Thursday, 11 September 2008

Hong Kong ... from Edinburgh

After excessive procrastination... here's my Hong Kong report! I spent the night before my 5.50am flight at Auckland airport. I got the last bus to the airport at 9.50pm but wasn't able to check in until about 3am so I found some seats upstairs where one or two other backpackers were already sleeping and settled down with my inflatable pillow and my hood pulled over my face. I didn't want to use earplugs in case someone made off with my luggage while I dozed obliviously, so it was pretty noisy from the cafe adjacent to the seats, but I got a bit of rest. When I got up at 3am our little backpacker creche had been extended and there were people sleeping in sleeping bags on the floor around the seats. I don't remember anything about the flight to Sydney apart from breakfast :-) Got into Sydney at 8ish and hung around for a bit, spent my last Australian dollar on a Boost bar out of nostalgia and got on the delayed flight to Hong Kong along with lots of Chinese but a fair number of other travellers too. As we flew into Hong Kong I got a gorgeous view of the sunset across the islands, which made me want to whip out my camera - but real life is better. The airport was a bit weird in that it smelt musty and they were playing accordion music which would have been more appropriate in a naff Italian restaurant. I spotted a Hello Kitty aeroplane outside, which I found very amusing and so Asian. Then I had a bit of trouble getting in touch with Jane and Patrick as I didn't have change for the phones and didn't know the HK country code to call them from my mobile! This is what happens when you don't have a Lonely Planet... I asked at the information desk and they thought it would be 01, which as far as I understand is for making international calls, but eventually I got the right code and Patrick came to meet me at Central station. We had a yummy supper at their fantastic flat and I got some excellent advice on what to see, and then had a good night's sleep! I spent the morning of my first day in HK wandering around the Cat Street and Hollywood Road antique shops. Going from 15 to 30 degrees in such a short time was strange, but quite pleasant - even though it was humid heat, I will accept any heat :-) I explored SoHo as well, and thought it was a really vibrant, quirky area. Good fun for window shopping and the cafes looked nice but my funds were too low for that sort of indulgence. I also took the electric tram (sat at the top at the front - great view of people and traffic and buildings) to Wan Chai and explored there. I didn't get stared at as much as in other Asian cities I'd been to, which was good, and generally I found people pretty helpful in Hong Kong. They walk really slowly though so I did a lot of overtaking, but I also stopped a lot to take pictures and indulged my inner tourist :-) My day ended in Lan Kwai Fong, where I discovered Hong Kong happy hour when I was given another G&T as soon as I'd finished my first! I avoided the bars full of Westerners (mostly guys in shirts) and went for a very narrow arty place full of Chinese playing cards and smoking and nibbling peanuts. Great for people-watching both inside and outside the bar! They played the same pop song over and over again; clearly one of the barmaids was a fan and no one seemed to care.
On day two I took the Victoria tram up to the Peak. Unfortunately it was quite hazy so I didn't get the best view, but it did give me an idea of how sprawling Hong Kong Central alone is. There were loads of dragon flies bobbing around up there too, which were fun to watch. I walked round the Botanics and Zoo afterwards, and saw two hornbills wrestle with their beaks. There was some blood, so I don't think it was play-fighting! I also walked through the park / gardens, where I though I might go to the tea museum, but unfortunately it's closed on Tuesdays. There were a lot of Olympic themed flags and mascot and horse sculptures around. I wandered down to Wan Chai, where I managed to trip over a bit of renegade pavement, which resulted in a very sore toe. As I lifted it to inspect it a couple of dollops of blood started dripping onto the pavement, so I made my way to the nearest pharmacy (Boots-style) and got myself some plasters. I was trying to affix one of them in the MTR station when a helpful cross-eyed attendant came up with a plaster in his hand. I should have gone to them in the first place! I thanked him and then carried on, hoping I wasn't offending people with my foot display.. After that I got a bus to Stanley, which is a great area. The bus went through Refuse Bay as well, which was beautiful. I wandered through the market and admired the waterfront and views out to islands, then headed back to Wan Chai to meet Patrick and Jane at The New American for dinner. Great fun trying all the local and not-so-local food, such as Peking duck, garlic deep-fried prawns, and sesame buns eaten with a tasty fried beef ( or pork?) mixture. We'd just been talking about my aunt's other friends from HK when they showed up at the restaurant by chance! So I met Rob and Johee as well... After that we went to the Feather Boa for margaritas. A very hip little place, very crowded but brilliant fun!
On day three I was catching a very late evening flight to London so had the full day to explore, and decided to take the boat over to Lantau. It was lovely and sunny there and I even got a little sunburned. I took the bus all the way to Tai O, which is a fishing village with houses on stilts. I took lots of pictures there, then took another bus to Po Lin Monastery. Very touristy, but I thought I might as well go. The Tian Tau Buddha was worth a peek! It would be very photogenic in swirling mists too, I imagine. I took the fast cat back (I think I preferred the slow old boat!) and then went on a China-plate-buying mission in the escalator area in SoHo, for my parents (to replace all the ones my siblings and I have destroyed over the years)... mission successful! Lugged the China plates back down to the harbour and onto the Star Ferry to Kowloon, where I watched the Symphony of Lights, which was cheesy but fun! Got some nice pics of the illuminated skyline (and a lot of blurry awful ones too, with the backs of other tourists' heads in them). One last yummy supper at Jane and Patrick's and it was off to the airport again. Sad to leave such a cool place, but happy to be going home too! I wasn't sure if I was going to make it when the plane flew straight into a storm cloud and we dropped like a stone. Everyone screamed, but we steadied again and flew (somewhat turbulently) through lightning for a bit. The plane was absolutely packed with Chinese, who all looked like students heading to London for the new academic year or something. It felt strange going back to a culture (and airport!) I knew - no visa required, no arrival form to fill out... Nice and easy! Until we got to Terminal 5, and I had to lug six heavy China plates plus regular hand luggage around the (not tiny) terminal to get to T1 for my flight to Edinburgh! I worked up a nice sweat. People probably thought I was a nervous smuggler. But everything went smoothly and I got to Edinburgh airport on time. I was greeted by a party of tall Scottish people holding a makeshift sign with what was supposed to be my name ('Filleypah')...!

It took me more than a week to get my body clock back to normal. Going to sleep at 8pm and waking at 5am seemed appropriate for a long time! It's nice not to have to live out of a backpack (though I still don't have my own room/a wardrobe, it's a work in progress...) and jet about all the time. My job searching has been quite unsuccessful until now, but maybe next week.....! (is what I say every week). I'm not quite ready to plan (or finance!) my next trip but I hear South America is nice in May.......!

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Auckland, New Zealand

In Kaikoura I made the most of the sunshine and walked the Cliff Walk to the seal colonies. Some of it was a bit of a scramble as the path had been washed away but I joined a Scottish girl (from Aberdeen uni!) in tackling it so one of us could fetch help if the other fell off the cliff! I had fish and chips as a reward afterwards, as recommended by Mari. My only non-self-catered meal in New Zealand! It was blue cod and mild, flaky and buttery - really good. Of course the owners of the fish & chip shop were Scottish immigrants, but never mind! I really liked Kaikoura, and I heard on the news today that the roads to and from it are flooded, so I'm glad that didn't happen on my way up. The farmers are saying their lambs aren't likely to survive the weather, which is sad.
In Picton I did another scenic walk, to so-called Bob's Bay, and ate yummy baked goods from the Dutch "bakerij"! Bit of a flying stopover. Then I got the ferry to Wellington, which wasn't straightforward! On the Picton side I ended up having to walk with my heavy luggage to the Bluebridge ferry terminal because I didn't know there was a shuttle bus! I guess they forgot to mention that... Then I felt really sea sick on the boat, but the films they put on were quite distracting (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!?). Three hours later in Wellington (Welly) I spent ages trailing around looking for bus platform 'J' (having looked up buses on the internet beforehand and reading that they went from that platform). After asking I was informed it didn't exist so I just hopped on another bus in that direction, but I overshot my stop as it was dark by this time and had to walk pretty far back (and it started raining just as I got off the bus!) so it wasn't a great journey at all. I had a good time in Wellington though. I took in a Hogarth and children's book illustrators exhibition at the National Library, went to the Botanics, City Gallery ( a good modern art show! for once!), and various little boutiques. I was greeted in one by a scruffy shop-assistant going, "How's it goin' man?"! I wanted to say "Yo dawg" to be sarcastic but I think he might have missed the sarcasm and started a discussion about gang wars in Welly. I also went to the national museum, Te Papa, which was really good. I learned that a Kiwi scientist called Bob took the time in 1984 to count all the roadkill he came across while driving up the north Island, and counted 281 possums and 188 hedgehogs (plus a few others). People take possum killing very seriously here! I also learned that there'd been four 3.8-4.5 earthquakes in New Zealand since I'd arrived, plus a hundred smaller ones... everyday stuff!
On the way from Welly to Napier we stopped at Mount Bruce wildlife centre and I saw a kiwi in an enclosure inside, where they used infra-red light to simulate night, as kiwis are nocturnal. He was just having his midnight snack, which he found by prodding everything with his long pointy beak (they have external nostrils on the end of their beaks!) and bobbing about. Then he slurped it all up, which was really funny to watch. New Zealand wildlife is so entertaining!
Napier was good fun too. I stayed in an 180-bed hostel with just 5 people staying in it, it being low season! We (Nao from Japan, Thorsten and Fabian from Germany) had a couple of beers (the Germans agreed that New Zealand beer is not as good as German beer) and taught Nao how to play Monopoly! I think we just confused her terribly but she survived a couple of rounds... Napier had been destroyed by an earthquake in 1931 or so and rebuilt in Art Deco style, making it an attractive (if slightly Miami-beach looking) town to walk about. After Napier I stopped in Rotorua, where I met a young Australian guy who had totally overspent and stayed in NZ far too long so had nowhere to sleep and was hanging about in our hostel in the hope that no one would notice him sleeping in the TV room... Boys! Apparently his parents had bought him a flight home but he wasn't sure if he could be bothered taking it! Luckily he didn't have a credit card to overspend on. Or he'd be in debt like me...!
Rotorua was pretty smelly from all the sulphury hot springs and geothermal activity in the area (the earth's crust is very thin there) and I got a massive headache after a while! I left for Waitomo in the rain, stopping in Cambridge to change buses, and arrived in the late afternoon to check into the YHA. The bed hadn't been made in the dorm they assigned me to so they put me in a twin instead, which was nice but kind of strange not to be lulled to sleep by collective snoring and wade through other people's piles of stuff on the floor. Soon after arriving it was time to get ready for my night abseil! Waitomo is famous for its glow-worm caves and they've been a tourist attraction since the 1800's. It really kicked off in the 1980's though when people started black-water rafting and abseiling there. My guide Ross discovered the cave we went to around that time, and had built most of the walkways and ladders out of it himself. It was just me (low season...) so luckily we had the same sense of humour and there wasn't a boring moment. I got kitted out in sexy blue overalls, white wellies and a helmet with a headtorch. My camera's flash chose not to work so sadly I only have one blurry picture of me before we went down. When we were putting on our harnesses Ross said, "Don't worry, I've done this before. I went down once last week.", which was reassuring. It was an 150feet drop and once I was attached to the rope and to Ross I got to sit on an iron bar and get my hands on the right places on the ropes. Then Ross kicked away the bar I was sitting on (aah!), and I expected to dangle about like a spider and possibly spin and crash into something. Ross thought so too so he warned me I was about to look stupid, but luckily I just sat in the ropes and didn't move much. To stop from moving I had to straighten out the rope and wrap it round my leg - that stopped it from slipping through the bobbin (or descender), and if I wanted to descend I'd bend my leg and slacken the rope with my right hand. I got praised for my smooth style which Ross said took most guides in training a week to master. Then he offered me a job to be trained as an abseil and blackwater-rafting guide in the summer season (November), which I jokingly accepted. On the first descent we left our headtorches on for me to get used to the abseiling, so we didn't see any glowworms. Once on the ground we walked through the cave with water dripping down on us and clambered up four or five big ladders to get back out. Pretty hard work! Ross didn't even get out of breath. We had to stop every so often to clip ourselves onto safety ropes in case we slipped and fell. On the next descent we switched our torches off and got to see the fairy lights. Absolutely beautiful - I'd seen glow-worms in a field in Austria but that was nothing like Waitomo. The glow-worms are actually gnat larvae and spend about 8 months as larvae, during which they devour as many of their siblings around them as possible. When they hatch they only live for about three days as gnats, as they have no mouths. They mate and then either starve to death or are eaten by their charming brood. Such gratitude. Seeing them in a cave was great because there are tons as they like the moisture and all the insects they can feed on there, and as it's so dark you can see them really well. It looks like a 3-dimensional night sky down there when you're looking at the clusters of lights on the cave-walls. Ross said one guy proposed to his girlfriend there once as he thought it was so romantic. She said no! Cannibalistic gnat larvae just didn't impress her enough. I was quite impressed though, and stood and looked at them for quite a while, with Ross telling me glow-worm facts and entertaining tourist stories.
Back in Rotorua I went to Wai-O-Tapu geothermal park (or 'wonderland' as they called it), which was pretty cool, with lots of differently coloured lakes and pools, depending on the minerals in the water. It was a gorgeous day too (but after that it rained again). I also went to the Agrodome, where I watched people bungy, swoop, zorb, and shweeb in the adrenalin area! Swooping is the funniest thing I've ever seen (apart from the wildlife here). Up to three people get strapped into 'hang-gliding harnesses' which look like sleeping bags and then get hauled up high. One of them then pulls the release (what a responsibility) and they drop and swing like a huge pendulum. The more people, the faster (they're attached to each other in a row). When they drop they start screaming but only for a second before the wind hits them. Once they've swung as far as they'll go they start screaming again, and then they drop back again for a couple of swings. It looked fun... but too expensive! I went and saw the considerably cheaper but also very entertaining sheep show, where we spectators were mocked by the presenter in the subtle Kiwi way. The Americans and the Chinese got the worst of it... One Chinese girl went on stage to milk a brown-and-white cow, and was asked whether she wanted chocolate or vanilla, and after choosing chocolate was directed towards its bum... She actually got some milk out of it though (not at the bum). There were also lambs, which the kids got to bottle-feed, and sheepdogs who were trained to leap over the sheep on stage (they had loads of different ones to show the different breeds) and then sit down on one. I bet that skill comes in handy.
On the way up to Auckland I stopped overnight in Mount Maunganui (obligatory Magic stop) which is famous for its beach scene so pretty uninteresting in winter. My plans for Auckland pretty much only involve taking the ferry to Devonport, one of the pretty seaside towns, tomorrow, and then probably sleeping at the airport on Saturday night as my stupid flight is at 5.50am and there's no cheap transport there at that kind of hour! It's going to be a long tiring, really really fun journey, stopping in Sydney from 7.20 - 10.45am and arriving in Hong Kong at 17.45 local time! I may get round to blogging in Hong Kong, but if not you'll get a Hong Kong-related entry when I'm back in Scotland... :-)

Friday, 15 August 2008

Kaikoura, New Zealand

I changed my plans about five minutes after my last blog entry and decided not to hang about in Queenstown on my last day but to take a day-trip to Milford Sound. I'd included it on my New Zealand 'wish list' but it was going to be pretty expensive with Magic, and I suspected the sea-kayaking I'd wanted to do there would probably be cancelled due to the weather. However there was a good winter deal with Mitre Peak cruises, to be driven over there for a boat cruise and back in a day, which a friend decided to do, and I joined her. It was a very long day, with a 6.30am pick-up in Queenstown and arriving at Milford by lunchtime. The bus journey was really scenic as we drove high up into the mountains. On the mountain roads our young driver decided to describe the sort of damage the avalanches that happened there regularly could do - basically if the falling boulders didn't crush your vehicle then the force of the descending snow could still blow all the windows out and knock it over. Lovely. The possibility of black ice was also elaborated upon, but we got there safely... The boat cruise was wonderful and we were really lucky with the weather (again!); it was very cold but sunny and clear. We didn't see anyone kayaking - probably too chilly! We saw fur seals basking on the rocks, and beautiful big waterfalls cascading down into the fjord, like cream dripping off a spoon. The journey back went well until we were an hour from Queenstown, and the bus stopped suddenly and the driver hopped off to investigate, and then report that the clutch was broken and he jokingly blamed our collective weight. Luckily they had snacks and DVDs to keep us distracted from being stuck in the snow and dark, as the replacement bus took well over an hour to arrive, with the result that it was almost 10pm before we got to Queenstown. So a very long day but am glad I saw Milford Sound after all!

Next morning I got the bus to Dunedin.On the way there we drove through the little town of Clyde, which is built in a valley beyond a huge dam, and on a fault line, so likely to be hit by earthquakes. Asking for trouble... In Dunedin I stayed in what felt more like a fridge than a hostel. It was pretty new and looked quite nice but heating wasn't on the agenda obviously! So I caught a cold, but I think I've thrown it off again. I explored Dunedin, which has some architectural gems and lovely cafes, and checked out the art gallery and cinema. I didn't tour the Cadbury factory because the bus driver advised us that there weren't any Oompa Loompahs left there after 'they staged a revolution and were shot' and that 'Oompa Loompah flavoured ice cream was good for a while but they've run out'. Instead I took an Elm wildlife tour out to the Otago Peninsula, which was another really lovely area I wouldn't have seen otherwise. We were a group of about twenty, with two guides, and drove in a minivan to the Royal Albatross sanctuary (which I hear my grandparents went to as well!), where we spotted one Royal albatross (it's not their season). On the drive over private farmland to see penguin, sea lion and fur seal colonies we were informed it was our 'patriotic duty' to run over possums if we saw any (never mind that we're not Kiwis), or if we were too squeamish we should throw apple cores or other pieces of fruit into the middle of the road and then let someone else do the dirty work! Classic Kiwi advice. Our guide also gave us some info about the very rare Yellow-Eyed Penguin, which is in fact a forest-dwelling bird (!) - hence New Zealand's deforestation along the coastline has contributed to their rarity, but Elm are replanting bushy plants such as harakeke ('grass on steriods') near the beach to get the shy penguins to hide in. Apparently they are even shy of their own species and 'will only visit their neighbours to beat them up if they are watching them make babies'. The penguins were standing in a fairly large group when we saw them though, and some of them were trundling in twos or threes from the sea to nest for the night. The way they toddled up the beach and then hopped up the rocks to stand on the hill was really funny! Also really funny (as described by the guide; unfortunately we didn't witness this) is when they're trying to attract a partner, which they do by sticking out their flippers straight ahead as if to hug their prospective partner, storming straight past them, then coming to an abrupt halt and staring up at the sky to let their prospective partner admire them. They will do this over and over again to each other, and then sometimes discover that they've been performing this little mating dance for the same sex - in which case they will smack each other in disgust. They will also smack the sheep if they come too close, which makes me feel very sorry for the sheep, as a penguin is pretty strong and I remember having a large purple penguin-flipper-inflicted bruise on my thigh for a long time in Capetown. However the sheep are quite capable of head-butting the penguin and pushing them over, which apparently also happens a lot and is very comical to watch! We also saw sea lions in that area, which I'm now enlightened enough to know are a type of seal. They were lying about in the dunes and some were pretty massive so we kept our distance. As we were walking away from one of them he (male, of course!) decided he would shuffle off too. As he got up he let off the most disgusting rotting-fish fart I have ever had the misfortune to smell. The females have a separate beach where they hide from the males and now I think I know why! Yuk.
After that we headed over to the fur seal colony, where there were lots of babies, camouflaged by the rocks (the males are grey, and the females slightly more sandy-coloured, and the babies are rock-coloured). As we were all armed with binoculars and sitting in a hide we got a very good look at them (though my photos look like pictures of rocks). Some of the young ones were darting about in one of the rock pools which was brilliant to watch, as they really come alive in the water and look rather clumsy on land. Another really good tour.

Dunedin doesn't really look like Edinburgh by the way, apart from the odd Gothic church, but it's quite hilly and has the steepest street in the world, where the Magic bus stopped for us to walk up (hard work first thing in the morning!) on the way to Lake Tekapo. On the way we stopped at the Moeraki Boulders, which are perfectly round lumps of rock on Moeraki beach. Very photogenic! I don't believe the dinosaur-egg theory or the Maori story of them being stale bits of bread (how big was that loaf!?). The Tekapo area was very beautiful but bitterly cold so I spent the afternoon curled up in front of the fire reading my book ... Off again early the next morning to Christchurch, where I spent the afternoon at the Arts Centre (the Fudge Kitchen in particular drew me in! thanks for the recommendation, Lyndsey) and the art gallery. Like Bangkok, I liked Christchurch better the second time round, but it was another flying stopover and I left this morning and got to Kaikoura at lunchtime. It's a lovely little coastal town, where whale watching and dolphin swimming are the main tourist attractions, but I'm just going to enjoy the free pursuit of walking about! Once again the weather is playing along so I'm going to make the most of it now. From here I'll be going to Picton, on Sunday or Monday, to stay a night and then get the ferry across to Wellington and check out the North Island.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Queenstown, New Zealand

I'm glad to report the Tranzalpine journey was as beautiful as I'd hoped. Even though it rained throughout the journey! It was a great way to get up close to the snow-capped alps and enjoy the scenery as we trundled over huge viaducts. Of course I saw some sheep! as well as cows and deer, which they seem to farm here. The mountainous landscape reminded me of Switzerland and the ferns, birches, rolling hills and winter colours were more like the Scottish countryside. We stopped at a couple of small stations to stretch our legs and occasionally to drop off or pick people up, and our witty driver kindly informed us that "if you climb onto the coal train, you will be shot in the leg". Not sure if he was joking.
In Greymouth I stayed in a nice animal-themed hostel - in the 'Penguin' room! Which was decorated accordingly...quite funny. They had a naughty Golden Retriever puppy called Bez who tired to eat my shoes while I was watching TV, but I got them back relatively intact, if a lot smellier! Greymouth was definitely not very exciting, but interesting to see one of the bigger places on the West coast - everywhere else I saw along the way was similar but on a smaller scale.

In Franz Josef I did the full-day glacier hike, which was brilliant. We started out at 8am with two teams of eleven. I chose to go with the slower group, 'for those who haven't had that second cup of coffee this morning', not so much because I hadn't had coffee but because I wanted to be able to stop for photos. Definitely the right decision! It was still pretty intense walking, but very enjoyable and rewarding. We crawled through ice caves a couple of times, edged our way through narrow crevasses, hopped over cracks in the ice, and used ropes to help us clamber up or down steep steps hacked into sheer walls of ice. Our guide taught us the handy 'Franz Josef shuffle' for this, to stop us from tripping over our own feet (which were encumbered by big boots and clamp-on spikes). People have been hiking on Franz Josef since the 1940's but the equipment has improved a lot... it used to be hobnail boots which the guides drove the nails into the night before people went on the hike. We were very lucky with the weather as we had sunshine all the way up. It rained throughout our 50-minute descent and by the time we got on the bus to go back to the village we were all pretty uncomfortable despite waterproof gear, so I was very glad to get out of it and into the shower that day! All the hostels have been very homey and comfortable so far, with duvets, heaters, hairdryers, and some with open fires in the lounges.
The Magic bus experience has been pretty good until now. Unlike the buses I took in Australia they don't just get you from A to B but stop off along the way at tourist stops (viewpoints, museums, towns). You also get a fair bit of commentary from the drivers, who so far have been male, Kiwi and mad - either secretly (watch out for the quiet normal looking ones!) or obviously (with a blue mohawk...). That one advised us at one point that we should look to our right for the 'annual downhill sheep race', then honked the horn and the poor sheep in the field next to us stampeded down the hill in fright! Apparently he once had a shepherdess on the bus who told him off for it. He argued that he was doing the sheep a favour because now they would have something else to talk about. Instead of just commenting on the quality of the grass they would go, "What the heck was that godawful noise the other week?". Boys will be boys...

I've also stopped off in Wanaka for a night, from where there are great lakeside views of the surrounding mountains. Most people here, as in Queenstown, stay to go snowboarding or skiing at this time of year, and my hostel seemed to be overrun with wealthy snow-seeking Japanese kids! I resisted the snow-activity temptations and went to Puzzleworld with Japanese Katsushi, Australian Maria and Canadian Caroline. We got lost in the maze... it was good fun.

Queenstown is also situated on a lake and close to the alps, but it's a bigger flashier version of Wanaka with lots of restaurants and bars and snow-gear boutiques, and popular with holidaying Australians. Quite upmarket and touristy, but quite nice to wander through and have a hot chocolate. I also went up the gondola and had some good views. Unfortunately I've run out of things to do and when I tried to book my bus to Dunedin this morning I was informed they don't run a service on Fridays! Very annoying as it means I lose a day in another town (probably Auckland) and will be sleeping, reading and drinking hot chocolate tomorrow but I suppose it could be worse! I don't have any more big adventures planned until I get to Waitomo caves in the North Island, where I'd like to go abseiling, but I'm also looking forward to some penguin or whale watching along the way and maybe even dolphin swimming in Kaikoura if I dare to plunge myself into waters that are about 9 degrees Celsius...

Friday, 25 July 2008

Christchurch, New Zealand

I'm in my eighth country! I flew into rainy Christchurch yesterday, and though I haven't seen much of it, I like New Zealand so far. Last week when I looked up my flights to find out which terminal I was flying from I noticed my flight times had been changed, and after ringing Trailfinders it turned out the morning flight with Jet Star had been cancelled and they'd reserved a seat on the Jet Star evening flight for me. I didn't want to get in that late though, so I got them to book me in on the Qantas flight in the morning, which they agreed to. That's before I heard about exploding oxygen tanks and other recent 'complications' on Qantas flights! But it all went well. My peanut butter and strawberry jam I tried to smuggle into New Zealand would probably have gotten through if they hadn't been classed as a cream and a gel respectively and hence weren't allowed through security! It made me laugh quite a lot. Has anyone ever blown up a plane armed with peanut butter and strawberry jam? My pasta was okay though, obviously little hard spirals are not a weapon. After landing in Christchurch I felt up to taking part in a University of Otago study at the airport to find out about how often influenza was being brought in by travellers. After filling in the survey (and stating that I didn't feel ill) I was an eligible candidate for a throat and nose swab (lucky me!), which I also agreed to. I now know that a nose swab is really really unpleasant. But all in the name of science. My results will be posted to Edinburgh!

Australia defintiely grew on me as I went along and after comparing Sydney and Melbourne I'm a Melbourne fan! (boo hiss from the Sydney fans)... In Sydney I stayed in an overrated huge hostel where my food was stolen twice in a row from the fridge! My friend who was staying there as well said some of her makeup was stolen from her bag and she saw it in her roommate's bag and stole it back! Hence I nicknamed it Kleptomaniac Hostel. Also there was a guy in the girls' bathroom (which you can only get into with your keycard so I don't know what the point is if all keycards work!) who was happily shaving there. He said he knew he was in the wrong one but it was just 'so nice'. Right.
On my first day I wandered through town and photographed Harbour Bridge and the Opera House in the smirring rain, and strolled through the Botanics. I didn't see a single flying fox although Lonely Planet said 'you can't miss them' - yes, watch me! On day two Charlotte my Dutch friend and I did the Coogee to Bondi beach walk, which was good fun, and the sun actually peeped through occasionally! We went out to the Ivy club in the evening and had to beat yuppie-ish men off with a stick. We were with our (female) Irish friends who were not so good at beating men off, so we enjoyed the company of a mad Irishman for most of the evening!
On my last day I was walking through the Queen Victoria Building with a steaming pretzel from the German bakery and someone tapped me on the shoulder... it was Yvonne, the German girl I did the very long walk with at Mission beach! Pretty funny. We went for tea and coffee and caught up, then I had to get my bus to Melbourne... 17 glorious hours! I've never had such a bad crick in the neck. Thanks to chosing Premier bus service, the less popular one, I had room to spread out, but sleep was rather intermittent! I think the bus drivers all take a course in Torture 1.0.1, as they seem to know exactly when you've just dozed off and chose those times to throw in a 'meal break' at a McDonald's or a pokey petrol station! Good times to do this are at 10.30pm, 1am or 3am. I (or the zombie that passed for me) got in at 7.30, stored my bags and went exploring. First stop was the Victoria market, which had a huge fresh food selection, yum. Then I took the tram (loved the trams!) down to the Botanics, which were fab, and went to the National Gallery. The Art Deco exhibition (all the way from the V&A!) was a bit too pricey for me, but saw the permanent collection and they had some gruesome Otto Dix war etchings, inspired by Goya's, which I've also seen (in Vienna.. or was it Madrid?) so was interesting to compare.
In the afternoon I made my way to Altona, where I was met at the train station by Alistair Brown, his wife Liz and their lovely boys. Scotty is ten and Jamie eight, and they have a menagerie including a blue-tongue lizard called Bluey! Had a great time staying with them and on Sunday went to the very good Museum with them, which has a huge variety of exhibits, from the Natural History section to the history of Melbourne and a cute dinosaur eggs exhibition. I discovered my inner child and joined in with drawing dinosaurs. The kids' ones were better than mine! Afterwards I went up Brunswick street on my own, which is charmingly shabby and has loads of quirky little shops and cafes, and an 'alternative' crowd - though I noticed it might be getting too trendy for its own good as some expensive looking restaurants had sprung up and seemed to be popular with the monied tourists for Sunday dinner. Doesn't quite work when there's a homeless guy sitting outside it! On Monday I checked out Federation Square, the Southbank area and St Kilda (which has a beach), where I tried Cold Rock ice cream - they mush it up with your choice of sweets so I selected butterscotch ice cream and chunks of soft caramel - yum!! Even though it was very cold outside and raining a bit! Then I hopped on the bus again, overnight back to Sydney, and got in mid-morning. I took the ferry over to Manly, where I was met by Sara, Dorothy and Chris' (or should I call him Fitzy!? he he) friend from Hong Kong, who was lovely and great fun to chat to. I borrowed her bike for the afternoon and explored Manly and watched the surfers being buried beneath huge waves at the beach and was very glad to be wrapped up in my jacket and not in the sea! But there were so many of them it can't have been too cold - most of them seemed to have drysuits on anyway which must have helped. I met Sally-Anne briefly and had a delicious dinner with Sara and Vic and helped make rhubarb and apple crumble, then watched a (BBC) programme called Wild China - beautifully shot and highly recommended if you can see it! Got the ferry back to Circular Quay with Vic in the morning and he saw me onto the airport train, so nice and easy... and as Vic said a fab journey every day for him - seeing Harbour Bridge and the Opera House as you come into work!

Tomorrow morning I'm on the Tranzalpine train and reach Greymouth around lunchtime. Very much a stopover town apparently so am not hanging around and will be off on the Magic bus (I feel like I'm on a kids' TV programme every time I say it) in the morning to Franz Josef, where I'm hoping to do a glacier hike on Sunday! Should be another highlight and am really looking forward to it.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Byron Bay, Australia

I really enjoyed my Fraser Island jeep safari last week, thanks to having a great mix of people (11 of us). Amongst others were girls who had been studying in Syndey (a Dutch girl as an exchange student at Syndey University and three Swiss girls at a language school in Manly); one girl who worked at the hostel organising the trip (very useful as she knew what to do, where to go..); a Swedish hitchhiker, and a Scottish girl who'd been working in Syndey and Brisbane. We squeezed into the Toyota Troop Carrier, with our luggage and obscene amounts of food (we ate most of it over the three days) strapped to the roof. Got the ferry from Hervey Bay to Fraser Island, switched into 4WD and bounced along... I felt pretty nauseous by the third day! Great fun though. Fraser is the biggest sand island in the world, and there are inland tracks past stunning freshwater lakes and through rainforest, as well as the 'highway' along the beach. We soon worked out that driving as close to the sea as possible on the hard wet sand (without driving IN the sea!) was the way forward, but sometimes the softer sand was unavoidable and we got stuck. Whenever that happened we all screamed, then got out and pushed while the driver revved the choking engine! Most people had a shot at driving, and it was always easiest first thing in the morning when hardly any vehicles had made deep tracks in the sand, and it was wet from the receding tide. Everyone chose to swear loudly in their mother tongue when things went wrong. 'Holy mother o' God' (and worse) was popular with the two lovely Irish sisters, and 'Scheisse' was the Swiss girls' top choice. As a primarily female group we also got really good at screaming all the time, at every bump, or when it seemed the vehicle might tip over. At the 4WD hire place we'd been shown enticing photos of a tipped over jeep and were told 'help was hours away' and 'luckily no one died'. True Ozzie optimism. Apart from admiring the stunning landscape and screaming a lot we were also looking upwards for airplanes as the beach was not just a road (80kmh max) but also a landing strip! There were also a lot of suicidal fishermen standing in the shallows in their waders and sitting ducks for jeeps to hit. Luckily we didn't hit any. Fraser Island also has a dingo population which is apparently the most purebred in Australia, but we only saw one, which was extremely inquisitive and came up to the jeep and rolled around in the sand. It had clearly been fed by humans. We had also been warned not to approach dingoes and not to be aggressive towards them unless they attacked us, in which case we should give them a proper beating. Lovely. Other dangers included the rip tides and sharks in the sea, and of course spiders on the campsite.
The first day the weather was mixed. We stopped off at Lake Wabby and those brave enough took a dip, but soon after we got there it started raining so we walked back to the jeep (not a short walk). We also stopped at Eli Creek and waded along it - crystal clear water here too. We got to the campsite in the afternoon and pitched our tents. It was quite a good site with hot showers (2$ for 4 minutes!) and gas stoves, BBQ and several tables under cover. We barbequed the first night - absolutely delicious and had so much left over that we enjoyed chicken and sausage sandwiches the next day. There were several other groups and a fair bit of drinking, though curfew was at nine, after which people were asked to move to the beach if they wanted to continue drinking. Most of us crashed early though as we were exhausted, apart from an annoying German group - one guy in particular was intent on waking the entire camp in the middle of the night. We could hear him shrieking like a mad chicken and when people shouted at him to shut up I heard him say he would go over and kill them, or collapse their tents. Think he might have had too much goon (cheap wine made with fish guts - apparently long-term effects included mental illness, so maybe he'd overdone it a bit).
On day two the weather was worse, and it rained heavily in the afternoon when we were at Indian Heads (a lookout point from which we could see mantas and dolphins in the sea before) and Champagne Pools (a natural rock pool into which the sea bubbled). We were back at the campsite by two pm! We spent the rest of the day eating and drinking and warming up under hot showers.
On day three it cheered up considerably. We packed up the tents and stopped off at a shipwreck on the way to the lakes. One of the roads was blocked by a fallen tree trunk (and one poor group was stuck on the other side without enough fuel to detour - they made it to the ferry though) so we only went to one of the lakes, Lake Mackenzie, which was stunning - white sand and clear water. But only just warm enough for sunbathing and only the mad people swam! When we stopped for lunch we saw two very tame Kookaburras and they sat and watched us for ages. Again, I think someone fed them...

I set off for Brisbane the next day, where I had almost three days. I really enjoyed being back in a city, and had company from the jeep safari (everyone does the same route) so that was great. Brisbane is a little bit flashy sometimes, especially some of the younger guys in their stupid sportscars, but the river is nice and it has green parks on the South Bank, where I went to the Art Gallery, and there are loads of nice shops on Queen Street. A lot of business people around as well, so tons of bars and restaurants aimed at that sort of crowd. On the last day I went out to the Lone Pine Sanctuary, which houses koalas, kangaroos, wombats, and a couple of other critters. Took lots of pictures as you could get up close and feed some of them.

I'm now in Byron Bay, leaving this evening for Syndey. It's the nicest beach town I've been in, with lots of trendy boutiques and cute cafes and restaurants. The beach is beautiful too but wild horses couldn't get me into the water as it's very cold here (have crossed the border into New South Wales), so no surfing lessons for me! Yesterday I walked up to the Lighthouse and watched the sunset and am just puddling around town today, trying not to spend any money! I also booked my bus pass for New Zealand yesterday (can't believe I'll already be there next week!) and am going with Magic Bus. The ticket includes the Tranzalpine train journey which is the first thing I do when I get there and promises to be absolutely stunning.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Airlie Beach, Australia

There wasn't much sun in Mission Beach but it was a nice little place, not too busy, and I got to relax a bit. I bumped into Catherine, who was leaving the accommodation I'd just checked into, and we had a short but good catch up before she got on the bus to Cairns. The first day I just lay on the very yellow beach, and though it was windy the sun peeked through a fair bit! Reminded me of Scottish summer days on North Berwick beach, just without sandcastles and 99 ice-creams! The next day was rainy and I spent the morning reading at the hostel and then went for a little (8km) hike with Yvonne, a German girl from my dorm. We planned to just go for a little stroll but kept going to see what was around the next corner, and the next, and the one after that! Good walk along the beach and then along a path through raiforest, where we were warned we may be confronted with crocodiles or cassowaries, but they didn't make an appearance, which is a good thing as far as crocodiles are concerned. The next day I travelled to Airlie Beach by bus (a glorious nine hours). A young German girl sitting next to me had been WWOOFing on a farm nearby, which was interesting. She said the work was hard but she met loads of other nice travellers on the farm. The Australian family she stayed with were very welcoming but apparently had no idea about current affairs in Europe and showed some interest but she thought their attitude was that it was far away and as a result didn't concern them.

Airlie Beach is another touristy seaside town but has some nice shops and restaurants and though there isn't a decent beach there's a pleasant lagoon area to sit around in and look out at the pretty yachts moored in the bay. It acts as the jumping off point for the Whitsunday Islands, and I was supposed to leave for my 3-day sailing trip around them on Thursday, on a beautiful old ketch called Enid. When I arrived at the pier however I was informed she'd got water in her engine and the engine had exploded! After changing the dates of my bus journey, accommodation, and Fraser Island trip I was able to book the last available place on a different boat, leaving on Friday. This one was two days (two half and one full) and two nights on the boat, and the vessel, Eureka II, was a bit smaller and geared towards racing, without a sun-bathing deck. No great loss though - it was good fun just to sit on the side with my legs dangling through the railing or wedged in a corner behind the skipper when the yacht was heeling (tilting up). The skipper was a jolly Australian called Pete with a glorious orange tan that could have got him a job in fake tan advertising if he ever wanted to give up sailing. Every British person on board must have been impressed because they all decided not to wear sun tan lotion, and by the end they were as red as lobsters. Our deckhand Charlie was in his 20's and had grown up in Zimbabwe and England and studied at Oxford Brookes before getting stuck into sailing in England and Australia. It looked like pretty hard multitasking - everything from assisting Pete on deck (usually doing complicated things with ropes to the sail) to cooking our meals, cleaning up after us and taking us out in the dinghy to go snorkelling. He said he enjoyed it though and was going to be taking his exams soon to be a skipper. The other passengers on board were five crazy Irish girls, in their mid-twenties, who were primary school teachers (apart from one accountant, who seemed to be the sensible one); a fun young Irish couple who had originally booked Enid as well; two motherly Irish ladies from Dublin who were holidaying together (one cheerful and one sour-faced); a loud Scot and a nice Englishman (who went to Warwick!) who had spent the last year and a half living in Hong Kong and were returning to London via Australia; and a quiet Swede called Gustavo who was taking a week off from his work experience at a naval architecture firm in Sydney as part of his engineering degree.
We left in the afternoon on Friday and sat on deck watching Charlie and Pete do their thing, with some of the guys who'd done a bit of sailing before joining in. It was very cold when the sun wasn't out and after we'd moored and gone in for dinner I thought I might have to have my feet amputated as they were utterly numb (no shoes allowed on board, so our feet suffered the cold). The food was good - we had chicken with gravy and potatoes and veg the first night. The dining area didn't seat enough people though, so half of us ate outside under the stars, and then went in to play cards (with some of us standing round the table). After a couple of beers the Irish girls were moved to demonstrate a jig for us, which was hilarious! They'd arrived hungover and without any alcohol (it was BYO) at the pier but luckily for them Sandy the Scot had a large supply he was happy to share... Pete said he liked to have Irish people on board because "even if they go a bit over the top with the alcohol they always have a good time". After the fun and games we went to bed at a fairly reasonable time, and were up at seven the next morning for fruit salad/cereal/toast for breakfast. We set off again, passing Hamilton Island, where George Harrison had a house and used to sit in a booth in the local pub in the eighties and entertain the locals with his guitar-playing. We moored at Whitehaven bay, and Charlie ferried us across to the stunning white beach, where we lazed about in the sun for two hours (with quite a few other tourists!). In the afternoon we went snorkelling at another site but the visibility wasn't great and coming out of the water into the wind was a shock! Although the water supply on board was limited there was just about enough for a short hot shower each - and when I say short I mean I'm not sure if I managed to rinse all the shampoo out of my hair. That evening we played a very wild game of Spoons, which is basically a card game, but the relevant part is the scramble for a kitchen spoon from the pile on the table when someone gets four of a kind. We were all squeezed in like sardines and certain people of a certain nationality (!) had had a bit much to drink and it got violent! There were girls scratching each other and wrestling spoons from each other, and I came away with a gash in my finger after someone slashed me with a spoon! As if the violence wasn't enough someone suggested that each round the person left without a spoon would have to shed an item of clothing, hence Strip Spoons was invented. Let's just say I was glad I was wearing lots of layers and (invaluable) socks! It was good fun, and luckily we invented it so late in the evening that we all went to sleep before anyone reached their last layer...
Today we set off at about 8.30am back towards Airlie Beach and we all got to have a go at steering Eureka II! Pete said I was a natural and was "driving her like a starlet" at 8 knots. We were racing Silent Night, the other yacht on the two-day trip, and outran her just as we got into the harbour.. great fun, and we had music on board so the girls put on "We Are the Champions" at maximum volume as we overtook Silent Night. Ha ha.

Because I lost a day through Enid's demise and because my friends in Town of 1770 may be hitching a lift up north before I can get there, Town of 1770 and Noosa have been knocked off my itinerary. I think I was a little bit ambitious in my planning of stopovers. with just 28 days here! Next stop is Hervey Bay, from where I'm off to Fraser Island for a three-day jeep tour, which should be good. If there are Irish people there it will definitely be interesting...

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Cairns, Australia

Unfortunately for Singapore, my lasting impression of it will be the Mitsubishi hand dryer I used there, which looked like a sandwich toaster glued vertically to the wall and definitely as if it would be a very bad idea to put your hands in it.

Cairns also left an impression of leaving no impression... it was nice enough but very touristy and basically a jumping off point for the reef and not much else. I got to experience jet lag and culture shock there for the first time though, which was exciting ;-) The jet lag was primarily sleep deficiency (the time difference was just two hours), caused by a 4.5 hour flight that stopped in Darwin at 3am, then a 40-minute wait and a 3.5 hour flight to Cairns; all with a couple of screaming kids on board. I hope to become more tolerant of screaming kids with age... there was an elderly lady who came up to one family with screaming boy near me and commented on how good he had been and that she'd hardly heard him at all. Whereas I'd been grinding my teeth throughout the flight! Other than that the journey was okay and going through customs was easy - I left my walking boots at the top of my bag and customs whisked them off to clean off any South-East Asian soil and they were back in seconds and I was thanked for declaring them.
The culture shock (which I think I can claim not to have had anywhere before, not even travelling to SA) is mainly because they treat backpackers differently here compared to Asia - which I expected to a certain extent but it's taking some getting used to. By differently I mean travelling itself is easier and efficient, and the locals are proud to show off their country and want you to confirm that it's wonderful all the time; whereas in Asia some locals are after your money, some are genuinely friendly, but a lot of Asians will acknowledge that their countries are flawed, and sometimes admire your skin and your culture to the point of sycophantism. Instead of being addressed as 'Miss' or 'Ma'm' I've become 'doll' or even 'my dear'. The locals are very nice though, in case I'm giving the wrong impression, and so are the many international backpackers who work in the hostels, internet cafes and restaurants. The cost of a mid-range room in Asia buys you a hostel room in Oz, which is usually decked out in a way reminiscent of Big Brother houses - cheaply but cheerfully. A decent night's sleep is keenly awaited - snoring and partying roommates have prevented this so far. The communal bathrooms have been clean - I don't miss squat toilets or cockroach audiences! There's a good variety of food available but at a price (10$ [5 pounds] for a kebab! Is that normal?). I'm primarily self-catering and when I eat out the cheapest food is all deep-fried/fatty - but maybe that will improve as I try other eateries! What also comes under the category of culture shock is probably how different the backpacker mentality is here - primarily focused on drinking and throwing yourself off cliffs, or other artificial adventures. It makes me think their attitude is that there isn't anything really worth seeing or doing in Oz and feel they have to resort to expensive adrenalin rushes! But maybe Australia just attracts a certain type as it's easy to navigate... luckily I've also met more like-minded travellers and we were bemoaning the party type! I will get used to everything, including the cold. When I say cold I mean ca. 25 degrees... while everyone else strolls aorund in t-shirts, shorts etc. I'm shivering in my hoodie! Port Douglas was a pleasant enough seaside town with lots of families strolling around (it's school holidays until mid-July) and my trip to the Great Barrier Reef was really good. We reached the Outer (Agincourt) Reef within two hours or so on a medium-sized boat (that's less than a hundred people) and I teamed up with two American, one Australian and three French girls (some of whom were in my hostel too). We got to spend five hours on two sites with a lunch break inbetween. In the morning I went scuba diving and was so very glad I'd been before! Even though it was an introductory dive with several first-time divers the briefing was just 20 minutes and mainly revolved around the joking description of how your lungs will burst if you ascend too quickly. There was very little other useful information in it (like how to prevent ascending too quickly)! I went down in a group of four and the last girl to get in the water promptly panicked and got straight out as she couldn't breathe (I heard later that two boys from the other group didn't go either as they had panic attacks and problems equalising). The other two girls in my group did rather well, all things considered, though one of them crashed into me a couple of times...probably because maintaining neutral buoyancy was not in the briefing... I actually enjoyed snorkelling more on this occasion - also because the second site (where I snorkelled) was a bit better and I got to see a turtle, reef shark, and flutenose fish (my favourite). On the boat ride back to Port Douglas I felt really sea sick though, as the sea was choppy and the boat was jumping and slapping against the water all the way. To make up for it, we saw minke whales (or rather their jets of water!). Today was spent on the beach and a nice grassy lookout point with some of the girls I met on the boat, and on the bus on the way back to Cairns I got my first glimpse of wallabies, or kangaroos, which was exciting for me (and only me, as the others on the shuttle were Australians). Tomorrow I'm off to Mission Beach at 7am and have two days there without activites, so hopefully will spend it catching up on sleep and warming myself in the sun! My itinerary is filled and my accommodation booked until the 17th, which makes things easy. I'm aware I have a lot to fit in in 28 days, so I'm not wasting any time!

Friday, 27 June 2008

Singapore, Singapore

Hello from Singapore... In Kuala Lumpur I did a spot of sightseeing and a lot of shopping! I bought some warm clothes in preparation for Australia's winter, plus a pair of sneakers as the soles of my ballet pumps have peeled away after three months' of hardcore walking in countries without pavements. My big toe is poking out of the left shoe so it's time to say goodbye... Apart from shopping I went up Merdaka tower "the 4th highest tower in the world", and took loads of pictures of the city as the sun set, and wandered around Little India, Chinatown and the colonial district. I met up with Azmir, who is a friend of a friend, for a tasty Malay lunch, had a good chat and evaluated KL and life after Warwick... Good thing I found plenty to do because I had to clear out of my hostel for a day because they were fumigating the rooms! They claimed that all KL hostels underwent fumigation regularly, but I'm not so sure.. Interestingly I didn't see any bugs until after the alleged fumigation! They probably fumigated them out of hiding...

In Melaka I bumped into the Aussie family I crossed the border with! I was tempted to run and hide to avoid another recitation of South-East Asia's currencies, but I braved them and they were rather sweet, bubbling with recommendations of what to see. Melaka was overrun with tourists, many of whom were Dutch - they obviously feel they still own the place! ;-) and had some good sights, including the Stadthuys and the museums in it; a ruined cathedral on a hill; the Sultanate Palace; Chinatown; but I was disappointed that there was so much traffic, even through the nice old bits. In Malaysia everyone has a car, as opposed to Vietnam for example, where everyone has a motorbike - I really don't know which is worse! I think I was hoping Melaka would be more like Luang Prabang in Laos, but it lacks Luang Prabang's character and peacefulness. Apparently a lot of Singaporeans come to Melaka for the weekend - that's when everything is open, and they have the nightmarket along Jonker Street (which has loads of arty shops and some boutiques). It was quite fun, with loads of weird food, including fried egg ice cream, which is a deep-fried egg 'pocket' filled with ice cream - I watched a Malaysian girl eat it and she looked torn between disgust and bemusement and giggled a lot! Other delicacies included hot dog waffle (a hot dog sausage in a waffle), Cupcorn (a cup of sweetcorn), Magic Ice (flavoured ice lolly, including Durian flavour, which is an absolutely rank-smelling fruit considered a real treat in South-East Asia), pineapple tarts (Melaka is number one for these, which have a pineapple jam topping and I've been eating since my scuba dive, when they had them on the boat), radish cake (a white spongy mass which is fried and cut into squares), and rice balls (made of ground rice/rice powder, taste like knoedel), which I ate with wonton soup (yum). I saw two stalls selling rock hard caramel-stuff, which they had to chisel off a block (!); it really would have made any dentist weep to see it. There were also live bands, mostly headed by large sweaty American guys, whose repertoire was limited to old-school rock covers, but fun to watch (I liked the Bob Dylan covers at least). Also fun to watch were the elderly Chinese men sitting on plastic chairs and smoking and watching the bands with impassive faces - you'd think they weren't that bothered but I think they were actually loving it! My suspicions that Asians have inherently bad taste in music were finally confirmed when I saw Modern Talking CDs for sale (cringe-worthy German band that should be taken outside and shot).
I stayed in the Eastern Heritage Guesthouse which the American girl in the Cameron Highlands had said was ok. The building was a stunning old Chinese-style house with slightly shabby rooms and open-air bathrooms on what could be a great balcony looking out over the rooftops - I found myself looking at it and making restoration plans, which makes me think I might have the dreaded Hendry-house-'fixing' gene! Aaah! Luckily I will never have enough money to buy a house, ha ha...

My border crossing to Singapore was another interesting one... the Malaysian border check was easy and we zipped through no-man's land, then to the Singaporean check-point. As the bus driver handed me my backpack he said I had twenty minutes and after that the bus was leaving, so if I missed it I'd have to wait for the next one. I went in and there were huge crowds waiting, and the only queue that was moving was the Singapore-passport queue, the 'all other passports' queues were jammed. After a while they turned one of the SP-passport queues into an all-passports checkpoint so I slipped over and the queue started moving. Ahead of me I saw one other Westerner who was on the same bus as me and noticed he had an arrival/departure card, which I didn't, so I went over and asked him where he got it, and he said he'd been given it with the bus ticket in Melaka. Obviously they'd forgotten to give me one... So I had to get out of the queue and find one and fill it in, then back into the queue, through the check point and through customs, and of course the bus had gone when I got out. About five others from my bus had also missed it (mostly Malaysians and Singaporeans on holiday, no backpackers at all), including the Australian guy from the queue. They were all rather confused and worried - I was the only one who'd been told what to do if we missed the bus so I told them another one would be along soon and we waited... The Australian turned out to be from Melbourne, now living in Perth, and was a retired hippie who'd done the trip I did in the 70's, when he said his bus in Laos was shot at... this time round he was just on holiday to Singapore (which he hated) and had popped up to Melaka for a couple of days. He also said that lots of Malaysians commute across the border every day to work in Singapore for higher wages, so I dread to think what the border would have been like on a weekday in the morning or evening!
When we got to Singapore I checked into Bugis Backpackers, which is a nice enough place in a good location between Little India and the Colonial district/city centre. The mixed dorm is noisy (which I'll have to get used to for Australia) but clean and the bathrooms are decent (last time I saw a cockroach in my bathroom was in Songkhla so I'm hoping that was the last!). A poor little Korean guy was asking me how he can phone his parents from here - obviously I look like a seasoned backpacker; I think it's my scruffy look. Makeup? can't remember what that is... same goes for sleek hair or wrinkle-free clothes or having clean feet :-)
This is the most expensive capital I've been to in South-East Asia. There are loads of hip Asian teenagers (they all smoke! this might be what happens if you ban chewing gum?!) and glamorous girls and sophisticated women running around (always shopping...there's a real spend, spend, spend mentality here) and the malls and subway are crowded. The malls are extremely disorienting! You can walk into one and wander about aimlessly and suddenly you've crossed into the adjacent one without knowing it and are in a completely different street because they're so big! Lots of Western clothes at Western prices... and fun food courts where you can eat pretty much anything. If I'd come here straight from the UK I would probably not be enthusiastic about it but after everywhere else it's civilised and nice and easy to get round. True it lacks character and is basically a big shopping center, but the river front is quite nice, and the Asian Civilisations Museum I went to yesterday kept me occupied for over four hours - it was really good and had loads of interactive displays. I suspect they plundered every other museum in South-East Asia because they have all the best artifacts from the countries I've been to... maybe that explains why all other museums so far have been a bit mediocre! However they also know how to display the items properly and write informative blurbs. I think the other countries just aren't quite as slick and up to scratch on Western-style museum culture, but on the other hand they make up for it by having beautiful things like temples and old buildings to stumble across on the street (for free! take that, Singapore). I also went to Raffles Hotel and had a Singapore Sling (cliché, I know, but it had to be done) and am checking out the Botanic Gardens today. Tomorrow I'm going to the art gallery here and hope it's as good as the museum. Then it's off to the airport (nice and easy on the MRT/underground) and next stop Oz...

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Greetings from Malaysia! This is a very multicultural place (with exciting food) with a British influence which can be seen in the architecture and the language... e.g. taxi is teksi, bus is bas, and restaurant is restoran! Most people on the east coast speak English quite well, so it's easy to ask for directions or arrange transport and so on. Some of them stare, but a lot of them (especially here in KL) are not bothered - which I prefer!
I had a relatively easy border crossing from Thailand in a minibus with an Australian family who were from Cairns and doing a long South-East Asian trip with a 6- and a 9-year old. Slightly unconventional... I got to sit next to the boy, who recited lots of Australian birds (with sound effects) and the South-East Asian currencies. It was a fun three hours... On the upside the dad was able to give me loads of tips on where to go on the east coast of Australia, as they travelled up and down it in a campervan.
I had arranged to meet my Finnish friend Pia (who also did art history at Warwick) in Penang in the afternoon. Unfortunately neither of us realised there's a one-hour time difference from Thailand, so she had to wait an hour! Great start... but actually finding each other once I arrived was relatively painless thanks to our mobile phones. She's in Penang for two months with her boyfriend (from Oz/South Africa) who works for Accenture and regularly works abroad. They're staying in a rather nice appartment complex (pool, gym, sauna..) and have a hire car, so Pia drives Garron to work and picks him up at the end of the day so she has the car to get about in during the day. We spent two days touring the island and taking in the sights, e.g. a waterfall, Penang Hill (by cablecar), a butterfly farm, the botanics (with monkeys), and Georgetown's museum, colonial district, Little India, Chinatown, and a great tour around a gorgeous mansion built by a Chinese businessman, Cheong Fatt Tze, and recently restored to its former glory. We had a great Chinese guide - she was really charismatic and funny, and went into details about Chinese culture, explaining chi, feng shui and yin/yang, and how they were applied to the house. We also went to the night market in Batu Feringgi (the area in which P & G live) and even though Garron thought it would be a brilliant idea if I bought a huge wooden parrot for about 500 pounds on M&D's credit card, I resisted.
I stayed two days with them, then got the ferry across to Butterworth (main transport hub in the area). Before Pia dropped me off we popped into a Tesco Lotus to see what it was like. The fresh veg and fruit section was nice because it was set out like in a market here, without being packaged, and everything looked fresh and tasty. Lots of meat, fish, noodles, rice (at prices that locals surely couldn't afford) but also international products like cereal and peanut butter.
From Butterworth I'd hoped to get to a place called Bukit Merah, where there's an orang-utan sanctuary, but my plans were soon dashed at the bus station, where I was told it was really only accessible by car. So I went straight to the Cameron Highlands (unfortunately with a drunk Malaysian next to me who kept flicking scrunched up pieces of paper with his phone number into my book - sooooo mature) and arrived as it was getting dark, so checked into the first place I saw. It was a cheapie hotel with a symbol pointing to Mekka on the ceiling, and I was woken at 6am by the prayer call, uuugh.. I moved to a place called the Cameronian Inn which had a really helpful American girl working there. She'd backpacked around Malaysia herself so was able to give me some tips for KL and Melaka. I also booked a tour with that guesthouse on the first day (with a nice group of Dutch ppl), which got me around BOH tea plantation (Best of Highlands tea - founded by a Scottish entrepreneur, and the fourth generation is running it now), a bee farm, a butterfly farm, the local market, a rose/flower farm and a strawberry farm (most of which were interesting, and no entry fee). The Cameron Highlands are very beautiful - rolling green hills, clear blue skies, and winding roads. The temperature is pretty constant at 23 degrees, so it's the only place in Malaysia they grow strawberries (they're pretty expensive).
In the evening I wandered around town looking for a place to eat and found a German-Swiss restaurant called "Schwaebing Haus" - thought it was funny so went in, and found the chef in the kitchen (he was also the waiter and everything else), who was of course Malaysian, kneading something that looked like it might turn into Spaetzle at some point if he was very lucky. He very enthusiastically sat me down opposite his only other guest - funnily enough one of the three German guys who had been on the minibus from Ko Pha Ngan and Surat Thani! Even funnier was that he turned out to be from Reutlingen near Stuttgart. So we had a nice chat over Zuericher Geschnetzeltes and Bratwurst (quite authentic actually). The next day I met up with him (Christoph) at his hostel, where we teamed up with three other guys to go on one of the hikes (there are specific trails you can take, which are clearly mapped). The others were from nr Cambridge, South Wales, and Newcastle, and had all met in the hostel. It was a good trek - partly through forest on a road, but also through the jungle, clambering over muddy tree roots (which was fun!!) all the way up to Gunung Brinchang, the highest point in the area (2031m), from where we should have had a spectacualr view but it was misty! Looked very atmospheric though and nice and cool for walking. Then down the hill on the other side through the tea plantations, which was really scenic, and stopped for cake and tea there (they all had a couple of cakes each!). They were all too proud to ask for breaks in the jungle, but seemed extraordinarily relieved when we took one! I went, "Gosh, this is hard work!" and Matt went, "Oh, well, do you want to stop for a minute?" and then everyone quickly agreed that would be a fantastic idea. We must have walked at least 25km, and we felt we really deserved dinner that night, which we had in an Indian place (yummy roti, which is like Naan just flakier) with a Californian and a Polish guy as well. I don't think I'll ever be able to say again that I went out for dinner with six guys! They certainly brought me up to scratch on politics, football, American TV series, and the commonly consumed alocoholic concoctions in Poland! After that we sat around a bonfire that they have at one of the hostels every night. Most backpackers end up there as most hostels want silence after 10.30pm and there's only one (overpriced) bar in town, so there was a good crowd.
Next day I got a bus to Kuala Lumpur, which the American girl at the hostel had warned me would take me along a very windy road (she had counted 400 bends). Someone had thrown up on the seat next to mine, so I thought I was probably in for a bad journey, but the road was actually not too bad (Laos was worse) and the smell was bearable too. You can get used to anything!
Once in KL I found myself a hostel (which is really noisy but also busy which is good) and today is my first proper day sightseeing - I'm now in Chinatown to check out the markets and Merdaka square (the colonical district) and later KL tower, which has better views than the Petronas towers (which I'll see tomorrow). My friend Rachel has put me in touch with her friend Azmir, who lives here (and I met briefly at Warwick), so we're going to meet for lunch or dinner. I'll be off to Melaka on Wednesday or Thursday, and in Singapore at the end of the week, and blog again before I get to Australia (where internet prices will leap up, I'm sure!).

Friday, 13 June 2008

Songkhla, Thailand

This is going to be a long entry, so I hope you're sitting comfortably!

I had a great time in Pattaya, staying with David (whom my parents and aunt know from Hong Kong days) for almost a week. He and his partner were lovely hosts and spoiled me rotten! It was interesting to get a taste of ex-pat life and really nice to kick back in a beautiful house and not have to organise transport, accomodation or meals for a while. David showed me around Jom Tien and Pattaya, took me to his exercise class (I could hardly keep up!), hosted a dinner party (charming company - I was told I should be an actress, I think it was a compliment) and got to join them at a friend's birthday party after which I was kidnapped by a charming Australian who introduced me to Pattaya's 'Walking Street' with all its bars and slightly seedy clubs. Earlier during the week I also saw an amusing transvestitie show which had a largely Chinese tourist audience (lots of kids!). Definitely a bit different from the sights I'd been taking in up until then and good fun!

After Pattaya I travelled down to Thailand's Southwestern Gulf Coast. First I stayed on Ko Tao, which is popular with divers (and those who want to become divers) - I think after Cairns it issues the highest number of diving certificates, for a fraction of the price. It's a small island (21 sq km) and easy to walk around. I stayed a week and was really lucky with the weather. There were one or two thunderstorms late at night but plenty of sun during the day. First I stayed in Chalok bay which is where I picked my scuba dive school - the "Scuba Shack", which wasn't as flashy as some of the dive shops around, which specialised in attracting hungover 18-year old gap yearers and went out with big groups. Scuba Shack had a really nice (if completely mad) international bunch of dive masters and dive instructors, incl. an American, Brit, Swede, German and Frenchman. Getting instructions in your mother tongue is what you want when you're doing something as technical as scuba! I was assigned the German instructor, Dirk, who was very calm and disciplined (i.e. German..) and did a one-day introductory dive with him for about 30 pounds. The day before I tried on all the gear (feeling like a spaceman) and he lent me an SSI book - which I devoured because I know I'm rubbish at technical things. It was definitely good to read up on the technicalities beforehand, as there are a million emergency procedures and all these laws of Physics which apply, but don't always make sense - like having to deflate your BC (Buoyancy Compensator, which is the big black jacket your air tank is attached to) when you ascend, even though your BC makes you float so you'd think it should be inflated - but you have to take the water pressure into account and the fact that your wetsuit decompresses as you rise, etc. etc. I was pretty confused at first as you can imagine! The first dive went well though - I was the only one doing an intro, everyone else was doing fun dives, so I got a private lesson which was great. We went out on the dive shop's boat at about noon, and went diving at a site called Japanese Gardens - very popular with first-timers, so there were almost more divers than fish! It was what felt like quite a short dive but Dirk said I was doing well so I got to swim around on my own after we'd done all the emergency exercises, practised achieving neutral buoyancy by breathing the right way, forcing water out of the mask when it filled up underwater, using the 'octopus' (the back-up mouthpiece), as well as 'equalising' as you go down to adjust to the water pressure (basically this entails squeezing your nose and gulping a lot).
It was very weird actually and as everyone tells you beforehand you feel conscious of every breath you take, and communicating with handsigns is a bit bizarre as well (the sign for 'rabbit fish' is particularly amusing). I really enjoyed it though and only had a little mishap at the end as we were ascending, when I got my mouthpiece full of water and pressed the 'purge' button (which will expel the water if you do it right) without closing my mouth - so the water got blasted into my throat and I couldn't take a breath and panicked. Dirk saw what happened and got me my octopus and I got a watery breath out of that, and then our ascension was a bit speedier than it was supposed to be! Still, it didn't put me off and I took another two dives later in the week. I got one of the American instructors that time, and he said it would be an introductory-style dive as well, but he didn't actually let me swim around by myself but held my arm throughout. In a way it was good because he pointed out loads of cool fish to me (we were at a different site called White Rock) and we were diving with two English guys who were a lot more experienced, so I'm glad I got a bit more attention. We saw angelfish, clownfish (like Nemo), two stingrays (under a rock, they looked very sweet and non-threatening), a big triggerfish, rabbitfish, a moray eel, a striped sea snake, Christmas-tree worms, soft and hard coral, and I got to hold a sea cucumber! (Actually one of the English guys was kicking it about on his flipper so he could get a photo of it on his underwater camera, so the dive instructor freaked out and took it away from him, then let me hold it while he told him off!). Then we got back on the boat and went to the second site (if you're Open Water qualified and pay for a fun dive you get two dives with a break on the boat in between, which you spend eating cookies and fruit and sunbathing on the deck). As I'd paid half the introductory-dive price and was a novice I wasn't entitled to a second dive but I got lucky and the instructor said he'd be happy to take me down to this site too, since I didn't "kick about too much" (though I wasn't allowed to tell anyone). We were on the lookout for a big turtle that they kept seeing on that site, but sadly it was hiding that day. I got to sit on the seabed while one of the boys practised emergency ascensions and air sharing with the instructor; then we swam about looking at coral and fish. We were down for about 45 minutes each time - I was so tired that night!
There was a pretty bay called Shark Bay near where I was staying, so I spent a couple of days swimming and reading on the beach. The water was so shallow you had to wade for 100m before you were in it up to your chest! Very clear and the sand was gorgeous white too. Apparently sharks actually came into the bay, often in the evenings, but I didn't see any. Probably a good thing.
After that I moved to Sai Ree beach on the other side of the island, which was much busier with lots of boutiques (selling GAP and Abercrombie clothes made in Cambodia at about 60% of what you'd pay in the US) and restaurants and bars. Good fun, and I watched a couple of films in the beach bars in the evenings, which satisfied a craving.
Interestingly there were quite a lot of Burmese people working in the restaurants and resorts on the island, including the first place I stayed in. The woman there said she and her husband both worked in Thailand while their mothers raised their daughters in Burma. She only went back to Burma a couple of times a year and had once been away for three years. When she went back she didn't recognise her eldest daughter because she'd grown up so much.

Then I got the ferry to Ko Pha Ngan, where it proceeded to rain for two days! The island was definitely popular with the party crowd, with buckets of alcohol for sale everywhere. But it was quite tame in the evenings, I suppose because it was out-of-season. On the third day the sun finally came out again and I inspected the beach at Hat Rin Nok where I was staying. This infamous strip of sand plays host to the Fullmoon party once a month. I went to the Halfmoonparty on the third night - it's held in a kind of open-air bar with a sandy dance area, not on the beach but inland. There were a lot of taxi drivers with Halfmoon Party posters on standby to ferry revellers to the party, so I shared a taxi with some rowdy Dutch girls and three Israelis (who were so fascinated by how fast the taxidriver went and how reckless he was - I can hardly remember what it's like to be driven by a sane, safe driver). It was still quite quiet when I got there at about 10.30 or so, and really picked up at 1am (though when I was getting the taxi to get to the ferry at 6am the next morning there were a lot of people about who'd obviously just left the party!). A lot of people there looked like they'd never dream of going to a rave at home and were just curious, others really went in for the whole glow-paint and flashing devil's horns thing!

The next day I had a classic Asian-style journey. I got a ferry from Ko Pha Ngan and then a bus to Surat Thani, were I was sold an aircon minibus ticket to Hat Yai, and they said the bus would come at 11.30. It was about quarter past so I sat down to wait but as soon as I'd taken my backpack off the lady who'd sold me the ticket came over and said I could go. So I went outisde and there was a guy on a motorbike waiting. I asked where the bus was and she said "You get on the motorbike" - which I politely refused to do. I must have looked convinced because they gave up and the motorbike drove off without me and I waited another 5 mins. Then another guy came up and waved at me and said I should follow him. I looked for the lady who sold me the ticket to check it was ok to go with him, and she confirmed I should go. So I got in his flashy red car (!) and he drove me 5 mins into town and dropped me off at a street corner. There some other bloke wandered up and said I should follow him. He walked me to a travel agency. The lady there took my receipt but didn't give me a ticket and said the bus would be here at 12.00. I'd been expecting a lift to the bus station, so I said "So the bus comes here?"and she said "Yes! you wait here". So I sat down again and waited for a minute. Then the bloke came back and she said I should follow him again. We walked around the corner to another travel agency. By now I was feeling a little bit had, especially as I no longer had a receipt or ticket. At the next agency they said I should sit down. I asked when the bus was coming. One guy said 12.30, no, maybe 1 o' clock. It was now 11:45. I said they'd sold me an 11.30 bus ticket. They said they didn't know why I'd been told 11:30. I asked where the bus station was. They said the next bus at the bus station would be at three o' clock. I asked again where it was, regardless of when the bus would apparently be coming, but they just shrugged. So I walked out to check what street we were on to see if I could locate it on my map. A minivan pulled up just then and three German guys got out who I'd met in the taxi that morning on Ko Pha Ngan, on the way to the pier . I started talking to them and they said they were going to Pattani but had paid for return tickets to Bangkok and also had no receipts now. They were told to unload their luggage and we sat around and mused about Asian organisaton. One minute later we were told to load all the luggage back into the minivan and to get in. By now I felt a bit like a sheep. Then the driver got in, got the motor running, the air-con on (and the doors open..) and got out and left us to stew for a couple more minutes. Some more people got in and we set off before one o clock! Four hours later he made us all get off, get our luggage, and sent us across a busy dual carriageway towards a different mini-van (no explanation). Half- way across the road in the middle of busy traffic the driver of the other minivan asked me where I was going, and started shouting across to the other driver. We all stood in the middle of the road and had a cosy chat about who should be going where, then established that two Thai guys and I shouldn't be changing minivans and had to go back and load our luggage again while the Germans finished crossing the road. Five minutes later I was at the minibus stop in Hat Yai... miraculoulsy enough! I stayed there long enough to buy a bus ticket to get to Malaysia on Monday, but wasn't particularly enamoured with it. The British consulate website strongly advised against travelling in this area because of terrorist activity, which might be why I was the only white tourist (plus a hundred Chinese) in the area. I did see military police about, and they were doing bag searches at the malls, as some shops and bars were bombed there in 2005. Most of the violence is not aimed at tourists though, and happens in the villages. Anyone who chatted to me in restaurants or the guesthouse was very nice, but they all assumed I was working in Hat Yai, or I'd have no reason to be there. They were also astounded that I was alone, and sometimes a bit protective, e.g. a restaurant owner told me I should be getting back to the guesthouse (at 10pm) because I shouldn't be out and about so late. And while two taxidrivers were trying to rip me off a lady intervened and flagged down another taxi for me and got him to take me to the bus station at the local price (not the +50% tourist price) - which left quite an impression. You wouldn't get that kind of treatment (the positive kind, not the rip-off taxi drivers) in Bangkok.

I'm now in Songkhla, which is a slightly sleepy beach town with some pretty parks and suburban sprawl. It's nicer than Hat Yai - I'm still getting a lot of attention but in a fun(-ish) way, mostly young people shouting 'Hello!' as they drive past on their motorbikes, or kids daring each other to talk to me when I walk past. I was walking along a street today when an old man called out to me and started gesturing wildly. Eventually I figured out that what I thought of as the 'time-out' sign from basketball meant (in this context) that the street was a dead-end and I should turn around. So the people are kind, if absolutely baffled as to what I'm doing here! Being stared at as if I have three heads will definitely prepare me for Malaysia I reckon... I will be in Penang from tomorrow for a couple of days and then have two weeks to get down to Singapore before flying to Australia on the 1st July. I'm planning to stop off in the Cameron Highlands, Kuala Lumpur, possibly Taman Negara rainforest, and Melaka, but may change my plans as I go... watch this space.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Bangkok, Thailand

Hooray! Seven-and-a-half weeks after flying into Bangkok we've completed a big circle, visited four countries, and made it back in one piece! Time spent on buses currently stands at about 106 hours, while time spent on boats totals about 30 hours. I got to Bangkok last night, travelling with two German girls, and Catherine is arriving today, in the compay of a bearded Swede I believe (not sure if male or female) ;-) ...
The beginning of the rainy season made visiting Vietnam's beach towns Nha Trang and Mui Ne less interesting than it could have been, so we didn't hang around long (though I stayed a day longer than C in Mui Ne because I couldn't resist checking out the Fairy Stream). Once in Saigon I bumped into Igor, the cousin of my Basque friend, within an hour of getting of the bus. It's a small world! I spent two days there taking in the sights and planning my next border crossing and caught up with Igor in the evenings over a couple of drinks.
I decided to go with the 2-day Mekong Delta tour into Cambodia, travelling by boat and bus and taking in some sights along the way. On the first day we sailed past a floating market and saw some sweet-making shops and drank Jasmine tea whilst sampling Vietnamese delights such as coconut or peanut toffee and popped rice. This was just before it started pouring rain and we ended up being whipped by wind and rain whilst sitting in our teeny boat (quite scary really, though you just have to laugh - the logical thing would have been to turn back but try telling that to an Asian). After that it eased off a bit and we had lunch and listened to some traditional music. We stayed overnight in a place called Chau Doc and on the second day we saw a floating market, a fish farm, and a Cham village (according to the guide, the governement reduced the price of TVs so that poorer Vietnamese have less children - even the most basic huts had a satellite dish). We crossed the border by boat with a really good guide, a Chinese-Vietnamese woman who was very funny, very nice and efficient and, most unusually, kept us informed along the way of what was happening next. She helped us with our visa applications and faffed about with the border police while we had lunch. Easiest border crossing ever, and because we did it by boat we were at a quiet border crossing point - we were the only ones there!
Once in Phnom Penh I teamed up with two German girls (Angelika and Christina) I met along the way, and we shared a room, making the expensive riverfront slightly less expensive! My first impression of Cambodia was that its culture and religion were closer to Laos or Thailand than to Vietnam, and the people seemed less stern as well. However poverty was rife, and there were a lot of beggars and cripples. When we didn't buy books from the streetkids they could be really aggressive - one had even bothered to learn to say "I'll kill you" in English to scare tourists. We realised that everyone over 35 must have been directly affected by the Khmer Rouge regime, and anyone younger is also suffering the after effects. There aren't many old people and the ones you do see are often crippled or bald from years of malnutrition. And this is just what we saw in the nicest area in town! We also saw the king drive by in a line of armoured vehicles a couple of times.
After two days we got the bus to Siem Reap - it took 6 hours but the road was not too bad and the bus, though old, was comfortable enough (we didn't go for the VIP bus option). Siem Reap is very touristy and the only thing to see are the temples, but it has lots of good restaurants and bars and a couple of supermarkets so all the tourist needs are catered for. Like Phnom Penh we found it very expensive. We did the tour of the temples on the second day. I've never taken so many pics in one place! It was rather stunning, though the afternoon rain cut the tour short so that was disappointing.
Yesterday we crossed the border to Thailand... A journey we'd been warned would be hard going, and it was! We took the direct bus to save money (another option was taking a taxi to the border and then getting on a bus, but no one could say how much the bus would cost or when/where we could get it). The road was so bumpy that we drove at about 30km/h all the way... and the bus looked like a battered 30-yr old school bus. No air con and the dust got everywhere! But kind of fun... :-) Then the bus on the Thai side of the border was a pleasant surprise of course. We were on the road from 8am till after 9pm.. today is definitely a chill-out day! It's nice to be back somewhere familiar.
On Monday I'm heading south to Pattaya to stay with a family friend, but other than that my plans are unfixed. I think I will pretty much be sticking to the original plan, and Catherine is flying to Oz in about a week. She can give me tips for when I get there!
That's all for now x x x x

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Hoi An, Vietnam

This is our fourth day in little Hoi An, and we haven't stopped sweating since we got here... definitely noticing an increase in temperature as we head south! We're also frequently getting quite heavy rain in the afternoons or evenings, which cools things down a bit. The Vietnamese here are not staring at us so much anymore and the secret photo-taking-of-Catherine-by-old-men has stopped too - hooray! I guess that's given us some idea of what Malaysia is probably going to be like. I'm going to learn to say "Please stop staring at my friend" in Malaysian before we get there. I better start practising now!

Hoi An's sttraction lies in its waterfront and the beach, which is less than 5km away (we cycled there and back yesterday without getting killed - success!). The sea is very clear and the sand's gorgeous too, but the jellyfish and women selling peanuts, bananas and jewellery can get a bit annoying. In town there are a million tailors and shoemakers who you can order clothes from and have them customised, which we have been experimenting with.. I ordered a shirtdress, which they made in the material I had chosen for the lining. It looks...interesting... C got some sandals that turned out well and some shorts that are a bit shorter than she wanted but very stylish. Other shops have silk lanterns, pretty china dishes and paintings. We've tried the local cuisine, which is typically wonton dumplings in different sizes and flavours - quite exciting as you don't really know what you're getting!

By the way my oesophagus is completely healed now - the trick seems to have been to stop taking most of the medication apart from my 'proton-pump inhibitor' pills, which reduced my stomach acid (and appetite!) and I've finished taking now. The Vietnamese hospital was not too bad actually - in case anyone is picturing a dirty crowded place where no one spoke English, it wasn't like that at all.

Just to ruin the structure and logic of this entry entirely and ignore everything I learnt in English Lit, I'm going to add a couple of random sights and experiences I think we forgot to mention:
  • Ho Chi Minh mausoleum in Hanoi, where the queues to see his body snaked out across the parking lot and onto the pavement. They worship him! We had to hand over our water and cameras and were bossed about by the guards - they even shoved us along. Interesting though! You'll see our photos of the crowds and the exterior of the monument at some point...
  • Pak Ou caves (daytrip from Luang Prabang) - a kind of graveyard for abandoned buddha statues that were damaged or went out of fashion. We took a boat to the caves which were carved into the cliffs and stopped on a whiskey-making village on the way. They bottle snakes and lizards in it for any tourist who imagines that they can carry a bottle of the stuff home!
  • Lao massage (Luang Prabang). When we got off the slow boat it seemed like a good idea to be pummeled a bit after sitting on hard benches for two days! For 2 pounds we got a one hour 'traditional Lao body massage' which involved tiny but strong Lao women kneading our backs, arms, fingers, toes, neck, bum... Not exactly relaxing but did the trick! As far as we cang gather the Thai massage is even more energetic. We'll see whether we dare to go for it when we're back in Thailand!