6 Things to Do in Malaysia - Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi

(Map of Locations)

The capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur is described by its residents - with humor and dubious objectivity - as ‘similar to other cities in Southeast Asia, but better.’ It is a bustling and frenetic place, hot and humid, with a population of nearly two million. Kuala Lumpur is a financially powerful and metropolitan city in an often more conservative country.

Langkawi - sometimes called the Jewel of Kedah - is an archipelago of roughly a hundred small islands off the northwest coast of Malaysia proper. Often referred to as a tropical paradise, it is well-trodden ground for both foreign and domestic tourists.

Eat Malaysian Food

One of the best experiences you can have in Malaysia is trying the amazing variety of multi-ethnic food on offer. Ignorant tourists (like myself) on their first trip to Southeast Asia may find it reminiscent of Indian or Chinese cuisine, a reflection of Malaysia’s melting pot culture.  My personal favorites include -

The national dish, nasi lemak, of which I had a vegetarian-style variety. It mostly consists of coconut rice with egg, peanuts, spicy sauce, and small slices of vegetable. Fish and meat eaters combine this with dried anchovies and chicken or beef.

Roti canai is a type of pancake or flatbread. Flaky and thin, it is eaten crepe-like with the fingers. Half the fun is watching it made - the dough is tossed, spun, stretched paper-thin, folded, and grilled. It often comes with curry or a spicy dip.

Curry laksa is a spicy noodle soup made with coconut milk. It can be topped with bean curd, egg, and fish or shellfish. The noodles are usually thick and rice-based, but vermicelli is a popular substitute.

Visit the Petronas Towers

The tallest twin buildings in the world, the Petronas Towers are a famous landmark in the Kuala Lumpur skyline. They were designed to reflect common themes in Islamic art, and opened in 1996.

Tourists may be interested in Suria KLCC shopping center, which is located between the skyscrapers, or the small park behind the towers, complete with fountains, wading pools, and paths among the trees.

Climb to the Batu Caves

One of the most amazing sights in the greater Kuala Lumpur area - about half an hour’s drive from KLCC - is the Batu Caves in Selangor. The highest of the main caves reaches over 300 feet, and the cave in the far back opens to the sky. The natural limestone that forms these caverns is millions of years old.

The Caves are historically a sacred site for Hindus. They host festivals and pilgrimages, priests and devotees. Exactly 272 steps lead up to the cave entrance. Standing guard at the foot of these steps is a gold-painted statue of the Hindu deity Lord Murugan. Completed in the mid-2000’s, it is one of the tallest Hindu statues in the world.

Monkeys of the long-tailed macaque variety are permanent residents of the Caves and surrounding area. They are happy to take food from tourists - sometimes without the tourists’ consent - and can sometimes be seen bickering over heaping platefuls of rice while tiny baby monkeys cling to their chests.

Despite being small and quite cute, they can also be a biting hazard, so it’s best to be cautious.

Swim at Langkawi Beaches

Langkawi has a number of beautiful white-sand beaches. Most of them are a good distance from the airport and main tourist area, and popular northern spots like Tanjung Rhu or Pasir Tengkorak can take more than an hour to reach by car.

Each beach has something special to offer, though most have soft sand, palm trees, picnic tables, and small stalls of novelty items.

Crawl the Bars

On the southwest corner of the island is Pantai Cenang, a popular and touristy area near to the water. Hostels, bars, restaurants, and shops are clustered here near the main road.

Cheap tropical and bohemian-style clothing and jewelry is on offer at most of the stalls, which eventually close as night creeps on and the bars become more lively. It’s a great place to do some quick shopping, then sit for a mixed drink and talk the night away.

Visit the Oriental Village and the Cable Car

The most famous attraction on Langkawi is the cable car or SkyCab on its west coast a 15-minute drive from the airport. The gondolas ascend skyward, stopping first at a Middle Station with access to walking trails. The ride ends at a Top Station on the island’s second highest peak, where tourists can reach the suspended Sky Bridge.

The cable car leaves from the Oriental Village, an outdoor mall and tourism center with souvenir shops, restaurants, and man-made ponds. Its most recent addition is a 3D interactive art museum, featuring more than a hundred paintings.

Down the road a ways is the scenic Telaga Tujuh or ‘Seven Wells’ Waterfall. Surprisingly beautiful and attended by ever-present monkeys, it’s a fun place to wait for the allotted time on your cable car ticket.

3 Offbeat Things to Do in Birmingham-ish

(Map of Locations)

  • Indulge Your Pre-Raphaelite Nerd at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
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While much smaller than the museums of London, Birmingham's Museum and Art Gallery features the largest Edward Burne-Jones collection in the world, and an impressive number of Pre-Raphaelite works. It also has the famous painting of Morgan le Fay by Frederick Sandys.

The museum is a quick walk southwest down Edmund Street from Birmingham Snow Hill Station, and northwest up Hill Street from Birmingham New Street Station.

  • Catch a Roller Derby Game
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Roller derby is a (usually) all-female contact sport played on roller skates. Anyone who has not seen a derby match is missing out on a show filled to the brim with athleticism, passion, competitiveness, and skill. Also tattoos, fishnets, dyed hair, and more feminists than you can shake a stick at.

The world of roller derby was introduced to the West Midlands in 2006 with the founding of the Birmingham Blitz Dames, the first English league created outside of London. The Dames boasts over 70 members, some of whom compete at an international level, and two of whom were picked for Team England and Team Ireland in the 2011 World Cup.

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Their mission statement reads: "Since modern roller derby began sweeping the globe in 2001, it's been promoting female athleticism like no other sport in the world. We're proud to be a part of that revolution. We bring women into the roller derby community (and occasionally men, too) from all backgrounds, sporting or non-sporting, and we train athletes. We love what we do and we believe there's nothing else quite like it."

You can keep up with their event schedule online, or drop by a practice session in Futsal and try it out yourself.

  • Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?

Okay, so the sleepy town of Wychbury is technically in Hagley, Stourbridge, Worcestershire, - an hour on the train or half an hour in the car from Birmingham city center - and not in fact in Birmingham at all. That's fine. It can still be done in a day trip.

The Hill has a bit of an odd history, which is remarkably unkown for something so unusual. Besides having been an Iron Age hill fort, Wychbury is the site of a two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old obelisk. In 1943, in the middle of World War II, a woman's body was found stuffed into the wych hazel (then thought to be a wych elm) on the site. It was estimated that she had been killed some two years earlier, and despite theories that she was a local citizen, a traveler, a German spy named Clarabella, or even a witch, was unable to be identified. The most recent theory draws a connection between these theories and the disappearance of a Nazi spy named Clara Bauerle in 1941, who was due to parachute into the West Midlands and then was never heard from again.

The next year, graffiti started to appear both in the town and on the obelisk, reading variations of Who put Bella down the Wych Elm? The writing has been repeated several times throughout the decades, as recently as 1999.

The Hill is a bit of a walk from Hagley Station.

Britain on a Shoestring - Operation Find Merlin

(Map of Locations)

(Train & Bus Schedule & Info)

(Sightseeing Schedule & Info)

The Adventure Begins:

March of 2013.

The Goal

: To find Merlin.

Travel Method:

Trains and Buses via 8 Day BritRail Pass.

Planning:

One year of compiling train times, bus schedules, hostel contacts, rail maps, and campground bookings in a journal.

Travelers:

A trio of college-age females.

Packed

: Tent, sleeping bags, first-aid kit, energy bars, rope, hiking boots, cell phone.

*

Our adventure begins at four o'clock on a cold spring morning, on a train from Birmingham New Street headed straight northwestward into Wales.

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We, sleep-deprived travelers as we were, snoozed in our seats, waking up some hours later in the brisk and bright morning at Lladudno Junction. Unwilling to wait for the next train, we began walking toward Conwy before being offered a free bus ride by a friendly driver.

The bus approaches the walled castle town via a bridge, the stone walls stretching tall as it trundles over the water.

The castle itself is closed in early mornings and requires a small entry fee, but visitors are free to wander the outside and take the spiral staircase and up onto the crenelated castle walls.

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After grabbing food from the Spar, we sat by the water, flinging bits of food for the seagulls and slowly warming as the day properly dawned.  We left before noon - the schedule was packed - and took the train from Lladudno to Blaenau Ffestiniog.

We stood in the freezing wind surrounded by snow-capped mountains, faces red, lips chapped and noses running, squinting at bus schedules and puffing at barely-lit cigarettes. We took refuge in a nearby tea shop, sipping milky, sugary concoctions and warming our hands on the painted china while at the next table over, bushily bearded men spoke contentedly in Welsh.

When the bus came, it took us to Minffordd, from which we walked to Port Meirion, an odd paradise in the middle of the Welsh towns surrounding it.

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It was also the iconis filming location for the 1960's TV show

The Prisoner

, and well worth the somewhat exorbitant entry price.

There was a quick debate about whether or not we had time to visit

Dinas Emrys

which is where Merlin, according to legend, prophesied about the red and white dragons (representing the British and Saxon forces) battling beneath the castle. But there wasn't enough time, so we took the train right to Abergavenny and then got a taxi from there to Llanthony Priory.

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It was pitch dark when we arrived, and we pitched our tent for the first time, put on our warmest clothes, crawled into our sleeping bags, and tried to fall asleep. We  - or more specifically I, since it had been my job to plan - were dumb as fuck. None of our supplies were suited for the extreme cold. We were fine until sometime past midnight when the temperatures dropped below zero and the ground froze solid, the cold creeping up through the tent and into our sleeping bags. At this point, we abandoned all pride, and ended up whimpering and crawling on top of each other.

We awoke early the next morning, surrounded by chickens, crisp air, and snow-capped mountains. Cows mooed on the farm behind us.We walked into the nearby inn for a fortifying breakfast - carrot and coriander soup has never tasted so unbelievably amazing - and then explored the Priory.

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The Priory is some hundreds of years old, and possibly most famous for being the place where Edward the Confessor stopped before continuing on to the castle at which he was murdered.

We freshened up a bit and then called a taxi, after which we took the train to Cardiff.

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It is a glorious place for fans of Doctor Who.

We ate at Eddie's Diner, an American themed restaurant where the 'American' Doctor Who episode

The Impossible Astronaut

was filmed.

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We made one stop after, which was Caerphilly Castle.

It was beautiful. It was also the site of the Who episode The Almost People.

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We didn't have time for Chepstow Castle but went straight on to Kidwelly, where we stayed for the night, unfortunately arriving too late to visit the nearby Carmarthen and Bryn Myrddin, one of Merlin's alleged birthplaces.

We left early the next morning, wearing slightly nicer clothes than our usual rough sweatpants and messy hats, and took the train straight into Bath. Our first stop was the Fashion Museum, followed by the Roman Baths themselves.

The architecture is unbelievable.

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We left, had amazing Indian food on George Street, and then took the train to Salisbury. Stonehenge is only a short drive away - or a walk after taking the bus to Amesbury.

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Stonehenge is only a short drive away - or a walk after taking the bus to Amesbury.

The UK's National Heritage site offers cheap, special after-hours passes that, unlike the usual highly expensive and guided tour where you have to stay behind the ropes at all times, let us inside the stone circle, free to wander as the sun set.

Anyone who says that 'all the atmosphere is gone' from Stonehenge has either never been inside, or is lying to themselves. It's impossible to explain, other than to say that besides the high winds and setting sun there was a feeling none of us could describe. A vibration, maybe, in the ground or in the air.

It was almost impossible to conceive, the idea that we were standing inside something so extremely old.

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We stayed for the night with a lovely woman from Couchsurfing.org, and the next morning took the bus back into town. The minimum price for two hours at Thermae Bath Spa was more money than we'd spent thus far, but was more than worth it after days of trekking and freezing. We soaked, steamed, and soaked again until our time was up.

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We took the train down toward Avebury, where we didn't have time for much besides an odd lunch at the very pretty Red Lion Pub and a quick jaunt around the stones.

We then spent about five years on the trains, headed straight south to Dorset and the Jurassic Coast. That night we Couchsurfed near Bournemouth with an amazing artist and her wittily hilarious girlfriend. They fed us the most amazing Spanish cooking and we talked late into the night. Although it was unfortunately too dark to see the famous Jurassic Coast, they drove us around the city and showed us the water, the air balloon, and Mary Shelley's grave.

We packed up the next morning, made the painful choice between

Durdle Door

and Corfe Castle, decided the finnicky and unreliable bus schedule was not worth getting stuck on the coastline for an entire day, and headed to Corfe.

It was bright, sunny, and magical.

It's easily one of my favorite castles I've ever been to, and it proved to be thoroughly climbable.

We spent the afternoon frolicking before grabbing a cup of tea at the local pub and leaving on the next bus.  

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It was a long journey from there into Cornwall. We spent a few hours on the train before transferring onto two different buses, with just enough time to shop for groceries - bread, vodka, the essentials - and board the next leg of the journey. We paused several times in our journey for the driver to get out and have a communal smoke with the passengers. One woman riding the bus offered him some soup from her thermos. It was definitely the countryside.

We ended up in Camelford as dusk was falling, and called a taxi to take us to our campsite at Trewethett Farm in Trethevy.  Our campsite was on the sea. We pitched our tent overlooking the water, took much-needed showers, and sat in our tent demolishing our bottle of vodka.

We checked in the next morning with some very lovely women at the front desk, who were kind and welcoming. Then we left our bags behind, took our valuables, and with a sturdy map to guide us on our way, walked the Southwest Coast Path to Tintagel.

We found carved Neolithic spirals in the rock and some kind of shrine along the way.

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It was a two hour trek, up and down stairs and around hills - easily the hardest thing we had done so far.  It was also one of the most gorgeous things I have ever seen. The views were completely unbelievable.

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Winded and windswept, we stumbled into the restaurant at Tintagel, fortifying ourselves with warm food and cider. Then we climbed onto the castle.

It did not disappoint.

It was, I decided, a bit like Hogwarts - a sprawling magical castle that Muggles like us simply could not see properly.

We stopped to boulster our strength with cream teas, and our last stop was to sit at the water's edge and stare at the caves.

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Very tired indeed now, we called a taxi and raced to the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft. It was just closing as we arrived, but the nice woman behind the front desk let us have fifteen minutes. It's an incredible museum. It features both local and international history, and unlike the disappointment one is more likely to run into in Salem, it was filled with a huge amount of very credible information.

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Then we walked the two hours back to the campsite, arriving very weary indeed. The owners asked us if we would like to move our tent to one of the empty storage sheds, where they hoped we'd be slightly more protected from the wind, because they were quite worried about us out there all alone. They then also gave us a space heater, and asked if we were quite sure we didn't need anything else before leaving us. We fell asleep on the couches, happy as clams.

The next morning we caught the first bus, then another bus to the train station. We rode to Penzance, at the very tip of the Cornish peninsula, and took the bus to Marazion and St Michael's Mount. That day, we took a boat across at high tide, and feasted on yet more cream teas before making our weary way back. The next morning, we returned at low tide, and walked across the stone pathway to the castle.

We had lunch - and more cream teas! Before heading slowly back toward the train station. This was our last full day in England. The adventure was done.

Product Review - Vegan Hiking Boots

Good walking shoes/ hiking boots can be the difference between adventure and agony for a backpacker - or any traveler. For those who tend to stay away from animal by-products, it can be difficult to find good waterproof shoes that are not only sturdy but don't cost twelve limbs and the Mona Lisa. 

Some vegan backpacking blogs have already covered the subject in marvelous detail, but this post is very much a recommendation of the women's Alaska Ankle Boot, which bore up well during a backpacking trip in the cold, rainy spring months of England and Wales.

A nice black fake suede, they are cushy and soft on the inside. After several hours of walking the coastline of Tintagel, they remained comfortable and squishy.

They are also lovely and warm, even in below-freezing temperatures. When every limb of certain unnamed, idiotically inexperienced hikers may have been freezing, these boots kept those idiotically inexperienced feet quite cozy.

They are small enough to comfortably walk in, large enough to be study and provide ankle support, and have a thick tread on the bottom that suits perfectly for clambering around hilly castle ruins. They are also easy enough to take on and off, which is particularly useful if you happen to be doing your cold weather trekking in Japan.

They are water resistant and stay dry through puddles, rain, and moderate snowfall. (Lakes not recommended.)

They are not cheap (though still cheaper than plenty others out there), at roughly $130 USD. However, they will serve you well for many years, and when you are stuck in the snowy, cold Welsh mountains in a summer tent and a summer sleeping bag, you will cry and hug them to your chest and be glad that you have them.

10 Things to Remember When Traveling

The importance of good walking shoes/hiking boots cannot be overstated. They have to be comfortable enough for long treks, big enough for thick socks, waterproof enough for mud and rain, study enough to withstand a battering, and warm enough to protect your toes on cold nights.

  • If you are worried about money, you can find good footwear around the $50 range. For someone strapped for cash, that may seem like a lot - but it is absolutely worth it, especially if you are headed somewhere cold or wet. Invest a little, and the boots/shoes will last you for a long time.
  • If you do not have good walking shoes, your toes will get wet, pinched, and cold, and you may explode and die midway along the southwest coast path to Tintagel.

One thing that tends to screw over first-time cold-weather campers is the ground temperature.

  • You may prepare for wind coverage and heat insulation, but forget that if the ground freezes, it will be like lying directly on a block of ice. The cold will seep up through the floor of your tent, into your sleeping bag, through your blankets, and drag you screaming into oblivion. (Literally.)
  • Blow-up air mattresses are not just for comfort or show. Even a small, thin, light, and inexpensive one can do the vital work of keeping you from direct contact with the frozen earth.

Stay in contact with people that you know, both in and out of the country you are visiting.

  • Keep a cell phone with you. It can not only help you with information, travel plans, and emergencies, it can potentially keep you safe. Always try to have a way to communicate with people, especially if you are traveling alone.
  • Make the fact that you are regularly in contact with others known wherever you go. Never, ever give anyone the impression that you will not be missed for a few days if you go missing. That way, if dragons swoop down from the hills and carry you away, you can always call your Khaleesi for help. 

It's pretty important to both your energy and happiness level to bring food with you.

  • Energy bars are expensive but effective; if you can't afford them, you can try making your own with granola and high-protein-content foods.
  • Dried fruit and nuts will also do the trick.
  • As will sandwiches.
  • Don't forget water.
  • When you do have a break, eat up. Your meals don't need to be remotely expensive, but they do need to be hearty. Keep up your energy.

Pack lightly.

  • Really. You do not realize yet exactly how heavy your bag will feel at 11 PM, after a day of walking for hours, weary from hot sun or cold wind, on aching feet, after skipping out on a meal to catch your train.
  • Pack your bag, then put it on and walk around your house thirty times with it on. If you feel even the slightest discomfort, you are in trouble.

Have fun when everything is going wrong.

  • Seriously, this could be the difference between an amazing adventure and a complete disaster.
  • Take bad things as they come; take them with a sense of humor, take it as an adventure, pretend zombies are on your tail or you're hiking to destroy the One Ring.
  • If you decide a trip sucks, that's when it starts to suck.

You can never have too many pairs of underwear.

  • This also goes for socks.
  • And panty liners.

Bring something to do.

  • Not all of your journey is going to be adventure-filled and scenic. There may be long hours on planes, trains, buses, or cars. Getting to where you want to be might take time, so bring something to work on.
  • If you have something with a lasting battery and easy access to a place to charge it, that's fine - cameras and iPods can provide plenty of entertainment.
  • It's just as likely that you will not. Think about what situations you plan to be in, and bring along the proper distractions.
  • Books, notepads, sketchpads, and travel-size games work fairly well.

Realize that if you have been trekking and toiling for more than a day, you are gross. Accept this, and embrace it.

  • Don't feel shame in the fact that you are gross, because you are an adventurer.
  • But realize that it's happening, and take steps to counter it.
  • Breath mints/gum, wet wipes/deodorant, and a hair brush can work wonders. Keep them in the little outer pockets of your pack, and use them before entering establishments and scaring everyone in the vicinity.
  • But still don't feel any shame in your grossness, because Frodo was probably covered in more grime than you by the time he reached Mount Doom anyway.
  • Actually, Aragorn was always covered in more grime than you ever will be, and he was still bangin'. Take that to heart.

 Be nice to people who don't understand you.

  • If you are in a foreign country, someone's (insert your native language here) is not perfect, or they are unable to understand your attempts at theirs, remember that they are not here to cater to you. You are in their territory, not vice versa. Don't be a butt.
  • If you get annoyed at the 'locals' for their language skills, or the country you are in for being inconvenient, take a moment of quiet solitude to solemnly reflect on the fact that you are a butt.

General Tips for Shoestring Travel

In decreasing order of expense: Hostels, campsites, couches.

  • Hostels usually range from $10 - $25 and are the friend of backpackers and budget travelers everywhere, especially if they have hot showers, laundry, a kitchen, and wifi.
  • If the weather is right, camping can be even cheaper - many campsites are $5 - $10 per night. Look for ones with on-site hot showers and laundry. Bring a light tent you can carry, and you can sometimes even pitch it in a park for lack of other options.
  • Go to Couchsurfing.org and sign yourself up. Take the obvious precautions - verifications aren't as important as you might suppose, but references are vital and choosing a host of the same age group and gender is suggested - and you could stay for free in every city you stop at.
  • For more long-term stays, you could even look into housesitting.

Do a good amount of research into what methods of transportation are cheapest. Some countries have hideously expensive public transport, while others do not. Also remember to calculate in the number of people traveling with you.

  • Look into rail passes (BritRail, Eurail, JR Pass, Seishun Juuhachi Kippu) for the cheapest deals.
  • Taxis are really not a thing you should be doing. Check prices just in case - and remember they will go down per person if you are traveling with a group - but do your best to avoid them, especially from airports. Take a train or bus instead.
  • The same deal goes for bus passes, and full-day tickets.
  • Renting a car might be cheaper than you expect, especially on islands or in countryside locations. Southern Japan and Langkawi rent cars for around $30 - $60/24 hours, which is very cheap indeed when split between five friends.
  • If you need to fly, first do a search for local budget airlines, such as AirAsia (self-explanitory), JetStar, RyanAir (Ireland) or even tiny companies such as Peach Aviation (for domestic flights in Japan). You might be in for a slightly less luxurious ride, but it's worth it.
  • Hitchhiking is not recommended, especially for young women traveling alone. (This is absolute balls, but it is also something to be rightfully cautious about.) If you are planning to attempt this, bring your cell phone, a knife, a dog, a friend, a flamethrower, and at least three bazookas.

Food is another place you can save money.

  • Don't eat at restaurants, unless you feel like splurging.
  • Cook and pack a lunch, if you're staying somewhere where that is possible.
  • Bring snacks for the road - energy bars are expensive, but nuts, fruit, and dried goods may not be. That said, if you can spare money for energy bars, they can be very, very helpful.
  • Shop at grocery stores and convenience stores. Many of them sell cheap sandwiches, and have microwaves or free hot water - if you need to live off cup noodles for a while, that's okay.
  • But more importantly, shop for what is cheap, basic, filling, and high in protein. A shitton of candy will do absolutely nothing to help your long-term energy level, strength, and health.

If you're touring historic landmarks or local attractions:

  • Try to find things with free entry.
  • Also look for locations that you will be perfectly happy visiting the outside of, rather than dropping $25 (that could be going toward food) on a tour of some reconstructed and unauthentic interior. Plenty of castles, statues, parks, and city attractions are more fun to experience by exploring, picnicking, or climbing around the outside.

Know what you're doing with your money.

  • Make a budget.
  • Do it before you leave by calculating every single thing on your itinerary, plus food, accommodation, entry fees, transportation fees, and everything else. Figure out how much money you can spend each day.
  • Keep track of every single thing you buy, and keep an up-to-date ledger with how much money you still have. When in doubt, always overestimate what you spent.

Happy traveling!

15 Things to Do in London

(Map of Locations)

  •  Cross from St Paul's Cathedral via the Millennium Bridge...

Just minutes from the Old Bailey, St Paul's Cathedral was built in the 1600s and was the tallest building in London for several hundred years. It has seen the funerals, memorials, and weddings of many famous or royal persons throughout England's history. Perhaps most famous of those laid to rest there are Admiral Horatio Nelson and Sir Winston Churchill.

Entry is Monday to Saturday during working hours and tickets are roughly fifteen pounds for adults, but seeing just the outside is worth it, too.

Continuing southward on foot, one finds themselves at the Millennium Bridge. A modern-style suspension footbridge, the Millennium Bridge is interesting during the day and beautiful at night. It closed for several years after its initial grand opening to eliminate a much-complained-of 'wobble,' and now has been open for several years.

In popular culture, fans of Harry Potter might remember the Milennium Bridge as having been blown up by Death Eaters in the opening of Half-Blood Prince, and also as having offered Irene Adler a picturesque backdrop for one of her many calls to the titular protagonist in BBC's Sherlock.

The closest tube exit is appropriately named St Paul's Station. The Millennium Bridge's north side is also a short walk from Mansion House and London Blackfriars Stations.

  •  ...to the Globe Theater

Upon crossing to the other side and veering left before the Tate Modern, one finds themselves face-to-face with the modern reconstruction of Shakespeare's Globe Theater. Nowadays it looks small, even unremarkable; but in its heyday it would have dominated the surrounding landscape. The original Elizabethan-style Globe wasn't open for fifteen years before it was destryoed by fire; however, during its years of use it served as the setting of some of the most famous plays known the the English language. Take the tour if you like - or just wave at it when you pass by.

Fans of Doctor Who will know it as the setting of The Shakespeare Code in Series Three.

  • (Maybe Don't Ride) the London Eye

A 25 minute walk west from Shakespeare's Globe, the massive London Eye - or Millennium Wheel, as it was built in the year 2000 - sits on the south bank of the Thames. One of the world's largest ferris wheels at 443 feet tall, it spins slowly - imperceptible from far away - and lights up a beautiful blue at night.

It has appeared in numerous London-based films, including 28 Days Later, A Knight's Tale, and Harry Potter. It was also used as a massive alien signal conductor in the first episode in Series One of Doctor Who.

Tickets to ride are about 30 pounds for adults and are not suggested for the seasick-prone or those strapped for cash - go just for the view from below.

The London Eye is a short walk from Waterloo Station.

  • Marvel at Big Ben/the Houses of Parliament, the Statue of Boadicea, and Westminster Abbey

Just across Westminster Bridge from the London Eye, Big Ben (or 'Elizabeth Tower,' its clock faces, and great bell) is one of the most iconic sights in London. A three hundred foot four-faced clock tower, it was erected late in the 19th century.

Built in the 11th century and rebuilt in the 19th after a fire, the attached Houses of Parliament - properly known as the 'Palace of Westminster' - have seen their own share of history, including Guy Fawkes's attempt to blow them up on the 5th of November in 1605. Gothic and intricately carved in a way impossible to detect from afar (or indeed from most photographs), the Houses put many of the other famous stone buildings of London - like Buckingham Palace - to shame. They are still in use by the modern House of Commons and House of Lords. Today you can attend debates and visit the Parliamentary archives, and guided tours of the opulent interior are just over fifteen pounds. However, the iconic views are all photographable for free from the street.

You can see the Houses of Parliament in many shows and movies, most notably including their triumphant and spectacular demolition at the end of V for Vendetta. Big Ben featured heavily in episodes of Doctor Who and The Prisoner, as well as ringing in the London Olympic Games.

The famous if innaccurate statue of Boadicea (traditionally and correctly 'Boudica') and her daughters stands at the end of Westminster Bridge, facing Parliament. It was erected in 1905 as a symbol of her rebellion (for those not in the know, she spent a fantastic if tragically short while kicking the Romans' asses), and shows her in a horse-drawn chariot complete with a scythe on each wheel.

Westminster Abbey - just down the road from Parliament - is towering, white, and was constructed in the 13th century. Historically a site of royal coronations (starting with William the Conquerer) and weddings (most recently Prince William and Kate Middleton), it now also houses as a burial chamber some of the most famous names in British history, including St Edward the Confessor, Queen Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, Sir Isaac Newton, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Charles Dickens. It commemmorates hundreds more. It is a living church, and therefore is open to the public for between fifteen and twenty pounds.

In popular culture it appeared in Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus novels, but the real thing is rarely seen in film as it usually does not allow commercial filming.

All of these locations are immediately accessible from Westminster Station on the tube.

  • Feel Vaguely Puzzled at Buckingham Palace

There's no nice way to put this: Buckingham Palace (a 15-minute walk westnorthwest of Westminster), for all its fame, is a thoroughly unattractive building. If 'butt-ugly' is too harsh a term, then after the likes of the Houses of Parliament it is puzzlingly, almost offensively plain, golden gates aside. Even the famous Palace Guards are rarely outside the gates on off-hours. However, the changing of the guard is worth a look; it happens every day or every other day, before noon.

Much more attractive is the facing Victoria Monument with its many (unfortunately colonialist-themed) statues and fountains.

Buckingham Palace is a ten minute walk from Hyde Park Corner, St James's Park, and Victoria Stations on the underground.

  • Visit Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, and the National Gallery

Massive, stretching nearly 170 feet tall, and a 15-minute walk northeast along The Mall from Buckingham Palace, Nelson's Column - named after and bearing at its top the statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson, one of England's heroes in the war against Napoleon - is mind-bogglingly large. Built in the 19th century after Nelson's death, the column is surrounded by great bronze lion statues and a beautiful fountain.

The surrounding Trafalgar Square is one of London's most famous landmarks, and has been used for celebrations during some of the nation's biggest holidays. It is also used for demonstrations, and has seen protesters and rioters gather there for over a hundred years.  It has been featured in productions like James Bond, Doctor Who, and BBC's Sherlock.

At the back of the Square is the National Gallery, started in the 1820's and home to some of the most famous paintings in the world, including Van Gogh's 'Sunflowers' and Velazquez's 'Toilet of Venus.' No photography is allowed, though of course if you don't use flash and they don't catch you... well. It is open every day. The admittance fee, excluding special exhibitions, is 'suggested' only.

All these attractions are directly across from Charing Cross Station.

  • Explore the British Museum

If you like history and art museums, London has a huge amount to offer; however, the British Museum may be the best.

A twenty-minute walk north-northeast of Trafalgar, the British Museum was founded in 1753 with the collections of plunders worldwide and has been showing off the fruits of England's colonialist efforts ever since. Even now, many of the exhibits are items of contention, which their countries of origin argue should rightly belong to them and not to Britain. It has the largest collection in the world - over eight million items - as well as a number of curatorial research departments, and activities worldwide. Its most famous objects include the Rosetta Stone, the Sutton Hoo burial ship, Michaelangelo's drawings, Lindow Man, friezes from the Parthenon on the Acropolis, an Easter Island Statue, and Egyptian mummies. Entry is free aside from exibitions, and it is open daily.

The British Museum is near Tottenham Court Road and Holborn Stations.

  • Slam into the Brick Wall at Platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross Station

It's always worth a try.

King's Cross is a 25-minute walk north from the British Museum. Platform 9 3/4 can be found halfway between Platforms 9 and 10 on King's Cross's National Rail line.

(For an extra challenge, try to find the entrance to the Leaky Cauldron near Charing Cross Station.)

  • Rock Out in Camden Town

A 25-minute walk northwest from King's Cross, Camden Town is legendary for having one of the best live music scenes in London. Whether you are looking for cheap underground venues that support up-and-coming bands, open mic nights full of passionate poetry slam artists, or concert halls with years of cred and precious history, Camden is still a great place for punk fashion and rock music. Create your own rock n' roll walking tour, or visit the markets, bars, parks, and waterways.

The nearest Underground exit is Camden Town Underground Station.

  • The Victoria and Albert Museum

Also worth a look (take the tube) is the Victoria and Albert Museum, which was built in 1852 and houses over two million items. The most exciting among these include a reproduction of Trajan's Column, the Flanders unicorn tapestry, a reproduction of Michaelangelo's David, and numerous works from Rome and throughout Asia. Entry is free aside from special exibitions, and it is open daily except for around Christmas.

This museum is close to South Kensington Station.

  • Feel Glad You're Not Locked in the Tower of London

This stone fortress on the north side of the Thames was originally built in the 11th century during the Norman Conquest, and it served most famously as a prison for over eight hundred and fifty years. It has held and/or executed thousands of prisoners including Guy Fawkes, Anne Boleyn, William Wallace, a young Queen Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, and in the 20th centrury two high-profile members of the Nazi Party. It has also seen various other usages such as military stronghold, residential palace, and royal armoury. For the past few hundred years it has housed the Crown Jewels.

The inside of the Tower follows a complicated design that speaks of the many times it has been expanded and rebuilt throughout the years. There are towers, keeps, courts, chapels, belfries, kitchens, great halls, and dungeons ready for the exploring. In the 1200s, there was even a royal menagerie.

It is now on the UNESCO World Heritage list as a museum and tourist site. It costs around 20 pounds for adults per entry (if you'd rather not pay the fee, it's still worth a good look from the outside). It is open every day during regular working hours. It is also included on several of London's Ghost Tours, as it is said to be extremely haunted. Famous ghosts include Anne Boleyn, and a polar bear.

The Tower of London is a short walk from Tower Hill Station on the tube.

  • (Do Not Blow Up) the Old Bailey

A half hour walk westward of the Tower, the Old Bailey has been the site of proceedings in the criminal court since at least the 1500's. Destroyed in a fire one hundred years later, it has been refaced and rebuilt multiple times. The version that now stands was erected in the early 1900s, and still holds trials on many of the major criminal cases in the United Kingdom.

It is also known to fans of V for Vendetta as the opening act in vigilante V's rebellion, where on November the 5th it exploded spectacularly to the soundtrack of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. Less famously, it held master criminal Jim Morriarty for his trial in BBC Sherlock.

The Old Bailey is a five minute walk from St Paul's Station on the underground.

  • Tour the (Real and) Filming Locations of BBC's Sherlock and Doctor Who

BBC's Sherlock is set in London, and therefore the city is full of fun locations for fans to visit even outside the aforementioned places that are culturally significant in and of themselves.

Sherlock's fake 221B Baker Street is next to Speedy's Cafe on North Gower Street, reachable via underpass from Euston Square Station.

Irene Adler's house is at 44 Eaton Square, one of the many affluent streets west of Victoria Station and northeast of Sloane Square Station in Belgravia.

Alberto's Italian restaurant is a small place called Tapas Brandisa in Soho, located on Broadwick Street at the end of Lexington (check for the cobblestones under your feet) and a ten minute walk north of Piccadilly Circus.

The real New Scotland Yard is just south of St James's Park Station. St Bart's Hospital - the site of Sherlock's great Fall and as well as the building behind which John Watson was so cleverly made to position himself - is just northwest of St Paul's Station.

Doctor Who has a fair share of London locations as well, aside from those already listed. Among them are Canary Wharf - the site of Doomsday - which is very close to Canary Wharf Station, 10 Downing Street - host of the real Prime Minister and area of the occasional alien takeover - just a walk from Westminster, Battersea Power Station - which fell to the Cybermen - west of Vauxhall on the tube or north of Battersea Park on the National Rail, and the Shard - taken over by UNIT in The Bells of Saint John - is just southwest of London Bridge Station on the tube.

  • Take a Ghost Walk

With its numerous plague pits, execution sites, cemetaries, and houses with murderous histories, London has its fair share of ghosts. The spirits of those executed at the Tower of London are said to roam the grounds, hounds are heard howling at Sutton House, and a modern-day book dealer's was the location of so many unexplained deaths that it has been given the official title of Most Haunted House in London and is regulated to this day by a law that states no one is allowed to be on the top floor alone after dark.

You can scope out locations on your own or take an official walking or bus tour (tickets are often available on sale). Either way - if you intend to go at night, we recommend that you always bring a friend.

  • Crawl the Pubs

If the idea of one big beer/shot-soaked, marked-up-t-shirt-wearing, rambling night out is your idea of a good time, them a London pub crawl is for you. You can get tickets for an official guided crawl tour (often hilarious thanks to the guide and often with at least one free drink per pub) or plot a course all your own with free maps from the internet (all it takes is a Google search).  Mix, match, create your own themes, bring some friends along, and... try not to spend too much money. Your night is unfortunately unlikely to end up as a fight for your like against aliens full of blue stuff as you race toward The World's End, but you should still have a good time.

Tip: For the love of all that is holy, wear. flat. shoes.

10 Things to Do in Hong Kong

(Map of Locations)

  • See the Big Buddha and Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island

The Big Buddha - or Tian Tan Buddha - is the largest seated bronze buddha in the world. It is fairly new - completed within the last twenty years - while the nearby Po Lin Monastery has existed for nearly a hundred. Dark bronze and 112 feet tall, the buddha sits facing north, high atop a stretch of 268 stairs (handicapped accessable by special vehicle) and surrounded by six other bronze statues of buddhist devas. Its right hand is raised in blessing. Beneath the statue is a relic of the Gautama Buddha, supposedly consisting of some of his cremated remains. Visitors who buy an offering are allowed to see it. Adjacent is a large bell that rings precisely 108 times every day.

There is also a vegetarian restaurant near the buddha. Tickets are available at the main gate.

Entry to the main complex is free of charge.

The Big Buddha is just under an hour from Mui Wo Ferry Pier (arriving from Central Pier 6) or MTR Tung Chung Station by bus.

  • Go Clubbing in Lang Kwai Fong

Club prices can be cheap in Hong Kong, especially for the visiting foreigner. For women, the best night for clubbing is Thursday, or Ladies Night. Many clubs will have free entry and/or free drinks for women, and the drinking age in Hong Kong is eighteen. Lan Kwai Fong boasts a fun and noisy atmosphere with several streets of clubs and bars, music blasting from the open doors into the warm muggy air and roads overflowing with tipsy men and women, both foreign and local. If you're daring, you can even find several buildings with a door to the roof and enjoy the bird's-eye view.

Beware of: Groups of over-forty Western businessmen, often found standing in the doorways of clubs looking to pick up Asian girls or grab the asses of women who walk by. Also be aware that several clubs tend to turn away non-Asians, or cater specifically to models and VIP parties. But don't be discouraged!

Lan Kwai Fong is a short walk from Central Station, but for the ride back home catch a cheap taxi ride.

  • Eat Nepalese Food in Wanchai Market

Tucked into a tiny hole-in-the-wall space nestled between shops in Wanchai Market is a nameless, blink-and-you-miss-it, family-run Nepalese restaurant. For a ridiculously cheap price one recieves a heaping tray of either rice or bread (with free refills of rice at any time) and a choice of currys. Recommended: Start with an appetizer of the island's best chatpate.

Warning: When the friendly proprietors say spicy, they mean it. Do not underestimate this.

The restaurant is a short walk from MTR Wanchai Station.

  • View the Oriental Gardens and Chi Lin Nunnery

On Hong Kong's Kowloon side - less built up than its island counterpart - is the Nan Lian or 'Oriental' Garden. The Gardens run a winding circular path through beautiful bushes, miniature trees, fake hills, and ornamental rock structures, creating an oasis of fresh-aired peace outside the hectic city.  There are numerous terraces, bridges, gates, and pavilions, all built in the classic Tang style. The most famous of these is the red and gold central structure, the 'Perfection Pavilion.' Pictures always make it look larger than it is - but it is still a sight to behold. There is also a large teahouse, and a vegetarian restaurant behind a waterfall. Water runs throughout the whole garden, while music plays in the background, adding to the atmosphere (though also to the occasional sense of artificiality). As night falls, gentle golden lights are lit, and the gardens become even more magical. Staying until nighttime is worth it. While noise barriers ensure that the droning of the city is completely blocked out, during the day the less than picturesque skyscrapers still rise above the tree line.

Entry is free.

Within walking distance from the Garden is Chi Lin Nunnery. Chi Lin is a quiet and picturesque complex, rebuilt in the classic Tang style in the 1990s but originally dating back to the early-mid 1900's.  Built without the use of a single metal nail, the wooden halls are entirely comprised of interlocking wood sections. There are tranquil lotus ponds and carved lion-head fountains, as well as large halls and courtyards. Inside there are a number of beautifully built buddhist statues. The only thing that mars Chi Lin's beauty is the city skyline not far in the distance - a simple glance upward shows towering white buildings on every side.

Please be aware that this is a working nunnery, and therefore you must be mindful of the temple's rules. 

Entry is free.

The nunnery and gardens are a short walk from MTR Diamond Hill Station.

  • Bargaining in Mongkok (and Jordan)

For thrifty shoppers not fussed on high quality, the afternoon/evening Ladies Market - or Tung Choi Street - in Mongkok is the way to go. The streets of bustling, packed, noisy stalls offer the best prices in Hong Kong. You can buy anything from painted scrolls, silken robes, and carvings, to lingerie, casual wear, fake brand names, and cheap DVDs. It is not a tranquil shopping experience - people will shove past you, bump into you, or yell at you. (If you are female, many shop owners may call you 'missy.' This is standard, not an insult.)

Prices are rarely fixed or written on the items - you have to ask how much it is, and then bargain it down. The stall owners will do their best to rip you off, especially if you are an English-speaking foreigner.

Keep these things in mind: Never look impressed or eager with what you see. Always remember that many stalls sell the same items at different prices, and this means you can play them off of each other. And never take a price as final. Depending on what you buy, you should be able to haggle items down to half price or even further. If you are dissatisfied, try walking away entirely. Stall owners will often shout increasingly lower prices at your back, or even grab you to stop you from leaving.

The Ladies Market is just a few minutes from MTR Mongkok Station on foot, headed toward Argyle Street.

Also worth a try is the night market at Temple Street in Jordan - to which the same bargaining rules apply. For dark-haired travelers looking to dye their hair, pop into one of the many hair supply stores along the right side of the street - and pay special attention to their vibrant reds.

Temple Street is a short walk from MTR YauMaTei Station or MTR Jordan Station.

  • Underground Rock Shows

At first glance, the hard rock music scene in Hong Kong seems fairly non-existant. However, an organization called Underground Hong Kong - tagline 'original rock for original people' - is dedicated to promoting and sustaining Hong Kong's alternative/punk/folk/synth scenes. They're the best way to keep up on Hong Kong rock music news, and often do their own reviews or host their own events. You can sign up for a newsletter that lists every local live show taking place within the month, keep up with events, or simply show up at one of the common venues on their music nights.

Prices vary but are usually reasonable.

  • Dim Sum in Kennedy Town

Hong Kong is a heaven for dum sum lovers, ranging from fancy expensive restaurants to tiny hole-in-the-wall eateries. For those strapped for cash, there is no need to worry - one of the best dim sum places on the island is both very cheap and very local. San Hing is small, located in Kennedy Town (Sai Wan), and has a standard opening time of three o'clock in the morning. It is a favorite of local fishermen, awake early and chowing down before the morning catch; university students, up late while studying; and late-night party-goers, looking to sober up before heading home. Their most famous dish is their mind-bogglingly delicious lau sa bao, or yellow custard buns. However, all of their food is worth trying.  Don't go there expecting anyone to speak English, but the food is worth the struggle, and the prices are fabulous.

Sun Hing is located on the ground floor at 8 Smithfield Road in Kennedy Town (Sai Wan). Kennedy Town can be reached most easily by tram. There are also several busses, including the 104 from Central and the 5B or 5X from Causeway Bay. Kennedy Town is also a 15-minute walk from the HKU bus stops via the 4, 4X, and 3B from Central, the 40 from Wanchai, 40M from Admiralty, or the 23 from Causeway Bay.

  • Visit the Fishing Villages of the Outlying Islands

Tai O is an old fishing town on the northwestern coast of Lantau, famous for its seafood and interconnected stilt houses. The fishing lifestyle is currently dying out and the community has weathered its fair share of natural disasters. However, it's still a wonderful place to visit for the day. You can see the temples, peruse the market street, take a cheap dolphin-watching tour, or eat some sweet soup. For the artistically inclined, it's a perfect spot to sit and paint as the sun goes down.

Tai O can be reached by bus from the Big Buddha in roughly twenty minutes, and Mui Wo Ferry Pier (arriving from Central Pier 6) or MTR Tung Chung Station in just under an hour.

Cheung Chau is a dumbbell-shaped fishing island that boasts good food, several temples, a pirate cave, and a 3000-year-old rock carving. Get out of the immediate village and explore; the fantastic views of the beaches and rocky shoreline are best seen from the northern lookout pavilion.

However, Cheung Chau is most famous for its Bun Festival, held annually sometime in May. Originally spawning from a local ritual to ward off pirates, it now coincides with celebrations of the Buddha's birthday, and has become a display of traditional Chinese culture. Expect to see floats, dragon dances, and extravagantly-dressed children performing balancing acts above the crowd. There is also the bun-snatching event, where people compete to race up high 'bun towers.' Enjoy the festivities while feasting on cool salted pineapple or other fruits and vegetables - the entire island goes vegetarian for the day, and the local McDonalds even serves a vegetarian burger.

Beware of: Extreme heat, threat of dehydration, and the most densely-packed sweaty crowd this side of a rock concert.

Cheung Chau Island is reachable by ferry from Central Pier 5. Be advised that on the day of the Bun Festival, lines will be hideously long - get there early!

Lamma Island has been the site of human settlements for thousands of years. With exactly zero cars on the island, it boasts a peaceful and quiet atmosphere. There are walking trails, craft stores, and an abundance of seafood. Lamma is also the location of famous Chinese actor Chow Yun-Fat's childhood hometown. Hiking paths range from the easy 4 kilometer Family Trail to the exhausting ascent up Mt. Stenhouse to view its strangely-shaped rocks.  There is also a quiet bay beach as well, though like all beaches in Hong Kong, it may be a disappointment to travelers who are frequent beach-goers. 

Lamma Island is connected to the main island by ferries from Central and Aberdeen, which arrive in the small towns of Yung Shue Wan or Sok Kwu Wan.

  • Get a Tattoo

Sound expensive? Yes, of course, but not compared to some of the more famous yet less talented artists you can find abroad.

The best place to go is Central's Tattoo Temple, which boasts excellent artists and exemplary custom work. Joey Pang is the famous name in the area - and she has a waiting list of between one and two years. She has pioneered the brushstroke tattoo style, and the official website lists her as 'the world’s only professional Chinese calligraphy tattoo artist.' If you can't afford that fee (or wait time), Wang and Jaimie both are excellent artists with reasonable rates, as is the shop's newer addition, Olivia. It's the perfect haven for picky, artsy types who want the perfect tattoo but don't have more than a few hundred to spend on it. (They will even let you pick as small an amount as you need for a downpayment.)

Tattoo Temple is located at 1 Wyndham Street in Central. Walk toward Lan Kwai Fong from MTR Central Station.

Also worth a look is Torrential Ink in Causeway Bay, whose main artist Jodic Chan is wonderfully talented in the brushstroke style.

  • Victoria Peak

The Peak is more expensive than most shoestring travelers would like, but it offers the best view of Hong Kong and Kowloon Bay. A famous scenic spot, the view from the top of the mountain - the highest in Hong Kong - shows the entirety of the tightly-packed city and water below. It is also home to an immense number of tourist traps (such as Madame Tussauds) and expensive restaurants in the Peak Tower and Peak Galleria, as well as ludicrously opulent real estate, but feel free to ignore this. Stay to watch the sunset over the water and islands below. When the sky goes dark and the city turns on its lights, the effect is enchanting.

For the optimal (and at times seemingly near-vertical) experience ascending to the top, take the Peak Tram from Garden Road, Central. For a slightly cheaper ride, take the scenic route on Bus 15 from MTR Admiralty Station.

Japan on a Shoestring - Nine Million Years on a Train

Japan on a Shoestring

Nine Million Years on a Train

It is common for the university student to undertake adventure while abroad. Vacation draws nigh, and the student sets off to explore the world. Oftentimes those of us with less spare cash either curl up in our dormitories and pretend not to be envious, or we get inventive.

I am happy to say that during Winter Break in Japan, my roommate and I got inventive.

Japan has four main islands that stretch latitudally 1,800 miles, and span from temperate to tropical climates. Those departing (main island) Honshu’s northern Akita Prefecture in below-freezing temperatures ride south to find the five-foot snow drifts disappear and the air warms upon reaching the more southerly Kyoto.  Shaping a trip to suit your needs is easy.

Look For:

  • Upcoming festivals and cultural events. Eg. Obon (August, festival); Kamakura (Winter, igloo); Karatsu Kunchi (November, parade).
  • Shrines, temples, and statues.
  • Natural hot springs, or onsen. (Remember: This means getting naked.)
  • National Heritage sites, scenery, and movie locations.

 

Tip: Check your resources and calculate how many days you can travel before winding up stranded in a ditch. Then get online and make love to Google and Google Maps.

 

I journeyed in the only way college students such as myself, penniless but full of wide-eyed enthusiasm, could. That is, slowly and without much glamour. But nothing matches the freedom of long hours spent dozing fitfully, rocked to sleep while rice paddies and persimmon trees pass by the windows, the sound of train tracks clattering below.

Public transportation in Japan is expensive. The famous ‘bullet train,’ or Shinkansen, can cost significantly more than a cheap hotel, or over $100 per ride.

What to Do?

  • If you are a student, look up the Seishun Juuhachi Kippu, or ‘Youthful 18 Ticket.’ Available during off seasons, 10,000 Yen (or somewhat over $100) will give you five days of unlimited travel on all ‘regular’ slow trains.
  • Try Night Buses. Reliable budget companies such as Willer leave late at night to arrive early morning, and can travel between major cities for 4,500 Yen ($50).
  • Peach Aviation is a domestic low-cost carrier, providing flights in and out of Osaka for often less than $50.

 

What to Expect:

  • More time on the train than off it.
  • Falling asleep on your backpack; alternatively face of your travel companion.
  • Waking up to paw frantically at drool while old ladies seated across from you giggle.

 

Tip: Go to www.Hyperdia.com for train schedules. Then double check at the nearest major train station how to get from point A to point B and C. Print out train lines, departure times, and transfer stations.

 

Finding cheap food and accommodation is easier than you might think. We avoided hotels and restaurants, focusing on what was easy to find, quick to grab, and cheap. Remember, you may be arriving late, leaving early, and fueling up on the go.

In Japan, English fluency is hard to come by outside of big cities.  Smile through wonky grammar and horrid misunderstandings, and be prepared to draw childish diagrams, do interpretive dance, and possibly cry. Carry a dictionary, familiarize yourself with the kanji of your destinations, and know basic phrases. When is the train? Where is food store? Can I stay here tonight? Why am I being eaten by domesticated deer? Etc.

Stay:

  • The manga kissa or ‘manga café’ is the refuge of the penniless traveler. For as little as 900 Yen per night (just over $10), one gets a private cubicle with television and computer, free drinks, and access to shelves of Japanese comic books/movies. Fancier cafes have showers and food.
  • CouchSurfing.org is the perfect tool for finding a free bed. Exercise caution (I recommend staying among your own age group and gender) and it can be a wonderful, safe experience for those hard-up for cash.

Eat:

  • The main Japanese travel food of yours truly was the onigiri. Flavored rice balls wrapped in seaweed, they are easy to snag off the shelf at Family Mart in the breaks between train departures. The best bottled drinks included lemon and milk teas.

 

Tip: Look up 24-hour cafés and hostels online, in English and Japanese. Print out street maps and directions.

 

*

A Further Account of Our Heroic Journey

Accompanied by a List of Helpful Japanese Words and Phrases

(Which May Not Be Entirely Accurate)

Night Zero

Wherein Our Heroes Kind of Embark

 My traveling companion – Daphne – and I had planned things to the minutest detail. The departure time listed on our train schedule (which we had printed out at the station the day before) was earlier than the first bus leaving our campus, so we stayed in the city center for the night, within easy walking distance of Akita Train Station.

We found one of several nearby manga cafes, and checked in.

Apparently, checking in is one of the many times when one’s scant language skills can become painfully obvious. After fifteen minutes of trying to communicate in English, Japanese, hiragana, and kanji – all of which failed – we progressed to doodled diagrams of stick figures, interpretive dance, and a silent moment spent weeping and crawling about the rug on hands and knees.

It turned out the poor mortified clerk was just trying to ask for our IDs.

Don’t be like us.

Carry a goddamn dictionary.

We eventually settled in for the night, warm in the silence of the café, refreshed by the free drinks (I was partial to the hot matcha tea – Daphne developed rather a disturbing obsession for melon pop) and feeling oddly dazed by the electronic light reflected on the ceiling by computers and televisions all around.

We set our phone alarms, crawled into our cubbies, and fell asleep under our coats.

Check-In Phrases:

  • I would like to stay here tonight. ここに泊まりたいんです。Koko ni tomari tain desu.
  • I want to leave by XYZ o’clock tomorrow morning. 明日の朝、XYZ時までに到着したいんです。Ashita no asa, XYZji made ni touchaku shitain desu.
  • Can I see your ID? 身分証明/IDカードをお持ちですか? Mibun shoumei/ID ka-do- wo omochi desu ka?
  • Do you have a member card? メンバカードをお持ちですか?Membaka-do wo omochi desu ka?

 

Writing: 

  • Manga Café. 漫画喫茶。Manga Kissa.
  • Internet Café. インターネットカフェ。Inta-netto Kafe.
  • Hostel. ホステル。Hosuteru.
  • Hotel. ホテル。Hoteru.
  • Hour. 事。Ji.
  • Yen. 円。En.
  • Television. テレビ。Terebi.
  • Computer. コンピューター。Konpyu-ta-.

 

Day One

Lots of Time Asleep


We dragged ourselves from the depths of sleep and trudged through the snow to depart on the 5 AM train. We rode south from Akita, traveling along the eastern rail line.

The train schedule was our most precious possession – a list of train lines, stops, transfers, and exact times all written down in order. We were on the train for more than 10 hours, and transferred nearly as many times.  

In retrospect, one of our most memorable stops was Sendai, which was a big, bustling, warm indoor station. Months later the same city would be slammed with the tsunami of 3/11, leaving houses destroyed and thousands displaced or dead.

We spent our time in Sendai like we did every other station – using our 30 minute break on solid land to run to the restroom, snatch onigiri and sandwiches from the in-station convenience stores, and find the track for our next train.

Back on board, we passed the time by dozing on one another, head on shoulder or head on head. Sometimes we drifted off curled in the seats and one another’s laps. Schoolgirls, grandmothers and grandfathers chatted quietly amongst themselves all around us. Daphne scrap booked, her giant knitted rabbit gloves lying on the seat beside her. I spent hours staring at the window at passing persimmon trees and rice fields, burrowed deep into my coat.

The going was slow, but it allowed us to experience the culture-seeped life and scenery of the countryside, and watch as the climate and landscape changed out the windows.

We arrived in Tsukuba after nightfall, having achieved proximity to our first destination and the assurance of another manga café.

I recommend Tsukuba’s green curry, especially eaten late at night after a weary day of travel.

Train Phrases:

  • When does the train depart? 電車は何時出発しますか? Densha ha itsu shuppatsu shimasu ka?
  • What track number is the train for XYZ? XYZまでの電車は何番線ですか? XYZ made no densha ha nambansen desu ka?
  • When is the next train for XYZ? 次XYZまでの電車は何時ですか?Tsugi XYZ made no densha ha itsu desu ka?
  • Where is the train for XYZ?  XYZマでの電車はどこですか?XYZ made no densha ha doko desu ka?

 

Writing: 

  • Train. 電車。Densha.
  • Track Number. ~番線。 ~Ban Sen.
  • Train Station. ~駅。~Eki.
  • Arrive. 到着。Touchaku.
  • Depart. 出発。 Shuppatsu.

 

Day Two

What’s so Aristocratic About this Forest, Anyway?


We arrived at our first destination – Shimotsuma in Ibaraki Prefecture of Shimotsuma Monogatari (Kamikaze Girls) movie fame - in the early morning. Having watched the film a great many times, we knew exactly what to expect: A great deal of rice fields, rather too many cow patties, and a single department store.

We set off from the station on foot and found ourselves in a sleepy residential town.

Quoth Daphne, “I sort of thought there’d be more rice paddies just... right here. And a Jusco.”

We soon found ourselves trekking along the highway, tired and cranky, with nothing recognizable in sight.

“Daphne,” said I. “Let us hitchhike.”

“Nay,” said she. “Nay.”

We eventually found the Jusco. It was not unlike a holy experience.

The next stop had been a surprise – another 20 minutes’ track to the ‘Forest of the Aristocrats’ restaurant featured in the film, where we sat eating ice cream Sundays and happily missing our train to see the Ushiku daibutsu nearby.

At last, with aching feet, sweaty clothes, and windswept hair, we wrote Shimotsuma Eki in poor Japanese on the back of my sketchbook and walked along the road, thumbs stuck out in the hopes of finding a helpful stranger. Within ten minutes we were picked up by a lovely woman and deposited back by the station, hitchhiking successful.

That night we missed our very last connecting train to Kyoto, and were stuck in not-quite-Kyoto-but-almost for the night. There were no more trains, and our pre-booked hostel was waiting for us, warm and unreachable.  With sleeping huddled in the cold, empty station looming in our minds as a likely option for the night, we sat down to conserve body heat and tried not to cry, scream, or poo ourselves in front of Japanese late-night commuters.

We were, of course, eventually saved.

There was a manga café nearby.

Phrases for Journeying:

  • Could you please take me to XYZ Train Station? XYZ駅に連れて行って下さいませんか? Watashi wo XYZ eki ni tsurete itte kudasaimasen ka? 
  • I am going to XYZ Train Station. XYZ駅に行きます。 XYZ eki ni ikimasu. 
  • Where is XYZ? XYZはどこですか? XYZ ha doko desu ka? 
  • Is there a manga café nearby? 漫画喫茶は近くですは? Manga kissa ha chikaku desu ka? 
  • Where is a very cheap hostel? とても安いホステルはどこですか?Totemo yasui hosuteru ha doko desu ka?

 

Day Three

On a Downbound Train


Our journey inevitably clashed with that of the everyday Japanese commuter. Tight ponytails and schoolgirl skirts, business suits and ties, worn canes and bags of shopping – whatever the outfit of our fellow companions in the train compartment that day, we clashed.

We ate in public, slept in public, one with a headscarf and the other with a head of increasingly tangled, greasy hair. We tucked ourselves and our packages tight into corners so that we could doze off without bothering those around us, and inevitable curiosity followed us wherever we went.

Daphne helped matters considerably. More than once I woke to find the old ladies across the train giggling silently as my companion snapped a photo of my uncomfortably close, sleeping face.

This is fine. Daphne knows I know that she zonked out and began drooling on those very same seats more than once.

In this manner, we entered Kyoto – the Old Capitol, a city of legendary historical and cultural wealth, and ours to explore for barely the span of a single day.

We found our hostel, available to us for just another few hours as the morning faded into noon. Daphne chose sleep. I chose a shower and shave.

We saw what nearby temples we could and then hopped on the local train to Nara, half an hour away. The helpful folk at the station provided us with a convenient local guidebook and street map, and we found Nara Park with little difficulty after a 15 minute walk.

There are two things to enjoy in Nara Park. One is the many temples and statues, including the massive daibutsu (Big Buddha) in Todai-ji Temple. Massive and bronze, it has been rebuilt more than once after fires many centuries before. At its oldest base, it is over a thousand years old. Having studied the sculpture in university some years before, seeing its beauty right in front of my eyes was difficult to comprehend.

The second thing to see, of course, is the deer.

They roam the semi-enclosed park much like pigeons do city squares, nearly domesticated, close enough to pet, and very happy to receive food. They have a tendency to swarm when you have it, and because deer crackers are sold on every corner, you always have it.

If you do not give them food, they will take it anyway. Do not enter the park holding any paper shopping bags.

The deer were adorable and highly pettable. They became our friends, and I am happy to say that I dealt with them with the utmost composure. This cannot be said for everyone.

(“Help,” shrieks Daphne.

I remain unmoved.

“Help, it’s coming after me."

Serenely, I pet the deer nearest to me.

"Quick,” and now her eyes are a bit wild, “let’s make a run for it.”)

Phrases for Finding Your Destination:  

  • How do you get to XYZ Park? どうやってXYZ公園に行けますか?Douyatte XYZ Kouen ni ikemasu ka?
  • Could you please draw me a map? 地図を描いて下さいませんか?Chizu wo kaite kudasaimasen ka? 
  • Straight ahead. まっすぐ。Massugu.
  • Turn left. 左に曲がる。Hidari ni magaru.
  • Turn right. 右に曲がる。Migi ni magaru.
  • Please don’t eat that. 食べないで下さい。Sore wo tabenai de kudasai.

 

Writing:

  • Nara. 奈良。Nara. 
  • Park. 公園。Kouen. 
  • XYZ Temple. XYZ寺。XYZ ji. 
  • Buddhist Temple. お寺。Otera. 
  • Shinto Shrine. 神社。Jinja. 
  • Kyoto. 京都。Kyoto. 
  • Big Buddha. 大仏。Daibutsu. 
  • Inari Shrine. 稲荷大社。 Inari Taisha.

 

Onward and Upward

The highlight of the day, however, remained Kyoto’s Inari Shrine (Inari Taisha).

This is a Shinto shrine – Japan’s indigenous religion. Dedicated to Inari-sama, the Japanese fox god of rice and the protector of travelers, it is massive and breathtaking. The thousand red gates – made famous in the west by Memoirs of a Geisha – wind up the hillside from the looming entryway below.

We did not make it all the way to the top. We paused briefly to gorge upon delicious udon noodles at one of the many food stops on the way up, and after venturing for a bit further, decided we could be quite proud of ourselves and decided to turn around.

At this precise moment, down from the opposite direction – having clearly climbed all the way to the top and now on her return journey – came an aging Japanese grandmother, leaning on her cane as she came trotting unsteadily back home.

We crept away in shame.

As the day crept to a close, we made our way back to Kyoto station and took one of the many busses leaving from right outside the building. Most of these will take you directly to various famous and historical sites. We chose the bus to Gion, and alighted on a fairly regular shopping street before and browsing while ignoring the yakuza unpiling form the cab next to us.

We turned down a street on a whim, and found ourselves on a cobbled path. Or feet pattered down the narrow lane, the walls of wooden teahouses stretching past us on either side. Tony and traditional, their menus displayed priced far beyond our budget range.

Moving past this, we came quite by accident upon a busfull of tourists unpiling in front of what looked to be a cultural center. After inquiring within, we were informed that there would be a performance of traditional cultural arts that night. The price was just around $25.

We were treated to a show obviously modified from the traditional and placed in a setting meant to accommodate to foreign tourists, rather than local enthusiasts. There was a high stage and rows of folding chairs; there was a narration given at least partly in English.

Despite this,  it was fabulous. We were treated to court music and tea ceremony, koto and possibly biwa. We saw a dance from two maiko, who were available outside afterward for photo-taking.

Tired and fulfilled, we staggered on aching feet back to the station and alighted the night train to Tokyo, falling asleep in our seats on the darkened train and waking in Shinjuku early the next morning.

Day Four

Tokyo, Your Stars Shine Bright


We woke up in Tokyo.

This was our last stop on our journey together; that afternoon Daphne would be flying to England, and I would not see her again for more than two years.

We went to Harajuku.

A hop away from Tokyo on the local train, one exits the station and crosses to the opposite market street. It is bustling with shoppers, food vendors, music, and clothing stores bursting with frilly, punky clothes. 

We found the store Baby the Stars Shine Bright. We bought frilly petticoats and fake tails, strawberry crepes and local noodles. We passed girls in Lolita dresses and boys with long hair and makeup. People passed in a swirl of thick soled boots and colorful wigs, hunched in the crisp wintery air.

And then Daphne was gone.

The end of the adventure was my own.  

Phrases for Shopping:

  • I would like this please. これを下さい。Kore wo kudasai. 
  • How much is it? いくらですか? Ikura desu ka? 
  • Do you have a (larger/smaller) one? もう少し(大きい/小さい)のがありますか?Mou sukoshi (ookii/chiisai) no ga arimasu ka?

 

Writing:

  • Harajuku. 原宿。Harajuku.
  • Shibuya. 渋谷。Shibuya.
  • Tokyo. 東京。Toukyou.

 

Intermission

Blue, Blue Christmas


I spent Christmas in Tokyo with friends, staying at a friend’s apartment and wandering the Christmas marketplace at Asakusa. Rickshaws (jinrikusha) passed, the drivers dressed in santa outfits.

That evening, there was Turkish food and belly dancing.

I missed Daphne.

Day Five

There’s No Telling Where You Might Be Swept Off To

 

I ended my journey somewhat abruptly, deadlines fast approaching and the holidays drawing to a close.

I had exactly one full day to reach Akita from Tokyo. It was snowing heavily in the north, trains were delayed, and station attendants assured me that it was entirely impossible to achieve my goal.

And yet the will of a student with limited time and even more limited funds is quite strong; I searched train schedules for myself, and saw a clear series of connecting trains that would lead me up north.

“It is impossible,” the station repeated gravely.

I asked them to tell me how to get to the station nearest to my destination, even if I could not reach it, and after a few missed trains and false starts, they bid me adieu as I went into the night and what I’m sure they thought was my certain death.

I was twenty years old, alone on trains for ten hours in the dark and the snow, and attempting to reach Point D after being assured that the closest I could make it was Point C.

It should have been terrifying. What I felt instead was the joy of self-reliance and unsupervised exploration.

I had been correct. There was a connecting train, none of the lines were delayed, and I was home before midnight.

Moral of the Story:

  • If your (thorough, informed) research tells you that something can be done and the authorities assure you it can’t, take a chance and trust your own instincts. 
  • Travel, even if you must do so penniless. 
  • Travel, even if you spend your journey with sweaty skin, tangled hair, and aching feet. 
  • Travel Japan.

 

Media


Soundtrack:

  •  ‘Kamikaze Girls’ (Soundtrack). 下妻物語。Shimotsuma Monogatari. 
  • ‘Bulletproof Heart’ by My Chemical Romance. 
  • ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ (Soundtrack) by John Williams. 
  • ‘Watch You Sleeping’ by Blue Foundation. 
  • ‘Faithfully’ by Journey.

 

Movies:

  • Kamikaze Girls. 下妻物語。Shimotsuma Monogatari.
  • Thelma and Louise.
  • Life on Mars (TV).

 

How to Have Fun When Everything is Going Wrong

I've done a wee bit of traveling by now.  My travels are always on a shoestring and often with a female friend, but sometimes I take shorter trips solo.

The one piece of wisdom I have managed to thus far accrue is: Eventually Something Will Go Wrong. It's an inescapable fact. The only thing we can decide is how to react when it happens.

And so I have settled upon five rules for myself (and anyone who finds wisdom in them).

Rule #1) Everything is an adventure.

Really. Sort of like when you were five years old and the bathtub was an ocean and your duckie was the Loch Ness Monster. 

Have to walk a few miles? You're Frodo Baggins going up Mount Doom.  Stranded? You're Kara Thrace on Kobol, or the Doctor without his TARDIS. Bad food? You're Harry Potter trying to eat Hagrid's rock cakes.  Sleeping rough? Maybe you're Jason Bourne, maybe you're Xena.  Run out of money? You're the Princess living as a pauper. Or Eugenides as the Queen's Thief, if you are a person of particularly shaky moral standing.

The Domain of Moo does not condone illegal action and claims no responsibility for your larceny.  Sorry about your life.

Rule #2) Be in a good mood.

Enthusiasm is key. Enthusiasm for anything. Enthusiasm for airplanes, enthusiasm for different languages, enthusiasm for bugs in your food.  You need a glass-half-full perspective, and an eagerness to have experiences. Laugh in incredulity at good things and bad things.

Be willing to fly by the seat of your pants, and excited to discover if you can weather the things life throws at you. It's an enthralling experiment. And remember, if you don't laugh, you will definitely cry.

Rule #3) Be prepared for it all to go sideways.

Make plans. Do. Research, write down, double-check, pack extra underpants. 

But sometimes, you get lost. Sometimes, bus schedules are wrong. Sometimes, your ATM card stops working.

If you are prepared for this, then when it's late at night in the freezing cold and no one speaks English and you just missed the last train - the train that lead to your pre-paid hotel at the next stop on your very tight schedule - if you are prepared for this, then maybe you won't wail and cry and poo yourself in front of startled Japanese commuters.

Rule #4) If you're not traveling solo, make sure you have an awesome friend.

You can sleep on each other during long trips, for one thing.  You can keep each others' spirits up, and talk and sing and dance and take stupid photos. 

However, if you are in fact traveling solo, you can also do these things with yourself and/or your travel bag. If people stare, don't worry. (If the travel bag starts talking back, possibly worry.)

Rule #5)  Take comfort in small things.

Like chocolate, for example. Cute animals. Blue skies. Unexpected flowers in the rain.

The Domain of Moo does not condone underage drinking and claims no responsibility for your angry parents.  Don't be a twat.