I recently returned from a 12 day tip to India, driving from Delhi up the remote high-altitude desert called the Spiti Valley which adjoins Tibet.  Here’s a short video I made and some photos: if you’d like to replicate it, Ashkay Kumar at Mercury Himalayan Explorations is your man.

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All photos are copyright Will Hide 2015, and can not be copied without my permission

The post on this blog that has got the largest number of views so far was one in 2012 from Nick Pulley, owner of tour operator Selective Asia. It talked about travelling to Burma (Myanmar) at a time the country was opening up after years of military rule: should you go now….or wait….or had you missed the boat already?

Now, three years later, I thought it was time for a follow up, so I asked Nick, who is a frequent traveller to Burma, what are his impressions now.

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Nick, it’s been three years since you gave us your tips on travelling in Myanmar, just as things were opening up there. How have things changed in those three years from a travel perspective?

It’s been a strange blend of what we expected and way beyond our imagination! It’s fair to say that things are vastly improved politically and overall the country’s democratic leadership are making great strides to a far more acceptable level of governance, however the recent news coverage of the displacement of Rohingya ethnic minority is not an isolated incident and much more needs to be done by the world community to stop these sorts of appalling breaches human rights situations. Unfortunately in the case of the Rohingya people, the government’s position is widely supported by the people of Myanmar, especially strange considering the majority of the country is Buddhist, a religion which is taught to respect all human life. Myanmar is still very much a work in progress and it is far from fixed, but we shouldn’t forget how bad things were just a few years ago.

On a tourist level, there has been a huge amount of development, and fortunately much has been handled with a reasonable amount of care for communities’ welfare. One area that has seemingly not advanced at all is any sort of real focus on wildlife and animal or bird-life. Tourists can still gain only very limited access to Myanmar’s great outdoors.

Copyright Nick Pulley @ Selective Asia

There was very much a general feeling in the media then of “you have to go now, it’s going to get spoiled”. Has that been borne out?

The ‘beat everyone else at the dinner party to Myanmar’ effect! Initially yes, the demand three years ago was quite phenomenal. Aung San Su Kyi announced that it should now be considered a positive thing for independent tourists to visit Myanmar ( ‘independent’ being selectively ignored by those operating group tours!) and the doors blew wide open. Initially demand vastly outstripped bed numbers and a lot of people were left disappointed. Things calmed down relatively quickly in tandem with an increase in the number of hotel beds. What’s most enjoyable now is that clients are paying far greater attention to their itineraries and becoming more adventurous. Initially the feeling was simply ‘get me to Burma, I don’t really care how or where!’

© Minyun9260 | Dreamstime.com - YANGON, MYANMAR Photo

How have prices changed? I assume it’s still good value?

Unfortunately not, we have had 3 years of 30-45 per cent price increases year on year. I can, however, understand that hoteliers are cashing in after so many years of tourist drought and I would say that as a country Myanmar still offers exceptional value for money as the ‘product’, namely Myanmar itself, is such a unique and wonderful travel experience.

This coming year the increases are far smaller which we expected: the same thing happened in Vietnam eight years ago. The hoteliers find their sweet spot and things calm down.

Copyright Nick Pulley @ Selective Asia

Any spots that have gone off your must-do list in the last few years?

Mandalay was the first to fall. People expected to discover Kipling’s Mandalay and they soon discovered something resembling a typically new Chinese city, somewhat devoid of character and culture. Those that stay longer however soon warm to the charm of Sagaing, and nearby Mingun, Monywa and Pyin Oo Lyin are utterly charming.

Copyright Nick Pulley @ Selective Asia

And any places and activities that have appeared?

Mawlawyine is exceptional and further south at the tip of the Mergui Archipelago, Kawthaung which is the gateway to cruises in what is one of SE Asia’s least touched regions. I was lucky enough to sail there for five days just last year. Really mesmerising. Chin State in the north has also opened up which is a welcome addition to any adventure travellers itinerary.

What are your favourite new hotels and restaurants there from your most recent travels?

I like the older ones more, Red Canal in Mandalay is among my favourites. Of the new fold, the Hpa An Lodge in Hpa An is a delight, as is the Hsipaw Lodge in Hsipaw.

Copyright Nick Pulley @ Selective Asia

What would be your ideal 7-day itinerary there now, if that’s different to four years ago?

There is no singular answer to this as the itinerary would very much depend on a client and their preferences. We have made a lot of more finite changes over the past few years, not just added/removed destinations. In Yangon for examples we try and avoid using a vehicle as much as possible due to the slow-moving traffic. Since the cost of used cars plummeted, the roads have become very hard going for much of the day, therefore we focus tours on specific areas of the city such as the Sule Pagoda and Colonial district, or Little India and Downtown; it makes for far less time stuck in traffic.

Any general tips for travelling in Myanmar these days?

Whilst the country and people have opened up immensely in recent years, still tread carefully and consider any politically-weighted questions before asking them. You never know who may be listening or who you could get in trouble. Situations such as the government’s recent return to the spotlight due to the Rohingya people’s troubles, and the upcoming elections, can lead to a shift in policy.

Copyright Nick Pulley @ Selective Asia

All photos, except top and third from top, are copyright of Selective Asia and can not be copied or reproduced in any way without the express written permission of the company.

Credit for third photo from top (Yangon traffic) = © Minyun9260 | Dreamstime.comYANGON, MYANMAR Photo

I met James Mundy last year at a dinner in London, and it was clear straight away that he’s a mine of information about all things Japan. So, having been there myself recently, I thought I’d pick his brains on travelling in the country if you’re thinking of going.

James, Japan still has a lingering reputation as being expensive but with the weak Yen, I didn’t find that to be the case at all. Where do you think you can get the best value?

The ‘expensive’ tag  is outdated. It really was pricey back in the ‘bubble period’ during the 80’s but now (with the weak Yen) value for money is plain to see when travelling around, especially eating and shopping. People from the UK (and the US) will be pleasantly surprised to discover that Japan is generally cheaper than their home country.

Most people will notice it mainly when eating out. Food and drink is often one of the big spends when on holiday. With so much choice in Japan, especially in the big cities, eating out is not expensive and it is generally delicious. Conveyor belt sushi sells plates of the stuff for about £0.70 per plate – beat that Yo!Sushi (Try Kappa chain). Ramen shops sell huge bowls of noodles and broth for about £3 – beat that Wagamama.  (In Tokyo look out for branches of Hidakaya).

There our countless convenience stores selling good snack food with bento boxes selling from around £2.50.

For those that want to eat the best food that they will ever try, head to one of Tokyo’s Michelin star restaurants at lunch time for a set menu at half the price. For example in Shinjuku, try Nakajima that has dishes for around 800yen (about £4.50) before 2pm.

Make your way to a traditional Izakaya (Japanese pub) for good food and drink and look out for the tabi/nomihodai options (eat and drink as much as you like) which cost from around £17pp for 2 hours of gorging on the good stuff. Not only is Japan’s food generally of a better quality, it is generally a lot cheaper than it is at home. Try Zawatami.

Of course there are also discounts to be had on all the electronics that can be found at the department stores of Akihabara and Shinjuku in Tokyo <On my trip in March this year, an Apple iPad was like-for-like £110 cheaper than the same one in London: carry your passport because if you can show you’re just on holiday, they’ll knock off the 8% sales tax – WH>. You can also find all sorts of random gadgets at shops in Japan – priceless. One of our favorite places is the teccy-heaven of Yodabashi camera with multiple floors full of gadgets not far from Shinjuku’s West exit.

Tokyo

Tokyo

What are your “must do’s” in Tokyo, and perhaps some more quirky things that should be on your list?

1. Go to Tsukiji fish market in the morning (while you still can – it’s being redeveloped) and enjoy the best sushi brekkie you’ll ever have. Don’t bother going along for 4am. Go at 9am and stroll around the outer markets full of all sorts of beasts from the sea.

2. Stroll the serenity of the 17th century Hamarikyu Gardens and into the Shiodome district with its sleek modern architecture – a taste of modern and traditional Tokyo.

3. Head to Shibuya at dusk and watch Bladerunner appear before your eyes as you exit the station at the Hachiko exit of the station.

4. Make your way to an izakaya (a traditional  Japanese pub) for a drink and a spot to eat, more often than not ending up drinking with salarymen wanting to test their English out after a few drinks. There are plenty of izakaya all over Tokyo, but try Ueno, Yurakucho or Shinjuku’s ramshackle Golden Gai distrcit for a fun night.

5. Depending on what sort of thing floats your boat, head to a themed café of some sort. You might like to head to a Shinjuku cat café or a rabbit café to stroke a pet, or a maid café in Akihabara. Maybe even an owl café to drink with birds or perhaps have your senses blown at the Robot Restaurant with its semi-clad girls, music, machinery and lights. All a bit different.

…and if it’s a Sunday, head to Harajuku, admire kids in their alternative fashions, wonder around Meiji Jingu Shrine and people watch in Yoyogi Park with dancing rockerbilly, dance acts, Taiko drummers, martial arts groups, comedians, local bands and more – a great day out in one place.

Shinjuku, Tokyo

Shinjuku, Tokyo

If it was someone’s first time to Japan, what would be your ideal week-long itinerary?

If you only had 7 days in Japan, then you could spend the whole lot in Tokyo. If this was your only chance though, you should head to Kyoto as the cultural capital and why not give a go at staying at a traditional ryokan (inn) too en route and the hot spring resort of Hakone, close to Mt Fuji.

Arrive into Tokyo –  Tokyo – Tokyo – Hakone (1 night in Ryokan) –  Kyoto-Kyoto- leave Osaka

These are the “classic” must visit destinations in Japan, but for good reasons.

And what are some of your favourite off-the-beaten-path spots in Japan?

Here are five places to start with –

NaoshimaAka ‘Art Island’ sat in the Seto Inland sea between mainland Honshu and Shikoku island, this laid back rural island enjoys everything that is great about Japan: traditional rural community, rice fields, lovely beaches and impressive architecture combined with very cool art installations. Spend a day cycling around this small laid back island for best results.

Kinosaki Onsen – A small hot spring town about 2 hours from Kyoto sits between the mountains and the Japan Sea Coast. Stay in a ryokan, don traditional yukatta (robe – wrap it left side over right, as the opposite is only done for the dead) and join the locals walking from hot spring bath to hot spring bath stopping en route to enjoy a cold beer or hot bowl of ramen noodles from one of the local vendors.

NagasakiAn underrated city known for its recent history, but with so much more to offer. This city was the only place open to the western world for a couple of hundred years back in the days of the Tokugawa Shogun and as such has obvious influences from China and Europe combined with traditional Japan. The city sits in a natural harbour and there are great views from the top of the city’s favourite mountain, Inasa yama.

Mt KoyaOne of Japan’s most sacred spots, Mt Koya sits on the Kii Peninsula and is home to Shingon Buddhism. Stay in a temple lodging in this atmospheric town 800 metres above sea level, feast on Shingon style cooking – completely vegan and tastier than it sounds – and wake up with the monks for morning prayers and fire ceremonies. Walk through Okuno-in cemetery, which has memorials to all of Japan’s great historical figures and where Kobo Daishi (the founding father 1,200yrs ago) still sits in a state of meditation.

Ishigaki  – A taste of subtropical Japan, about a 1000 miles south of Tokyo in the Yaeyama island chain. This island is full of palm trees, mangroves, mountains, white sand beaches and great diving. The waters are home to an array of coral and marine life including giant manta rays. The island is also gateway to smaller islands such as the jungle island of Iriomote with a huge variety of wildlife and great trekking.

Kyoto

Kyoto

Some people are put off by the language barriers – do you think that’s a valid point?

I think a lot of people to feel a bit uncomfortable about heading to Japan because of the lack of English spoken, or their own lack of Japanese ability, but they really shouldn’t use this as an excuse.

The Japanese are generally very friendly and will usually assume that as a foreigner that you will not be able to speak Japanese. Trying a phew simple words such as konnichiwa (hello) and arigato (thank you) will go along way.

A willingness to respect the culture, a smile and a bit of body language will usually warm people to you and the odd cultural faux pas will be ignored. People are keen to try and speak English to you but are often shy (not to be confused with rude). People will go out of their way to help you and many foreigners come back with tales of kind Japanese folk that went out of their way to help them. Being in a completely different culture and country, it is all part of the experience and one that should not make you feel alienated.

There are more and more English signs these days, especially in the big cities, but the for me (and with the right guidance from a specialist tour operator) the lack of English can add to the ambience and the adventure.

Sara Pretelli - step by step project

I found eating out to be a bit daunting in Japan, largely because of language – any tips? And some favourite spots?

Many restaurants/cafes in the cities will have plastic models of meals which are easy to point to and some places will have an English menu, although you should never expect to receive this. There are some basic Japanese phrases in Japan that will help you when eating out.

The easiest way to order is to use kudasai, which simply means “please”.

So if you want a hamburger, try hamburger kudasai

Not sure what to order?

What do you recommend? O-susume wa nan desu ka?

おすすめは何ですか

Are you a vegetarian?

I am a vegetarian              watashi wa bejitarian desu

私はベジタリアンです

Without meat please    niku nuki de kudasai

肉 ぬきで下さい

I don’t eat meat or fish  watashi wa niku to sakana ga taberaremasen

肉と魚が食べられません

“Gochi-so-sama-deshita”  ごちそうさまでした. This literally means “thank you, it was a real feast.” Say this to staff as you leave and their eyes will light up!

One of my favourite experiences in Japan is to head to an izakaya (Japanese pub) and enjoy a night out rubbing shoulders with salarymen (office workers) letting their hair down after work – always an interesting night.

An Izakaya will serve a wide selection of foods both Japanese and non-Japanese and of course a wide selection of alcoholic beverages. Not really the place for an intimate night out but great for a crowd. The key Japanese phrase necessary for such an establishment is “Nama bi-ru onegai shimasu” give it a try and see what you get! Kanpai! = ‘cheers’ is another good word to use in these establishments.

The food at izakaya style restaurants tends to come in small snack-like portions and the key to ordering is to get a selection and share them. Most izakaya restaurants are fairly cheap. On the street, you can identify an Izakaya by the red lantern hanging outside.

…And there is no tipping in Japan!

Robot Restaurant, Tokyo

Robot Restaurant, Tokyo

Sometimes the Japanese can be a bit…..different. What are some of your favourite examples of “quirky Japan”

There are many ‘quirky’ aspects of Japanese culture.

The liberal attitudes to sex in Japan often surprise people. There are red-light districts in most towns and cities across Japan and they are accepted as a normal part of society. I guess that this could also be linked to the love hotels where lovers are able to pay for what are often themed rooms by the hour to do what lovers do. Love hotels are quite discreet but essential for couples who often don’t leave the family home (with paper thin walls) until marriage.

I suppose its not a great surprise when the Japanese religion of Shintoism celebrates  fertility festivals where huge phallus are paraded through the streets…

There are all sorts of themed cafes. The most famous of which are cat cafes which came about as many Tokyo-ites just don’t have the space for pets, nor the time to look after them. Most people have heard of the Cat café these days, but there are all sorts of offshoots. One of the most interesting is an owl café where you can enjoy a coffee and have an owl sit on your shoulder.

There are many more interestingly themed restaurants.  The Robot Restaurant is one which is lesss of a restaurant and more of attack on all senses with strobes, robots, ultra-violet tanks and semi clad women.

Maid cafes are another quirky cultural highlight. In fact it grew out the Otaku sub-culture with women dressed as French maids, School girls and manga cartoon characters. Tokyo’s Akihabara is the home of the Otaku culture and there are plenty of maid cafes.

There are countless cultural differences that may be considered a bit odd: waiting at traffic lights for the green man when there is absolutely no sign of traffic. Stepping out of your shoes into slippers when entering a ryokan or restaurant and then toilet slippers when needing to spend a penny. There are also vending machines everywhere and all untainted by vandalism – even the alcohol vending machines….and yes, in some of the red light districts there are some dodgy vending machines, but you don’t see them too often. Japan is just a very different place to anywhere else in the world and that’s why we love it.

Koya

Koya

Thanks for chatting James – more information on visiting Japan through the Inside Japan website.

All photos provided by Inside Japan – please don’t copy & use without asking them

(C) Will Hide May 2015