Posts Tagged With: animals

Madrid: Street Entertainers, Lottery Booths and Ham Museums

I was surprised with myself that I’d never visited Madrid. After 10 years of learning Spanish, I guess I’d just never got around to it. I had in this time taken three trips to Barcelona but Madrid had never happened. So I felt a sympathy for Madrid before I even boarded the plane from Lisbon. Madrid turned out to be a pleasant surprise and an arty and bohemian yet smart and classy city.

Having said goodbye to Hannah in Lisbon, I was travelling on my own for the first time since I was in hospital in Bangkok and it felt really strange! On one hand, it was easy to just trundle around but on the other hand, I was yearning for someone to point out the street entertainers to. Street entertainers. That’s something they’re not short of in Madrid. There’s the good kind – my favourite was two men coated in gold, one of whom appeared to be floating on top of the other. Then there’s the Winnie the Poohs and Bart Simpsons and Spongebobs. I’ve never seen so many! They hover around La Puerta del Sol and the parks waiting for photos to be taken with then and cash to be handed over. I don’t have a problem with this, everyone has to make a living, but some of the costumes are just awful!

They don’t directly approach you, or maybe I just didn’t look like the type who wanted a photo with Woody Woodpecker. I was, however, approached by a couple of Eastern European deaf and dumb girls with a clipboard of “donations” who I’m sure I encountered once before in Paris. Pleasure to see them again.

There’s also a lot of ‘Once’ lottery booths, which although they make for pretty urban photos, did look a little shut most of the time. I have a feeling I remember studying about the Spanish lottery at A level and I’m sure I remember it’s a big thing, but perhaps only at certain times of the year. Do you know?

Other than the obvious choices of the Reina Sofia and Prado museums (both of which have free evenings on the weekend – a great time to visit Madrid!) I had been recommended by Hannah to visit a Museo de Jamón. This translates as Ham Museum. I’m not a big meat eater but I followed her advice and entered one of the infamous ham museums one lunch time. I didn’t regret it! With rows of meat, strip lights and mirrors, the place looked like it never ended. And with a ham baguette for just 1 Euro, I was onto a winner! I sat casually at the bar as if I knew what I was doing and ordered myself the 1 Euro sandwich advertised.

“Señor? Señor, can you cut it into two, please? Gracias.” A thick American accent questioned over my shoulder, “Dos, por favor? Gracias!”

With a mouthful of ham and bread, I turned to smile at him for using Spanish. I think he interpreted that as me being Spanish because he and his friends seemed a little taken aback when I asked where they were from in a rather British accent.

Another favourite from Madrid was visitng El Rastro flea market early on Sunday morning (see, I told you the weekend was the time to visit!). Just like Marrakesh, El Rastro is a place to visit when you’re buying your first house. Full of quirky antiques, toys and comic shops it’s a real delight to meander your way through as it gets busier, before diving into a cafe for some churros for breakfast.

However, I think my absolute highlight was the terrapin pool in Atocha train station. I didn’t have to take a train, but being drawn in by the awe inspiring exterior, I felt it rude not to take a look inside. The terrapin tank proved it a worthy venture!

Overall, Madrid won me over and I think it’s a shame so many people come to Spain and don’t see it. Madrid shows a very different side of Spain to that of the other cities I’ve visited in Spain and that’s what keeps me engaged about this country – the sheer diversity. Every region, every city has it’s own story to tell, and they tell them well.

Have you visited Madrid? What were your highlights? I’d love to read about it in the comments below! 🙂

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Lisbon: Trams, Hills and Sexy Toilet Paper

Being so close to Portugal following our Andalucian adventure, we couldn’t not go to Lisbon. That would have been rude! So we scheduled a few days in the Portuguese capital into our plans. Definitely a worthy detour from Spain. After a sleepless late night bus from Seville, squashed next to a rather nosy Romanian lady who insisted on shouting “DORMIRE?!” in my ear once I’d began to drift into dreamland, I think you’ll understand when I say we were relieved to arrive early morning at our hostel.

Once suitably freshened up, we headed out on the hunt for food. I was keen to try out my newly learnt Portuguese on the locals and enjoyed ordering a custard tart and orange juice for breakfast in a local restaurant. (Yes! Custard tart for breakfast! Amazing, right?)

Shortly after our morning stroll introducing us both to Lisbon and Portugal for the first time, we joined a free walking tour we’d seen advertised in the hostel. Our  tour in Granada had convinced me that Hannah was onto something with her love of free walking tours! Unfortunately, this one wasn’t as good in my opinion. The guide was clearly passionate about Lisbon and he had some interesting facts to share with us – he even recommended a great local restaurant to us that we would never have found on our own. However, the one memory that really stands out was him taking us all through the underground system passage to get from one place to another by skipping a rather large hill climb, and instead escorting us up escalators through throngs of commuters. Not really my idea of making tourists, or locals, feel comfortable.

Still, there were some nice photos to be had on the tour – and as I said, the restaurant he recommended was excellent. With a handwirtten menu on a paper tablecloth stuck up in the window, we knew this was the place we wanted to eat. As it turned out, we got lucky with our food in Lisbon, and managed to find a “paper tablecloth menu” place most days. The prices were amazing (and a great shock after Spain) and the food was delicious.

The city of Lisbon is beautiful. However, after over a week of nothing but urban landscapes (well, minus a few language filled days in Essaouira) we planned for a day at the beach! Cascais to be exact. Cascais is an easy day trip from Lisbon, as the crowds of tourists and locals alike on the train proved. The journey takes 40 minutes by train and the beach is just a stone’s throw from the train station in Cascais. We’d read about surfing possibilities there but the water looked rather calm and the wind looked rather strong. Feeling a little doubtful, we asked at the surf place but unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be. Minus surfing, Cascais still made a great excursion from Lisbon and I’d definitely recommend it if you fancy a little peek out towards the US of A! (Disclaimer: You can’t actually see America!)

One of my favourite things about Lisbon, other than the food, the cute yellow trams and the company that make multicoloured toilet paper, was the Oceanarium. Partly because it’s the biggest aquarium in Europe. Mainly because they had a sea turtle exhibition at the time. Yes, please. I don’t think the exhibition is still there,  but if you go to Lisbon, I would say the Oceanarium is a worthy morning or afternoon chilling with some penguins and jellyfish.

Lisbon did not fail to disappoint. In fact, I preferred Lisbon more than I thought I would and was slightly disappointed when I had to leave for Madrid.

Have you ever been to Lisbon? Did you like it? I’d love to read your thoughts below! 🙂

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Slightly Secondary Seville

Granada is amazing. So wherever we went after Granada was going to have a lot to live up to. Wanting to make our way over to Lisbon, me and Hannah headed to Seville once our Lorca dreaming days in Granada were over. I was excited about Seville! Oranges, bullfighting and more flamenco! How very stereotypical of me. However, personally, Seville was just another city, really. It didn’t grab me the way that Granada did. Sure, there are a few cool sights and I enjoyed our tour of the bullring, the Mirador, Plaza de España, the Alcázar and all of the other must-sees. I just didn’t “feel” Seville as a city.

Don’t get me wrong, if you’re visiting Andalucia, or even just Spain, Seville is still worth your time, and I have spoken to people since who said they preferred Seville over Granada! Shock horror!

Our first day was spent wandering by the river and gradually heading inwards to the city. We soon stumbled upon the Plaza de España, which is a very impressive building built for the Expo in 1929. Currently being used as Spanish Government offices, the huge structure encompasses little nooks for each region of Spain with a mosaicked image of the area. My favourite thing about this was seeing a woman lounging beside the Canary Islands nook!

We made our way across town and ended up visiting the bullring in the heat of the day. Now, I don’t agree with killing animals for ‘sport’. However, having spent an afternoon in Indonesia at a cock fight, I feel it’s sometimes part of a culture and something that I’m prepared to see once, form an opinion on, and move on. There was no bull fight on the days we were in Seville though – I think, in all honesty, we were both slightly relieved about this. We did opt for the tour of the bull ring though in an attempt to understand more about bull fighting. The tour was really informative and worth the 4 or so Euros.

Something that costs a little more than 4€ in Seville is Isla Mágica! A reasonably sized theme park that Hannah decided to treat me to for my birthday! Is it good? Well, without looking at my photos, Isla Mágica is where the majority of my memories of Seville lie. So, yes. Especially   Indígenas contra alienígenas (Indigenous vs. Aliens). I know, right?!

Writing about it now, and revisiting Seville in my mind, maybe I was a bit harsh at the start of this post. Maybe I would have felt the same about anywhere post Granada. I take it back – Seville is cool.

Have you visited Seville? What did you think? I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments below!

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A Whistle Stop Tour of KL.

Back in the day, when I was out here all alone, these 5 weeks with Ashley became a difficult thing to organise over Skype. After a bit of sketchy planning in Myanmar I came up with a plan. Ashley’s birthday/Christmas present could be diving! We had 5 days ‘spare’ in which I could fit what became known to Ashley as the “Mystery Destination”. For a while, the Mystery Destination was also a mystery to me. Do we go to the Philippines? But we’ve never been so would 5 days be enough? Do we go to Indonesia? But I hated it; do I really want to go back there? Or do we go to Malaysia? The place I was originally planning to dive myself – the Semporna Archipelago – has sea turtles. Sea turtles!! I opted for Malaysia. To Ashley it was still Mystery Destination.

When it came to booking flights, it was always going to be a two flight trip from Tokyo if we were to go to Semporna, so I booked us on a night flight from Tokyo and an evening flight to Tawau, the airport for Semporna, leaving us with a day in Kuala Lumpur in between!

It took us some hot and sweaty trips back and forth from the left luggage area to the check in area before we found the security scanner and the lady with the bag stickers that meant we were allowed to leave our bags having been scanned for guns and the like. Phew. It also took us some hot and sweaty trips back and forth from ATM to ATM before they decided that yes, I do in fact have sufficient funds and yes, they can in fact serve me today. Double phew.

Finally on the bus into the city, I glanced up at the clock. 8.30? Of course! Kuala Lumpur is an hour behind Tokyo! The near hour spent shuffling from ATM to left luggage had been a freebie! Hooray! The bus journey was an hour long.

It must have been quite a tiring bus journey because Ashley fell asleep. I managed to stay awake. The prospect of navigating my way around the place again but without a map helped. We arrived at KL Sentral and I had a vague, vivid yet hazy memory of my mum back in August picking me up from KL Sentral and telling me and my sister we only needed to take one stop on the LRT train. The next stop up was Pasar Seni. Pasar means market, we wanted to head for the Central Market, I guessed and luckily it was right. It felt weird to be back there. We stopped off for a little drink in the Central Market food court, it being nearly 10 and us not having had the chance to get breakfast. I told Ashley there was a place I wanted to take him to eat so we didn’t eat there, but instead made our way down Petaling Street and found the food court where my mum and me ate on the last night in KL. It was just as I remembered!

After our curry laksa to welcome us to Malaysia, we headed back on the LRT to the Petronas Towers, wandered around the Suria mall a bit, took some Petronas Towers photos and whizzed back down to the market so that we were closer to KL Sentral to get our bus back to the airport. Still having some time to spare, we ate again (it was past 12, this could be classed as lunch) and decided to have a little look around the market. We were soon distracted by what was my first Malaysian experience last time – a fishy foot spa. It was the same place and possibly the same woman working there. This time I was a little braver and didn’t waste half of my time with my feet out of the water. I think it must have long lasting effects though – the fish nibbled me a little but not half as much as they flocked to Ashley. FRESH MEAT!

It was a quick little jaunt but pretty fun! And much more rewarding than I think 12 hours in the airport would have been. As a matter of fact there was only one hour in the airport, and off we set to Semporna.

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If you buy clothes in Harajuku, does that make you a Harajuku Girl?

So I’ve talked about Akihabara, I’ve talked about food, now I’m going to enlighten you to the wonders of Harajuku. If you don’t know me that well, you might not know that I’m a bit of a No Doubt fan. They’re amazing – the most underrated band ever. So consequently, I quite like Gwen Stefani. Now, when she got those 4 Japanese girls and gave them names and stuff, like you I presume, I also thought it was maybe a little extreme. However, having been to Harajuku I can see why she’d want to spread the word. You can walk around Harajuku wearing almost anything. Having said that, wearing  jeans covered in 3 weeks of dirt and sweatand my big baggy coat, I did feel slightly uncool. We’d read that weekends are the time to see all the girls gathered in their Cosplay get-up so had to wait until our last day to see them. There were still plenty of shops to be trawled during our weekday trips though. Despite most of it being “vintage” aka, overpriced charity shop, I did manage to find a 2 for 1000 Yen rail. Get in. So I got me some threads from Harajuku. Oh yeah.

After almost a week of waiting, we arrived on Sunday morning to a mass of tourists but no girls! All I can think of is that they have naturally moved on, as young people do, and now congregate somewhere else. If you know where, I’d love to know! This meant we had our last morning in Tokyo to kill in Harajuku, which meant I finally got to do something I’d really been looking forward to – KARAOKE. The daytime prices were a fifth of the night prices so the lack of Harajuku girls meant we’d hit the karaoke jackpot at 11am. The only catch was you had to buy a drink per person as well. I’d just indulged myself in another Calpis from the 7/11. I wasn’t ready for another drink. So I settled for a rosehip teapot, at least that way I get more than one glass full. Anyway, it was awesome. I absolutely loved it.

When we went in, we opted for 30 minutes, sticking to our budget ‘n’ all, but we ended up staying two 30 minute blocks longer. They don’t tell you when your time is up by the way – you have to keep track, which we did, we just wanted to stay longer.

You get a little room, with a built in sofa around 2 walls, a coffee table, a TV on one wall and the door and phone (to order more costly drinks) on the other. At first, we didn’t really know what to do. I pressed a few buttons and BAM! AKB48 came blaring through the speakers. I think I failed to mention them on the Akihabara post. They’re very specific to Akihabara so I won’t go into them now, but Google them. It’s mental.

Anyway, we found our way back to the menu screen, found the “English Songs” button and sang away! I think it’s fair to say Adele would have been proud of my rendition of Rolling In The Deep. Hey, she’d probably be a fan of Harajuku too and end up with some Stefani style girls. You never know.

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Categories: East Asia, Japan | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Beijing: A Wall, another zoo, and some people who need putting in it.

Beijing was a good ending to China. It meant we didn’t leave on the huge negative hatred we had by the end of Xi’an. Or maybe we’d just got used to the spitting, squatting, staring and shoving by this point. Bad things in China begin with the letter ‘S’. There’s an episode of Sesame Street they never aired.

We started out, as I’m sure most tourists do, with Tiananmen Square. However, with two Metro lines to choose from (Tiananmen East and Tiananmen West) we were spoilt for choice.

“It must be a really big square if it needs TWO Metro stops,” I said to Ashley, quite excited.

“It’s the biggest in the world I think,” came the reply.

We arise from the ground to be greeted by a recognisable red building to the right of us with Mao framed nice and big in the middle…and a road to the left.

“Well, that doesn’t really count as the biggest square in the world. There’s a road going through it. I feel conned again,” I said, slightly disappointed.

After the mandatory photos of the big red Mao building, we headed back through the underpass to cross the road.

“Oh, ok. This is the square. I’ll let them off.”

We’d got out the wrong side of the road to appreciate the vastness of the square. Blocked by two rather large screens showing the beautiful sights of China on a loop, yes, but vast all the same.

Not quite sure how to get through to the Forbidden City without paying to visit a garden, we headed in the other direction and found ourselves in a modern looking, conveniently located tourist street. It didn’t take long to put the ‘2008’ date on the drains, artificial flowers and still fully stocked Olympic shop together and figure out that this street must have been built in time for the Olympics. It was like Disneyland. Until you notice a depressed sheep sat head in hands against a wall. Very odd.

By the time we left fakeville and reached the Forbidden City (through a garden we had to pay for) there was only an hour until closing time. And a homeless woman was having a breakdown. So we decided to do it another day. We did however, have time to go into a park behind the Forbidden City that gives the most amazing (but misty) view of the Forbidden City if you climb to a spot where an Emperor once hung himself. A bizarre sentence, yes, it may seem.

And so, as day two arrived in Beijing, it was time to hit the Wall. The Great Wall. One of the Seven Wonders of The World. A day to remember. It snowed a little. Doesn’t get much better!

And it was really cold. Really, really, really cold. But it was snowing! How could we not go to the Wall the day it snowed?! Imagine the beautiful photos! It’s higher up there, there’s got to be more snow! So we carried on regardless. There was no more snow.

The two main ways to see the Wall are tour or public bus. As the public bus cost a 10th of the price of the cheapest tour, we opted for public bus. We had a Metro station, and instructions to walk 500m east to the bus stop when we get there. However, east (or in fact north, south or west) is difficult to determine when you haven’t got a compass. Thankfully, a very nice man helped us out and pointed us in the right direction. Our new instruction was “second on the left”.

Before we reached “second on the left”, we found a sign pinned to a tree saying “919”, four Westerners and a man in uniform.

“Badaling? Badaling?” said the official man.

“Yes, yes. Badaling from here?”

“Yes, yes.” He spoke very little English. To make this easier, I’ve put the conversation in English.

“Ok. How much is it?”

“55 Yuan per person, per way.”

“55? I read 12!”

“No, no.”

Hmm. Something didn’t add up. So us and the other 4 Westerners worked as a team and found another bus stop further down – this time, the “919” was a sticker on a tree! Is that better than pinned to a tree?…

The same thing happened, only this guy wasn’t so sneaky,

“Yes, 55 each way. But with one, two, three in car, taxi, 400 Yuan.”

“Ahh, no, it’s ok, we’ll take the bus.”

Eventually, we found it. A bus stop specifically for 919 buses, full of 919 buses. At least 6 of them. Go team!

Our team of taxi tout avoiders had somewhat dispersed in the crowd but somehow me, Ashley and an American, Matthew, had managed to stay together. Matthew was a lovely bloke. He was also black – a rarity in Asia – as was proved when we arrived at the Wall for him to be met by two in-awe Chinese asking for photos with him. Good job he’s a good sport.

We weren’t sure when to stop walking the Wall. I mean, we didn’t want to end up out in the sticks, but thankfully our worries were put to rest by a huge sign in a square block of the Wall that read “NO VISITOR”.

We did it. We went as far as we could – I guess you could say we walked the Wall?…

We left the Wall feeling pretty good, if not slightly cold, which is more than can be said for when we left Beijing Zoo the next day. At least 50% of the animals caged were more intelligent than at least 50% of the visitors. Banging on the glass – including the gorilla enclosure, letting kids shout really loudly through the wires and  feeding crisps to the zebras. By the time we got to crisp/zebra girl, we’d had enough of “subtly” saying, “Oh, there’s a sign there – what dos it say? Oh, don’t bang? Oh ok then – I won’t bang the glass!”

Ashley approached crisp/zebra girl after we’d watched her for too long.

“Hey, hello, excuse me. Come here,” he ushered her towards the signboard. She looked stupidly and didn’t move. I joined Ashley, “Come, follow.” She still didn’t move.

“The sign says no feeding. Don’t feed them,” Ashley pointed to the crisps, “They’re wild animals. They can’t eat crisps.”

“Ahh, I know. I know.” Wow, she speaks.

We then proceeded to sit behind her for about 10 minutes. She knew we were there and didn’t feed them…until we eventually had to walk off.

Despite stressing out at the zoo and getting a tad cold, we had a pretty good time in Beijing. The Wall was more impressive than the Warriors and I think the Olympics must have worked wonders for upgrading the city here and there. That said, we were very much looking forward to getting out of China and into Japan.

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Categories: China, East Asia | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Shanghai: Land of lights in tunnels and dogs in zoos.

We were expecting things to get a lot more difficult by the time we got to Shanghai. We were prepared for much less English writing, and a lot more Chinese. But no! Still plenty of bi-lingual signs to help us navigate our way around. Excellent! When we arrived at the hostel, the men were wrapped up warm in their coats, sat in the dark.

“Ni hao. We have a reservation, under Williams?”

“Ahh yes. Budget private double? I’m afraid we have no power, we have a power cut. So we need your passports and we can give you the room card and your passports back at 6pm, the power should be back then.”

We offered a copy of our passports but I think they needed the visa bit. So we left our passports with 2 men in a dark room, headed up to our room and back down and out to explore. Our journey to the hostel had transferred us through People’s Square Metro station, which was quite busy and seemed a good, central starting point. We were greeted with a mass of neon lights, mega malls and offers of hashish. Things I would expect in Vegas, New York and Amsterdam respectively. It wasn’t what we expected. It was huge and relatively modern, yes, this we were expecting. However, it also felt quite spacious and if you look down the backstreets, the mega malls soon vanish.

At risk of spending 5 weeks in shopping malls, we made our way down one of these back streets, to find what can, perhaps patronisingly, be called “real China”. What you’d really expect, where the majority of the population probably shop, eat and socialise. It didn’t take long to find a baked sweet potato stand, and it didn’t take long to get confused by Chinese finger numbers once we’d ordered. Instead of using all ten fingers in order, they somehow (in a way we haven’t figured out yet) do it all on one hand.

By dark, we headed to the Pudong area on the other side of the river. Now this was what we’d expected. Uber-modern buildings, skyscrapers galore, an amazing pedestrian high walkway around the roundabout and a beautiful array of lights on the buildings. We found somewhere to eat, which was surprisingly cheap for the calibre of the shops and the size of the mall we were in – I think it’s fair to say, food in China is cheaper than Hong Kong. About half the price. Yay!

On our second day, we started at Shanghai museum, which was free and not bad considering. We then went to the Bund with the potential aim of doing the “Bund Sightseeing Tunnel” to cross the river and walk around the Pudong area in daylight. Well. The Bund Sightseeing Tunnel costs £5 one way or £6 return. I’m telling you now, don’t worry about the return. Ashley made a video of the…experience…. I’ll let you know when it’s online. I think it says more than I could with words.

Ashley and me have something that seems to have become a “thing”, you know, a “thing”. Could be called a tradition, could be called …well, a “thing” really. We go to zoos. That’s our thing. We went to Budapest zoo, we went to London zoo, we went to Hong Kong zoo and now, we’ve been to Shanghai zoo. What can you say about Shanghai zoo? Hmm. It’s an interesting one. It starts well, with a small aquarium and a reptile house – aka, lots of sea turtles and tortoises so I’m a happy bunny. Then there’s the goldfish section. Genuinely. Then you find the main attraction – the pandas! They’re really funny to watch, they sit around like slobs, legs apart, belly out,  chomping on bamboo! The type you’d imagine on Jeremy Kyle. Most of the enclosures aren’t actually too bad, including the panda enclosures. However, “Pet World” is a little bizarre. If you see a sign at a zoo saying Pet World, you would enter expecting…little fluffy bunnies? Guinea pigs and hamsters? Maybe even some more goldfish (borrowed from the goldfish section)? Well you’re all wrong. Unless you guessed dogs in glass suburban houses that is. Yep, different breeds of dog all in their own little concrete and glass “houses”. It was a very depressing place. The mating porcupines didn’t seem to care though. I know, I don’t know anyone with a porcupine as a pet either.

All in all, Shanghai is alright. It’s not as modern and shiny as it’s often billed but it gives you an idea of what China seems to be about – spitting, shoving and staring. Not necessarily in that order.

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Burmese Days – Part Four

Bagan – Sand Paintings and Sandy Feet.

Day nine.

Day nine began with a seven hour bus journey on the worst road I’ve seen in this country. I didn’t feel great before I got on the bus. I couldn’t stomach breakfast. I was sick at the first stop. I wanted to come home. I arrived here. I went to two guesthouses. Hassled by taxi  and horse cart drivers all the way. I wanted to come home. I got lucky with the third guesthouse. I slept from 3.30 to 5.30. I woke up. I felt a little better. But really, I still wanted to come home.

Day ten.

Exactly what I needed after yesterday. I’d agreed with a British guy I met on the bus, who from now on we shall call Chris for ease, to meet at 8 and if I was feeling better share a horse cart for the day – half the cost. After a solid twelve hour sleep from 5.30pm ‘til 5.30am I felt ready to take on the world! After a brilliant breakfast, I set off to meet Chris at the bus station.

There were two American girls on the bus too, who from now on we shall call Brihanna and Rebecca, and it turned out they were staying in the room next to Chris, so we decided to get two horses and spend the day as four.

After spending just three days in Thailand a week ago, I’m still pretty templed out. You get the big ones like Borobudur in Indonesia and Wat Pho in Bangkok but once you’ve seen one mediocre temple, you’ve seen them all. Think about it, you may go and see Salisbury Cathedral, or Canterbury Cathedral on a little day trip but would you really cruise Northamptonshire for a tour of it’s village churches?

The individual temples of Bagan are just mediocre temples. Like I said, seen one, seen ‘em all. But once you climb to the top and look out, the collective view is amazing. Why you would need to build so many temples in one place is still beyond me but it makes for a good view.

I am undecided as to what I saw more of today; temples, coin collectors or sand painters…. Every big temple you go to is surrounded by stalls and people who will follow you up and inside for the chance of selling you their wares. At the beginning of the day, it’s plain annoying, by lunchtime you play the game, and by sunset it’s back to plain annoying. Our horse cart driver even found us a fab place to watch the sunset, not a tour bus in sight, not even a lone bicycle. But guess what? A family waded through the puddles and up the dark stairwell to try and sell us their lacquer ware.

Then there’s a different breed of temple-hanger-around-ers; the money collectors. I’d discovered early on that my trick of answering “Where you from?” with “No English, sorry, parlo italiano” was redundant in Bagan when a woman replied with “Buongiorno, molto bello!” This discovery was reiterated later on when I saw some Burmese kids babbling away in Spanish to a Spanish tour group! So I was trying a new tactic, picking an obscure European country they definitely wouldn’t have heard of. I’d already used Andorra, now it was Liechtenstein’s turn.

“Where you come from?” asked a little boy towards the end of the day.

“Liechtenstein.”

“I know your country. Very nice.”

“You know it?!” Damn. “Where is it?”

“I don’t know. Do you have money from your country?”

“No, I’m in Myanmar. I only have Myanmar money. I leave my Liechtenstein money in Liechtenstein.”

This is one of many examples of this conversation.

Another conversation I had a lot today;

“Hello, where you come from?”

“Andorra/Liechtenstein/England (if I liked them and was prepared for another Manchester United themed conversation)”

“Very nice country. You want to look at my sand paintings?”

“I’ve already bought two, sorry!” This was true, I had, and they came in very handy to wave at the seller at this point in the conversation.

“But one more? It is different design.”

“I’m sure it is, but I already have two!”

“But three is the lucky number!”

“I know but I have no more money. Sorry!”

These people don’t give up easily.

Despite the persistent pestering and seeing more 45 Kyat notes than horse carts and more copies of George Orwell’s Burmese Days than Waterstones’ British stock, it was a very good day, one of the best so far. I met three lovely people (Chris, Brihanna and Rebecca, not the sand painters) and it really was exactly what I needed after yesterday.

Day eleven.

I’m writing this during a second evening of power outages. Thankfully my laptop was fully charged so I’m sat here before dinner with my headlamp on typing away! But without air con. Can’t have it all I guess! I’ve decided Burma is a country they should send ungrateful school kids on a trip.

Anyway, I was going to start with an apology for 13 pages worth of reading material for you. I’m sorry. And it’s not over yet!

So without further ado, here’s a brief description of my day: I relaxed, watched some Karl Pilkington clips on my iPod, and even had breakfast at NINE! Well late for Burma. I read some Stephen Fry, I set out to meet Chris and possibly the American girls for lunch. I ate a ridiculously small amount of my noodles and then we hired bikes for the afternoon. Sadly the American girls couldn’t join us because they had to get their bus to Yangon, to arrive at 4am, to fly to India at 8am!

So in a nutshell, we got bikes, saw some temples, saw some postcard sellers, saw some money collectors, had some sugar cane juice….that was pretty much it!

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No rest for the wicked? Then I must be a good girl.

It’s been a while since I’ve written. I must be so busy! You know what? I’m actually not. I’m the most unbusy I’ve been the whole time I’ve been away. And it’s brilliant. I’ve been in Kuching since the 12th and I’m here until the 22nd, so it’ll be a ten day stint in all, which is by far the longest I’ve been in one place. The only reason being that I don’t leave for Singapore (for the Grand Prix!) until Thursday, and I came to Kuching much earlier than initially planned in an attempt to arrange a longhouse visit from here and spend less on flights getting to Bario in the Kelabit Highlands to do it there.

I’m busy doing nothing and it’s lovely to have a restbite from packing and repacking my bag, airports and the like.

It helps that the hostel I’ve found here is amazing, especially the TV room! Air-con, a book exchange and a rather large selection of copied DVDs is how I’ve been spending my evenings. And with good company! I’ve met loads of Brits here who have all been lovely – one couple went to university in Preston, where I have family, and one of them even went to university with someone I went to school with!

As for my time out of the TV room – of which there has been some, I assure you – I’ve seen caves, lots of monkeys and some wakeboarding. It just so happens that the Wordl Wakeboarding Championships are happening right now in Kuching – meaning lots of amazing cheap food stalls and free kek lapis samples in the food expo tent. Kek lapis is like cheesecake without the base. It is delicious.

I spent my first day wandering the streets of Kuching, curiously looking at the numerous cat statues and laughing to myself at the museum and “aquarium”. My second day was another day spent enjoying the delights of Kuching but my third day…well, you know, just went and hung out with some orang-utans. Just chilling like. No, seriously, it was pretty cool. There’s not a lot at Semenggoh though, so after an hours bus ride to get there, you spend an hour watching the first feed of the day and then there’s nothing to do so you have to get the bus back again! Definitely worth it though.

Yesterday I went to Bako National Park and saw some probiscus monkeys (which make the weirdest noise), some pitcher plants (which trap bugs) and got absolutely drenched on the boat ride back. Covered in salt water. I was scrubbing the salt from my face all evening.

Today I’d planned to go to Wind and Fairy caves at Bau, about an hour from Kuching. On a bus it would have been a bit of mission – bus to Bau, then a bus to drop you off near wind cave, walk to wind cave, walk back, catch bus back to Bau, then a bus to Fairy cave, walk to Fairy cave, walk back to catch the bus back to Bau, then catch the bus back to Kuching. Phew. Thankfully, someone in my dorm was also planning to go there and can ride motorbikes! So we hired a motorbike and I sat on the back and we did both caves in one easy afternoon! In all honesty I think the Fairy cave was more impressive than Mulu! And it was free!

The plan for the rest of my time in Borneo is an easy like Sunday morning Sunday hitting the Sunday market and maybe going for a swim, Kubah National Park on Monday, a longhouse visit on Tuesday and a relaxing rest on Wednesday before hitting up Singapore for the Grand Prix. Did I mention I got an email from those lovely people at Singapore Grand Prix to tell me that I was one of the first 1000 people to buy a Saturday walkabout pass and therefore get an instant upgrade to the Shakira Fanzone?! Amazing!! This is why I need to preserve my energy here in Kuching. This time next week will be a little more lively I think…

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Do Do Mulu!

Preparing to leave for Mulu, I’d prepped myself that I would be away from civilization and communication. I knew there were some caves and that that was the main reason people went there but I didn’t realize how inspiring caves can be! I realize that sentence sounds incredibly geeky, but after my time here in Mulu, I feel inspired to take on more adventurous caves, treks and the like.  I would recommend a visit here to anyone visiting Borneo/Malaysia/South East Asia. However, it is expensive in comparison with what I’ve been spending on my trip so far. It’s become like a mini holiday in Centre Parcs purely due to the sudden increase in my spending. I found pre-travel info a little weak, so here’s what I now know in case you’re up for being inspired….

Arrival by plane is the only feasible way to get to Mulu, which had helped in me thinking it would be totally isolated. Therefore, I was expecting a tiny plane with propellers and 20 seats, similar to a domestic plane I’d taken in Costa Rica a few years ago. However, this plane was much bigger! Yes, it had propellers but there were much more seats. And we got a complimentary Milo!

When you arrive at Mulu, you’re greeted by numerous signboards offering a ride to the park headquarters. It’s only about 1 km away, but for 5RM (1GBP) it’s no hassle taking one of these sign bearing folk up on their offer.

Also worth noting at this point is that before departure, from what I’d read in the Lonely Planet and online, I was led to believe that you had to book accommodation in advance, and that the options at the park were the only options. The cheapest option being 40RM per night for a dorm bed in the park hostel (as opposed to 20RM average I’ve been paying elsewhere in Malaysia). However, when you take one of these rides to the park, you will see a few “homestay” places dotted along the road to the park. Jesper, a Swedish man I met on my tours, was staying in one for 15RM a night – quite a saving on my bed in the park hostel! Info that these existed prior to arrival would have saved me a small fortune. However, you get what you pay for, and from what Jesper told me, the shower sounds rather piddley and his mosquito net a necessity.

The first things you have to do on arrival are register and pay your 10RM park entrance fee. Now is also a good time to plan your time here as trips can fill up fast, so the quicker you book the better. There’re plenty of clear leaflets and a map to help you decide what’s best for you if you have no idea. I would recommend checking the website beforehand to give you an idea of what’s on offer.  Be warned: at this point, you will spend more than you initially planned!!

If, like me, you’ve never been caving before, I would recommend the following (apart from Lagang Cave), which is also the itinerary I did;

Day 1: Deer Cave and Lang Cave at 2pm, including the “bat exodus” as they flock out between 4.30 and 6pm, just in time for you finishing the caves. Lang Cave is full or limestone formations of stalactites and stalagmites, whereas Deer Cave is full of bat poo. I was slightly worried about just how bad the smell was going to be when I saw our guide rubbing Vicks under his nostrils before entering, but in all honesty, rather unexpectedly, it smelt like Veet!!

Day 2: Cave of the Winds and Clearwater Cave at 8.45am, including a longboat trip down a very shallow river, a stop at a local village selling crafts (which you will feel pressured to buy…) and a longboat trip back. Expect to return around 12.30 – just in time for lunch before…

Canopy Walk at 2pm. After an hour or so, you reach the longest canopy walkway in the world, which is quite scary at times! The bridges wobble and shake, are attached to the trees with rope and only two people are allowed on at a time. It is good fun though!

Day 3: Moonmilk Cave is the only cave that can be explored without a guide, you just need to let the Security Office know your plans. I did this with Jesper. It was a good workout, with over 800 steps in total. However, we ended up at Cave of the Winds, and had to turn back, adding another few hundred steps to the challenge!

Lagang Cave. This is billed as a “tourist” and “adventure” cave. I was well up for that! A nice little introduction into adventure caving for me, breaking me in gently. But no. To link tourist to the word adventure they don’t get rid of the boardwalk, they just turn off the lights. To make my first experience of “adventure” caving even more adventurous, I was asked after 10 minutes in the cave by my guide what religion I was.

I shook my head, “I have no religion.” Those words I should have learnt not to utter after meeting my crazy LOGOS HOPE! friend at the bus stop in Penang.

His eyes lit up.

“Who made the earth and the universe? Who put all these things here? Do they ever stop?”

“Well, it’s just nature isn’t it? It’s infinite. Nature did it, Mother Nature.” I considered adding a “Mother Nature is my God” but my better judgment helped me bite my lip.

The rest of the journey I was lumbered with stories of how he found God, how God saved him and his granddad can perform miracles, how he went to Singapore for two months to train to be a Pastor, and how one day, I too, will find God. Yeah that’s not gonna be today. Or tomorrow. Or even the day after that, or the day after…you get the picture.

He then proceeded to tell me how he was dating a beautiful Hindu girl (she must have been a stunner – he was always emphasizing the “beautiful”), but then his cousin introduced him to his (now) wife and he had to make a choice. He had to think of his future. So he send a letter to his now wife and signed it with his blood, saying “I’m deadly serious, if you are too, write back with your blood.” All this and he’s still dating the poor Hindu.

“Then one day, I receive the letter. I can feel my heart pumping in my chest…I open the letter….and there it is, her blood. I then had to break off with the Hindu and we soon married.” No mercy when it comes to bloody love.

I took this opportunity to ask about other religions if God was the one who made everything.

“Well, we do not offend other religions.”

“But if they believe in Allah, or Buddha, or Vishnu and not God…one of you must be wrong?”

“Well, we do not speak badly of other religions but, when I pray, I pray in my heart, and God comes to me. It is personal. When the Muslims pray, they use the megaphone. The “Barrr barrrr mmmm bahhhh”. How can this be personal? How can you talk to God?”

“Yeah, but I think that’s just the call to prayer. That tells them it’s time to pray. Then they go in and pray individually in silence, right?”

“Yes they do, yes.”

He’d seen miracles apparently, performed by God, but he wasn’t aware of the miracles of other people, of their beliefs and their rituals. That’s what’s really amazing in life – diversity, and I don’t have to believe in God or Allah or whoever you wish to pray to to be able to see that.

Be prepared to open up your wallet in Mulu. The food costs between 10RM and 16RM, and at least 3RM for a drink. If I was in the city or by a beach I would stretch out my snacks and go for one meal a day but when you’re out walking and sweating like crazy all day, you need to bite the bullet and pay for two meals a day (breakfast comes in the form of a token included in the accommodation price). There are a few restaurants along the road to the airport, but unless you walk quite a way, I think the prices are pretty much the same. As for water, I was not prepared to pay the price of a meal for a bottle of water. Luckily in the hostel, there were a couple of kettles, so I just boiled tap water up and left it to cool whenever I wanted to refill. This works fine until some [insert expletive here] Germans come along and reboil and steal all your precious water. [Insert further expletive for emphasis].

Altogether, my bill at Mulu was 270RM for accommodation and activities. Food must have come to at least 70-80RM and the return flight was 306RM…which comes to a grand total of….around 650RM (120GBP). So far the most pricey venture of my trip.

Was it worth it? Yes and no. Yes the experience was definitely worth it. I had an excellent time and as a novice to this kind of thing, I loved the “tame” adventure quality that Mulu has. No because the food and accommodation was way too expensive. I wish I’d known about the homestay options, although I would probably have eaten in the park still, because the food is very good and the price variation minimal. All things considered, do Mulu!

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