on the streets and especially prevalent in restaurants and bars. It didn’t take long for us to realize that the smoking culture in Japan is very different than in Canada and that, at least to us, there seems to be a larger visible population of smokers.

Perhaps it’s not a high prevalence of smoking, but more the relative numbers of smokers vs non smokers in Japan vs back home in Canada.

When we looked into the stats, it didn’t appear as though Japan has too significant of a difference in smoking rates than Canada (at least with respect to the numbers that were reported to the public) however when you compare relative population, it makes a whole world of difference.

Japan has almost 130 million people in an area of about 378,000 square-kilometres, whereas Canada has only 35.5 million in almost 10 million kilometres-squared.

That’s a HUGE difference! The estimated smoking rate in Japan is around 20% which translates to 26 million smokers in a small area.

Back home, we have only about 5.3 million smokers in a significantly larger amount of space. Maybe it’s just that the chances of running into a smoker are much higher in Japan where cities are crowded and smoking is accepted.

cigarette dispensing japan

Perhaps, it is also the high tolerance and, for us, uncommon level of accommodation for smokers. In fact, while we are now used to pretty much all establishments being non-smoking and very little acceptance of smokers back home, Japan seems much the opposite.

Finding hotels with no ‘non-smoking’ rooms is not unheard of, restaurants with ashtrays are the norm, and vending machines for packs of cigarettes dot the streets.

While there is absolutely no judgment on our part, either way, as nonsmokers we do find it uncomfortable and something that requires time to get used to. We both remember the days when smoking in bars and clubs was permitted in Ontario and separate smoking sections were fairly common.

We recall when we’d head home after a night out and the smell of smoke would linger on our clothes, our skin and our hair, but it’s been some time so perhaps the memory of just how prevalent smoking was, has faded.

Before we left, there was already a ban on smoking indoors in public establishments and strict guidelines for smoking near public buildings.

Since we left, Ontario has banned smoking even on restaurant and bar patios and tightened their restrictions on smoking in parks, playgrounds and sports fields.

The Smoking Culture in Japan

jt smoking sign

The discrepancy between the two cultures in smoking habits and acceptance is obvious and while smoking seems to be on the decline in Japan, this doesn’t seem to be due to any rigorous anti-smoking campaigns like those we see in North America.

Cigarette packs do not have the graphic images and warnings that around 50 other countries have adopted on their packaging, prices for cigarettes are relatively low and while more and more establishments are becoming ‘non-smoking’, tolerance inside restaurants and bars is pretty high.

Rather than ‘stop-smoking campaigns’, Japan Tobacco (JT) has issued smoking etiquette campaigns in the recent past, intended to promote the “harmonious coexistence between smokers and nonsmokers”.

Signs such as the one above and below were distributed, and in some places we even saw painted signs on the sidewalk suggesting you should not walk along the sidewalk while smoking.

While we like the promotion of smoking etiquette and the fact that polite smoking behaviour is encouraged, we were surprised that none of these ads commented on the negative health effects of smoking or attempted to deter smoking in general.

jt smoking etiquette sign

With the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, many Japanese officials believe that it is essential to bring smoking legislation and restrictions to a level that matches many Western standards. Whether this effort will actually result in changes remains to be seen.

We say it’s the one thing we don’t like in Japan but it truly isn’t something that has tainted our experience. We love the country so much, we’ve even wrote about, what we call, our passionate love-affair with Japan.

It has shocked us a little every time we’ve sat down for a meal and someone pulled out a cigarette, but for the most part the people we’ve met and spent time with have always been courteous and asked if we mind before lighting up.

Since Japan isn’t at the top of the list for smoking rates, we’re sure there’ll be other countries which will be a shock for us as well, but we’ll do the same thing there as we’ve done here: appreciate the cultural differences and expect to frequently find ourselves washing the smell of smoke out of our clothes and hair.

 

 

 

We’ve Been Nominated For The Liebster Award!

We’ve been nominated for the Liebster Award by Linton and Charlotte of Simply Roaming!! Yes, we’ve known about this award since we started and as the days passed and we could no longer consider ourselves “newbie-bloggers” Carolann stopped crossing her fingers, saying her prayers, and hoping beyond hope that one day, someone, somewhere would say “hey, I think I’ll nominate One Modern Couple!”. But someone did. So thank you Linton and Charlotte!!

What Does It Mean?

Some think it to be like blogger chain mail, some feel it is an honour to be nominated. Us? We think it’s a pretty cool way to connect the blogging community, show our support, and to learn a little bit more about each other and have our audience learn a little bit more about us. It also gave Carolann the chance to do a little happy dance.

How Does It Work?

Rules vary and apparently there are no strict guidelines but the award that was passed to us has the following rules:

– We’ll answer the 11 questions that Linton & Charlotte have written

– Nominate 5 bloggers

–  And create our own list of 11 questions for our nominees to answer

Our Answers:

Liebster Award – Simply Roaming’s Questions

1. Your favourite method of accommodation when travelling? Hotel Hostel, Camping, Couchsurfing or Airbnb…or something else?

DSCN2162

This is a tough one… while we enjoy each one for different reasons, we’d probably both say that Airbnb is our favourite. We get the feeling of a hotel AND a home with the opportunity to meet and interact with locals and expats. It’s a great combination of comfort, quality and socializing.

2.  You have been told to stay in one place for the rest of your life, where would you choose?

It would be a sad day indeed for both of us if we were told we had to stay in one place forever. Hypothetically though, we’re still searching for that one place either or both of us feel we could settle down for an extended period of time.

3.  What is the worst thing you have eaten whilst travelling?

Neither of us are what anyone would call “picky-eaters”. In fact, we’re probably far from anything close to resembling that description. Both of us enjoy trying new foods, and rarely do we dislike what we’ve eaten. Thus far, we really haven’t tried anything we thought was terrible – even the flying-ant filled soup we had still tasted good and if it weren’t for the number of bugs in it, we’d probably have finished it all. For us, the worst thing we’ve probably eaten was the odd bug that we swallowed while driving a scooter, especially on those long trips in Thailand, like when we drove from Chiang Mai to Pai.

4.  What’s the most craziest thing you have done?

The craziest thing we’ve done was probably when we quit our jobs, sold all our stuff, started this blog and set off to travel.  It wasn’t easy, it was scary, but it was the craziest, and best, decision of our lives.

5.  What do you look for in a destination? Sun, sea and sand or crumbly historic buildings?

Koh Phangan Thailand Best Western Phanganburi

Neither of us are satisfied with just one type of destination. We prefer a combination of sights, landscapes and activities. We love to find someplace to relax, preferably by the water with a nice beach, someplace we can enjoy nature and the sun but we always prefer a destination that also has the option to visit cities, embrace the culture and explore its past.

6.  One piece of advice you would give to a new traveller?

DON’T: Look at other cultures through the lens of your own culture & experiences – there’s no place for judgement!

DO: Look both ways when crossing the road – it’s easy to forget which side of the road a particular country drives on!

7.  Yeah, we all have them… but what’s your pet hates?

We are both fast walkers…and we mean fast. So when we are out and about, we often get tripped up by people who are strolling. We understand. We aren’t judging. But it is our pet peeve.

8.  If you could visit another planet which one would you choose? Yeah, don’t worry about the lack of oxygen.

earth-422754_1280

We both agree on this – we wouldn’t head to another planet because we already feel like there isn’t enough time to see everything on this one!

9.  Which language would you like to learn and why?

We are both actively trying to learn new languages. In particular, French, Spanish and Japanese are high on our list. French and Spanish because we love the languages and feel they are beneficial for travellers and Japanese because we love the culture and have already accumulated a larger vocabulary than any other language in which we’ve been immersed.

10.  You’re on Noah’s ark and we call your name out, which animal would you be?

Macrae: A bird, able to fly wherever, and whenever.

Carolann: A dolphin, able to swim wherever, and whenever… although then she wouldn’t actually be ON the ark…

11.  As we have no idea, we’d like to know what you think the secret is to a happy life?

IMG_20150414_130204

We’re not too sure if there’s a secret to being happy, perhaps it’s more of a choice. We tell each other often that we now feel our lives are happy ones. Sure there are stresses and worries over finances and the future but in comparison to our stresses before we left to travel, and in comparison to our moods before we left, it’s a huge difference. We took steps to do what we KNEW we were happy doing – travelling and working online to fund that travel.

Perhaps it’s just making the decision to follow your dreams and to actually DO what makes you happy. Often times, we feel stuck within the dictates of society and those around us and the fear of removing ourselves from those strictures that seem so safe. We finally did and we haven’t regretted one moment.

Our Liebster Award Nominees

While we’ve read up on Liebster awards and a variety of them have rules about who to nominate based on number of followers and relative age of their blog, we decided that with so many different rules out there, we’d just ignore them all and choose who we want! We’ve chosen our 5 nominees based on our interaction and enjoyment of their posts and their travels.

Tiffany & Trevor of Limitless Duo

Alice of Tea Cake Travels

Nic of Pilgrim With A Plan

Any & Sri of Country Hopping Couple

Rachel of The Travel Thread

Be sure to let us know when you’ve answered our questions below! We’d love to see, and share, your post!


 

Our 11 Questions:

1. What/who/where made you fall in love with travel?

2. If you were given a free flight to the next destination of your choice, where would it be?

3. Do you keep any mementos from your travels? Anything you collect from each destination?

4. What is one random fact that your followers don’t yet know about you?

5. What do you find the most difficult/your biggest struggle while travelling?

6. When you are craving a taste of home, what dish do you typically look for while travelling?

7. Do you have a “luxury item” that you just can’t travel without?

8. What is your favourite method of transportation while travelling and why?

9. What is one major thing you’ve learned since you started blogging?

10. What’s the strangest thing you’ve eaten?

11. Do you have a story where there was a miscommunication or culture difference that resulted in an unfortunate, funny or awkward situation?

 


 

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Homesick for Hamburgers in Koh Phangan

While further edited for publishing on our site, this was originally submitted by Carolann and published in Southeast Asia Backpacker Magazine, Issue 34: pg 17, under the title “Homesick for Hamburgers”

It’s something every backpacker experiences and while you don’t know when it will hit, you know it’s coming. In a place like the gorgeous island of Koh Phangan, you can get complacent, forget the impending attack. And when it strikes, you may not be prepared.

One common affliction of any traveller is the dreaded food craving. True, Thailand has some amazing food, but when those nostalgic “I just want a taste of home” urges overwhelm, you won’t be satisfied until those cravings are fulfilled and for many, a burger is the culprit.

Finding good Thai food is easy.  Whether it’s a street vendor, a little plastic chair restaurant, or a well-known dine-in restaurant, you’re sure to find the type of food that puts Thailand on the culinary map. Finding a good burger when the craving strikes however, can be tricky. Fortunately, Koh Phangan has tapped into international culinary styles offering several places that would satisfy any burger seeker.

Finding Good Hamburgers In Koh Phangan:

 

The Gourmet Burger – Crave Restaurant, Haad Yao

 For the ultimate burger experience with amazing service, head to Crave restaurant to find wonderfully blended gourmet flavours such as the deluxe burger with bacon, homemade mayo and brie. Don’t forget to switch your side of fries for a poutine as their Thai-version of the French-Canadian dish is a perfect complement. Happy hour is from 5-7pm, where their homemade sangria and marinated spirits are ‘buy one, get one free’. We also wrote a detailed review of Crave.

The Simple Burger– Yummy Restaurant, Haad Rin Nok

yummy burger koh phangan

Haad Rin Nok is the destination for backpackers looking to experience the Full Moon Party and fortunately, a great burger is waiting around the corner. Simple, yet well-seasoned, Yummy Restaurant offers quality burgers at great prices, served with a smile. Afterwards, satisfy your sweet tooth with their fruit shake and roti special – only 89THB!

The Veggie Burger – Vintage Burger Friends and Booze, Thongsala

If beef patties aren’t your thing, you’ll want to try Vintage Burger. While their beef burgers are worth a taste, their veggie burger, made of bean, coriander and carrot topped with cheese, onion, lettuce and homemade sweet chili sauce, is a must-try. Alongside crispy, delicious fries, this meal will satisfy any burger craving. Ask for it without cheese to make it a vegan option. A homemade mojito and chocolate mousse are wonderful ways to round-out the meal.

The Late-Night Burger – Handsome Sandwiches, Thong Nai Pan Noi 

A long-time staple, Handsome Sandwiches is located a distance from the Full Moon Party but offers to satisfy those burger cravings when nothing else is open. Thai-style, the restaurant consists of a small stall and several tables with a simple fare of burgers, fries and shakes. The exterior may leave something to be desired but the food impresses and the prices are reasonable.

The Chicken Schnitzel Burger – Mama’s Schnitzel, Haad Rin Nok

mamas schnitzel koh phangan

As the name suggests, Mama’s Schnitzel is well-known for their chicken schnitzel. Take those pieces of crispy, tender chicken and turn it into a burger and you’ve got one mouth-watering, hunger-satisfying meal. In the heart of Haad Rin, it’s a great place to eat after a day at the beach or while taking part in the Full Moon celebrations. After indulging in your meal, their chocolate bar shakes will quench your thirst and cool you down.

 

Whether you are craving an all-beef patty, crispy chicken or prefer to go vegetarian, Koh Phangan has something to satisfy all your burger cravings and in taking your first bite into that flavourful and well-crafted burger you may just find you are sinking your teeth into a little taste of home.

 

Where can you find these great restaurants?

 

Crave

Open 5pm – 11pm, CLOSED on Tuesdays

Please check their website as they close for approximately 2 months a year during low-season.

Yummy

Trickier to pinpoint due to its lack of website – you can find it easily if you’re headed to the “Full Moon Beach” or Haad Rin Nok. Near where the two main streets intersect, and across from the big 7-Eleven, is where you’ll find Yummy!

 

Vintage Burgers, Friends & Booze

A little tricky to find as the streets start to criss-cross and narrow in this area but we followed this map and found it easily. Check out their Facebook page or contact them to confirm hours of operation.

 

Handsome Sandwiches

Check out their TripAdvisor page for a map to locate them. Here you’ll not only find food, but also cold beer, a gas station, laundry service, and a decently priced taxi service!

 

Mama’s Schnitzel

You’ll find this busy eatery close to Haad Rin Nok, on the busy intersection of two major streets. It’s hard to miss with no walls and a constant flow of patrons.

 

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5 Places for a Sunset On Koh Phangan

While further edited for publishing on our site, this was originally submitted by Macrae and published in Southeast Asia Backpacker Magazine, Issue 34: pg 14-15, under the title “Top 5 Places For Sunset Drinks”

More Than The Full Moon Party To Discover

Sitting, watching the sunset while having a drink; as the sky starts to dim, the sun seems to be more saturated in colour, or it may be that now all your focus is on this gigantic body of fire, creating a glow through the clouds, turning them purple and pink.

You look above it all and notice something you’ve never seen before: a rainbow mimicking an oil spill in a crystal clear glacier lake upon a mountain. You realize nothing really matters, not your job, not your grades, not what is happening on social media… only what is in the here and now. The present. The moment.

The Full Moon Party is world-renowned for its neon body paint, glow sticks and bucket drinks. But when the crowds slowly dissipate and the tranquility is once again restored to the island, there are some astonishing things to be seen that may have been overlooked during full moon. The perfect spot to have a drink and catch one of the best sunsets, painting a picture in the sky beyond imagination is one such thing.

Here Are My Top 5 Places for a Sunset On Koh Phangan

  1. Haad Sarikantang (Leela Beach): Leela beach, with its soft sand, relaxing rope hammocks and mystical mangrove trees, is easily the best beach in Thailand to enjoy an unforgettable sunset. At one end of the beach, you can find a floating pier that, from land, seems to go on forever reaching into the ocean’s endless abyss. Sitting at the end of the pier with your favorite drink is the only way to end a day with perfection.hammocks-on-leela-beach

TIP: Go to the 7-eleven, pick up a couple bottles of your favorite beer, stick a lime in, head to Leela Beach to spend an inexpensive afternoon.leela-beach-floating-pier

 

  1. Haad Son (Secret beach): Secret Beach Bar is a little hidden paradise nestled in a cove, easily missed by the usual tourist trying to find the next party. With its pearl-white sand and stunning views of the sunset, it’s a place where you can grab a drink and easily let time drift away.secret-beach-koh-phangan

TIP: Don’t miss the strawberry daiquiris – simply amazing and, at just 120 Baht (like all the other cocktails on the menu), they’re a steal.

 

  1. Haad Rin Nai: The sister beach of Haad Rin Nok (where the full moon party is held) is a place that can satisfy any budget, with its new resorts and old rustic pubs. At Seaside Bar, you’ll find a couple triangle pillows upon a mat in the middle of the beach. Pick a spot, order a drink and treat yourself to a unique sunset that will never be forgotten.haad-rin-nai-sunset

TIP: Stay until dark when the sky becomes illuminated with a blanket of stars. You might be lucky enough to decipher the mysteries of the gods and watch the story of the universe unravel above you.

 

  1. Haad Yao: Another stunning beach, with pristine water, sprinkled with contrasting bars and restaurants; one place that stands out is Seaboard Bungalows. This is a perfect place to get your party on after watching the sunset, when its rays no longer dominate the sky and the beach is lit by the moon and tiki torches until the early morning.sunset-haad-yao-beach

Tip: On Wednesday nights, the local expat community gathers here for some great music (usually deep house) and some fantastic specialty drinks.

 

  1. Ao Playlearn: When you speak to anyone who has spent some substantial time on Koh Phangan, they’ll ask if you have been to Amsterdam Bar. If you haven’t, it’s a must go. While not located on a world class beach, it is strategically placed mountainside for the ultimate sunset experience.  With a sea of triangle pillows, mats and even a pool (with a view), this is a must-stop location for anyone visiting the island.amstardam-bar-koh-phangan

TIP: To insure an unobstructed view, make sure to get here early and grab “the perfect seat” especially in peak season as this spot gets very busy.

 

These top five sunset drink spots in Koh Phangan are amongst many, where a good cocktail and a sensational sunset can be found. There is more depth to Koh Phangan than its full moon celebrations; it’s a unique place that is truly magical.

 

 

8 Reasons Why We Love Train Travel

Making it to Europe was one of our goals when we came up with the crazy idea of quitting our jobs, creating a website and starting full-time travel. While our plans have detoured significantly, we managed to make it there more than once in our first year of travel but unfortunately, were unable to experience train travel in Europe. Though we managed two road trips, our other favourite method of travel, we were disappointed not to experience Europe by train.

In fact, while we love travel, the method of transportation we’re forced to take is not always pleasant or easy. We’ve found there are a few more preferable ways we like to travel and some of them even allow us to experience more of the country and culture as we are in transit!

Planes, Trains & Automobiles

train travel in europe the best way to travel

Throughout our travels, we’ve travelled by plane, bus, bike, scooter, train, boat, our own legs, taxi and song thaew. We’ve had some crazy adventures (like the time we rode our scooter on the treacherous path from Chiang Mai to Pai) and have crammed ourselves in budget airline seating, bumped along with no sleep on an overnight bus and rode our scooter for hours on end through the rain, fog, and unexpected swarms of bugs. Even though these sound horrible, we’ve loved every minute of travel and wouldn’t change it for the world. Our favourite method of transportation however, and the one that has yet to give us any strife, is train travel.

We’re looking to do as much travel by train as we can while in Europe, and even while in Asia, we tried to maximize our time on these locomotives. Why?

Our Top 8 Reasons Why Train Travel Is The Way To Go

why train travel is the best

1. Immersion in the country and culture. You get to watch the landscape pass, rather than jumping from one point to another, and surround yourself with the language and culture through your fellow passengers

2. Comfort. Compared to most methods, it’s usually pretty darn comfortable. Cushioned seats, space to move around, dining carts and, in sleeper trains, beds for sleep. You can get up and walk around unrestricted and stretch out easily. We’d rather take a whole night while sleeping in a bed on a train, then take 10 hours during the day, door to door, waiting in lines at the airport and squeezing ourselves and our luggage into small spaces

3. Speaking of luggage …You can actually bring what you want and need! Restrictions on liquids, weight of baggage and number of bags is not an issue.

4. Time saved.  Yes, even with overnight trains, you can save significant time travelling. Think about the last time you flew. There was the preparation to leave, getting to the airport 2, or 3, (or 4) hours early, delays, the flight itself, and then waiting for your luggage and transferring to your final destination. Sometimes, the entire process takes a lot longer than an overland trip and it certainly can be a lot more stressful.

5. Cost. Depending on where you’re going and the train options available, travel can be significantly cheaper by train than by plane. There are also more options for passes, group discounts, and deals

6. Location, Location, Location.  Typically, train stations are centrally located which means there aren’t any ridiculous airport taxi fares or long periods of lugging your suitcases around with you.

7. Eco-friendly.  If you’re concerned about your own ecological footprint, trains offer a better option than travel by air or automobile. Carbon emissions are lower and less damaging and trains are considered relatively energy-efficient.

8. It’s just plain fun!  Watching the world pass by through the window as you enjoy the gentle sway of the train gives an almost pleasantly nostalgic feel. It’s as if – regardless of the cell phones and music devices being clung to throughout the cabins – there still exists segments of history and connections to the past – a thread from explorers and travellers from ages long-gone, forming a tangible bond to those of us in the present.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Guide to Taiwanese Food We Dared to Try

Taiwan is a veritable culinary playground. Street food, night markets, Taiwanese restaurants and cuisine from around the world are found in abundance and are almost always delicious. During our two months in Taiwan we came to realize one of the fundamentals of Taiwan culture is Taiwanese food. Sure, most countries find strong cultural roots in their food and the dishes unique to their homeland, but Taiwan seems to be a country that revolves around food, more than anything.

After that first traditional meal in Taiwan, where we had stinky tofu soup and chicken bums, we tried a whole host of different and new dishes and foods. Sure, we had our ‘go-to’ chain restaurants in Taiwan for when we got too hungry to think, but for the most part we were looking for new places to go and new food to try, like always.

Although we learned how to say and read some of the essential food words – beef, rice, noodles, chicken, pork, fish, etc – there were times we were unable to decipher a sign at a small restaurant we had our sights on, but we would sit down, make the gesture for ‘2’ and begin a fervent prayer that whatever was about to be placed in front of us was not one of the rare things we do not eat. The food was always good and they were always so happy to serve us. Sometimes, we even got a free special side dish that the cook wanted us to try.

Our culinary tour of Taiwan took us around the coast and with each new city we visited, a new local dish or treat was discovered. While there are a large number of Taiwanese dishes and foods to be covered, we’ve given a summary of most of those we tried, although there are quite a few, especially in those restaurants where no English was spoken, for which we have no name and have therefore not included.

Taiwanese Food, Nothing Short

Of A Culinary Playground

Beef Noodle Soup

One of the first Taiwanese dishes we tried, beef noodle soup is hearty, flavourful and very satisfying. The portions are usually large enough to constitute an entire meal and made with stewed or braised beef, beef broth, noodles and sometimes vegetables. Oftentimes, you’ll have the choice of beef soup without noodles, with noodles or the noodles and broth with no meat, at varying price points.

Taiwanese Beef rolls

Taiwanese beef rolls are one of our favourites and while we usually go for beef, you can also find pork rolls. Flaky, green onion (Taiwanese) pancakes are wrapped around tender pieces of braised beef, green onion and usually a savory sauce. You can see our later description of other ways of eating the Taiwanese pancakes. We first tried these in Tainan and they became a regular dish for us when we found them. Match this up with some millet congee, described below, and you’ll see a very happy smile on Carolann’s face.

Taiwanese food, beef-rolls

Braised or Minced Pork with Rice – Lu Rou Fan

Typically, pork belly is used for this common dish in which the pork is minced or braised, marinated and served over rice. We tried it several times while in Taiwan and while the flavours did vary, the meat was always tender and it was a hearty and filling dish.

Bubble Tea

We talked about our love of bubble tea in our post on our ‘go-to’ chains in Taiwan. For us, drinking bubble tea was pretty close to a daily event. After walking for hours, exploring the city or town we were visiting, we would grab a bubble tea as a reward and continue on. It was also a filling drink that would keep us, when we were starving, until we could find someplace to eat. While we prefer bubble milk tea, there are a wide variety of flavours (e.g. melon, oolong, etc) and there is usually the option of jellies and/or tapioca pearls (bubbles).

Taiwanese Dumplings

Pan fried, boiled, steamed, pot-stickers. If you’re really hungry and want to have a really cheap, but delicious, meal, dumplings would be your best bet. Search on Google for ‘8 way‘, its a great dumpling house chain that we’ve already talked about in our post on chains in Taiwan. Otherwise, you’ll find random dumpling houses as you go, usually with decent prices for these delicious mouthfuls.

Pot Stickers from Din Tai Fung - Taiwanese food

Pot Stickers from Din Tai Fung

Taiwnaese Dessert Soup

Never have we eaten so much of such a sweet and tasty dessert and felt like we were eating healthy. Before finding this soup, we found the desserts in Taiwan to be rarely sweet. The dessert soups we found in Taiwan were absolutely delicious and we were sad we didn’t discover them until the second month we were in Taiwan. Typically, a sweetened base – clear broth or peanut soup (as Macrae would generally prefer) – is boiled along with various ingredients of your choice – beans, barley, fungi, peas, seeds, tapioca pearls, jellies, dried fruit, and the list goes on. It’s a pretty hearty dessert that satisfies the sweet tooth and lets you feel like you’re making a healthy choice….whether it’s true or not!

Fried Chicken Cutlet

Our first experience with this deep-fried deliciousness (fried chicken cutlet) was at the Shilin Night Market. Long lines of people seemed to be growing from every vendor serving it and we decided we just had to wait for our chance as well. It was well worth it. We tried it at a few other night markets and street vendors, and while they were all good, they never seemed to match that first cutlet, with its perfect seasoning, crispy breading and tender meat.

Fried Whole Squid

One of our favourite night market foods, these whole squids are often chopped up after being deep fried and were the best tasting calamari we have ever had. Although you can find deep fried squid at most night markets, chopped or served on a stick, we found one stand in particular, at the Tonghua Night Market, and revisited when we were in the area – we may have also made an hour long walk, there and back, just to have another. Seasoned well and served with your choice of several sauces, we always picked the sweet Thai chili sauce and enjoyed every last bite.

Taiwanese Fried or Grilled Stinky Tofu

Our first encounter with stinky tofu was last summer, back home in Toronto when we attended the Asian festival. We had no idea why we kept smelling sewage. We finally discovered that it wasn’t sewage at all, but stinky tofu. At that time, we didn’t dare order it. Fast forward 6 months. We knew next to nothing about Taiwan when we arrived other than how they loved night markets. One of our first nights there,we headed out to one of these lovely markets and there was that smell again. We knew right away it was stinky tofu. “How could someone eat this?” we asked ourselves when we found out it is tofu soaked in fish brine (along with a bunch of other things) for days, weeks or even months! After making some Taiwanese friends however, we finally tried this special delicacy and learned how it was made. At first, it wasn’t our favourite but after a few times, Macrae started to love it. He says its perfect when it’s cooked right and with a dab of hot sauce. Carolann’s not so convinced.

Taiwnaese foor - stinky tofu getting deep fried

 

Taiwanese food - stinky tofu

Taiwanese love their stinky tofu a lot…and we mean a lot! We weren’t so surprised to see it (and smell it) cooked in all sorts of different ways. Fried is probably the most popular choice but coming up in a close second is grilled. Usually grilled with a sweet sauce, it’s a bit less stinky than the fried version. If you want to try stinky tofu, we would recommend the grilled one for a first timer.

Gua Bao – Taiwan burger

Carolann, being the burger aficionado she thinks she is, is always on the lookout for a good burger, so when we heard of “Taiwanese burgers” we were immediately intrigued. The typical Gua Bao is a steamed bun closed over braised pork belly and accompaniments. We happened across a restaurant advertising “Taiwanese Burgers” and found chicken, pork and fish options. They aren’t our number one choice for burger-like food but in Taiwan, where a good burger is harder to find then in Southeast Asia, we took what we could get!

Taiwanese Medicine Soup

We were introduced to this healthy soup a few times. All we know is that is consists of beans, lentils and a random assortment of other unknown items, and Taiwanese people believe it to have a great health benefit. We don’t know the actual name or precisely what is in it, but it was good for something purportedly having high medicinal value. You’ll be able to find it in many restaurants, including many dumpling houses, throughout the country.

Millet Congee

Millet congee is possibly one of Carolann’s favourite breakfast (well, really anytime) dishes. While the first thing we thought of when we heard congee was what we recognized as the Chinese, often savory, dish of rice porridge – although there are versions of the same in Korea and Japan – there was more than just that type in Taiwan. The millet congee we were eating in Taiwan was made with thin millet grain porridge that is sweetened. We’d often find it served free at various Taiwanese restaurants, especially those dumpling houses we keep mentioning.

Mochi

mochi-ice-cream-617732_1280

Mochi is a rice based treat originating in Japan, made with a glutinous rice. Called môa-chî (麻糬 or 糬) in Taiwan. Mochi is made by soaking rice overnight and then pounding the cooked rice with wooden mallets in a mortar. It takes two people, one pounding and the other turning the mochi, keeping a steady rhythm without hurting each other with the mallet. Then the mochi is formed into all different kinds of shapes, usually a rectangle and different flavors are added like green tea and peanuts. The most traditional are filled with bean paste and rolled in peanut powder.

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Peanut Snack/Taiwanese Pudding

A delicious snack involving tofu pudding in a peanut broth with peanuts. If you enjoy peanuts then you can grab one of these bad boys in any night market around.

Pigs blood rice cake

You’ll be surprised in how much you’ll enjoy pigs blood rice cakes. these are deep fried cubes of coagulated blood… but don’t let that turn you off. With a crispy outside and a chewy center, it is a delicious savory treat. Everything tastes better deep fried, doesn’t it?. Take it from us and just try it.

Pineapple cake

Pineapple cake, a dessert usually made into squares with a pineapple filing. You can find boxes of these sweet cakes in stores and throughout Taiwan as well as specialty stores that only sell pineapple cakes and pineapple products. The stores always have samples out to try and it’s the best way to get the best brands. We were told that pineapple cakes are a great gift to give to someone during Chinese new years as the meaning of a pineapple in Taiwanese culture is wealth, luck and excellent fortune.

Shrimp Fritters – With Icing and Sprinkles

Yep, you read correctly. Funny enough, the icing and shrimp part wasn’t what got us thinking. It was the sprinkles. We’re not too sure why many places include sprinkles on this dish but nonetheless, colourful sprinkles generally adorn the plate. We found the dish surprisingly delicious! It’s really more of a sweet mayo/icing that’s used and it works well with the fried batter coating the shrimp.

Soup Dumplings – Xiao Long Bao

Soup dumplings (Xiaolongbao) are something you must try in Taiwan. They are dumplings but there is also a soup broth inside, which is a nice tasty touch. The most famous place around is Din Tai fung, a Michelin star restaurant that wont hurt your wallet. They even have guides on how to eat these dumplings – put them in your spoon, break a hole with your chopstick to let the soup out (it’s pretty hot in there!) add the ginger, soy, or other accompaniments, and then, enjoy!

Taiwanese food - soup dumplings from Din Tai Fung

Workers making dumplings at Din tai Fung in Taiwan

Workers making dumplings at Din tai Fung

Taiwanese Spicy Tofu soup with Duck Blood

Our first experiences with stinky tofu was in a soup. Our second? Also in a soup, but this time with duck blood. We were asked by our host, what Taiwanese food we’ve tried so far, and our answer was “not much” (which you should never tell a Taiwanese person because they will cook or buy everything that they think you should try – and usually it’ll be the strange things they think you’d never dare). By dinnertime, his father had a feast out on the table that included not only stinky tofu, but stinky tofu and duck blood soup. Coagulated duck blood to be exact. The same consistency of jello, it was surprisingly pretty good! If you can get past the fact of what is actually in the soup, you might enjoy it.

Taiwaneese food - stinky tofu and duckblood soup

Taiwanese Suncakes

Originally from the city of Taichung, these round cakes are a flaky pastry of different flavours, including milk and honey – two flavours we tried, and loved. We saw many suncake shops all around Taichung and they always seemed to be busy with boxes of the popular pastries flowing out the doors.

Sweet Potato

It may sound like an odd dish to put on a list of Taiwanese food, especially since sweet potato is fairly common in quite a few places, but it seems like in Taiwan, sweet potatoes are a staple. Baking in convenience stores, barbecued by street vendors and served almost everywhere, we found these, yellow-centred, sweet potatoes to be sweeter and more flavourful than their counterparts back home and involved in quite a few more dishes – from breakfast to dessert.

Sweet Potato & Taro Cubes – ‘QQ’ – YuYuan

QQ describes a particular texture and, as we were told, was developed mainly as a promotional word. Basically, anything with the jelly-like chewiness of, well jellies, as well as mochi, or the like, is considered ‘QQ‘. We first heard this word when referencing colourful squares sold at the Jiufen night market (and other markets as well). These cubes of taro or sweet potato have the distinctive ‘QQ’ texture and are a tasty treat. If you’re in Taiwan, be sure to find a way to use the term ‘QQ’ when speaking to a Taiwanese person – you’ll probably make them laugh or, at the very least, give you a big smile.

Taiwanese Hot Dog

Like the Taiwanese burger, this is not what you would come to expect from a hot dog. Sure, there’s a grilled pork sausage involved, but instead of a fluffy hot dog bun, the sausage is wedged in a grilled sticky rice sausage. We can’t say we ordered this more than once, but it was worth a try and judging by the lines at most of these stalls, it’s a popular street food!

Taiwanese Savory Pancakes – Dan Bing

Taiwanese food - Savory Pancakes - Dan Bing

These savory pancakes are made with dough (rather than batter) and green onions and, when cooked, become flaky and delicious. We’ve seen them filled with a variety of different things, like the beef rolls we mentioned, but we saw many street vendors cooking them with a scallion omelette and a delicious sauce. No matter the filling, these pancakes are a must-try!

 

Disclaimer: We tried our best to record Mandarin names when possible.. Should we have misspelled or misnamed any of the dishes, please let us know so we can make the corrections.

 

Do you have a favourite dish from a visit to Taiwan not listed above? Comment below

and let us know!

Or let us know which of these dishes you would, and wouldn’t, try!