Posts Tagged With: food

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

Marrakesh: Foot lathes, friendship levels and feasts.

From the start of my degree, I knew I’d be heading to Spain for a week in the summer of 2013 for a summer school. I also knew I wanted to make the most of it and see some more of Europe in the process. A trip I’d wanted to do for some time gradually began to click into place.

For a number of years, I’d wanted to take the ferry between Spain and Morocco – this was the perfect chance! As things began to work out, we realized we could also hit Portugal on our travels. So this July, my friend Hannah and I set off on our Iberian (and African-ish!) adventure!

When we landed in Marrakesh, the first thing I noticed was how much French is spoken here. I had spent many a car journey listening to Arabic stuff to give me a grounding just in case French wasn’t as widely spoken as I’d hoped but it turned out you don’t always need the language of the country you’re in to survive, as we discovered in Essaouira.

We stayed at a Riad where Hannah had been before but they had moved buildings (sounds strange, I know!) so we’d agreed to meet someone in the main square to take us there. However, it was Ramadan and so by the time we arrived in the city and eventually got through to them on the phone, they were having their Ramadan breakfast. Not having eaten ourselves, we headed over to the food stalls in the square that was now buzzing with life. We found ourselves being called to various stalls, and eventually chose one with lots of locals and what we (wrongly) assumed to be free bread on the tables. I love Moroccan food and the food here was good. However, we were lucky enough to be invited to eat Ramadan breakfast almost everywhere we went every day in Morocco! So that tagine was the only real meal we had to buy in Marrakesh.

We headed out early the next morning with very little direction other than the loose idea of visiting souks, buying a little something and maybe chilling in a hammam As it turned out, a hammam was the first thing we found and not really having a great idea of exchange rates or normal prices of a hammam, we went for it. My God. I didn’t know I was that grubby. Or that it was possible to get that much grub off of someone’s skin. I’d bought a very modest swimming costume back home for moments like this, and felt very proud and respectful when I stripped down to it for the lady to scrub me.

She motioned her hands from her shoulders downwards. It looked like she was telling me to pull down my swimming costume! I repeated the movement and tentatively lifted the strap from my shoulder. She nodded. I pulled down my swimming costume to my waist. There’s no way I was taking it all off! I paid good money for that costume for this exact moment. I was going to get my money’s worth. A few minutes later, after a good scrub down and being covered in mud soap, I was ushered into the sauna where Hannah was already sat sweating it out.

“New friendship level.” I shrugged. Hannah had worn a bikini and so was still ‘fully’ clothed.

After various scrubs and washes, we were shown into a shower cubicle. Although we were washing ourselves at this point, the ladies stood and watched ready to indicate to me to pull the whole costume down when I turned to face them. I didn’t.

We were then given a gown along with our scrub mitt to keep as we were told to relax on the beds in the first room. Finally we were sent upstairs where we were told to relax yet again on individual beds. This bit was weird. I think there’d been some miscommunication as to which package we paid for. We didn’t pay for a massage but we kept quiet just in case they were feeling generous. After about 5 minutes, we entered the final room and were given a pot of mint tea.

We soon headed out into the heat of the day, both secretly knowing but neither wanting to admit that we’d be filling up our sparklingly clean sweat glands very soon. This is where the souks came in. Undercover window shopping with compliments of our French proved to be a very relaxing way to spend the rest of the day. Especially when one man carving skewers with a one foot lathe offered a free demonstration and made me a personal necklace before our eyes after I asked him a few questions in French.

Once filling our scrubbed pores with fresh sweat and sun cream, we decided to head back to the Riad before dinner. Best. Timing. Ever. Just as we were preparing to leave again in hunt of food, the Riad owners were preparing to start their Ramadan breakfast as dusk was approaching, and they were very adamant we join them. Wow. What a feast! It was really lovely to be involved with a personal example of the breaking of the fast up close.

Overall, Marrakesh proved to be just as beautiful, orange and sensory as I imagined, but also a lot safer and friendlier than I’d imagined before arriving. Definitely a place I’d like to go back to and would recommend.

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , | 9 Comments

Awesome Warsaw.

Hello!

This is nearly a 2 month belated post! It’s been a rather busy year. I’ve started my own business which has taken off well and consequently taken up a lot of time! I’ve also spent the year learning more French and Italian as part of my degree. I finished this in October and am now working on a comparatively easy German course before starting Spanish again in February next year.

So with all this language learning going on in my life, what would seem a good place to go for a weekend break back in November? Paris? Barcelona? Rome? Berlin? Nah, we went to Warsaw.

It was a very last minute decision so our choice was mainly based on price seeing as we booked very late on a Tuesday night to fly out Friday morning!

Last minute Eastern Europe = budget airline = paying for every possible thing considered an extra. So off we trotted with our French exchange student style rucksack. Woop!

Now, I’d visited Poland once before, I say Poland, I mean Auschwitz, it hardly seems fair to consider that part of the country. Although everything else about Poland had been a bit gritty in my memories…crossing the smooth Autobahn at the German border to be greeted by a rickety rockety pot-hole laden track, to shortly being stopped by a man waving frantically by the side of the road meaning my granddad stopping to help, only to have him claim to be out of petrol and offering his Argos chains in exchange for petrol money. Where he was gong to find petrol in the forest I still don’t know, needless to say we drove off.

Landing with these memories was a little nerve-racking, especially considering the airport was half build. However, within seconds of getting off the airport bus in the city centre, me and Ashley looked at each other with the same thought.

“I, err, it sounds mean, but I feel safer than I did in Budapest all ready!” I said.

Ashley nodded, “Yeah, I was about to say that.”

And as it goes, first impressions do count for a lot. Not once did either of us feel remotely unsafe during our time in Warsaw.

Not once did either of us go hungry either. With the most incredible Singaporean style glass shopping mall minutes from our hotel, finding food was never an issue. I’d been advised by my good friend Hannah, who speaks pretty niffy Polish and has spent a lot of time in Poland, that we must try “pierogi”. Everyday we passed many a chain restaurant selling this mysterious word, but that wasn’t good enough, we wanted the real deal. Imagine a Pole coming to England and having a Roast in a Little Chef not a pub and going home and telling all his mates it was “just alright”. This was not what we wanted, we knew there must be better, and so we waited.

On the Saturday, we headed into a “milk bar” which is a traditional canteen style place serving home cooked meals by a group of old women heating their story filled faces from the giant bubbling vats of sauces and broths. But alas, pierogi was all sold out. Thankfully, on the last day, a moving yet inspiring visit to the Warsaw Rising Museum provided us with the goods just in time before we left Poland! They were delicious! Thank you for the advice Hannah!

The last day also happened to be Independence Day as in-keeping with my unexpected and unplanned visits to countries on their Independence Days. Although Indonesian Independence Day was also the saddest birthday of my life due to being treated as a Couchsurfing pet, this foreign Independence Day was the scariest. Yes, I know I said we never once felt unsafe…maybe once. After a morning of contemplation and appreciation for a nation so brave and strong, we headed back to Homage To A Singapore Shopping Mall (name as decided by myself, right now.) which was conveniently next to the bus stop. But we weren’t the only ones, there was a small crowd near the Palace of Culture and Science, which was a gift from the Soviet Union. I think socks would have done the trick, but they was feeling generous I guess.

“That’s nice! Nobody does anything on St George’s Day!” (That’s the closest thing us English have to an Independence Day for any international readers!)

“I know right! Loads of flags, loads of support. I’m glad we went to that museum this morning.”

And in we went to the glass dome for some food before the flight. Or should that be food before the fight?

As we wandered the mega dome we began to hear some rather loud bangs. We decided to check it out so made our way to the glass, which wasn’t difficult in a snow globe. Wow. Just wow. Each time we headed back to sneak a peek, the crowd had multiplied like bacteria in a Petri dish. That’s right, I know science. What’s more, each time we headed away from the glass again, the bangs became more frequent and interluded with sirens.

As we walked to the bus stop, I felt like I was in the midst of a war torn city but still felt relatively safe standing in the middle of a car park about 500 metres from the protests.

Still, with all of that taken into account, Poland remains a fond memory. It’s quite interesting writing about it so far after it happened, because I was quite literally reliving the Independence Day tales I’ve just told for the first time as I wrote them. That’s not actually what stuck with me at all.

I’m currently teaching various groups of immigrant workers, the majority of whom are from Poland, and not only do I now feel less naive about their history and country, but I also feel better prepared to engage with them on a personal level and have even ventured into a couple of Polish shops since our return for a sneaky packet or two of pierogi.

Categories: Europe, Poland | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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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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

Hong Kong: A non-spitting, non-staring introduction to China.

We eventually arrived at our hostel in Hong Kong after many long and slow attempts to leave the airport. It had been made unbelievably simple, yet we still managed to be stuck there for about an hour longer than we needed to.

Our address was blah blah Hostel, 14/F, blah blah street, Hong Kong. After a stroll to find the hostel and many a sign saying ‘Restaurant! 1/F’ or ‘Shop! 2/F’, we soon realised that everything in Hong Kong works upwards. So 14/F was 14th floor. Thankfully, our actual room was on the 8th floor, a little less time in the lift every day.

What had we decided about Hong Kong by this point? Busy. Verrry busy. But it was a Saturday. And it’s nearly Christmas. So it might not always be a battle to cross the road.

On our first afternoon we headed to the “goldfish market”, which wasn’t too far from our hostel on the map. This turned out to be a part-adorable, part-sad pet shop street, complete with puppies in glass cages and fish in plastic bags. Lovely. From here, we wandered the local area and came across some interesting looking snack stalls and foam shapes floating up and up from a Nokia stand in the street. Look out for the potential TV advert – I caught a foam smiley!

The next day, our first full day in Hong Kong, saw us set out around 7am (I blame the jetlag) and return at least 12 hours later, to then head out again for the evening. We knew we would be spending the majority of the next day on a train so thought it best to use our legs whilst we could. We managed to see quite a bit in that time – we walked all the way down the riverfront and saw the “Avenue of the Stars” (like a Hong Kong Hollywood) before heading across to Hong Kong Island on the Star Ferry for a bargain 30p! The seats were amazing – the backrest bar flipped so you could sit facing whichever way the boat was going. Very cool.

As we wandered through the mass of skyscrapers, we soon came across what I’d most been looking forward to about Hong Kong…yeah, I’m gonna say it, no matter how uncool it makes me sound…the longest escalator IN THE WORLD. I have to admit, I was a little disappointed. I was expecting an 800m long escalator cutting through a luscious green grassy hill. Instead, it was loads of smaller escalators making their way through a concrete jungle. There were some interesting looking restaurants in SoHo on the way through though, including “Yorkshire Pudding” – a British restaurant surprisingly.

If you can work your way around the roads when you get to the end of the escalator, you’re not far off the entrance to the Victoria Tram. For which you will undoubtedly queue for at least 45 minutes. We weren’t sure what to expect from the Peak. The answer? An obscure looking building with what’s known as the “Sky Tower 428” on the rooftop and which will block your view for any chance of a decent photo of the skyline. Oh, unless you want to pay extra to get on it yourself that is. We didn’t. We did find the free rooftop of the shopping mall opposite gave a decent view though, and it isn’t even that much shorter. Yeah, that’s right, I said shopping mall, at the top of a hill. A touristy hill, mind you. Complete with a Bubba Gump Shrimp Restaurant. There is a nice walk around the Peak though. A very safe walk – the slopes all have “registration numbers” so you can be sure, they’re regularly maintained, and even if a slope does cause you offence, you can report it to the slope maintenance team, because, believe it or not, they exist.

That’s one thing I did find quite entertaining in Hong Kong – the construction industry. The water man is really concentrating to get the job done for you, the slopes have to be registered and the scaffolding in made of bamboo. See below.

Amusing building work aside, Hong Kong is a pretty cool place. I had been told it’s a “poor man’s Singapore”, which is a little harsh. It has its own identity. It knows it’s bright, brash, busy and kind of quirky and it’s not trying to tell you otherwise.

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Burmese Days – Part Three

Mandalay – The Road To Mandalay

I will now tell you some interesting tales of the road to Mandalay….

  1. A woman dropped her baby. By that, I don’t mean she gave birth, I mean she dropped her already living, breathing, screaming baby. There was a thud, I turn around, and a woman is picking her (quite rightfully) screaming child up off of the floor. I didn’t know whether to laugh or tut. I chose to laugh, a lot, and on the inside.
  2. They played bad music videos with lyrics running across the bottom of the screen – nothing new there – but one of them was HILARIOUS. There was a man, I assume sad and depressed and in love as they always are in these videos, and then he laid eyes on a woman, I assume his girlfriend, in a wheelchair. He looked really sad, as if she’d had an accident and then he pushed her and there was a close up of his hands on the chair and everything as if he was having to swallow some serious pride to push that chair. Again, I didn’t know whether to laugh or tut. Again, I chose to laugh, on the inside.
  3. Around 1.30am, after hours of bumpy riding in the rain with people being sick all around me, we stopped. I hot footed it out to pee and hot footed it back to the bus so as not to miss it. Only, it turns out we were going nowhere fast. We had a puncture. What do you do when you have a puncture on a tyre that big? It’s not like you can carry a spare, surely? Do they not have an AA equivalent in Burma? (By AA I mean the car related acronym, I don’t think Alcoholics Anonymous would have been much help. Besides, they’re probably all drowning their sorrows at 1.30am.) We sat for 2 hours and 45 minutes. As painful as it sounds, it was actually a bonus 2 hours and 45 minutes sleep on solid ground with no one being sick around me – oh no, I’m sorry I retract that last bit, one woman was still puking up a weeks’ worth of dinner. If you’re that ill, get off the bus and get some fresh air while you can! Crazy.

Day seven.

I arrived, gladly, nice and early and made my way to the hotel. I settled down, had a shower and headed out for breakfast – but the hotel has no maps! So I had no idea where to go, which meant after 2 banana pancakes and seeing Daniel and Sarit from Yangon again, I had to head back to carry the Lonely Planet around with me all day. So I got my backpack, which means sweaty back. So I hired a bike, if I’m gonna get a sweaty back, I may as well make it worth it.

I am by no means of the definition an urban cyclist. I suck at riding a bike with cars, motorbikes and lorries all around me. It even takes a bit of courage to ride on the road on my tiny, quiet, 20mph estate. So to get a bike in a city like Mandalay was quite brave of me! Luckily, there appears to be no rules of the road here – there are definitely no traffic lights at 90% of the crossroads – so I fit in just fine!

I set out for some food and ended up in the midst of a market. A lovely woman offered me some sweet, sickly lemon thing, which I tried and was then met by a homeless woman with a big bag on her head and her little son. The lemon lady told me to go and that the woman was crazy, but I wanted dinner across the street! So I pulled up my bike, put on the padlock and sat down for some 50p laksa. All the time the woman with the bag on her head was watching me. I was beginning to feel sorry for her, but knew I wouldn’t cave. Eventually she pulled out some bread and had a nibble and left! If she has food, what was she after from me?! I’m not gonna buy her a house!

In the evening, I went out for dinner with Daniel and Sarit and we ended up at the chapatti stand recommended in the Lonely Planet. It was really good food, and just like last time we ate together, we got a table full of the stuff! I need to find Daniel and Sarit more often!

Day eight.

Today has been nice. After an easy (but sweaty) morning meandering around the market, which was rubbish, I headed to the post office to buy some post cards from the vendors I’d seen yesterday. I counted on my fingers how many I’d need – eight – and she said they were 100 Kyat each (10p, so 80p all together – bargain!). Then she said she’d give me 10 for 800! Woo!

So I settled down to a lovely papaya juice a few blocks away and spent an hour writing them all out. Speaking of blocks, I’m useless with them. Blocks, grid systems. Can’t cope. Give me windy little country lanes any day.

I decided to set out for a slow lunch, and I found a little side street café selling noodles. I hovered over, not literally, and said hello and asked how much it was in Burmese. The older woman was unphased by this and answered back in Burmese with the price. The younger one, however, looked shocked and amazed that I was speaking Burmese! When I nodded in agreement with the price and went to sit down, her face was a picture.

The following conversation took place in Burmese, but I’ve put it in English so it means something to you!

She said, “Three hundred?”

I nodded, “Yeah, three hundred!”

She laughed in amazement.

I said, “One, two, three!”

She laughed some more, even more amazement!

I spent the next hour or so chatting away in Burmese with the three ladies (the third was a customer). For that I whipped out the phrasebook!

Then guess what? I saw Daniel and Sarit walk past!! What are the chances?! They came over, sat down, had them some noodles and then we agreed to meet again for dinner tonight. I’ve seen three people twice so far but never two people thrice! Incredible!

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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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Observations On Malaysia

I’m gonna throw it out there, no backlash please, but Malaysia is nicer than Indonesia. It feels safer, friendlier and just generally a nicer place to be. Here’s why…

  • ANGRY BIRDS.  This isn’t why Malaysia is better than Indonesia, it’s just an observation. Malaysia loves Angry Birds. You can buy Angry Birds fans, t-shirts, balloons, cakes, lanyards, iPhone cases and even toothbrush holders. I know because my sister has one.

 

 

 

 

  • ROADS. Malaysia’s roads are a much more pleasant experience than those in Indonesia. Not only are then generally well surfaced, but drivers don’t overtake for no apparent reason. To top it all off, their CAUTION signs remind me of one of my favourite films…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • CELEBRATIONS. Maybe I just got lucky with this one but Malaysia seems to always have a reason to celebrate. I think having so many different religions helps, but since being in Malaysia, I’ve seen the National Day, Hari Raya (end of Ramadan), World Wakeboarding Championships, Sarawak Independence Day and some people standing very still to Scotland The Brave…

 

 

 

 

  • FOOD. I hate to sound like I’m comparing Malaysia and Indonesia all the time, but in Indonesia, most food is goreng. Fried. In Malaysia, however, you can get plenty of fried food if that’s your thing, but you can also get curries, laksa, Chinese and Indian more so than in Indonesia.

 

 

 

 

  • FRIENDLY. I’ve given up now, it’s impossible not to compare. In Indonesia, people see your white skin and their eyes go ker-ching. In Malaysia, people are just generally more friendly and willing to help. Or wanting to take your photo, like this lot last night who had more cameras than an Argos stockroom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I like Malaysia. It’s a welcoming country with plenty to see and do, and despite being one of the more expensive destinations in South East Asia, it’s still possible to live for a tenner a day. I don’t mind that I didn’t climb Mount Kinabalu, or dive Sipidan, or see sea turtles because I know that Malaysia is one place I’ll be visiting again.

Categories: Malaysia, 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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