Posts Tagged With: culture

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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Categories: Europe, Spain | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

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

Tokyo Bites.

I didn’t really want to do a standard day 1 we went here, day 2 we did this blog for Tokyo. Why?

A – because we’re here so long, we’re going back to a lot of areas more than once and I imagine that would get rather boring to read (and write).

B – because I wouldn’t know where to start. There’s just so much going on and it would all get in a big word jumble and turn out like alphabet soup. And nobody wants that.

So I’m just going to write about a certain aspect each time. Today I think I’m going to talk about the food. Let’s not beat around the bush here: food is expensive in Tokyo compared to most of Asia. At first, we thought it wasn’t too bad and it can be a little cheaper than London and the UK but as the week has gone on, the wallet has gotten lighter and our bodies have probably gotten heavier.

I think our most authentic meal was the day we went to Tsukiji Fish Market and had some sushi. Made fresh and served with wasabi, soy sauce etc – it was very cool. Cutting sushi in half with chopsticks however, is not as easy as you may first think.

Another stand out meal, if you can call it a meal, was at the 100% Chocolate Cafe in the Ginza area. I’d seen an advert for the place on a Metro billboard and had been intrigued ever since. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t cheap, but it was quite gourmet. To drink, we had a mug of hot, frothy milk served with a ball of chocolate mousse and caramel or strawberry sauce to drop in, which was delicious and very filling. And how could you not eat anything in a Chocolate Cafe?! There were 6 “fresh chocolates” on display and 3 ways to have them served: in a croissant style cornet, in a “wafflette” or on cake. We both opted for the cornet and ordered one with Kirsch White chocolate and one with Crushed Macademia. Of course, they were both delicious!

Alas, this and the sushi were one off occasions. Most of the time, mainly to save money, we ate at what I imagine are the Japanese equivalents of fast food restaurants. In some you order and pay at a vending machine and then take your ticket to the counter, in some  they come and take your order and in one we even had a touchscreen built into our table to order from. Amazing. What is similar with most of them is that you tend to be given a mug of green tea and/or a glass of cold water. If you’re not given one, a water machine is normally available, which for me is an instant win because I’m a water glugger.

Breakfast was difficult to find on the go because most places don’t seem to open until 10/11am so it was often a 7/11 stop for a bread roll of some description and a jazzy drink.

Speaking of drinks…wow. How many varieties of drink does one country need?! There are so many brands, variations and just plain weird looking ones that we decided to try a new drink everyday. My favourite was Calpis. I think Pungency cold milk tea came a close second for Ashley.

I think that if you go to Tokyo, or even Japan, the food and drinks are half of the fun. Just don’t get too addicted to the Calpis, I wouldn’t want to cause you any embarrassment asking for it in Tesco when you get back home.

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

Watch E.T Toddle and Bobble to the Maid Cafe!

Tokyo is exciting. We were both really excited about coming here, and it’s definitely lived up to expectations. As soon as we arrived (ahem, perhaps coming from China helped, ahem) people couldn’t have been nicer. Strangers ask if you’re ok when you’re looking at maps, shop assistants smile and are incredibly polite and best of all – NOBODY SPITS!!

We had a bizzare double plane journey from Beijing to Shanghai and then Shanghai to Tokyo. We were put in a torturous glass holding area in Beijing because we hadn’t really left the country and were going to land again in Shanghai for an hour. This meant that we could see the beautiful shiny restaurant sign but only through a big glass wall. We had no restaurant – just toilets and a water machine. It was a real last minute “This is China, thanks for coming, now buggar off” moment.

When we arrived in Tokyo, we were overly excited yet overly exhausted so headed straight to the hotel and arrived about midnight after we got lost and 4 staff and a customer held a mother’s meeting with an iPad in the 7/11 to help us before the customer walked us to the hotel! Japan 1 – China 0.

In case you’ve missed my excited rambling over the past couple of months, we’re staying in a pod! A capsule hotel! The best thing about which is the shared bathroom. Loads of products to use (including Skin Water and Hair Water), a spa bath and Ashley has told me the male bathroom also has a sauna and a massage chair! The pod itself is pretty cool too. There’s a TV, radio, alarm clock and an internet cable all built in. You get new towels, pyjamas and slippers everyday as well as fresh sheets. It really is very cool.

What’s turned out to be another good thing is that the cleaning begins at 10am, so you have to be out by then, which means we’ve been setting our pod clock to wake us at 8 and having a little spa treatment before heading out for the day to explore. And there’s so much to explore!!

The first couple of days were spent hitting different districts but today I’m going to write about one. I’m in awe of Akihabara – the manga/”geek”/anime/neon/maid cafe capital of Tokyo – aka, Electric Town. It’s insane. Everything is so kitsch and cute and trashy yet somehow you want it in your life. There’s Sega arcades with floor upon floor of teddy pickers (I didn’t win the Squid Girl headphones), there’s shops selling retro in-packet toys (you can watch ET toddle and bobble), there’s sex shop “department stores” (you can easily mistake for manga stores from the outside) and then there’s the maid cafes. Maid cafes…hmm, how to explain maid cafes when I’m not sure I understand myself? Here goes…

You’re walking through Akihabara, you see a girl on the street with bunches in a French maid dress, handing out leaflets, smiling and talking in a squeaky voice. You notice them a lot. You kind of get the idea that it’s a bit like an anime geek’s version of Hooters – instead of big jugs, they got big frills and Hello Kitty hair bands. But you’re not sure if tourists are allowed, if girls are allowed, maybe they’re allowed but maybe it would be awkward. After a few days you give in to the curiosity and up you go. Now replace the word “you” with “Me and Ashley”. and you’re up to speed.

So this evening – one of the girls hands us a leaflet and we ask her where it is, she walks us to the building with her friend who also works there.

“Ahh, ok, thank you!”

They come in the lift with us and take us straight in. Now that’s pretty good service. In we go. A warm welcome from the maids! Lots of high pitched ‘konichiwas’ and big smiles. Not such a warm welcome from the single, hairy men in there.

We’re given some seats and shown a menu and asked in Japanese to choose between “Cafe” or “Bar”. We looked back at our maid blank faced. Luckily she spoke a little English.

“Erm..you have 30 minutes with Cafe for 800 Yen or 60 minutes with Bar for 3,000 Yen.”

We really wanted a meal. Plus, we’ve been avoiding Starbucks because it costs so much – 300 Yen – and you get to stay longer than 30 minutes there! It seemed offensive to Starbucks to spend that much on 30 minutes worth of cafe time.

“Food? You do food?” we asked, pretending to nom nom nom with our hands.

“Erm…yes, little food.” She went through the overpriced menu. So we’d have to pay 800 each and then more for food? We can get a meal for 500 Yen!

“We’re really hungry. Big food? Big meal?”

“Erm…sorry, I don’t know!”

We pretended to confer and left. They were very nice about it all, she even waved us down the lift. I think it’s because I said I liked her necklace.

So, yeah, that was our maid cafe experience. I was thinking it was all very cute and (mostly) innocent until I saw the clientele. But I guess if I had to choose, I think I’d rather work in a maid cafe than Hooters, at least then I get to wear a nice necklace.

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Categories: East Asia, Japan | 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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Observations on Myanmar.

In theory, I shouldn’t like Burma. It made me ill, at least twice; it’s full of stray dogs and skinny horses; the internet connection is like the one I had at home in 1999, which at the time was amazing but we’d moan about now in England. All the reasons I didn’t like Indonesia exist in Burma. I think there’re two differences this time though.

  1. I was prepared. I knew it’d be a bit grubby, I knew the internet would be rubbish and I knew travel would be slow and on terrible roads.
  2. The people are lovely. The local people gave up their seats for me countless times on buses, the hotel and restaurant staff went above and beyond the call of duty so many times and if people want to help you, they’re not after money!

Burma is a really interesting place to visit, and after the indecision to come or not, I’m glad I did. Here are a few things I’ve noticed;

  • The lack of internet access and blocking of Facebook, Hotmail, YouTube etc is overhyped. I was never once denied access to any of the above, although I couldn’t load the BBC or any reliable news websites. I think the government is changing, albeit slowly. The speed is sometimes annoying though. The only place I had problems getting on the internet was Bagan – which was only when there were power cuts.
  • Incidently, Bagan is the only place I’ve had power cuts – also slightly overhyped – most hotels have generators. The only thing is sometimes the air-con doesn’t run off the generator, presumably because it sucks the power.
  • Skype is always loaded on the computers and often advertised on the banners outside the internet cafes…but it rarely works and when it does, it’s only really good enough for audio only. Mandalay is the only place I got it working.
  • Betel nut, Betel nut, Betel nut. You’re walking down the street in Burma, someone walks past and smiles baring their horrible, red teeth. You look down in disgust and are met with a sea of red blobs of spit on the pavement (or more often than not, sand) below. Eww. It’s the betel nut stuff that the locals mix with tobacco, paste into a leaf with lime juice, wrap up and chew. When the flavour is gone and they’ve spat out enough phlegm to choke a small child, they pop a new one in. They can get through loads in one day. Personally, I think it’s a disgusting thing, worse than smoking. I would rather breathe in someone’s dirty cigarette smoke than walk through someone’s red betel phlegm.  But hey, who am I to judge.
  • Through The Wire. Telephones are expensive business in Burma. Mobile phones cost hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds to own and foreign SIM cards are blocked. I was surprised I saw as many mobile phones as I did to be honest. What I was more surprised by was how many of these I saw;

There are so many people who make their living from having an old landline phone or two wired up to the line from the street side! It’s amazing.

  • All That Glitters Ain’t Gold. Let me give you a bit of background knowledge first; in 2005, the government changed the capital of the country to a random town with no real historic relevance because their astrologer told them to. Wow. So they neglected poor, old Yangon and headed north with plans for a swanky new capital. On my first of many night buses, we skirted the “new” capital. It’s weird. Loads of big, new-build, empty hotels, glowing, empty shopping malls and vast, empty, smooth tarmacked roads…
  • Speaking of buses…if you get a bus in Burma, which is the only form of transport not controlled by the government so it’s recommended; your driver will honk his horn at anything. And it’s a bloody annoying horn. Really loud and honky. And he doesn’t care if it’s 3am and you’re sleep deprived. It doesn’t appear the other passengers care either because no one bats an eyelid.
  • Pure, honest kindness. I’ve already gushed over how lovely the people are here – here’s another example. In Bagan, we got horse carts. The next day, I was walking back to my hotel and I’m met with a “Remember me?!” It was our driver! After a quick catch up (didn’t take long, it hadn’t even been 24 hours) he offered me a free ride back to my hotel. When we pulled up and I gave him a dollar, he genuinely didn’t want it. I made him take it. For that I think I’m probably the mean one.
  • Despite a bizarre political history, Burma is changing. I’m glad I visited when I did. One of my fondest memories is sitting in my hotel reception in Bagan watching BBC News with the hoteliers and giving them a thumbs up at the political prisoners being released. Since returning home and seeing Myanmar all over the news, I’ve taken a real interest in how well things are going at the moment for the country and can’t wait to see what happens next.

If you come to Burma, which I’d recommend, you need to be prepared to begin or end bus journeys at unsociable hours, sit for longer than you’d want in an internet café and possibly have to go to the doctors! Above all, however, you need to be prepared to be welcomed with open arms, to chat with your new found Burmese friends and to make some long lasting memories.

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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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Burmese Days – Part One

This is two weeks worth of blogging. I’ve tried to make it as short as possible and break it up to save your eyesight and sanity! Here goes…

Yangon – The Neglected Capital.

Day..well, night one.

After a long flight with a very annoying American who reeeeeeally wants to go to Nepal behind me, I eventually arrived in Burma at about 6 in the evening. Immigration was a slow one as expected, but once through and ready to get my bag, I was met with a “Are you travelling alone?” and not from a local!

“Yes,” I replied.

“Would you like to share a taxi into town? I ask because I was travelling alone and I know how it can be quite expensive sometimes, but now my girlfriend has joined me. Do you know where you’re going?”

“Ooo, that would be good. Not really, I just wrote the first one in the book on the visa form! Do you?”

“We were thinking of trying this one.” Out came the Lonely Planet. It looked like a pretty good hotel so I accepted, and we even managed to barter the taxi price down from $12 to $9 so it was a right old saving! When we arrived at the hotel, I offered if they wanted to meet for dinner later.

We followed the guidance of our hotel man and found ourselves in a Burmese cuisine restaurant with buffet trays of various, ominous looking meats. I opted for the vegetables. Not wanting to be caught out before I’d begun, I checked the price before settling down, it was 500 Kyat for the veg, 500 for rice and another 500 for a lime juice. 1500 = just over a quid! Not bad.

When the food came, wow. A feast is the only way to describe it. We were given a plate of vegetables (for free), a selection of fish pastes and chillies (for free) and a bowl of soup each (for free). The table was full!

Day Two

I agreed with Daniel and Sarit to meet at half nine the following morning for breakfast, and what a breakfast it was! As far as hostel breakfast goes, you’re lucky if you get a choice of jam. Here however, you’d be hard pushed not to have a different jam each day for a week!

After that brilliant start to the day, we headed for a stroll around the city. We soon found ourselves in the midst of a market full of the biggest prawns I think I’ve ever seen, the weirdest looking vegetables I think I’ve ever seen and the most adorable little badminton players I’ve definitely ever seen! This led to Aung San Market, where you can indulge the tourist within with jade, longyis and tat to gather dust on your mantelpiece. The thing that I can’t get my head around is how these people make money when their neighbouring stall is selling exactly the same thing. I’ve been baffled ever since Bali on this one. The most confusing was four shops in a row in Kuching selling personalized rubber stamps. How much demand can there be in one city for personalized rubber stamps? Are four shops really necessary? And if so, would it not be better for the customers so they don’t have to travel so far and the shop owners so they had cornered a gap in the market if they spread themselves out a little? Just a thought.

Next stop was Sule Paya, a monument of some description in the middle of a roundabout. It cost $2 to get in and a “donation” to leave your shoes. When you’ve seen one mediocre temple, you’ve seen them all, so we gave it a miss. Not before almost having a sparrow thrust into my hand by a woman sat on the pavement with a closed basket full of the birds.

“It’s lovely but I can’t take it home! What am I going to do with it?!”

Seriously, why was she trying to sell me a bird?! That’s worse than the ones who try and sell you an oversized wooden dragon that would definitely be classed as excess baggage on Air Asia. How do they think we can get these things home?!

After a chat to decide whether or not we’d go in, I turned back around to be offered another sparrow by another girl. What’s going on here?!

“I can’t get a bird home! I travel for a long time. And my country won’t let it in!”

“No, you take and it fly away. For good luck. Please, you want. Take it.”

Now there’s a business plan – rubber stamp sellers take note – collect something from nature that will cost you nothing, cage it, sell it to a tourist to put it back where it came from. Dragon’s Den would love that one. No spending, 100% profit! Needless to say, I didn’t buy a bird.

In the afternoon, after Daniel and Sarit had left for their bus, I headed to Shwedagon Paya, which is supposedly where eight of Buddha’s hairs lay. I decided to get the bus, which was nice because someone gave up their seat for me – people are genuinely lovely here. The Paya was very impressive! A big gold stupa surrounded by uncountable individual temples. Oh – and there’s an elevator, just as Buddha would have wished.

When I got the bus back, someone gave up their seat for me again! It seemed too early to go back to my hostel so I headed back to the market for some food and found a little noodle woman, who gave me a big bowl of noodles, fried onions, chili sauce and two bowls of soup for 300 Kyat! 30p! My phrasebook came in very handy when locals gradually made their way over. I can’t help but think I did wonders for her business that night. I left just after dark, thinking my chatter with the locals had brought in the night – it hadn’t – it was only 6.15pm, but pitch black! I walked back through the market, the fish heads now stuffed with candles to illuminate their goods, and came back for some rest ready for my bus tomorrow night to Inle Lake.

Day three

Day three was spent in a supermarket getting food for a long bus journey, relaxing in my room before a long bus journey and trying to get comfy on a long bus journey. Nothing much happened of interest other than my iPod lasted well over its stated battery life and we stopped for dinner at a restaurant where all the waiters and waitresses were children, they must have been aged between 10 and 16. Is that child labour?!

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Categories: Burma, South East Asia | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

A not so long house.

So today I did something! I woke up early and instead of heading up to the TV room to practice some Chinese, I headed to the reception area to practice some Chinese while I waited for my minibus to a longhouse.

The longhouse is a traditional way of living for Borneo folk and it was not what I expected. I’ve heard a lot of people who have visited a longhouse say it wasn’t what they expected; and I’m not naive, I was expecting satellite dishes, mobile phones and various other mod cons. It was what I expected in that sense. However, it wasn’t what I would describe logically as a longhouse. Let’s break it up:

LONGHOUSE

If you’re imagining lots of houses connected in a loooong line, then we’re on the same wavelength (I’ll let you be the judge as to whether that’s a good thing or not). What it really is is a small village community built on stilts. Most houses are made of bamboo and wood in the traditional fashion, however, there is the odd concrete one dotted here and there, which makes for a bizarre mix of old and new.

In an attempt to save money after spending rather a lot this month already on Mulu and the Grand Prix, I opted for the half day trip, which involves just a nosy around the village rather than an overnight trip, which involves staying at the longhouse (in the purpose built concrete building) and various activites. Initially, I was in two minds as to whether or not I should splash out and go for the overnight stay (the cheapest I found was 420RM). After having seen the place, I’m glad I just visited for the day. An overnight stay would offer nothing more to me. The activities were all things I did on my tour in the Cameron Highlands and sleeping in a purpose built concrete building would have taught me nothing additional about the longhouse communities than an hours stroll did.

When it came to 8.50, my pick up time, I put my Chinese book on my bed and headed outside to wait for the minibus. I wasn’t waiting long before a Chinese man came and found me. We had to walk to the bus because lots of people who stood around while “Scotland The Brave” played were blocking the road. Apparently it’s the Governors birthday and they are doing dress rehearsals…that require the roads empty…despite them being in the park. They were there yesterday too, which is why I couldn’t find my bus to Kubah National Park and therefore spent the day learning Chinese.

Anyway, we get to the bus, pick up two more tourists and away we go. Our guide was a nice chap who laughed a lot at his own jokes.

“This is the dragon fruit tree,” he said as we drove past some weird looking short trees, “it is pink inside. It is imported here from Vietnam and China because it is good for the health. It clean the body. I eat the dragon fruit one time, and I go for shit to the toilet, and my shit is red! I call my wife, “I think I’m having a period or something!” Haha! Because it is red! But it is just because it cleanse the body. Haha!”

Awkward… I’ve just met you and you’re talking about poo. At least wait an hour.

When we arrive at the longhouse, we are given a shot glass of rice wine, which I knew we would be given. I don’t drink alcohol. I had read that it is very rude to refuse the rice wine, and the only way people get out of it is if they have heart problems. I didn’t want to offend, and so drinking small sip by small sip so as to be able to hold my wincing face at bay, I eventually managed to finish it.

We then began our walk through the first longhouse, admiring the electricity and kittens.

“This pink slip,” our host began, pointing to one of the pink slips that was outside every front door, “is from the doctor. The tribe people and people who live in the longhouse in Malaysia all get free health care. And the yellow one is for free electricity when there is enough money from the government. Sometimes they need to pay but water is always free – from the river, yeah? This is their water source.”

Free health care? The Malaysians who don’t live in the longhouses pay 1RM every time they want to see the doctor.

We soon came to the second longhouse, which wasn’t much different to the first other than the amount of people. There were a few more people in the second longhouse. One young looking 72 year old was weaving a ratan basket, one 60 year old man was making a wooden spinning top. He was brilliant and let me have a go. He wound the string around the spinning top and then wrapped the other end around my hand. When he had finished, I threw the top and pulled on the string as instructed and send the spinning top into orbit. Yaaaaay! Feeling quite confident, I tried again, this time with me doing the wrapping.

“Like this?” I said to the man, showing him my hand.

“Not like that!” he said, with real comic tones in his voice. He re-wrapped it. And I couldn’t do it. Must have been a fluke.

Before we left, we were offered some durian. Again, I didn’t want to be rude and so I took a piece of the revolting, creamy, gone off mango flavoured fruit.

In the minibus on the way back, I agreed with the Australian couple on the tour that it wasn’t what any of us were expecting. The longhouse not durian. It is a worthwhile experience to see how people live, but it is changing rapidly. A few doors down from the old woman weaving her ratan basket are a couple of 20-somethings smoking and playing on their mobile phones. Next door to the “typical” show house of ratan rugs and bamboo cooking poles is a comfortable living room set complete with sofas, cushions and Barbie flip-flops by the door. If you look up, that tin roof holds up the satelite dish.

I’m not claiming that this is a bad thing, or that these communities should not have TV, or mobile phones, or ambition. What I am saying is that in 5 or 10 years time it would not be worth visiting a place like this. The idea is that you see how people live, yes, and this is how they live, satelite dishes ‘n’ all. However, would you bother to go to a council estate in Corby or a penthouse in Plymouth to see how people live? I’m pretty sure the answer is no (if the answer is yes then we’re definitely not on the same wavelength).

“It’s not the same thing!” I hear you cry, “You go to a longhouse to see how people live because it’s different to you!”

Exactly my point, in 5 to 10 years time, I don’t think it will be that different to how me or thee live. Yes, the stilts and bamboo will still be there, but with the smart, young ones moving to the city for money, you’ve got to question who’ll still be in the longhouses?

I think the answer is the real smart ones. If the tourists are still coming and giving the odd gift here and there, and the government is still giving free health care, and the world around them is still giving free food then really they’re made up! They may be living differently to me, but I’m sure if I asked anyone today who Lady GaGa was then they would have known.

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Categories: Malaysia, South East Asia | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

If you’re reading, Lord Sugar…

The night before I headed to the Cameron Highlands (after booking my bus) I, well my mum, decided it would be a good idea to find somewhere to stay on the internet on my shiny new yellow netbook. It didn’t fill me with much joy. There was one result, over at least 5 different hostel booking sites, for one night out of the three I had planned. And it wasn’t the first night I would be there that they had available. Brilliant. I had a bus to nowhere.

On arriving in Tanah Rata, the main town in the Cameron Highlands, I was greeted with at least 2 leaflets and offers of minibuses to take me to their bright and lovely accommodation as illustrated on said leaflets. Normally, I hate this kind of thing. I’ve done it once, there was a mouse in my bathroom, I rest my case. However, knowing the pick of accommodation was going to be slim, I opted for the leaflet that offered the dorm. The woman was useless when I arrived!

“The dormitory is full. No dorm,” she snapped before returning to talking to her other clients, the ones that meant she’d ignored me for the past 10 minutes. Needless to say I left. After about 4 hotels and plenty of “No sorry”, or “Only for one night”, or “Tonight 35 Ringgit but tomorrow 125” I was pretty pooped. And starving. And desperate for a wee. So I had a speedy refreshment break (a decent sized vegetarian Indian meal for just over a quid!) and continued the hunt.

The first place I came to beckoned me from the road. TWIN PINES in big red letters sat on the roof with a forest of green in the background. I thought I’d taken a wrong turn and ended up in Canada. In I trotted, knowing what the response would be and that I’d walk away and they’d sit and tut and think “Silly girl, doesn’t she know it’s the end of Ramadan and nearly a National Holiday?”. But I was wrong!

“Do you have room? One person. Three night.” I hate the way I talk to people when I don’t know if they can speak English.

“Yeah. You want…bathroom? Single? Doub-”

“The cheapest?”

“Ok,” she took a key from the wall and summoned me upstairs. To the attic rooms.

“And how much for one night?”

“15 Ringgit”

“Fifteen?” the emphasis on the een.

“Yes”

Must be a mistake, I thought, must be 50. The cheapest place I’d found elsewhere was 35 per night. I knew you could get beds for 10 Ringgit if you weren’t fussy but I didn’t think I would get on for 15 on the spot! My luck had changed.

We reached the top and she unlocked the door. This is what I saw.

Minus my bags obviously. They were on me, surprisingly.

“I’ll take it!” I said. And I’ve been blissfully happy ever since. All I really want is a bed, well in this case a mattress, and a little room for my stuff. Happy as Larry! If I could get a place like this for 3GBP a night everywhere I’ll be set.

So once I had a room, I could focus on the important stuff. Getting some more food. A quick tootle around the town proved that a tour would appear to be the way to go in order to make my trip here worth while.

“Hello, can I help?” said an English voice across the pavement from where I was checking a tour board.

“Yeah…”

I opted for the Rainforest Adventure 2, which was first on the leaflet, so I don’t know what happened to Rainforest Adventure 1.

“You’ll need to take lots of snacks, some peanuts or something, some water and some insect repellent,” she told me whilst filling out my receipt, “Do you have a good pair of shoes?”

“I have these?” I said hopefully, modelling the tatty Birkenstock on my left foot.

“Hmm..” The face said it all, “You might want to get some closed toe shoes. People have done it in flip-flops, a nine year old did last week! Ha! But it could be muddy and a bit tough in places so it might be best…”

My new shoes are brilliant! They cost less than 2 quid and are springy and slip on and rubbery! And now very muddy.

The tour was well worth the money. Although it took a while to realise this.

I got picked up by a guy who was smoking a suspicious smelling cigarette and had a poem on his passenger sun visor that began;

Stoners live,

Stoners die,

Fuck the world,

Let’s get high…

And on we went. As we picked up more people, it felt a little safer. Then came Michael. Michael Jackson. Very loud through the speakers of the old Land Rover. Then came Boney M, Bob Marley (that one made sense) and a whole melange of retro disco funk reggae hits. If that’s even a genre.

Our first stop was the jungle trek, where we were adorned with dashing fern hats before working our way through the forest to a Rafflesia! Now I’m not a big flower person, but I feel quite lucky to have seen one – they spend up to 2 years growing to bloom for less than a week! What are the odds! After that, we made our way across many a bamboo bridge to a waterfall, where we could swim. Although the water was rather murky and the thought of having to take off my new shoes, and socks, and roll up my trousers just for a paddle was just too much effort. But it was nice to look at.

We then made our way back down the “road” which was an adventure in itself to an aboriginal village, complete with satellite dishes. We watched a blow pipe demonstration and got to have a go and were then allowed to wander the village, which felt quite odd, photographing and looking at people’s homes as if they were in a zoo. The children were willing to talk though and seemed to find it hilarious when I asked them “nama anda?”.

By now, it was lunch time and a quick stop at a restaurant with more flies than people was followed by the tea plantation. But not before a long journey on the roof through a traffic jam.

“It’s not far from here. You want to sit on the roof?” our guide said, jokingly.

“Really? Can we? Slow road yeah? Ok.” I said, hoisting myself up. My three new crazy, incredibly young-looking Malaysian friends joined me. Then we got stuck in traffic.

The tea plantation isn’t really very exciting but it makes for a nice stop if you’re on a tour. Unfortunately with the end of Ramadan ‘n’ all, the free factory tour was off, maybe it’s a more exciting visit if you can see the tour. But I did get to walk around the empty factory, and from that I conclude, maybe not.

The next stop was a butterfly and insect farm, which was brilliant because our guide was opening all the tanks and letting us pose with big scary critters!

Last but not least on the tour was a strawberry farm, which really wasn’t exciting at all. I’ve seen strawberries before, I know how they grow, and the strawberry ice cream was the price of a meal so I survived on the spoonful I’d been offered by a Slovenian couple on the tour.

All in all, a really great day, and it wasn’t over yet. Within minutes of being in the Land Rover, the three awesome Malaysian ladies asked me to join them for dinner that evening. So at 9, after a long rest and a hot shower, I headed across to Starbucks. (Yeah, in the mountains! I was shocked too!!)

They took me to an amazing Steamboat restaurant which basically involves a camping stove and a huge pan full of spiced boiling water and plates of raw vegetables, meat, noodles and egg, all of which you dunk into the pan as you wish. Why it doesn’t exist in the UK yet I don’t know. Think I may have found a hole in the market, Lord Sugar. I’d be very interested in doing business with you…or is it normally him that has to say that bit?

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Categories: Malaysia | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

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