Saturday, 12 September 2015


Before we knew it we were in the Thai capital of Bangkok. Known as the city that never sleeps I had read and heard so many stories that I was excitedly keen to experience it for myself. Tragically only a week before we arrived there had been a bomb planted at the Erawan Temple in one of the more touristic areas, killing many people so naturally that played on my mind.
Our time in the capital was to be a short one before we went south to the islands so on our first day there I hopped on the battered, hot public bus and after what felt like a lifetime in traffic, eventually arrived at the legendary Jatujak weekend market which has over 8000 stalls covering 35 acres! Here I spent a few hours browsing the stalls selling a menagerie of wares from clothes and jewellery, fake flowers and candles to live animals!! Like the frugal backpacker I am, I only bought a fridge magnet before picking up some food and retreating to the shade in the neighbouring park to read my book and, my favourite pastime, people-watch. All in all a pleasantly relaxing day in the midst of the buzzing city of Bangkok. The next day I spent cooped up in the Indian embassy applying for my visa, and then it was time for the night bus which would mark the start of the island hopping chapter of our story. 

Luang Namtha

The last place we were to visit in Laos was Luang Namtha, a small town close to the Chinese border. We came here to break the long journey into Thailand up, and also to experience some of rural Laotian way of life.
On our first day we hired some bicycles and set off on a 25km route that would take us around the perimeter of the town. On the way we cycled through tiny villages comprised of bamboo huts found down dusty pot-holed roads, past innumerable rice terraces with tall green shoots growing under the sun, and all with the backdrop of the towering mountains surrounding the area. Along the way we also stopped off at some religious stupas, or small temples, which even in their simplicity were interesting to see. We got back to the hotel a little sunburnt and with aching muscles but happy with our adventures of the day. 
We had arranged to do a trek the following day so at 7.30am the next morning we were in a tuk-tuk en route to the starting point, a village home to the ethnic Lanten people. This is a small riverside village which we walked around and learnt about the traditional lifestyle of the native people, including their animistic beliefs which explained the farmyard style set up with pigs, cows, goats, dogs and chickens all running around, each of whom are used to appease the animal spirits that they believe in. 
From here we nipped across the river in long wooden boats to begin the walk through the Namha National Park. The first part of the climb was practically vertical and challengingly slippery after a night of constant rain. After it levelled out a little we could take in our surroundings of dense forest, mainly consisting of clusters of huge bamboo trees. In the rain, many had fallen across our path so we really had to be on guard watching our footing. During the walk we learnt about certain plants and their uses, how to set traps and ate some weird and wonderful things including red ants which are actually quite nice and sweet - providing you bite them before they bite you! After a few hours we stopped for a typical Laos lunch of sticky rice and noodle dishes. All this was served on leaves on the forest floor which we sat around shovelling the food into our mouths with dirty fingers, being bitten constantly by mosquitos and sharing our plates with ants intent on stealing the food. At first I was a little hesitant as the set up was so far removed from what we're used to at home but the food was tasty and enjoyable (if you try not to think about health and hygiene!). 
We continued to walk for a few more hours before coming to a farm with rice terraces and corn crops. The water for the rice is siphoned off from the river and flows through the cultivated tiered terraces keeping the crop under an inch or so of water at all times. From here we went back across the river in the dubious looking wooden boats and we're back on the way to Luang Namtha, desperately in need of a shower but happy with our day of exploring and learning. The town of Luang Namtha doesn't have much to offer but the surrounding areas are definitely worth a visit if you want to get off the well-travelled tourist trail for a while. 

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is the jewel in Laos' crown. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a cultural haven with the copious amounts of temples and religious monuments. It is also a gateway town, being positioned on the mighty Mekong river with many boats making the daily trip into Thailand. 

On our first full day, along with some new friends we hollered a tuk-tuk to take us to the famous Kuang Si waterfalls. When we arrived we were greeted with a bear sanctuary; I didn't know it was here but it was a nice surprise to see the hulking creatures lolling in the midday heat. They are all rescue bears taken from a life of cruelty within the bile extraction industry. The bear's bile is sought after in China as, wrongly, it is believed to have medicinal purposes. From the sanctuary we went to the waterfall which has many swimming pools due to its tiered formation. The cascade itself is actually around 60m high so after we had jumping into the chilly water and climbing the rocks we took the hike to the top. Im not exaggerating by using the word hike; some parts were almost vertical and very slippery from the spray of water. The views from the top were shrouded by the surrounding trees and it was eerily silent to say only 10 metres away the water would cascade hundreds of feet below us! The whole area was exceptionally popular and it seemed that families used this area for a day out, bringing their picnics along and enjoying the natural beauty. 

The next morning I was up at 5.30am to watch some 200 monks on their morning alms giving ceremony, which dates back to the 14th century. This is where they walk the streets collecting food for breakfast, their only meal of the day. This is not charity though - this ceremony is highly revered for locals and only recently have tourists been allowed to become respectfully involved. It was a peaceful start to the day and a wonderful opportunity to experience ancient Laos tradition. Later that day I enjoyed a relaxed afternoon perusing the many stalls in the popular central market. One stall poignantly had jewellery made from old ordnance, sold by amputee war veterans. Luang Prabang is a yoga haven and so at sunset I went to take part in a class by the riverside, giving it a very special feel. I hadn't thought much about the details of the class but it turns out that even at sunset, it's very warm to be doing yoga! 90 minutes later, we were oh so sweaty but incredibly relaxed and satisfactorily stretched out. Im always pleasantly surprised when I enjoy a place more than I thought I would and Luang Prabang ticked all the right boxes for me. 

Vientiane and Vang Vieng

24 hours after leaving Hanoi we arrived in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. The term 'capital' really only refers to its administrative powers as the city has a small town feel to it without the madness of other capitals we have visited making it an attractive place to stay. 
There are a several attractions to see including Patuxai, the 'Arc de Triomphe' of Laos, and the important Buddhist stupa of Pha That Luang. To wander around the city taking in these sights is a nice way to spend the day before getting a bite to eat and heading to the Mekong River to watch the watery world float by. 

The following day we were en route to Vang Vieng via a scenic route where shallow, crop and forest covered mountains roll as far as the eye can see, lending to a patchwork vista. Vang Vieng is a controversial tourist destination and is coined as the world's most unlikely party town. In the last ten years, floating down the Nam Song river in tractor inner-tyres has become a popular pastime that recently took a dark twist as the scene exploded and alcohol and drugs were thrown into the mix. In 2011, 27 tourists died from drowning or diving head first into rocks, completely justifying my apprehension. The river is quite fast-flowing so kitted out in life jackets we hopped in the tubes and set off and were pulled ashore to visit the first bar which surpassed all expectations, minus the signs advertising 'happy pizza,' made with marijuana or magic mushrooms. We lounged on sun beds with a cheap beer in hand listening to music in the sunshine whilst other visitors played table football or basketball. Apparently later in the day it can get quite rowdy but following the tragedies that have occurred here, the tone has been considerably lowered and some bars closed down. 

We visited a few more bars then meandered down the river for the rest of the journey, with limestone rocks towering in the background, offering shade to the village kids playing in the water. Apart from their squeals of delight and the calls of wildlife, there is a serenity to the silence of the river. We arrived back at the tubing office, de-robed and headed back to the hostel totally shocked at just how fun an afternoon this infamous activity had provided. It's clear to see how it can get out of hand very fast, being unregulated as it is but if you go with even an ounce of common sense then it's nothing but a bit of fun in the sun. 


The last place we would visit in Vietnam was the energetic capital of Hanoi. We stayed in the Old Quarter which is absolutely alive with all manner of comings and goings. It's actually quite daunting trying to manoeuvre through such a chaotic place and I was quite certain we'd atleast get our toes squashed by one of the many motorbikes carelessly whizzing around! In line with a running theme, all the buildings and museums we wanted to visit were closed on the Monday we were there but we went out to explore and experience the city anyway. Chaotic as it first seemed, upon further inspection there seems to be an orderliness to life in Hanoi that just works. 
The next day we were on the way to Halong Bay, the main reason for our stop in Hanoi. Halong Bay, translating to "where the dragon descends into the sea" is a collection of over 2000 mystical limestone islets that rise immediately out of the glittering emerald water, plunging incredible heights back down sheer faces into the depths of the bay. After setting off we cruised to Dau Go cave which is the biggest grotto in Halong Bay, full with stalactites and stalagmites all with their own story and legend according to the local people and their history. It was packed full of tour groups but even so, the strength in the beauty of the rock formations shone through and it was very impressive. Back on the boat we had lunch and set sail through the archipelago of islands towering majestically around us. 

A few hours later and we were at our resting place for the night. As the golden sun was setting over the wall of limestone cliffs we were gently paddling through the calm water in kayaks and I really had a "I can't believe I'm here" moment; it was a very special way to end a great day. The next morning our tour guide took us to a pearl farm which makes the sustainable Akoya cultured pearl. 

We saw the process from start to finish, even witnessing the insemination of oysters with small artificially made pearls, which the oyster then coats with a natural pearl covering. This was done by hand and one worker can get through 100 oysters per day - I was starting to understand just why pearls are so expensive! We saw the beautiful final product in a shop floating next to the buoys bobbing in the water signifying the cultivated oysters below the water, topping off an very interesting and educational morning. Before lunch, en route back to the port, we made Vietnamese pork spring rolls with vermicelli noodles, contributing to the buffet we later tucked into. I can confirm the spring rolls were delicious! Our Halong Bay cruise was visually stimulating, interesting, relaxing and refreshing; a really good way to end our Vietnamese adventure!  

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Nha Trang and Hoi An

From Ho Chi Minh City we began our journey north up the coast of Vietnam. We have taken lots of overnight buses in the seven months of globe-trotting so far but these ones are the strangest. Actual beds are lined up in rows of three the length of the bus with tiny corridors inbetween. When I first saw these I thought they'd be great but unfortunately they just arent quite right. With a alcove for your feet and bag (which is too small) and a strange shaped contour to the bed (which is also too small) it makes for a rough nights sleep. BUT I cant complain as it saves money on hostels and gets us from A to B safely! So after a 10 hour journey we arrived in Nha Trang which is popular for it's claim of being Vietnam's beach capital.

As with any top beach destination there will always be lots of tourists but we were pleased to find that in between the high rise resorts there was still the hustle and bustle of normal local life which gave the place a bit of substance for us to take in. 
By day we spent our time on the beach which was incredibly beautiful and powerfully hot. Through the wavering haze over the horizon several tropical islands can be seen surrounding the crescent shaped bay. Because Nha Trang has its own micro-climate, the mercury was hovering around 35 degrees with a weather report claiming it felt more like 42, so after a few hours under the rays, we retreated to the safety of the shade to munch on steaming corn on the cob sold by ladies walking the sands wearing the typical Asian conical hats. 

Every place we go to becomes part of our culinary journey and Nha Trang will be remembered as the place we first had Banh Mi which is so much more than just a sandwich. Harking back to the French colonialism and the introduction of crusty bread, the Vietnamese have taken that European staple and made it their own by stuffing it with almost anything and everything. A combination of meat, greens, pickled items, herby sauces and fiery chilies make for a mouthwatering quick bite which can be found, without exaggeration, everywhere! 
A few days of good food and sunny relaxation later and we were in Hoi An, one of the nation's wealthiest towns not only in monetary terms but also by the richness and abundance of heritage and culture. An old port town, Hoi An is now also on the map for the abundance of tailoring shops creating anything and everything that the mind could conjure up. On our first day we walked to the old town which in itself is absolutely gorgeous with yellow-washed walls covered in creeping fuschia bougainvillea with lanterns swinging from the trees shading the pedestrianised area. 

Here is where the master craftsmen - and woman - can be found deftly pulling needle and thread with usually no pattern at all; their skill has been passed down the line from generation to generation. We browsed in many shops before settling on one which was able to cater for my friends eccentric tastes (leopard print shirt anyone?). Before I knew it i had been swept along in the excitement and was being measured for a full-length fitted jumpsuit. The process was a swift, easy one which only made us more excited to return later that night to make any adjustments.

We whiled away the afternoon wandering around the graceful and atmospheric old town, seeing the intricately carved Japanese Covered Bridge, chinese temples of worship and many lovingly preserved ethnic houses. At 6pm we went back to the clothes shop to see our custom made garments for the first time and we were blown away by the detail and skill that had been put into making exactly what we asked for. A few alterations were penned down and we were to collect our items the next morning. Whilst not cheap, by no means were they expensive for the quality of the fabric and the skill involved and ultimately, a great experience. 

We ate out that night and tasted Cao Lau for the first time. This is Hoi An's signature dish and is made from chewy noodles, Char Sui smoky pork, crisp greens, crunchy croutons and refreshing bean sprouts; resulting in a cornucopia of flavours hitting the tastebuds. Paired with an iced Vietnam tea, this dish is perfect for a witheringly hot afternoon and is a top favourite, not only with visitors and locals, but internationally too as famous chefs have descended on the town to try, and fail, to get their hands on the recipe. Hoi An is a concentrated mecca for foodies with an abundance of cooking classes and schools, and markets teeming with fresh produce and regional favourites.

The next day we hired a couple of bicycles as our means of transport to the beach, located a short 4km out of town. The roads are a frantic mess of cyclos, cars, motorbikes and cyclists, coming from all directions with no care for road etiquette but somehow it just works, as if the drivers are working on a communal inner GPS, so we had no problem gliding down the roads, tinkling our bell as we went. (You know what they say, do as the locals do!). We reached Cua Dai beach after cycling alongside the tributary rivers, part cultivated for crop growing, part emptying out into the ocean. This area will no doubt become the new 'It' place to go in years to come and hotel complexes were being thrown up all around us. I can understand why as the place is incredibly beautiful, I just hope that the tranquility is not forgotten in the race to conquer the area. The beach was wonderful; it was peaceful enough to really relax without being pestered by hawkers flogging souvenirs and the sand and water were that rich idyllic shade captured in the stereotypical beach photo.We spent the day here swimming in the tropical sea and hiding under the shade, reading our books. The perfect beach day!

That night we ate Ca Kho To, or fish in caramel sauce, which came served bubbling away in a claypot served with sticky aromatic rice. The sweetness of the caramel complimented the sour hit of the baked pineapple and among this flavour battle, the fish flaked and fell apart in my mouth. The best way to my heart is usually through my stomach and Hoi An did just that. It is my favourite place so far and definitely worth the international accolade and listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Ho Chi Minh City

Our Vietnamese adventures were due to begin so after a bus from Phnom Penh we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnams biggest city and centre of commerce. Still known as Saigon to its eight million inhabitants, the name change came in 1975 with the communist takeover of North Vietnam, and the city being named after their late leader. 
The city is split up into districts and we stayed in District 1 in the centre. I have to admit there wasn't a great deal in HCMC that took our fancy for one reason or another but it is far from a dull lifeless city; it is now a contender to other thriving metropolises such as Singapore and Bangkok. But none the less we took to the streets to explore the Central Market, the City Hall, the Notre Dame cathedral - so called due to the likeness with its Parisian counterpart - and the Opera House. There are some quaint sidestreets to be found even in the busy centre where you can find airy bookshops, stylish boutiques and shops offering souvenirs that aren't tacky; a complete novelty! Here we found a restaurant for lunch where we could marvel at the distinct dishes that are typically Vietnamese. With 54 recognised ethnic groups in the country it is no wonder that the fare is so diverse, appealing to all.
I ordered Pho which is a staple dish throughout the country, although it varies from region to region. Southern style Pho is a slightly murky broth with various meats (sometimes unidentifiable, my top tip is not to look but just taste as usually the appearance of the floating chunks of meat aren't so appealing!), beansprouts and the essential greens which usually are a mix of basil, mint, onions etc. And just to finish it off, there's usually a bit of a kick in the aftertaste thanks to the chili chunks thrown in there for good measure! The simplicity of this dish is why it is so popular and cheap; it is the perfect quick fix to stave off the hunger but will leave you craving more. I was looking for something a little sweet to finish off my dinner so forgot my hesistation and delved (not literally) into the fruit section of the Central Market. I had been a little hesitant up until now about trying the fruits as 1) they're exotic and abit daunting as I have no idea how to eat them and 2) they're kept a little too alfresco with the flies for my liking. However I bought a handfull of Rambutan which is possibly as far away from the standard apple as you can get! The fruit, coming from the Malay word meaning 'hairy', is small, round and red in colour with a covering of soft hairy spines. Peel back this covering, as one would like an orange, and inside is a translucent white fleshy fruit which is the perfect refreshment in the 34 degree heat we have been experiencing. Needless to say I will definitely be having these again.

Phnom Penh

Today I gained a whole new perspective on Cambodians and the beautiful country I am experiencing. This morning we went to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek which is the site of 129 mass graves and evidence of atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge dictatorship which ruled the country in the 70s. 
Officially called the Communist Party of Kampuchea, policies were set up that disregarded human life and produced repression and massacres on a huge scale, with the aim of  turning the country into a rural, classless society. Thousands of people were turfed out of cities to work in the countryside, many of whom died along the way. If they were unfortunate enough to stay alive, they toiled for 12 hours a day or more to produce an unachievable amount of rice, a quota set by Pol Pot, the regimes leader. 
Many Cambodians who threatened the movement such as intellects were caught and taken to S-21 prison where they were detained, interrogated and tortured until they confessed to crimes they were not guilty of. Then they were executed. As the extent of the killing grew, many prisoners were taken from S-21 to the Killing Fields where they would then be made to kneel at the foot of a mass grave before being hacked or bludgeoned to death. Bullets were too precious to be used. Even more horrifying, babies were killed by being battered against a tree before being tossed into an open grave. When the site was found, blood, hair and scalp were found on the tree which is still standing today. The largest of the mass graves was found to hold 450 corpses, of the 8985 exhumed at Choeung Ek. 
Fragments of bone, teeth and cloth are still being churned up by the frequent rains meaning wardens are collecting yet more debris every few months, as if the spirits of the dead cannot rest in peace. 
To get a sense of perspective of the devastation which killed around 1.7 million people, one in every four people would have died one way or another at the hands of monsters.
A Memorial Stupa is the centre point at Choeung Ek and it houses more than 8000 skulls and bones which have been documented in to categories determined by how the person was killed. I was clearly able to see gaping holes in the skulls where blunt instruments were used to murder the helpless people in cold blood. 
S-21 was a school prior to the genocide and so is set up in blocks surrounding a now grassy courtyard. Now it is the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide and there are exhibitions displaying mugshots of prisoners all of whom have a look of tragic resignation on their faces, horrific black and white photos of unearthed mass graves and actual torture tools used including the remnants of gallows used to torture the prisoners. The atmosphere is chilling. 
For the last three decades, Cambodia has suffered unimaginable horrors that still greatly affect the population today. With the increase of tourists curious to learn more, money generated can help those who have been left destitute by the Khmer Rouge regime and encourage a revival of the Cambodian people. 


Although we were only able to stay in Battambang for one night il always remember it with fond memories thanks to the afternoon we had doing exciting activities. Once we had arrived at the guesthouse we sped straight off in a tuk-tuk to get the Bamboo Train. Whilst that might create visions of grandeur I can assure it it's nothing of the sort. A nori, or train in Khmer, is made up of a frame made from bamboo sat atop barbell-like runners with an open engine at the back. Once seated on threadbare cushions we careered down the warped single track, bumping over misaligned rails for around 30 minutes; at one point we were whizzing down the line at around 15km/h! The train line was hot property so at certain points we had to hop off to easily dismantle our cart to let others in the opposite direction pass leaving groups stood by the side of the track like meerkats peering over the shrubbery to see if they could begin the adventure once more.

The views were of an average countryside and we chose an overcast day to do it on but it was pure unadulterated joy to throw caution (and health and safety) to the wind and do something a little reckless and exciting for a change. We were both buzzing from the train journey as we zoomed across town to the circus which is performed by students from the Phare Ponleu Selpak association. The name, meaning 'the brightness of the arts,' aptly describes the opportunities provided; artistic and cultural activities are available for underprivileged children and families to support national peaceful development. Although I had read good reviews, I wasn't sure what to expect and I pushed back thoughts of 'amateur' performances to the back of my mind. How wrong I could have been! With a troupe of only around eight people and with few props used, the range of acts shown in the hour long show were fantastic. The performers were incredibly talented showcasing complex acrobatics to engaging acting, from diablo twirling and fire dancing to juggling; the scenes created were ingenuity at its finest and the whole audience from locals and tourists, young and old were captured in the moment, rewarding those on stage with rapturous applause. I felt an all over sense of goodness as we left knowing that not only had I thoroughly enjoyed myself but that the entry fee would be invested into the programme so it could only grow from strength to strength! 
Battambang was an impromptu stop over on our way to the capital Phnom Penh but it turned out to be a very worthwhile detour and a place I wish we could have stayed longer. 

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Siem Reap

In order to have more time in Penang, and because it was only marginally more expensive, we decided to fly back to Kuala Lumpur in order to make our flight the next morning to Siem Reap, Cambodia. This was our first destination in Southeast Asia and one that I was really looking forward to. Siem Reap has reinvented itself a chic tourist city which whilst catering for the western demands of foreigners still has its own character.

The reason behind this reinvention is its proximity to the ancient site of Angkor with temples as evidence of the Cambodian 'god-kings' striving for temples of great size, scale and symmetry. Stretching over 400square kilometres, Angkor is the remains of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to the 15th century, and with Angkor Wat at the helm, it is one of the most important archeological sites in Southeast Asia for its cultural, religious and symbolic nature. 
We hired a tuk-tuk and driver for the day and set off to the first stop of Angkor Wat. Following a stone causeway across the moat surrounding the site, the looming compound comes into view. From this location, we felt the need to continue and 'get to the wonderous five domes, companions of the sky, sisters of the clouds and determine whether or not one lives in a world of reality or in a fantastic dream'  (From Helen Churchill Candee's book, Angkor: The Magnificent, The Wonder City of Ancient Cambodia).
Because of its size, it is difficult to grasp the layout of the temple city which is a series of elevated towers, covered galleries, chambers, porches and courtyards on different leveles linked by stairways. These stairs are thought to 'make us force to a halt at beauteous obstructions (so) that the mind may be prepared for the atosphere of sanctity' (Candee). The size is deceiving because of the layout but it stands at 213 feet, making it almost twice the height of Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral. We entered the temple and walked through the passage ways with beautifully intricate carvings on the wall before reaching the central tower, all the while passing shrines appearing behind the haze of burning incense and monks dressed in bright orange going about their daily life. The central tower symbolises the mythical Mount Meru which is situated at the centre of the universe. Although a considerable amount of restoration work has been done, its age is apparent in some places but that all adds to the character; it is also a reminder that this magnificent structure took only 30 years to build.
Next on our self-guided tour was Angkor Thom which was the religious and administrative centre of the powerful Khmer empire. Once the residence of the king, officials and priests, the grandeur has faded a little with age but the fact still remains that this 'great city', as the name translates, is exactly that. As with all the sites within the Angkor complex, there were a great deal of tourists baying for that perfect photo or to feel the spirituality of the place. Whilst it is somewhat annoying to be pushed and shoved, it is testament to how important the site is, not only when it was built but over ten centuries later. 

Following our exploration of Angkor Thom we then puttered along in the tuk-tuk to Ta Prohm. which rose in popularity after it featured in the Lara Croft Tomb Raider film. Left untouched by archeologists, the temple is shrouded in jungle giving it an ethereal atmosphere and allowing visitors to get a sense of how the early explorers would have found it. Nature has truly taken a hold of Ta Prohm leading the Rt Hon M MacDonald to write in his book Angkor and the Khmers, that the 'temple is held in a strangehold of trees. Stones and wood clasp each other in grim hostility; yet all is silent and still, without any visable mobemnt to indicate a struggle - as if they were wrestlers suddenly petrified, struck motionless in the midle of a fight. The rounds in this battel were not measured by minutes, but by centuries.'
The day spent at the Angkor Archeological Site was amazing to see for ourselves why each and every compound within the complex is so revered around the world. Much like the Incas who built Machu Piccu in Peru, the Khmers faced all logistical challenges to build a magnificent feat of religious dedication. 

Friday, 7 August 2015


From Singapore the next stop was Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. As Singapore is an island we caught the bus over to Johor Bahru in mainland Malaysia where, after passing through customs, caught a connecting bus to Kuala Lumpur. The difference in countries was obvious as soon as we crossed over. Malaysia is still more developed than I had expected, with a lot of western influences, but the edges were abit messier and the appearance a little more dilapidated. We reached Kuala Lumpur to find the heat was just as stifling as we had recently experienced elsewhere so when we finally found our hostel after lugging 20kg of baggage around, it was like a mirage emerging out of the desert.

Right next door to the hostel was the Hindu Sri Mahamariamman temple, the oldest in Kuala Lumpur. For the next hour or so we wandered barefoot amongst the devout, curiously watching the ritual and routine of deity worship and prayer. Several smaller shrines circling the main prayer hall which was bustling as a puja, or service, was about to begin. Watching from a respectful distance, soles of feet pointing away from the spiritual alter, we saw how the priests brought fire, water and coloured paste around to the congregation who in turn wafted the flame towards them, drank then tipped drops of water on their heads and smeared the paste on their foreheads. I cant claim to understand any of the religious meanings of these rituals, however it was a sight to behold, all to the soundtrack of traditional Hindu music.

Although we were staying in Chinatown there was an incredibly noticeable Indian presence and so in preparation to our adventures in India itself we found a cafe where we bumbled along with the staff to order some food. In broken english they assured us that none of the buffet choices were spicy... however even before the first mouthful had been swalled a wall of heat hit my tastebuds and knocked them for six! The food was delicious but I really struggled with the heat and the ensuing consequences eg the dreaded runny nose!! I felt as if my brain had been sizzled so in a subdued, full tummy haze we ambled back to the hostel where we relaxed for the rest of the evening, chatting with other guests and reading our books. No one ever said the backpacking life was rock and roll!

KL's main draw is the glass and steel Petronas Towers which stand at almost 452m and are a representation of Malaysias vision to be a global power. On the walk there I was expecting to find just two twin towers, take a quick photo then go off elsewhere to explore the city. However when we got there I was pleasantly surprised to find that the towers are not only offices and apartments but a social hub of community with a vast landscaped garden, water features, open-air swimming pool and sprawling indoor shopping centre. Infact, the only hint towards the companies oil and petrol presence in the industry was the two Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula 1 cars suspended in the foyer.

I had succumbed to the heat so hopped on the Light Rapid Transit public transport system and was soon back in Chinatown just in time to beat the thundering showers which came down in the afternoons almost as regular as clockwork providing a light relief as it dampened the muggy weather.

KL is a melting pot of Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures and the source of some of the best food in the country however there is only so much eating that can be done and with only a few sights to be seen, one full day was enough for us.

The following day we boarded a bus heading for the island of Penang located off the northwest coast of the mainland. The draw of the 'Pearl of the Orient' is its ability to embrace modernity whilst retaining its traditions and old world charm as the East meets West. The capital, Georgetown, has recently been listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site and was our base for the next few days.

A long hot bus journey does nothing for the spirit of exploration and so with our energy sapped we didnt do much that afternoon. In the evening, a handful of bicycle-come-foodstalls, called hawkers, set up camp right near our hostel offering so many mouth-watering chinese delights. Many stalls only sell one dish and often it is recipe-less, having been passed down from generation to generation; this is the sort of thing we love, to really get under the skin of a place and get involved with local life!

First course (!) was Char Kwey Tiaw or fried noodles in soy sauce with egg and seafood. Literally within minutes our chef, a little old lady who spoke no english, had thrown all those ingredients in a sizzling wok where she worked her magic and served the steaming dish to us, as we sat on plastic chairs by the side of the road as is typical of this kind of dining. (It may sound abit grungy but when the food is fresh and its a popular haunt with locals and tourists, you can usually trust your delicate digestive system with it!)
Mastering the art of chopsticks we wolfed down what would be our first course, paid the measly delightfully cheap bill then went off for something more to satisfy us - as all the food is alot lighter than that of Western proportions, it is easier to eat more without feeling quite so guilty about your waistline!
Our next dish was Popiah which are like spring rolls, only with a lighter casing and filled with shredded vegetables, soya noodles, peanuts and spicy sauce. A crunchy taste sensation! Sometimes it is difficult to know what it is that you're ordering, with no english translation or picutes for help, but my culinary horizons have been broadened because of trying something completely strange and new!

The next day we caught the bus across the island to Penang National Park which lines the sandy shores of the island. The ultimate destination was Monkey Beach, so called because of the crab-eating Macaques that live here. It turns out that they dont just eat crabs. As we were following the trail, a troop of around 15 monkeys blocked our way and began making threatening noises. As there were babies clinging to their mothers, I knew that the animals would be territorial so threw down my bag and retreated to a safer distance. As soon as I'd cleared some space a couple of them pounced and ripped the plastic bag to shreds, stealing my oranges and scampering off... now i know where the 'cheeky monkeys' phrase comes from!!
As soon as we'd resumed walking a lizard, probably 1.5-2m in length, crossed our path to ensure I was satisfactorily freaked out! Needless to say I didnt make the full hour-long walk through even denser jungle to Monkey Beach, but settled for the next open sandy spot available with just enough distance between me and the wildlife! We spent the afternoon lazing on the beach with the sound of the ocean as our soundtrack. 

We went back to Penang later that day and realised we'd gotten a little bit burnt under the hazy, Malaysian sun - not ideal!! That evening we walked down the esplanade where we ate overlooking the bay then went to a exhibition in the park dedicated the the Transformers film. It was quite a random discovery but interesting none the less!

The next day we were leaving but not until the evening so decided to explore the city. Georgetown is the canvas for Lithuanian-born Ernest Zacharevic official street art which is increasing in popularity since it was first commissioned in 2012. Some of the work even incorporates real-life three dimensional props such as 'Brother and Sister on a swing" where the children are painted on to the wall, yet the swings are real. This is an interesting concept and one that gathers the crowds and gets them involved in the art work.

Penang is not as I had expected; I had pictured high rises crammed onto an island, as an extension of Kuala Lumpur but despite it being an economic hub it has a small-town feel to it and one that compliments the beaches, food, culture and lifestyle it offers. A must-do if you are ever that way on in the world!!

Thursday, 6 August 2015


From Yogyakarta we flew over the Java Sea into Singapore where 2015 is a big year as it marks 50 years of independence. It's British history is still absolutely evident though as english is primarily the first language and all aspects of British life eg driving on the left, the plug sockets and the street names are replicated here. However that's not to say that there is not a strong eastern culture to be experienced. We stayed in Chinatown where the streets are crammed full of eateries, spas and supermarkets all dedicated to the Oriental. I had managed to persuade my travel companion to get the open top bus with me as although we prefer to find our own way around, I have to admit that it is my guilty pleasure! It turned out to be a great idea as the heat was witheringly humid and the sights quite spread out. Our first stop was Gardens by the Bay which is a sprawling botanical garden. 30 meter 'supertrees' dominate the skyline, and provide vertical gardens as a host of greenery has been planted to grow and intertwine around the wire framing. At such a height, they compete with some buildings within sight of the gardens, creating a mega forest within the city reaches.
For the rest of the afternoon we whizzed around the city taking in the sights ranging from colonial hotel buildings and monuments to slick silver high rises and a London Eye-esque Singapore Flyer.

The following day we were back on the bus on the way to the Art Science Museum where a Dreamworks Animation Exhibition was on show, the first installation of a five year world tour. Here we succumbed to our childish inner selves and delved in to the creative world surrounding us as we learnt about the story creating process and animation tricks of the trade. Following the walk through exhibition we created comic sketches and turned them into a flip-pad creating a moving story, played with lighting and texture tools to recreate classic animation scenes and entered into a theatre with a wrap-around screen to simulate the experience of riding on a dragon... a completely normal experience, you understand! Whilst we were in the museum we went to a exhibiton created by The Straits Times, Singapores highestselling English language newspaper. It was so interesting to learn about the relatively short history of this modern, fastmoving country and how it was brought back from dangerous territory after fire ravaged a huge chunk of the flimsy housing structures in the 60´s.

We spent quite a long time at the exhibition but afterwards took a walk across the Helix Bridge (so called for its likeness to the genetic arrangement of DNA) towards the landmark Merlion statue which is the national personification of Singapore, lending towards Singapore's original name of Singapura which means "lion city." After taking a few photos and being the classic tourist we hopped back on the bus towards the buzzing Little India district where its possible to entirely submerse yourself in the culture and forgot for a while of where you actually are in the world. All around there are the bright colours of flower garlands, the whiff of incense and hunger-inducing food and the melodic lull of Indian music. We found a cafe (I cant call it a restaurant as it wasn't as glamorous as that word betrays) and ordered two Murtabaks, savoury pancakes stuffed with shredded mutton, onion and a complimentary mix of spices. And it was incredible! So delicious and filling, we could hardly believe how cheap it was. It certainly pays to go outside your comfort zone and try new things! A little downpour halted our adventures but soon enough we were back on the bus. Singapore is a visually appealing city with a mixture of artistically created structures and slick buildings creating an interesting cityscape to look across from the comfort of an open top bus.

That evening we went to a Chinatown street food market ‐ all we seem to do is eat! ‐ which had a great atmopshere as regulars to the cuisine chowed down on tasty dishes from the Orient, sat along side newcomers tentitavely approaching the steaming food with chopsticks in hand. After this we took the walk across town to the world famous Raffles Hotel, so famous infact that the Government há recently named it a National Monument. It is here thát the Singapore Sling cocktail was created and such was the reason of our visit. Wheras from the outside the hotel shouts decadence and grandeur, I was a little taken aback by the design of the Long Bar. In its aim to recreate the earthy feel of Malaysian plantation life in the 20´s, it is somewhat inelegant. Wicker chairs sit atop the chequered floor which has thousands of peanut shells littered around and rattan fans swing idly above guests ‐ yet more of a homage to the history of the bar. The cocktail is a bright pink colour, given this hue when it was first created to entice ladies to drink it in a society where it was frowned upon. It is a refreshing cocktail much needed in the withering heat, with not too strong an alcoholic flavour which can ruin a cocktail. We had a fun few hours here scattering the peanut shells on the floor and sipping our cocktails ‐ the price tag of £17 was not quite so enjoyable but its all part and parcel of the experience and one im glad I have under my belt! 

I thororoughly enjoyed Singapore, from learning about its history and how it has turned itself into a powerhouse of an economy to seeing the contemporary backdrop of life for Singaporeans. I would go so far as to say I could see myself living here!


The next chapter in our adventures would begin with Bali, Indonesia. Although I was sad to be leaving Australia after a whirlwind visit, I was excited to push the boundaries again and experience new cultures. This excitement was tinged with apprehension however as Mount Ruang, an erupting volcano on an Indonesian island, threatened to delay our departure due to strong winds blowing an ash cloud over Bali, grounding flights in and out. Luckily a window as clearness appeared for us and we made our flight as scheduled, landing in Bali and being hit with a wall of humidity and heat - just what we were wanting!!

We were staying in Seminyak which is in the southwest of the island, an area extremely popular with tourists due to its proximity with the airport, it's never-ending beaches and a tourism industry creating a home away from home experience.

The next day, having spent the previous afternoon relaxing by the ocean, we caught a boat to Gili Trawangan, an island across the Lombok Strait, which is a popular destination for tourists seeking the paradise experience. 
When we were arrived I was taken aback by just how many tourists there were; other than the shopkeepers, hotel owners and restaurant workers, not a local was in sight. Those local that we did come into contact with were unapproachable, unfriendly and glum-looking, perhaps a side-affect of being swept up in the tourism machine that is consuming the island. We found a quaint guesthouse to stay away from the main strip and ventured down to the beach where we stayed for the rest of the day. The island itself is naturally beautiful. Although the sand is mainly made up of spiteful sharp coral, the water is a hazy aquamarine colour and with gentle waves lapping the shores it is easy to float in the balmy waters. 

We enjoyed some street food that evening at an open-air food market. It was abit of a steal for the variety and range we got, essentially from a glorified buffet, considering how expensive even the most basic foods were in the restaurants. We soon found out that the aggressively advertised drinks were also expensive, which was no skin of our nose as the thought of neon-lit bars offering drinking games and karaoke didn't really appeal to us.
The next morning we got the boat back to Bali, all the while feeling glad that we had only stayed one night on Gili T. Perhaps in hindsight we should have gone to lesser frequented Gili A or Gili M for our peaceful island retreat. 

Straight from the quay we went off to Ubud which is in the northern direction, closer to the centre of the island. Along with the Seminyak area, Ubud holds the duopoly over tourism in Bali. However it has fiercely held on to its traditions and culture making it a place which we thoroughly enjoyed. When we arrived we went to Mandala Wisata Wanara Wana or The Sacred Monkey Forest to you and I. This sanctuary's mission is to create peace and harmony for the visitors, in line with Hinduism philosophy, and is also home to three temples and five groups of Balinese long-tailed Macaque monkeys. The dense swatch of jungle creates the perfect atmosphere to wander around in, taking in the not-so-cute monkeys and holy temples.

After we'd visited here we spent the afternoon exploring Ubud where we saw traditional dance shows, important for their role in passing stories from generation to generation, and children's organisations taking to the streets dressed as dragons to the sound of music to raise money; all examples of how proud the locals are of their culture and that tourism won't change that. 
We got a bite to eat at a restaurant-come-living room of the chef where we sat on wicker mats under a single light bulb devouring delicious homemade dishes. I would have really liked to stay longer in Ubud however we had to get back to the airport for our flight to Yogyakarta, Java. I have to admit that Bali didn't quite live up the expectations I had (don't watch the film Eat, Pray, Love if you're planning to come here!) but between its sandy beaches, impossibly green rice terraces and strong religious and cultural influence, it really has alot to offer to a menagerie of travellers! 

After a quick flight we arrived in Yogyakarta, a city which quickly found a place in my 'favourite places' list. Although it is one of the bigger cities in Java, the pace towards modernisation is slower and in turn has sustained many a traditional aspect on daily life and according to Lonely Planet it is "a city of art and culture and a hotbed of Javanese intellectual and political thought." 
On the first day we went off to the Kraton, or palace, of the Sultan with images of glittering palaces and treasures at the front of our minds. We were sorely disappointed however when we arrived to find a sparse compound of burnt grass with pavilions housing weird mannikins displaying life at the Kraton - perhaps we should have known what we were letting ourselves in for paying only 7,000 Rupiah (around 30p!). We aimlessly wandered around the city that afternoon in the baking sun, having dinner in a rooftop cafe down a hidden gang, or alleyway. 

We were up literally at the crack of dawn the following morning to catch the sunrise over Borobudor temple, one of the most important Buddhist sites in the world. The sunrise was disappointing as a blanket of cloud obscured our view and it wasn't quite the intimate special moment I had in mind; perhaps the 200 other tourists thought the same thing! 

The temple itself though is an impressive monument, one that was built to represent a mandala, the symbolic circular figure. Steps leading up through carved gateways lead to the top which represents the journey to nirvana, the Busdhist heaven. It was difficult to get a sense of spirituality because so many people were there pushing and shoving and asking us for photos, which is a bizarre experience. By the time we left we felt like celebrities! Although the religious aspect goes over my head, Borobudor is an extremely impressive work of art.

The next day we set off to Pranbanan temple, this time on our own rather than as a tour like we had done the day before. Jogja, the affectionate nickname for the city, has a well developed transport system so we rode the bus through neighbourhoods for around an hour before we arrived at the temple. Pranbanan is the grandest Hindu temples complex in Java and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 
It was built in the 9th century and consists of three main temples for gods Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu then has more than 220 other temples and shrines near by. Many of the structures suffered extensive damage in a 2006 earthquake and whilst restoration work is ongoing, it is slow with many still in a dilapidated state. For me, the cracks and crumbling blocks give the site even more character to make it an unmissable historical item on your 'must see' list. Similar to Borobudor, the place was heaving with tourists, many of whom were here to celebrate Ramadan so we took a walk around the complex which sprawls for miles and took in the other smaller temples in the sunshine. Even if temples and religion are not your thing, Pranbanan offers the setting for a nice relaxed day to meander around the grounds, have some lunch or even play on the swings! 

That evening we explored the rabbit warren of alleyways trailing away from our hostel, like kids at a maze and happily got lost, investigating all the little shops tucked away. After another tasty dinner - Javanese food is exceptional - we retired to bed as we had an early morning flight to Singapore! Whilst nothing special to look at, Jogja provided up with a great couple of days and should definitely be held in its own light and not just a place to stay to explore the neighbouring temples.