Maizuru, Japan

Konnichi wa!  We were all off to an early start with our passports and forms in hand, to meet with customs officials to be fingerprinted before heading off on our excursion to Kyoto this morning, Friday 25 March.

Maizuru Photo1

 

 

 

Just a short ride through town and we joined the highway, one lane each way, for the trip to Kyoto.  No more “concrete jungles”, just sparse housing and rice paddy fields.  As we made our way up the mountain, we passed through 15-20 tunnels of varying lengths – I lost count!

We took many photos today, not only of the places we visited but of the food as the packaging is a work of art in itself.  We had no idea what the products were, but they looked amazing.  Also the vending machines were interesting – I don’t think there is much that you cannot buy in a machine.

We explored the Ryoanji Temple with its famous Zen rock garden featuring 15 rocks set in meticulously raked white gravel and the beautiful Golden Pavilion considered a premier example of the Muromachi Era (1337-1573) design.  The pond is the centre of this garden and you could spend a lot of time here, just admiring the beauty of it all.  We thought we saw some cherry blossoms in bloom but they turned out to be flowering plums.  Still beautiful.

Next was an authentic Japanese lunch at the Harvest Club, a hotel and restaurant.  The food was beautifully presented, not only delicious to eat but also pleasing to the eye.  We had no idea what most of it was but we ate everything and we were full for the rest of the day.

Our final stop was for shopping in the town and to see the bamboo forest. Many interesting little shops to explore and a very enjoyable introduction to Japan.

 

Busan, South Korea

On Thursday, 23 March we arrived in Busan and we went our separate ways to do different tours.  Alex to the United Nations Memorial Cemetery, and I went to the Bokcheon Museum.  We both visited the Busan Museum and the Lotte Department Store.

It is the largest port city in South Korea and the world’s fifth largest seaport.  With a population about the same size as Sydney, Busan can trace its history back as far as the Palaeolithic Age.

The city was about 35 minutes’ drive from the port and there were many blocks of apartments along the way.  My first stop was the Bokcheon Museum which was an interesting mix of archaeological relics, paintings and ceramics and outside we saw actual tombs that have been discovered dating back to the 6th century.

Bokcheon Museum (2)Bokcheon Museum

The Busan Museum was much larger with several exhibition halls and focused on the history and culture of Busan.  Everyone agreed we didn’t have enough time there, but it was a good introduction to this country’s history.

Alex’s tour centred around the visit to the U.N. Memorial Cemetery.  The 35-acre Park contains the bodies of 11,000 soldiers from the 16 countries who died during the Korean War and the soldiers dispatched from the 53rd Division of the Korea Army have been guarding the Main Gate and the East Gate since 1 August, 2007.

Busan cemetery (3)Busan cemetery (4)Busan Cemetery (2)

Finally, the Lotte Department Store.  On the 13th floor, there is a very large observation deck to view the harbour and the city which gave quite an impressive view of the large port.  I didn’t think so much of the Lotte Department Store – prices are high and nothing that we could not buy at home.

There is a lot more to Busan – a world class aquarium and beautiful beaches; unfortunately, no time to see them in the time we had available but the visit to the cemetery was the goal for today to take some photos for the RSL back home.

Busan (3)

Shanghai

 

This morning, Monday 21 March, we woke up early at 5.30am to have a quick breakfast before our tour was due to leave at 7.30am.  We were just about to put on our jackets, when an announcement came over with the news that there had been a mechanical issue at 1.30am.  The part had been repaired but it meant that we would now be seriously delayed getting into port.

Disappointing, as we had booked a full day tour, the highlights being a visit to a temple with a Buddha carved out of solid white jade and the Shanghai Museum.

Confusion followed, as you can imagine, with thousands of passengers wondering if we would get off the ship at all.  But the captain updated us as much as possible and the staff worked hard behinds the scenes, trying to reorganise tours and hand delivering flyers of changed times to our staterooms.  Of the 9 tours, only two were cancelled; ours was not, but there would be no time to visit the museum or the temple.

Fortunately, we decided to go anyway, as the only alternative was to get the free shuttle bus into town.  A large number of passengers did cancel and the queue for the shuttle was very, very long!

Once underway, about 3.15pm, it took us about an hour to get into the city.  The day was fine but the sun was having a losing battle trying to shine through all the pollution!  Excellent roads, sweeping overpasses on top of overpasses and 7 lane highways.  The number of apartment buildings was just amazing – I have never seen anything like it.  Thousands of them on both sides of the highway, as far as the eye could see.  Land is so expensive that most people want to live in an apartment; but now so many have been built, they are called “ghost buildings” because so many are empty.

Our first stop was to the Yu Gardens, which the people kept open late just for the Princess tours.  Dated from 1559, this garden covering 5 acres is lavish and so beautiful, with its pagodas, pavilions and winding paths and caves, leading to a lovely pond full of carp.

To reach the garden, we walked through a very historic part of Shanghai called The Bund, along the banks of the Huangpu River.  This was formerly the financial district and is now full of shops and eateries.  We were sorry that we did not have time to stop, as we could have spent hours exploring this fascinating area.

Because we left so late, what was supposed to be a lunch stop now became dinner.  This was enjoyed on the 4th floor of a floating restaurant with magnificent views of the city.  The food was excellent and the dishes just kept coming.

Next we went to the stunning Jin Mao Tower – a lift took us to the observation deck on the 88th floor in 45 seconds where we had the most breathtaking views of Shanghai by night.  The middle of the building is hollow and you can lean over and see right down to the ground.

The last stop was to the Local Silk Museum where we were given an interesting talk and demonstration.

Shanghai Local Silk Museum

Luckily the ship was not sailing until 11.00pm and we got back on board about 10.15pm.  It was an amazing day and Shanghai is, without doubt, the most vibrant and beautiful city I have ever seen.  The architecture is amazing, and nearly every building is lit up at night.  We had a wonderful tour guide and we both agreed that we would love to spend more time in this fascinating city.

Koh Samui, Thailand

 Ko Samui

Saturday, March 12 – This island was a tender port and once again, the weather was hot and humid.  We decided to explore it on our own and after arriving in the town, we did the walk through all the cab drivers waving maps in our faces, which is of course to be expected.

Seasoned travellers that we are, I have found the best way to get through is not to make eye contact and just keep walking!

So we grabbed a map and walked through town so we could buy some souvenirs and get our bearings and do a bit of bargaining before deciding where to venture to.  Once out of the melee, we found a lone cab driver and began bargaining for what we wanted to see.  It worked well.  Pen and paper is good to write down the price you agree on, making sure it covers two people and very importantly, is a 2-way fare!  The driver’s wife was there too, as her English was not too bad and she and their little daughter came along for the ride.

I thought the town a bit shabby but then we drove through beautiful scenery – this island is 90 percent virgin rainforest, surrounded by great granite mountains and lovely stretches of white sandy beaches.  Very popular with backpackers, Kho Samui (or Samui to the locals) also has many resorts, restaurants and shops.

Our aim was to visit the Na Muang waterfall, very pretty with water cascading down a natural rock staircase, Big Buddha (Wat Phrayai), a massive 39-foot sitting Buddha and Wat Plain Laem which is home to a superb statue of Kwan Yin, the 18-armed Buddhist avatar of Mercy.  Along the way, we stopped at a market and our very friendly cab driver bought us a cold drink each (it was pink, no idea what it was) and a bag of a crunchy fried treats – some were banana and others were sweet potato.  Delicious!

Considering that we had never heard of this island before, we had a memorable day and great value for money!  The islanders also enjoyed it, as our sister ship, the “Sun Princess” came in at the same time, so the island was inundated with tourists.

Ko Samui (3)Ko Samui (2)Ko Samui (5)Ko Samui (7)Ko Samui (6)Ko Samui (4)Ko Samui (8)

Good Morning, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City

We arrived at the port of Phu My which is the gateway to Ho Chin Minh city on Monday, 14 March.

Hot conditions prevailed as we made our way to the coach at 7.30am for our first excursion – Best of Ho Chi Minh City.   We drove through the Mekong Delta, the “rice basket” of Vietnam.  It took about 1-1/2 hours, following the Saigon River where we had a very enjoyable full day’s tour.

 

Droves of bicycles and motorbikes are everywhere and you cross the road at your peril!  The air is filled with the sounds of honking horns.  When you cross in the pedestrian crossing, they swarm all around you, so you raise your arm and don’t stop walking!

The first stop was at the Minh Phuong Lacquer Factory where we saw the art of the lacquering process, one of the country’s most popular exports.  We watched a man using tiny pieces of duck shell to make a pattern.  Amazing!  Of course we had to buy a piece to take home.   We then watched a performance of Vietnamese water puppets and visited various other historic sights.  We enjoyed some time spent in Cholon (Chinatown) historically filled with opium dens and brothels.  Today it is filled with restaurants, temples, jade stores and medicine shops.  Lunch was a delicious buffet at one of the city’s top hotels.

Lunch HCMWater Puppets HCMLacquer factory HCMLacquer factory 2 HCMHCM5HCM6

By the time we got back at 5.15pm, we grabbed a quick pizza and had an early night!

 

Nha Tran

Tuesday, 15 March and we are now in the south central coast of Vietnam, 256 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City.

Just a half day excursion today, the highlight of which was a visit to see the artisans at work at a Silk Embroidery workshop.  The girls begin their apprenticeship at 13 years of age and after 7 years they are qualified.  But they spend the next 5 years with an experienced sewer before they are on their own.  Each one sits under a strong light (most wear spectacles) and work a 10-hour day in silence.  Their work is exquisite; after copies of original drawings are made they start with an outline and each person designs their own work.  If an error is made, they start again.

We purchased a framed embroidery at what we thought was a very reasonable price of $US49, but the larger works cost thousands of dollars.

Nha Trang (11)Nha TrangNha Trang (7)Nha Trang (8)Nha Trang (10)

Apart from the workshop, we were a bit disappointed with this tour.  The tour guide did not speak good English and we lost a lot of time at the first stop which involved a 70 step climb to the Cham Tower.  We also did not realise that there would be 90 more steps to see the Long Son Pagoda.  We probably need to read the fine print a bit closer on future tours!  Anyway, to make up time we were a bit rushed towards the end and we were nearly trotting to keep up to get to the Cho Dam Market.

Alex found a shirt, so we had some fun doing some bargaining, but other than that, there was not anything else worth buying.  Lots of cheap trinkets and just more of the same!

Vietnam is a good holiday destination, as long as you don’t mind the high humidity.  Great value for money.  Very friendly people.