A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: GoonishPython

Hometime

semi-overcast 8 °C
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So here I am, after 4 months, 11 countries, too many places and too many forms of transport (sorry Andreas, I didn't count like you). It was an awesome trip. My travel map started like this, and now looks like this:
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I had so much fun, and I met so many amazing people who made it so much better:

Myanmar
- my British tour group for taking care of me, and Aung, and especially Shelagh for the chocolate and hugs and Sian for many laughs
- the German girl who looked after me when I was sick
- my trishaw driver in Bago who 'took me to the Buddhas'
- Amanda for making my first day away bearable
- the others at the only hostel in Yangon
- the lovely people who gave us tea in Mandalay market
- the Moustache Brothers for a fun evening and keeping up the cause
- the monk in Kalaw who used to work for the railway and whose friend went to Aberdeen
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Cambodia and Laos
- the water-chicken and rule no 7 crew, Matt, the drinking buddies (Steve, Andreas, Ute), the bakery tour of SE Asia (Erin, Andreas), Claudia for a good chat in Bali, and the Danish boy for Lao-Lao (why?) and cake and good company at Christmas in Vietnam and lots of emails regaling me with his travels
- the French girls and the other mad people who I spent New Year with on an almost deserted beach on Koh Rong, Cambodia
- my homestay family in Laos, and their adorable daughter
- our awesome guide at Angkor
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Vietnam
- being drowned rats on the back of motorbikes in Hue with Alba
- tiramisu coffee and pho with Cynthia in Hanoi
- buckets of gin and lemon juice with Ida in Ho Chi Minh
- my Halong Bay buddies
- my Melbourne girls at the Hanoi Backpackers
- Maureen in the Mekong Delta and my British buddy in Hanoi
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Thailand
- the amazing Born Free hostel in Bangkok for being a fountain of knowledge, good fun and being lovely when I was sick
- the boys with the scorpion
- Sherry, Tony and Ciara for markets, temples and drinking
- Victoria for cheering me up in Railay
- Midian, Shellie, Steph and Cat for making Phi Phi a good laugh
- the Lipe collective
- Laura and Nina for fun in Ko Lanta, and Anna for her many gifts and a good chat, and my snorkelling buddies
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Malaysia
- Mark for food in Penang
- the amazing Elin from Penang to Bali - all the temples, Indian food, orang-utans and reggae - many adventures shared
- Susie for joining me in history and food exploration in Melaka
- the lovely girls in KL
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Singapore
- the fabulous Gerald for his list of where we should eat
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Indonesia
- the boys in Bukit Lawang (I can still sing the song)
- the paparazzi of Borobodur
- the people in the reggae bars of Yogya and Gili T
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Papua New Guinea
- Eve the amazing Houghton in Kimbe for being Eve
- Asi (and Gaby) for letting me stay, Anne and Ifor for much dinner, Nils for laughs and music, Chris for the lifts and looking like a smurf in the hot river, Nicky for taking us shopping PNG style
- Arnold and Maureen for making Kavieng so welcoming
- Stephen and Cecilia for looking after me at their lovely guesthouse
- the surf dudes at Nusa
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Australia
- Phil and Rora for putting me up, spoiling me, feeding me lots and taking me to lots of fun places and being such great friends
- Annette for scones, jam and cream and a BBQ
- Dinah and Rob for letting me stay, and lifts, and a beach trip and roast dinner
- Jono for drinks and kangaroos and music and lots of fun
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Hong Kong
- the Swiss girls for a fun last night abroad
- Melissa for making a wet Hong Kong amusing
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I must have forgotten someone, but you all made my trip unforgettable.

And finally, Will, for pubcrawling and Dojo's to make me remember how much I love my home too (and encouraging me to travel even more).

Posted by GoonishPython 09:51 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (1)

Dim sum Sunday

Hong Kong: 1-2 Mar '14

rain 18 °C
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My final stop was Hong Kong. My flight from Melbourne - London stopped here, and rather than sitting in the airport for 7 hours, I chose to do a stopover and spend 31 hours in Hong Kong. Sorted. I was staying on the mainland in Kowloon, rather than Hong Kong island, but its probably got a bit more life...

So, Saturday night (with two Swiss girls):
- the light show over the river is rubbish (don't bother), but the lit-up skyline is pretty impressive
- the night-market on Temple Street is very much like all most of the other Asian night-markets I went too, but the food is something to be believed: 90_P3012805.jpg
- excellent and enormous portion of noodles and pepper beef at a place full of locals
- Portuguese custard tart from Macau restaurant very much recommended
- inadvertent visit to karaoke bar not advised

Sunday morning dawned sunny and bright, and the view from my hostel looked like this:
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I followed this good start to the day with searching out some dim sum. It was very tasty. I like dim sum enormously.
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I then wandered the streets of Kowloon and saw some increasingly weird buildings before heading on the famous Star Ferry across to Hong Kong island. By this point my views were basically obscured, as it was now, frankly, damp. So Hong Kong was swathed in mist. I have a rather fine selection of pictures of grey skyscrapers disappearing into grey skies and grey clouds next to a grey river.

Hong Kong's central district is intriguing. You don't walk along the roads, you walk along walkways in the sky, connecting each set of buildings. It sort of feels futuristic. The Apple store is enormous (I wandered in in search of cheap goods. They've cottoned on and they aren't really cheaper than the UK any more.). There are some Henry Moore statues (pretty) and some cool skyscrapers (all glass and metal and weird angles). On a Sunday there are also these:
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Yep, that's right. Bagpipers. Hong Kong bagpipers. News to me too. There was also some random band.

Whilst trying to work out what was going on, I met an American girl. We decided to wander round together a bit more. This is what we discovered:
1. The cathedral is pebble-dashed. Not attractively so.
2. There is a free aviary in Hong Kong Park.
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3. The teahouse in the park is rubbish. The setting is beautiful, the tea is lovely (I had a special type of yellow tea), but the service is dreadful, it costs too much and they didn't have half of the dim sum on the menu, including running out of some after we'd ordered it. Useless.
4. Macau food is epically good. Try it. Portuguese-Chinese is a good combination. Melaka's Nonya (Portuguese-Chinese-Malay) food is also good, but quite different to Macau food. Except for the custard tarts, both of which are definitely nearly as good as proper nata.
5. The Temple Street night market is good for at least two visits.
6. There is a giant Muji in Kowloon. Yay.
7. Kowloon at night is much more fun than Hong Kong island by day.
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And random fact about Hong Kong. Women spend their Sunday's out of the house. When it is sunny they go to parks and other outdoor green spaces and sit around and gossip and eat food. When it is wet, they shelter in the walkways sitting on flattened cardboard boxes. So you walk through a narrow path down the middle of a walkway packed with women having a chat. Its really strange. Almost as strange as the bagpipers.

Posted by GoonishPython 00:46 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (0)

Music and munching in Melbourne

22 Feb - 1 Mar '14

sunny 28 °C
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So after Papua New Guinea I headed to a place just a little different: Australia. I pretty much had to go through Aus to get home, so a week with my friends in Melbourne sounded like an excellent plan. Apart from taking an age to find Phil and Rora at midnight, and some Burmese bracelets confiscated by customs (possibly the wrong sort of watermelon seeds), it all started swimmingly with me making a new friend on the flight from Brisbane. This turned out rather well as with my buddies at work, I had someone else to hang out with. I was overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of people in Melbourne - yes I was with friends, but Rora's mum took me out for the afternoon and so did my mum's friends. Oh, and it was my birthday so Phil and Rora spoiled me too.

Melbourne appeared to be all about food, something my stomach very much agreed with after months of rice and noodles. It's amazing how much you end up missing proper bread and cheese. Melbourne provided cheese in the form of some rather nice taleggio from an Italian deli, and many lovely breakfasts, as well as a BBQ, a home-cooked roast dinner and scones with jam and cream. Exactly what my stomach ordered. It couldn't manage proper beer though - the nearest I came to it was a too cold too fizzy bitter-type beverage, and a pint of cold Guinness. Not quite right, but the wine made up for it.

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So, despite spending far too many mornings sitting with a book, I actually got out and about to quite a few places...
- Camberwell Market on a Sunday - its a market full of random stalls selling bric-a-brac of the slightly artsy fancy variety. Good for a wander although you might need a) a house to put stuff in, b) money - they've definitely cottoned on to people wanting retro and vintage goods
- open-air cinema at Abbotsford Convent - a lovely setting, a seriously bizarre movie (An American Hippie in Israel) - it had laughable sharks. Rora swears she could see a foot underneath.
- Mornington Peninsular - some lovely beaches at the other side of the bay to Melbourne and wilder ones facing into the Southern Ocean
- Williamstown - once the dock area, now becoming more upmarket, but still full of old charm. Plus a BBQ.
- Fairfield - an excellent teahouse by the river. Earl Grey + scone + jam + cream. Yum. If they'd managed clotted cream I would have been in heaven. 2014-02-25_13_29_38.jpg
- St Kilda - some excellent live music at the Espy, and a British pub...
- National Gallery of Victoria - some pretty cool art
- Melbourne city centre - street art galore. Very cool. Shame they've covered some of it up!
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- Ponyfish bar - under a bridge on the river. Nice setting, nice beer. Cheese board looked damn tempting. 2014-02-26_17_58_48.jpg

But my favourite? A gig at the zoo. I got to wander round the animals whilst clutching a bottle of wine. I saw most of the famous Aussie animals. I got to stroke a kangaroo. And then I got to eat samosas and drink more wine whilst watching the excellent Josh Pyke.
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So Melbourne for me was pretty wicked. I loved it. Partly because it felt like home, partly because I got to see my lovely friends, and partly because I met amazingly nice people there (old and new). But its also the kind of city I like - it lays claim to be the cultural centre of Aus, and I guess that's why it appealed - anywhere that can give me good food, good music and good art is my kind of town.

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Posted by GoonishPython 03:43 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

New Britain to New Ireland with a smattering of New Zealand

Kavieng: 19-22 Feb '14

all seasons in one day 33 °C
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Flights in Papua New Guinea are of a different breed. There are no lights at any airports except Jacksons, in the capital, Port Moresby, so flights have to leave when the sun comes up and arrive by the time the sun sets. Hoskins, near Kimbe, is a tiny airport - it can only take propeller planes. It has a bench where they put the bags that have just come off the plane and one building. There is definitely no security scanner, just a couple of guys asking you what's in your bag. Kavieng is pretty similar. Except the building is bigger, they have two benches for bags, and they can take small jet planes. They have three people asking about your bag. It's luxury. Port Moresby is a-whole-nother level. It has a couple of shops and cafes. One does an excellent bacon and egg roll. Trust me, this is the most exciting thing about Port Moresby airport. I spent a lot of hours there. I also got to see Lae and Kokopo airports. Even if I'd been allowed to get off, I wouldn't have in Lae. It's dangerous. A guy from the Highlands that we met in Walindi said you see dead bodies on the streets. Bits of Papua New Guinea are like that, but that's not the part I saw.

In New Ireland I was meant to be staying in a lovely little bamboo bungalow on the beach on a tiny island, but the weather defeated me. A few days before I was due to fly to Kavieng, I got a phone call saying the weather was too bad and they just couldn't get the boat over. Damn. That was my plans for snorkelling off a deserted beach over. Suddenly I was faced with finding accommodation at short notice in the middle of surf season. I found some, but accommodation in Kavieng is significantly more expensive than on the islands. The owners of my guesthouse, Stephen and Cecilia, were absolutely lovely, and really took care of me, feeding me breakfast and dinner far too much, including traditional New Ireland mumu (the meal is cooked in banana leaves in the coals of the fire - we had chicken with two types of taro, it melted in the mouth) and ferrying me to and from the airport. Very kind and welcoming. I also met some other lovely people there - the girl whose house I'd been staying in in Mahonia, Asi, had links to another volunteer in Kavieng, so the very kind Arnold, also from New Zealand, picked me up and took me for dinner, where I met Maureen, a Red Cross volunteer. So I had a pleasant evening with them both, and met up with Maureen, an Aussie, and another New Zealander for drinks the next day. Again, the kindness of complete strangers overwhelmed me. I was touched.

To satisfy my snorkelling cravings and slight Robinson Crusoe empty island fantasy, one day I headed over to Nusa Island, where there is a surf/scuba dive resort. As some of the staff were heading over to another tiny island, Nago, to do some building work, they took me with them and left me to snorkel off a deserted beach and wander round an almost deserted island. I got to see hermit crabs in tiny green shells and sit on golden sand with trees reaching out over the water. It was bliss. If only the waves had been less strong (I kept getting pushed towards the coral) it would have been absolute bliss. I loved it. And the people really took care of me. I even had a lovely chat with one of the kitchen staff when I had lunch back at the resort. And a green lizard joined me for lunch too.

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Kavieng, even when it was raining, was beautiful in its own way. It had a stunning setting, and the islands just off the mainland New Ireland are simply gorgeous, but the town has its own beauty in the people. To Western standards its a pretty poor town, but the people there are so kind and friendly. I know I stood out, being white and with red-brown hair and blue eyes, but almost everyone said hello to me, whether it was in a store or just walking down the street. Two girls came running up to talk to me, and they were so shy, but they hugged me when it was time to say goodbye. Another lady just came straight out with something like 'and aren't you brightening up the day?' as I walked past in a red dress in the rain and smiled at her. The people of Kavieng were brilliant. Its what I loved most about it.

And that's the impression Papua New Guinea left me with: stunning scenery, even in rainy season, and such amazingly friendly helpful and smiling people!

Posted by GoonishPython 02:13 Archived in Papua New Guinea Comments (0)

Welcome to Paradise

Kimbe: 11-19 Feb '14

all seasons in one day 33 °C
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Luckily we never planned to stay long in Kuta - just a couple of days before Elin and I went our separate ways - her to the Philippines, and me to Papua New Guinea...

As you begin to descend into Hoskins, you see the volcanoes pushing through the clouds towards you, and as the little propeller plane descends further, the green trees slope down to the coastline spreading beneath you, and as you circle, tiny islands, little more than sandbanks, loom out as a shade of yellow and turquoise in the murkier deep blue depths of the ocean, as you seemingly almost skim the waves and then the treetops as you arrive at the tiny airport, set in such a majestic landscape. This is West New Britain province, the left half of the large island to the east of "mainland" Papua New Guinea, itself the east half of an enormous island. West New Britain is home to twenty-one volcanoes, five still active, massive palm oil plantations, WWII relics, and spectacular marine life. I was heading to Kimbe Bay (just past the provincial capital of Kimbe), where there are reputedly "more than 350 types of hard coral and 860 types of fish" - as Lonely Planet puts it, "you might see anything from a tiny glass prawn to a pod of killer whales". And that's just under the sea.

My real reason for heading here was my friend Eve, researching for her PhD in Anthropology, currently staying at Mahonia Na Dari, a conservation and marine research centre. Quite a few of the bungalows are rented out to Westerners based in the area. The (almost) waterfront bungalow I joined Eve in was the home of Asinate, a Fijian-New Zealander Seventh-Day Adventist working at Mahonia as part of a volunteer project - and her newly acquired puppy to be her guard dog - Gabriel, or Gaby for short. So I settled down to a quiet week, punctuated by the puppy's mad adventures and a flavour of what West New Britain had to offer. Kayaking and snorkelling were tried once, but a little unsuccessfully as I had a cold (which makes snorkelling surprisingly difficult, despite you not breathing through your nose) and the current was really strong that day - we ended up a good few hundred metres up the coast from where we started.

Most evenings were quiet affairs, although a few were spent at the neighbouring dive resort (i.e. nearest bar), Walindi, and on one evening we were invited to a dinner party at some local expats house. This was an intriguing affair - Anne and Ifor, a Welsh couple running the school in Kimbe, were lovely and Anne a brilliant cook (the walnut cake was wow) - the other guests were all of a similar age (45-65?) and although very nice, very much living an expats lifestyle - driving around in their big 4WD cars, living in aircon houses with servants (a house-murray I believe), and not really interacting with locals much at all. They were pretty shocked at Eve being in PNG alone, even more so at her imminent move to Bialla (a small local village, where she would be even more isolated and with no Westerners), at my travelling there and onwards alone, and most definitely at our using the PMV (essentially like a bus, but just a minivan run by anyone who fancies it). Now I know the PMV has a bad rep - attacks and rapes etc. - but when you have no transport and live 20 mins drive from town, it makes sense as long as you keep your wits about you - you wait for a PMV full of women and children, not one with just 2 guys. Besides, we kind of got the impression that any problem at all in PNG gets magnified out of all proportion.

Our trips on the PMV were to Kimbe town, the provincial capital of West New Britain. It is tiny. It's probably smaller than Sawston, the town I went to secondary school in. It has a few shops, and some of them are wicked. The local clothes shops are excellent - they get clothes from Australia and New Zealand - some new, some second hand - and it looks like TK Maxx - essentially you trawl through racks and racks of stuff, but you get some great clothes - new Billabong for a quarter of the price in Aus, or a second-hand vintage style dress for under 20p. Sorted. Everyone in the streets is so friendly - they're interested to see you wandering around, and everyone says hello. I liked Kimbe.

At the weekend we joined some new friends for a trip to the hot river at Garu - this is basically a river that has been heated by the many volcanoes nearby - and its pretty cool. You basically climb up a river/mini waterfall in the middle of the jungle, and its like having a hot bath. It had been raining that week so it was significantly cooler than the time my friend had been before, but it was still pretty hot! And there is blue mud on the bottom which is apparently good for the skin. So while everyone else went in for the beauty aspects, Eve and I of course we ended up with angry eyebrows and dodgy moustaches. Good fun.

Basically the area is pretty damn beautiful, everyone is friendly, I got to properly catch up on my sleep, and it was wicked to see miss Eve the amazing Houghton again! Kimbe rocked.

Posted by GoonishPython 01:57 Archived in Papua New Guinea Comments (0)

Bali in two towns

Ubud and Kuta: 7-10 Feb '14

sunny 30 °C
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So on we headed to Bali - legendary paradise of Indonesia. It is the only Hindu part of the country, and it is strikingly obvious. In Ubud, Bali's cultural hub, we stayed in a homestay guesthouse - like Lombok, this was a family compound containing houses around a central area - but in Bali, the centre was occupied by Hindu shrines, with lots of birds and animals in the grounds as well. Everywhere you walked in Ubud there were little square leaf trays containing offerings of flowers and food - you really had to watch your feet! It was great to see lots of Balinese architecture nestling amongst the modern buildings, and some good food to be found off the main roads.

Despite being the cultural centre, we didn't actually go off to any dance/music/art - we were just ready to chill out. We did head to Goa Gajah, the Elephant Cave - which has a very elaborately carved entrance and beautiful grounds in the jungle, with trails leading off to other temples. Other than that, we ate (discovering another bakery was fatal), wandered through the fascinating market (all souvenirs, but so pretty!) and got pedicures - a very relaxing time! I even managed to meet up with Claudia, who I'd travelled with in Cambodia and Laos - it was lovely to see her again and catch up on her travels.

As a complete contrast, next stop was the legendary Kuta beach - where Aussie's come on holiday. The surfing is meant to be good but its totally commercialised and Westernised - also dirty, noisy and expensive. The best description is like Magaluf for Aussie's. On our first night we went out, but it wasn't the most exciting and we got robbed on the way home. This ruined the next day - sorting everything out and feeling pretty pissed off at the world. The final day we spent relaxing - trying to get a better impression of Kuta. We briefly visited the beach (nothing special) and indulged in Western food (pizza. nom.) and a massage, but our overall impression of Kuta was it sucked. Totally different to both the other Kuta and Ubud. I wished we'd stayed in Ubud - much more chilled and friendly and pretty!

Posted by GoonishPython 23:45 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Jah on Holiday

The Gili Islands 3-7 Feb '14

sunny 33 °C
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Our stay in Lombok was really just a stop off on the way to the Gili's - three small beautiful islands set just off the north-west coast of Lombok, We were staying on Gili Trawangan (Gili T) - the supposed party island (it's not really), but much busier than its sisters Gili Air (bit posh) and Gili Meno (super quiet). There are no cars or motorbikes on the Gili's - if you don't want to walk your only choice is bicycle or horsedrawn cart. Our booked accommodation was unfindable, and after Elin had slipped on a wet floor and injured her arm, we ended up at a guesthouse where they saw she was upset and tried to help.

Our days were spent chilling on the beach, our nights sampling the local bars and clubs. Our favourite was the little reggae bar on the beach - a live band (Jah on Holiday) who were surprisingly food - and one of the singers looked like an Indonesian Jack Sparrow. Very enjoyable times were had. We also watched a movie one night - Django Unchained seems slightly bizarrer when watched in a beachside shack.

I also re-indulged my love of snorkelling, taking a trip round all three islands. Beautiful, although I wasn't lucky enough to see a turtle or even a clownfish!

Unfortunately our encounters with room-invading multiple-legged beasties continued - cockroaches in the bathroom, ants and a spider in the bedroom - and worst of all, a giant flying beetle thing that looked like a cockroach. It could jump too. Elin got injured trying to catch it, and eventually I chased it out the door with a toilet roll. Weird.

Gili T was cool. We could have stayed on the islands a lot longer - although a room with a more effective fan and no flying beetles would have been preferred.

Posted by GoonishPython 23:36 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

The other Kuta

Lombok 1-3 Feb '14

sunny 27 °C
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After the fun of Yogya, we headed on to Lombok - the first island of Nusa Tenggara. Lombok is easily accessible from Bali, but is really quite different in character - it is much much less developed, more villages and chilled out, and far far fewer tourists. In Kuta (the other Kuta, not the famous Aussie filled party one in Bali), the "amenities" are there (Western food, laundry, souvenirs, ATMs and much surf gear), but they are not the whole of the town. Kuta (Lombok) is pretty small and pretty relaxed, and full of surfers. Almost everyone at our homestay guesthouse was a surfer, and off they all trekked with their surfboards strapped to rented motorbikes.

Kuta beach itself was a long stretch of golden white sand, punctuated by washed up coral and overhanging trees, and framed by dramatic rocks tumbling into the sea. Unfortunately it wasn't the cleanest in parts, and very busy down one end - I settled down with my book and was immediately surrounded by 20 kids asking questions and wanting photos. Needless to say I ended up back in a dirtier part of the beach, where we only had to put with hawkers trying to sell bracelets continuously and a herd of buffalo, and later on persistent showers.

We also encountered rather too many bugs in our room. Our skills at catching them became legendary, but how to explain the three bags outside our door - two containing ants and one with a cockroach in a toilet roll tube? Just when we thought it was safe - a giant dragonfly. Safely captured and released into the wide world, but not what you want flying round when you try to sleep.

All in all Kuta was a pleasant place, and the food was excellent - I managed vege Indonesian food for everything but breakfast (the regular pancake) - it seems only Yogya that can't oblige. We even ended up in a reggae bar again. Oops.

Posted by GoonishPython 23:23 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Skanking, stupas and the Indonesian paparazzi

Dancing in Yogyakarta: 29 Jan - 1 Feb '14

sunny 32 °C
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After the peace, quiet and excitement of Bukit Lawang, our next stop was the cultural centre of Yogyakarta (pronounced sort of like Djogdjakarta), or Yogya for short. Situated in central Java, Yogya is not a huge city, but can claim to be Indonesia's cultural heart. At the Sultan's palace (they still have a Sultan), you can almost daily see a performance of either traditional dance, drama or music.

Luckily for me the first morning in Yogya there was a gamelan performance. For those of you non-musos, a gamelan is an orchestra made of gongs and xylophone- and metallophone-type instruments. Traditionally each village has one and it is a real skill to learn how to play each instrument - for example on the metallophone-style instruments you have to play one note while damping (essentially stopping) the previous one. Its pretty hard. Gamelan uses a pentatonic (5-note) tuning system (Western music uses 12) so it sounds pretty different. They are unique to Indonesia, and Javanese and Balinese gamelans differ - Bali is the only remaining Hindu part of Indonesia and so I imagine retains some of the previously more widespread cultural idioms that were lost when the final Hindu kingdoms fled from Java to Bali. To most Westerners gamelan sounds pretty weird, but I have a great fondness for it - probably because I first came across it as a kid (the University of Cambridge has one of the only full Javanese gamelans outside Indonesia so we saw it on some school trip), and studied it at GCSE as a world music choice (as my teacher then loved it) and we learnt by playing gamelan music. I was the gong ageng player. Its the biggest gong. Its ace. Although slightly highlighted my inability to count. So in Yogya I was determined to see Javanese gamelan performed. It was beautiful.

I got to see/hear Javanese gamelan again that evening, as we saw a performance of the Ramayana ballet. This is a very traditional telling of the story of Rama and Sita (their Indian names) popular throughout SE Asia - its on the walls at Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, and here it is told through Javanese dance. It was beautiful and interesting and at times funny, but far far far too long. Now I am used to Western ballet being long - but the great performances have two important distinctions that make them amazing: -

1) Choreography that is startlingly different in different scenes, i.e. the choreography changes to show different parts of the story. Yes, the dancing changed in this Javanese dance - but often too subtly - and frankly one fight scene was mostly the same as the next (and the Ramayana has lots of battles).

2) Music that is integral to the drama. The greatest ballets in Europe have amazing scores that absolutely fire your emotions. I have never seen Romeo and Juliet as a ballet, but if you just hear Prokofiev's score to the fight between the Montague's and Capulet's you know it is a great dramatic moment, you know something terrible and tragic is about to happen without even knowing the story of the title of that scene. The Rite of Spring, with music by Stravinsky, caused a riot at its first performance in Paris in 1913, and its so striking it still sounds like it could have been composed yesterday. Music is so important to drama. A fantastic example is the start to Jaws, where you are swimming through the water from the shark's perspective. With that tiny repeated two-note phrase there is a sense of danger and menace that builds with every repetition. Try watching that scene with a nice twinkling bit of a Mozart piano sonata, with something from Disney's The Little Mermaid , or better yet, with a David Attenborough commentary. Somehow, it isn't scary anymore, its just swimming through the water from the fish's perspective. So my point here is that the music, while lovely, didn't really seem to add to the dancing other than giving them a beat and a couple of moments of Mickey-Mousing (when the music exactly matches the action - like a bang when a character gets hit on the head in a cartoon). In fact, the music seemed a separate entity rather than an integral part of the ballet. While I understand there is probably particular bits of music for particular bits of dancing, none of them seemed different enough - the music for the love scenes didn't come across as very different to the music for a fight scene.

All in all, I expected more from the Ramayana ballet - after all its supposed to be a big deal!

The setting for the ballet, however, was pretty cool - Prambanan temple - a big old Hindu temple complex. Unfortunately it was rainy season so the ballet took place in a theatre rather than in the temple complex itself - the atmosphere in the temple might have made it more dramatic. The temples were beautiful - very familiar to me - looking like a cross between Bagan, My Son and some of those at Angkor - with the most beautiful carvings - some of which looked distinctly Javanese. We even got a free guided tour from a student.

We got the same treatment the next day at Borobodur - the biggest Buddhist temple in Asia (apparently). Our poor long-suffering guide had to put up with Elin and I being asked for photos at every single point - before she'd turned up we'd only walked about 10-15 metres in half an hour because so many people kept stopping us! We didn't mind the schoolkids asking questions for their projects, but random people taking photos of us without asking, and worse, getting their friends/family to pose behind us without us knowing - was just weird and intrusive. After a few hours wandering round we were getting pretty fed up of it. The temple itself, however, was stunning. Basically a stepped pyramid topped in lots of stupas, most levels have a surround of carvings telling various stories - the life of Buddha for example. We had even gone to a nearby hill to watch the sunrise over it. Although cloudy, it was still pretty cool.

So from one type of culture to another - reggae bars are a big deal in Indonesia. Yogya's was just down the street from us, and it had a simply fantastic live band. They got everyone skanking their little socks off. Most recommended. We would have gone every night if we weren't up for sunrise one morning!

On one other note, food in Yogya sucked. If you don't eat chicken or fish, you can't eat Indonesian food there, which seems pretty bizarre as tempe, made from soybeans, is available everywhere else, and meat is so expensive, so you'd have thought there would have been vegetable dishes as well. Apparently note. Food in restaurants was expensive and not great, so we resorted to (shock horror) the local mall to eat - I had a bad okonomiyaki and some excellent bakery goods.

Posted by GoonishPython 15:24 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Into the jungle

Meeting our red-haired cousins on Sumatra: 27-29 Jan '14

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Next stop from Singapore was a worlf away, we were heading to Sumatra - the northern-most main island in Indonesia, and specifically to Bukit Lawang, a little town by the Taman Nasional Gunung Leuser, famous for one very special thing: Sumatran orang-utans. First we flew to Medan, Indonesia's third largest city, and reputedly one of the places topping backpacker's worst place they've ever stayed list. Apparently its a massive culture shock if you've never been to Indonesia (except Bali) before, and even more so coming from Malaysia and/or Singapore, because it's poor and it's dirty and it's full of crazy traffic, but driving through it, it just seemed like SE Asia to me - but then again I have said starting in Myanmar was actually a wise choice, because I'm pretty chilled out about seeing undeveloped dirty crazy towns (not to mention being unfazed by Asian-style squat toilets, even when dirty).

But we weren't staying in Medan. We were heading into the jungle. We arrived into the town of Bukit Lawang at night - it doesn't have a proper road - our driver dropped us at the end of a path where two guys from our guesthouse were waiting to motorbike our bags and walk us through the village on the up and down rock-strewn pavement-width concrete (mostly) track along the river. It was so chilled - I immediately loved it. Our guesthouse cafe/restaurant was opensided overlooking the river and the jungle on the other side; our room was a bamboo bungalow on the.hillside with a balcony, a huge carved wooden bed, and a rain shower. Bliss. Sampling my first Indonesian beer - Bintang - after a long day, it just felt.fantastic.

Next day we went trekking into the jungle. After a very steep climb, we were a little worn out, and slightly dreading the whole day would be like that - but we'd only been 30/40 mins in when our very experienced guide - he was one of the original guides from when Bukit Lawang's rehabilitation centre started out in the 70s - took us to see our very first orang-utans, a mother and baby. Orang-utans are now found in only two places on earth - both islands - Borneo and Sumatra. Sumatran orang-utans are slightly different to their Bornean cousins, probably because the populations have been isolated from each other, but they're just as endangered. Of all the great apes they are actually one of the least related to us - but we still share 90+% of the same DNA - which is why I was so desperate to get rid of my cold in KL, as otherwise I wouldn't have been able to go just in case I passed it on - human colds could be fatal to an orang-utan, and I didn't want the potential death of a critically endangered animal on my conscience.

So the while reason for the expense and hassle of getting to Bukit Lawang and the effort in trekking was worth it - in five and a half hours trekking we saw 11 (yes, 11) orang-utans in the wild. A few were half-wild or rehabilitated - the guide and his helpers knew which ones - but some were completely wild. They were amazing. We saw three mothers with babies/young ones, one big adult male and four other lone orang-utans. We even saw a mother and child building a nest, and another pair redigesting their food - apparently orang-utans eat, then later regurgitate it, often from a store in their necks, before re-eating it - sometimes 15 or so times - using their mouth like a blender, making a banana shake as the guide put it.

They were awesome. So majestic yet funny - one even seemingly posed for us. Absolutely totally and utterly worth every minute and every penny. We even tubed back along the river after some hair-raising ascents and descents to the riverbank, and after a rest, finished the evening singing along with our lovely local trek helpers in a riverside(ish) bar. Bukit Lawang was amazing.

Oh and we learnt a new song...it'll be going round my head for days.
(to the tune of Jingle Bells)
"Jungle trek, jungle trek, in Bukit Lawang.
See the monkeys, see the birds, see orang-utans."
(x2)
(cont.)

Posted by GoonishPython 09:26 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Singapore Slings, safaris and Slow Loris'

Three days eating in Singapore: 25-27 Jan '14

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Singapore is a country like no other. An intoxicating mix of old and super-new, a melting pot of cultures and communities, with towering skyscrapers and urban rainforest, and all in what is essentially one not super-enormous city. And it's so clean! (Except in Little India where we stayed.) Most of our time was spent walking around the streets, marvelling at the Merlion, staring up at the skyscrapers, pushing through Chinatown all covered in decorations ready for New Year, looking at the old colonial buildings and wandering round thwarting rejuvenated quaysides at night. But there were three things that drew me to Singapore, and I achieved them all.

1) Night Safari

Singapore is the only place with a night zoo. Its not cheap, but its very cool - you basically get to see all those animals that are normally asleep in the day, or at least are more active at night. It was also a chance to see lots of Asian animals that you wouldn't normally see much of in a European zoo. I loved seeing the big cats (always my favourite), especially the rare Malaysian tiger, and the fishing cats, but was particularly taken with the Slow Loris' - small, furry and funny (and not so slow) - but also one of the only venomous mammals (one of the others is the duck-billed platypus). My favourite was, however, pretty much the Asian other - they were lovely and so so playful. I wanted to steal one.

2) Eating

Singapore, like Melaka and Penang, id known for its food. Again its a mixture of influences - Malay, Chinese, Indian - and a lot of the food is very similar to what you'd find in those food lovers havens. But Singapore really thrives on its hawker centres - basically a covered area full if tables surrounded by stalls selling an intoxicating array of food. Before we even got to our hostel we'd dived into one of these - Tekka Market in Little India. I was soon full of tarka dhal, naan and mango lassi, and this was the set up of what was to come. We dined at that hawker centre twice more - it was the closest to our hostel and Indian food feels like home to me - I consumed an enormous plate of mutton biriyani, and a 'veg plate' - essentially a selection of vegetable sides including a potato curry and a dhal, with rice and a naan. Our other food choices were largely based on my Singaporean friends suggestions (thank you Gerald) - heading to the Maxwell Street centre in Chinatown, I dined on tofu fritters and banana fritters and sampled sugarcane juice - very sweet even though I had it with lemon. My friend sampled the Tien tien chicken - highly recommended - but because we knew the best stall, it was a long wait, with a big queue of locals eager to get some too. The food in hawker stalls is so good we genuinely couldn't see why you would bother going to a restaurant - and it definitely makes it easier if you all want different food!

3) Raffles Hotel

Its iconic. Its beautiful. They invented the Singapore Sling. You can throw peanut shells on the floor in the Long Bar. Ernest Hemingway and Somerset Maugham sat there. We had to go. So in our nicest clothes, a Singapore Sling in the Long Bar it was. Very nice too.

Singapore was what I expected KL to be. I loved it. Definitely a city to get stuck in (provided you have money and can cope with getting fat).

Posted by GoonishPython 19:23 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

Cultural exchange

The many influences on Melaka (and its food): 23-25 Jan '14

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It was with a spring in our step that we left KL for Melaka - hoping it would be more fun. It was. Melaka is awesome. A UNESCO heritage town (yep, another one), its full of amazing architecture reflecting the many influences on the town - a bit like George Town in Penang - except more.

Melaka was originally founded by a Hindu prince from Sumatra in the fourteenth century, "protected" by the Chinese from 1405, conquered by the Portuguese in 1511, then the Dutch captured it in 1641. This is due to its excellent position in the now called Straits of Malacca, which ships had to pass through to get to the lucrative spice islands and to China. The British took control in 1795 during the Napoleonic Wars so it didn't fall into French hands, but gave it back to the Dutch, albeit having destroyed the strategic fort etc. to reduce Dutch influence in the area. It worked. Britain and the Netherlands later negotiated ownership of various places in the Malay peninsular and what is now Indonesia, with Britain gaining Melaka. The let it decline in favour of George Town, situated further North, and Singapore, further South. So Melaka's decline is part of its charm, as it didn't continue to grow as a thriving port like Singapore, so retains a lot of its old buildings and quirky streets.

So Melaka's influences are:-
- colonial powers: Portuguese, Dutch and British;
- distinct peoples: Malay, Straits Chinese (Peranankan or Baba-Nonya - early Chinese immigrants that settled and adopted Malay dress and customs rather than later Chinese settlers), Indian, Chitties (Indian-Malay) and Eurasians (Malay-Portuguese);
- religions: Muslim, Hindu, Chinese Buddhism-Confucianism-Taoism, Catholicism and Protestantism (in two forms).
So its pretty mixed.

Architecture
Pretty wicked. Some excellent temples and churches:
- St Paul's was originally Portuguese, then Dutch, then British;
- Cheng Hoon Teng Chinese temple was very relaxing;
- the Hindu temple where we got fed;
- Masjid Kampung Kling (a mosque) with a pagoda shaped minaret and stained glass.
We also saw remains of Fort Malacca, the Porto de Santiago, and loads of colonial houses in all styles. The bright red Dutch Stadthuys was unfortunately being renovated, so covered in scaffolding, but a real highlight was the restored shophouse - a style first built in Melacca and exported to George Town and Singapore - our hostel was in one of these, which was fascinating to see the changes from the original. Oh, and we walked to Bukit China, a Chinese cemetery, for sunset views over the city. Except there was quite a haze.

Nightlife
Small but relaxed. Chilling by the river in the Reggae Bar (a genre of bar only extant in SE Asia it seems) was great fun. But the highlight - Jonker's Walk famous Night Market (only at weekends) - packed from end to end and very colourful with Chinese New Year coming up. One thing marred it - the man with the supernatural finger of steel - a Chinese doctor who can break through a coconut with just his bare finger. The actual breaking of coconut was impressive but the hour of talk beforehand and more afterwards , together with attempts to sell his miracle oil were infuriating. We left before the second coconut breakage. We couldn't stand anymore talking. Neither could half the front row.

Food
This is one of Melaka's highpoints. Its pretty good (understatement of the year).
- Indian: always a favourite
- Chinese: dim sum for breakfast was epic. The steamed pork bun with ginger was yummy yummy yummy.
- Nonya food: Melaka's speciality (also available in George Town and Singapore, the other two settlements with Straits Chinese communities). Basically a mix of Chinese and Malay, and in Melaka, Portuguese. I had:
*Egg custard tart - it was almost a Portuguese nata but not quite
*Aubergine in a spicy sauce a bit like Indonesian sambal (so Malay stylee)
*Popiah - like a spring roll but with carrots, chili, garlic, pickled turnip and palm sugar among other fillings
*Laksa - well I tried a bit of my friends. It tastes like Penang curry you get in Thailand.
*Cendol - shaved ice covered in palm syrup with green rice worms, red beans and coconut milk
*Nonya rice parcel thing - it was blue rice (apparently from blue ginger flower) stuffed with pork and spices, all cooked in a banana leaf
*Nonya pineapple tarts - pastry filled with chewy pineapple jam like stuff - like a jam tart basically
*Lime juice with sour plums. I love lime juice and I've eaten sour plums, so this was a well-gauged experiment. Tasty, but too sweet and sour for me - I prefer straight lime juice without much sugar.
And I ate lots of other stuff too, including some green rice paste balls covered in coconut served warm with liquid palm sugar in the middle, which were bought for us by a friendly local lady. In Indonesia they're called celepon so probably a pretty similar name in Malay.

So Melaka is pretty cool. Very chilled with pretty buildings and awesome food. And people were friendly, unlike KL. I love Melaka.

Posted by GoonishPython 19:30 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Acting the flashpacker in KL

20-23 Jan '14

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So having been recommended a party hostel in Kuala Lumpur, we were looking forward to a bit of fun. But man the hostel was fancy - proper flashpacker! Totally unexpected as the guys who recommended it seemed anything but. What we quickly realised about KL is it wasn't female friendly. Even pretty covered up we were still shouted at time after time - so much we were constantly tense, as it was pretty much every 5 mins or so that someone commented or made kissing noises at us. Unfortunately it sort of ruined KL for us. Not fun. I also had caught a cold so a little disappointing.

Wandering round KL was quite fun, but its definitely not a city for pedestrians - you'd suddenly come across a massive road but no obvious way to cross it. We of course visited the Petronas Towers, and saw the beautiful colonial architecture and enormous flagpole in Merdaka Square. We also went to the oldest Hindu temple in Malaysia - Sri Mahamariamman - beautiful, but even the worker there couldn't be polite in asking Elin to cover up a bit more. A highlight for me was the afternoon spent in the Islamic Arts Museum - absolutely stunning and fascinating - and in a beautiful setting next to the Lake Gardens Park and a strikingly modern National Mosque.

Despite some fun in our hostels rooftop bar, KL was marred for us by being a) expensive, b) full of rude men. Not our kind of city.

Posted by GoonishPython 19:23 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Back to the islands

Pulau Pangkor: 18-20 Jan '14

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As a contrast we next headed to the island of Pangkor for some R&R. Our resort (no hostels here), between jungle and beach, turned out to be scruffy and old, but our room was at least clean. It was a shame here was a powercut on the first night, no internet at all on the second and we were surprised by monkeys jumping on the roof, including one who say just above our door and almost launched itself at me when we went to get in, then following us when we walked away. I've never been threatened by something so small. Other wildlife included hornbills, which we saw being fed.

So, the beaches. No.1 - Telak Nipah - meant to be a nice golden sand beach. Well it is. But no one mentions the crowds of holidaying Muslims (so you have to move away to not be offensive in a bikini), or the monkeys colonising one end (and chasing intruding tourists away), or the huge amount of rubbish in the remaining bit. Definitely not expected, and it was mostly cloudy! Next day we waled the 5 mins to Coral Bay - prettier, less crowded and no rubbish - we even got some sun! We visited the main town (and a bakery) for lunch, but returned to Coral Bay for dinner - sunset across the sea made up for most of Pangkor's failures.

Posted by GoonishPython 19:17 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

A bit of cool relief

Tea and mountains in the Cameron Highlands: 16-18 Jan '14

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The Cameron Highlands are essentially where Brits came to cool off. Although a bit humid (it rains), it is only ever about 21C. Coming through the villages and towns in a frankly scary minibus (I hit my head), I was struck (not just by the roof) how much poorer it looked than Penang and Langkawi - suddenly there was ramshackle houses built of corrugated iron and rubbish by the side of the road. Contrastingly there are huge big colonial style buildings and lots of industry - especially strawberry farms and tea plantations.

We visited the Sulas Palais Boh tea plantation, and after a brief wander round, indulged in some tea and cake overlooking the green hills. I had Earl Grey with tangerine - which basically tasted like Lady Grey - and butter lemon cake. Very tasty, but I definitely felt all colonial again! We then walked back through the beautiful plantation to the main road - suddenly dirty, noisy and busy.

The Highlands also sprout bee farms and butterfly gardens - we headed to the latter. A big mistake. Although the butterflies were stunning, the garden also featured various bugs, snakes and spiders and some incredibly unhappy looking animals and birds - the guinea pigs looked utterly wretched, huddling together and shaking. It really ashamed me to have paid to go in to the butterfly garden. Followed by a bad meal, it really put a downer on the day, especially when we then couldn't find the bus back. Luckily a taxi driver scooted by and gave us a cheap price, else we would have had a very long walk.

Posted by GoonishPython 19:08 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

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