A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: TessAndRach

The sparkle and glitz of Singapore

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We’d had to leave Indonesia on a Wednesday, since our visa was expiring, and we needed to be in Singapore for the weekend to spend time with our friend Ben who lives and works there, but we were concerned about spending too many days in a place as expensive as Sing. So we flew into Johor Bahru in Malaysia, less than half an hour’s bus ride from Singapore, and to save a bit of money we spent two nights in a hotel there. For the same price as two bunk beds in a dorm in Sing, we got a massive room, a gym and pool and had cable tv so we could watch a bit of the Commonwealth Games. Since there’s not too much to see in JB we just enjoyed having the facilities and popped out only for cheap food nearby. We were then good and relaxed for Singapore on Friday afternoon.

Ben came to find us at our hostel in Singapore after he finished work on Friday, we were drinking beer on the balcony (Brits Abroad!). He then took us out for yummy food in Chinatown near where we were staying followed by drinks with several of his ex-pat buddies from his Dragon Boat club. Our first impressions of Singapore were that it was rather like we’d expected and that we really liked it. Parts of it reminded us very much of the good bits of London, (this was probably emphasised because we went to a London Pub on the river bank and spoke mostly to British people on the first night) though of course hotter and also tidier - Singapore is impeccably clean. The prices are like London too but we’d decided to just forget about our budget for the weekend, we wanted to enjoy our brief time there with Ben.

The following day we’d been invited by the Dragon Boat club to go to their training spot and have a go at Dragon Boat racing. This seemed like a great idea and very Singaporean! So we went with Ben to the quayside, donned some floating vests, had a quick land demonstration of how to hold the paddle and learned what certain commands shouted by the boat captain mean. And then off we went. There were 14 paddlers in the boat, sat in twos. We spend a good hour learning the drills and then practicing sets of 1-3 minute paddling. It was really quite hard, especially on the back muscles, but got more fun as we went on. We then split up the people between our ‘beginner’ boat with the more experienced team members’ boat to even things out and had a 250m race. Tess was very pleased that the team she and Ben were on won, (and beat Rachel’s ho ho!)

After a good 3 hours on the water, we had a couple of well-deserved beers on the quayside together with getting to know the crews a bit more. Then we all popped back to Ben’s place to get showered and into dry clothes (Dragon Boat racing is a very soggy affair) and we tarted ourselves up (well, a bit) for a night out. That night dinner was in a shopping mall food court, but it was far from the fast food crap that you get in such places back home, Singapore loves food and does it very well. We had ‘hot pot’, not like Betty’s from Corrie, but in this place you select your fresh ingredients and hand to the chef who serves it cooked up with delicious mix of spices and extras in a massive bowl with portions of rice on the side. It was yummy indeed.

From there we went out to meet Ben’s cousin (who also lives in Sing) and her friend in an area that again reminded us of bits on London, before we were taken out to a very grand looking bar (looks kind of NYC early 20th Century, but in fact is only a few years old) it has a massive wine rack going right up from behind the bar to the high ceiling. After a while we realised why Ben had insisted on sitting with his back to the bar, it was so we’d have a surprise when we saw how they get to said wine. A lady (in a short skirt may we add) dons a harness and remote control and zooms up there, moving around with her controls to get the exact spots she needs to, it was like a glamorous Peter Pan panto scene. As if we had not had entertainment and delights enough that evening, we then went off to the Arab Quarter where we shared a shisha pipe in front of a very attractive, gold domed mosque. A very full day and evening!

We had a bit of a relax the next morning as Ben invited us round to his shared apartment to use the gym and pool facilities for a while, (so we could pretend we lived in Singapore and were just enjoying the weekend!) After that he took us for lunch in a great ‘real food’ café close to his road then the two of us left him in peace a while to go visit the Botanical Gardens. These were very beautiful, with a really good orchid garden and a big open area around a lake on which was a stage with a Chinese orchestra was playing some very soothing music, though they were just sound-checking for the evening’s performance so we were lucky to get to enjoy a bit. We then had to dash back to Ben’s as we had agreed to pick him up as he wanted to take us to visit the “Gardens by the Bay” and “Marina Bay Sands” at particular times of day, he was a man with a plan….

What an afternoon and evening it was though, this whole area was really worth spending a few hours in. We first saw Gardens by the Bay, where we did the short canopy walk, giving views down to the gardens and around, this was very cool. Afterwards we walked around the main shopping mall at Marina Bay Sands, as soon as we entered it was very unlike regular malls, it certainly ain’t the Arndale. There is a (albeit short) river running through it with gondolas giving people rides. All of the shops are pretty quality (or rather totally ‘blingy’), the likes of Chanel, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Versace, Cartier, Tiffany & Co…. needless to say we didn’t do any shopping!

Not long after sunset, Ben hurried us to the waterfront where we watched the nightly ‘sound & light show’, which was not at all as naff as it may sound and was actually very enjoyable, especially given the setting with the lights of some of the city’s tallest skyscapers in the financial district in the background. After this, (via a minor interlude where Ben went on a half hour hunt for vegan chocolate because he had a craving), we got the lift to the very top of the Marina Bay Sands where we treated ourselves to an expensive cocktail to drink as we looked out to the views over Singapore from there, it was really quite amazing. After that we shared a cab back to Ben’s apartment to pick up some things we’d left strewn around the place then we all went for a final farewell glass of Prosecco (or 3) at a very reasonably priced wine bar close to him.

And that was that really, we said our goodbyes and next morning the two of us got a bus back over the border to JB and then another onto Malacca. So that leaves two final weeks on the Malaysian Peninsular, which will be the final blog of our travels, coming soon…

Posted by TessAndRach 15:48 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

All at sea - Indonesia Part 2

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Ooops, realise we have been a bit slow with the blog recently, right, better catch up before we go home. So we left off on the island of Flores, Indonesia:

Having spent a couple of days in Labuan Bajo before our boat trip to Lombok set sail, we’d seen a number of beautiful sail ships in the port hoping that one of those would be the one we were to spend three days and nights on. As we were walked down the jetty however on the morning we set off we were not too surprised to find that ours was in fact a small converted fishing boat with a mezzanine that was just a height you could crawl across, every inch filled with narrow mattresses, this was where we would spend 3 days and nights at sea…

The group was a good mix of people, so we decided it was going to be fun, if a little ‘cosy’. The first day, we did some snorkelling from the boat then first stop proper was Rinca Island where, at the end of an hour and a half very hot walk, saw we saw Komodo dragons - right back where we’d started, having seen none out on the trails. It was cool to see them, we did all move well out of the way as a large male came bounding by, they are massive. Even though they’re named for Komodo, the island next door, we had heard it was better to see them on Rinca as it is a nicer island and less touristy, so we are glad we had opportunity. After this was more sailing and more snorkelling around the bay, then on this first night we stayed up so that we could take a small boat over to Komodo Island village and watch the World Cup final with the locals, kick-off 3am! Since there were two Swiss-German girls with us wearing Germany shirts, everyone that went over decided to cheer for Germany, despite being mostly Spanish and Dutch.

Since the KO was so late/early we were only back onboard at sunrise, so then it was time to get off to sleep. This meant those of us that had gone to see the match missed a walking tour of Komodo Island, but since it was starting to rain and we saw the key sight, the Dragons, the day before anyway, we weren’t too fussed about this, sleep was far more desirable. We were woken up at lunchtime at ‘Manta Ray Point’, and quickly woke ourselves right up by diving into the clear blue waters, swimming with Manta Rays was amazing - they are majestic creatures. There was another great snorkelling point before sunset then off we set to the open sea (away from the protection of the islands in the bay), we would be sailing through the night. As soon as we were out in the open, away from the shelter of the islands, the sea got pretty rough and especially in our teeny boat, it was a rock and roll of a ride. Before too long Tess had turned decidedly green and without her having to say a word she was handed sea-sickness pills by the captain and instructed to hold on to a post and look out to the horizon.

A rough night at sea followed, with a couple of other unfortunate souls joining Tess in the green-brigade. It was a strange night trying to sleep on our tiny mattresses with the boat rolling so much we struggled to stay on our own spot! Next morning we found ourselves in calmer waters where we had a couple of stop offs at small islands off the large island of Sumbawa, the first with a saltwater lake then one with a freshwater stream and falls, everyone thus having their first shower in 3 days! Another rough afternoon followed as we sailed towards Lombok, Tess spent more time hugging her post and looking out longingly to the looming volcano on Lombok, pinpointing our destination.

After 3 nights and days at sea, we finally parted ways with our boat-buddies at Lombok, then we got a quick crossing to the tiny island of Gili Trawangan where we spent three days having a nice holiday from actually travelling, where we caught up on sleep, had lovely swimming and snorkelling, enjoyed a few beers and sunning ourselves. From there it was back to Bali, couple of days at fishing village of Padang Bai, the port for Lombok and the Gilis.

Then we made a stop off at Tulamben, a small village on the road that we were planning to take around to the north of Bali, after a recommendation from a friend that there were really good dive sites there. Here we did our first ever shore-dive (i.e. walking into the sea in SCUBA gear rather than heading out on a boat and diving into the deeper water), there is a wreck just 30 m from the beach and we saw some amazing sights including bump-headed parrotfish, which look like something from another world. The diving was excellent here, one of our favourites so we were glad we’d added it to the itinerary.

We then made out way around to Lovina, the largest tourist resort on Bali away from the busy South coast, but actually quite peaceful. We found a really good place to stay with amazing gardens and a lovely pool which was a nice treat. We had a couple of days here relaxing then it was a bumpy but not too long local bus journey to the ‘end’ of Bali and the ferry just across a short straight on to Java.

Probolingo, on Java, was our next stop but our reason for heading there was to visit the smoking Bromo volcano. As it was we missed out Bromo due to a series of things that annoyed us in trying to get there (basically more men calling themselves travel agents lying to us, after a very long wait and no progress once the bus touts realised we weren’t going to buy package tours with them we were going nowhere, everyone was being a pain in the arse), so eventually we sacked it off and got a local bus 2 hours down the road to the city of Surabaya, from where we would try to get a train to Yogyakarta (instead of another 12 hour bus journey).

Despite being told by a number of people (touts, really) that it would not be possible to get a bus as it was the end of Ramadan, we got one no problem and it was not full, in fact there was barely anyone on it! (More lies to get us to buy expensive private journeys!) So we went straight on to Surabaya and headed to a train station, where we were in luck. We could take a train the next day to Yogyakarta, although we had to buy fairly expensive executive tickets as economy was sold out, but still since this was another thing we’d been told would be ‘impossible’ because of the imminent Idul Fitri festival, we were happy to have it sorted. Surabaya turned out to be a pretty good city, not much in the way of tourist attractions but very green, tidy and organised with wide, leafy boulevards. It has a fascinating Arab quarter and lots of delicious, cheap street food. There is a pleasant riverside with an old navy Submarine that visitors can go inside, plus lots of shopping malls, which are good to get off the hot streets for a blast of air-con if nothing else.

Our last stop in Indonesia was the historical city of Yogyakarta (pronounced Jog-Jakarta, or Jogja), we initially planned to go right up to the top of Java and onto Sumatra where we could take a ferry over to Singapore, but having ventured down to explore Flores and spent our time travelling back, we pretty much ran out of time so booked a flight from Jogja to Johor Bahru in Malaysia, just over the border from Singapore (but a lot cheaper to fly in to!).

Hotels in Jogja were pretty full and ew trudged around a little longer than usual to find a room, the place we eventually settled on was a simple but nice and clean family-run place, but possibly the loudest room of our entire trip. It felt like the mosque speakers were in our room. While these are generally used to announce the 5 daily prayer times, which is quite a pleasant, atmospheric sound, due to this very evening being the end of Ramadan and the start of Idul Fitri celebrations, this was not the usual affair. Oh no; this was monotonous loud, painfully out of tune wailing that was repeated over and over, for hours! But it was a great, if slightly deafening, experience to be so close to the festivities nonetheless. (It was much better after the first night however!).

Next morning, looking forward to seeing the old town (called the Kraton) and Sultan’s Palace we set off to go and have a look, but this being Idul Fitri, everything was closed. From street stalls, to shops, to tourist destinations, everything was shut up and everyone was visiting family and friends and eating lots of food, (it is the Muslim version of Christmas basically). But we hadn’t expected it since all the hotels were full and there had been lots of foreign tourists the previous evening – where had everyone gone then if everything was shut up??

As it was we just wandered around the slightly quiet streets, which were very pleasant actually and we stumbled upon a large square with two banyan trees in the centre. We saw a few people in blindfolds walking in funny manner, arms outstretched in front of them and realised it was some sort of game. It turned out that the object of this pastime was to walk about 100m blindfolded and to end up in between to two trees. Rach had a go and was very good (the trick is to just walk fast, and not think about it), ending up just short but in front of the two trees. Tess had a go and ended up at the opposite side of the very large square! Ah it was a fun way to pass 20 minutes anyway!

The following day we had a very early get up (4am) to go to the famous Borodopur Buddhist Temple, probably one of the most famous and stunning sights in Indonesia. From here you can see views of volcanic mountains, covered by low lying clouds. This misty atmosphere makes the place really special and despite all the amazing temples we have seen already on our travels, this was still breath-taking. As part of the same trip we also visited the Prambanan Hindu Temple Complex, which was also worth a gander, however it was midday by this point and really quite hot in the sun so we didn’t linger at the temples too long. Within the complex though we did have a tasty lunch to pass the time til we had to return at 1pm to the car park. We got there to discover that that this bus had left without us! We a touch irritated since we had paid for the return bus and it had left early, without us on board, but, being seasoned travellers by now, we foud our way to the regular bus stop and paid (only a few pence) for the bus 15km into Jogja.

As soon as we got off the bus, a couple of guys from our trip saw us and confirmed to us that indeed the bus we were meant to catch had left early, instead of at the pre-arranged time of 1pm. They said they had noticed that two seats were empty, but no one had bothered to tell the driver to wait a few minutes! So, as annoyed as we were at the time, we did eventually laugh about it….of our 10 months in Asia so far, almost no form of transport had left on time. And yet this one left early! Grrrrrr.

Next day was our last few hours in Indonesia, we had our last lunch of Indonesian specialities then got a bus the short distance to the airport and off we set to Singapore (via JB in Malaysia, but only for cheapness!)

Posted by TessAndRach 06:56 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Into Indonesia – Bali to Flores

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Bali is best known (at least in the UK) as beach holiday resort for sun-tanned, surfing Aussies, which holds true given the number of long-haired, tanned Aussies with surfboards we saw at the airport. However, this really only describes the southern beaches of Bali, we didn’t visit those parts, instead seeking experiences different from what we’ve had elsewhere (and we have done laid-back partying by the beach already, both in Thailand and the Philippines). Instead we headed to Ubud, known as the cultural heart of Bali. It is a spiritual town set amidst gorgeous green surroundings and has for a long time now been home to artists of various types. It is therefore filled with temples, art-galleries, craft shops, music and dance performances, plus a swathe of yoga retreats, health-food shops, cafes and the like.

Arriving in Bali late-ish we spoke to a few unofficial ‘taxi’ drivers (i.e. guys with cars who will drive you around for a negotiable fee) in the airport and managed to agree a reasonable price with driver who lives near Ubud anyway, after the official pre-pay taxi stand in airport quoted us almost double the listed price for the area (apparently we were going to the ‘other side’ of Ubud, further than the listed fee takes you, but we knew it was only around the corner from the centre!) Other than the annoyance with the taxi stand though we were soon v happy with Bali, even in the dark the drive was lovely with many beautiful buildings, temples and impressive statues on roundabouts.

We’d booked a place to stay since we were arriving late, and were again pleased with our Bali experience thus far. The bungalows we had booked into were set back from the road amidst a family home with lovely gardens, statues, ponds (plus many frogs and a nightly froggy chorus, ace!) and a v clean and pretty swimming pool. We happier still the next morning when we had our (included) breakfast, it was delicious, including a choice of 9 or so ‘main’ dishes from local spicy ‘porridge’ with egg and chilli, to sweet black rice pudding to a really well made eggs Florentine, along with fresh squeezed juices and delish Indonesian coffee, good stuff. Compared to Borneo where we just came from this was amazing value, it is probably the best value room we have had in our entire travels (along with Charming Hotel in Hanoi to be fair, this one is called Gurung Merta Bungalows, if anyone is going to Ubud).

Morning one we woke up to unexpected weather, grey skies and drizzle, for hours, we could be in Manchester! This went on for 3 days, this in what is supposed to be dry season in these parts (having left the southwest monsoon behind, further north in the Philippines, Thailand etc); still, this being an island nation, the weather can of course be unpredictable so, what can you do… Despite this we really enjoyed our time there, relaxing at our bungalow, swimming in the pool (why would rain stop that activity?!), reading, visiting ancient temples and galleries of local art, eating delicious salads and healthy juices and generally enjoying the Balinese culture and architecture.

One activity we enjoyed more than expected was a cycle (3km uphill on old, clunky bicycles, this bit was not quite so enjoyable!) to the nearby village of Petulu, where, every afternoon before sunset, thousands of egrets (known as the ‘White Herons of Petulu’) fly home to roost after spending their day feeding in other parts of the island. This sounded an interesting thing to see and we were so glad, when we finally had a pleasant evening with no rain (on our last night there!) that we made it. We sat outside a small warung (café) by a rice field, nibbling peanuts and drinking coffee made from beans grown right there in the village and watched for about an hour as flocks of the white birds came home and found themselves perches in the surrounding trees. The experience was enhanced since the local villagers were preparing for a festival the following day so we also saw them parading, in traditional dress, with music, as they rehearsed for that. It was quite a simple thing to do, but one of our favourite experiences. We also enjoyed the downhill cycle all the way back!

After much research and thought about what to do next, referring many times to a calendar (we have only a 30 day visa for Indonesia and in any case have only 6 weeks left until we fly back to Europe from Kuala Lumpur so we now have to plan our schedule carefully to fit everything in), we decided to book another flight to take us to Ende on the island of Flores. This was the only way we could fit in going so far south and east, to fly down then make the return journey over land and sea, which would take us over a week. So off we flew on a small propeller plane, we spent a night in Ende which had nothing much to see but was a good example of a real town. We liked seeing regular life there, market stalls and all, and it was a better insight into Indonesian life than touristy Bali. From there it was a couple of hours in a squishy local bus to the village of Moni, a small place in the mountains at the foot of Kelimutu volcano.

Arriving in Moni, we had to, as usual, find a place to stay, so we split up and enquired at a few places separately before finally settling on a cheap bungalow style room with a communal terrace with nice views over the hills and town (which was really just one road). After finding a bed for the night we ‘explored’ Moni, which meant a walk up its quiet main road, 5 minutes off which is a pleasant waterfall, then had a spot of lunch and headed back to read on our terrace and have an early night as there was not much else to see and we’d have a very early get-up next day. The main reason people come to Moni is to visit Kelimutu volcano – actually a volcanic landscape with three craters of different coloured water right next to each other. The exciting thing about these different coloured lakes is that they change colour at unpredictable times due to the different proportions of minerals dissolved in the water at any one time. Photographs on posters there show the colours changing over just a matter weeks. This sounded like something special to see and sure enough, it was well worth the 4am get up to get up to the lakes for sunrise (T moaned quite a bit when the alarm went off, especially as coming here was all Rachel’s idea).

A 12km ride on the back of moped ride beneath an amazing star-scape followed by a 1km uphill walk still in darkness brought us to the viewpoints, the walk was made all the more interesting by the sharp, acrid, stinging smell of acid and sulphur from the volcanic water, which made everyone cough and need to blow their noses, this made it feel rather other-worldly. From the wonderful viewpoint at the top we could see, as the sun started to rise, all 3 lakes, one a bright, chalky turquoise, one reddish/brown and the other dark blue. In the distance, various other volcanic mountains could be seen, from behind which the sun was coming up. We spent over 2 hours here, sat looking out over the scene of changing colours and light as the sun came up, warm coffees in hand from the local sellers, enjoying the peace and tranquillity of such a strange landscape. Eventually, we decided it was time to head back down, this time on foot rather than moped, which we had paid just one-way for.

The walk back to Moni proved quite tough, despite being all downhill, which sounded easy on paper! 10km of constant downhill is actually quite hard on the old legs and our quads and glutes could really feel the strain after a while, becoming quite wobbly by the end. Combined with the rising temperatures as the sun continued to rise to its peak, it was somewhat of a challenge. What did make it very enjoyable though was the lovely view from part way down of the surrounding countryside, distant volcanic peaks and the sea in the background. This was followed by the two lovely villages that we walked through, both of which had lots of pigs running around, making T forget the pain in her legs for a good while (NB the island of Flores is 90% Catholic, despite Indonesia being the world’s most populous Muslim country, so they eat, and hence keep, pigs here…) We also prolonged the walk by about 2km by somehow missing a path which we should have taken, which made us both slightly grumpy, especially Tess (!). But as soon as we hit the main road we saw that the local market was in full swing in Moni and that cheered us up as we approached it (being back in some sort of civilisation that is), as well as knowing that we’d finally made it back to our guesthouse - time for a well-earned nap!

After our siesta, we treated ourselves to some liquid refreshments, sampling out first Bintang, (the Indonesian beer brand) on our terrace. We stretched our legs a little in the afternoon visiting the local church which is all of 50m down a path from our place and wandering the stalls of the market as the last few merchants packed up. R also made friends with the local pig in the field next to the church, which made T happy. In the evening we had a couple more beers and some arak (local rice wine) which rounded off the day nicely.

The following morning, with aching limbs from the long walk downhill, we set off in a share-taxi on the 6 hour drive to our next destination – the town of Bajawa. Moni was the furthest south we would go on our trip and the closest we’d come to Australia, this drive was therefore the start of our journey back west and north through Flores and slowly, slowly towards Kuala Lumpur, our final port of call in Asia.

We arrived in Bajawa and as has become custom, we were dropped off quite a distance outside the town, at a random junction. Not really knowing where we were and shaking off the annoying ojek driver (moto-taxi) who was trying to overcharge for taking both of us plus all bags on one little moped into the town, we started walking in the direction of town. Luckily, since it was 5km away, after only a few hundred metres a car stopped and offered us a lift (for a small fee, about 50p) to a guesthouse we’d read about. Said place turned out to be a bit of a dump so we walked a little back on ourselves and checked into a much better place called Edelweiss, though still very expensive for what it was, but seems there is little option here. Happy to finally come to a standstill, we arranged the following day’s activities of visiting tribal villages, hot springs and waterfalls with a friendly, dreadlocked, guitar-playing guy from across the road.

So off we went with him and his chum the next day on the back of their mopeds to visit some native villages that are the main draw to this town. These are living villages of tribal people set in a beautiful landscape of green jungle and volcanoes, very special indeed. The photos show how amazing the villages are better than we can describe here so take a look. After the villages we went to some hot-springs that were included in the cost of hiring the boys and their bikes for the day. It sounded like a nice way to round off the day but wow, it was unlike any we have ever seen before. The first pool is what we expected to find, a pool into which the (very!) hot water spouts up, but from there it flows off down a stream and then forms a small but powerful hot waterfall at the foot of which a regular (cold water) stream meets it forming lovely pockets of different temperatures. The waterfall provided our first hot shower in quite a while and was most enjoyable, though its force did almost take Rachel’s bikini top off!

After the hot spring experience we were very relaxed ahead of leaving Bajawa the next day, in another share-taxi to the town of Ruteng, where there is not much to see for tourists but it was a good point to break the journey rather than travel 10 hours on a windy road to Labuan Bajo, where we were headed. Like Ende, this was not an interesting place but good to spend time in a regular town, and again we enjoyed seeing it, there were very friendly people, delicious, cheap local food (goat sate) and very cheap and basic lodgings (with a rather grim bathroom, we were glad of the bath in the hot springs the previous day as we were not washing here! See photo…). We did an early morning walk up a nearby hill from where there were great views back down to town and even better views of rice terraces and the surrounding mountains, which are the tallest peaks on the island.

From there we were on to our final stop on Flores, Labuan Bajo at the western tip and the most touristy place on Flores. We managed to get a free ride there as the extremely friendly owner of a nice hotel in Ruteng (out of our price range but we went there for dinner to use the wifi as had to make phonecalls over the net), let us go into a car that one of his regular customers had hired out to take him to LB, think he felt sorry for us when we told him we were staying in the cheapy-cheap place down the road! Once in Labuan Bajo we checked around for an available and affordable boat trip to the island of Lombok, via Rinca and Komodo, (famous for the dragons). We found one and prepared for our 3 days at sea, and that tale we will leave for another day!

Posted by TessAndRach 05:03 Archived in Indonesia Tagged ubud kelimutu moni bajawa Comments (0)

Desperately seeking wildlife in Borneo

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Arriving in the early hours of the morning at Kota Kinabalu (KK), the capital of the Sabah state of Malaysian Borneo, we had arranged to stay at a backpacker hostel in walking distance from the terminal. It was indeed just across the road so we found it very easily and then sat up drinking a beer with Marcus, who runs the place, before finally sloping off to bed. In the morning light we realised the place was really expensive for what it was, it was rather grubby and we only had a share bathroom (which we’re used to, but not for £13, that buys a lot in Asia), however the guys were really friendly, gave us noodles for breakfast and picked us fresh mangoes and coconuts from the trees in the garden, plus it was a place we felt at home for a couple of days, using the kitchen as we pleased, visiting the little kittens in the building next-door and watching world cup football or films on the cable tv with the guys, so we liked it.

There’s not too much worth saying about KK, there is a beach (close to where we stayed, not in the centre) which is clean for a city beach and good for a stroll before sunset but it’s not used for bathing much, we did see the local sailing club out though which was good to watch a while, plus there are a few bars and hawker stalls around there so we had some cheap food options. The town centre is not exciting, the waterfront and market were worth seeing since we were there, but nothing special and quite fishy stinking; then Borneo is known not for its towns but for its wildlife… So off we went in search of that.

Heading to Sandakan, in Borneo’s north-east, on the Sulu Sea, we took a 6-hour bus (plus 2 buses before that, to get us to the north-bound bus terminal in KK…). This was another town that was not too pretty, we have learned that towns in Sabah are not tourist attractions in themselves! This was a base to arrange a trip into the jungle proper and to visit the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre. This is not quite a ‘sanctuary’ and certainly not a zoo, with enclosures. The centre has feeding platforms and ropes and provides fruit for orang-utans twice daily (and they always know exactly when to show up!) but the jungle leads out into the wild and the intention is that they will look after largely themselves if they are able, this is encouraged by feeding them the same things each day, so that they will get bored with the same nosh and also seek out their own food in the jungle to balance their diet. We did see quite a few as we made sure we arrived for the 10am feeding time, it was quite amazing to watch their movements, expressions and interaction with each other.

Happy to have finally seen the orang-utans, we also walked for a while along the jungle trail behind the centre, with Heidi and Kelsey (from UK and California respectively) whom we had met in the minivan on the way to the centre. As it was approaching midday by that point, it was not really a good time to see the more exotic creatures that live in the area including various birds and flying foxes (bats), so we mostly saw bugs, some MASSIVE ones though including the biggest ants we have ever seen, a few lizards, some macaques (your common garden monkey in these parts) and leeches. Tess was particularly fearful of leeches, and as if the tiny blighters knew it, they found only her, she first had one on her foot which she swiftly spotted and flicked off before it had got a good grip… Soon afterwards, and no-one is sure how it got there, Kelsey spotted one wriggling its way through T’s t-shirt. Both Rach and Kelsey tried to flick it off but it seemed firmly wedged amid the fibres and on its way through the other side, so Tess flings off her top and stands there in the jungle in her bra squealing while Rach pulls the little bugger off and flicks it far away. Ah, how we laughed – later on that is.

Whilst waiting for our bus back to town, a line of police jeeps and vans files in to the car park, filled with 30 or so Malaysian Policemen, all in uniform, we were wondering what major incident could be happening at the orang-utan sanctuary only for the police officers to pile out brandishing huge smiles and start taking photos. They started posing in front of the main entrance for photos so we went to take our own pics of this funny sight, but then of course that led to them insisting we pose with them for photos. The four of us had countless photos taken with the police and had a bit of a laugh with them until, about 10 minutes after they arrived they all piled back into the vehicles and left again. We have no idea what this was all about, it looked like they were on a school ‘end-of-year’ outing or something, but it was all very amusing and helped pass the time waiting for our van back to town.

Next day we were off to the Nature Lodge on Kinabatangan River, along with Heidi and Kelsey who had coincidentally booked the same trip. We had 2 nights of seeing real Borneo nature, including the very rare pygmy elephants, still fairly big, but only half the size of regular elephants. These live only on Borneo and we were very lucky to spot some bathing in the river and standing around eating the elephant grass. We also saw the other highlight of the area, Proboscis Monkeys, these are terribly funny looking, with long snouts (the alpha males have the longest noses, apparently it makes them the most desirable) and pot-bellies, plus a fur pattern that makes it appear they are wearing white underpants, very intriguing creatures indeed. Plus we were extremely lucky to see a wild orang-utan mother with her baby building a nest for the night high in a tree. Other than those we saw quite a lot of Hornbills (beautiful exotic birds), plus hawks and ospreys, a few crocodiles and many macaques. In the evening we did a night-time jungle walk on which we saw lots of tree frogs, much to Rachel’s delight, plus a variety of weird and wonderful bugs, including a large, hairy, blue-ish spider that jumped onto the neck of our guide (thank goodness it was his neck not anyone else’s!).

Whilst we were very happy to see the jungle and wildlife, it has been very depressing to see the extent that Borneo is being ruined by palm oil plantations. We were aware that this was a problem before traveling here but it is crazy to see it with our own eyes. Where once would have been jungle supporting all of this wildlife, now there is mile upon mile of mono-culture palm plantations, supporting nothing except the bank balances of a few businessmen, they are truly ruining this once unique island.

At the end of the two night Nature Lodge trip, we were dropped off at the junction on the main road and picked up a bus to Sempurna, where we were to meet our friend Sarah (the very same who we had previously hooked up with in Hanoi, is now based in Borneo in a new job), for a weekend away on Mabul Island. We had a bit of a ‘to do’ with the bus ticket guy who appeared to be over-charging us, the 50 Ringgit fare seemed v expensive but when we asked for a ticket to confirm he shooed us away and said we would get it at the office. An older Australian guy travelling with us who we knew from the Nature Lodge also spoke to the driver about this only for the driver to stop the bus and say he should get off if he was going to ask questions! When we eventually reached the office he brought out tickets with 50 RM written on in pen and the 40RM price crossed out, and that was the price all the way from Sandakan, we had only come two-thirds of that way so the price should have been proportionally less. Of course we weren’t going to accept this nonsense so we spoke with a lady behind their ticket desk explaining the rude-ness and the obvious over-charging, she apologised and returned 10 RM each to us and the other three foreign tourists, it should probably have been more, but this was something at least.

So the 20 Ringgit we got back we spent in a supermarket in Sempurna buying a couple of bottles of booze to take to the island for our fun weekend away (anticipating high island prices!). We then met up with Sarah and some of her colleagues and off we sailed on a very bumpy boat ride out to Mabul. We arrived at Uncle Chan’s guesthouse/diving school and checked into two dorms, one for the boys and one for the girls. The rooms were basic, to say the least, there were no showers just a tap by the toilet in a skanky cubical at the back, so we didn’t shower for 2 days, just used buckets from the tanks where the scuba gear is rinsed to wash the salt off after diving and swimming; but we didn’t mind too much as we were here to catch up with Sarah and have a fun weekend. That first night we enjoyed a few drinks and a bit of a party night listening to a local cover band (who appeared to select as their vocalist the bloke who could read lyrics in English the best rather than one who could actually sing…) and practicing some dance moves….all fuelled by the local rum of course!

On the second day, T, R and Kyle (Sarah’s American colleague) went for 3 dives around the island – fairly good diving, with good visibility, but not nearly as good as we have recently had in the Philippines. Close to here is one of the world’s most esteemed dive sites, around the island of Sipadan, but alas that is far too expensive for us to partake in on our current budget, at over 3 times the price we paid for the local Mabul dives. We saw lots of turtles and a monster Giant Grouper (fish) – he looked really grumpy but we wouldn’t tell him so as he was way bigger than us! In the evening after diving we had a few relaxed beers at the beach bar, gossiping about stuff back home with Sarah and generally having a pleasant time.

Our group separated the next morning with Sarah and her mates heading back to mainland (some people have to go to work!) whist we stayed on to catch a later boat. We explored the main beach but found it to be fairly filthy, with tons of rubbish floating near the shore. Not very appealing. But there was a pier, with a dive school at the end of it, where we could do a spot of sunbathing, reading and jumping off into the sea which was lovely and clear that far out (well, R jumped into the sea, T walked in like a lady – i.e. she was too scardy to jump from the platform!)

We caught the supposedly 4pm boat back to mainland (it actually left at 4.45pm but that’s what they call on time in Asia…) and checked into a place for one night in Sempurna before moving on to Tawau the following morning where Sarah is now based and it was also the place from where we could catch a flight to Indonesia, so this all worked out perfectly!

We checked into the same hotel Sarah was staying in in Tawau, since she hadn’t moved into her new found flat yet, and met her there after she finished work. She took us to a good rooftop bar from where we could see views of the whole city, (including a burning building, which we were sure shouldn’t be on fire; we saw flashing lights sometime later so think all was put out ok). We had a beer tower (it would have been rude not too) then dinner in a local eatery, followed by a karaoke night at a local joint, mostly filled with local people. It was a comedy evening, S and R took a turn on the mike, which was a good respite from the endless Chinese/Malay love songs we had to endure! We said our final goodbyes to Sarah (we won’t see her again for at least 15 months now) but realised how lucky we’d been in seeing a friend from home both in Vietnam and here, so that cheered us up.
Onwards to Bali…………….!!

Posted by TessAndRach 03:57 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Philippines part 2 – (by the seaside and under the sea)

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We caught a local bus from Cebu City up to the tip of the island, arriving at Maya dock where we were immediately approached and directed towards a boat for the small island of Malapascua, where we were heading. Being wary of such behaviour and aware of touts’ ability to extract cash from tourists, we asked them to confirm the 80PHP fee and had the expected tale of 'we only leave with 26 people, you will have long wait; we take you now for 1200PHP'. We told them we had plenty of time and little money and would wait until the next boat was ready to leave…

This should have been the end of the matter and we expected to be left to wait; however, this was not accepted by the boatmen. As we waited we were approached 3 times to ask if we had 'made our decision' and reminded that we would have 'very long wait' and may have to stay in a lodge at Maya until the next day (it was only 2pm). The guys were very unpleasant and a little aggressive, we did not feel happy being stuck there with no options. After a short while some local teenagers arrived and an elderly lady with shopping bags, all confirmed they were going to Malapascua and that we would be on the next boat with them. However, as they were all called to a boat, we followed only to be told that we could not travel as this was not a passenger boat - despite it taking all of the local passengers! The boatmen simply would not let us board and this boat left without us as the guys on the dock laughed and talked about us while we continued to wait. A while later we saw some other western tourists approaching, and before they could reach the pier where we were waiting they were led off to boats out of sight, no doubt to try to prevent them from seeing us waiting and to receive the same tale (cheeky bastards). After Rach ran over and spoke with the new tourists they joined us and not too long later we were all told that the next 'scheduled boat' would leave in half an hour but it was insisted that the fee was 100PHP, not 80PHP. We all agreed that, if that was the new price, then fine we would pay that. A big show was made of Filipinos handing over 100 Pisos on the boat but we did indeed see them being (discretely, but not enough) handed 20PHP change as they got off. Tsk. This whole episode really put us off visiting the island, not a pleasant experience at all.

Once we finally left on a boat (or Bangka as they call them in these parts), we reached the island in around half an hour and were then actually quite disappointed with the place, perhaps this was emphasised by our bad mood after the ferry dock incident. The tourist area around ‘Bounty Beach’ was poor by SE Asian beach standards, very gravelly, not good for swimming, the island is not nearly the beautiful, tropical island described. It was however hit quite badly by Typhoon Haiyan in late 2013; there is still damage visible and various fallen trees or trees missing their tops, plus on a walk around the island we found the villages at the opposite end to the tourist beach were very much shanty towns largely held together with Red Cross sheeting. In all it was quite interesting to visit the island, but note that there is nothing much to do for non-divers. For us though, the diving was good, we saw thresher sharks (worth getting up at 430 am for) plus white-tip sharks on a really amazing ‘tunnel’ dive by Gato Island. We were also amused to learn that the island’s name, which means ‘Bad Easter’ in Spanish, actually arose when the country was under Spanish rule, some officials spent Easter on the island and had a bad time, it was henceforth referred to as Malapascua (the locals meanwhile continue to call it by its original name – Logon), how funny.

After 3 days there we headed back to Cebu; it was easy getting back to mainland this time - two boatmen on the main beach saw us with our bags and offered to take us over straight away for 80PHP as they were going to the main island to get supplies anyway, so we were jolly happy with this. At Maya we waited only 5 minutes until a bus arrived and off we set back to Cebu city. From there we boarded a speedy catamaran to Bohol. It was a little disconcerting that before the ferry set off, the TV screens showed a prayer for a safe journey and all the locals started praying and doing the sign of the cross…but deciding that the sea looked remarkably calm and there were certainly no icebergs around we settled ourselves for what turned out to be a very easy and comfortable 2 hour hop to Bohol.

At the port we got a motor-trike for the 40min journey to Alona Beach. The driver took us to a very decent and inexpensive place to stay, 50m from the beach, ideal. Alona is a bit of holiday spot, unlike Malapascua there is more to do here than diving, both around the beach and around the much larger island of Bohol. So it was filled with a variety of people, from divers, to scruffy backpackers to holidaying families and older couples, a good mix. We were here to dive nearby Balicasag Island and the diving was the best we have done so far, amazing visibility, a fantastic wall of corals and a remarkable variety of sea-life including many many turtles, awesome. In the evenings we treated ourselves to a few happy hour beers and yummy BBQ dinners. Other than diving we also took a jeepney inland to visit the Tarsier Sanctuary, one of the world’s smallest primates and known to live only on a few Philippine islands and on nearby Borneo. A guide took us through a small jungle area and pointed out some of the tiny primates to us, despite them being nocturnal we managed to see 3 and all with their eyes open, if only briefly. They are extremely cute, if a little odd looking, with eyes bigger than their brains! All in all our time on Bohol was fun and relaxing, both the place and the diving was tonnes better than Malapascua.

Next we took a flight to Palawan Island (‘the last frontier’ of The Philippines as it’s stuck out on the very west of the archipelago). Landing in the capital, Puerto Princessa (PP as it’s generally called), it was not at all as we expected… Descriptions we have read say it is an eco-friendly town, with high green credentials and very clean streets and generally made it sound really lovely and interesting. Sure, it was cleaner than many Asian cities but definitely it doesn’t look anything special, just a couple of busy streets with not much of interest to see. In fact, the main street was so congested with traffic that crossing the road was a mission at times. However, we spent a couple of nights here, just wandering around, eating at local street stalls and getting to know our way around.

We made sure to get out plenty of cash as Palawan has no ATMs on the island, except here. This is slightly baffling as the island is actually very big and many international tourists come specifically to head up north to El Nido, a place so frequented by tourists should surely invest in an ATM, apparently many people have to leave early as they run out of cash, unaware that they could not take any out there… (Someone did tell us there may be one open by 2015).

So from PP we took a minivan up to El Nido, famous for limestone karsts and small islands in Bacuit Bay Archipelego. The journey there was somewhat frustrating – we booked a 9am minivan to take us as we wanted to arrive in the afternoon, it picked us up on time and went as far as the airport (5min down the road) where the driver told us to get out as he was waiting for the next flight to arrive (which was delayed) to pick up more passengers. Two hours later, all due passengers were ready and we set off, only for the driver to go to a nearby hotel and pick up a large family of Korean tourists who had (we think) booked tickets for the 11am trip, but we waited further while they and all their luggage were squeezed into our van. Finally we were on the way, so we thought, but then the driver goes past the turn off out of town and drives to a McDonalds Drive-Thru to get food for some of the passengers! He didn’t even as if we wanted any, (we didn’t but still!) This just added to our annoyance and we spent the first half of the journey in a grump.

As soon as the 5.5hr journey was over we were keen to get to the beach of El Nido to find a place to stay. On a hunch we walked up some fishy smelling wooden stairs by the beachfront to check prices and condition of rooms at a place called Casa Buenavista (it certainly did have a fantastic view of the bay and karsts, too) despite the unappealing staircase, it was a really nice little place. We were very happy with our find and booked 4 nights. It was run by a Dutch guy and his Filipino girlfriend and we bonded over football – with the World Cup just beginning he invited us to watch the Netherlands v Spain game at 3am at a local bar. We had a couple of beers with him on the balcony and then went out for food and a few more drinks determined to stay up till KO. This we did and were stunned to watch the Spanish team get thrashed by 5-1 by Holland - at least one of us was very happy!

Rain stopped play for a couple of days after this so we relaxed reading our books and arranged a diving trip for the end of the weekend, hoping the weather was going to improve (but we have come here at the start of monsoon season, so can’t complain). One day we kayaked 40 minutes or so to an island in the bay and had a private beach here for a while, except for dogs and mozzies. Then some English blokes who swam (!) over invaded our island, so we made friends and ended up arranging to meet them next day for the England match (we won’t say any more about that!). Our diving day was great, since our boat went right into the bay, all around the islands and took us into one of the lagoons to eat our lunch on the boat, we found it was not worth bothering with the boat ‘tours’ that were on offer in virtually every place in town as by doing a dive trip as you see a lot of the same stuff. We finished off our dive day meeting the boys we had watched the football with and had a night going from happy-hour to happy-hour along the beachfront bars, good fun.

Last stop was Port Barton, which is part-way back to PP but still on the West Coast, like El Nido. This was actually the nicest beach we have visited in whole of Philippines, a couple of km long curving beach with leaning palms and lovely soft sand. We also got a lovely beach hut for just 400 Piso (around £5), it was probably such a good deal as this is the off-season. PB itself is a tiny, quiet town with just two muddy streets running parallel to the beach. We managed to fit in some jogging here, hard work in the 35C heat, and causing much amusement to the local schoolkids. We cooled off with swims in the sea which was good for ‘lengths’ as it was flat as a lake. Our 2nd day here we had a private boat trip visiting a few small islands and stopping at some excellent snorkeling points with yummy lunch on a ‘desert island’, all for half the price of similar tours in El Nido. We had only 2 days in Port Barton but this was a great, relaxing end to our Philippine journey. From PB we took a slightly comedy, very uncomfortable bus back to PP for one final night then off we fly to Borneo.

Posted by TessAndRach 06:34 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Above & Below The Philippines – part 1

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A lot of folks on the SE Asia backpacker trail miss out the Philippines probably just because it is a bit out of the way; but having heard of its stunning northern mountain scenery and abundance of world-class diving sites, we felt it was not to be missed. We were also curious about how different it would feel to its neighbours, being an archipelago means the cultures here have evolved differently, it is also the only catholic country in Asia thanks to the Spanish influence and the effect of being under US control, following the Spanish, gives it an even more unique mix.

Arriving at Manila (which is actually comprised of 16 different ‘cities’ merging into one sprawling metropolis) airport we got into a taxi by the rank outside and then immediately out of the other side as he showed us a laminated (to make it look official) card of prices, it was 10x what we expected to pay for our destination, drivers here supposed to use meters and you can report them if they refuse, we should’ve taken this guy’s details… Anyway we soon enough got ourselves to the area of Ermita in the heart of Metro Manila, this is a centrally-positioned area with budget accommodation options, though still expensive for what it is, especially by Asian standards, we paid £12 for a box with a shared bathroom! What we found in Manila was a crazy, vibrant place, with modern buildings, coffee shops and shopping malls, neon-clad girlie-bars, an overbearing selection of fast-food outlets, all intermingled with shabby, dilapidated places and many people sleeping rough on streets. It felt like Asia but not quite...

Described by some as a ‘Latin American country in Asia’, this seems a fairly accurate description; our first impression of The Philippines and Manila was quite mixed. The old walled area of Intramuras had a very Spanish colonial feel and was quite attractive; next door skyscrapers hover above shanty towns. Jeepneys (old American jeeps converted into cheap public people carriers) zoom about noisily everywhere churning out tons of air pollution, the streets in Ermita and Malate, which merge together, are hectic and noisy. The sea-front reminded us very much of Mumbai, i.e. it is relatively peaceful compared to the bustling streets and while it looks ok at a distance, close up it’s full of crap and fairly stinky. In summary, Manila was ok but there was definitely no need to linger. Edgy, describes it well, it is an interesting place with a unique vibe, but not a comfortable place, we were careful to keep our wits about us, (it certainly wasn’t a place we wanted to go out drinking, for example).

So we got out of there after just one full day in the city, up north to a town called Vigan in North Luzon, a 9 hour bus ride away. Since Rach is from Wigan, we couldn’t miss the chance to see this place, the girl from Wigan goes to Vigan. We mostly visited for its well-preserved historical streets (we didn’t travel all that way *just* for the name!) It is the best-preserved Spanish colonial town in the country and has two lovely old pedestrianised cobbled streets, a couple of large catholic churches in big squares with fountains and a handful of heritage houses and museums. But really it’s difficult to justify the travel time getting here as after just half a day we had seen everything, eaten the apparently famed empanadas and boiled in the over 40 degree heat. So we moved quickly on to the cooler climes of the mountains, Rach leaving disappointed not to have found a pier or any pies!

Onto Baguio, described as ‘the city of firs’, but yet not as attractive as it sounds. However we did like it. We only meant to spend one night here to break up the travel into the mountains but because we liked it we decided to stay another day. It is quite a 'homely' feeling city with a large student population and it had a nice vibe. There isn’t much here in the way of tourist attractions but it was good to spend a day just hanging around in a decent, small city. The one attraction we did see was Tam-Awan Village, a mock tribal village with huts in the styles of different tribal people, a jeepney ride out of town; this was nice but badly timed as the heavens opened while we were on the way there and though we only got a brief drenching then managed to shelter until it stopped, we didn’t get to see much of the amazing views supposedly enjoyed from there right out to sea, still we are at the beginning of the monsoon season now so this can’t be avoided. Other than that we just strolled around the park and lake and visited a shopping mall which had nice roof terraces with views over city, though we were again alarmed at the amount of fast food joints and stalls. The mall was filled with people, and yet we noticed how no-one was in any of the shops, buying anything (apart form a few families getting their kids things in the ‘Back to School’ sales – so like home in some ways!), they were just filling the eateries, mostly filling up on fast-food and sweet things. Filipinos eat a lot of crap! We managed to find some delicious healthy food at a veggie café however, it was a joy to eat a good salad as we were already tiring of the standard Filipino fair of rice, meat and fat.

Into the Cordilleras, North Luzon’s mountain range, our first stop was Sagada, known for the strange practice of ‘hanging coffins’, apparently some people here prefer the idea of being hung from a cliff-face rather than being buried under ground. We did a short trek here with a small group of young Filipino tourists and a ten (!) year-old guide who we arranged the trek with in the bar his family runs - (don’t worry it’s school holidays here!). He took us to see the hanging coffins, a cave and underwater river, it was short but the scenery was good and we were back with plenty time to enjoy sitting on our veranda sipping local strawberry wine in the afternoon sun, super. The village of Sagada is small, just two roads with a few Bohemian artsy cafes and a small bar with lots of Bob Marley posters and the like, there’s an unofficial curfew of 9pm but this one place stays open as long as people are there, just as long as you make no noise on the way home. We had a nice night out over drinks with the guys we had ‘trekked’ with and the next day had a later than planned get up but still managed to get a jeepney out of there in time to reach our next stop of Banaue in one day - we had read that the last bus left nearby Bontoc for Banaue at 1pm, but this turned out not to be the case.

A 40-min jeepney followed by a 2.5 hour minivan drive took us to the small town of Banaue, which is not too interesting in itself but the surrounding area of astounding rice terraces is the attraction. We arranged a ‘trike’ ride (essentially a motorbike with enclosed side-car) with a lovely guy called Arnold along the bumpy road to ‘Saddle-point’ from where trekked down a clear path into Batad. This is a lovely village nestled in rice terraces, it reminded us of some of the villages we stayed in during our Himalayan trek in Nepal. Once set up in a simple but friendly guesthouse sitting at the top of the village, we trekked further to a waterfall which was a sweaty-business but really worth it, one of the best falls we have seen and so powerful it created waves so it made for exhilarating swimming. It’s a shame there was no cooling waterfall at other end when we got back though as the trek back is much more hard work than getting there as it’s mostly up hill. That evening there was a beautiful sunset (often the clouds roll in during the afternoons here that bring rain, we had noticed the same in Sagada and Banaue, you could almost set your watch by it, but not this evening so we were lucky), it was followed by amazing dusk sky with great pink-grey clouds and distant lightning along with an excellent show of fireflies. It was a magical evening enjoying some local rice wine and watching this spectacular show of nature.

Next day our lovely host from Rita’s guesthouse where we had stayed in Batad, acted as our guide to take us a scenic longer way around (2.5 hours rather than 40 mins) back out to the road to the village of Bangaan, where Arnold had arranged to meet us to take us back into Banaue. This walk was one of the nicest we have done on all of our travels, passing awesome rice terraces the whole way. This whole trip to Batad is a must-do for anyone visiting the northern Philippines and certainly a highlight of our travels.

After one more night in Banaue, where we enjoyed a free (donation appreciated though) cultural show, which was much more enjoyable than we expected, we took an overnight bus to Manila to catch a flight south to the Visayas. This was not too bad a journey but as usual, whenever we take transport scheduled to arrive at a silly time in morning, it gets in early, this time 0430 am rather than 0530 as expected. So we sat in a coffee shop at the bus station awaiting daylight and for stuff to open! From there we headed to the airport for a short flight to Cebu City, The Philippines' 2nd city. This is a fairly modern city with not much to see other than fancy shopping malls, but as capital of Cebu island and a ferry port for nearby islands, it is a place you pretty much have to go through to see these parts.

Not a bad place to spend an evening and stock up and some bits and pieces in a supermarket - noted that sunscreen is expensive here, having only just finished the stuff we inherited from Rach's parent's in Thailand, since her mum seemed to have brought half of Boots with her! On our one morning there T even went for a much needed run (she has signed up to a marathon happening just 3 weeks after we get home and we have not had much opportunity to do much running this past few months…) after which we had a yummy fruit breakfast from our supermarket purchases of papaya, melon, passion fruit, mango… apples and pears will seem boring when we get home. Then it was time to head off to catch the bus to the very northern tip of Cebu Island, Maya, for the short boat trip over to the very little island of Malapascua, to put our diving skills to practice and hopefully meet some sharks…..

Posted by TessAndRach 06:56 Archived in Philippines Tagged ermita north backpacker manila cebu sagada luzon batad Comments (0)

Good Morning Vietnam

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Despite the rather nightmare journey over the border (see previous blog) it ended well enough by arriving in Da Nang much earlier than expected; we had been told the journey would take 24 hours (ick), but after *only* 18 we had reached Da Nang, hoorah. Still it was not our ultimate destination, we were going on to Hoi An, but fortunately this was just a short (ish) journey on a local bus direct from the bus station in Da Nang.

From Hoi An bus station we trudged, true-backpacker style (bags on and sweating buckets but refusing to spend money on a taxi) towards town and soon enough found decent accommodation for just $10 on Ba Trieu road just a couple of minutes’ walk from the old town. Our first thoughts of Vietnam is that it is considerably better developed then its neighbours Laos and Cambodia, it has similarities to those places but is distinctly Vietnamese (same same but different, as they say). We also soon learned that the iconic conical hats are not a thing of the past, nor only to be found on agricultural field workers, they are everywhere! It looked like Vietnam and we liked it.

Hoi An is a lovely old town, very pretty, a bit touristy but worth seeing. It is filled with old wooden houses, historical artefacts with sights including a folklore museum and Japanese Covered Bridge. Our street by being just outside the old town, had a variety of cheap options for food and drink, including a couple of places selling draft beers for 3000 Dong (around 8 pence), the cheapest we have found to date, so of course we had to partake in a few of these one night… After which we stuck our heads into neon-lit ‘Club Volcano’, we were about to retreat since it was empty but the bar boy came over and persuaded us to come in for (very!) cheap drinks, free pool and table football, assuring us it would get busier soon... After a short while a bus load of Vietnamese people piled in, it must’ve been some family event as there were all ages including a couple of kids. Soon enough we were drinking shots of Johnny Walker with the menfolk, then Rach joined in a dance-off and we thoroughly kicked everyone’s arse at table football (they weren’t expecting that!). As suddenly as they’d piled in, the party left, leaving just us and about 5 Western tourists who had wandered in in the meantime. Soon after we went across the road to home, not sure as to whether we dreamt the whole thing as it was so strange!

One day we enjoyed a pretty cycle to the beach, the route there looked a little like southern Goa, with its waterways and palms. On approaching the beach annoying guys kept whistling at us telling us we had to leave our bikes with them (for a fee of course), but this was not true as we could cycle past and park where we liked (though it is necessary to either pay to park or stay at one beach bar/restaurant where you can park for free but of course in exchange for spending money on food and drinks...) but you can choose where this is, not just where the first guy tries to make you, pretending he has authority because he has a whistle! We had a good day at the beach though, it was a nice change from the old town and gave Rachel a chance to top up her tan, impressed as she is at having tan lines for the 1st time in her life (this has taken several months living in Asia to achieve, and still probably no-one would notice unless she showed you her white bum!)

Due to fully booked trains as it was a national holiday (Independence Day) we ended up staying an extra day in Hoi An so decided to go diving, our first SCUBA since Thailand. It was very different to our previous experiences, with strong currents and poor visibility, but worth doing as we have now tried ‘drift diving’ and we did see some interesting cauliflower shaped coral. Plus the day included a delicious lunch and couple of hours to relax on the beach of Cham Island before heading back to mainland, so a good day in all.

After Hoi An we took the scenic 3 hour train to Hue, this was a lovely rail line on a mountain pass with views of the sea below. Hue, though, turned out not to be as interesting as we’d expected and certainly the main attraction of the town centre, the Citadel, was underwhelming and vastly overpriced for what it was. We did enjoy a boat trip on the Perfume River including visits to the Kai Dinh Tomb and Thien Mu Pagoda, but otherwise Hue would’ve been a bit of a non-event. We did meet a cool Mexican guy there called Marvin, who was heading in the same direction as us so we swapped details with a view to meeting up in North Vietnam.

From Hue we got ourselves on an overnight train to Hanoi, we had pretty nice cabin and ok journey, met three geeky Germans, slept well and managed to do some blog writing etc, it was a good journey. In Hanoi we found a v nice room in the Old Quarter and we were excited that, for only £10, it had a minibar, free drinks and fruit, complimentary delicious breakfast and even a lift (we haven’t had the luxury of a lift since Julie and Martin were paying in Thailand for our birthdays!)! Soon after arriving we met up with Sarah (our lovely friend from Manchester who has been living in Hanoi for 2 years) at ‘Beer Hoi Corner’, a cross roads with about 15 small bars selling cheap draught beer and snacks, popular with tourists, ex-pats and locals alike. It was great to see Sarah and we passed many hours catching up, we even bumped into the Germans that had been on our train form Hue and had a drink with them. We chatted over drinks with Sarah for hours and hours, and hours, until 5am even, crikey, at which point we realised it was time to head to bed, which we managed to do after about 30 minutes wandering lost through the small streets of the Old Town unable to locate our hotel, even though we had been no more than 5 minutes from it… Oh dear… We are too old for this business!

After the night before, the next day mostly consisted of long lie in and not a lot of useful activity (!) although we did manage a walk around the old town a little including a loop of Hoan Kiem Lake before meeting Sarah again in the evening for Indian food and then drinks in an ex-pat bar that was full of young British, American and Aussie folks mostly working as English teachers. Next day, we got our bums into gear and made it to the Museum of Vietnamese Women, which was very good, and the Hoa Lo Prison, which was first used by the French to imprison Vietnamese revolutionaries and then by the Vietnamese to imprison American POWs. Both very interesting, especially so in how the prison exhibitions go to great lengths to demonstrate how harshly Vietnamese prisoners were treated when the French were in charge and yet how well they treated the US POWs, possibly a bit of propaganda here... In the evening we met up with Sarah yet again at a ‘Beer Hoi’ slightly out of town that had a ridiculously strange, incomprehensible menu that made us laugh till we cried (delights on offer included ‘soup cook-axis coincides contract’ and ‘spicy hot-pot cement frog’ some photos to be added). We also met up with Marvin and arranged a trip to Ha Long Bay with him, which after shopping around we got a 3 day deal for $74, half of some quotes (definitely worth shopping around, a young German couple who ended up on our trip paid £130 for exactly the same thing, only to then be told their deal didn’t even include kayaking and having to pay $3 extra each for that!)

Ha Long Bay was beautiful, although we had some amusement at the dis-organisation of the whole trip (changing around the itinerary, waiting around quite a bit, trying to charge extra for ridiculous things…) but we had a good group of people and amazing weather so a wonderful time in all. We kayaked into some lovely ‘caves’, saw floating villages and had fun jumping off the boat into the sea, all amidst the stunning backdrop of the karsts. We spent one night on the boat, in the peace and quiet of the bay and one night on Cat Ba Island, where we stayed in a basic but functional hotel just a few minutes’ walk from the sea front, with a few decent bars and shops. When we had a blessed few hours of ‘free time’ from the itinerary, our group of 7 went to the nearby beach for a few hours of swimming and sunbathing, before heading back to our boat for the journey back to the mainland.

Back in Hanoi, we had a day here just hanging around. It was nice to get to know the city quite well without feeling the need to see ‘sights’ all the time. Since we had first arrived here though someone had definitely flicked the switch for summer to ‘On’, in our first days here we enjoyed the pleasant mid-20s temperature, but when we arrived back form Ha Long it was a baking 35C and remained that way for the rest of the time! We really enjoyed our time in Hanoi and both agreed that it was probably top on our list of the Asian cities we had visited. The buzz, the sights, the people, the food and of course seeing a familiar face in Sarah and meeting her mates all made us feel quite at home. And we still had a couple of days to go in Hanoi after our next trip – to Sa Pa.

We took another overnight bus to Sa Pa, a small market town north east of Hanoi, only a few Kms from China, so close in fact that we had a ‘Welcome to China’ text message from a Chinese telecoms company! Sa Pa is a lovely mountain town, known for its rice terraces and tribal people, we liked the feel of it straight away. We bmped into Marvin here and had dinner with him before he headed out of the country into Laos. From Sa Pa we did a 2 day trek with an overnight homestay, similar to what we had done in Myanmar but still very interesting and beautiful. Some river swimming was done, a few beers and local rice wines consumed and chats with fellow travellers were had. One member of our group was a very pleasant Indian man, in his 50’s, from Delhi, who however has spent much of his life in London where his aunt and brother live; it transpired over dinner that his house in London is on the very same street in Hanwell that Tess grew up! Well, to meet someone, in the hills of North Vietnam, that actually knows Mayfield Gardens was amazing indeed! What a small, small world… But then, these encounters are what travelling is all about….

After two days in Sa Pa we took a horrendous overnight bus back with lady next to us (*right* next to us, we were on the triple seat at the back of the bus…) constantly either throwing up into a bag or shouting v loudly on her phone. All night. Not much sleep was had, we would guess at 0 minutes in fact…  We therefore headed straight back to our lovely hotel but alas, as no rooms were available so early so we then went straight out to visit Uncle Ho, that is the Ho Chi Min Mausoleum, what else would you rather do after a sleepless night on a bus??! (Ho Chi Minh is widely seen as the father of modern Vietnam and it is here that he declared independence in 1945 – now his body is embalmed at the mausoleum in true communist style. We even heard that every year he goes on ‘holiday’ for a month to Russia to have his body re-embalmed). We spent rest of day resting back in hotel and catching up on sleep.

The following day was spent wandering around even more and visiting to the Museum of Ethnology, which was interesting after having just visited the tribal regions in the North. From there we went to meet Sarah yet again to partake in her leaving do for her last night in Vietnam before she moves to a new job in Borneo (via a month back in the UK). This meant another late night, because the curfew in Hanoi means all Vietnamese have to be off the streets by 11pm unless they have special permission (foreigners, though, are free to wander around all night and there are shuttered bars to accommodate…) Sarah was staying out until 5am to stay with her Vietnamese friend who could not go home between those hours – shocking business!

Our last day in Hanoi we visited Temple Of Literature, ate our final Pho at a street stall (noodle soup, the national dish which has been eaten at least once per day while here), and finally lugged our stuff on local bus to airport for night flight to Manila.

Posted by TessAndRach 01:48 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Overland to Vietnam, trials of night bus border crossings

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From Vientiane, we were picked up by a share tuk-tuk to take us to the bus station for our bus into Vietnam, this went smoothly enough. From the moment we arrived at the bus station however we felt we had already left behind the relaxed, friendliness of Laos. We were pointed towards the bus that was to take us over the border and on to Da Nang and when we didn’t immediately get on, since we were waiting for our rucksack to be returned to us from the roof of the tuk-tuk, we were barked at and pointed towards the bus with more vigour.

Once we had our bag back in hand we obediently went towards the bus, Tess got on board to find seats while Rach put the bag in the hold, there was more barking and pointing as Tess was directed to sit on the back row, despite there being empty places elsewhere. It seems these guys wanted to put all the ‘foreigners’ together and actually we were somewhat relived to see that a group of much more local foreigners (a Chinese girl travelling with two Koreans) were treated just the same as us, with pointing, shoving and shouts of “You! You!”

And so, amid the unfriendly, abrupt treatment from the bus staff, we made ourselves comfortable at the back with our Chinese and Korean friends. Long-distance buses in Vietnam have two layers (not separate floors) of lounger-type seats, which almost fully recline, so at least we should get some sleep on this one, we thought. With the general faffing still going on, our scheduled departure time came and went without any sign that we would be leaving. At one point one of the men that worked on the bus came and indicated our Korean friend to move to an empty seat in front of our row, which he did, only for a different bloke to come 5 minutes later and shout at him for moving there (in Vietnamese, but we got the gist) and prodding him back to the back row. Very strange…

Once we finally set off we found ourselves comfortable enough and the only other spot of trouble from the not-so-friendly bus staff was when one came to wake up the Korean couple in the early hours, indicating they should share a blanket, as he took the blanket the boy had been using and took it to give to a new passenger. We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the sleepy look of surprise the Korean guy had at having his blanket roughly taken from him!

Other than blanket-gate, all went well until we were woken at 0430 and ordered to get off the bus and bring our passports. Being half asleep, we didn’t think about asking any Qs or taking any other belongings with us. We were handed disposable freshener wipes and toothbrush sets and pointed towards the toilets of this small café we had pulled up beside (which meant traipsing through a family ‘living room’, where a young couple and their baby sat watching as a bus load of people went through to use the facilities). When we returned to the café front, the bus had driven off. Hmm, we thought, that’s interesting. A man who looked vaguely official, because he had a notebook, was collecting everyone’s passports, along with a 30,000 Kip fee to get the stamp out of Laos (around £2.50). This seemed strange as we have never before paid for a stamp out, it is not a departure tax, it is a fee just for this guy to get the passports stamped on our behalf, but since all the Lao and Vietnamese had paid the same we seemed to have no choice. Once we had handed over our passports and the cash the ‘passport’ man tells us “Border open 7 o’clock, you wait here”.

“Wha-aat?!!” we wait here for two and a half hours, with nothing to do, only tiny plastic stools to sit on, in the dark with all of our belongings (including reading books, phone, wallet etc) who-knows-where on the bus? Well, that was not a plan we liked one bit. After 10 minutes or so a kindly Lao man, who we had chatted to on an earlier food and toilet break, took pity on the confusion us ‘foreigners’ were sharing at the general lack of explanation or instruction in English, he asked the whereabouts of the bus and we were told if we wanted, we could walk 1km to it and wait on the bus until the border opens. Well, phew, we all thought and walked off in search of our bus.

The bus was easy enough to locate, but the rudeness of the staff went into overdrive as we attempted to get back on board. Amusingly they pretended to speak no English at all when we said anything but then moments later (whilst not responding to our requests as to whether we could go back to sleep on the bus, or just get our small bags off) they were asking us where we lived and whether we had husbands… After several minutes of requesting whether we could get on, we managed to at least get on to retrieve our small bags so we could have our books etc while we sat outside the bus waiting for the border to open, which it was made clear we had to do.

So the wait outside the bus continued, interrupted every few minutes by women coming by saying "change money, change money" meaning wanting to rip us off by changing our Laos Kip to Vietnamese Dong. Knowing that their rate was shocking (we have an excellent App on our phone for that) we waved off about 8 of these ladies. We didn’t have any Dong on us (the Vietnamese currency is a closed one) but we knew we didn’t need any till we found a cashpoint when we reached our destination and we had a bunch of dollars, which are readily accepted in Vietnam, if we really needed to buy something.

At 6.45am we were given back our passports by the ‘passport man’ - he much richer with everyone’s 30,000 kip lining his pocket, we with a Laos departure stamp happily added to our ever filling passports. We were ordered to start walking over to the border area and held at a gate for the remaining 15 minutes. Just before crossing, a border official summoned all 5 of us foreigners to a little booth signed ‘Health Quarantine’ where another guy pointed a plastic gun at each of our foreheads. Tess must have had a slight look of terror on her face because he quickly explained that he was taking our temperature! All the Lao and Vietnamese nationals did not have to do this, making us wonder what strange diseases Brits, Koreans and Chinese have that they don’t!

At exactly 7am the border gate finally opened and we were allowed to walk through to the Vietnamese border control building (passing the Laos departure gate at which we could have had our passports stamped ourselves with no trouble and without parting with 30k Kip…). We were stopped twice while random guards thumbed through our passports most thoroughly, checking all stamps and having a good look at where we had been. Because of this we ended up right at the back of a long queue for passport control to enter Vietnam and had to wait around 30minutes before finally getting the all clear to enter. Whilst waiting in this queue we couldn’t help but notice the distinct Communist feel around us – the red flag of Vietnam, another red flag with a yellow hammer and sickle were everywhere, the fairly imposing border building, the very stern border officials and the way all the people were herded, mostly in silence to where the guards wanted. Laos is also a communist state, but this felt very different indeed. We wouldn’t say it was a pleasant experience, a little scary actually, but fascinating for sure. If it wasn’t for one of the border officials who displayed a touch of a cheeky sense of humour, we would have been feeling not too confident of liking Vietnam by this stage!

Entry stamps got, another summons to get our stamps checked yet again by a different guard randomly sitting on a fence a little further up from the border and a rushed walk to get to our bus which was beeping at us as though it was our fault this whole process had taken ages, and we were finally in Vietnam proper. Phew. So here’s hoping this journey is not representative of how we will find the country as a whole!

Posted by TessAndRach 00:40 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Lots of getting wet in Lovely Laos

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For our first day in Luang Prabang we had a leisurely breakfast with Dee, Sinead and Kevin and the five of us just had a relaxed mooch about the old town for the day as we knew the festivities of Songkran (New Year in Laos, Thailand and Cambodia also known as the water festival as tradition is to throw water at each other, to cleanse away the problems of the previous year) would be upon us for the coming days. We checked out the riverside, wandered past the array of French colonial buildings interspersed with Buddhist temples and monasteries and went up the tiny Phousie Hill to see the view of the town from above. Luang Prabang is a very pretty place, its old town nestled on a narrow peninsular between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers.

Next day a group of us took a tuk-tuk to the Kouang Si waterfalls, this was lovely and though quite busy, not as rammed with tourists as we’d expected, instead there were more local families enjoying a day out. We trekked up to the top of the falls and swam in the lush jungle pools up there to cool off before wandering back down for a final swim in the turquoise lower pools and checking out feeding time at the bear rescue centre attached. We then dried off and changed into our dry clothes before the tuk-tuk ride 20kms or so back to LP, on hindsight this was a mistake as by this afternoon the Songkran warm-up was in full swing, groups of (mostly) children and teens lined the roads and gave every passing vehicle anything from a gentle sprinkling to a good drenching, we were very soon as wet as when we’d exited the pools!

So on the next day, New Year, we found ourselves totally and utterly immersed in the festivities. Knowing that we were likely to get thoroughly soaked, we dressed appropriately (bikini as underwear – less chaffing!), bought a small waterproof bag for our phone and money and armed ourselves with water dispensing weapons. These ‘weapons’ were nothing more than empty soft-plastic water bottles with a hole cut in the top but they proved extremely effective. This was probably partly due to the fact that most people had huge water guns or buckets and were obviously going to wet you. We, on the other hand, had the element of surprise with our weapons as most people didn’t realise we were armed at all, thinking we were just carrying water, until we got them that is!

So the day was spent drenching and getting drenched, dancing with the locals on the streets and being constantly offered Beerlao with ice to drink (they are extremely proud of their national beer – they do drink it in a glass with ice though, which seemed strange at first, but when in Rome….) The whole day was such good fun, with all the water fights being really good natured and happy, there was lots of dancing and dressing up, including a good number of men in drag. Apart that is from a small number of pissed-up Western tourists, who instead of celebrating in a fun, friendly way, took things too far and thought it funny to shoot large water pistols directly into eyes and earholes at short range, stupid and dangerous. This was a shame, because the local people were so genuinely friendly and out for a great time and on the whole the atmosphere was amazing.

The music and water went on for a total of 5 days….on the 3rd & (again on the 4th!) a large procession took place in the centre of town, with loads of floats, traditional costumes, monks (who are not immune from a drenching we discovered) and local groups and societies all parading through the streets in front of huge crowds and a gathering of dignitaries. To be honest we were a little bored of getting soaked by the third day in, we were also tired of drinking and listening to loud music and bad karaoke singing, it was like Groundhog Day, the same thing over and over, so we retreated from the party by the end… One afternoon we took a boat across the Mekong to explore the small villages on the other side to give us some peace and quiet!

In general though, experiencing the Songkran Festival was truly brilliant – a wet, colourful, dancing musical – with plenty of beer and a few bbq kebabs thrown in to soak up the BeerLao... It was very much like a Mardis Gras/Pride festival, but with water… So if you ever wondered what the people of Laos do for their new year, they get very drunk, very wet and camp it up big style. All in all, our time in Luang Prabang was truly unforgettable and made even better by spending it with a great group of people – Dee, Sinead, Kevin, Zelia, Franziska, you know who you are and thanks for sharing!

For a change of pace and scenery we went on next to the small town of Phonsavan to visit the Plain of Jars sites. This is exactly what it says on the tin, a landscape (or rather a number of them in different areas around Phonsavan) of thousand-odd year old large stone ‘jars’. Our guidebook and all the literature we read in Phonsavan claimed that the purpose of these jars was unknown, the mystery made the whole thing that bit more interesting. (The mystery later unravelled though when we went to the National Museum in the capital Vientiane where their purpose as burial pyres/urns was clearly explained, well you’d think someone would tell the people of Phonsavan and the guidebook writers to make a visit to the national museum!). We found the jar sites interesting though as it was unlike anything we have seen elsewhere, it was also insightful to see the numerous bomb craters from the Second Indochina war (Vietnam war).

It is sobering to learn about the effects of relatively recent wars on this country. There remain a large number of Unexploded Ordnance devices (UXOs) ,throughout the country, including a high density in this region, dropped by US planes during the ‘Vietnam War’ (known here as the American War). These are mostly cluster ‘bomblets’ that failed to explode on impact and continue to kill and maim people on a weekly basis, 40 years later. Laos is the most bombed country in the world per capita and the most shocking thing about this is that no-one ever officially declared war on Laos, it was just the unfortunate neighbour of Vietnam. While a number of hits on the country were targeting a key supply route into South Vietnam, many bombs were simply released over the country when US planes had failed to locate their targets in Vietnam. This is a shocking and sad history which has ongoing effects in one of the poorest countries in the world. A painful legacy of a pointless war, and a stark reminder of the abomination that is indiscriminate weapons such as cluster bombs.

To cheer ourselves up after this moving insight into the ongoing effects of war in Laos, we moved on to the town of Vang Vieng, famous on the traveller circuit as home of ‘tubing’, that is sitting in inflated tractor inner tubes while floating down the Mekong River enjoying the spectacular scenery, oh and stopping at various bars along the way. Here we were also meeting up again with Dee and Sinead so we could do the tubing together and were looking forward to having friends again to enjoy the party atmosphere with.

Well, we have seen a lot over the past few months but the landscape awaiting us around Vang Vieng was something new and wonderful, we were amazed. The town of VV itself has no sights to speak of, it is merely a base for exploring the surrounding area; it is very much set up for travellers and its few streets are lined with guest houses, cafes, bars, tour agencies, bike rental shops and the like. But the river, backed by the karsts and surrounding countryside made this a good place to just enjoy some of SE Asia’s delightful landscapes. One day we rented cycles and made our way along a bumpy, dusty road to the Blue Lagoon and nearby Cave, the cycle was extremely sweaty, it was just 7km but it was so hot we couldn’t wait to jump into the waters of the Blue Lagoon at the other end. This is a natural deep pond close to the cave with a tree overhanging that is perfectly poised for setting up swings and steps up into the tree for jumping off, great fun.

That afternoon Dee and Sinead arrived and got a room in the same place we were staying. We also heard from Kevin that he was in town so we all met up for an evening of drinks and swapping stories of what we had all done since we parted ways in Luang Prabang. We ended up at the Irish pub, where else?! Kevin had already been tubing and assured us it was good craic, he did look slightly worse for wear by the end of the night though and when he told us the tubing journey started at a bar where they give free whiskey before you’ve even got into the river, well we thought we’d all be sure to have a good sleep and breakfast in preparation for the next day!

And so the next day, good sleep and breakfast had, we met up around noon with D, S and some other friends those two had met elsewhere on their travels and who happened to be in VV at the same time, Kaitlin and Patrick. We set off in a tuk-tuk, tubes tied to the roof, and were dropped at the tubing entry point around 4kms upriver. Indeed, we were given free shots as we got down from the tuk-tuk, though Dee & Sinead declined and got themselves a beer instead, much to the surprise of the girl holding the tray of shots (‘but.. you’re Irish…”). We didn’t linger too long here, as the drinking games that were going on seemed a little much for the time of day (it was around 1pm) and we were keen to get on the river, so off we went, jumped into our tubes and began our meander back towards VV.

A meander it was too as we are late into the dry season now so it was really very slow, not a bad thing really as there have been many accidents on the river in the past, mainly due to young travellers getting extremely inebriated then hurling themselves down rapids when the river is high or riding a zipwire and falling off over water that is not deep enough… Fortunately the whole thing has calmed down a lot these days, plus we are all much too sensible for that. We did have a super day of floating downriver and enjoying a few stop-offs at fun riverside bars where we could play basketball, do some hula and generally have fun times, getting slightly merrier as the day wore on. It was a most excellent day and again all the more brilliant because we had a good group of folks to share it with. The river was just a bit too slow and we failed to make it back to VV by the 6pm cut-off which meant we all forfeited 20,000 Kip of our 60k deposit money, but it was worth it!

One final day in VV and we went with Sinead and Dee for 3km walk through the local countryside till we reached the Lusi Cave. We didn’t know too much about this cave before setting off, just that there was a part of it inside in which we could swim, which sounded interesting. When we arrived at the entrance we learned it was not possible to enter the cave without a guide. Thinking that this was a bit unnecessary (as we’d been in a few caves already this trip without need for escorts) we trundled off after him. Quite soon into the cave we realised that indeed he was necessary this time, it was very complex to find the correct and safe way through, added to the fact that he was extremely funny, we were pleased to have him. After an amazing 30 minutes going deeper and deeper into this dark cavern, up steps, down steps, avoiding big cavernous drops, laughing as the guide pointed out amusingly shaped stalagmites and stalactites, (from a brontosaurus, to a toilet bowl, to funny faces and genitalia) we finally came upon a dark, cold natural ‘swimming pool’ that disappeared off into the eerie distance. The guide almost immediately stripped off and waded in and began swimming and splashing about, so taking his cue, we all did the same. It was a quite unique experience, if somewhat scary, to swim there in the pitch black with just our torches on the edge of the pool to give us a slither of light light. Another unforgettable experience.

Last stop in Laos was the capital Vientiane, we planned not to go any further south given the time of year as the temperature gets just too hot to be fun (over 40C)We got a taster of this in Vientiane and it was quite enough, we may have been in Asia for over 6 months and have acclimatised somewhat, but this was toooo HOT. We had to spend a few days there while we awaited out visas for Vietnam from the Embassy. Dee and Sinead were still with us and the four of us saw the key sights of the capital which included the national museum, victory arch and the COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) visitor centre, created in response to the need to provide UXO survivors with the care and support they required, namely by way of orthotic and prosthetic devices, this was a lot more interesting that it might sound! Because of the heat (it was around 40C) we were quite lethargic and so not as active as usual while we were here. We twice took ourselves to the local outdoor swimming pool, just to keep cool, did we mention it was HOT?! After a few days we had our passports back complete with Vietnam visas and were booked onto an overnight bus to take us over the border. So we parted ways with Dee and Sinead, (who were off to south Laos and into Cambodia) and it was just the two of us again, off for the next chapter of our adventure.

Posted by TessAndRach 23:04 Archived in Laos Tagged prabang luang tubing songkran vang vieng phonsavan Comments (0)

Entering Laos - slowboat down the Mekong

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After crossing the border into Laos from Thailand, we were soon boarding the infamous slow boat to take us on the two day journey to Luang Prabang along the Mekong river, a long stretch of which forms the border between the two countries. We had heard much about the slow boat, so many people have mentioned it, when we told anyone we were heading to Laos everyone asked ‘are you taking the slow boat?’, it is listed as one of the top things to do on the back of our Rough Guide to SE Asia… So it’s safe to say we were looking forward to this journey, yet we really didn’t know too much what to expect.

Well, we weren’t too surprised to find ourselves somewhat squished into our seats, but hey, we had cushioned seats and had been prepared for hard benches so that was a bonus. Once we set of from Huay Xai the scenery was already pleasant, it was particularly fascinating to be looking at Laos on the left side of the river and Thailand on the right. After around an hour the scenery started to get really special. What with enjoying this and chatting to people we didn't even have to open our books which we'd expected to be reading a lot of on this journey. The beauty of this trip is that it introduces you to Laos at the pace at which Laos lives, slowly, with time to speak to those around you and take in the stunning scenery of the Mekong.

Laos is somewhat similar to Thailand, the people share their ethnicity & religion and the language and culture are similar, yet it is very much a more rural, slower-paced version of its more developed neighbour and in many ways better for it in terms of the traveller experience. SailiIng along the Mekong we felt as though we could have gone back a century or so as we passed mountains and villages and rural riverside life just doing its thing, we just sat and enjoyed the leisurely journey. Things livened up a little wherever the river narrowed and there were mini-rapids and whirlpools that rocked the boat alarmingly from side to side, but that’s all part of the adventure.

The boats that ply this route are often run by families who live on the boat, usually with the father driving, mother running the café shop and any big kids helping out. They are fairly large boats, taking around 150 tourist passengers with a good few more locals getting on and off for sections of the journey, plus 'cargo' which ranges from the odd sack or crate to loose chickens... The back end of the boat, behind the engine room is the family quarters as such, and during journeys this is mostly where local people who are travelling gather, probably to escape the weird foreigners pointing cameras at everything, having parties at the front end etc.

After around 6 hours we arrived in the small town of Pakbeng, a small wild-west type town of stilted wooden houses along a road that snakes up from the riverside and towards the hills behind. Since it is the stop off point for the slow boat there was plenty accommodation and food options, most with stunning views of the river. We shared a room with Franzesca, a German girl who we had been sat with onboard, and having arrived ahead of schedule (around 4pm rather than 6) the three of us had time to take a stroll before dark, right up through the town and out past the local houses set further back from the tourist-oriented front end which gave us our first real feel of life in Laos. We liked it.

On the second day we had breakfast and got some baguettes made up to take aboard (good thing about the French having occupied Laos is the decent bread which is hard to come by in most of Asia!) and set off to board the boat shortly before 9am. We arrived to find the boat looking pretty full already, we walked towards the back finding no seats in the main section, so we went right through the back end past the very noisy, clunky engine to the ‘family quarters’. Well, ‘we could sit in here’ we thought, but then there were no windows so we would miss the view, so on we went further still to the tiny open-sided back end section, where a small group of folks had already plonked themselves, there were several plastic seats though and room enough for us little two plus they seemed a nice bunch, so we joined them, Franzesca made her way aboard a few minutes later and joined the merry crew that had formed at the back, then another couple of folks squeezed themselves in until it really was full.

At first sight it could seem a horrendous idea to spend an 8 hour journey in a cramped little section at the back of a boat on plastic chairs (complete with bendy legs), a water tank dripping on us, and the boat lady coming leaning over us to put kettles on the tiny stove to boil behind us from time to time… But in fact this was one of the most fun journeys we have had so far and was one of those that truly makes the journey part of the adventure. We got to know our fellow passengers, played some card games, tried our first BeerLao and generally had a pleasant time. It was especially fun/worrying (depending on your perpective i.e. whether you are Rach or Tess) being at the back when the boat went through mini rapid sections, we really felt the tilting and more than once felt we may actually get wet... Definitely a marvelous and memorable day!

As a side note - there is a fast boat option that takes just 6 hours to reach Luang Prabang, but it really isn’t the better idea that it might initially sound. Passengers are provided helmets and life vests, which we thought odd as we saw people preparing to leave in one… Then when we saw a fast boat passing by us on the river, well, these are no speed boats, these are small, wooden longtails with large outboard motors, they go so fast and are so bouncy that we have neither of us ever seen anything quite like it. That must be a terrifying and uncomfortable, not to mention painfully noisy, journey. Apparently these boats do crash into rocks just beneath the surface at alarming frequency and many people are killed each year in such accidents, take head folks, don’t hurry, the slow boat is definitely the best way to enjoy the journey to LP.

By the time we landed in Luang Prabang a group of us had decided to try to find a place to stay together, us and Franzesca plus sisters Dee & Sinead from Ireland and Zelia from Switzerland. We were somewhat confused at the landing as it was still a few kms outside LP (my GPS showed me as much), even though the river goes right through it and the slow boat jetty used to be right in the old town, so that was where we had expected to end up. Less impressed were we at the 20,000 Kip per person ticket fee for a tuk-tuk the rest of the way. In defiance we set off up the road, convinced we would pick up a vehicle on the main road for a more reasonable price. Seeing us break free and start this rebellion, another fellow asks if he can join us, ‘of course’ say we, and so Kevin (another Irish) joins our gang. In the meantime some drivers have pulled up to agree a price for the whole vehicle to take us to town, some impressive bartering from Sinead gets us a ride for almost a quarter the advertised price and off we set. At the other end another good bit of bartering gets us an offer of 3 rooms between the 7 of us for 67000 Kip per night (that’s £5/$9) right in the old town (where other places were quoting $25+). A good deal indeed as here we would spend a few days because the New Year festival of Songkran was about to start.

More on that coming soon...

Posted by TessAndRach 07:12 Archived in Laos Tagged mekong hua xai slowboat Comments (1)

Thai Times - parents, birthdays and an underwater adventure

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We’ve been quiet on the blog front since leaving Myanmar, but in the meantime we’ve had Rachel’s parents visit us on a two week holiday, have both celebrated our birthdays, become advanced SCUBA divers and begun to plan the next stage of our travels, so you’ll appreciate we’ve been pretty busy!

First off after Yangon it was back to Bangkok to meet Julie and Martin where we acted as tour guides for a couple of days. We visited the main temples and led a sort of walking tour that we devised ourselves on our previous visits to BKK that took us around some interesting and photogenic local streets and the narrow back-alleys of Chinatown. The four of us also met up with Jacki & Lou, our new friends from the Myanmar trip who happened to be passing through BKK the same time, for a night out around the backpacker quarter of Banglampoo. This was a hilarious night that involved Julie and Martin drinking buckets of cocktails (they thought they had only ordered glasses, but when buckets arrived, they drank them anyway - us four ladies were much more civilized and had wine) and ended in the 6 of us racing in two tuk-tuks through the streets of BKK back to J&M’s hotel. These parents are such a bad influence!

The itinerary (plus accommodation) for the next couple of weeks had all been managed by R’s mum, which gave us a nice break from researching and planning where to go and how to get there for a while. We also got put up in fancy hotel rooms as our combined Christmas and birthday presents, which meant it was truly a holiday from the backpacking for us…

Our next stop was Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand. We all found the city to be less interesting than we’d imagined (expecting more of an old town look and feel than it actually has) but we had a great time anyway as we were staying in the plush Shangri-La, enjoying the gym, pool and free bar and snacks at ‘happy hour’ every evening. We did partake in some of the activities the region is known for, including a river boat trip and a half-day elephant camp visit. The elephants have all been rescued from private owners or the illegal logging industry, since they cannot be re-introduced to the wild, they are taken in by rescue homes and cared for with the help of tourists who pay to visit them and ride them (bareback only) and help them cool down by bathing them in the river. Well we had never before had a bath with elephants so this was definitely an amazing new experience for us. Julie was not so keen in having a bath in a murky river with several elephants but was useful in taking photos of the rest of us from the river bank!

Next stop was the lovely island of Koh Samui where we stayed in a rather pleasant, eco-friendly resort, Tongsai Bay, rather more luxurious surroundings than we had been used to, with nature all around and a bedroom larger than our house (you could hold a ball in the bathroom alone) and even a novel bathtub on the terrace. The resort had its own little beach from where we made use of the free kayaks for explore the surrounding headlands and nearby bays.

One day we also hired a car for to explore the island, we called it Martin’s Pimp Mobile as it was a bit of a boy racer motor, complete with Go Faster stripes! We stopped off at various view points, swam at a couple of beaches, visited a place with rocks shaped like male and female genitalia named Grandmother and Grandfather rock (?) plus a temple with a mummified monk (this monk had died some 50 years ago and his family noticed that his body was not decomposing so they decided to put him in a glass case, sitting cross legged in his orange robes with black RayBans on his head). This was very strange - a varied day out you could say.

On a different day we took a speed boat to Angthong National Marine Park (a group of 42, mostly uninhabited islands 30km west of Samui) where we stopped off for snorkelling (this was fun with loads of colourful fish, coral, urchins and the like to see. We visited an island with some small but beautiful beaches and kayaked around a little followed by lovely lunch on the beach with amazing views out to smaller islands of the archipelago. Later we visited a blue lagoon which like something out of a Bond movie where the baddie at any moment would appear from the lagoon in spectacular fashion). A very good day out!

The rest of our 8 days on Samui were spent, sunbathing, reading, occasionally visiting the local village and its public beach and obviously sampling the local beers and cocktails. Rachel, Julie and Martin took part in a cookery class with the resort’s senior chef, Tess not being a fan of cooking opted out but managed to always appear when there were courses to be sampled! The week ended with celebrating Rachel’s birthday; this day started with a lovely breakfast where the staff brought R a chocolate cake, candles and all, and a bottle of fizzy wine. After breakfast we went to the local main beach where Tess, Rach and Martin hired jetskis and went zooming around the bays – super fun! (Julie was happy to be photographer). Birthday evening was spent at a restaurant called Dr Frogs; now anyone who know R will also know that she loves frogs so where else to spend her birthday than a place called Dr Frogs, the food was lovely too. A grand day in all!

After the 8 days on Samui it was time to say a sad bye bye to J&M, who were off back to Heathrow via Bangkok and a sad goodbye to the luxury we had enjoyed as for us it was off to the island of Koh Tao, a 2.5 hour boat ride from Samui. Koh Tao is a small forested island with one main village and beach (Sai Ree) and lots of secluded rocky coves. Our main reason for choosing to come here was to learn to Scuba dive – we’d heard from fellow travellers that it was one of the best, and cheapest, places to learn in Thailand, probably the cheapest in the world to do qualifications but also one of the finest places given its abundance of great dive sites. We booked in at Big Blue Diving School and were shown to a 6 bed dorm, which was free if you were diving and so was going to be our home for the next week. Even though we’d just been staying in top notch resorts, this dorm suited us just fine as it was a great place to meet people.

So off we went to learn to Scuba. The Open Water course learning started in the classroom (boring but necessary theory and videos) followed by how to assemble and use the kit, including our air tanks and regulators, buoyancy compensator (BC), weight belt etc. Next it was into a 2m pool to have a go at breathing underwater, learn how to find neutral buoyancy by adjusting the BC and breathing just right, we also learned to cope with mis-haps underwater such as your mask falling off or filling with water or emergencies such as running out of air. All weird things to be doing underwater, but we had fun in our group of 6.

On day 2, after the small matter of passing our exam, it was off to do it for real. A 12m dive at a site with not much to see, while we practised skills underwater to prove we had listened to all the stuff in the pool. All good. On our second dive of the day though, Tess found it extremely hard to equalise her ears (the popping you do on a plane or when subject to pressure changes) and had a lot of pain, eventually she needed to surface early with blood and snot pouring out of her nose and mouth. Not good. Added to the feeling of being almost deaf, this was a bit scary. It was decided that Tess would take a couple of days to recover her sinuses and complete the Open Water course a little later than the rest of the group.

In the meantime R went on to complete the course, keeping quiet to Tess for now about how much better the dive sites were once you got past the 1st day… She signed up immediately to do the advanced course also (4 from our original group of 6 stayed on to do it together with the same instructors Kris and Rich as we made a great gang). After 2 days, T had recovered fully and had learned how to equalise her ears with some tips from diver friends back home and managed to complete the Open Water qualification with no problems at all. She was even fortunate enough to have one to one instruction for her final two dives with Rich who proved to be really good and patient and Tess came back so enthused and confident that she decided there and then to carry on to complete the Advanced Course which R had just done. This involves deep diving to 30m, diving at night and other speciality ‘adventure dives’ such as around a wreck; Rach did some of these dives with Tess as ‘fun dives’ so we did get to do some of the exciting diving together in the end.

The diving proved to be an amazing whole new experience for both of us – it’s like another world down there and so much fun feeling weightless. We saw all kinds of weird and wonderful creatures including pufferfish (Rachel’s favourite because of its cute face), blue spotted sting rays, trigger fish, angel fish, parrot fish, long finned banner fish, many barracuda and even a sleeping turtle on the night-dive! So after a week we were both fully qualified, confident Advanced Open Water Divers able to dive up to 30m anywhere in the world! Hooray! To celebrate, we enjoyed some of Koh Tao’s very lively nightlife and had a most excellent time… Now that we are qualified, we are planning further dives in The Philippines and Indonesia before we come home, so watch this space.

We finally left the beautiful (but also party!) island of Koh Tao, very happy though with a lighter bank balance (we had set aside budget especially for SCUBA though so it’s all ok). We had one final trip through Bangkok which was due to get us to BKK around 5 or 6 am, so we were surprised to be woken at 0230 having arrived already. That left way too many hours to hang around the city before making our way for our flight to Chiang Rai (yes we cheated and booked a flight, we didn’t fancy another overnight bus journey and used the next day being T’s birthday as an excuse), so we got a bed in our favourite ‘chinese laundry’ guest house, for the final time.

Rach had found a good deal on a posh hotel in Chiang Rai for T’s birthday treat so we enjoyed a couple more days in plush surroundings in a nice place by the river with pool, gym and a bar, of course. T’s birthday was spent lazing around, cocktails by the pool and a lovely dinner to finish. All very acceptable! We spent the rest of our time in the town visiting the night markets and the amazing White Temple just out of town, which really stood out from the hundreds of temples that we’ve seen already, it’s creepy depictions of Buddhist hell outside and murals inside including images of Superman, Darth Vader, Angry Birds, Harry Potter and more were a surprise indeed. We liked Chiang Rai – it had a much more Thai feel to it, not so many people spoke English and local dishes were to be tried everywhere. A fitting end to our time in Thailand as from here, it’s only a few hours to the border of Laos, where we will be taking the infamous slow-boat down the Mekong and celebrating Songkran (New Year in these parts.

Posted by TessAndRach 04:55 Archived in Thailand Tagged blue big scuba samui koh tao Comments (0)

Magical Myanmar

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(Phew, this is a bit of a long one, but there is a lot to say about the place - maybe should have done chapters for Myanmar!)

Having followed improvements in the political situation over recent years we have been keen to explore this fascinating country, especially since the lifting of the self-imposed travel boycott (recommended by National League for Democracy leader Aung Sang Su Kyi as new money into the country from tourists was largely going to the military government and thus contributing to the oppression of the people, this changed in 2010 to advice that independent travel could now be a benefit to the country providing travelers take care to limit money reaching the Government and be sure to spread money around). So landing at Yangon airport, we were both excited at the prospect of our Myanmar adventure, having heard many good stories about the place, particularly the people, we knew in our hearts that this step of our travels would be unforgettable.

Now, usually we always take local transport from airports, it’s the best way to get bearings in a new place and see how the locals do it, plus it’s usually the cheapest option by far. Some research into the usual methods, buses, trains, metros, told us however that this was not practical in Yangon. The buses and trains would be so complicated to work out and take an unknown amount of time that even the most hardened travelers advise that here, just take a cab. So, a half-hour taxi ride from the airport (shared with a lovely guy called Adam from Hong Kong) we arrived in the heart of Yangon. We hadn’t arranged anywhere to stay, which some said was foolish given Yangon is recently getting more tourists than it has beds, plus we were arriving in the evening, it is also very expensive by SE Asian standards, $25-$40 for basic rooms…

Well, we strode in to the first place we saw once out of the taxi, a grotty looking place up two dark staircases by the central Sula Paya pagoda in Downtown area. Informed that there were only two dorm beds available, we had to part company (for now, as we do meet again later) with Adam as he goes to try his luck elsewhere. The place turned out to be our first unforgettable Burmese experience – 4 very thin mattresses lined up on the floor of a fairly dingy room. We loved it! We were right in the city centre, the beds were the cheapest in Yangon at $4 each and being in a dorm we met some great folks who we exchanged very useful travel tips with. We both noted that the people we met here were particularly good to talk to, an interesting and informed bunch, even by traveler standards, probably as people that come here tend to be politically aware and fairly well traveled.

That first evening we went for street food with young English gap-year type named Hugo and his German mate who’d been sat drinking rum at the communal area at the guest house hotel (i.e. 4 chairs at the top of the staircase) and decided to join us as we were heading out for food. This was useful as they had already been in Yangon so could tell us the basics such as where the decent cheap food could be found and how much water, snacks and, more importantly, a beer should cost! We soon learned though that all that we had heard about the people of Myanmar was very true, they are a lovely, friendly bunch who do not try to rip you off. Sure, there is often a ‘tourist price’ for things, which is more than locals pay, but it is a fixed price and does not change according to their greed or rely on your bartering ability (in general, there are exceptions to this; particularly taxi drivers who hound you when you get off buses etc, they vastly inflate prices, always walk away and get one on the road people).

Having filled our tummies on a variety of bargainous street snacks it was off to bed – a French couple to one side of us sharing a mattress (that’s right, they were sharing the $4 mattress!) and a nice Russian bloke from Siberia on the other. Fun times.

The following day we were off to explore Yangon properly. What we found was a city a bit like an Indian city, compared to Thailand and Cambodia that is, busy, lots of rubbish (although way more contained than in India), street stalls taking up the pavements (if there are pavements), Indian style cafes, plus lots of red betel spit on the pavements. But the defining difference were the people; smiles and a sense of humour and total honesty were evident from the start. We felt comfortable and happy here.

We wandered around, stopping off to listen to some singing in an Anglican Church (quite lively, entertaining singing by Anglican standards!) and then heading down some bustling market streets to see the river. After all this activity it was time for tea. We happened to walk past The Strand, the grandest hotel in Myanmar, we decided to pop in for a well-deserved posh cuppa. We made the most of it, spending over an hour in there, making use of the excellent wi-fi, finishing the plate of complimentary shortbread and catching up on global happenings in The New York Times. The bill - $10 for a tea and a coffee; more than our accommodation, but worth it for the refreshing experience, and we were sure to enjoy two uses each of the lovely loos!

Refreshed (and with a slightly lighter wallet) we made our way towards the main site of Yangon, The Shedwagon Pagoda. Entry to the main area of this massive, gold stupa should have cost us $8 each (Myanmar uses the US dollar for many ‘tourist’ transactions, with the Myanmar Kyat used for other purchases). Knowing that the entry fee goes directly to the Myanmar Government, still an oppressive military regime, we decided to try to sneak in as we’d heard that this was possible from some angles. We tried 3 separate ways to get in but were stopped each time and pointed to the ‘foreigner ticket booth’ (extremely politely in each case!) and we retreated. We had however manage to get quite close to the main attraction and photos successfully taken, we were satisfied with the result. Happy that we’d prevented the government from buying more weapons with our $16, we headed back towards the city centre where we had arranged to meet up with a friend of a friend who is living and working in Yangon, it was cool to have someone to meet up with and we had a fun night out with Sarah.

The following day we had time to kill before our night bus to Bagan. We spent some of it hanging around in the lovely park across the road from our place, an indication of how lovely Burmese people are occurred in the park. We went to sit down on the slightly damp grass and a teenager immediately ran up to us and smilingly offered us pages from his newspaper to sit on! We were very impressed with his kindness and thoughtfulness.

For our next long journey, we’d paid $3 extra for the VIP bus rather than ‘regular’ for the 11 hour overnight journey to Bagan, we think it was worth the extra as it was the best night-bus we have taken so far and we both managed to get some sleep. Though we remain confused why we had been instructed to leave central Yangon so early for the bus station (3 hours before, meaning we had over 2 hours to wait there, this we have found to be a theme in Myanmar, they like you to be ridiculously early for transport). It was also a little annoying to arrive at 5am, (we had heard that all long distance buses here are scheduled to arrive at their destinations in the early hours this way), although it did mean we avoided paying the Government entry fee for the Bagan area so that was a bonus.

Despite buses arriving at this time every day, guest houses still seem surprised when you turn up at 5:30 am looking for a room. Even so, we found a room easily enough in a place that allowed us to have it immediately meaning we could have a nap before heading out to see Bagan once daylight arrived. It wasn’t a great room though, and at $30, on the expensive side, so the following day we moved to somewhere $5 cheaper, but nicer, around the corner.

Bagan is a highlight of Myanmar, a draw due to its 26-quare mile landscape of ancient temples and stupas, it was once the heart of Bamar culture. We stayed in the village of Nyaung-U, a couple of miles from Old Bagan (and further still from New Bagan), which are closer to the temples, but Nyaung-U is more of a real, living village than the other more tourist oriented parts, plus it is a good bit cheaper. So for our time there we hired bicycles and cycled around the areas temples. Compared to the Angkor ruins of Cambodia, there are no particularly impressive individual temples, but what is special here is the landscape, strewn with them, especially in the early morning and late afternoon light. We watched the sunset over this awesome background and next day got up early to see it rise again. On our way out to find a good sunrise vantage point we passed by some of Bagan’s famous hot air balloons ready for their morning sail (at $300 for an hour this particular activity was way beyond our budget!). Deciding that we have already seen a lot of sunrises but had never watched hot air balloons being inflated or taking off, we settled ourselves in the field to watch this spectacle. It was really fascinating to watch them go up, once they were off we cycled on to some temples we could climb and got some great shots of the landscape with the balloons floating above, which actually added to the scenery rather than detract we thought.

In our guest house we spotted a sign headed “Tired of Temples?”, well, let’s just say this caught our eye. We got talking to an American named Steve who was leading an afternoon boat trip out to see some alternative sights around Bagan including walking tunnels dug by 10th Century monks, a rural village on the river, swimming in the Irrawaddy and watching sunset from a river ‘beach’. It sounded fun so off we went, we had a really fun day capped with us enjoying (our first!) Myanmar beer on the ‘beach’ while watching the sunset over the Irrawaddy, it was a very worthwhile trip and made a refreshing change form cycling around temples. We were also amused by Steve suggesting Rach has a look of Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music (it must be the hair-do), we were again cycling through Bagan temple-wards the next day and hear “How do you solve a problem like Maria…” from across the street, to see Steve cycling the other way. Bagan was a good place.

From there it was onto another of Myanmar’s large cities, Mandalay. We took the relaxed travel option of sailing along the Irrawady, which made a nice change form a long bus journey (sure, it took longer than the bus, but it’s so much nicer to be on a boat). Not too much to say about Manadalay, we did get a good room there (by Myanmar standards) with a fridge and tv (though showed only local channels and Korean soap operas…) and we hired a really lovely cycle-rickshaw (tri-shaw in these parts) driver for the day to take us around the main sites which included more temples, monasteries and pagodas atop hills. Once we’d done this we felt we’d seen Mandalay, we enjoyed the day but it is basically a hot, dusty city and a day’s full-on sightseeing was enough. We moved on to the much more interesting town of Hsipaw, in Shan state (named for the majority Shan people who live there).

Hsipaw is a small town and looks somewhat like set for an old Western film, we felt we might’ve gone back in time a hundred years, and again showing the sense of humour of the people here, in Hsipaw you can buy snacks from Mrs Popcorn’s place, reading material from Mr Book, dinner from Mr Food and hire a comedy trekking guide named Mr Bean! We hired bikes and cycled around getting a good feel for this little place, we saw ‘Little Bagan’ which is a small collection of some old temples in another lovely setting, visited the Shan palace where we learned some fascinating family history from the lovely lady there who invites visitors in daily to hear about the last sawbwa (Shan Prince), her husband’s uncle and what has happened to her family under the military regime. During our first day exploring we kept bumping into Lou and Jacki who’d been on our bus and eventually ended up joining them for dinner. We all got along great and so were pleased to discover we had all booked on to the same 2-day trek into the hills.

The trek turned out to be one of the most worthwhile experiences of our trip, though it certainly was not the gentle stroll to some villages we had been led to believe, this was very much hill trekking and hard work. We were a fun group of 6, us four plus Australia living Brits Tracey and Mark. Our guide was a lovely, gentle soul with smiley eyes called Somani who took us through charming Shan and Paulang villages and described the nature, landscape and more usefully the rather strange mixture of food at mealtimes. We stopped off for lunch in the village of Pankam, where we ate tea leaf salad, peanuts, rice and all manner of strange soups and salads made from local plants. Rachel who is famed by her family for eating ‘anything’ took a grim view of the food and by the second day was not much for eating it, the flavours were definitely bizarre, things like flower salad, which sounded nice, were not, a little too much shrimp paste coating everything! We spent a night in a typical village house in Thansam, all 6 of us plus our guide and a few village kids on the floor of a big wooden room above a shop. It felt like a grown up sleepover, even down to getting tucked in by the funny but scary grandmother, it was hilarious and we giggled like St Trinians girls which made us scared of being told off by ‘grandma’ for making noise after lights out! We all slept very well though, as you do after a day walking mostly uphill! Also the evening had turned out to be a late one as the village was out in force rehearsing for the following days’ celebration of their Monks’ graduation; there was a big stage with a band and local dancing and ladies dressed in traditional costume. It was very fun to be part of this and we were welcomed warmly to participate in the festivities, memorable indeed.

The following morning we made our way back to Hsipaw, all quite weary, achey and sun baked, but very happy with the experience. The gang all met up later for a merry evening of well-deserved post trek beers and food, except for Rach and Lou who were feeling a little sickly from the sun exposure and had to have early nights, boo.

Next up on our Myanmar adventure was a train journey that is touted as one of the world’s must-do rides, from Hsipaw to the old British colonial town of Pyin Oo Lwin (which we think must have been named by a Welshman!). By only part coincidence, everyone from our trekking group was on the same train, so the following morning we were once again reunited for the snail paced 6 hour journey, we were pleased Jacki and Lou were heading the same way though and we planned to stick together at the other end. The scenery was fantastic, rolling at 20km/h through stunning Burmese paddy fields, villages and mountain regions. There was a very scary bit (well, Tess thought it was very scary, everyone else was hanging out of the windows, T was almost crying) along a very high viaduct over a deep valley. This was the highlight of the journey for most, though not one that T wants to repeat, but at least she can say she’s done it.

Pyin is an interesting little town, combining typical Burmese streets with big colonial mansions left over from when the British used the town as a cool hill station retreat. We hired a horse and carriage (the thing to do here) with Jacki and Lou to take us around the town and see a few sights which was a rather fun way to do it (and we were pleased to be assured by Jacki, who knows horses, that they were in very good condition, which meant it was ok to do this!) The four of us also had a ‘night out’ to a nice restaurant which had some surprisingly nice Myanmar wine, the food was average at best but the company made up for it. It had been really nice to have friends to hang out with for a few days but after Pyin Oo Lwin, Lou & Jacki were heading on to Bagan where we had already been, and we to Inle Lake.

So it was just the two of us again for a few days in the touristy but agreeable village of Nyaungshwe, just a couple of miles downriver from the shores of Inle Lake, famous for the unique one-legged rowing technique of its fishermen and attractive stilted villages that surround. (Unfortunately here we were hit with the $10 government entry fee on arrival, they were waitng when our bus pulled into Nyaunshwe). Soon after arriving we went for a wander through town to get our bearings, we didn’t have to wait long before a nice looking boatowner approached us asking if we wanted a boat trip for the following morning. As this was in our plan, we settled on a price and agreed to meet at the jetty at 7.30am. The rest of the day was spent chilling out after the long bus from Pyin.

The boat ride was one of our highlights, not just of Myanmar, but of the whole trip. We saw lovely villages on stilts, learned all about local cotttage industries including cotton and silk production (this part was rather like a sunnier version of Quarry Bank Mill outside Manchester), saw how the local cigars (cheroots) are made, saw floating vegetable gardens, had a yummy lunch with amazing views and of course witnessed plenty of leg rowing, which was quite baffling to watch - how do they manage it?! It was well worth the 15,000 kyat (£10) for the day.

We hired bikes for the next two days to explore the outskirts of Nyaungshwe. We visited a winery a few km from town for wine tasting of the local Red Mountain brand, the red was horrible (the one in the tasting selection anyway, their other red was the nice one we had tried in the restaurant a few days before), the whites were quite nice. The views from the winery were great though so we spent some time there chatting to some French people from Biarritz, who of course disliked the red wine intensely (“c’est un vin etrange!”)! Another day, another sweaty bike ride, took us 10km along some rough and very dusty terrain to a village on the lake followed by a hot spring. The hot spring was quite expensive ($10 for the ‘tourist’ pools) but was a nice way to relax for a couple of hours, good after the long cycle!

Our last day at Inle was quiet but livened up by the arrival of Jacki and Lou. We met for coffee and after an early dinner with them it was off to catch the bus for us, back to our starting point of Yangon and the finishing leg of our most excellent Burmese adventure. Next, a two week Thai holiday with Rach’s parents, fancy hotels and all, can’t wait.

Posted by TessAndRach 20:05 Archived in Myanmar Tagged bus backpack budget myanmar government fees independent Comments (0)

Angkor, What?

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We took a bus from Bangkok’s Northern Bus Terminal Mo Chit to the Cambodian border without much hassle (turn up, buy ticket, buy snacks, get on next departing bus, off we go). Rather than take yet another 3 hour bus after crossing the border, we planned to spend the night at the border to get going first thing next morning. We used the most ‘popular’ border crossing at Aranyaprathet/Poipet and had heard and read lots about the numerous scams designed to fleece cash out of unwary tourists for visa services etc and were careful to avoid these, making our own way through the border and getting the visa on arrival without issue. Next obstacle was by-passing the touts and police on the Cambodian side who try to force you on to ‘official’ shuttle buses, which then take you miles out of town to a bus depot where you have to buy overpriced tickets for buses that take hours to your destination stopping at numerous restaurants, all owned by people in on this monopoly transport scam. The fact that the police are in on this mafia business is a pretty bad business, many people believe they do have to take the bus as uniformed guys tell them so, but not the case, you can enter Poipet on foot, stay there if you like, wherever you choose and book a bus with any other company, for half the price.

Anyone heading to this border – beware of this, you can’t even flag a tuk-tuk near the border as the police shoo them away, you need to get away from that area. However, having successfully by-passed all these con-artists, we saw the dark side of the (already dark and grotty) border town, Rach took her phone out to check where we were on the GPS map and had her handset snatched out of her hand, it was off down a dark alley before we knew what was going on. Two local men chased the fellow but didn’t catch him, so lesson learned there, be extra vigilant in rough border towns and do not get a phone out on a dark street – you’d think we hadn’t lived in Manchester all these years!

As a result the next morning was spent finding some police to allow us to report this, we were a little apprehensive given the police being involved in the local mafia but in the end we were taken to the station by two fairly pleasant police officers who sorted a report for us and took contact details in case they catch the guy with the phone, we’re not holding our breath though.

Enough of the horror stories, onto Siam Reap and the Angkor Ruins, the primary reason for any visit to Cambodia really. We found a fairly nice room in a chilled out wooden-paneled guest house for $6 and next morning hired decent mountain bikes and set off after breakfast to get our 3-day tickets and got the most famous Angkor Wat temple complex ticked off first. This reminded us rather a lot of the Taj Mahal, especially with the numbers of visitors walking the long path towards the ‘main event’. There were impressive carvings but the whole thing was a little too touristy and less awe-imspiring than we had hoped…

After here we cycled further towards Angkor Thom, the largest complex of ruins, en route we stopped at a small temple set just back from the road with no people, there we climbed one of the steepest (also uneven and crumbling) set of stairs imaginable to the temple. There was nothing remarkable about this one but it was nice and quiet and back at the bottom we got chatting to a French chap named David (he had asked if the temple was worth the obviously difficult steps, we said not really). As David was also cycling the ruins we decided to continue on together. The three of us went on to Angkor Thom and were much more wowed with this than the first, especially the Bayon, with its stone-carved faces looking out from every angle. We had lunch at a stall near there, after some impressive haggling from David got us some veg noodles for $1.50 rather than the listed $4.50 which was just extortionate!

Note on money, Cambodia uses a duel currency system with all but small items quoted in USD, a dollar is worth 1000 Cambodian Riel and the two can be used interchangeably. The Riel is given as change for anything less than £1 and used for small purchases, though in practice most items are rounded up to £1, especially for foreigners, we soon tired of asking "How much for a pineapple?", "how much for a coconut?" "how much for a beer?" - pretty much everything small item is $1!. Also, there are no coins in use in the country (that’s your pub-quiz trivia for the day).

We went on to further temples with David before parting ways. The following morning we got up and out on the bikes early to catch the morning light, and cooler temperatures, although it still got extremely hot and sweaty even by 9.30am. Then we visited what was to be Rachel’s favourite of all the Angkor temples (Tess prefers the Bayon), Ta Phrom, very gothic ruins with spectacular trees growing through the stone ruins, (it was used as set for Tomb Raider). In all we cycled over 50km over the two days around the Angkor ruins. Even though this was an extremely sweaty business, it was brilliant and definitely one of our top ten experiences so far.

Luckily, on account of the stifling heat and humidity, we were staying near a hotel with a pool which allowed anyone to use it if you bought something, so we went for much deserved (after the cycling) cool down swims. To keep our fitness regime going we also utilized a nearby gym which had decentt equipment (Tess having worked and trained in gyms for many, many years was quite impressed with the stuff), although the lack of air conditioning made the workout very sweaty too! We also visited the famous ‘Pub Street’ – so named because, funnily enough, it is full of pubs, still including its very first established 1998 - ‘Angkor What?’; however, we didn’t ruin our gym/cycling healthiness this time around and only had some food and tonic water (!) The market close by to Pub Street was fairly good, T bought two T-shirts for $5 as her clothes are starting to either fall apart or become so ingrained with dirt as to be un-washable. Mothers note: we are staying as clean and acceptable looking as possible, even though this is a challenge in some places!

Before leaving Siem Reap we took a tuk-tuk (we’d done enough cycling!) out to the ancient Hindu temples at Phnom Krom, 12 Kms from Siam Reap on a hill looking out to the Tonle Sap lake. We went there for sunset and these ruins were a real surprise. Unlike any other Hindu temples we have seen (and that is many by now), these were ageing, greening-yellow towers, really spooky and looking more like Count Duckula’s house than anything else. Very cool though especially in the late afternoon light. We also enjoyed seeing out to Tonle Sap Lake; in wet season the lake swells to 5 times its dry season area, because of this the villages surrounding the hill are all stilted. The views were great, but we made our way down from there before the sun got too low, it was just a bit too creepy, and there were no other people, just a lone black cat that Rach decided was definitely man-eating. This was a good trip to end on though, especially as the road to the hill temples travels past local villages that felt more like real Cambodia than touristy Siam Reap, a really interesting journey.

After Siem Reap we headed to the capital city, Phnom Penh. The primary things to visit here are the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former school where the Khmer Rouge held and tortured prisoners, and the Killing Fields at Choeng Ek where prisoners were executed and buried in mass graves. What struck us most about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge genocide was how recent it was. Of course in Europe WWII happened in living memory, but here we were reading about horrendous mass genocide in 1977, the year Tess was born, and later, really difficult to imagine for us. To cheer ourselves up after a day in the history of the Khmer Rouge, we strolled the streets of Phnom Penh and along the promenade-like riverside. We had fun sitting in a park watching large groups take part in open-air dance workout classes in the evening and got very excited (especially Rachel) at finding HP sauce in our guest house (first time we had seen this since leaving UK), this necessitated ordering some chips just so we could smother them in it, yum.

Onwards and south-wards we took a bus to the seaside town of Kep, famed for its French colonial buildings and seafood stalls. Well, there really isn’t much to say about the place, while it looked good on paper it was very small and there is really not much there, we did meet a really nice British/Brazilian guy named Andy who made the evening and daytime spent there much more enjoyable. We took a 20 minute boat trip to nearby Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island) and spend the night there, which was the best thing to do in Kep. The island is nothing spectacular compared to some in SE Asia, but its small size and un-developed state made it peaceful and relaxing, we did snorkeling and saw lots of colourful fish, some coral and even a seahorse. This place was a good time to sample our first (can you believe it) Cambodian beer, so a couple of Angkor beers were had as we lounged in hammocks and swam in the lovely green sea, good stuff. Tess also got chatting to a young Polish family, a couple who were traveling around the world with their 3-year old daughter, wow!

We soon got on the road again to the riverside town of Kampot. The town itself was nothing special but staying in stilted bungalows by the riverside with lots of river diving and swimming was a fun way to spend a couple of days. Rachel ‘cruelly’ made Tess ‘walk the plank’ each morning into the river (T is soft when it comes to entering water and likes to do so an inch at a time, this is not how one enters a river!) We met fellow travelers in the (loud) bar of the place next to ours and fascinated everyone by again adding HP Sauce to some chips. Despite it being behind the bar even the (really bonkers but fun) Cambodian bar girl didn’t know what it was, so we let her, some Americans, a French girl, and whoever else was sat nearby sample chips and HP, they were converted. Later an American guy asked if there was any sour cream for his burrito, the lady behind the bar scoffed and handed him HP, he took it, our work here was done.

Another day, another bus journey, this time to the seaside resort of Silhanoukville, the trip there was a breeze as bus journeys on our travels go, only 2 hours and passed really quickly talking to a British traveler about places, people, photography and food. Sihanoukville itself is nothing to write home about, there are some cool backpacker places and a clean enough but too cluttered beach. The place is full of old fat western men there for the ‘sex tourism’, we noticed bars run by blokes who were obviously pimps, and the aggressive treatment of ‘their girls’, not good. In some of the more pleasant bars we passed a couple of days enjoying some beers, games of pool and live music while we made arrangements to go to the nearby island of Koh Rong Samloem.

The island and the larger Koh Rong next door are Cambodia’s answer to the tropical islands of Thailand and are touted as being the ‘next big thing’ in SE Asia, so we each can say to our young nephews in 15 years when they are going there partying that “I was there when there was nothing my lad…”. We stayed in two different places on KRS, two nights on the west-facing ‘sunset beach’ and another two on the, more lively long white beach on the Saracen Bay side. It was a real tropical island experience, lush turquoise waters, coral and surf (on one side), powder-white sand, hammock lounging and partying on the other. We even attended our first Full Moon Party, it wasn’t all that to be honest and not really our thing… Maybe a bigger one in Thailand would be more enjoyable, or maybe we’re just too old for these things!

So as not to end this entry on tales of tropical islands that might make our beloved friends and family back home hate us, you should hear about the less fun side of spending time on a jungle island. We were tormented by bugs. We found the bed in our stilted shack on the sunset beach side of the island was crawling with ants (only at bedtime, it was clear with clean sheets when we'd arrived), we tried to divert them and thought we had done so but were woken by 6am itching with ants in our pants and everywhere else, it felt like we were about to be carried off like Gulliver on his travels! Despite no identifiable attraction in the bed (no food, nothing) the ants returned the second night, we didn’t bother going to bed, Rachel slept in the hammock on the porch and Tess made a bed on the lounge chairs by the beach – driven from our bed by tiny ants! Then there were the ‘jungle mice’ (everything here is given the prefix jungle to make it sound more exotic, but really, we’re talking about big mice), that climbed along the rope from which Tess had hung our only food item in the room, a bag of shelled-peanuts, and helped themselves, tossing some nuts to the floor where they could merrily and noisily munch through them. Away from the hut we were almost bitten to death by mosquitos and other beasties, especially on the feet and ankles during the trek through the jungle to cross the island. They are the most incredibly itchy bites and in really horrid places like the soles of the feet and between toes, aaaargh. These are the perils of living on a beautiful jungle-forested, tropical island – you do not get much sleep and spend the days itching like crazy, we needed a quiet night back in Sihanoukville for a good long sleep to recover.

So our last day in Cambodia was spent back in Sihanoukville, resting, eating cheap but very yummy hummus wraps and trying unsuccessfully to withdraw dollars for our next trip to Myanmar (you have to go to Myanmar with all your spending money in cash as there are very few ATMs and no other access to your money in most parts). We decided to go to a small local cinema in the evening to watch the very recent Wolf of Wallstreet, film which was very entertaining,, it turned out to be an excellent experience – a room with about 8 sofas, comfy cushions and sweet and savoury snacks made it feel like we were sat in our living room at home – there was even a cat sat on the sofa next to us.

In summary, our overall impressions of Cambodia were very good – we liked the people, the food was good (but not as flavoursome as Thai and most of the places were very catered very much to Western tastes, hence the chips and hummus wraps!) and the beaches were lovely. We do have some concerns though about the speed of development in the country which is in danger of spoiling some lovely places, and along with this the boom in the sex tourism trade. We recommend visiting Cambodia soon, before things change too much in some parts...

Making our way back to Bangkok from where we have a flight book to Yangon in Myanmar, we broke the journey by spending a night in the small but pleasant town of Trat (we took a different border crossing on the return, not wanting to re-visit the grim Poipet and having heard Trat was worth a look). From here we zoomed back to Bangkok in a v speedy minibus, back to the place we had previously stayed, rearranged our luggage (we have left one of the big bags with them so we have less to carry for a while, since we are returning to BK yet again) and got set for Myanmar the next day and the new adventures it would bring.

Posted by TessAndRach 01:13 Archived in Cambodia Tagged kampot backpack angkor ta phrom koh reap siam sihanoukville traveler phnom penh kep rong samloem Comments (0)

First Taste of Thailand

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We landed in Bangkok’s DMK airport at 3am. As with our overnight train to Pondy a few days earlier, we’d had hoped for some slight delays so that our arrival time might be a little more conducive to getting a train or bus to the city centre and finding somewhere to stay, preferably once daylight had arrived. But alas, the times that a delay would be useful, everything runs like clockwork, we took off on time, landed early, bags were efficiently on belt, no queue at passport control, nothing to delay us one bit from ending up in the airport lobby at a ridiculous hour.

So we did what plenty others seemed to be doing and made ourselves comfortable in the arrivals lounge to wait for a while, not really fancying tackling Thailand’s capital city at that time of night. We got ourselves a coffee and got chatting to a French girl, who interestingly had decided to give living in India a go (with an Indian guy she’d met just a week earlier!) - she was on a visa run, so had no particular plans for Thailand, was just there for a couple of weeks until she could go back to India... Anyway, we kept each other company and by 5.30am decided to investigate the trains. Luckily, the Thai people were helpful and friendly, helping us out when we looked lost or confused, without us having to ask. We got our train tickets and were soon on our way, a bit tired (having pretty much been awake all night, except maybe 30 minutes snooze on the flight), but quite excited.

We decided to do the typical backpacker thing and stay in the Banglamphu area, around notorious Koh San Road, the most famous and busy tourist area in Bangkok, crammed with bars, shops peddling various hippy gear, an abundance of massage parlours and numerous (con-artist) tour agents. We found a place to stay that was cheap as chips and which we really liked, even though it was like a Chinese laundry with really basic rooms and signs saying that if guests bring back a Thai girl, they would have to pay an extra 200 Baht... Welcome to Bangkok!

Our mission whilst in BK was to arrange visas for Myanmar at the Embassy. This was across town but we found the river bus an excellent way to get there. We were a little shocked to see a snaked queue out of the door when we arrived. But there was actually an orderly system (praise be for queues, never anything so ordered in India!), we picked up forms from the front and filled them in as we queued, after around 2 hours, paid 810 Baht each (around £17) and were told to come back in two days to collect our passports. Sorted. Now we had time to explore the city.

We started with a wander that passed some of the obligatory temples, though we didn’t pay to go into any as we’ll be doing that in March on our ‘holiday’ with R’s parents. We explored China Town including fascinating backstreets with all kinds of activity going on and we walked around the outside of The Royal Palace. Speaking of royals, we must mention the Thai Royal Family. Thai people love their King. His picture is everywhere. Massive gold-framed portraits line all the big streets, his image is in front of all important buildings, his face is on stickers on people’s cars, on all the banknotes of course, portraits hang in bars, cafes and restaurants, his image adorns large plinths on road intersections, he looks at you from almost every corner. We first saw at the airport train station, surrounded by candles, flowers and incense. They really do love the king, and it is a major offense to publicly criticize the royal family. It may sound strange, but it’s actually quite nice that he is so revered. Long live the King!

So after a couple of days of getting to know the streets and familiarizing ourselves with Thai food (yums) and everything else, we had a night out around Koh San Road, familiarizing ourselves with the local brews. This was all in the name of research, you must understand. Rachel’s mum and step-dad are flying out to Bangkok in March to see us and we feel obliged to take them to the best watering holes around.

Our first impressions of Bangkok were good ones. The people are friendly and smiley, the food is lip-smackingly yummy and the city itself is buzzing and lively. The only downside is probably the transport network, which is a little under developed for such a large and cosmopolitan place. The metro and sky-train networks currently cover only half the city, and typically not the half you want to go to! Also taxis and tuk-tuk drivers are elusive and when you do want one invariably refuse to go the direction you want, leaving you pretty-much dependent on walking to and from the river and using the river ferry service, even if where your journey starts and ends is not by the river. But compared to India, well, it can’t be compared really.

This brings us to a few differences we noticed, having spent so long on the Indian sub-continent, let’s do some compare and contrast:
- Peace on the streets: one of the first things we noticed when we got off the train in central BK was the peaceful streets, the incessant beeping that is ubiquitous with Indian roads, does not happen here. They also drive in lanes (!) and stick to the appropriate side of the road. It’s all rather a relief to be honest.
- Friendliness: don’t get us wrong, we met some lovely Indians, but in general their nature is more severe and less friendly than Thais. There is also the staring, especially by men, which became a bit tiresome in India. We felt a difference as soon as we boarded the (Thai-owned) Air Asia plane in Chennai, the air stewards were so smiley and welcoming (incredibly pretty too, and that was just the boys!). Related to this, we are not interesting to Thais, we can walk down the street without anyone shouting across to ask where we’re from, where we or going, or trying to stick their phone in our faces to take a photo, here, they just leave us in peace.
- Women exist: a striking difference is the visibility of women. In India they are largely hidden and the streets, stations, everywhere filled with men. In Bangkok women were everywhere, running stalls, working in shops, restaurants and bars, or simply walking on the streets, alone, without male escorts.
- T.E.S.S = Text: This is a similarity and actually seems to be something true to Asian countries in general. People do not understand the name ‘Tess’, they almost always think it is ‘Text’, even when spelt out for them. They don’t have too much trouble with Rachel, despite it not being a familiar name to them. We think they expect more syllables and wait to hear what comes next. T’s full name Teresa makes them happier, they understand that, and can say ‘Oh, like Mother Teresa!’
- Thousands of switches: a very weird thing in India was that almost every room we stayed in had at least 15 redundant switches in. Every time we got a new room we had to switch them all on and off to identify the two that actually did anything, i.e. turn on the light and the fan. We have not noticed this strange phenomenon in Thailand.
- Tell me Lies: Also true in both countries is that you can’t always believe what folks tell you, particularly touts and tuk-tuk drivers. In both countries, though more so in India, you will be ‘informed’ that a sight, hotel, restaurant or whatever, is closed, in attempt to divert you to a place they are linked to or get commission from. Tut tut.
- Drinking culture: In Thailand you can buy alcohol anywhere and even drink it walking down the street if you want to (not that we would of course, but it’s nice to know you can ;-) and yet, we saw no problems with drinking other than the odd drunken gap-year type down Kao San Road. In India there is a very strange relationship with booze. It differs place to place and in some parts there are no issues (Mumbai and Goa for example), but in other areas there are strict licensing laws that mean bars and Off-Shops are hidden away down seedy back streets. Indians also generally can’t just enjoy a leisurely beer, when you do find booze it is almost always super-strength beer or whisky-type spirits, Amusingly we only seemed to fancy a drink when we were in the places it was difficult to do so. In Varanassi we had beers lowered down to us in an opaque bag on a pulley system from an upstairs window, in Kerala, despite all the restaurants having Kingfisher (Indian lager) advertised on their umbrellas, ashtrays etc, when we ordered a beer it was served in ceramic cups and the bottles hidden away so no-one could see what you were drinking. Very strange indeed. These rules do nothing to curb drinking however, in Kerala, which has such strict rules, the drinking per capita is highest of all the Indian states, showing yet again that prohibition doesn’t work...

No doubt in time we will come to miss the chaotic, loud, vibrant craziness of India but for now, Thailand is a welcome relief. Just to end on a more positive note for India though, Thailand is not nearly as colourful!

But enough of that, back to our adventures new. After collecting our passports, complete with Myanmar visa, from the embassy, we took a bus to Kanachanaburi, home of the famous ‘Bridge Over the River Kwai’. Fascinating fact about that for you, when the book was written the author had never actually visited the area, he knew the "Death Railway" ran by the river Kwae, yet the bridge does not actually cross it but its subsidiary the Mae Khlung. So after the film was made and folks started to come here expecting to see a bridge over river Kwae, the locals had a dilemma, ‘cos there wasn't one. So they renamed the Mae Khlung, but that's a bit of a cheat really! It was a nice place though, despite its grim history with the infamous ‘Death Railway’. We visited the museum on the railway which was an informative if not a fun-filled outing. We learned there is a film out this week about it – The Railway Man, starring Colin Firth - it looks worth a watch if anyone fancies the cinema this month.

Not too far from Kanchanaburi is a national park containing the Erawan falls, we went there for the day and had a great time swimming in the pools, one of which did a fine job as a natural Water Park, having a large swinging tree branch over the water and two massive rocks which you could slide down into the water, Rachel had much fun here!

From here we headed back to Bangkok, an annoying journey that took four and a half hours even though on the way there the bus had taken only two (we had been thinking that Thai transport was so much more efficient than in India, but this journey proved otherwise). This made us late for an already brief meet-up with Hannah and Julia who were on their way back to Manchester (via BK airport) at the end of a two-week Thai holiday. We did manage to reach them eventually and had a lovely catch up over a few beers before they dashed off for their flight, and we went to pack-up our stuff ready to set off for Cambodia the following morning.

Posted by TessAndRach 01:24 Archived in Thailand Tagged bangkok san backpacker traveler kanchanaburi kao Comments (0)

The end of India - Hampi to Tamil Nadu

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We were sad to leave Goa, even though it’s not like we’re going home and back to work or anything, but onwards to more adventures, yet sad we were, we *really* like Agonda and had had such a lovely relaxing, happy week there; the best first week in January ever! We left there on another sleeper bus, this one just us and tens of other western tourists, Goa to Hampi not a journey that Indians take it seems. It was an interesting journey, some police got onboard at the state border with Karnataka to check if anyone was drinking alcohol (different laws in different states, see), they ended up arguing with a group of Russians who were drinking spirits from plastic cups (typical Russians, we did snigger from behind our curtain!) The Russian folks suggested if they finished the bottle there and then they would then not be taking open bottles into Karnataka, amusing response we thought... Police not so much amused however and made them pay a few hundred rupees ‘fine’ (bribe?), well this brought entertainment to our journey at least.

But then, onto Hampi - known for its amazing landscape, and it was just that, it feels like a Flintstones Theme Park, large pinkey-orange rocks and boulders either side of a lovely green river with temples dotted about all around. Here was a bit of a hippy-vibe overload, it was like an alternative traveler universe with lots of dreadlocks, juggling, smoking and the like (despite Rach having had dreads for 8 years and spending many an hour in Manchester’s Aflecks Palace, even she has never seen so many dreadlocks and so much tie-dye in one place!). In summary, Hampi is really just a collection of rocks and temples, but it just has to be seen, the landscape is wonderful, plus the main attraction is simply ‘the vibe’. We had there our cheapest room yet at just 200 rupees (£2) – a semi-detached thatched cottage, well not as fancy as it sounds, really just a room with a mattress on the floor, mozzie net and a shelf, toilet and cold tap ‘shower’ outside, but it suited us well and was in a lovely setting amongst palm trees and rice paddies.

Hiring bicycles on the second day was a great way to get around and explore the fascinating landscape, even though it was sweltering. We had been recommended a visit to a nearby lake, so a swim to cool down was very welcome; we were somewhat alarmed by warnings around the lake to beware of crocodiles, but we’d been told it was the thing to do there and had we had passed lots of other groups swimming, diving in from rocks etc, so we did; we found a private little ‘beach’ on some large rocks and had cooling swims in the lovely green water, it was very nice indeed.

In the evenings we went to watch the sun go down from a point on rocky boulders that look out over the lovely river, with temples in the background and the late afternoon sun putting this whole fascinating landscape into a beautiful golden glow with a live music soundtrack provided by the gathered traveler-types, a few drums, guitars and even a trombone, this was very cool. Overall Hampi is a must see place in India and totally provides the serene hippy-traveler vibe that you imagine goes with backpacking around India.

Our next stop was Mysore, (yes, it is very tempting to add ‘arse’…), it was a late addition to the itinerary but to break the journey between there and Kerala it was either there or Bangaluru (Bangalore). Despite reading that Bangaluru literally means ‘town of boiled beans’, which was pretty funny, we figured that having seen a few large Indian cities, we could imagine what it would be like, and we heard Mysore was more interesting. Well, it was a fairly nice city but a bit dull after Hampi and Goa. It seemed to us a little like the Manchester of India, a good place to live probably (friendly locals and decent standard of living - it was very clean by Indian standards, orderly, with nice areas such as nature park and lake) but not an awful lot to see in terms of tourist attractions. Notably it had a surprising number of cinemas (seemed like one on every corner), including one next door to our room that was so loud we could hear the whole film from our bed. The Maharaja’s Palace is the main thing to see in Mysore, it was worth going to look at and even though it was heaving, mostly with Indian tourists, and was also quite spectacular at night when it is lit by 100,000 lightbulbs (though only at weekends, and only for about an hour). The market place was good for a meander through, with the usual vibrant, noisy atmosphere filled with colourful, fragrant stalls of fruit/veg, incense, flowers, spices... Apparently you haven’t seen South India till you’ve been to Mysore, so there we are, we’ve been; we didn’t dislike it, but feel there would be no need to return, if we’re honest.

From there it was on to Kerala, the state famous for its lush landscape and serene boat rides through the backwaters. First stop was Cochin, an old colonial port town (Dutch, British and Portuguese!). Its streets and buildings were pretty, the atmosphere relaxed, but the grubby beach with big tankers passing close by made Goan beaches seem like a far-away paradise. We wandered around and spotted the famous Chinese fishing nets (basically big bamboo structures constructed into a lever system which take 4-5 men to work in order to heave the nets out). We hired bikes, cycled around an area called Jew Town, with its own Synagogue and visited the Dutch Palace (not really a Palace, an old building once renovated by the Dutch and now a museum dedicated to Kerala’s history). One thing we really noticed here was the heat and humidity, even after 4 months in the sub-continent we could tell that we had now reached the furthest south we have been (ever, in the world!), very sweaty indeed.

After Chochin we took a local bus to Alleppey, we were stood up squished against our bags for the 2-hour journey, but this is nothing to us now! We had taken a recommendation for a place to stay from an Irish guy we got to know in Hampi, place leading straight onto a nice quiet part of the beach, with hammocks and palm trees. It was a bit fancier than our usual level of room but it was lovely for a few days. The sea there as very different from up the coast in Goa, not too swim-friendly with swirling currents and mad, ever changing surface, when we sat by it in the evening we could feel blasts of warm air coming in with the waves, quite scary actually, we only went as far as we could still stand up and only for a cool down during the day.

The ultimate Kerala experience however is a tour of the backwaters, this is really what we came to Allepey for (Goa is for beaches and swimming, Kerala is for touring its lush backwaters). We took a day trip that included a local ferry ride out of town before switching to narrow canoes that allowed us to travel the smallest and narrowest of the waterways, passing local villages and stopping for both breakfast and lunch at gorgeous water-side settings. This was an experience that met and exceeded our expectations, a definite tick in the box of ‘things to do before you die’!

We left Allepey happy, and headed to beachside resort of Varkala, traveling by ferry through the wider waterways, a relaxing way to travel, even though at 8 hours it was almost 3 times the journey time that a bus would’ve been... Varkala was good, really gorgeous turquoise sea and a great beach below a palm fringed cliff with good swimming, it was very touristy though, and expensive with it for some things. Still it was an easy, relaxing couple of days.

From there we went the furthest south it is possible to go on the Indian sub-continent (though not quite the southern-most point of India which is claimed by one of the Andaman Islands, which are actually off the coast of Myanmar). While we knew there was not a lot to see in the town of Kanyakumari, we felt it would make a poignant end to our Indian journey if we visited the southern-most tip, the Cape of Comorin. It’s true, there is not much to keep you there, but is was special, this is the point at which you can watch the sun rise over the Bay of Bengal to the East and set over the Arabian Sea to the West, and looking out to the south is the Indian Ocean where next stop is Antarctica. We were very glad to have seen this, though it was incredibly windy and strangely part of the ‘promenade looked rather like Blackpool (well Cleveleys actually!). To pass out our mere 25 hours there we had to take a very relaxed approach to visiting the town’s other sights including a museum about the ‘Wandering Monk’ and a Ghandi memorial where his ashes were taken for two weeks before immersion in the sea, so the memorial looks up towards the entire country he is considered father of. It is quite literally the end of the line though, the very end of the Indian rail network, from here it is possible to take India's longest single rail journey all the way up to Jammu & Kasmir, should you like trains and have 4 days to spare...

A fitting end this was, but not quite the end... Our final stop in India is the French colonial city of Puducherry (previously and better-known as Pondicherry). We arrived very early in the morning, having had to get off the train from Varkala at the grim hour of 3.30am at Villapuram Junction (of course this would be only one of three trains to be on time during our entire journey around India, when we have to get up and off at such an ungodly hour!). There we wait 2 hours for the first train to Pondicherry. Slightly sleepily we wandered towards the French Quarter to find a place to call home for two nights. We luckily stumbled upon a lovely French style ‘heritage hotel’ with nice rooms and a fine wooden terrace overlooking a ‘boulevard’ (when I say boulevard I mean a wide-ish cobbled street with trees and hardly any traffic but, still India, with a few smelly areas and litter scattered around). We’d heard of the main promenade by the sea and its apparent resemblance to Southern France’s Nice (and we’d also seen Rick Stein’s India programme, as well as having read Life of Pi) so we were quite excited walking down to it. In reality it is just a stretch of seaside front that in Europe would seem quite dull. But to us, at this point in our travels, it did seem like a bit of familiarity that we had not had for 4 months. We walked down it, found a supermarket that sold cheese (not slime in a can that passes for cheese elsewhere in India) and yoghurt – our first dairy real products of this sort since home – plus a beer shop selling port and beer. Happy toasting to the culmination of our Indian travels! We spent the evening eating blue cheese, drinking port and chatting in French to Indian boys from Varanassi. It was quite surreal.

So onwards it is to Thailand. India has been an amazing experience – alien in so many ways but fascinating, colourful and downright bizarre. We will both miss it. But at the same time we are ready to move on and see what the countries across the Bay of Bengal have to offer. SE Asia, here we come!

Posted by TessAndRach 06:13 Archived in India Tagged backwaters pondicherry kerela hampi kanyakumari Comments (1)

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